Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Welcome!

This blog is the diary of Sue Anne and Bruce’s trip to Italy in October 2007. We were there for two weeks, along with our daughter Karin, her husband Dan, and Dan’s mother Cathy. We lived for a week in an apartment on a canal in Venice and then had a second week in a house in the country in Tuscany.

We wrote this a day at a time, typically in the evening after a day’s adventure (though we didn’t get around to documenting the last few days till after we had returned home). We would add some pictures and videos, store the result on a flash drive, and upload it at the nearby Internet shop the next day. It was a great way of letting the folks back home know where we were and what we were doing, and it captured our impressions as they existed at the moment.

But since the format of blogs tends to be oriented toward current information, it’s now a bit awkward to follow our trip in the normal chronological order. So here’s the easiest way to navigate. Start by clicking this link, which will bring you back to the beginning. At the bottom of each page thereafter, you’ll see links for Newer Post and Older Post. Keep clicking Newer Post and you’ll work your way through the whole trip and a few post-trip summaries, and finally you’ll end up back here. Or you could do it backwards by just scrolling down from where you are now.

The Links section off to the right will take you to a map of the two places where we stayed, a map of our entire itinerary, and a few other sites that might be of interest.

You can click any of the pictures to see a full-sized version in a new window. If some of the pictures in the blog look dark, it’s because of the way they were compressed to fit. The detail will show through if you look at them full-sized. The pictures with the controls at the bottom are videos. Click the Triangle icon to play them. They probably require a recent version of Flash to work correctly.

Other than regular trips to Edmonton to see Sarah, Dan, and the two (soon to be three) grandkids, our next excursion will be to England with Sue Anne
’s sister Aimée and her husband Steve in October 2008. October is a great time for a trip—Germany 2000, China 2006, Italy 2007, ... . Stay tuned!

Links

When we blogged from China last year we had access to the Internet from our hotel rooms, so we were able to do on-line research on things we were seeing, and we would include the results directly in the blog for the day. It was different on this trip, as we prepared the text on a laptop at our apartment or villa where there was no Internet access, merged the text with selected pictures and videos of the day, and then brought it to the Internet shop on a flash drive to upload. There wasn’t really enough time to do much of anything else on the Web while we were at the Internet shop other than check our e-mail.

Since we returned home we have been able to locate some related information that we found useful in understanding a bit more of what we saw, and we’re including some of those links here in case you would like to learn more as well.

Our first recommendation is Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia on the Web that anybody can contribute to. While the absence of formal control of what gets published there makes it less than a fully authoritative reference for academic purposes, we don’t see that as an impediment to its usefulness in travel planning. Highly recommended! Here’s what it says about places we visited:

VeniceTuscanyChiantiRaddaFlorence
SienaCortonaPerugiaRavennaEtruscans

VinciLeonardoGuggenheim

For long range travel planning, even before you narrow your choices down to specific localities, we would recommend a visit to the Web site of UNESCO World Heritage. There they list over 800 places worldwide that are unsurpassed in their beauty, their history, and their contribution to the culture of the world. None that we have ever visited (four
on this trip and over 40 in total) has been a disappointment.

- Historic Centre of Florence
- Venice and its Lagoon
- Historic Centre of Siena
- Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna


UNESCO publishes a number of wonderfully illustrated books about these places, and we have found good bargains on some at amazon.com. Wikipedia’s
coverage of UNESCO World Heritage is a good place to visit as well.

Here are a few other sites that we found useful:

- Radda
- Siena
- Peggy Guggenheim Collection
- Ravenna Mosaics

We might add a few more in the future as we come across them. Check back!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Impressions

Last year when we got back from China we started writing a page to summarize our impressions of the entire trip—things that didn’t just involve one day’s experiences but were broader in scope or the results of greater insights, further research, or subsequent happenings. The page grew to many pages, and we’re still working on it. You can find it by clicking the China Trip link at the top right of this page. We probably haven’t finished it yet, as we expect that the upcoming Olympics in Beijing will provide fodder for even more updates. There’s such a rich amount of news out there—the anti-spitting campaign, the proper English (‘anti-Chinglish’) campaign, the quiet driving campaign, the polite behavior campaign, and other related activities of the Beijing Spiritual Civilization Office, let alone the continuing stream of fascinating nationwide crackdowns on this, that, or the other form of activity that’s somehow leaked out into the international press to the embarrassment of the authorities.

Italy wasn’t quite so exotic. Not such a novel experience. We’d been there before, and even if we hadn’t we would at least have had a pretty good idea what we were in for. We don’t expect to be writing forever about it, as we might with China. So, what did we bring back from this trip?

General impressions There have indeed been changes in the 40 years since we started our European adventures. We both came away with impressions of a calmer, cleaner place than we recalled from the past. Driving was not a problem at all. We never heard a horn being blown, nor did we encounter any drivers more dangerous than those who put the pedal to the metal on twisty mountain roads before we hit the big roads. There were many places in cities where there were no sidewalks at all, just a uniform surface for vehicle and pedestrian alike, all sharing the same space. And we didn’t see anything scary happening there either. Fine roads between the major locations—Autostrada (pay) and the very similar Superstrada (free)—though to get out of our home area in Chianti required 30 minutes of hairpin turns. We loved it anyway.

Dining was a more casual experience than we had encountered the first time around, as the restaurants didn’t seem to automatically expect you to order a full course meal but were content to let you pick and choose. Everybody was nice. Most menus had translations into English and sometimes 4 languages, but happily the food was traditional and did not include non-Italian dishes. No cheeseburgers in other words. (Actually we did encounter a few McDonalds and used their bathrooms. Did the same in China.) There wasn’t ever much of a language barrier.

The various aspects of finance and currency exchange had certainly changed over the challenge that they used to present to travelers. We discussed a number of aspects of this in the blog of our day in Siena. Click here for link.

Venice Everybody should see Venice before they die. There’s no other place in the world like it. It’s timeless. In this regard, Bruce recently scanned a listing on eBay for 13 postcards of Venice from 1910, and they all looked like ones we could have bought on this trip except for being in black and white. While we penetrated more deeply than we had in the past into some aspects of the city such as Ghetto and the Guggenheim, and we’re sure that there are other places that were similarly ripe for further discovery, we both had already had our WOW! experience with Venice 40 years ago. Everybody should have such an experience. We had fun. We’d go back. But there are other places we’ll probably visit before then. One downer that wasn’t there in 1910 or 1967….. graffiti. Everywhere. Most appeared to be aimed at local causes.

Tuscany This was new and different for us, and we loved it. The countryside was so beautiful. Sweeping vistas, olive groves, vineyards, forests almost as tidy as in Germany. Big sky country! The sky was the deepest blue we have ever seen. Hilltop cities and towns, surrounded by walls that go back to previous civilizations, Roman and Etruscan. Amazing and lovingly preserved artwork and architecture from centuries and millennia past. Great food and drink. Chocolate. Friendly people who don’t seem tired of tourists. The kids (in their thirties) loved the night life in Venice; in our little town in Chianti there was none.

Accommodations It must have been obvious that we were thrilled with the accommodations we had in Venice and in Radda. Karin is responsible for the concept of renting vs. staying in hotels, and for finding the places where we stayed. She started on this quest months ago. Every week or so she’d send us a link to a place that was even nicer than the previous one. Finally we said, “You choose!” and that’s what she did.

Staying in places like these was so much nicer than staying in hotels. We could relax, spread out a bit, stay together with the whole family, do laundry, and prepare light meals while still sampling plenty of the local cuisine during our trips out into the city or the countryside. While this might not make economic sense for a party of two, it was great for five. Our cost in each place was about $40 per head per night, which was much more reasonable than hotels would have been, especially since European places often tend to charge by the head rather than by the room.

Here what they looked like.

Our place was the salmon colored one in the middle of the picture, on the floor with the window boxes.



Return Home – Saturday

Early wakeup call. Van waiting for us out front. Another exorbitant ride to the nearby airport. Easy check-in at the very farthest counter on the left. No immigration formalities, as we were just flying to Madrid, still within the EU.

Great view of Venice out the window. Wish we hadn’t put our cameras away. It looked so tiny! So much beauty and history packed into such a small place. The cruise ships in the harbor overpowered entire sections of the city in their size. Flew over desert-like areas of southern France and Spain. Interesting patterns of cultivation climbing up the mountain sides as we approached Madrid.

We had a leisurely layover in Madrid this time, with none of the immigration hordes we had dealt with when arriving there a couple of weeks ago. Checkout from the EU was quick and painless. With time to look around we found that there actually were lots of nice shops and eating places there. On the way in it had all been just a blur. Lots of good lunchtime offerings at one restaurant, though we quickly learned that “one sandwich” is what we would call a half.

The same wide body Airbus that we came over on. Same good food and wine. Different movies. We got quite a chuckle out of the Bruce Willis movie Live Free or Die Hard from lots of different perspectives. The title, of course, is a play on words of the state motto of New Hampshire, Live Free or Die, mated with the title theme of the other Willis Die Hard movies. New Hampshire folk were of mixed opinions about our motto being used in this fashion. And the plot involved a group of computer hackers who paralyzed the nation while operating from a commandeered
secret NSA facility, located within the Social Security Administration’s Woodlawn complex at the western edge of Baltimore (which is a real place). With an NSA retiree and a current Woodlawn employee in our party, both quite computer-literate, we felt especially smug and amused as we watched this.

Signs of autumn in the trees as we approached Dulles. Quite a long wait for baggage, easy trip through customs, shuttle out to the parking lot. Slow drive home on the Beltway, said by the traffic report on WTOP to be due to people going to the UMD football game in College Park.

For Sale sign still out in front of our house. Lots of leaves to rake. Home.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Ravenna and Venice – Friday cont.

While Karin, Dan, and Cathy stayed at the villa in Radda to have a lazy morning and check us out with the landlady, planning to head back to Venice via the fast roads that we came in on, Bruce and Sue Anne took off through the hills toward Ravenna on the Adriatic coast. It’s a place known for the beauty of its mosaics, some going as far back as the 5th and 6th centuries. Sue Anne had been there during her student days, but it was a new experience for Bruce.

First, however, we had to surmount the mountain range to the east of Tuscany. It wasn’t tremendously rugged, but there were plenty of hilly and winding stretches on the road. While there were some sections of new highway, and more under construction, the road mostly went through towns along the way. Many of the settled areas had an appearance not unlike what we’ve seen in Alpine areas to the north.

We were so impressed with the quality of the roadside restaurant we had stopped at on our drive down from Venice that we decided to try another one on this trip. There were a lot of roadway workmen having lunch there, so we figured it must be good. It was the first place we ate where there was not a word of English anywhere. We did get the impression that most of the menu items were sandwiches on various kinds of specialty bread or other forms of doughy substrates, so we basically chose ingredients whose names we recognized and awaited the resulting surprise regarding their enclosure. Bruce’s prosciutto and cheese sandwich came between two Piadina, each of which was a round, flat bread, perhaps 1/8th of an inch thick, soft, and quite tasty. We later saw the word in signs all over the place, as it is apparently a local specialty. Sue Anne’s meal was basically pizza, but a very special one. The surface had been covered with small islands of various tasty foodstuffs, all ground up fine; then it had been cut into over 20 very small wedges, each no more than about three inches long, and rearranged into a star shape. Each piece typically possessed two or three distinct flavor zones.

There was a small gift shop area at the restaurant, where we bought a present, Adriatic salt, to bring home to Iolanda, the woman in Baltimore who had provided our Italian lessons. We also marveled at the DIY ice cream cone machine but didn’t take a chance at trying to figure out how it worked.

Here’s a picture of the view from the parking lot, typical of the whole trip through the mountains.

Then it was down the eastern side of the mountains and onto the utterly flat coast of the Adriatic. At least the map said that the Adriatic was over there, somewhere, as did signs that pointed toward the local Lido or beach. But there was never a view out to the ocean from the main road, and we didn’t have time to explore. We headed straight for downtown Ravenna and parked at the Piazza JFK. There might have been some sort of memorial there, but to us it just appeared to be a large municipal parking lot. The maximum ticket you could buy was for an hour and a half, so we had our work cut out for us, particularly in light of the very attentive ticketing staff we had observed lurking at the parking lot.

Fortunately three of the major attractions in town were right around the corner, and there they sold a ticket good at all five of the top sites. We made a quick trip through the small museum, looking at portions of mosaics that had been recovered from excavation sites. The next door Duomo and Baptistery were closed for lunch (a common situation in Italy), so we took off across town to see the two other major churches, San Vitale and San Apollinaire. Both were stunning. These few pictures will give you an idea of their magnificence. It’s hard to believe that these were all created from ½ inch squares of solid colored, matte or gold glass.

We invested a Euro in an audio description at one of the churches, which was money well spent. We learned that there were artists from two distinctly different schools working there simultaneously. The Byzantine school portrayed the saints and other holy figures as upright and stylized, with plain gold backgrounds, while the other school, the Roman, showed them as more animated and in the scenic outdoors. It also appears that the art community gained favor with the local archbishop by portraying him in mosaic, standing alongside some of the more significant figures of Christianity.

Then we headed back to the Baptistery and the adjacent Duomo. The Baptistery was stunning, but the Duomo turned out to be quite plain, and of an entirely different and less impressive era. We’re glad that we had taken in the marvelous work at the other two churches first. The keepers of the Duomo had recently (by long-term standards) installed pews, many of which sat directly on top of and obscured what artwork there was on the floors. The backs of the pews featured interesting and intricate woodwork, but the carvings on the fronts were all (nicely done) faux. Quite understandable, considering how uncomfortable real carvings would be on one’s back while sitting there.

On the way between these attractions we picked up a brochure announcing an early peek into some recent discoveries of even more mosaics, at sites now three meters below ground level. If we had had more time, we would have gone to see the also famous Saint Apollinaire in Classe, just outside of town. Next time.

Then we took off for Venice. Road flat the whole way. Still no ocean view, but one trip along a very long causeway. We had been looking for a hypermarket the whole time we were here, and finally we found one just a bit short of Venice. Bought a few items of distinctly Italian kitchenware at reasonable prices. Karin wasn’t sure how to react when we told her that there was also a Bata shoe store outlet there.

Hit the city at rush hour. Paralyzingly slow, and the car kept telling us to get gas. Diesel actually. Almost screwed that one up. Then GPS failed us. Told us our hotel was on the wrong side of the street, and we somehow didn’t look hard enough in the other direction. U-turn. Almost got locked into a gated parking lot. Almost backed into another car. Gave up on the plan of checking into the hotel before turning in the rental car, and headed straight to the airport. Later found out that Karin and Dan had reached the same decision. None of us wanted to get to the hotel and feel like the day’s journey was over, only to then have to put shoes back on and go turn in the car. Easy turn-in, quick walk to the taxi stand, exorbitant ride back to the nearby hotel (but at least the driver knew how to get us there, in contrast to GPS). K&D&C were already situated in rooms adjacent to ours. Tasty room service dinner. Pack. Shower. Set up very early wakeup call.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Cortona and Perugia - Thursday cont.

It was a double header today, Cortona and Perugia, both to the southeast of Radda. Two hilltop towns, though Cortona was the hillier and Perugia offered the more intriguing edibles.

First to Cortona. There was quite a long approach to the center of town. We passed one open market that looked interesting but kept on going because we weren’t sure how far it would be to the real center of town and we didn’t have too much time available. Karin spotted a man sitting there chatting with his friends who sure looked a lot like Bruce’s Dad, so we said a quiet hello to Dad as we drove by. He certainly would have been among our most avid blog readers. And if he had been in Cortona that day, he’d probably have been out there chatting with his friends.

The center of town was indeed quite a ways away, both horizontally and vertically. Great views off the edge as we drove upwards. We finally got a slot in a parking lot just outside the city walls (which date back to pre-Roman Etruscan times) and started walking, again very much upwards. After a few rest stops along the way we found ourselves out of the built-up part of town and in the parking lot of a large church. GPS said that we had gained 400 feet in elevation from the parking lot. The hill continued a bit higher, but we were content where we were.

We didn’t get a look inside the church as the noon Mass was going on, but we surveyed the view, watched salamanders scampering in and out of a stone wall, and treated ourselves to some chocolate covered ice cream bars from a little shop next to the church. The chocolate tasted great—not at all waxy as one frequently encounters on ice cream bars back home.

Then we started down toward town by a different path. There were Stations of the Cross along side of it, wonderfully done in glass mosaic in the style we were to see more of in Ravenna. When seen at normal viewing distance the rather basic squares of color blended together so wonderfully. The detail was marvelous. Backgrounds were all full of action, and there was even a gold rim around Pontius Pilate’s hand basin. We learned later that these were done in the mid-1900s by Gino Severini, who had been a colleague of Picasso, Matisse, and other artists of the period. Sadly we failed to take any pictures, but we did get a good shot of the path. We’ll take better pictures of mosaics in Ravenna.

The bottom of the path took us onto the city streets, continuing steeply downhill. We were quickly surrounded by a mass of high school age kids with suitcases, clearly a tour group departing from the place where they had spent the night. We couldn’t pick up what language they were speaking. The road was so steep that they couldn’t decide whether to pull their suitcases behind them at an almost horizontal angle, or to let them assume a more normal angle out in front. Either way, the wheels sure made a great clattering sound on the cobblestone pavement.

Cortona appears to be quite a destination for students. We learned later that the Universities of Alberta and of Georgia both offer art-oriented programs there.

There were quite a number of nice art shops, food shops, and the like on the way in toward the center of town. Lunch for each of us was a slice of pizza, eaten while sitting on the steps overlooking the square.


video

GPS aimed us in the right direction toward the parking lot, though it did get a bit confused with one way streets that of course weren’t relevant to us as pedestrians. There were also times here and in many city locations where the signal just couldn’t penetrate down into the urban canyons. Our advice to anybody planning to navigate a city with GPS is to have alternate forms of directions available, keep an understanding of the big picture, and find a large open space to allow it to first gain sync before moving into areas of lesser reception.

On the way to the car we all stopped at a hole-in-the-wall loo. Literally. It was built into the city wall. It did feature real plumbing. We can recall a David Macaulay video which described earlier versions that hung over the edge and simply relied on gravity.

Then it was on to Perugia, the site of the Eurochocolate 2007 exposition! Again a hilltop city, with ever-growing modern outskirts. We don’t know too much about Eurochocolate. From what we can gather on the Web, it takes place in Perugia in the fall, in Modica in Sicily in the spring, and has also occurred in other cities in the past. It appears to be a mix of activities aimed at those in the chocolate profession and at those who just like to eat it. A lot of the latter took place in booths and tents along the main square and side streets. It was clear to all that Perugia is a landmark location in the chocolate industry; indeed, it was the source of the ice cream bars we had so enjoyed a few hours earlier in Cortona.

Our first hint that we had arrived at the scene of the action was the gigantic fussball table on our right as we neared the top of our climb up the hill. Then looking to the left were tents and booths, all selling various forms of chocolate: chocolate candy, chocolate drink, cooking chocolate, chocolate liqueur, everything chocolate! And wonderful street performers. Many of the booths were from what appeared to be established and well known manufacturers from all around Europe, while others were clearly local. Too few were offering free samples! We bought cups of what was called “hot chocolate,” which was just that. Warm, thick with the consistency of not-quite-cooked chocolate pudding, rich in taste, delicious! A cup of cocoa will never be the same again. B & SA also bought a small bottle of chocolate liqueur, which we are saving for a celebration when we sell our house.

video

Pinocchio puppet street performer


video

Mime street performer

Other than chocolate (and the amazing self-cleaning public loo, with room for two!), we can’t really say too much about Perugia. Chocolate was the reason we went there, and chocolate we got. We expect that there were many other nice things about the town, but we just didn’t go looking for them. Like the other hilltop towns we had visited, the views were spectacular.

Back to Radda on the winding roads through the hills. Quick stop at the supermarket. Dinner at our villa. Pack for the journey that begins tomorrow.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Venice - Friday

Another quick one. We’re at a hotel near the airport in Venice. Flight tomorrow is at 7:50 AM, so we'll be getting up at the crack of dawn, or before.

Sue Anne and Bruce left Radda a bit earlier than the others because we wanted to take the slow road through Ravenna so we could see its famous mosaics. First time for Bruce, and a return visit for Sue Anne. They were worth the journey.

Wonderful mountain scenery on the way to Ravenna. Pancake flat thereafter.

Hit Venice at rush hour. Free Internet in the hotel. Dinner in our rooms. Early to bed tonight.

Come back next week and we’ll fill in the blanks.