Saturday, July 30, 2011

Last days

Sunset view in Zagarolo

My last few days in Italy were spent hanging out in Zagarolo with Deborah, doing some online work, and packing my bags for the return trip to the States. I have the chance to return to Zagarolo next year, for two months in the spring, and another two months in the fall, so that helped to modify my sadness about leaving my new "home." And if all goes well, maybe I can stay in Italy in the months between my stays in Zagarolo. Chissá? I even left a bag of clothes and toiletries at Deborah's house, that I can use when I return.

I decided to spend my last night in Rome, as there was a nationwide train and bus strike the next day, and I didn't want to be stranded in Zagarolo without a way to get to the airport. As it turned out, the strike didn't start until after I left Rome, but I'm glad I had the chance to spend a few hours in Trastevere, where I had a wonderful meal of grilled calamari and zucchine, in Piazza della Scala.


One of the smartest things I did before heading to Rome was doing  an online check-in and printing off boarding passes for my flight home, from my computer in Zagarolo. This enabled me to breeze by the long lines at the check-in area at the airport. I stayed in a B&B called Little Italy, which is only a short walk from the Termini train station. From Termini, I took the Leonardo Express to the Fiumicino airport, and hopped on a shuttle to Terminal 5, where direct flights to the U.S. depart. I bypassed the check-in area, dropped my bags off, and proceeded to the departure gate. After the incubo (nightmare) I had last year at Fiumicino, I was determined to become more familiar with the airport, and am pleased to report it went well. Here's link to last year's fiasco: Foulup at Fiumicino

In Kansas I was greeted by HOT weather, the hottest July in 100 years. For nearly three weeks, the temps were in the 100's F (38-43 Celsius), searing off blossoms on growing plants so that vegetable crops have been decimated. No tomatoes in my orto (vegetable garden)! But the basil is doing well, so at least I'll be able to make fresh pesto. And here I was worried about the heat in Italy, when in fact, hot temps were rarely an issue during my stay.

I'm adjusting to life in Kansas, and prolonging my re-entry by continuing to share stories of life in Italy.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Firenze ancora

Classic Fiat 500 in my old neighborhood in Florence

My last stop on my tour of northern Italy was to spend a few days in Florence, the city where I've spent many months over the past 5 years. I was expecting torrid temperatures and swarming crowds of tourists, but when I arrived on a Friday evening, the streets were relatively empty, and the weather had cooled considerably.

On Saturday, I went to visit Santa Croce, which I'd done once before in 2006. I wanted to see the tombs of Michelangelo, Dante and Galileo again. But the main reason I went was to be able to take a guided tour of the restoration of the Gaddi frescoes later in the day.

Michelangelo's tomb

Dante's tomb (though he is buried in Ravenna)

L'arte in Cantiere (Art Restoration Site)
The eight frescoes on the side walls of the Cappella Maggiore, the main altar in Santa Croce, are being restored. They were painted in 1380 by Agnolo Gaddi and depict the Legend of the True Cross. It was a unique opportunity to view up close the frescoes of this great artist, who was influenced by Giotto. The tour of the restoration site involves a gradual ascension up 7 levels of scaffolding, the same structure used by those involved in the restoration. There were no English tour guides that day, so I went on a tour with an Italian guide, and was able to follow most of her explanations.

For a more detailed explanation and great photos of the fresco tour, check out this post on Freya's Florence

In 2009 I had done a similar tour of the Correggio frescoes in Parma at the Saint John the Evangelist Abbey Church and didn't want to pass up this new opportunity. Few people get the chance to see these frescoes up close, since they are painted on the walls and ceilings, and it was a great privilege.

Salvatore Ferragamo: Inspiration and Vision
Another interesting exhibit I saw during my stay was the shoe museum in Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, housed in Palazzo Spini Feroni, where one can also view and shop for the lastest Ferragamo creations. Salvatore Ferragamo was a Florentine shoe designer who first became famous while creating unique shoe designs for American film stars. I went to the museum last fall, but the shoe museum had been displaced by an exhibit of Greta Garbo's clothes, which was interesting, but not what I had hoped to see. I love the creativity that Ferragamo is noted for, and the museum houses hundreds of the shoes that he crafted. The museum's footwear collection documents the entire span of Salvatore Ferragamo's career, from his return to Italy in 1927 to 1960 the year he died. For more info, here's a link to the museum:  museoferragamo

I also took time to enjoy the local artists, including performance art by this clever woman, who made graceful, fluid movements with her scarves each time someone dropped money in her hat:

And the chalk artists, who create new masterpieces every few days on the streets of Florence.

I also have to admire the many vendors who sell souvenirs, leather goods and scarves in the San Lorenzo and Mercato Nuovo street markets in Florence.

San Lorenzo, setting up

I've watched them in the mornings as they lug their heavy carts through the streets, making their way to the markets to set up their displays. I've also seen them in the evenings, as they break down the displays and pack away every little thing, then haul their carts to nearby storage areas.

Mercato Nuovo, packing up

I had a taste of this type of work when I sold mosaics for several years at art fairs, but on a much smaller scale. I cannot imagine doing what many of these vendors do every day, morning and night, and then stand for hours to sell their wares, for years on end. Hats off to the vendors!

On my last night in Firenze, the albergatori (hotel staff) who run Il Bargellino, where I often stay, invited me to dinner on their terrace, along with several other single guests. The place is run by Carmel, a native of Boston, and her husband Pino, an Italian from Calabria. I've stayed with them often since 2007, and was touched to be invited to share a meal with them.

Terrace at il Bargellino

I first learned of the hotel through a Rick Steves recommendation, and enjoy both the location, the affordable cost and the ambiance of the hotel. It's located on a quiet street not far from the Santa Maria Novella train station in one direction, and the San Lorenzo market in another. One of the greatest assets of the hotel is a large terrace that all guests have access to; it's a great place to enjoy a bottle of wine and hear travel stories of other English-speaking guests.

Pino fixed a delicious pollo involtino (chicken wrapped around an herb filling), along with pasta al pesto by Carmel, wine, and a gooey, chocolate dessert. A relative of Pino's, who helps out at the hotel, was also there. The others were from Florida, Massachusetts and Belgium. I had an interesting conversation with the guy from Belgium about how recent research has shown the beneficial effects of optimism on the brain. He was in Florence for a conference on Neuroscience, and added more depth to a recent article I'd read in Time magazine on the topic. Here's a link to that article:   The Optimism Bias

Sharing a meal with others on the terrace was a lovely way to enjoy my last night in Florence, and we talked until late in the night. For more about the hotel, here's a link:  il

I left Florence around noon the next day, eager to return to Zagarolo and relax after several weeks of travel.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Cremona, Fidenza

Cremona, home of Stradivari, world famous liutaio (violin maker)

After Modena, I traveled west to Cremona, in the region of Lombardia, which turned out to be more of an adventure than I had anticipated. I thought I would be changing trains in Fidenza, but once I arrived at the train station, I learned that I'd be taking a bus from Fidenza to Cremona, instead of a train. There were only a few of us on the bus that afternoon, and it was an odd hour-long drive through the plains of the Piana Padura or Po Valley. Just before arriving in Cremona, we crossed the wide expanse of the Po River, the longest river in Italy.

il Duomo, Santa Maria Assunta

Piazza del Commune with outdoor cafe

I had hoped to go to Cremona last fall, but never made it there, due to the rainy season and other factors. I had attended a class on the art of violin-making in the summer of 2010, and was told by friends that November would be the perfect time to visit Cremona: the foggy fall weather would provide the perfect backdrop to both the Cremonese music and food traditions. I wrote a post about Cremona and violin-making which provides some background about my interest in the town:


(The "magic" I'd associated with Cremona did not materialize while I was there, but perhaps I'll visit again with a companion on some misty fall day in the future.)

A liutaio shop, a common sight in Cremona

July is not the best time to visit Cremona, and I didn't hear any violin music while I was there (bad planning on my part), but I still enjoyed my one-day visit. My hotel was in the centro storico (historical center), a pedestrian area right near the Duomo and the main piazzas. My main activities were focused on visiting the Sala dei Violini (Museum of Violins), to see violins, under glass and carefully guarded, that were crafted by Amati, Stradivari, and del Gesù, as well as the Stradivari museum, housed in the Museo Civico (Civic Museum).

Torrazzo, Duomo e Battistero di Cremona

Cremona's Torrazzo ( bell tower) is the third tallest brickwork bell tower in the world, and the second highest in Europe, while the Duomo and Baptistery are famous as being among the most well-known sites of Romanesque-Gothic art in northern Italy.

A typical street in the centro storico

A popular gathering place in Cremona is Piazza Roma, which is actually a large park, with this lovely sculpture as one of several fountains.

Fontana delle Naiadi (Fountain of the Water Nymphs)

More affluent than other parts of Italy, Cremona is filled with outdoor cafes in every piazza - often two or three of them - and I saw no evidence of the need to lock up the cafe tables and chairs at night that is common practice in most Italian tourist areas.

Piazza by day

Every Thursday night during the summer, Cremona hosts a "Shopping Festival" from 9-11 pm, and features music, exhibits and shopping specials to attract people to the town center. Since I was there on a Thursday, a rock band set up camp outside my hotel window, playing until midnight, and the most popular exhibits were hosted by motorcycle and antique car dealers. Hmmmm: not the kind of culture I expected to find in Cremona! But I found the town quaint and interesting and would like to go there again, sometime when I can attend a violin concert.

Same piazza, by night

When I left Cremona, I had a two-hour wait for my train connection in Fidenza, so I took a stroll downtown, which was only due passi (one block) from the station.

Palazzo Communale (town hall), Fidenza

Not much was going on, as it was during the early afternoon, when everything closes up for several hours.

Centro storico, Fidenza

I came across a sweet little park, where I stopped to eat some fruit, then strolled back to the station, eager to move on to my next destination: Firenze!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Modena, Castelvetro, Riolunato, Fiumalbo

Il paesaggio sud di Modena
(the landscape south of Modena)

After Venice, I took the train to Modena, to see Marco and Marvi, who had visited me in Zagarolo in June. I'd been to visit them last year, and you can find out more about Modena and how I met these friends, along with links to many photos, by clicking here:

After resting for a few hours in their comfortable home, in the evening they drove me to nearby Castelvetro, where there is a large, well-preserved castle built in the 5th century. We saw several castles that evening before stopping for dinner.


Another village along the way

Marco and Marvi

The next day we headed into the hills south of Modena, and spent the entire overcast day stopping to visit small villages, churches, medieval castles and bridges. Our destination was Riolunato, a small village about 80 km south of Modena. A friend's husband back in the States has roots in the town, and asked me take some photos of it. Marco had mentioned it as one of the areas where he often rides his bike, and offered to drive me there, even though it is several hours from Modena. Marco works nights as a pediatrician in nearby Pavullo, and after his shift, he likes taking an early morning bike ride in the hills near Riolunato.

Pieve di Renno
In Renno, we stopped to visit this pieve, or parish church, built around the 9th century.

Medieval bridge

We also stopped to see several medieval bridges that are still intact, though only used for foot traffic, if anyone can find them. I'd never have found my way here on my own, but Marco seems to know every nook and cranny of these hills. He also knows the best places to eat along the way!

Another view of the bridge.

You can see the braces that have been added to the middle of the bridge to keep it sturdy. The longevity of these bridges attests to the mastery of those who built them.

Another medieval bridge

Riolunato (Moonriver)

Here we enter Riolunato, nestled in the hills. It's difficult to get to this area, as there are no trains and few buses, so car travel is a must. I'm fortunate to have friends who know the area well and are eager to share it with me. We stopped for dinner at the Hotel Cimone, which had lovely views of the surrounding hills.

Riolunato village

The last town we visited before heading back to Modena was Fiumalbo, a charming village touted as "The City of Art," though we weren't sure why.

Fiumalbo street

Fiumalbo, near the main piazza

Still, we enjoyed walking along the cobbled streets, hoping to see the ruins of Fiumalbo's castle, said to have remained impervious to attack throughout the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, access to the castle was closed off, but we were able to view the wall that supposedly kept invaders at bay.

Wall surrounding Fiumalbo's castle.

I'm very grateful to Marco and Marvi for hosting me in their home for the second year in a row. I love being able to see parts of Italy that are off the beaten track, and I'm humbled by the generosity of my friends in granting me the opportunity to do so.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Venezia, Murano

Gondola near the Rialto Bridge

Next stop, Venice, just a 30-minute train ride from Padova. I had booked a room at Albergo Doni, around the corner from Piazza San Marco, where I stayed two years ago during my first visit to La Serenissima. It's cheap but comfortable, with wifi access in their dining room, and a plentiful breakfast. Even though there was no AC, I had a large fan in my room, and it turned out to be sufficient, despite the 90° weather.

Piazzetta San Marco, afternoon

Since I had seen many of the main sights in Venice the last time, I was able to avoid the summer crowds that tend to cluster on the main drag. Most of Venice is NOT on the main drag, and it's easy to find quiet spots once you're away from the route along the Grand Canal.

Away from the crowds

Since I had arrived before my room was ready, I stashed my bags at the hotel and took a vaporetto to the Giardini Pubblici, and hung out there for several hours. (I bought a 2-day pass that allowed me unlimited vaporetto use during my stay.) The gardens are not a part of Venice that many people bother to visit, but it quickly became one of my favorite places to hang out.

Giardini Pubblici

The gardens are also the location of the internationally renowned Biennale modern art extravaganza, which I had hoped to see. But I was there too late in the day to see much of the exhibit on Sunday, and it was closed on Monday, so I missed out.

Palazzo Salviati, with glass mosaics on the facade

Instead, I spent most of Monday touring the canals, to get away from the crowds and the heat. I traveled by vaporetto to Murano, the nearby island that is famous for it glass-making factories. I took my time perusing the stores, buying a few trinkets and taking photos of creations I could never afford.

This reminds me of a heron, so graceful.

Bold and sassy!

In the evening, I rode the vaporetto up and down the Grand Canal, hoping to catch a nice sunset on the water. By this time, most of the tourists had left town and I found a good spot on the boat to shoot some nice scenes.

Sunset on the Grand Canal

One of the nice things that happened during my stay was having dinner with another solo traveler, a young man from Tokyo. We both arrived alone at a trattoria, and a waiter seated us together, announcing, "é sposata" (now you're married!), and those of us who understood had a good laugh. We spent several hours talking about our travels, and I told him of my son's experiences living in Tokyo; it was a sweet, unexpected interlude.

Early morning view from Piazzetta San Marco

I hadn't really expected to go to Venice this year, so I'd left my maps and travel guides at home. But even so, I managed to fit a lot in during my 2-day stay. There's much more to see, and I have yet to ride in a gondola, so I'm sure to visit Venice again.

Friday, July 15, 2011


The river Bacchiglione winding through Padova

After the cool mountains, breathtaking scenery and wonderful company that highlighted my visit to Segonzano, visiting Padova paled in comparison. In fact, I'd have to say that Padova was the least favorite of my adventures this year. High temperatures and the lonely setting of my hotel were major factors that contributed to my lack of enthusiasm. Still, I managed to see some beautiful and interesting places during my two-day stay.

Flowers grace a building in the centro storico

My main reason for stopping in Padova, about 40 km west of Venice, was to see the Giotto frescoes in the Scrovegni chapel, and for that reason alone, it was worth the trip. The fresco, completed in 1305, is one of the most important masterpieces of Western art. Its panels portray the life of the Virgin Mary.

Scrovegni Chapel (photo from Wikipedia)
The Scrovegni family fortune was made through the practice of usury, which involved charging interest when loaning money. At the time, it was considered a sin so heinous that it meant exclusion from the Christian sacraments. Built on the family estate, Enrico Scrovegni supposedly commissioned the chapel as a penance for his father's sins and for absolution for his own. In fact, Dante depicted Reginaldo degli Scrovegni as the usurer he encountered in the seventh circle of Hell. Charging interest on loans is now so common, it's hard to imagine the mindset of those times.

Padova claims to be the oldest city in northern Italy, founded in 1183 BC. It is the home of the renowned University of Padova , almost 800 years old and famous for having had Galileo Galilei on its teaching staff. Other famous members of the university include Gabriele Falloppio (Fallopian tubes were named after him), Copernicus and Andreas Vesalius, who is known as the founder of the science of human anatomy. Elena Lucrezia Piscopia became the first woman graduate in the world when she gained her degree in philosophy from the university in 1678. In addition, the university's botanical garden, established in 1545, is one of the oldest gardens in the world. I took a quick stroll through the garden, filled with botanical specimens that have been studied and used for centuries.

I was able to take a short tour of the university, though Galileo's lecture hall was off limits that day, due to a conference that was being held. But we were able to see the famous anatomical theatre, which is the oldest surviving permanent anatomical theatre in Europe. In its day, circa 1595, many artists and scientists studying the human body came to view public dissections at this theatre.

Anatomy Theatre, Padova University

Another major attraction in Padova is La Basilica di Sant'Antonio (Basilica of Saint Anthony), otherwise known as Il Santo. Many who come to Padova come expressly to pay homage to Saint Anthony.

Il Santo

My hotel (Casa del Pelligrino) was across the street from the church, and other than visiting the basilica, not much was going on in the area where I stayed. The church is a 10-minute tram or bus ride from the centro storico, an area that is much more lively. I also had trouble finding a restaurant near the hotel that didn't cater to tourist tastes (which translates to eating poorly made Italian food). But the prices were reasonable at the hotel, and I had free wifi and aria condizionata (AC), which was a blessing in the 90 degree F weather.

My dining companion

However, at one outdoor cafe, I was joined by a small sparrow, and enjoyed sharing part of my meal with him. Padova also boasts that its Prato delle Valle is the largest piazza in Europe.

Prato della Valle

On Saturday, it was filled with vendors selling everything imaginable, but I preferred going to the other markets in town, in Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza della Frutta, where I came across this display of many varieties of rice and risotto.
Oddly enough, there are several reasons to return to Padova. For instance, it's possible to take a day-long boat ride from Padova to Venice along the Brenta Riviera, stopping to visit famous Venetian Villas along the way. My friend Massimo in Bologna and his family went this route in the spring, and I'd like to do it myself someday. For more info on the journey and villas, click here:

Riviera del Brenta

With cooler weather, and more preparation, I'm sure to enjoy Padova more the next time I visit. Speriamo!