Friday, May 30, 2014

Italians in general start their days early, take a long break after lunch and then finish their work day late. Dinner is often only after 9pm. We have had to adapt to this schedule, especially in smaller towns where the shops and restaurants close for a good part of the afternoon. Our routine in Florence seems to finally fit with these hours, except that we eat lunch out, then rest for a while and return to walking and sight-seeing late in the day. It is actually quite pleasant and something we could enjoy back at home if our world worked that way. Anyway, we have been cooking our own meals at night but eating late upon our return from late afternoon outings.
                                                       View from the Clock Tower
Yesterday, we made a change to this. We cooked dinner at 7 pm (early by standards here), then walked to an old church near Dante's former home, called Chiesa Maria di Ricci, where we had heard there were nightly organ recitals at 9:15. Sure enough, after sitting in a little bar across the street waiting for the gates to open while Pierre sipped Grappa, the caretaker arrived, unlocked the metal doors and in we went. This church is about 500 years old, and has the usual religious frescoes on the walls. It was dimly lit by a few candles. We could see the huge pipes in the jubé behind us, but there was only a small light on up there. No one sat at the organ behind the altar. We wondered if the janitor was also the organist. Other people began arriving and suddenly at 9:15 the organ began to play. Was it a recording? Where was the organist? He began with a beautiful Albinoni piece that set the stage. By now the janitor had reappeared so we knew he was not playing, unless he had just pressed the play button on a recorder. But as time went by, the music got louder with each piece. And it sounded like the real thing...I could hear the pedals and sometimes there was the odd small mistake. Besides that, our ears were ringing with the reverberation. Bach's Toccata and Fugue just about blew up out of our seats! As I walked quietly around the church I noticed a small door open upstairs in the jubé, and a faint light between the two sets of pipes. I could not help thinking of The Phantom of the Opera. This organist comes here night after night, and lets it rip on the organ. He must do it for the love of his instrument, the music and this little church that benefits from donations given as people come in off the street to hear his powerful sound. The concert ended, we all left the church after making a donation, and we never saw the mysterious organist.
We have now said good bye to this beautiful city. I think we have seen most of what needs to be seen and can be managed in four days. Reading about the history of Florence, the men and women who played such an important role in  its life and in the progression of art, politics, literature and the world in general makes me feel I learned a tiny bit more. 
We took the train from Florence to Venice, a two hour ride on a very fast train. It is a sleek, electricity- powered vehicle, as most trains in Europe are. Quite a comfortable ride and another way to see the country. We had been advised to keep our luggage close and to be careful around the automatic ticket machines. Sure enough, despite these warnings, Pierre found himself being given advice by a young girl who appeared very solicitous until the security guards came up and made her move away. We then saw them do the same to a man at the next booth and then again to a woman who had been begging in the large hall and then moved on to "help" at the machines. During our wait for the train we watched these three people interact with each other, help people at the ticket machines, and be repeatedly waved away by the police who were present in large numbers in the station. By careful watching it was quite obvious who was a traveller and who was there to take advantage of the slightest slip on the part of the vulnerable tourist. Interesting.
                                                     Confusion at the ticket machines

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance

Our flat in Florence lies in the shadows of the more posh Westin Excelsior, close by the Savoy. We are the poor cousins, but this place is great...a tiny one-room affair with a little balcony overlooking the street. Everything is within walking distance.
                                         Our little balcony (with Westin across the street)
All seemed perfect until we realized the first night that there is a very bright light on the side of the Westin that illuminates the whole street and shines directly into our window. Despite curtains, the room was still very light, making sleep difficult. To add to our misery, we were serenaded by  recycling trucks that work at night. The recycling bins here are state-of-the-art. The small bins on the street are connected to large containers under the sidewalk. At about 3am the truck arrives with a crab-like mechanism that lifts the entire metal plate up off the street. The bin under the street is then swung over the back of the truck and dumped. Imagine the noise made by hundreds of empty wine bottles from a large hotel.  That is then followed by screaming sirens all night long as ambulances race up and down the street. Add to that the partiers at the local outdoor restaurants and it makes for less than a blissful night's sleep. At 7 am all the bells in Florence peel to greet the day, creating quite a beautiful cacophony of sound. For our next night, using a little ingenuity, we shut all the windows (thank goodness it is cool here), hung blankets over the windows, and I wore earplugs. It worked! Last night allowed for a better rest and today we were ready to begin a day of walking the Florence streets.
Florence takes your breath away with its Romanesque beauty. This is where the Renaissance started and you feel it everywhere. There seems to be a church or palace at every corner. There are many other people visiting the city. I wonder what it is like in high season. The streets are jam-packed now in May. We realize that there is only so much you can see and retain. Just strolling through the streets and soaking in the sights may have to be enough. Line ups to get into the Duomo on our first day were discouraging so we listened to our audio guide and moved on.
                                                             Crowds outside the Duomo
Today began with getting in line early to allow us a good view of Michelangelo's David. Despite all the hype, I have to admit that he truly is impressive. And waiting in  line sipping espresso and eating sweet croissant,  provided us with another anecdote, although an unpleasant one for the victim. Here's how it went: as we were herded into line outside the museum, a little car driving down the narrow street we were on, squeezed a little too close to the museum attendant. We heard a cry, and saw the young man grab his leg, hobbling on one foot and yelling at the car. Cameras flashed as people in line took photos of the car before the driver could try to escape. Pierre says he heard a crack before the guy yelled and is convinced his leg was broken. With all the witnesses, the driver could not do anything but pull his car over and wait for the "polizia". What bad luck!
After our visit with David, an amazing sculpture of the perfect male, carved from a huge slab of marble into an incredibly real human body, we trudged back to the Duomo, escaping the rain on our way by stopping into other more obscure museums. This time we were able to climb to the top of the Duomo bell tower to get a view of all of Florence and surrounding area. This is quite a strenuous climb even for the fittest. There are many steps and they are narrow and winding, dating from about the 13th century. People of all shapes and sizes attempt it, making it a slow climb up and an even slower descent. Meeting in the winding spiral stairways is especially difficult if the person is more than a little wide. Our question was what happens if a person feels unwell once at the top. This was answered when we exited the tower where three ambulances were parked, probably ready for any eventuality. Don't ask how they could actually get a stretcher up the stairs. I kept thinking of the bell ringers over the hundreds of years who have climbed up and down the stairs many times a day to ring the bells.
Wanting to try the typical Florentine treat, we headed for a trippai, or vendor of tripe( as in the cow's fourth stomach, not as in tripe meaning nonsense or junk). The tripe is slow cooked, a sauce added and then it is all wrapped in a crusty bun.  It sounds terrible but is actually delicious, tasting a lot like slow cooked veal/osso buco. This is a popular street food here and is highly recommended.

Chianti, castles and the good life

The last four days we have been in Noce, a small town in the  Chianti area of Tuscany. It has been a time of driving through beautiful countryside, with vineyards and olive groves all around us. This area is famous for its great Chianti Classico wines, made primarily with the Sangiovese grapes that have made this region famous. We now know the difference between a DOC Chianti, a DCOG Chianti Classico, with the little black rooster that makes it a genuine wine with at least 80% Sangiovese, and the lesser (but still excellent) IGT wines. I suspect we will not retain much of this, as in the past we have forgotten much of the theory but remained in love with good red wine! We had a free tour of a beautiful vineyard owned by a Swiss couple that has been here for many years. Pierre enjoyed the wine tasting, the most generous I have ever experienced. I abstained as I was feeling a little ill (no details please). The tour was mostly in German, we being the minority English-speakers. But there seems to be a common language among those who enjoy wine and food, and the hosts were gracious enough to translate from time to time. Yesterday we spent another day on a nowhere trip through the area, stopping at little medieval villages, climbing towers for the best view, and then finally ending up at the Brolio Castle, dating from the 12th century. This was topped of by a simple meal in their osteria (restaurant) and a wine tasting of their Chianti Classico. This is one of many of the Chianti castles in the area, usually sitting atop of a hill from where the lord of the manor could see his enemies coming from many miles away.
                                                                     Brolio Castle
Our little apartment was lovely, in an old home overlooking the Chianti hills with a castle in the distance. There are many such places here. A lot of tourists seem to come here to enjoy the scenery, sample the wines, learn about the amazing history of the area while at the same time being able to cook their own meals and live a little bit like the people do here. In the evening we sat outside watching the sunset over the distant hills and listening to a cuckoo singing in the background. It was magical. We never did make it into the bigger town of Tavernelle Val de Pisa. The first night we tried, armed with a map from our host. We drove around the rotaries that are so popular here, taking the four that lead into town, and repeated the effort four times, each time arriving at exactly the same place. We never did hit the one that takes you to the village square, so decided that we should go back to our little place and forget about the town.
                                                          View of the Chianti Hills

There are vineyards here going back to the 1100s. We visited a little medieval village with a tower that seemed straight out of King Arthur. Both Siena and Florence were almost wiped out during the Bubonic Plague in the mid 1300s. I find that interesting! It reminds me of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Much of the history of modern Italy played out here, with wars between Florence and Siena for centuries and then finally in the 19th century the founding of Italy as a nation. Our heads are full of information.

We left this little paradise today, returning our rental car in Florence and then moving on to a new flat in town. Prior to returning the car we had to fill up with gas. It being Sunday all the stations that offer service were closed. We had no choice but to go to a self-service, much to Pierre's concern.There we found three other tourists all trying to figure out how the pumps work. It took many attempts at getting the machine to accept our Euros (face down, face up, frontwards, backwards) until finally an Italian couple arrived, took our bill and quickly inserted it into the machine that promptly gobbled it up and began to pump gas into our car. Pierre just did not have the magic touch, I guess. So our little red Fiat Panda is now safely returned and we will be on foot for Florence and Venice.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Trulli amazing

Please excuse the cliché but we are in Trulli country and everywhere you go on the country roads, you see these funny little Smurf-like structures made of stone in the shape of a mound. They date from centuries ago during feudal times when initially they served as storage sheds and later were converted into homes by the local people. Apparently they could be erected quickly because they require no mortar. So in order not to pay property taxes to the king of Naples, the lord of the area of Alberobello where there are still 1600 trulli, had his serfs dismantle their trulli and then rebuild them again after the tax man had passed. This went on until 1797 when the king sided with the serfs and declared an end to the feudal government in the town.

As you visit this area, especially in the countryside where there are clusters of trulli between the olive groves, you half expect a little blue creature (Smurf) to pass by. In Alberobello, you can visit Trulli and meander through narrow alleys where each trullo is now privately owned, and many renovated.

                                                             Trulli in Alberobello

We are in the province of Puglia, in a town called Martina Franca, situated in the Valley of Itria. This is part of the heel of the Italian boot. It is an area that produces some of the finest olive oil in the world. We were treated to a visit of an olive oil company that has been in the same family since 1889.As the present owner told us, in Martina Franca, olive oil is more important thatnfood.
The other fascinating thing in the Itria Valley of Puglia is the beautiful towns, made of white stone, and dating back many centuries. The architecture of Martina Franca is baroque; the older homes have ornate carvings over the doors and windows, and pretty iron balconies, dripping with flowers.

This is slow travel at its best. We have spent the week walking through the town, shopping in local shops to buy our food for supper. People are very friendly and all say they know about Canada and what a great country it is. The tourists that come here are mainly from the continent. At this time of year we are almost alone. Our little apartment (AirBnB) is fine. It is in a typical stone building on one of the back streets of the historic area. Other than having to deal with little ants on the first day, there have been no other problems. We enjoy not having to eat out every day but rather to buy local produce and cook it ourselves. Last night I cooked a delicious rabbit meal that was a recipe given to me by my Italian secretary years ago. Delicious. The wine here is from primativo grapes…hardy and a deep red, at only $2.99 Euros a bottle!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Naples to Martina Franca

Leaving Naples on Sunday, we headed for the Amalfi Coast, described by some as the most beautiful drive in the world. For three hours we climbed and twisted through this mountainous road that hugs a cliff overlooking the sea. It is indeed beautiful, at times a little scary especially when meeting larger vehicles. But nothing like the more dangerous drive in Costa Rica over the Cerro de la Muerte. I had been worried for nothing as Pierre drove with ease over this one. We were glad to be sight-seeing when there are few tourists as we have heard that it is impossible to drive in the summer months, the roads crowded with visitors and tour buses. The sea is turquoise , dotted with white caps and the odd sailboat. Unfortunately weather was cool, and although we saw men raking the sand at the resorts, there were no beach chairs out. People we did see were dressed with coats and long pants. The clouds were rolling in and by the time we got to Salerno, it was sprinkling.
                                                                     Amalfi Coast
This was the only night we had not planned accommodation, not being sure how long it would take to drive the coast. Looking for something unusual I made the mistake of asking our GPS to avoid highways as we headed towards Puglia. For one hour we drove in circles over tiny back roads, finally realizing what I had done. We corrected the mistake and came out onto a main road at the same place we had entered. Before continuing Pierre needed to stop for gas. There are few stations and the one we did find was self service. For some reason we had assumed we had a diesel car, and for about five minutes Pierre tried to figure out how to get the nozzle into the gas tank. Luckily another customer came along and together they figured out that the car does not take diesel, that the pumps and gas tanks are colour coded so you know which goes where, and that the automatic machines only take cash. All this in Italian and sign language.
Luck was on our side, with a little help from Frommers guide book. Looking for ideas for a good place to stay, and not seeing anything interesting as we continued onward, I found the name of Matera, in the province of Basilicata. It is known for its Sassi area, which is a mass of caves dating back to Paleolithic times, 9000 years ago. People have lived in these caves for centuries some in extreme poverty until 1952 when they were moved to more adequate housing. More recently it has been named a Unesco site. Movies have been filmed here because of the resemblance to a middle eastern town such as Jerusalem. Mel Gibson filmed the Passion of Christ here when he was forbidden from doing so in Israel. Since then the area has taken on a whole new life.
                                                            Sassi in Matera, Basilicata
The impression you get when you first see the Sassi is incredible……a hillside settlement, all grey, with homes and churches built over and inside caves. It has become a popular place to live, and a great place to visit. This is where we found a B&B, spending the night in a modified cave, that was very comfortable, and breathed the fascinating history of the area. The next morning we visited several churches that date back to the time of Saint Francis, one of which is actually built in a cave, with another church inside it. This would be a place to visit
again, especially to hike through the less developed rock formations nearby.

Odds and ends

Our B&B in Naples was lovely, but every morning we were entertained by a local bag lady who spends the day at the edge of the square outside our window. I wonder where she sleeps because she was never there in the evening. But every morning she begins the day by shouting what sound like obscenities in Italian, while eating and throwing peach stones across the alley. The locals seem to ignore her and walk past without reacting. She is just part of the local colour.
Driving in Naples to get out of the city, we were surrounded by masses of cars and motor cycles. I saw a business man on a motor cycle, weaving in and out of crazy traffic, all the time texting as he drove. They do not have the same road rules as at home, that’s for sure!
One of my regrets is that I could not buy any of the beautiful shoes that the women wear here. Italian footwear is amazing, making me drool. The women trip around the cobble stone streets in stiletto heels and their feet look great. I am walking around in running shoes, nursing blisters that I got in Rome, and complaining about my bunions. I guess it will be in another life that I can wear these amazing shoes, but I can dream.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The drive to Naples from Rome was uneventful other than the excitement of getting our rental car without trouble and making our way out of Rome. Our GPS is a blessing...such a surprise to hear the same voice that has accompanied us on our travels throughout North America. It is like finding an old friend.
We arrived in Naples during a huge family celebration that caused closure of many streets leading down to the waterfront and included roads to our B&B. We finally found it, in a tiny alley. Pierre double parked and I ran down the alley, looking for the address. Luckily a man was on the second floor balcony looking out for us and we were able to then squeeze into the alley, dump our bags and be escorted through a courtyard, up stairs to a door behind which we found a very cute little B&B with 6 rooms. Pierre than had to go and park the car, driving though a stone archway into a narrow parking lot where we put the car to rest for three days, not daring to venture out with it for fear of damage on the narrow winding streets of Naples. The luxury cars in the lot are hoisted up onto lifts to keep them safe from theft and vandalism. 
So it has been public transportation, using bus, metro and train to get around Naples. Getting tickets is not complicated, as long as you can find a ticket dispenser that works or a tabbachi (news stand) where they sell tickets. Otherwise you get on the bus and hope the inspector does not come aboard to check. Yesterday we waited for the bus after visiting the art museum and the dispenser did not work. Two young African priests told us to get on the bus because there was no place to buy tickets and anyway the inspector never passed at that hour. So far we have not met an inspector, and as we discovered in Rome, we were paying for tickets but no one else was! Today we had bought tickets for the metro earlier, but there were no tickets readers before getting on the trains. Go figure! 
We have also walked for miles exploring the city. Whenever a local tells you it is a ten minute walk, we have learned that means at least thirty! Naples is on the coast and has a wonderful coastal view of the bay and mountains opposite, including Mount Vesuvius. The town is on a hill and funiculars connect one level to the other.  We have visited museums that are packed with the art treasures collected over several centuries by wealthy merchants, kings and popes. The archeological museum contains the greatest collection of ancient art and artifacts in the world, including many from the excavations of Pompei. We are feeling very cultured.
The art gallery on top of the hill (Capadimonte) looks like Downton Abbey.   
                                                     Museo Nazionale di Capodimenti
It was built to house the art collection of the Farnese family. Walking through the huge halls and rooms made us wonder how a family could live there and actually manage to stay in touch. There are
hundreds of paintings by the great Italian masters as well as some from Flemish artists that were obtained through strategic marriages between Italian and other royalties.
We are struck by the tremendous wealth of the families of Renaissance Italy, and the power they wielded. It also makes us realize how little really know about these artists and worlds they worked in.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


One of the pleasures of walking through the streets of a city like Rome is to see the sites that you might miss otherwise. Everyday we remark on something we have passed.
There are many beggars on the streets, especially around landmarks such as St Peter's Square. Several times we passed by an old bent-over woman walking with a cane, hand outstretched for alms. On closer look one can see that her hand is a young one, and one wonders how the same woman (because the clothes are identical) can be in so many places at the same time. Another sight is of a veiled woman kneeling with her forehead to the ground. The only part of her body that is visible is once again her hand that is outstretched and begging. Yesterday I passed by such a woman and saw that the hand was a large, masculine one. What to do? It is not easy to refrain from being charitable. Over the years I have agonized over whether to  give to the alms seekers and squeegies at home. My personal solution has been to give to charities that support youth and families, rather directly to someone on the street. But here in Rome, as in other cities and countries we have visited, I am again confronted with this dilemma.

Another common sight is the many "fire hydrants"that are actually sources of drinking water and can be found in every park. They run constantly and are used to fill your water bottles, as well as to create a reverse drinking fountain by blocking the end, thus causing the water to spray up through a hole in the top of the tubing. If you can do it without getting soaked, there is an unlimited source of clean drinking water in Rome...very different from the experience in Asia and India. Apparently you can even drink the water that pours into the many fountains throughout Rome, as long as you can find the source before it falls into the fountain...that water is soon contaminated by the slime and bird droppings in the basin.
                                                        Ceiling Fresco at Palazzo Farnesini

Yesterday we visited the beautiful Palazzo Farnesini, filled with frescoes by Raphael, Peruzzi and Sodoma among others. After a very interesting free guided tour, we stepped outside, over a low chain, and into a quiet garden, filled with citrus trees and other greenery. Another couple from Australia did the same. I found a bench where I could read while Pierre tried to get his Rick Steves' guide to the Jewish quarter to rewind and fast forward on my smart phone (the techie in him comes out when met with these challenges). Suddenly a little man in a suit came walking rapidly towards us, waving his arms and shouting in Italian that the garden was closed. At the same time he shooed us out of the garden, he was jabbering into a cell phone. He looked very upset that we had dared to go into the garden and of course I felt very guilty. We left and finished our reading on the other side of the chained entrance. Several minutes later we saw four other people doing exactly as we had done. And following them soon afterwards, there came the little man going through the same routine, walking with determination and gesticulating to banish them from the garden. 

Why was the garden closed when it looked so inviting? Was it to give him a purpose in life as he seemed to take his job of guardian very seriously. They will need to put up a higher fence.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Italy at last

 After 5 days of trying to blog, Google has finally let me back in. Talk about high security! It probably does not help that I have so many passwords and have trouble remembering most of them.
Our flight from Dorval was one hour late due to a computer glitch. That made for a frantic dash through Charles de Gaulle airport to get our flight to Rome. Our bags were held back in Paris. Alitalia kindly gave us toothbrushes and sent us on our way to our hotel.
As always, the trip by train and then tram to our B&B was an adventure. The local constablieri are just next door to our B&B. This pretty old building is comprised of many apartments, condo style. We were pleasantly surprised when the old door opened to reveal a lovely apartment with three beautiful  inner doors leading to  three small rooms. Our room is perfect, with a great view over the busy street, comfortable furnishings and a good coffee machine for our European style breakfast. The building reminds me of my aunt's place in London, England where I stayed in 1969... dark hallways, many closed doors, an old elevator and an open courtyard in the middle. Very European, with chic older women getting off the lift accompanied by fancy little dogs!
Our bags finally arrived but because of Visa insurance, we were able to shop for new shirts, pants and sleeping apparel. Our Montreal clothes were just too warm to where as we waited for our bags to arrive. Other than me leaving my passport at the store where we bought our SIM card, and Pierre being violently ill with poison mussels, we have settled into a routine of walking everywhere, visiting museums, churches and historical sites. Our walking guide tapes copied onto our IPod and phone have made everything easy to understand.
We are in the Trastevere sector, across the Tiber from ancient Rome. This was originally a working class area, where trades people lived and worked. It is now a mass of tiny, winding streets, full of lovely old buildings that house apartments, shops and many restaurants. The original Jewish population that settled here centuries ago and were bankers, lawyers, doctors, etc, were moved by the Pope across the river in the 1500s as a means of segregating them in a ghetto. They were forbidden from becoming tradesmen or developing a craft. The ghetto is still there, a vibrant part of Rome, boasting a beautiful synagogue, a school, and many restaurants.
                                                       Walking in a Trastevere ally

Pierre is a great map reader. I have developed faith in his sense of direction, but must admit there have been a few difficult moments, such as finding the Trevi Fountain, as well as the Pantheon. After five days and many detours, we are pretty sure of where we are going. The streets feel safe at any time of day, provided you keep your head up and your bags secure.

                                                                 St Peter's Basilica

One of the highlights was a concert given at Chiesa Sant' Agnese in Agone (Saint Agnes was a martyr who was killed at age 12 because she refused to marry an important official's son, having taken a vow of chastity with a desire to keep herself for Jesus). Life was tough! The choir was from a university in California and the music was ethereal.  Surprisingly the church was packed with locals and tourists.
                                     Concordia University Choir at Chiesa Sant'Agnese in Agone

You cannot really go anywhere in Rome without seeing a church or some part of an ancient building. The opulence of some buildings is incredible, and so is the ever-present history of this ancient civilisation. Pierre's Jesuit education of the classics has stood him in good stead, as he remembers a lot of the history of the Roman empire. Four years of latin helps me a little. Lots of fun, reading, exploring and fitting together the pieces.

                                                           Shopping for our lunch

                                             Picnic in Villa Borghese Park (with sore feet)