Sunday, September 27, 2015

Festa della Rificolona

Children waiting to take part in Festa della Rificolona,
One of the things we love most about Florence is its rich history, which is ever-present. For example, the first week we arrived, we observed Rificolona, a paper-lantern festival where kids, parents, grandparents, and dogs all seem to take part.

The festival features a parade through the city, with children joining in with their paper lanterns all along the way. Some of the lanterns are homemade, and some are purchased. In the old days, the lanterns were lit with candles, and small boys would often use peashooters or spit wads to hit the lanterns to make them catch on fire. But we noticed that today's lanterns glow from much safer battery-operated lights, a transition much like what has happened (thankfully) with our own Halloween jack o'lanterns. Perhaps as a result, we noticed nary a spitwad. 

 Rificolona is thought to have evolved from an event that goes back to at least the 17th century. Then, farmers would bring their autumn produce to market on the day before the feast of the Virgin Mary's birth. The farmers hoped to make enough money at this important market to see them through the winter months. To get a head start on the day, families would leave early in the morning, wearing their best clothes and carrying paper lanterns that lit their paths as they made their way to the city in the early-morning. Rificolona commemorates that trek.

We followed the procession from the main square, the Piazza della Signoria to near the Duomo. It was fun to be a part of a celebration of locals and tourists, even though we didn't know the folk songs that were sung along the way, especially because it was also our anniversary. What a way to celebrate!

The rest of the procession went on to another square, the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata where more festivities were planned, but because we were tired, we headed back to the apartment.

What I found amusing about Rificolona is that, as in most places in the world, city people and country folk often are a bit disparaging about each other. For instance, the city people of Florence used to laugh at the best clothes of the "country bumpkins" who came to town for the market. I'm told that even today when Florentines see an overdressed woman wearing too much jewelry and makeup they call her a "rificolona."

Thursday, September 24, 2015

In the Shadow of the Duomo

The back of the Duomo (cathedral) from our window at night.
When Ciro and Lisa, our friendly Airbnb hosts, first greeted us at our apartment in Florence, they opened the shutters to one of our windows and this was the view we saw:

We could almost reach out and touch the Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, or St. Mary of the Flower. (That black "arrow" in the photo is actually the roof of the neighboring building.) 

The view brought tears to my eyes. Not only were we looking at the dome designed by Brunelleschi, but we could see the campanile, or bell tower, designed by Giotto. The work of these giants of the Renaissance is right outside our window! When I think of what the Renaissance meant to the history of the Western world, to look out on where it all began is inspiring.

But there is another reason I teared up, too:  In the early 1970s, Kevin had helped his father move some furniture for an elderly lady who was relocating. The lady had seemed quite taken with Kevin and insisted on giving him a beautiful little sketch of a cathedral "somewhere in Europe." She couldn't remember where. In the 1980s, when we planned our first trip to Europe, we were reading a brochure on Italy and discovered that the sketch was of
Santa Maria del Fiore. After seeing the Duomo with our own eyes on our first trip in 1982, and on subsequent trips, our little sketch of the cathedral has become even more valued. And now we are living right next to the source.

The first stone for the cathedral was laid in 1296 and it took 147 years to finish. The top sat open to the heavens for years before a competition to build the dome was announced in 1418. Several designs were submitted and models were constructed, including one by Brunelleschi, who said he could build the dome without using internal scaffolding. The panel charged with awarding the commission for the project asked Brunelleschi for more information about how he would construct the dome, since nothing like that had been done in Europe since the Roman Pantheon.

In those days there were no intellectual property laws, so Brunelleschi, who was known to be a bit cantankerous anyway, refused to provide more details.  There is a unconfirmed story that he took a raw egg to the committee and asked them to stand it on end. When they all failed, Brunelleschi smacked the egg down on the table, breaking the end and allowing it to stand. "But we could have done that," said the committee members. "Yes," said Brunelleschi, "and if I tell you how I will build the dome, anyone can do that too." He won the commission. (It's a story that's so good, it should be true.)

I should note, however, that Brunelleschi initially had to share his commission with Ghiberti, his rival who was awarded the contract to create the doors to the cathedral's baptistry. Brunelleschi felt he should have won that commission too, and the two never had any good will for each other. (The baptistry doors are the ones Michelangelo later said were "fit to be the doors to paradise.") We saw both artist's sample panels for the doors in the Uffizi and concluded that, although both were impressive, Ghiberti probably deserved the job.

Interior of the dome painted by Vasari.

There are other stories associated with the cathedral as well.

The front of The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

One story concerns a bull's head that projects from the north side of the cathedral. Supposedly, it represents a tribute to the animals who died or helped most in the building of the cathedral--the oxen. But legend has it that it really was put there by the master stonemason, who had been having an affair with the wife of a baker. When the baker found out, he took them to ecclesiastical court, and the two adulterers had to stop seeing each other. In retaliation, the stonemason affixed the bull's head to look down on the baker's establishment and remind him he had been cuckolded.
(See head on left side of photo, then check closeup below.) 

Honestly, considering how little consideration was given to animals at the time, the latter story almost sounds more believable!

Another connection to the Renaissance is our morning "alarm."
Every morning at 7 a.m., if we haven't risen earlier, we awake to the sound of the bells ringing in Giotto's bell tower. I like hearing the bells, knowing that for more than 500 years the people of Florence have been rising to bells ringing from that tower.

So here we are, living in the shadow created by these giants of the Renaissance. What's more is that we can always find our way home from anywhere in town just by looking for Brunelleschi's dome.

View of the Duomo from the library down the street. Yes, they serve wine there!
This is Italy!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Stopover in Bologna

Most guidebooks say little about Bologna. But it made a good stopover on our way to Florence, and I wanted to see the colonnades that the city is known for. What's more, Kevin and I enjoy seeing real cities where people are simply engaged in living their lives and are not primarily catering to tourists.

We settled into a pleasant little hotel, the Hotel Atlantic, that was about half-way from the train station and the central piazza. It had been recently updated and offered a comfortable bed,  friendly staff, a good location, and a tasty breakfast--all in all, a good budget find.

The courtyard outside our room at the Hotel Atlantic.
We strolled under the colonnades, which are so sensible, keeping people out of the sun or rain. They add a graceful element to the city too. I wish we had them in Seattle!

Bologna may not be Milan or Rome, but it is up-to-date with style. This store had a striking video loop that flashed beneath the steps where the mannequins struck their poses. (The green area in the photo.)

But the most fascinating style for us was Bologna's old architecture. The two medieval towers pictured below serve as the traditional symbols of Bologna. They are the remnants of 100 towers that stood in the city in the 12th Century, but today there are only 20 left, with these the most  important pair.

The view is less than optimal. Construction in the area means putting up with the ugly fence

Bologna might not be on the list of the travel gurus' top cities to see in Italy, but we were pleased with our brief sojourn there. 

Ötzi, The Iceman

Note: I'm sorry, but I have no photos to illustrate this post. The museum at Bolzano prohibits photographs, so I've chosen to insert a selfie of Kevin and me with my favorite Italian "ice," gelato! You can see photos of The Iceman at the website link below.

The South Tyrol Museum of  Archeology in Bolzano, Northern Italy, is the home of Ötzi, The Iceman, a well-preserved mummy who lived around 3,300 B.C. Ötzi was discovered in 1991 by a couple of hikers on a mountain bordering Austria and Italy. Having read the news reports at the time, and later, having seen documentaries on The Iceman, we were determined to stop in Bolzano to learn more.

We were not disappointed. He is Europe's oldest known natural mummy. Ten years after he was found, the scientists studying the body determined he had an arrowhead embedded in his body that had severed a major blood vessel as well as a skull fracture that caused bleeding in the brain. Marks on his hands indicated recent combat, but, of course, no one knows how the events that led to his death played out.

Visitors to the museum can view Ötzi as he rests in a freezer that closely matches the temperature and humidity that preserved him so well in the glacier.  Studies and DNA analysis have shown he had parasites and cavities in his teeth, and he was apparently lactose intolerant.

But what is even more fascinating than the man himself are his clothing and tools, which reveal more about his life. It was astonishing to see his shoes--made with a sort of twine and lined with bearskin on the inside. In addition, they found his arrows, quiver, an unfinished longbow, birch baskets, and other items, including grains. He was carrying quite a lot for traversing the mountains.  

Of most interest was the ax he carried--the finely crafted copper blade looked like it was made yesterday! The ax surprised the scientists who then had to revise their timetable of when neolithic man first began making tools this sophisticated.

It's impossible to look at Ötzi's belongings without speculating on the kind of life he had, and recognizing our kinship with him. It's a sad commentary that he died in some sort of conflict (or some say a ritual sacrifice, though his unhealed wounds argue for some kind of fight).

If you'd like to know more about The Iceman, click here to explore the museum's English website, which includes information in print and video. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Our Hike in the Dolomites (and after)

More than once, during our stay in the Dolomites, I joked that I felt I was back in Leavenworth. The alpine-style chalets, the dirndls, and the German-Austrian style food all felt oddly familiar.

That's not surprising, given that the Dolomites (or Dolomiti in Italian), were not part of Italy until after World War I. Even today, most people speak German as their first language, so the shopkeepers and wait staff seemed to want to communicate in English. Unlike other parts of Italy, they were not particularly flattered by my attempts to speak Italian, but alas, my German mostly begins and ends with bitte and danke schon.

Most towns in the area have two names--one in German, the other in Italian. But many also have a third, a Ladin name for the Ladin people, the original settlers, whose language was suppressed during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but which has been revived in recent years.

Beneath these jagged-tooth stone mountains, the alpine meadows whisper of Heidi country.  That was why we decided to take the gondola up to Alpe di Siusi, the largest high-altitude meadow in Europe. Our plan, which we actually followed for once, was to take the gondola up, hike across the rolling plain dotted with small farms, an occasional hotel, and grazing cows and horses, and then walk back down to Ortesei (or St. Ulrich or Urtijëi), where we had left our car.

The walk was all we could have wished for. The day was warm, but not too hot, as a breeze occasionally whispered by, and the cowbells chimed in the distance as we walked the grass-lined paths.

We had packed a picnic lunch, so we stopped along the way to eat in the shade of a tree. A middle-aged couple from Colorado came by, who were obviously in better shape than we were. They pointed up to a nearby peak, where they had trekked the day before, and enthusiastically encouraged us to take the "coffin lift" up to the peak and walk down over the talus slope.  "You have to do it," the man said. The coffin lift, he explained, consisted of a continuously running cable with small two-person-sized gondolas (click to view) that you had to run to catch and then jump in. However, there were attendants stationed at both ends who either pushed you in or pulled you off, almost before you had a chance to consider what to do! 

After they left, Kevin and I agreed that with my knee issues and lacking hiking boots, that excursion was out for us, though we were slightly disappointed to miss the view.  (We didn't know then that the elevator of our apartment in Florence would bear a remarkable resemblance to the coffin lift--although you don't have to jump to catch it!)

Hiking back down through a forest of evergreens felt a lot like a hike in the Cascades, though the meadows of the Alpe di Siusi are definitely much more tame.

Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that we also stopped at a restaurant on the meadow to have a beer. While I love the wildness of our own Washington mountains, there is something to be said for walking in the Dolomites too. We returned to our hotel tired and happy.

A nice hotel, even if the wifi and view weren't quite as good as promised.
That's typical of hotels everywhere!

Sadly, the next day we were so sore from our hike that we couldn't attempt our next walking adventure. So we consoled ourselves with a drive, which was also beautiful.

We stopped along the way for photos.  Take a look at the one below. Can you see the paraglider, the little white dot?

It was a treat to be in the midst of mountains again, but the Dolomites left me a little homesick for the mountains of Washington state. Tragically, thousands of acres of forest are burning in Washington this year, including some areas that I care deeply about. We can only hope that the fires are contained soon, and there will be no more losses of people, animals, homes, and woodlands.

Addendum:  I forgot to include the photo below when I wrote about our stay in Tremosine above Lake Garda.  I felt sorry for this little fellow. His owners left him sitting on the back of the motorcycle to gather coins from passers-by, while they sat in a cafe and had lunch. Yes, he had water, but I'll bet that hat, while cute, was hot. That's no way to treat the little guy!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Enchanting Lake Garda

Verona wasn't the only town in Northern Italy that we fell in love with. We also found our hearts captured by Tremosine (Tray-MOH-sin-ay), which is actually made up of several villages. We stayed in Pieve, where the church is located. (Pieve means church.) The elevation of the village is 414 meters above sea level and the lake is 213 meters above sea level. That means the dining room of the Hotel Miralogo, where we stayed, hangs in midair about 656 feet above the lake! I could feel every foot.

A couple of roads serpentine up the hill to Tremosine from the lake. Arriving, we took the one featured in the James Bond film, "A Quantum of Solace." A scenic, but winding, often one-lane road with precipitous drop-offs, it was such an experience to drive it, and I was sorry there was nowhere to get off the road to take a good picture of it. I was clinging to the door handle the whole way, but I am glad we took it. 

The village itself was also a delight! Plus, it had the added benefit of a laundromat directly across from the hotel.  That may sound like nothing, unless you've been living out of a suitcase for months, and know the problems of finding any kind of laundry when you need one. (It's always a challenge to learn the system at a new laundromat too. I was fortunate to have a German lady show me the ropes.

The piazza outside our hotel.

We also visited Malcesine (Mal-CHES-in-ay?) on the opposite shore of Lake Garda, right on the water. It had its own charms.

Of the two towns, though, I preferred Tremosine.  It is small and relatively undiscovered. We never heard anyone speak English there, unless it was when we were talking between ourselves. Tremosine is not in any of Rick Steves' guidebooks yet. And while I think a lot of Rick Steves (he personally helped us plan the itinerary for our first trip to Europe in 1982), he encourages people to find their own European "back doors." Tremosine is that kind of place, a little hidden gem that we somehow stumbled across.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Aida in Verona

Sets for Aida outside the arena.
Note: This is a little out of sequence, because we went to Lake Garda and the Dolomites before we returned to Verona to see Aida. But to keep all the posts for Verona in one place, I am entering it here.

When we found we could get tickets for Aida, we didn't hesitate to buy them. To see a great opera in the Roman arena at Verona, one of the world's premier opera venues, was an opportunity we couldn't pass up. Aida is a spectacular opera, and the sets by film director and designer Franco Zeffirelli, made it an event to remember.

We sat in the "cheap seats" on the stone steps, so we had to get there early to secure a good view. (People in reserved seats, on the floor of the arena, are asked to dress elegantly, but the hoi-polloi can dress casually.)

We rented cushions, which helped, because we arrived about an hour before the opera began at about 7:45 p.m., and the opera, with two intermissions, didn't get over until about midnight. 

It really didn't seem that long, because we were entranced with the performance and the venue. How often do you get to sit in an arena that is nearly 2,000 years old to see an event? It was fun to think back on all the people who have sat in the same place over the years to view some sort of entertainment. Of course, my reverie was a little bit disturbed when the Canadian woman sitting behind me had to point out that originally the Roman spectators would have been watching gladiator fights. I had read that, but I didn't appreciate being reminded of it, and while we were impressed with the acoustics (one reason the Verona arena is such a popular place for opera), she was critical, because it doesn't match the acoustics of ancient Greek theaters.  We have been to the Greek theaters and have witnessed the remarkable acoustics, but nonetheless, don't you have to appreciate every sight for what it uniquely offers?

The arena before the performance.

I apologize, because I lost the program that identified the principal singers on the night we went.  But honestly, most people go to see Aida not for the music alone, but because it is a spectacle, with an enormous cast and eye-popping sets. (In the past, directors have been known to bring horses and even elephants on stage) The animals were spared from this staging, but it was still impressive.

The Verona arena traditionally begins each performance by having the spectators light a candle, and the candles are furnished free of charge. However, because fewer people smoke these days, we were not able to light our candles! No one around us had a light.

I imagine if you are a serious opera buff, Verona might be a bit trying, because although the audience is asked not to take photos during the performance, flashes are going off practically every moment.  Kevin refrained, but finally, he had to take a least one photo (above). The shot he took wasn't even of the most dazzling stagecraft, but he felt he had violated the rules enough for one night. Ah well, what would you expect of the people in the cheap seats?

Aida is not our favorite opera for its music, but we felt the experience in Verona was well worth our 40 euros (20 euros per seat, or not quite $23). Even without the elephants, it was a night to remember.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Romantic Verona

We didn't mean to fall in love.  It just happened. I guess that's why they call it "falling" in love? But slowly and imperceptibly, Kevin and I fell under the spell of Verona.  How could we not, in this city of Romeo and Juliet?  

What explains our fascination, in part, may have been our arrival at night. Our first view of Verona was magical, as we viewed it by lamplight, when soft hues of rose, gold, and white bathed the buildings. It may also have been the fact that Verona is relatively small and easily walked, making it very approachable. But whatever it is that makes Verona special, it held us in its grip, making us feel just a little younger and just a little more open to possibility.

One of the first things we noticed about Verona on our first day was that its sidewalks are made of marble. We have visited many Italian cities over the years, but this was the first time that we remember encountering marble sidewalks.  (But then our memories aren't what they used to be.)  The marble tiles are worn, and some are repaired with concrete and asphalt, but many are in good condition, adding an elegance to this small city that you don't find in other locales.  It was also great fun to find a large number of ammonite fossils in the marble.  Many were over a foot in diameter and one grand-daddy (grandmom?) was a good two-and-a-half feet across!

Of course, we visited Juliet's house (Casa di Giulietta)  and saw the famous balcony, although this tourist sensation was created when the city of Verona bought the house of the Dal Capello family years ago, because of the similarity to the name Capuleti. Who cares if Romeo and Juliet are fictional if it brings more tourists to Verona?

Juliet was even on her balcony:

We wouldn't pay to see this ersatz tourist attraction. Instead, I took advantage of the free view from the shop next door. I did take a peek at the mailbox featured in the 2010 film, "Letters to Juliet," because I liked the movie, even if it was predictable.  Vanessa Redgrave is always worth watching, and sometimes you just want to watch something light and hopelessly romantic.

Juliet's mailbox

We enjoyed strolling the streets of Verona. The sets for the opera, "Aida," were outside the old Roman arena. (When we returned to Verona, later, after visiting Lake Garda and the Dolomites, we saw "Aida"-- but that's another post.)

There were little winding streets and Roman remnants everywhere.

And intriguing entries and alleyways wherever you turned. . .

Along with broader vistas:

You could say, in many ways, we felt like Verona was our town.

Note: My husband informs me I mixed up my photos. The two entryway shots are actually from Malcesine on Lake Garda! But trust me, Verona has lots of special little views too. And just to prove it, here are a couple of other shots from Verona: