La Bella Sicilia

Now we can talk about how much we enjoyed the rest of Sicily…..

Our first stop was Taormina, because….well….because it’s Taormina. Everyone says it’s very touristy – and they’re right….and then they say that it’s the most beautiful town in Sicily – and they’re right there, too, which is more than enough reason to ignore the touristy part and embrace the beauty. It’s perfectly perched on the side of a hill with views of both the water AND Mount Etna….which happened to have some snow left, making it even more picturesque.

That's the Mediterranean on the left and Etna on the right.  Breakfast was tough duty...

That’s the Mediterranean on the left and Etna on the right. Breakfast was tough duty…

I have to say that we were VERY pleased with our timing for this trip. Late April/early May is a wonderful time to be in Sicily because the landscape is still green and the Spring flowers are out in abundance. The countryside becomes parched by July and August, and that’s not the look I prefer. Also, everyone said that the number of tourists in a place like Taormina triples in August, and for us – no matter how beautiful the town, that amount of people would be more than enough reason to stay away. Early Spring is perfect.

In addition to the beauty of the place, our other favorite thing about Taormina was the enthusiasm of the people we met. They had not become jaded by living in this gorgeous setting, and they wanted visitors to enjoy it as much as they did. Our small hotel had a wonderful staff that loved sharing their knowledge…..

….Which is how we found our first delicious dinner. And the people at the first restaurant  — which was all fish — directed us to our second delicious dinner — where I enjoyed a steak that was the closest thing to a rib eye steak that I have ever seen in Italy. (Most Italian cuts of beef are entirely different from ours. Bistecca Fiorentina, which looks like our Porterhouse, is pretty much the only cut that I recognize behind the meat counter.)  The young owners of these 2 restaurants were rightfully proud of their local products from both land and sea, and that pride was evident in their dishes, which demonstrated that you can have respect for the time-honored traditions while giving them a more modern interpretation.

Just because our 2 dinners in Taormina were the best of the trip doesn’t mean we didn’t eat well elsewhere. In fact, the second biggest surprise of this trip was just how much I enjoyed the food, since I’m not a huge fan of fish.  But both the seafood and meats were of such high quality that I must put Sicily down as the best eating I’ve ever done on a vacation.

The first biggest surprise was the wine. Despite my love of beef, I’m mostly a white wine drinker – reserving red wine solely for red meat. I like my whites clean, crisp, dry and NEVER oaked. Unlike with reds, I do not consider complexity in white wine a plus. Much to my surprise — Sicily turned out to be White Wine Heaven for me. The best example was when we ordered a ¼ or ½ carafe of the house wine with lunch. Here, that usually gives the restaurant license to pawn off some inferior swill that they bought for $2 a barrel and is the color of diluted ice tea. In Sicily, it was impossible to get a bad glass of wine – even in the worst restaurants. And again, I put this down to pride. Sicilian wines were once considered inferior table wines. But now that standards have been raised, it would almost be traitorous for a restaurant to serve something that doesn’t represent the current high standards.

The third biggest surprise was how differently I viewed the countryside.  My previous 2 visits had been involved with biking, so steep hills and rugged mountains were not what I was looking for. For this reason, my favorite area was the southeast corner, which includes Siracusa, Ragusa and Caltagirone. While we enjoyed these towns (and ate well!), the countryside wasn’t nearly as pretty as I remembered. On the other hand, the short time spent in the west was absolutely gorgeous.

Piazza del Duomo in Siracusa.

Piazza del Duomo in Siracusa.

Calltagirone's famous steps with with its Spring plant display.

Calltagirone’s famous steps with with its Spring plant display.

Alan is actively anti-museum, but in an effort to not come home empty-handed culture-wise, I insisted we visit 3 places:

1.  Villa del Casale, outside of Piazza Armerina – the incredible mosaic floors of a former Roman villa from the 3rd-4th century that were fortunately covered in a mudslide in the 12th century, which kept them intact until their discovery in the 20th century. I was surprised there wasn’t more damage between the 4th and 12th centuries, but perhaps they were just benignly ignored. Anyway – today they are well cared-for with wooden walkways for properly viewing the floors, and a non-obtrusive shelter to prevent further damage. This villa was built for the Roman equivalent of our 1%, and had a rooms for cold baths, hot baths, receiving important guests, children, servants, and perhaps most famous – an exercise room for the Bikini Girls.

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4th Century Roman Bikini Girls

2. The Greek temple of Segesta — I saw lots of the famous Greek ruins while biking, but this was by far my favorite. And if Alan had to see just one, this was my choice. It has a somewhat spotty history with lots of “legend has it” in the story, and was never finished, but the setting is picture perfect.

Beautiful Segesta

Beautiful Segesta

3.  The cathedral in Monreale – Two words: FABULOUS mosaics. Perhaps I should add another word: gold. Picture all the well-known bible stories reduced to 2 or 3 panels, and then executed in the most expensive medium — gold tiles.  It is pretty darn impressive…..which I believe was the objective of William II when he had it built in the 12th century.

Noah's story in Monreale's cathedral.  I love how they did the water.

Noah’s story in Monreale’s cathedral. I love how they did the water.

While there are so many other sites that convey the incredible mixture of cultures that have shaped this valuable island, as a starting point, these 3 weren’t bad.

Our last afternoon (and dinner!) was spent in Cefalu’ — a small, picturesque town on the water. Everyone I know who’s visited has loved it. I passed through it on a bike trip and was less than impressed. But this visit we took the time to look a bit further and it’s every bit as charming as our friends said. While it has a lovely Duomo, we’d already had our 1 church for the trip, so Cefalu’s will have to wait till next time….

Picturesque Cafelu'

Picturesque Cafelu’

And there will be a next time.  Armed with what we’ve learned, we’ve even come up with a theme which, not surprisingly, centers around food and wine. Our task now is to collect knowledgeable recommendations (NOT Trip Advisor!), and go where the food is…..just as long as it’s not in you-know-where….

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Palermo

You know how you can have a really good friend, and they have another really good friend, and it seems like you would also be friends with their friend…..but it just doesn’t quite turn out that way, and you never really enjoy being with your friend’s friend? Well – that’s what happened to us with Palermo.

This was Alan’s first trip to Sicily, and while it was my third trip – I’d never been in Palermo, so we were looking forward to discovering it together. We’d heard good things about it. We both love big cities.  And you might remember how enthusiastic we were about Napoli* – the town most often compared to Palermo in terms of its chaotic disorganization. But whereas Napoli’s confusion seemed to have a sense of joie de vivre mixed into it, Palermo’s just seemed mean-spirited.

As everyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows – museums are not our thing, and food definitely is. Palermo came at the end of our Sicilian trip, and up until then, I had eaten perhaps better than I ever had on vacation — anywhere. Our hotel was in what appeared to be a delightfully restaurant-intensive neighborhood, yet our meals – even at the restaurant that was recommended by a knowledgeable local — turned out to be mediocre at best. Lunch, aperitivi, dinner…..the only things that were even half as good as things in the rest of Sicily were a few of the pastries with morning coffee.

The “warm, friendly Siciliani” that you always hear about were all outside the city. Customer service? No sign of it in Palermo. Pride in the city’s buildings and monuments? We saw none.

The center of the town is a crossroad called the Quattro Canti, which has matching buildings on the 4 corners representing Palermo’s 4 districts. You would think the roads radiating out from this important intersection would be at least marginally cared for. But just a few blocks away are the remnants of what looked like World War II bombed buildings. We had heard there were still some around, but we certainly didn’t expect them to be in the town center.

One of the 4 corners of Quattro Canti.  Think "shabby chic".

One of the 4 corners of Quattro Canti. You might generously call this “shabby chic”.

 

This however, is just a few feet away and only be described as shabby -- no chic.

This, however, is just a few feet away and can only be described as shabby without the chic.  And it was one of the better buildings.

There are 2 open-air markets – the Vucciria and the Ballero’. The Vucciria market is known for its street food – tripe, grilled spleen, skewers holding bits of this organ or that –which makes it sound like a very interesting place to visit. The Cadogan guide book on Sicily says of the Vucciria: “The market comes into its own after dark, when it is illuminated by strings of bare light bulbs; the pungent odor of the Vucciria at the end of the day lingers in the memory like no other smell in Palermo.” Perhaps Saturday was the wrong night, because it certainly had not “come into its own” while we walked its winding lanes, and the only memorable smell was of urine, which I kept hoping would not linger.

The Ballero’, on the other hand, really was a very interesting market. Almost all of the other street markets we’ve visited have the various products grouped together. But the Ballero’ – in keeping with the theme of disorganization — had gorgeous fruits next to fresh fish, next to a table selling cigarettes or old CD’s, next to cheap shoes, next to more gorgeous fruits, next to meats, next to……. You get the idea. There was neither rhyme nor reason to the arrangement, but if you looked long enough, you could find whatever you wanted…..although I must say we didn’t see any spleen.

Perhaps if we liked museums we could have found some interesting ones, and we would have felt better about the town. We did find a few nice parks (with the ubiquitous graffiti on their fountains or statues), and a few lovely tree-lined blocks of high-end shops. But they weren’t enough…..not enough to make us forget that we had not one single entertaining personal encounter with a Palermitano…..not enough to excuse the amount of decay that exists, even in the newer construction….

Recent construction across from our hotel, on a very nice street.  Imagine buildings in not so nice areas.....

Recent construction across from our hotel, on a very nice street. Imagine buildings in not so nice areas…..

……and certainly not enough to forgive the fact of not having even 1 meal that rose above Olive Garden standards.

On our final morning in town, we headed for Monreale, a close suburb, to see the fabulous mosaics in its beautiful cathedral. As I was walking toward the church, a pigeon pooped directly on the front of my clean white shirt. I could not stop laughing because it so perfectly represented our stay in Palermo. Never let it be said that I’m one to ignore a sign from god. We got the hell out of there and drove to beautiful, friendly, Cefalu’, where we had an absolutely wonderful dinner for our last night in Sicily.

Next time I’ll tell you all about the great things we found during our vacation. It’s a safe bet that Palermo will not be mentioned…

*In case you want to revisit our adoration for Napoli:  https://halfyearitalian.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/napoli/

Italian Paranoia

We have friends who have a house in an extremely small hamlet just outside of Orvieto. They wanted to have some carpentry work done, and when they told their neighbor that they were going to use someone from Orvieto, he gravely warned them that they should never trust any workmen from Orvieto.

This kind of paranoia is quite common. People from one town almost never trust the people from the next town over. It’s been going on for so many centuries that it has probably evolved into an actual gene that now gets passed from one generation to the next. A bit of history helps to explain this.

Americans tend to think of Italy as an old country – not realizing that its unification just happened in 1860. The reason for this lack of awareness is we stopped hearing much about it after we got through learning about the Roman Empire (history class), or Caesar’s Gallic Wars (Latin class), or the Italian Renaissance (art history class). But when the Roman Empire fell, the resulting pieces were taken over by a variety of groups. Sicily and the southern provinces were invaded by a succession of foreign entities such as the Arabs, the Normans and the Spanish, to name just a few. In the north, the larger, more powerful cities became city-states – making their own rules and enforcing them with their own armies. Sometimes a few would band together to wreck havoc on a neighboring city-state they felt was out of line.  However, like global politics today, the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend, and the opposite is also true; if my new friend decides to change and become a friend of my enemy, he will automatically become my new enemy. So you could never really trust your neighboring towns since loyalties could easily switch back and forth after the various cities’ leaders had a long weekend of partying together and perhaps passing a bit of money under the table to one side or the other.

Two prominent enemies from antiquity were Siena and Florence. They had many battles over several hundred years, with Florence winning the last one, thereby becoming what I would call The Victor. However, you wouldn’t know that if you were talking to a Senese. All they ever talk about is the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, and the reason they talk so much about it is this was their one major win and they did it through treachery – thereby increasing its story value. (As an aside – my poor Orvieto happened to be fighting with the loser in this particular battle.) You would think that after 784 years, the Senese might give their boasting a rest….but you’d be wrong. Though no arrows and swords are exchanged between the 2 cities today, you will always hear from the Fiorentini how poorly the Senese speak the noble Italian language…..or from the Senese how poorly those Fiorentini drive, etc., etc., etc.

In my piece about Siena’s Palio*, I mentioned that in the hierarchy of Italian relationships the family is always first and foremost.  Second would be the town IF it’s a small town. If you’re in a larger one, your loyalty is to the neighborhood that lays within the sound of the bells from your particular church.  This is call campanilismo  — from the word campanile, meaning bell tower.  Third is the larger town itself, followed by the region and at the very end – the country. A French person generally thinks of him/herself as being French; Italians think of themselves as being Napolitani or Lucchesi or Veneziani. Their only time for nationalism is during the World Cup. This means that those of you coming to Italy this summer will find a lot more Italian flags around than you would have last summer or will next summer.

So you can see how centuries of never being able to count on anyone outside your family or close neighborhood would breed a form of national distrust. I mean after all — everyone in Umbria knows that those people from Perugia have always been thugs……

*If you’d care to refresh your memory — here’s the link:  https://halfyearitalian.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/siena-palio-participation/?preview=true&preview_id=672&preview_nonce=4efddfc7cc&post_format=standard

 

Building Materials

For years I’ve been fascinated by the different building materials used in the historic places I’ve visited.  It makes sense that the villages and towns would have been made of the most convenient materials laying around.  If you’ve got a forest handy, you’ll have log cabins; if you’ve got rocks littering the field you want to plant, why not pile those stones into shelter; if you’ve got clay-based soil, bricks would be your material of choice.

My interest was originally peaked on my first bike trip to Europe many years ago.  It was in the Cotswolds — not too far from London, and known for its warm, golden indigenous stone.  EVERYTHING was made out of Cotswold stone.  I have no idea what the rules are today, but back then, I believe you had to use Cotswold stone, even if you were only building a doghouse.  So the overall effect is seriously harmonious.

The great thing about bike trips is that you see a smallish area very well.  So I started noticing that the stone got darker as we made our way from south to north.  Our last hotel was in the definitely darker-golden town of Chipping Campden, and on a free day a couple of us decided to bike further north to Stratford-upon-Avon.  There was no sign designating an official border, but suddenly EVERYTHING was red brick.  It was almost an assault to the eyes after having spent so many miles surrounded by warm gold.

Since that trip, I’ve tried to be more aware of the differences in buildings.  And Italy has some prime examples….starting with my beloved Orvieto.  It’s made of the same tufa rock that the town sits on, so when you look at it from afar, as in the masthead photo above, the buildings seem to rise out of the soil.  Here’s a photo of Lou’s town of Pitigliano — 32 miles away:

Lou's Pitigliano

Lou’s Pitigliano

I have always thought that it looked like Orvieto’s little cousin – first because of the building material and how the houses grow from the base, and then the fact that for hilltop towns, they’re both pretty flat. Since Orvieto is in Umbria, however, Lou constantly tries to pooh-pooh this comparison between my town and his little “Tuscan jewel”, as he thinks of it.

Other nearby examples:

About 25 miles from Pitigliano is Saturnia, with its decidedly gray stone.

Saturnia walls

House fronts in Saturnia

Todi is only 23 miles from Orvieto, but look at their pale golden stone versus our darker golden tufa:

Cindy and I in Todi

Cindy and I in Todi

You can see Assisi from Perugia, 15 miles away, but Perugia’s stone looks just like Todi’s, while Assisi’s is a warm pinkish gray/tan that is by far the prettiest in the neighborhood….or maybe any neighborhood for that matter.

Basilica di Santa Chiara, Assisi

Basilica di Santa Chiara, Assisi

Getting out of my immediate area – towns at the base of Mt. Etna in Sicily have more than their fair share of volcanic rock.  Here’s a church in Randazzo utilizing it.  Frankly, I’m not a fan of a building that dark, but I do see the practicality in using what’s readily available.

Randazzo, Sicily

Randazzo, Sicily

And finally – a story to demonstrate the difference in mentality between what Europeans expect of their buildings versus how we look at ours today:

I was in the Loire Valley region of France, visiting the Abbey de Fontevraud – notable for having the tombs for Eleanor of Aquitaine and her second husband, who – surprisingly — ended up being King Henry II of England (ah…..those were the days……).  A young guide was showing us around, and when we commented on the beauty of the abbey, he said how distressing it was that it had been built of stone that required a good bit of upkeep.  He made it sound like the original builders had used a water-soluble mortar that needed to be redone every year.  But here are the facts:  the building you see below is the abbey kitchen, which was completed in 1160.  Now I’m sure there have been numerous repairs done over the last 854 years, but nevertheless – it has been 854 years!!!

Kitchen of Abbaye de Fontevraud, France

Kitchen of Abbaye de Fontevraud, France

I wonder what people will say of our buildings when they visit them in 2868.

Italian Drivers

Let’s discuss Italian drivers.  Their reputation has crossed the Atlantic and somehow morphed into a mental picture of wild, suicide-prone maniacs behind the wheel whose one remaining goal before they leave this earth is to take you with them.  That’s only true in Naples.  I consider the drivers from the rest of Italy to be of the highest caliber….MUCH better than American drivers.  In fact, that could be why they have the reputation for aggressiveness in the US:  they’re TOO good.

What might be thought of as aggression is actually just confidence.  They have to go through very rigorous training to get a license, culminating in a written test which most people fail the first time they take it.  I’m hoping things have changed in the US since I started driving, but at that time, a pulse and being able to sign your name were pretty much the only prerequisites to getting a license.  Italians, on the other hand, have had the rules drummed into their heads by the time they’re allowed out on their own.  They know how to expertly back up, as well as get in the smallest of parking spots.  And perhaps best of all, they drive on the right and pass on the left.

If ever you see a car in the left lane of the autostrada, clogging traffic by going slower than everyone else, you can be sure it’s an American.  If they hang out there too long, at some point a European will come up from behind and tailgate.  This is not a hostile sign; it is simply a reminder that there are other drivers on the road, and you should move over.  In the US, the reaction is:  “By God, I paid good tax money for these roads and if I want to stay out here in the left lane all the way from Maine to Key West, that’s my God-given right as a tax-paying American…..blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…..”  It’s considered rude to suggest that perhaps the road wasn’t made just for you.  In Italy, it’s considered rude if you disregard the drivers around you.

Italian secondary roads are usually a mixture of two, fast moving lanes with a third lane popping up from time to time.  Passing is encouraged and considered normal.  I don’t know how things are where you live, but where I am in the US, passing on a 2-lane road is a totally lost art, so it’s no wonder that American drivers are startled when an Italian who’s late for lunch skillfully whizzes by them, quickly disappearing in the distance.

And then there are their tertiary roads – the ones I love to bike on.  These can be so winding that you can never get your car up to 35 mph before the next curve forces you to slow down again.  I say “you” can’t do it – but “they” can, since they’ve been doing it since they got their first motor scooter at age 10.

Which brings up still another point.  With the exception of the autostrada, Italians expect every possible kind of rolling vehicle on their roads, and don’t get frustrated with them.  That’s why biking is so wonderful in Italy, versus in the US, where I’ve actually been spit upon.  They expect bikers.  They will tolerate lumbering farm equipment and api — those adorable 3-wheeled “trucks” that look like an enclosed motor bike with a small wagon attached to the back – which, even downhill, seem unable to go faster than about 15 mph.  I saw people walking down one of the major 2-lane roads around us pushing shopping carts, and no one seemed to mind.  They might be “aggressive” to other drivers, but that’s because they think you should know what you’re doing.  They understand that the slow-movers have every right to be on the road, too.

One thing you seldom hear is an impatient horn.  Italians’ goal is accommodation, not intimidation.  They don’t take it as a loss of their manhood when someone passes them. If they’re in the left lane on the autostrada, and a faster moving auto approaches, they’ll automatically move over.  If they’re the 15 mph ape on a back road, they’ll pull to the right when it’s safe to allow the faster-moving car to pass.  If there are bikers on the road, they’ll deftly zip around them, not treat them like they don’t belong there.  If someone blocks the lane to help an elderly woman from the car, they’ll patiently wait ’till she’s safe.  Yes – the fast drivers do like to drive as fast as possible, but they do it with skill and control.  And the slow drivers know to give the fast ones room.  No raised fists, middle fingers, loud horns or road rage gunfire.  As I said — once you understand how the game is played, you’ll find that rather than being maniacs, Italian drivers are really just VERY good drivers.

Customer Service

Many years ago I was passing through the charming town of Castellina-in-Chianti, and my travel partner wanted to buy some cherries that he saw displayed outside a small store.  I offered to pay while he wandered off to find an appropriate lunch spot.

When I went into the shop, there was only 1 customer buying a few vegetables, and 2 women behind the counter.  I expected to be out in less than 2 minutes.  Unfortunately, the customer told the woman who was waiting on her that she was planning to make a soup.  This was the signal for both of the women behind the counter to start discussing recipes.  Exactly how was the customer planning to make her soup?  Had she ever considered using X, asked the first shopkeeper.  The second pooh-poohed the first one’s suggestion and offered one of her own that came from her grandmother’s treasured recipe.  I politely cleared my throat….I shuffled my feet….I tried everything short of screaming “I JUST WANT TO PAY FOR SOME FRIGGIN’ CHERRIES”, but I’m not even sure that would have gotten their attention, because they were SO engulfed in sharing their soup stories.  And then as luck would have it, another local woman came in, heard the conversation and offered tips from her own recipe.  The shopkeepers’ parting gift to the customer who had brought them so much pleasure was to tuck into her bag, along with her vegetables, a bunch of the fresh herbs that they believed belonged in the soup.  It seemed to take forever, but I did finally get out of the store with my cherries.  

That happened a long time ago, and yet I’ve had the same scene repeated over and over again.  Unless it is a very savvy shop, everyone behind the counter will wait together on one customer at a time.  The exception to this rule is if they only speak Italian and you only speak English.  In that case, they’ll shove their best English-speaking person to wait on you, while the rest of them will group around the Italian speaking customers….one at a time

Then there is the packaging.  Let’s say you’re buying some pills at the farmacia.  They will wrap the box (pills usually don’t come in a bottle) like it’s a precious birthday gift.  The sides are carefully taped shut, and at the ends, the paper is neatly squared, folded and fixed with more tape.  It doesn’t matter that there’s a line of people behind you; you cannot leave without properly wrapped pills.

This might make it seem like, at the very worst, you’ll have the sales person/people all to yourself at some point – and that’s true UNLESS the phone rings.  Italians MUST answer their phones.  Whether it’s someone in a shop, or someone in a government office — they MUST stop talking to you and take care of the caller on the other end of the phone.  And when I say “take care” – I don’t mean telling the person they’re with someone else and promising to call them back. No – they must solve that person’s problem immediately, no matter how long it takes.  The fact that you had their attention first is irrelevant.

Part of the problem is the fact that the concept of answering machines for businesses has not really caught on.  So if they don’t answer the phone, it could seem as though they weren’t at their post, doing their job.  And as for needing to solve someone else’s problem before finishing yours — Italians love to help people — even if the advice they give is totally wrong.  You will almost never hear an Italian use the words “I don’t know”. I’m pretty sure they believe they would be rude if they did not come up with some kind of long-winded answer, but it would never occur to them that they’re being rude to you by not helping you first since you were there first.

Of course, once you learn the peculiarities of Italian customer service, you can work around them if they annoy you.  Or you can relax and enjoy the story value your latest shopping expedition will have when you tell your American friends.  Your Italian friends, on the other hand, will sigh…..wondering why you seem to be so amused at such proper and natural behavior.  They’ll give you that look that says “OF COURSE things are done this way”, and you’ll know that you’ve just given them still another reason to think Americans have so many — hmmmm…..there’s that word again — peculiarities.

Italian Construction Magic

The first time I saw Italian “construction magic” at work was in 1998.  It was at the Doges Palace in Venice’s wonderful Piazza San Marco.  Take a look at this picture:

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The only reason you can easily tell that the upper left-hand section of the Palace front is a screen and not the real building is because they included a cut-out showing one of the interior’s ornate ceilings.  However, the row of columns and railings just below that, as well as the ground-level arches, are also part of the construction screen.  The lower section looked so realistic that my travel partner could not see the difference between the real arches on the right and the false on the left, and would not believe that it was just a reproduction until he got right up to it and tried to walk through one of them. It’s trompe l’oeil on a very large scale, but since I’ve never been able to pronounce trompe l’oeil, I’m calling it “construction magic”.

Venice was obviously getting itself prettied-up that year, because on the other side of Piazza San Marco, they had also disguised their renovation work on the famous clock tower:

scan024

Since that trip I have seen many wonderful examples of this attempt to make construction sites an interesting part of the surroundings instead of an eye-sore — and they’ve all been in Italy.  I’ve never seen even a hint of this kind of thing in the US…..perhaps because we tend to tear down and rebuild bigger, rather than restore.

However I can certainly understand why Italy goes to this amount of trouble.  The country has an almost embarrassing amount of architectural treasures worthy of keeping in tip-top shape, and for which millions of people travel thousands of miles, spending millions of dollars just to see.  Tourists don’t want to get to the Piazza San Marco and see 2 of its most famous structures wrapped in shrouds.  Yes — they might be disappointed to not see the actual stones, but at least the reproduction is better than having them completely hidden.

Some of the screens are incredibly realistic — such as the Doges Palace — and surely came from photos.  Others are more like an artist’s rendering of what the building should  look like after it’s done.  For instance, here’s a rather humble building in Piazza della Rotunda in Rome, where the Pantheon is the center of attention:

20012 Solo-Rome-Constr 3

I’m assuming that whoever was in charge of the construction site decisions felt that in such a prestigious piazza, they just could not have the whole building covered in dingy cloth like that in those other 3 vertical panels, but nor did they want to go to the trouble (make that: expense) of reproducing the whole building. So they gave the front a bit of personality with window boxes and shuttered French doors, showing that they planned to eventually make the building worthy of its prime position near the Pantheon. Same with this building on the right side of Trevi Fountain:

2002-Solo-Rome-Constr 1

After seeing the great job Venice did with its Doges Palace, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed several years later when I saw the bottom part of Siena’s Duomo.  The top was so promising, but then……  I’d like to think that perhaps I was just there on the wrong day and a week later they would have extended the screen down to the ground.

IMG_1548

All of these renovations were for either prestigious buildings or more modest ones in a prestigious neighborhood.  However, this past Fall I was in the VERY small town of Solomeo, just outside of Perugia.  Solomeo’s claim to fame is that it was chosen by Brunello Cucinelli to be the site of the “factory” for his beautiful, high-end casual clothing business.  Demanding the same quality workmanship in the renovations as he does in his clothes, he has rejuvenated the run-down village bit by bit and installed his offices and workshops in the restored buildings.  Right across from what is now the showroom was this home in the process of being re-done:

Solomeo home

While we can’t tell what the original looked like, I would say that in its finest hour, it was probably a nice house, but certainly not a great house….not one considered to be an “important” building by anyone……other than Signor Cucinelli and perhaps the previous owner.  But look at the work that went into the screen.  Here’s a front view:

Solomeo house -- front view.

I was fascinated by the detail of the curtains in the windows, the shadows of the shudders, the carving on the door, the reflection of a tree in the upper right window glass and the fact that they’ve landscaped in front of the screen.  Few private people have the money to go to this kind of trouble when they’re already paying an arm and leg for the restoration work itself, so I hope little Solomeo adequately appreciates having a benefactor who shares his desire for beauty with the whole town.

Obviously I’ve spent a lot more time admiring this “construction magic” through the years than doing any useful research on it so I could give you solid information along with the photos……like who authorizes the installation?…..how much does it cost?…..where are the screens produced?  But my fear is that knowing the facts might take away a bit of the magic.  Then I’d have to come up with another name.  And worst of all — I might have to learn how to pronounce trompe l’oeil…..

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A very HAPPY NEW YEAR  to everyone!!!!!  I hope 2014 finds you traveling to all the places you’ve always dreamed of visiting.

Tour Guide Advice

I’ve had people ask me for advice about a certain area that they know I’ve visited, saying they have a 3-page “to-do” list for their 2-day stay there.  I’ve had people ask if I think they can fit Sicily and Venice into their 10-day vacation.  I’ve traveled with people who really don’t care where they are as long as it allows them to cross off one more of the “1000 Places To See Before You Die”.  And of course, there are those who absolutely MUST be on the move at least 16 out of the 24 hours, and for whom a 3-hour lunch would mean wasting a good 2-3/4 hours of the day.

To start at the end, the grab-a-quick-lunch-and-let’s-dash-to-the-next-place people and I have very little in common, so we’d probably never come in contact with each other….which is good for both of us.

While I can certainly understand the “1000 Places” people, I always hope that they’re truly enjoying what they’re seeing along the way and not just viewing the trip as a contest to check off as many places as possible.

Sicily and Venice?   Yes – you can get to both in 10 days, but do you really want the hassle of a plane trip in the middle of your vacation when you’re still suffering the lingering effects of jet lag?   However…..that said…..if those are the 2 places you’ve always dreamed of visiting, I wouldn’t discourage you.

Now to the list people.   I like dealing with a person who has a list….even if it’s an unrealistic one.   It shows they’ve done their homework, and at least have an idea of what might interest them.   My advice is always to keep the list, but then rank the sites, realizing that you probably can only comfortably see a couple of them per day if you’re on your own….stressing the “comfortable” part.   Of course, if you really want to get through as many stops as possible, the best way might be to hire a guide for the day.   I’ve never done this, but many of my trusted, well-traveled friends have, and recommend it highly.

The key word in the last sentence was “trusted”.   I once had a friend from whom I always got opinions on movies….not because we liked the same thing, but because we were always exact opposites.   If he liked the movie, I knew I wouldn’t.   So while I considered him “trusted” on films, when it comes to travel decisions you can’t afford to be quite so circuitous. The first time I went to Florence, I asked my very trusted friend Louise for her one favorite site.   She said Santa Croce, which had been somewhere in the middle of my list.   Based on her recommendation, I moved it up the ladder, and it is now second for me, with only the real David ahead of it.

That’s why doing a bit of homework beforehand is good.   After all — the goal should be to hit the places you’ve always wanted to see – no matter what the guidebooks say. For instance, in Rome, someone who has always wanted to see the Borghese Museum might not be all that interested in seeing the Colosseum – no matter how iconic it is.

If you ask my opinion, I’ll be more than happy to give it to you, but remember:  it’s only MY opinion, based on MY interests.   You can listen to what I have to say, but that does not mean it’s the right thing for YOU to do.

So don’t come back from Italy complaining that you were “forced” to see all those churches.   As an adult paying your own way, you’re not “forced” to do anything.   Go to the churches that hold something of interest to you and forget all the others.   And if none of them has anything of interest, go instead to the old burial tombs, or find small interesting alleyways, or just sit in a café and have a local drink and a leisurely 3- hour lunch.   Remember:   this is YOUR vacation.

Pull-offs

Back in the days when hilltop towns were built, the word “picturesque” did not play a role in the urban planning decisions.  Defense was the name of the game, and it was a very deadly game if your enemy from the next town over broke through your barriers.  Being up on the top had the advantage of making it difficult for them to sneak up on you from a visual standpoint, as well as from a physical standpoint.  It’s tough carrying a battering ram uphill, and since the marauders’ efforts would probably be accompanied by the telltale sounds of loud grunting and grumbling, their evil intentions would have been announced before they’d gone 50 feet.

Today’s invaders of Italy’s hilltop towns come by car, bus, bike, and in Orvieto’s case, a funicular……and rather than plundering, they leave money in exchange for goods and services, and frequently use the word  “picturesque”, as well as “beautiful”, “well-preserved”, “magical”…..and will often throw in witty, original phrases like “they sure don’t build them like they used to”.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Iconic Sites in the countryside (https://halfyearitalian.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/iconic-sites/), and in that piece I mentioned what my friend Lou considers absolutely necessary when you’re in Italy:   getting THE “Chamber of Commerce” photo of those towns lucky enough to have had forefathers who weren’t afraid of heights when they started building.  Today’s smart town governments, wanting to entice tourists to come and “invade”, know — just like beautiful women know — which is their town’s best side for a photograph.  Some are thoughtful and make it easy for you to get a great shot.

For instance, several years ago Orvieto installed a paved pull-off to allow people to safely park their cars so they can take THE perfect photo of the family with Orvieto in the background….or perhaps just THE perfect photo of Orvieto….without the family.  The picture in the masthead above is from this lookout.  Once you’ve taken the photo, the town hopes your next step is to visit and drop a few euros here and there.  A beautiful view can be a great marketing tool.

The Chamber of Commerce photo of members of my particular family with the ever-beautiful Orvieto in the background.

The Chamber of Commerce photo of some of my family members with the ever-beautiful Orvieto in the background.

Lou knows his “Chamber of Commerce” views.  His beloved Pitigliano has a great pull-off, and you can’t imagine how much it annoys him if someone sneaks in and out of town on the “wrong” roads so that they miss getting the perfect picture. I’ve included a lot of these Chamber of Commerce photos in my past blogs, but just as a refresher:

THIS is Pitigliano's correct side.

THIS is Pitigliano’s correct side.

Lake Bolsena, near Orvieto, has 2 paved pull-offs along the road leading down to the town and the lake. With views like this around every corner, 1 just wasn’t enough.

Cindy and Stephen (who had gorgeous weather) at the lower Lake Bolsena pull-off.

Friends Cindy and Stephen at the lower Lake Bolsena pull-off.

While some towns haven’t gone to the trouble of helping their tourists with an official pull-off, over the years, discerning travelers have worn away grassless, gravel-covered spots next to the road.  VERY GOOD ADVICE:  Pay attention to these unofficial pull-offs because they quite often mean there’s a photo waiting to be taken.

Montepulciano looks good from several sides, so I guess that’s why the town does not have an established view.  My favorite is this one with the characteristic San Biagio church below on the right.  Others must agree with me, because there are at least 3 gravel pull-offs along this road.

Montepulciano

Montepulciano

You can see in the picture of Pienza below that I wasn’t the first person to think this was a good spot.  Just in front of where I was standing is proof that enough people wanted that particular shot that they’ve made a small unofficial pull-off just big enough to get their rears out of the road on the curve.

Pienza

Pienza

And then there’s San Gimignano with its trademark towers.  Like Montepulciano, there are several beautiful approaches, but all of my pictures are like this one…..way off in the distance, over fields or vineyards.  I don’t have any close-ups.

San Gimignano

San Gimignano

And the oddest thing is that if you take the most direct route from the main highway, you don’t get a view at all; you just go around a lot of uphill turns and suddenly you’re there. If I’m in the car, I always make sure my friends arrive via the less direct route. Yes, it takes a bit longer, but the back roads are so sparsely traveled that you can safely stop almost anywhere and take a photo.  After all — as Lou has taught me — friends don’t let friends go home without proper Chamber of Commerce pictures.

Expectations

Often you don’t think about a topic until someone asks you a specific question and they expect a reply.  For instance, I’ve had people ask if spending half the year in Italy has lived up to my expectations. In trying to come up with an answer, it occurred to me that I really hadn’t had a lot of expectations, and most of the ones I did have somehow got all switched around.

For instance – I thought my Italian would be MUCH better by now.  Of course I’m slightly better than I was 5 years ago, but my rate of improvement is at the same pace as a couple of corals getting together and becoming a barrier reef.  If I keep going as I am, I’ll be 160 before I can easily hold a real conversation.

The switch to my expectation, however, is that I really enjoy the process of learning Italian.  I absolutely adore Eva, my teacher at I Love IT, and learn at least 4 things that are interesting….though not necessarily linguistically useful…. in every class.  However, it’s all at the “theory” level.  I even enjoy doing the homework and am really disappointed when she says there is none (my classmates hate me).  I can see myself taking lessons for years to come.  On the other hand, if I truly wanted to learn the language, I’d be out there in the street with Italians, talking to everyone I could, engaging in conversations just for the sake of speaking, listening to practical, real-life Italian.  This is what Alan does and the end result is that he’s always given the Italian menu in the restaurant while I’m politely handed the one in English.  This doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it should IF my true intention had ever been to speak fluent Italian.

The whole social aspect of being here is something I had never carefully considered. I did not expect just how active the life has turned out to be. Since I thought my Italian would be better, it stands to reason that I probably also thought I’d have more Italian friends than I do.  However, there are a lot of English speaking people around Orvieto, and it’s an incredibly warm and welcoming group — probably due to the fact that they’re here because they’ve chosen to be.  They weren’t born here, they don’t have family here, they’re not escaping from anything; they’re here because they love Italy and want to spend time absorbing whichever part of the culture they find interesting.  As a result, this group is comprised of people with a much broader range of interests and expertise than my friends at home, who tend to fall into a range very much like my own.  And perhaps most important, here we make time to enjoy each other’s company.  I don’t know what it is about life in the US, but it seems to ALWAYS be much busier, and I don’t see friends nearly as often as I do when I’m in Italy.

We haven’t taken advantage of Orvieto’s central location to travel as much as I thought we would.  There are still so many parts of Italy we want to see, and as for European countries — we seem to return to the old standbys: France and Germany.  We did hit Slovenia this year (FABULOUS!!!!), but that still leaves about 2 or 3 lifetimes’ worth of other places to try.  When my elderly beloved cat Orson was with us, I could blame him for our not traveling more….not wanting to leave him in the care of the only kennel in the area.  But now that he’s been dead for 2 years and all we have to show is a couple of trips back to Germany and a few days in Slovenia, I have the feeling it was somewhat unfair to blame him in the first place.  I would like to believe that in 2014 we’ll get slightly more serious about branching out a bit more….although I thought the same thing about 2013. I’m not sure if this particular reality of our life in Italy can be labeled “unrealized expectations”; more likely, it’s just plain procrastination.

Of course I expected that I’d like living in Italy for longer periods than just a vacation, or I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of setting up camp an inconvenient 9-hour flight away from home.  I’m happy to report that in this case, my enjoyment is MUCH more than I ever expected it to be.  I never dreamed that I would feel as “at home” in Orvieto, nor miss it as much as I do when I’m back in the US.

The only downside to this back and forth is my ever-deteriorating relationship with US Air.  My expectations of them were never lofty, and unfortunately, they were right on target:  cramped, uncomfortable seats that get more cramped and uncomfortable with each trip, along with inedible food that somehow manages to become more inedible as the years go by.  Yet as the plane descends and I catch my first glimpse of the Italian landscape, the pains leave my joints, and I can almost taste the meal I’m planning to eat at my favorite restaurant that night.  I’m able to put my abusive USAir relationship behind me and get back to good friends, gorgeous countryside, my lovely town and Eva’s homework.

Dinner with good friends.

Dinner with good friends…..

Gorgeous countryside you can see right from the parking lot.

Gorgeous countryside I see right from the parking lot……

The always lovely Orvieto....

The always lovely Orvieto…..

The I Love IT gang.

And the I Love IT gang….waiting for me to return to more homework.