Sunday, November 14, 2021

Fall Travels--Part 4: Turin, and Home

The distant hills of Lago di Garda from Peschiera.

This is the forth and final blog covering our recent trip to northern Italy. The first part can be found here and the second here; the third and previous part is here.

Lago di Guarda

 While everyone knows of Lago di Como (well, don’t they?), we were headed for another lake in the same region, Lago di Garda. 

We spent three days at a town on the southern-most edge of the lake, Peschiera del Garda. Any thoughts of a relaxed time in a quiet fishing village were quickly dashed by the crowds of visitors to the many cafes and restaurants and shops in the few blocks of this tiny town. Still, we had a great view out our window, and we loved to watch how the colors on the lake changed throughout the day.


View from our window.

We devoted one day to exploring Verona.  The massed crowds marked Juliet’s Balcony, a popular spot for an imaginary place, where Shakespeare’s Juliet waited for her Romeo.

Juliet's famous balcony in Verona.

The very packed main square of Verona.

The walk through Verona was pleasant; sadly, by the time we got the train back to Peschiera the huge market there was just closing. We were sorry to miss it, but the next day the trains to Verona were on strike. (The railroad workers were protesting mandatory vaccinations; so it’s not just the US!)


The town of Peschiera di Garda.

We were up early the next morning to take the ferry to Garda, a town half-way up the lake. We had second breakfast and another pleasant walk, this time along the lakeshore. 

The following day we retrieved our car from its parking garage and headed for Bergamo, stopping at yet another cute tourist town, Sirmione,. It’s rather special, being located on a narrow peninsula that projects straight out from the southern edge of the lake. We were glad we got there early. It’s astonishing how many tourists there were in this area even in October!



Bergamo's Città Alta at sunset.


 We spent a couple of nights in Bergamo. Like Bologna, Bergamo is a little-recognized and under-rated city. It has two parts, the upper, older city, and the more modern lower city. Having a car, we needed to stay in the lower city, but we spent most of our two days in the more historic upper part.


Bergamo's upper city, seen from the lower city.

OK, “more historic” doesn’t mean there was no history in the lower part. It is more modern, but we stayed in a (very nicely) refurbished 15th Century building. There’s a gentility and a prosperity to the whole city; but the Città Alta was built first and is the most picturesque. The climb up can be avoided (fortunately!) by a funicular, a steep cogged railway. Well worth the one Euro price! (We did walk down, though.)


The lower city from the Città Alta.

The Città Alta from an even higher hill!

The “big event” of the upper city is the Venetian Walls. Yes, walls built by Venetians… the ones from Venice, 120 miles to the east. Their power and influence extended far enough to carve the winged lion of St. Mark above the doors to the city of Bergamo.

The Venetian walls showing the winged lion of St. Mark.


The main square of the Città Alta; note the winged lion over the balcony.

Our odyssey was nearing its end, and we were ready to get back to Montpellier. But we had one more stop… 

The road in front of where we stayed in Bergamo: cobblestones. Hard to walk on, miserable on a bike, very noisy with cars and trucks. But authentic!


The city of Turin and the Palazzo Carignano, as seen from the top of the Mole Antonelliana


 A funny thing happened on the way to Turin: we reconnected with Will, another American we’d met in Lecce a few years back (read about that trip here). He’s now living in Turin, and was happy to meet with us and make some fine suggestions for what to do and see.


Turin, also, has porticos. (Must be a northern Italian thing.)

Porticos, and trams, too!

Top of the list is the Mole Antonelliana and the National Museum of Cinema that it houses. Apparently, mole in Italian means really big building—and Antonelliana was the name of the architect. It’s certainly a really big building, tallest in the city, and made of brick (it has some height record for tallest brick building, I think). I was initially not so keen on the building (remember, moments, not monuments!), but we did go, and I am glad.


Mole Antonelliana from street level.

It was fantastic. Inside, the enormous dome-like space was devoted to the cinema of the 20th Century. Italian cinema is strongly featured (as it should be!); so is French cinema (as it, too, should be); so, for that matter, is American cinema (as it must be). Visitors relaxed in the recliners littering the vast floor, studying the huge screens suspended in the air which played scenes from movies both well-known and obscure.


In case the video doesn't work: interior of the Museum of Cinema.

Meanwhile, an elevator rose through it all, seemingly unsupported, carrying visitors to the observation deck at the top of the building. 

                It was trippy! 

We had already passed through a couple of centuries of historical exhibits examining artists’ attempts to move beyond static images and capture the dynamics of real life. The concepts of the camera obscura, shadow puppetry, the zoetrope, Muybridge's horse in motion, and the efforts of the Lumière Brothers were already familiar, but it was fascinating to see explanations and collections of these early devices, many of them in operation. There were also extensive collections of early cameras and projectors. We were fortunate in that we’d fit in between groups of school kids, and there was no one else in this part of the museum!


(Yet another) church, this with an interesting dome.

The Mole Antonelliana from a distance.

For the rest of our time in Turin we just wandered, taking in the historical buildings, the African drummers, the photo shoot happening in the middle of the main square, and people just going about their daily business. Oh, and let’s not forget the psychedelic church interiors that stood out even in this land of psychedelic church interiors. 

A photo shoot in the middle of the main square in town; most passersby were  blasé; happens all the time, I guess!

On our last evening Will met us for an apéro at a beautiful belle epoch café, resplendent in cream-colored walls set off with gold leaf.


The Caffé Platti, inside and out.

We could have spent several more weeks in Turin, but home was calling. (Besides, we’d only booked three nights because lodging was really hard to find in Turin!). The next day we left the city to drive through the Alps to Montpellier.


 Sacra di San Michele

But first, we had to stop at the Sacra di San Michele, a church and abbey perched dramatically on a cliff far above the highway. (In the opening scenes of the movie The Name of the Rose, this is the abbey, tall and forlorn in the far distance, the two traveling monks stop to contemplate.)


San Michele seen from the road below.

It took about 40 minutes to drive the few steep kilometers. Around each bend—and there were very many—we were terrified we would encounter a tour bus on the way down. But as it was early; the tour buses were still on their way up. We arrived unscathed. 

Amazing stonework!

Throughout this visit—the drive up, the long walk from the parking, and climbing the many worn stone steps to the uppermost terrace of the abbey—we kept thinking: who built this Place? Why? And, most of all, how?


View from the top: the valley below and the road home.

What I found most astonishing was the map showing the seven churches and abbeys devoted to Michael, the Archangel. They form a line from Jerusalem in the south-east to Skellig Michael, off the coast of Ireland, in the north-west: all. Included were Mont Saint-Michel off the Normandy coast, and of course this abbey in Northern Italy.


All these abbeys dedicated to St. Michael... in a straight line?!

We spent over an hour exploring and climbing up and up for the views from the very top. The sight of the highway in the valley far below reminded us we had a long drive ahead. We followed the path down, down, down to the car and eventually to that highway in the valley, the road home.


The impressive Sacra di San Michele seen from the distance.
 (Photo from Google Images)


By the numbers:  We spent $267USD on tolls for the 975-mile round trip, and $215USD on fuel (about $0.26 per mile.). Surprisingly, parking was a big part of our costs: $220 to store the car when not in use. Renting the car cost $340USD, for a total transportation cost of $1050: comparable with the cost of taking trains for the both of us.


And that’s it for our Italian trip! Next up: life in Montpellier…


Friday, November 5, 2021

Fall Travels--Part 3: Venice!


Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute on a stormy day

This is the third blog covering our recent trip to northern Italy. The first part can be found here and the second here. 

As I’ve said before, we like to do a bit of research about places we will be visiting. For Venice, one of our sources was the novels by Donna Leon, an American author with a series of crime novels set in Venice. I got a tip from the novel The Anonymous Venetian: it’s best to get a seat in the front of the train from Padua to Venice, as this avoids having to walk the length of the platform once the train arrives—at least, this is what one of her characters did. 

Well, her character ended up dead—shot—by the time the train arrived, but that was, after all, in a crime novel. Still, just in case, we rode in the third car. And arrived safely! 

It was quite a treat to step off the train (after walking the length of those last two train cars, of course) and be greeted by the dome of the church of San Simeon, straight across the Grand Canal. And our joy was in no way diminished by the realization that this sight had thrilled travelers for decades!


Chiesa di San Simeon Piccolo, right across from the train station!

Once over our awe of simply being there, we followed the canal to the nearest bridge, crossed over, and walked a zig zag course through the city to our lodgings, just off the Grand Canal but on the far side of the island.


These narrow streets contain many secrets...

...some quite enchanting!

While the route looked intimidating on the map, in reality it was not far, and we had a chance to explore some less traveled areas. We both found the streets of Venice to be highly reminiscent of those in the Medina1 of Fez: narrow pathways that had been trod for hundreds of years, confined between ancient walls of stone or brick, and occasionally tunneling right through a building, with exposed ancient wooden beams supporting the floors above.

        1The old town, the original core—la vielle ville—of an Arab city


Saint Mark's Square... even with construction and crowds, it's still stunning!

I went through some decidedly mixed feelings about Venice. I felt an overwhelming sadness… At one time, Venice was a mighty empire, controlling territories both inland and along the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic Sea as far away as Greece. And today, it’s mostly just a spectacle for tourists; yet another location for name-brand chain stores. (Or, as another character in The Anonymous Venetian put it, “We used to have an empire, now we have this… Disneyland.”)


The "ladybugs" of Saint Mark's Cathedral--the doms--in the early evening.

A detail from the cathedral: the winged lion, symbol of St. Mark and the city of Venice

Signs of the former empire are everywhere, particularly in the magnificent palaces along the Grand Canal. And everywhere, they are crumbling, sinking, becoming irretrievably waterlogged. That part is very sad.


Magnificent buildings from another era; today, hard to keep your feet dry!

Yet there is a uniqueness to Venice that continues to make it attractive. It was an empire like no other, and is still a city, a place, an idea that has no equal.


The iconic Rialto Bridge, built in 1591

Us, on the Rialto Bridge (sometime after 1591),

And no cars! Many city centers have banned the automobile, but there are always exceptions: residents, delivery trucks, taxis. But there are NO cars in Venice. No bicycles, no scooters, no mopeds. There’s people walking, and there’s boats. And the things that come in by boat get carried to their final destination by people walking. And where else in the world does that happen? (Well, the Fez Medina, but there it’s donkeys, not boats, carrying goods!)


The "sports car" of Venice.

Delivery boats, bringing toilet paper and bottled water. (And hauling away the garbage!)

We hear often of how rising waters spell the end of Venice. And we did see canal water lapping at the thresholds—and sometimes well over the thresholds—of once-palatial residences. But high water is nothing new for Venice; indeed, Ms. Leon dealt directly with it in one of her novels, Aqua Alta (High Water). We had our own aqua alta experience in St. Mark’s Square. I thought the water flooding the square was the result of the nighttime rain, until Paula pointed out that water was jetting up between the flagstones. A quick check with a tide table showed we were approaching high tide during a new moon, with a tidal range of more than a meter (very high, for the Mediterranean! Something to do with being ‘way up at the northern end of the Adriatic, I think).


Aqua alta in St. Mark's Square. Note the portable bridge...

In this part of the city, no portable bridge! During aqua alta, remember to bring your rubber boots.

Anyway, I came to understand the use of those portable walkways I’d seen: they helped the tourists get to the cafés on the other side of the Square! We would see these walkways, and water lapping over walkways, in other parts of the city, too. Another example of how far Venice has, er, fallen.


Ah, but it's not all crowds and flooded walkways!

Canals and bridges, bridges and canals. That's the Bridge of Sighs, right in the middle of the top photo.


From the lagoon, looking north: those must the the snow-capped Italian Alps!  (Off on the right...)

         The Islands in the Lagoon

Of course, it was essential that we take a ride through the Grand Canal, a service provided many times a day by public transportation by the bus-boats called vapporetti. Turns out a ride costs €7.50, a bit stiff for one-way. Naturally, there is a daily pass, for €20. But would we really take that ride more than twice (the break even point)? Our dilemma was resolved when we learned that the pass was also good for the boats that cruised the lagoon, and visited the islands of Murano (of glass-blowing fame) and Burano (of colored-house and lace fame). So we bought two-day passes for €30 and planned to spend the next day on the water. 

The public boats actually stop at several islands in the lagoon. There are many other islands, some requiring special tours or a private boat to visit, but we spent our time on Burano.


Nearing the island of Burano..

On the way to the dock.

Arriving by boat (and how else can you arrive to an island with no airport?) presents a colorful scene, as each house is painted a different, vivid color. Legend has it that these colors helped fishermen returning on a foggy night to find their own home; now I expect it’s done to help guide the tourists.


Beautiful lacework in a store on Burano.

A typical "street" on Burano.

Laundry and a smooch on another Burano street.

Would I go back to Venice? Maybe. I’d go back for a minimum of two weeks, to have time to explore lesser known areas and get a better feel for the city. In our few days there we, like everyone, started with the high points: the Rialto Bridge, St. Mark’s Square, touring the Grand Canal. But one night, while Paula felt like resting, I went out in the dark wetness to wander. There were few people about—who’s going to go out in the rain, anyway?—so I felt I had the place to myself. 

The similarity to the Medina was strong in the darkness, as I wandered the narrow deserted streets; until my path was interrupted by a canal. Perhaps a tall arched foot bridge allowed me to continue; or maybe my path truly was blocked and I had to turn around. And that’s when I felt the real charm, the uniqueness of Venice.


Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore, seen from the boat in the lagoon.

   Next up: The forth and last part of our Italian trip: Prosecco and Turin.