Italy 15: Rome (Part 2)

A Black Eye Fit for a Colosseum Warrior

May 18-19, 2019

Notes I made in Rome about my fall, along with my efforts to translate them so that I could communicate with medical people.

The staff at Ospidale san Carlo di Nancy took my information, gave us a number, and asked Arnie to roll my wheelchair out of the way and park me against a wall to wait.

The only visible difference between this emergency care unit and those at home was that in Rome, several of the patients who’d been pushed up against walls to wait were on stretchers. One had even already been hooked up to an IV. In Canada in my experience, they store people on stretchers behind doors in the halls of the emergency care unit – where they aren’t visible (or audible) from the waiting area – until they have time to treat them. I am guessing that the halls in Rome are narrower than ours, which would make concealed-hall parking impossible.

We waited and we waited. Many other ill and injured people arrived at emergency and were triaged. Those who were in worse condition than the ones in the waiting room were taken away for treatment, and those who were in equal or better condition took a seat or were parked among us. After a few hours, by which time it was dark, I was feeling less wobbly and light-headed, and we were tired, hungry, and grumpy (and, to quote one of my own novels, “several other adverbs that might equally well have served as the names of Snow White’s dwarfs”). Arnie asked how much longer the wait might be. We were told that at that point we were fourth in line, which meant about an hour, although anyone in more acute need of care would, of course, be treated first. We calculated that at the rate we were going, it might be several more hours before we saw a doctor, so we called a cab and went back to the hotel.

When I looked in the mirror in the bathroom of our hotel room, I was almost as taken aback at my appearance as the cab driver and then the front-desk staff had seemed to be when we’d returned from the hospital. I was pretty sure that the ambulance attendant had not got all the dirt out of the scrapes on my face, so I set to work to scrub them as clean as I could before I lost my final bits of courage. In the meantime, Arnie set off to find ice that I could apply to my abrasions, and came back with a hotel employee bearing some rubbing alcohol and two ice packs of the kind you freeze and then put in coolers or chests to keep your beer and sandwiches cold – except that these ones weren’t frozen. Apparently there was no ice in the hotel at all, and no way of obtaining anything colder than what they’d given us. So after we’d eaten a meal from room service, I took a couple of Tylenol and wrapped one of the coolish-packs in a towel and applied it to my face (a wholly inefficient treatment). Then both Arnie and I sank into our own respective exhausted but somewhat fitful sleeps.

I looked even worse in the morning, of course, and had a monumental headache, but since I was not nauseous (a symptom of concussion), I assumed that the diagnosis of “no concussion” was correct. We had tickets to see the Colosseum at noon and after tracking down the address of an international health clinic near the centre of the city that we could go to later, off we went.

We took the bus through a serious downpour that rapidly turned sections of the streets of Rome into lakes, headed for the metro train that would take us to the Colosseum stop. Thanks to my black eye, I was quickly given a seat on the crowded bus. There followed a conversation involving a lot of hand signals with an Italian woman of about my own age who was sitting across from me; I finally managed to explain to her what had happened to my face. (It was a few days before I stopped noticing every time someone looked at me with concern and curiosity, but I did continue to feel sorry for Arnie. I wished I could have worn a sign pinned to my chest with an arrow pointing in his direction that said, “He didn’t do it.”)

The woman on the bus (who used her hands as much to actually speak Italian as I did trying to speak it) was delighted to learn that we were from Canada. She took out her phone so she could show us the photos from her trip to Niagara Falls. But she couldn’t get the photos to come up on her camera, and her frustration with the bus’s lack of wireless reception drew others into the conversation until five or six of us were involved in an extended discussion involving hand signals, words in English and Italian, and some Spanish that I thought was Italian.

After getting off the bus we found an ATM and then the metro station, and with only one or two wrong turns we arrived soon enough after the start time of our tour that we were able to catch up to our group.

Rome’s Colosseum

The Colosseum by Canaletto (1697-1768)

I love that the Colosseum is so old that there are paintings from four centuries ago (such as the one to the left, by one of my most recent favourite artists) in which it looks almost the same as it does now. But even more I love how being in the Colosseum makes you think in earnest about the fact that soon after 80 AD, when construction was completed, great crowds of people were drawn to attend events on that very spot in the same way (and in the same numbers) as we are to professional sports events in cities around the world today.

(I did not love learning that the structure was probably paid for “by the opulent spoils taken from the Jewish Temple after the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 CE led to the Siege of Jerusalem” (Wikipedia). The article continues, “It is often assumed that Jewish prisoners of war were brought back to Rome and contributed to the massive workforce needed for the construction of the amphitheater, but there is no ancient evidence for that; it would, nonetheless, be commensurate with Roman practice to add humiliation to the defeated population.”)

Tales about the Romans throwing the Jews (or Christians) to the lions at the Colosseum are — according to our guide –”fake news”: the games were intended as entertainment, he said, not carnage.

Gladiators were housed in barracks just outside the Colosseum. Most died young (by about 25 years of age), not from the battles themselves but from infections caused by cuts from the iron blades they used as weapons.”Deaths did occur in the arena,” our guide told us, “but they were accidental.” Those who managed to live long enough to retire (around 45) became managers (Sound familiar?).

The seating capacity of the Colosseum was 50,000 to 60,000, which is approximately the same capacity as the Blue Jays / Rogers Stadium in Toronto. The games that took place at the Colosseum were organized by members of the aristocracy, and (one big difference between then and now!) were free to the city’s citizens.

The Colosseum was built on a clay base but water drained into the area, which necessitated the construction of a complex system of underground canals. One of the reasons that there were so many stairways and exit arches – again very similar to most arenas where professional sports are played today – was to allow quick evacuation of the building in case of fire, earthquake, or other emergency.

There is a lot of reconstruction underway at the Colosseum at present, made necessary by the effects of pollution and the general deterioration of a free-standing structure that is nearly two thousand years old. Each component of the reconstruction is undertaken with great care under the auspices of historians and archaeologists – who would, I think, learn as much from the process as they contribute. What a cool job that would be.

After our tour, we walked a couple of blocks away from the Colosseum and found a restaurant where we had yet another delicious lunch. We already knew not to buy food near a heritage site, no matter how inviting the place might look, because of the inflated costs. We saved many many euros in Italy by walking away from tourist attractions before we stopped to eat.

After lunch we took the metro back to the centre of Rome, where we walked up the Spanish Steps and then down to the Trevi Fountain. The rainstorms were long gone and it was a perfect day for wandering about. It was our last full day in Rome so before we went to look for the medical clinic, I insisted that we take another stab at finding the Borghese Gallery: we had, after all, paid for those tickets in advance.

This time we took a cab.

Italy 14: Rome (Part 1)

Some Laundry, the Vatican, a Crack on the Head, and an Emergency Room: Our First Day in Rome

May 18, 2019

Note: I have finally figured out how to place photos in my blogs so that you can click on them to see bigger versions. Enjoy.

Compared to the wonderful accommodations in Siena, our hotel in Rome was a disappointment. Spacious but unwelcoming, it was also peculiar.

We were given a large room on the top (4th) floor with two queen-sized beds facing one another, one of which would have folded itself into a couch once upon a time but could no longer do so. All it did was take up space, so we used it as a very large luggage stand. It was impossible to direct the shower head in any way that did not splash water all over the floor, so we reluctantly deployed towel after towel just to mop up water. The back stairwell was used as a storage area for garbage and for Christmas decorations. And as icing to the cake, most of the front-desk staff were distracted, brusque or rude.

On the positive side, the large windows in our room opened onto the back of the hotel, where there was a pond stocked with turtles and goldfish that swam towards me when I approached, thinking I had food. There were a lot of cats. And there were tennis courts, but since it was raining most of the time we were there, and since I can’t play tennis, we didn’t make use of those.

Many cats

After checking in on Friday afternoon (May 17), we tracked down a place to get our laundry done. This was not as straightforward as it sounds. If you want a laundromat in Italy, you need to ask for a lavanderia a gettoni (laundry with tokens) not just a lavenderia (laundry). Although we were looking for the former, we kept asking for the latter, and we kept being directed to the latter. It turned out there weren’t any of the former in our part of town anyway, so we settled for the latter. To add to the challenge, the closest lavenderia would close at noon on Saturday and not re-open until Monday. We’d need to be back before noon the next day to collect our stuff or we’d be out of luck (aka clothing). So the next morning after breakfast, we took the car to collect the laundry, returned to deposit it and the car at the hotel, and then set out on public transit to get to the Vatican Museums by noon: which was the start of the two hour time-slot printed on the admission tickets I had purchased before we’d left Toronto. We made it, but just barely.

There is no point in my trying to describe the Vatican Museums to you. If you’ve seen them, you know. If you haven’t, you can quite easily spend an hour or so reading about them online. The vast structure contains not only collections of “art, archaeology and ethno-anthropology” assembled by various popes since the beginning of papal time (26 museums in total), but entire rooms and suites that a few popes occupied during their tenures. It is impossible to absorb even a small portion of what is on display. In total there are more than 70, 000 exhibits in an area covering about 162,000 square meters, or 1,744,000 square feet. (There are also villas and gardens. We didn’t even contemplate checking those out.) The works contained within the Museums include sculptures, paintings, historical artifacts, religious art, papal thrones, sarcophagi, tablets, chapels, maps, stairways, and a lot of highly decorated ceilings.

It all culminates of course, with the most amazing ceiling of all: the one in the Sistine Chapel. There, Arnie surreptitiously took photos of Michelangelo frescoes as we stood pressed against hundreds of other people from all around the world, all looking up, most of us with our mouths open in astonishment.

After lunch in the Museums’ cafeteria, we walked over to St. Peter’s Square – mainly because I had purchased a couple of postcards that I was determined to mail from the Vatican Post Office to my kids back in Canada. My younger son had sent postcards to me from that location on two occasions in years past, and I owed him one.

The Square was not located just around the corner as a security person just outside the Museums exit had assured us that it was, and once we got there we realized that the square, like everything else in the vicinity, was massive. Having worn out our feet entirely inside the Museums, by the time we’d finished touring St. Peter’s Square and mailing my postcards, we were ready to go back to the hotel and soak our feet in the goldfish pond. Or at least in the pools of water on the bathroom floor.

But our day was far from over. Also before leaving Canada, I had bought tickets to see the Borghese Gallery and Museum at 3 p.m. that day. I knew that scheduling visits to two immense and significant exhibitions in one day was a terrible idea, but I had bought the Borghese Gallery tickets before I realized that the Vatican Museums would not be open on the Sunday we were there, and that we would therefore have to see those on Saturday as well. Booking tickets on an Italian site is challenging enough: I wasn’t about to try to change the date of the Borghese tickets after the fact.

We did not know exactly where the Galleria Borghese was, but we did have a general idea and we knew that there was a Villa Borghese exit at the Spagna metro stop. That sounded promising, so away we went.

We left the Metropolitana with a few other tourists who were also headed for the Borghese Gallery, and found ourselves walking along wide trails through a nearly deserted green area. We asked the occasional passersby for directions, but most of them had no more idea where the Borghese Gallery was than we did.

We subsequently learned that we were approaching one of the largest green spaces in Rome – Villa Borghese Gardens, “a landscape garden in the naturalistic English manner” – and within that space are several museums and other buildings. The gallery we were seeking was on the far side of that park and would have been at least a kilometre from where we were even if we’d known which way we were going. Our actual route would have taken us even farther.

After we’d walked for another ten or fifteen minutes, Arnie caught sight of a map posted on a gate and (sensibly) went with the others to have a look at it. With my FitBit indicating that we had walked 18,000 steps that day and my backpack feeling heavier by the moment, I was fearful that if I stopped moving I would never be able to start again. I therefore decided to head up a path straight ahead of me that would take me to the top of a small hill, and see what I could see from there. To my surprise and pleasure, there ahead of me through the trees as I crested the hill, I saw a building.

Certain that this must be our destination (it wasn’t) I turned, relieved and happy, to report to Arnie on my successful scouting initiative. Instead of returning down the path I’d taken up, I took a shortcut across the grounds. A moment later, my foot hit a small tree stump mostly buried in the dirt and I pitched forward, landing on the upper left quadrant of my face with a resounding “CRACK.”

I knew immediately that the “crack” I’d heard did not bode well for me. After rolling onto my side and then easing myself into a sitting position, I discovered that my glasses were broken and that my head was bleeding. However, I considered myself lucky to still be conscious and I sensed that if I wanted to stay that way, I had better not stand up. So I either yelled or waited (I don’t remember which). Before long, Arnie was at my side and I was trying to explain to him what I was doing on the ground and why I thought that medical attention was going to be required.

A nearby cab driver and the owner of what might be described as an “auto rickshaw” summoned an ambulance for us. The attendants were kind and concerned and agreed that we needed to go to a hospital. They helped me down the hill and into the ambulance, and arranged a seat for Arnie. With the help of my travel booklet and Google translate, I figured out how to ask if they thought I had a concussion and the female attendant, rubbing the dirt from my wounds as gently as she could, assured me that from what I had told her, she thought that I did not. She seemed surprised when this news caused me to start crying. (I was surprised too.)

The Author, Distressed

The ambulance dropped us at the emergency department of the Ospidale San Carlo di Nancy and, to our amazement, we learned that there would be no charge for the ambulance trip. Italian or foreigner, a ride to the hospital and attendant care was free.

As I sank into the nearest unoccupied wheelchair and Arnie wheeled me into the emergency room, even the pain in my head was not enough to diminish my relief that I was finally sitting down.

Italy 13: Siena (Part 3)

The Mosaics, a Museum, a Crypt, and Siena’s “Old City”

May 15-17, 2019

The She-Wolf of Siena: Mosaic

The famous mosaics set into the floor of the Duomo di Siena are covered for much of the year in order to protect them, but we were fortunate to find many of them uncovered when we were there. Together, the 56 inlaid-marble panels, in various shapes from rhomboid to rectangular to hexagonal, form what was described by the Italian painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) as “the most beautiful, largest and most magnificent floor that ever was made.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

It is impossible to convey the scope and magnificence of the mosaics with a photograph, although others have been more successful than we were. You can get a better sense of the magnitude of the endeavour by taking a photo from above, where you also find yourself far enough away from the mosaics to get a sense of how cleverly the third dimension has been incorporated into some of the designs. (I hope that readers are aware that they can click the “galleries” in this blog to see a larger version of each photo.)

According to the website Travelling in Tuscany, the panels were made “mainly by two different techniques: one known as graffito (tiny holes and cutting lines created in the marble and then filled with black stucco and mineral pitch) and one called marble intarsia (black, white, green, red and blue marble employed in much the same manner as wood inlaying)”. One of the most impressive works is The Slaughter of the Innocents, created (it is thought) by Matteo di Giovanni in 1482. The photo below is from Wikipedia Creative Commons.

I also loved the Sybils, of which there are ten.

The Museum

Most of the contents of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (which translates as “Museum of the Cathedral’s Work”) are artifacts that used to be in the cathedral but in order to protect them, they aren’t there any more. One of these is the stained glass “rose window.”

We spent a couple of hours in the Museum but it was not long enough. This is a scant sampling of the hundreds of artifacts and artworks we saw, many of which I would have loved to simply sit down in front of, admire and attempt to absorb. (And not just because my feet were so sore by that point.)

The Crypt

One of the most interesting parts of the Cathedral of Siena is its crypt, which was not even discovered until 1999, when renovations undertaken beneath the chancel revealed a whole gallery of frescoes dating from the second half of the 13th century. It took three years to uncover what was there – providing not only another historical installation for visitors to the Duomo, but information of interest to art historians everywhere.

It was magnificent. (How many times can I use that word? Stay tuned to find out….)

The Old City

At last, really foot weary by this point, we made our way back to the car through the old city. This proved a challenging task, since we’d neglected to drop breadcrumbs or other markers to remind ourselves where we had parked our vehicle. The long, long stroll was painful but photographically rewarding. And we did stop for gelato.

Italy 12: Siena (Part 2)

The Duomo and its Dome

May 15-17, 2019

The day after we arrived in Siena we set out by car to see the Old City and the famous medieval cathedral – built in the Romanesque Gothic style. It has been described as one of the most beautiful buildings in Italy and – despite the proliferation of beautiful buildings in Italy – I cannot argue with that assessment.

Being relatively new to Italian cathedrals at this point, I thought that the word duomo, as in Duomo di Siena, referred to the dome on top of the cathedral. In fact, duomo means “cathedral.” The Italian word for “dome” is cupola.

The Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta (aka the Duomo di Siena), was built on the site of a Roman temple and completed around 1250. The cathedral’s magnificent deep-green-and-white-striped marble exterior (designed by Giovanni Pisano) hints at the wonders inside, where the striped theme continues as a backdrop to an astonishing array of sculptures, frescoes and carvings by nearly fifty of the world’s finest artists – Donatello, Michelangelo, Pinturicchio, Beccafumi and Bernini among them. Some of the works, including Nicola Pisano’s astoundingly ornate and detailed pulpit (he did have some help with the sculpting), are considered to be among the most important works of art in Italy.

When you step inside the doors of this majestic edifice, it is almost impossible to resist the urge to lift your eyes toward the heavens – where they encounter a ceiling painted an appropriately deep blue, decorated with golden stars, rising toward a most spectacular dome. In addition to the nave and the chancel and the aisles, there are side chapels and tombs, a sacristy and a library. The place is huge, and a person with unlimited time would need at least a full day to take in the entirely overwhelming stock of riches contained within it – and another to do justice to the Duomo’s museum across the way and the crypt below. We merely skimmed the surface of all three.

Our friend Ksenija (I have mentioned her before) told us we must see the mosaics that have been set into the floor, so we were looking forward to those (more on those in the next post), but we were unprepared for all the rest of the magnificence.

I Ascend to the Heavens

“Duomo” may not mean “dome,” but in the case of the Siena cathedral, the dome itself does have a name: Porta del Cielo, or “Gate of Heaven.” Individuals can’t wander around up there on their own, so I signed up for a tour, which gives participants access to areas of the cathedral that until recently were only accessible to architects and builders.

In addition to seeing all kinds of tools and even drawings on the walls of planned sections of the building, the tour, which takes you 79 steps above the floor of the cathedral, offers amazing views into the interior of the cathedral and out across the surrounding landscape.

Not the Tower of Babel, but…

When we were in Pisa, Arnie had remarked that there were so many people speaking so many different languages that it brought to mind the biblical account of the Tower of Babel. I was reminded of his comment when I was climbing around the dome of the duomo in Siena.

I started chatting (as one does, or at least as I do) with others in the tour and discovered to my relief that the interesting young woman ahead of me and her partner were not Italian, but French-speaking Swiss. They had cycled into Italy, camping their way through the Alps, as part of a group. The reason I was relieved they did not speak Italian was that despite months of practice on Duolingo, I had found when I arrived in Italy that I was utterly unable to speak Italian. Every time I tried to think of a word I wanted to say, the French or the Spanish version of it popped into my head. This problem persisted throughout my time in Italy. (I am now working on German, and hoping that the vast differences between the Romance languages and das Deutsche will help me to avoid confusion when I get to Germany.) Anyway, I had a lovely chat in French with the woman from Switzerland and, in fact, discovered that I was more fluent in that language than I’d thought I was.

Unfortunately, when I get to France, I’ll probably be able to speak only Italian.

Italy 11: Siena (Part 1)

Overwhelmed by Photographs, I Resolve to Take None on Our Next Trip

May 15-17, 2019

One of the reasons why it takes me so long to post each instalment of this blog is the number of days it takes me to go through all the photos we (I) have taken. Long ago, in the distant past (i.e., prior to about 1997), when one had to pay to get each photograph developed, I was relatively parsimonious with my photo-taking. These days, however, I seem to have gone mad with the freedom afforded by the digital cameras on my phone and iPad. I find myself taking dozens of photographs of the intricate carvings on the door of one cathedral, assuming that there will be no negative consequences. (Pun unintended).

Arnie’s photos are much better than mine, probably because he is far more rational about the whole process. He also takes far fewer photos than I do: while I am getting the dozens of images previously mentioned, he has compiled a sensible array of pictures that perfectly represent the entire edifice, inside and out. He thinks ahead about what he’s going to photograph, frames the subject properly, snaps the picture, and then moves on to the next subject. Every hour or so, he goes through the photos he has taken and deletes any that are less than ideal.

Garden Hotel in Siena, Exterior

I, on the other hand, am thinking “Wow! Wow! Wow! Oh, look at that building! I’ve got to get a photo of that for Miro! And Kathleen would love this painting! I must take a photo of it for her! And here! Look! An insect! So sparkly! The grandkids will love that! Oh, look at that gnarly tree! And wow! The light has changed and the tree looks even better! And here’s the most beautiful bridge in Italy! And here’s an even better place to take a photo of the bridge! Wait! This angle is better yet! And the water under it! Just look! Magnificent! What a colour! Wait! Did I get a photo of that gnarly tree?” (Every exclamation mark in the preceding stream of consciousness represents at least three photographs. )

The upshot? (Pun unintended.) In the past week, I have gone through the two hundred or so photos I took in Siena, plus the one or two dozen that Arnie gave me, attempting to throw out the garbage shots and the duplicate shots and saving the rest for posterity, and then extracting the best of the best for the blog.

On future travels, I am going to allow myself a limited number of photos per stop, and leave the overall shots to Arnie. Or possibly I will never take another photo at all and will simply buy postcards.

Garden Hotel, Siena, Interior

Some people say you should actually look at the places you visit instead of just taking pictures of them. I do look, and I do enjoy what I am seeing. But I also want to hang onto those experiences forever, and to share them with everyone I know and love (and a few people I don’t know at all who have chosen to read my blog).

In the case of Siena, once I had whittled down my photos to a manageable number of “keepers,” I realized that in addition to those we had taken of the cathedral and the old town, more than a dozen of the ones I liked best were images of the hotel where we had stayed.

“You can’t write a blog post about a hotel!” I told myself. “Yes I can,” I answered. “It’s my blog, and I can do whatever I want.” And therefore, as well as focusing (pun intended) on the illusory (pun intended) seduction of the digital camera, this blog post is also about a hotel. (There will be another of these before we’re through. There were several hotels that I would gladly go back to just to hang out in them for a couple of days or even longer, without doing any sightseeing at all. This was one, and another was in Florence. More on that one when we get there.)

Dining Room, Garden Hotel, Siena

Everything about the Garden Hotel was… well… photogenic. The hotel was a villa before it was renovated in the 1960s, and the surrounding grounds have been preserved since the 18th century so they are beautiful, and many of the trees are very old. Someone who visited the hotel described it on a travel website as “dated,” but to my mind, that was exactly what gave it so much charm. From the telephone booths (no longer functional) near the dining room to the art-deco bedside lamps and the tiled bathroom, I felt as though I were in a movie from the 1950s: La Dolce Vita or something.

Then there was the dining room. Then there was the food. Breakfast was included in the price of the room. Dinner was not inexpensive, but then I suppose we didn’t have to eat both a pasta course and a main dish.

The views from the hotel were lovely.

And then there was this gnarly tree….

Italy 10: Pisa

Where We Lean into a Tower

Thursday, May 16, 2019

On our way from La Spezia to Pisa we drove through a lovely little town (I have hunted all over the area in question on Google maps and I cannot figure out which town it was) that had such lovely views back towards the mountains (not sure which mountains, either) that we had to get out and take some photos of all that loveliness. We also had cups of coffee that snapped us to attention – and I ate a cream-filled something or other – at a little bakery that shall also remain nameless unless someone happens upon this post who can fill in all the blanks.

First view of the Tower

As you may know, in Pisa there is a tower. It tilts. We took some pictures of it, too.

I was quite surprised to see the tower when it first appeared, rising above the wall of the Botanic Gardens, when we were still a few blocks away. I’ve seen so many pictures of it that the real one looked fake. It wasn’t.


We learned that construction on the tower started in 1173 and wasn’t completed until 1372 (!! Wars interfered). One side started sinking during construction and over the next decades it continued to sink and sink. The top sections were built at a slight angle away from the tilt to try to help the tower to stay upright, but it wasn’t stabilized (using cement grouting) until the early 20th century. Today, the top is approximately 17 feet off the vertical, and the tower is slightly curved because of all the efforts to get it to stand up straight.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is the bell-tower (campanile) of the Pisa Cathedral (Duomo di Pisa) and was the third of four buildings erected in the Square of Miracles (Piazza dei Miracoli). The tower was constructed after the cathedral itself, which is magnificent, and the baptistry, but before the camposanto, or cemetery. Taken together, the complex – Romanesque style with an Arab influence – is yet another example of the astounding array of architecture everywhere in Italy. I could write a whole blog post just about the griffin, figures and other decorations on the roof of the Duomo – but I won’t.

No Time for Pizza in the Piazza in Pisa

We wandered around quite happily for an hour or more taking several identical photos of everything. We were headed for Siena that day, so we didn’t do any tours, but I have checked out the inside of these buildings online and if you are going to be in the area and have the time, you will probably want to get tickets and take tours of everything you can.

The drive to Siena was another series of splendid vistas, one after another. We were amused that we were able to tune in some bluegrass music on an Italian radio station as we went along, and we drove through one town where the road was so narrow that there was a stoplight to hold cars in one direction until those going the other way had passed through.

Italy 9: Cinque Terre

Ta Dah!!!!

May 14 and 15, 2019

Fegina, Monterosso

Cinque Terre really is just one damned “Ta-dah!!” after another … especially when the sun is shining, which it was most of the day we were there. Over and over again I thanked myself for having taken the advice of my son Matt and his wife Nancy Riskin, who had suggested we not miss this area when we were in Italy. I dedicate this post to them, with endless gratitude. (The gesture will balance out the fact that we have about a thousand other photos from this and other parts of our trip, which they will be “invited” to peruse next time we see them.)

Of the five fishing villages that make up Cinque Terre, Monterosso is the oldest (first mentioned in a document dated 1056 ) and largest (pop. about 1500). The original town, south of the San Cristoforo Hill, subsequently expanded to extend past the beach at Fegina – which is where the train station is located. Albergo La Spiaggia, our hotel, was a two minute walk down Via Fegina from the train station.

I am sure we had the best view in Monterosso, as our balcony doors overlooked the promenade and the beach. I had chosen Monterosso as our destination in Cinque Terre because of the beach — it is the only one of the five villages that has one to speak of — and although the water was too cold for swimming, it was a treat to be so close to the water.

We had arrived exhausted in the darkness the night before, after two days of gloomy weather and frustrating misadventures, and to wake up to this view was as though a curtain had been pushed aside to show us a glimpse of paradise.

Where the Dead Have the Best Views

We had one full day in Cinque Terre and we used it to advantage, taking the morning to stroll up the hill towards the centre of the mediaeval town, where Monterosso’s small harbour is located. Arnie was suffering from a painful foot so he watched the trains and watercraft go by while I hiked further up San Cristoforo Hill to the Church of San Francisco and the Capuchin Monastery. Built between 1619 and 1622, the complex was confiscated and used as a garrison during the Napoleonic Wars before being returned to the Franciscans.

The town’s cemetery is at the top of the hill, and the views down toward old Monterosso to the south and Fegina to the north are beyond description (which is why cameras were invented). The effects of landslides and earthquakes have taken their toll on the hill and the buildings, but the result is an engaging agglomeration of aged, crumbling and restored buildings, hives of burial chambers, wilting bouquets of flowers (it had been Mother’s Day a few days earlier), filigreed crosses, cacti, scarlet poppies, tiny lizards, and breathtaking views.


After a late lunch, we took the train to the most southern town in the chain, Riomaggiore, and wandered up and down and around the streets lined with the colourful “tower houses” for which the town is famous, and its occasional installations of ceramic art.

We spent quite a bit of time down by the waterfront alternately admiring the changing light on the town behind us as the clouds came and went, and watching workers manipulate a huge grab dredger to lift massive rocks from the bottom of the sea and move them carefully to extend the breakwater just offshore. Sometimes they didn’t get a solid grip and the enormous rocks plunged back into the water, and sometimes — carefully, carefully — they moved them over the breakwater and gently lowered them into place. It was hard to look away.

We concluded this almost perfect day (there was some rain later, but I hesitate to mention it considering that the time of its arrival meant that it barely affected us) with an outstanding meal two doors down from our hotel, in an “ancient wine cellar” that has been transformed into Cantina di Miky.

It doesn’t get much better than that, we told ourselves. And we were almost right.

Italy 8: Padua to La Spezia

Past the Alps to the Ligurian Sea

Monday, May 13, 2019 (Part 2)

In response to overwhelming (n=1) demand for information on whether we actually made it from Padua to La Spezia in time to catch our train, I offer this interlude to assure readers that we did (though not, of course, without a bit more drama), and also to provide additional information on the Cappella degli Scrovegni offered by friends on Facebook since my last post (thank you, Caterina Edwards and Suzanne Hillier).


First the Cappella. Caterina, who has located several of her novels in Italy and knows whereof she speaks, told me that the museum only lets about ten or twelve people into the Giotto Chapel at a time – and that the people have to be cool and dry to be admitted. “We went to Padova on a super-hot day,” she recalls. “Before we could enter the chapel, we had to sit (and watch a video) for 15 minutes in a special room where we were ‘dehumidified.’ This was to protect the fragile murals.”

While her story made me appreciate better why they hadn’t let us in, it also intensified my wish that we had booked tickets ahead of time and seen the frescoes. Suzanne (retired lawyer, now a full-time writer) added to my regret by saying, “Hate to tell you but it was fascinating. Can still see those visions of hell, with the doomed being savaged by evil little devils!”

More alps

Today Arnie reminded me there were probably photos of the frescoes online, and since “online” just happens to be my second home it didn’t take me long to find them. They are indeed astonishing: particularly considering that Giotto di Bondone completed them more than 700 years ago: in about 1305. It’s not the same at all as seeing them in person, but it will do for now.

It rained off and on between Padua and La Spezia but the weather cleared enough from time to time to offer us views of the Alps on our right and the northern Apeninne mountains on our left. We were beginning to get a sense of how quickly the landscape changes in Italy, and of the wide range of geographical areas and climates that make up this small country (small compared to Canada, that is). When we’d left the relatively flat region around Padua I’d wondered how our destination, a village only a few hours away, could be described as almost inaccessible due to its location on a mountainous coastline. But as the foothills rose around us and our elevation increased, I began to see how this could happen.

Red Pin Marks Ligurian Sea

Last Train to Monterosso

Our destination was Monterosso al Mare, the most distant of five villages that lie north of La Spezia along the coast of the Ligurian Sea. Together, the villages comprise Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”), designated a UNESCO site in 1997 and part of the Italian Riviera. My younger son and his wife had stayed in one of the villages on their honeymoon, and raved to us about the beauty of the region.

While the walking trails between the towns are mostly hike-able (where they have not been washed downhill into the sea), tourists are advised not to attempt the roads between the villages by car. This doesn’t create too much of a problem since there are 54 trains between La Spezia and Levanto (beyond the northern end of the chain of villages) every day. The train tickets are quite reasonable — you can buy a one-day pass for about €8 that allows you take as many train rides as you want between the villages, or you can buy a Cinque Terre card that allows you to use buses as well as trains and to gain access to the walking trails, museums, etc. Our only challenge as we drove from Padua was to make sure that we caught the last train of the day, which would depart from La Spezia at 23:10, and to arrive in time to park the car and get to the train before it left.


It turns out there are many places to park your car in La Spezia but of course the one I had picked out was inaccessible after 8 p.m., which was when we arrived. Fortunately for us, we took a “wrong turn” and ended up in a nice big parking lot right inside the train station. This parking lot is reasonable (between €18 and €25/day depending on the season) but the fact that it is “in” the station doesn’t mean it is secure. We had been advised by many people never to leave anything in an unattended car in Italy, so we took everything with us to Monterosso. It was a lot to carry up and down the stairs and hills that are everywhere in Cinque Terre, but when we returned two days later, we found another couple parked near us who had lost all of the possessions they had left behind in their locked vehicle. So we were glad we’d taken the precaution.

Toilets in parking lot at La Spezia Train Station

If you have any physical disability you’ll have trouble getting around the train stations in the Cinque Terre region — several of which have no elevators. Even in those that do, the elevators may not be working. We hauled our luggage up the stairs onto the wrong platform then downstairs again, and then up onto the right platform, and finally managed to get ourselves and our bags onto the last train to Monterosso.

Right on time, the train pulled out into a pitch black night (it seemed more dark than even nighttime could explain for a reason, we learned the next day: much of the route along the coast winds through a series of tunnels). Twenty-two minutes later, we were in Monterosso. There we carried the suitcases and packs down two more sets of stairs, then rolled them out of the station to the street, and down the street to our beach-front hotel, where we gratefully checked in.

Utterly exhausted – it had been a long rainy-day drive after a long rainy day in Padua, after a long rainy evening the night before traipsing around the Venice Airport exchanging vehicles — we went to sleep. And awoke the next morning to the most spectacular visual treat I’ve ever had.

Italy 7: Padua

Padua: Where we did not see the world-renowned Giotto frescoes

Monday, May 13, 2019

Our visit to Padua was not the best experience we had in Italy. This was not Padua’s fault: it was mine. I was the Official Ticket Booker, but I had not yet realized that in order to get into popular museums and art galleries in Italy, even in the “shoulder season,” you have to have a reservation. At least in Padua.

Basilica di Sant Antonio, Padua

Also, as the Official Navigator I had not yet realized that the only way to find your way around major city centres in Italy (and probably those in other countries, too) is to get an accurately gauged map of the area itself and possibly even to draw your desired path along the streets ahead of time. GPS just isn’t much good — and can in fact be misleading — in heavily populated areas. Especially when your own built-in sense of direction is less than perfect.

We were to have even more convincing evidence of this second rule later in the trip. In retrospect, it would have saved us untold hours if I’d learned my lesson in Padua.

We had to be in La Spezia, on the western coast of Italy, by about eight p.m. There, we would leave our car and catch a train into Cinque Terre in time for our next hotel destination in Monterosso al Mare that night. I had estimated the time required to get to La Spezia as five hours. It was still morning, so we decided to poke around Padua a little before we left.

Padua street

I loved the architecture of Padua, which for some unknown reason reminded me of Shakespeare. The internet tells me that the only Shakespearean play set in Padua is The Taming of the Shrew, which I have both read and seen onstage at least once, but that doesn’t totally explain the visual association. (I also learned from a most informative and interesting blog post on this very subject, that Padua would have been famous even in Shakespeare’s day for its university — the second-oldest in Italy and the one at which Galileo taught — and for its botanical garden, which I wish we’d visited but… next time.)

Basilica di Santa Giustina

We planned to have an early lunch, then see if we could get in to see the Giotto frescoes at the Cappella degli Scrovegni. On our way to find a bite to eat we were distracted by the sight of a spectacular-looking church, which I later identified as the Basilica di Sant Antonio) and we decided to get out and walk around it. This decision led us to a half-hour effort to find a legal parking spot nearby. Once we’d found one, we realized we were totally turned around and had lost sight of the church we’d intended to see. Never mind. There was another spectacular-looking building right in front of us, the Basilica di Santa Giustina, so we wandered around it instead. I am still amazed that there are two such astonishingly huge basilicas (basilici?) less than a mile apart.

We found a cafe/restaurant nearby, ordered grilled ham and cheese sandwiches and coffee, and sat at a table with an umbrella (it was still spitting rain) to watch the world go by. Not much of the world went by: it was a very quiet Monday in Padua. (That restaurant was the first one I had seen that served fizzy water as a chaser for the coffee. I am a total devotee of both coffee and fizzy water, so I was delighted to see that someone had come up with this perfect combination.)

After lunch, we wandered around Padua’s cobbled streets and checked out a few of the 78 statues that form two rings around the Prato della Valle, a lovely elliptical park that is the largest square in Italy. Then we set off to find a parking spot near the Cappella degli Scrovegni, enjoying the walled streets, ancient buildings and huge trees we passed en route.

Entrance to the Cappella di Scrovegni

The museum entrance at the Cappella degli Scrovegni (“cappella” is the Italian word for “chapel”) was packed with tourists and school classes from everywhere, but I still hoped we would get in. Even after the ticket-sellers refused to sell us admission tickets, I still held out hope. I also held out my iPhone, on which I had composed a passionate plea for admission with the help of Google Translate. In it, I explained that we had travelled all the way from Canada (I may have intimated that we had made the journey solely to see the amazing Giotto frescoes), and that we would never have another chance to see them. But the ticket-sellers were steel-hearted and would not let us in.

I later noticed on the museum’s website that they require advanced ticket purchases with no exceptions, but even if I had read that, I would probably have attempted to whine my way in. I am sure that if I had been able to speak Italian and say my passion-infused words of regret aloud, the museum workers would have crumbled before my eloquence. But the words on the face of my phone just didn’t do it, even if they were in Italian.

Crestfallen, we departed, and hit the road for La Spezia.

In a later post, I will explore the whole issue of the names of places used in their home countries vis a vis the names for those places invented by speakers of other languages. The Italian name of the city we were in was Padova, but we call it Padua. We also call Mantova Mantua, and Genova Genoa, and Firenze Florence.

When I googled Padua/Padova I found a site on TripAdvisor where someone had explained to the world that the city’s name was Padova but that (he thought) Shakespeare had changed it to Padua. Don’t believe everything on the internet. But his misapprehension does help me to end this post somewhere close thematically to where I started it. So there’s that.

Italy 6: Zagreb to Padua

Our Italian Breakdown – in the Rain, of Course

Sunday, May 12, 2019

We departed Zagreb on a rainy Sunday morning and made our way onto the highway that would take us out of Croatia, through Slovenia and back into Italy. Our destination was Padua, which I estimated we would reach in about four-and-a-half hours. It took us twelve hours to get there.

Bridge over Karlovska Street, Ljubljana, Slovenia

It was still raining when we reached Slovenia, but Melania Trump’s home country looked lovely through the windows of the car. I was sorry that we had to zoom through its capital – Ljubljana (pronounced “Lyubly-anna”) – as there was clearly much there to explore. The ever-helpful Wikipedia informs me that the First Lady herself was born in Novo Mesto — which we drove past but did not visit — but that she attended high school and acquired some post-secondary education in Ljubljana.

Rural Slovenia, near Ljubljana

When I use the word “zoom” to describe our mode of travel, I am speaking more poetically than accurately: our rental car continued to stutter and hesitate every ten or fifteen minutes as we made our way back toward Italy. We were quite worried that the vehicle might stop completely in this country where we knew no one, had very little local currency, and possessed not even a smattering of the language. However, hunger overcame our concerns about the car and about an hour beyond Ljubljana we stopped at a roadside service centre. For the first – but certainly not the last – time on our three-week trip, we were astonished at the dining opportunities we found inside.

The Marche Mövenpick bistro on Slovenia’s A34 is one of a chain of 70 eateries around the world (some readers may have visited the one downstairs in Brookfield Place on Bay Street in downtown Toronto, which is not on the side of any highway!).

The one we stopped at in Slovenia puts typical roadside diners in North America to shame. It offers the hungry traveller anything anyone could possibly ever imagine wanting to eat or drink: all of it fresh and beautifully presented. We settled for soup, bread and fruit, which was delicious, but we could have selected freshly squeezed fruit juice, entrees with vegetables and pasta, salads, all manner of baked goods, elaborate desserts and, of course, rich delicious coffee prepared any way we wanted it. On a trip that took us to some of the great dining centres of the world, I realize it’s a bit odd for me to be raving about a highway diner, but given the location we were amazed at the size of the place, the variety and the quality of the food available, and the reasonable prices. (I was also surprised to find CBD cannabis gum and mints for sale alongside the candy at the checkout counter. These concoctions were as effective in reducing arthritic pain as any of the CBD options I’ve tried in Canada: i.e. not at all.)

Well fed, we set off again, and despite the constant irritant of the hesitating engine, all was well… for a while. Our GPS started speaking to us again when we crossed the border into Italy, the radio produced some nice classical music, and we were lulled into complacency. Feeling the need for coffee an hour or so later, we pulled off the highway and took a little break.

But that was the last straw for the car. It had done all it was going to do for us by way of favours when it got us out of Slovenia in one piece, and now it was done. Dead. Finished.

After attempting to get the engine to turn over for long enough that we feared we’d wear out the starter, we called the emergency number for the rental company. Or at least we tried to call it.

When we’d been in Italy the week before, we’d had trouble using our data and phone plan, purchased before we left Canada. It had worked fine when we got to Croatia, but now that we were back in Italy, our long-distance problems were also back, and we were unable to connect with the rental company via the toll-free number. Fortunately we were still at the gas station, and the attendant there helped Arnie to reach the person we needed to talk to.

That person told us (speaking Italian but with a translation app on his phone: as I’ve said before, technology is a wonderful thing when it works) that a truck would be there within half an hour to collect us and the car. He also told us that after we dropped the car off at a repair centre, we were to take a taxi to the car-rental outlet at the Venice airport. This was not the location where we’d picked up the car in the first place (the Piazzale Roma in Venice itself), but the airport – where we’d begun our visit to Italy one week earlier.

Map showing how we ended up back at the Venice Airport

Sure enough, less than half an hour later, a flat-bed truck arrived and the driver (a very nice man who spoke only Italian and had no translation device on him) loaded up the car, invited us to join him in the cab, and drove us through the ongoing rain to the car-repair location in Mestre, which is a suburb of Venice. There he off-loaded the car, and after we had signed a bunch of papers, called a cab for us.

It was our great good fortune to have broken down where we did: the farther from the original car rental location we had been, the more complex the problem would certainly have become. But nothing is ever simple when documents are involved, so it was another hour at the airport before we finally got ourselves and our luggage transferred to a new vehicle. The new car was bigger (not necessarily a good thing in Italy where the roads can be very narrow) and had no GPS, but that didn’t matter to us then. It ran without stuttering and there was more room for us and our luggage, so we were good.

By now we were again ravenous but we were also really tired so we decided not to stop to eat first, but to go to our hotel in Padua – where we arrived just as the kitchen was closing. Once again, the generosity of the Italian service industry rose to the occasion, and they kindly agreed to prepare a meal for us before the kitchen staff went home. They could offer us pasta (which was delicious) and wine; however, the waiter told us sadly, it was too late for dessert.