Christmas in Milan – A Monumental Cathedral, Cemetery and Horse

Snow started falling as we brewed the morning’s first cups of coffee on the stove using a traditional Italian Moka coffee pot.  Invented by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, Italians readily accepted it as an easy way to make espresso at home, and it quickly became symbolic of “la dolce vita,” the sweet life and for us a pleasant morning ritual. The day before had been warmer, and bundled up we were able to take our coffee outside on the balcony of our fourth-floor Airbnb rental and enjoy a great sunset view.  This morning though, the tracks of the tram line melted through the thin blanket of freshly fallen snow and left two parallel lines, as if someone had drawn them on this new white canvas with a pencil.

Continuing with our philosophy of slow, immersive travel, we had opted for an apartment in the Isola neighborhood.  Though far away from Milan’s city center, it was situated near the Porta Garibaldi train station and the recently built modern skyscraper complex that surrounds Piazza Gae Aulenti. The illy Caffè here was a frequent stop for comsmopolitan people-watching and excellent coffee.

Nearby were the twin apartment towers of Boeri’s Bosco Verticale, Vertical Forest, famous for their lush foliage-covered balconies, and the Isola and Zara subway stations. The latter was only seven quick stops from the Milan Duomo.

The neighborhood also had numerous tram lines traversing it, but it was impossible to find a hardcopy map of this very extensive system while we were in Milan, though we were able to find this online map of the Milan Tram System while writing this. Ultimately, we relied on our phone’s mapping App to view our tram trips in real time and determine where to change lines to continue our journeys across the city.

Two blocks away, the bi-weekly outdoor food market closed the streets around Piazza Tito Minniti for the bulk of the day while families shopped the stalls for fresh vegetables, cheese, meat and seafood along with socks, pants, dresses and blouses. We enjoyed this aspect of Italian life after learning its subtle nuances – for example, only the vendor touches the fruits and vegetables. There is also a protocol of queueing. Sometimes though our schedule required us to shop around the corner at La Pastaia for fresh pasta or the Penny Market grocery store, where we signed up again for another shopper club card.  We’ve done this in every city where we have stayed long term – Cuenca, Antigua, Lisbon, Cape Town and Kotor. It seems silly, but those small savings do add up and jokingly it helps us feel more like a local.

Emerging from the darkness of the subway station onto the Piazza del Duomo, we were momentarily blinded by the bright sun reflecting off the monumental cathedral that towered before us. Breathtaking in its size and capable of holding 40,000 worshippers, the cathedral is the second largest in Europe, following Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and the third largest in the world.  Designed in 1386, the ornate and dramatic Gothic façade of the cathedral is covered with 3,400 statues and spires, which required the recruitment of hundreds of stone masons and artisans from across Europe. 

The opulent exterior belies the cathedral’s spartan interior.  While massive in scale, the interior’s gray stone walls and towering columns are cold and austere even with the soft, filtered light of beautiful stained-glass windows illuminating the space. Most moving was a ghastly sculpture by 16th century Italian sculptor Marco d’Agrate of Saint Bartholomew holding his flayed skin, depicting how he was punished for converting an Armenian King to Christianity in the first century AD.

Wandering around the flying buttresses and sculpted spires on the roof of the church was the highlight of our visit to the Duomo. The day was crystal clear, and the panoramic view stretched from the Milanese skyline to the snowcapped Italian Alps. It was spectactular.

Across the plaza the Museum of the Milan Cathedral has an extensive and interesting collection of art and sculpture that at one time or another was part of the Duomo.

On the other side of the plaza stood Milan’s official Christmas tree, a modern conically shaped metal structure covered with thousands of multi-colored changing lights. Beyond the tree was the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, where four-story tall buildings and the promenade between them are covered with a spectacular vaulted glass ceiling.  It is considered the world’s first indoor shopping mall, built shortly after the unification of the Italian peninsular into the Kingdom of Italy in the 1860s when Vittorio Emanuele II was named king.  Lovingly nicknamed “il Salotto di Milano,” or “the living room of Milan” by the Milanese, the phrase acknowledges it’s the place to meet friends and be seen.

Wanting to stay in the city center till night fell, so that we could fully appreciated the Christmas lights on the tree in front of the Duomo, we wandered farther afield until we found the Chiesa di Santa Maria presso San Satiro. First built in the 9th century, the present church dates to the Italian Renaissance and  features a gilded interior and a rare example of Trompe-l’œil in a church. This painter’s effect utilizes a forced perspective to create an illusion of depth behind the altar.

After dark the plaza in front of the Duomo continued to fill with people eager to enjoy the festive mood of the Christmas season.  The Christmas tree was stunning, and its modernity nicely complimented the historic buildings surrounding the piazza.

From our balcony we could see the silhouette of Tomba di Manzoni, the grand entranceway and “Hall of Fame” mausoleum for the noteworthy, though not as wealthy, Milanese who are interned at the Cimitero Monumentale. 

As we wandered farther into the cemetery, we realized that monumental might be an understatement. It was difficult not to confuse this extraordinarily extravagant place of entombment for an outdoor sculpture garden with memorials created by a who’s who list of famous 19th and 20th century Italian artists and architects for prominent Milanese families. 

The family names on the mausoleums also adorn roads, parks, tram and subway stations across the city. There seemed to be an afterlife version of one upmanship in play here with each monument more grandiose than the last.  As if competition or success in life was not enough and had to continue till your final committal.  It was a fascinating place to explore. Plan on spending most of the day.

Donna’s mom had passed away the year before and one of our reasons for staying in Milan was to revisit a project her mother was instrumental in as a member of the United State’s Italian American Heritage Foundation and Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse Foundation. She helped for fifteen years in the 1980s and 90s to raise 2.5 million dollars to the see Leonardo da Vinci’s 24ft tall Il Cavallo recreated. The sculpture was finally realized by American sculptor Nina Akamu

Da Vinci was commissioned by the Duke of Milan in 1482 to create, at the time, what was the largest equestrian statue in the world, as tribute to his late father, Francesco Sforza.  The full-size clay sculpture was completed in 1491 and was waiting for its terracotta mold to be made and enough bronze amassed for its casting when the French invaded in 1499. Subsequentially, the clay model was totally destroyed by French crossbowmen who used it for target practice.

On its 500th anniversary, da Vinci’s Il Cavallo was unveiled outside the Ippodromo Snai San Siro, Milan’s famous horse racing track. Smaller artistic interpretations of Il Cavallo stand in the plaza behind it. This being modern Italy though a horse just can’t be a horse, and many were psychedelically painted and wore tutus or unicorn horns. Wonderfully whimsical, they definitely made us smile. 

One rainy afternoon we took the tram to the 15th century Sforzesco Castle, seat of power for the Sforza dynasty that lasted only 100 years. But in that time the fortress/palace was expanded to be one of the largest citadels in Europe and filled with works of art by numerous Italian Renaissance artists.  Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bramante, Correggio, Bernardino Zenale and Bernardino Butinone were commissioned to adorn the walls and ceilings and sculpt pieces to fill the vast space. Today the castle houses several of the city’s museums and art collections where the artists’ contributions to the palace can still be seen. A heavy fog had blanketed the citadel by closing time and was evocative of the moods cast in the historical fiction novels set in Renaissance Italy by Sarah Dunant. Later that evening we attended an Anglican Lessons and Carols service as a prelude to Christmas, then headed back to our apartment humming Christmas tunes as we window shopped.

Signs for Artigiano in Fiera, the Fair, dotted our route into Milan when we first arrived from Bergamo and piqued our interest.  We hadn’t heard of it before, but with a quick internet search realized it was the shopping event of the Christmas season in Milan. While in line to enter the center we noticed many people pulling large suitcases. Toward the end of our shopping spree, laden with purchases, we realized the bags on wheels were pure genius, and allowed the seasoned pros to carry their holiday shopping with ease. The Fiera is a tremendously popular annual, nine-day event that draws over one million visitors to the Fiera Milano, Europe’s largest exhibition center, located in Rho, just outside Milan. Folks shop for home furnishings, fashion, jewelry, arts and crafts, along with artisanal foods, wines and liquor. The sites’ nine cavernous exhibition halls were filled with vendors from 100 countries, though displays from the twenty regions of Italy occupied ninety percent of the space. Plan on spending the whole day if you hope to see everything. It was all very interesting and entertaining and truly a marathon event. From Milan it’s an easy trip on the M1 subway, which stops right at the venue.

Wanting to make our last night in Milan special, we made dinner reservations at a highly reviewed restaurant, only to be turned away into a rainy night because we arrived early as the staff was enjoying their pre-work communal meal together. (The later you dine out in Italy the more you’ll feel like a local. Though this does take some getting used to and we haven’t mastered this yet.) “Okay, we will have a drink at the corner bar and return,” we agreed.

To our delight, our aperitives were accompanied by small sandwiches with chips and olives.  We had every intention of heading back to the restaurant, but our waiter was engaging, and the Aperol spritzes were very good. We spent the time watching folks fight the wind with their umbrellas through the bar’s rain-pelted window. The specular highlights from the streetlights added magic to the scene. Occasionally some groups popped inside seeking a warm reprieve from the downpour outside, shook out their umbrellas and found a seat.  Recapping our adventures, tentatively planning the next six months, and talking about Christmas with our kids back in the states, the evening flew by until the waiter said they were closing. Umbrellas up! We headed home.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

PS – The Artigiano was canceled in 2020 due to the Corona virus lock down in Italy. Hopefully, it will be allowed 2021.

Bergamo – Cathedrals, a Flat Tire and a Bell Tower

Somewhere along our route on the A4 motorway to Bergamo the tire blew. It wasn’t an obvious blowout, the car still handled well, but the car felt different.  Our dilemma was, if we stop on the shoulder of the highway to call for assistance how do we explain our location in our non-existent Italian, or do we keep driving to the next exit. We kept going. In the time it took to stop and pay the toll the tire totally deflated, and we limped off the highway on three wheels. Luck was with us we when we rolled into the gas station at the top of the exit ramp.  They didn’t offer any repair services, but did have a small café, and it being Italy, they served excellent cappuccino and pistacchio pasticcino.  With the barista’s help our exact location was given to the roadside assistance agent, and we settled in for what we thought would be a very long wait. Surprisingly, we were back on the road again in less than one hour.

Bergamo was a well-established ancient village before it became a Roman town in 49 BC and today is a hub of industrialization in the Lombardy region.  The newer portion of the city, Citta Bassa, or lower city, is a smart looking collection of contemporary buildings along tree-lined boulevards and pedestrian malls worthy of exploration. Though we were here to wander around the narrow lanes and ancient churches within the 16th century Venetian defensive walls of the Città Alta, the high city. The historic upper center of Bergamo was strategically located on a rock promontory with commanding views of the surrounding region.

Completely pedestrian only, the old town is connected to the new town by a funicular  that runs up the side of a steep hill through an ivy-covered channel. We knew the old town would be full of history, but soon realized it was an unexpected foodie’s delight when we were faced with a gauntlet of gourmet food stores that started as soon as we got off the funicular.

With each shop window more tempting than the previous, it was a challenging task walking along Via Gombito to Piazza Vecchia, the historic center of Bergamo.  It was the last week of November now and even though the days were sunny there was a definite chill to the air. Fortunately, the cafes on the piazza were still in full swing with outdoor dining and had heavy lap blankets available to ward off the chill.  The ambiance of the old town is wonderful and there’s plenty to absorb just by wandering around, but if you are short on time concentrating on the historic buildings that line Piazza Vecchia is rewarding.

Dominating the piazza is the Campanone, the town’s clock and bell tower. When it was built in the 12th century it was the private residence of the wealthy and influential Suardi family.  With admission there is an elevator that will take you most of the way to the top.  Interestingly at ten o’clock every evening the town keeps an ancient Venetian tradition alive by chiming the bells of the clock tower 100 times to signal the closing of the city gates. It was cloudy after lunch so we decided to delay our tower visit till later, hoping that the weather would change, and the sun would come out. Next to the tower stands the Palazzo del Podestà e Museo del Cinquecento a wonderful, high-tech, multimedia and interactive museum housed in a Renaissance era palazzo that highlights Bergamo’s history.

The Cattedrale (duomo) di Sant’Alessandro, the Bergamo Cathedral, is almost hidden away behind the arched portico that separates the Piazza Vecchia from the Piazza Duomo.  Majestic in scale, the duomo dates from the 1400s and has undergone many alterations over the centuries that has evolved the church into a treasured, religious art-filled sanctuary that is the Bishop of Bergamo’s seat.  An important center for Christianity since the religion was accepted by the Roman Empire in the third century, Bergamo has had a bishop since the fourth century. Underneath the Presbytery the Bishops’ Crypt of The Cathedral Of Bergamo holds, in a semi-circle, twelve tombs of bishops who guided the See in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.  Strikingly, the façade of the crypt, in my opinion, could pass as the entrance to a retro café; it just had that feel.

The highlight for us on Piazza Duomo was the Romanesque Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore with its intricately designed marble façade and ornate gilded interior, and the Cappella Colleoni, a separate 15th century funerary chapel with a frescoed ceiling that seamlessly stands next to it. Founded in 1137, like so many other churches in Italy, it was built over the ruins of an earlier 8th century church and an older Roman temple. 

To our delight the church organist was practicing during our visit, and we stayed for twenty minutes and enjoyed this impromptu concert.

Just wandering around, we eventually arrived at the Torre della Campanella, the bell tower and arched gate entrance to Piazza Mascheroni and the Visconti Citadel which guarded the western entrance of the city from invasion, and protected the Visconti family from civil rebellion. The citadel is now home to the Civic Archaeological Museum and the Bergamo Science Museum. 

Remarkably, the buildings adjacent to the gateway still have faded remnants of renaissance era frescoes adorning their exterior walls.

Outside the city walls, the landscape opened to vistas of rolling hills, still holding the fading colors of fall.

Back at Piazza Vecchia the afternoon sun was beginning to break through the clouds when we decided to head to the top of the Campanone. 

The elevator stopped short of the top and we had to navigate a narrow passage to reach the highest level.

Each corner of the tower offered an amazing bird’s eye perspective of the ancient city, from soaring above the cathedrals on Piazza Duomo, to cityscapes of red tiled rooftops with smoke wafting from their chimneys, to distant still green hills.

The city is full of potential, and you won’t be disappointed if you spend two nights here to fully explore the Città Alta. But Old Town Bergamo is the perfect size to entertain you for four or five hours, on your way to or from Milan or Verona, either by train or car, without feeling you might have missed something.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Verona – Courtesans, Hermits and Grappa

Occasionally, I will suggest we return to a place we have visited before, to relive that good time and explore the things we missed previously, or if it was a super affordable destination.  “The world is so big. I’d rather go someplace new,” is often Donna’s response, said with a sweet smile.  But “the rule” doesn’t apply to Italy! – the land of her people.  I’ve lost count of the number of times Donna has been there, but I maintain I’ve followed along often enough to receive honorary citizenship. Let’s face it, Italy is a great place to explore, which led us to Verona, again, for a night. Anyway, it was sort of on our roundabout way to Milan.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the budget friendly Accommodation Verona, (yes, that is the correct name) on the edge of the historic district. We double parked while the proprietor took our bags upstairs. He then hopped in the passenger seat to show the way to the underground car park and the hotel’s newly purchased garage spaces, with overhead doors to totally secure your wheels, which he was immensely proud of. It was a bit of a hike from the hotel, but the car was safe in the parking garage equivalent of Fort Knox.

The sun was brilliant on Verona’s ancient colosseum while we sipped Aperol spritzes and shared a pizza at an outdoor restaurant on Piazza Bra, as shoppers strolled amidst the nearby Christmas market. Gone were the fake gladiators and other street entertainers who left when the weather turned colder.

It was a vastly different dining experience compared to our first dinner in Verona years ago.  Travel novices then, we were constantly referencing a travel guide by an American, that recommended sights, hotels and restaurants. With book in hand that suggested the restauranteur would treat us well and offer special prices to loyal readers of said guide, we found a delightful place on a quiet lane lined with outdoor tables and twinkling lights.  “Who?” was the response when we mentioned the guidebook. A large antipasto, charcuterie board, wine and “special price” were all agreed upon. Or so we thought.

It was one of those long, delightful European dining experiences, where the table was ours for the evening. The dinner and ambiance were great! Eventually our amiable host, carrying the largest bottle of grappa we’ve ever seen, presented a small wooden box containing the bill. “Please enjoy as much of the grappa as you like.” Drink this to ease the shock of the bill, would have been a more accurate invitation.  Grappa is a regional pomace brandy, distilled from the seeds, stems and skins left over from the winemaking process. Production is centered nearby around the aptly named village of Bassano del Grappa. This is strong stuff that, in a pinch, Italian farmers have used to fuel their tractors. A good dent was put into that bottle of grappa, as we were eventually the last to leave. Fortunately, our hotel was a short, though not very straight, giggly walk away.  Sleep was unjustly cut short the next morning when at sunrise, the glass recycling truck in the alley under our hotel window loudly emptied a dumpster of wine bottles to haul away.  The brash rattling sound of glass bottles crashing was excruciating and reverberated off the narrow alleyway’s walls for what seemed an eternity.  Thank God for espresso and Saint Drogo, the patron saint of coffee baristas. (I do not make these things up!)    

Normally hidden in deep shadows, Renaissance era wall paintings decorating ancient buildings were now revealed in the last of the afternoon’s light. Likewise, the lowering sun highlighted the fine relief sculptures adorning many of the city’s ancient buildings.

By dusk we were standing along the Adige riverfront watching the last rays of the day’s sun color the sky above the arched 14th century Castelvecchio Bridge.  Attached to the Castelvecchio fortress, the bridge was intended as an escape route for the feudal lords to flee across in case of a popular uprising or coup d’état to seek safety in the Tyrol mountains, north of the city, and for the prince’s courtesans to discreetly exit the castle.

The lights of the city’s Christmas tree shined brightly through the twin arches of the Porta Borsari; built by the Romans in the 1st century AD, it was the main entrance to this once walled city. Nearby, Caffè Borsari beckoned, with its extensive list of creative coffee beverages. Maestros of the espresso machine, the baristas here are artists.

The next morning was overcast as we drove across the Adige River and made our way up a serpentine road through a forested hillside, to the esplanade in front of Castel San Pietro for the panoramic view of Verona, and its iconic Ponte Pietra bridge below.  A wonderful feat of ancient engineering first crossed in 100 BC, it has had a troubled existence, with multiple collapses caused by flooding over the centuries, and intentional destruction by the retreating Germany army in WWII. Through the various reconstructions, the builders have remained faithful to the original Roman design of five different sized arches with apertures above the pilings. The present castle on the hill was built by the Austrians in 1851 as a barracks, replacing a 400-year-old fortress blown up by Napoleon’s army in 1801. For the hearty, there are stairs from the bridge that lead to the mirador, or the Funicolare di Castel San Pietro that will whisk you to the top of the hill, should you wish to avoid the muscle aches.

The dull sun barely broke through the clouds, but the filtered light created a serene scene reminiscent of an impressionist painter’s pastel hued landscape, soft and atmospheric.

Rounding a curve on the SS12, as we headed north, we caught our first glimpse of a snow-capped Mt. Baldo, brilliantly white against a clear blue sky. Our destination was the remote and isolated Santuario Madonna della Corona.  A pilgrimage site since 1522, legend holds that on the eve of the Ottoman invasion of Rhodes, with 400 warships and 100,00 troops, the sanctuary’s statue of the Madonna was carried miraculously by an angel from the Mediterranean island to a shallow cave on a Mount Baldo cliff edge, home to a hermitage for holy men, for safe keeping.

Spiazzi, the village above the sanctuary, was nearly a ghost town when we arrived mid-week in November. We found the empty parking lot for the church and high-season shuttle bus that was not running, but aside from that there was no other signage pointing the way. Taking a guess, we turned down a very narrow country lane and headed down hill, stopping when we reached a farm stand where a stoic woman, bundled up against the cold, was selling alpaca wool, sheared and spun from her flock which was corralled nearby.  Stopping, we asked if we were headed the right way and how long she would be open. A little farther on we came to the first Passion of Christ station on the Sentiero del Pellegrino, the Pilgrim’s Path.  The series of life-sized bronze sculptures depicting the stations of the cross took the devoted Italian sculptor Raffaele Bonente thirty years to create.  Whether you walk along or drive the paved road or hike the steep staired path, the stations are positioned where the routes intersect. 

In the off-season, without any other vehicles on the road, it was easy to stop and take photos of the church that tenaciously clings to the cliffside, between heaven and earth, 2539ft above the Adige Valley. In high season the turn-around at the church is reserved for the shuttle bus, but off season we parked next to one other visitor.

The original dangerous path along the cliff edge has been obscured over time through multiple improvements and the approach to the terrace in front of the church is now through a rough-hewn tunnel carved into the cliff. Tranquility reigns here. The views across the valley were phenomenal and accompanied only by the sound of a gentle wind rustling through the forest below.  The spiritual devotion and shear physical effort to build a church in such a difficult spot attests to the deep faith and dedication of the builders. For hikers, the Sentiero del Pellegrino continues down the slope, through the valley to the village of Brentino.

Following the same route back to Spiazzi, we stopped at the alpaca farm and purchased some much-needed heavy weight alpaca wool socks, to help keep our feet warm.  Early on in our two-year journey Donna decided to start crocheting in the evenings. Wool has been purchased for various projects, mostly gifts, in Ecuador, Guatemala, Portugal, South Africa and now Italy, from an off-the beaten-path farm stand on a remote mountainside.  It was late afternoon now, but fortunately the Albergo Trattoria Speranza, located at the crossroads of Spiazzi was still serving food and has rooms if you want to stay overnight in the hamlet.  A good meal restored us for the drive to Lake Garda.

With night drawing in earlier now we reached the lakeside village of Garda at twilight.  Sunset colors lingered in the sky as we walked along the marina. A few fishermen were still casting, hoping for that last bite, and small boats gently rocked on the ripples of Lake Garda. 

The lights of a Christmas market set up along the lakefront drew us further down the promenade.  Wonderful aromas drifted from the various food stalls, making what to choose for dinner even more difficult. Mulled wine and porchetta sandwiches capped the evening.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Ravenna and San Marino – Golden Tiles & Mountain Vistas

A curtain of fog blanketed our route as we traversed the Po River Valley and crossed into the Emilia-Romagna region on our way to Ravenna. The purpose – to see some of the finest Byzantine mosaics outside of Constantinople, present day Istanbul, which was once the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. Not to be outdone, Ravenna’s golden mosaics rival Constantinople’s and were created in the 5th century when Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire after Rome’s demise. Eight churches have been recognized by UNESCO for their cultural significance as “Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna.”  Most of them are credited to a building boom by Justinian I after a reconquest of the city from the Ostrogoths in 535 that solidified Byzantine power on the Italian Peninsula along the Adriatic coast.

The valley had been the breadbasket of Northern Italy for several millennia when the Etruscans and Romans first started to drain the wetlands to expand areas for cultivation to support a growing populace aligned with city-states of the region. The spring floods from the snow melt of the Alps, Apennines and Dolomite mountain ranges replenish the valley’s fertile soil every year before pouring into the Northern Adriatic Sea.

With the belief that the valleys are always greener on the other side of the Alps, invading armies contested the area for centuries. French kings, German tribes, Galls, Hannibal with eighty war elephants, Goths, Attila the Hun, Papal armies, and Napoleon have all wanted this green acreage, and were willing to shed blood for it.

The fog had lifted, but it was still a moody day as we entered the Basilica di San Vital. The unique octagonal church was one of Justinian’s first commissions to celebrate Christianity in the city on a grand scale. The splendor of its lofty mosaics that rise from the floor, on all sides, to encompass the domed ceiling are dazzling. The golden tiles warmly reflecting the ambient light even on a dreary day.

Byzantine mosaics evolved from the Greek use of different colored river stones to create sturdy designs in ancient roads. Durable marble was preferred for its vast array of colors and was used for interiors floors in palaces.  Lasting centuries, these intricate designs are often referred to as “eternal pictures.”

The Byzantine artists’ innovation was to use physically lighter and more fragile material such as different colored glass pieces and mother of pearl, along with incorporation of gold and silver leaf. The color palette expanded with the refinement of glazed tiles.

A short distance behind the basilica stands the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, intended as the final resting place for Teodosius the Great’s daughter. It was never used as a tomb, as she died in Rome.  The small, modest brick structure is designed in the shape of a Latin cross and is inspirationally decorated as a “prelude to paradise.” A surprisingly intimate and tranquil space, it is one of the oldest religious monuments in Ravenna dating to 430 AD.

A short walk across town, the Cattedrale della Risurrezione di Nostro Signore Gesù Cristo or Duomo of Ravenna, the Baptistery of Neon, and the Archiepiscopal Museum of Ravenna all share the same campus. Though considerably newer, the 18th century Duomo is built over the ruins of an early fourth century church and retains several early side chapels and fifth century sarcophagi.

Behind the cathedral the former bishop’s residence has been converted into a museum displaying a diverse collection of religious relics. The highlight though was the exquisitely mosaiced sanctuary, the Chapel of St. Andrew.  It was built in 495 AD for the private use of Ravenna’s archbishops.

The museum directly behind the cathedral was also interesting. with its diverse collection of religious relics and an exquisite private chapel for the bishop.

The real reward for the trek across town was the early fifth century Baptistry of Neon.  The octagon-shaped brick building appears to have settled into the ground, but in actuality, centuries’ worth of construction detritus from earlier settlements in Ravenna have raised the surrounding terrain ten feet since the structure was built. This necessitates the occasional raising of the entrance.

At the baptistry it’s all about the magnificent mosaics that adorn the dome. Above arched windows, the center medallion features John the Baptist christening Jesus in the River Jordan, followed by an encircling outer ring that depicts the twelve apostles. Astonishingly, most of the original mosaic work survives and is still intact. During a minor 19th century restoration, a mosaic artist freelanced with creative license and added the bowl that St. John is using to pour water – a scandal at the time.

The tall ridge of Monte Titano rose above the gentle hills of the Emilia-Romagna countryside surrounding San Marino like a tall ship’s white sail on the ocean; its three fortress towers mimicked the crow’s nest atop a schooner’s mast.  The towers served the same purpose: as lookout posts, to spot any approaching threat. They have served the Republic well since its founding in 301 AD, when the Christian stonemason Marinus, who was later beatified as San Marino, fled Rimini to avoid the Diocletianic Persecutions.  Also known as the Great Persecution, it was the last and harshest repression of Christianity in the Western Roman Empire before it was accepted as the state religion in 313 AD.  The rugged terrain of the mountain provided safe refuge for the small community of followers who built a small chapel and monastery. As the community grew, a governing system evolved that included representation of each family by the head of the household in an assembly called the Arengo.  Representatives were summoned to the meetings by the ringing of the church bell. This eventually changed to a Grand and General Council which elected two Captains Regents for six-month terms. In 1861 the tiny constitutional republic bestowed honorary citizenship on Abraham Lincoln. In his acceptance letter he wrote, “Although your dominion is small, your State is nevertheless one of the most honored, in all history. It has by its experience demonstrated the truth…that Government founded on Republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring.” On the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, in 2015, San Marino minted a ten-euro commemorative coin that highlights the great orator’s words to the tiny republic: “Great and Good Friends.”

Giuseppe Garibaldi and a band of followers received refuge in San Marino before the tide of the unification movement turned in his favor. In the 1870’s, San Marino was asked to join with the rest of the Italian peninsula. However, the good will engendered by their gracious treatment of Garibaldi prevented the tiny republic from suffering invasion after they politely declined.

Along with Andorra, Monaco and Liechtenstein, San Marino is a surviving example of a medieval city-state that was once quite common throughout Europe and especially the Italian peninsula. In such esteemed company, one would expect the place be expensively exclusive. That would have held true if we had visited during the high season. But that’s not the case in November when cold winds whip across Monte Titano. With some internet sleuthing, Donna found us a great rate at Hotel Rosa San Marino.

The last vestiges of autumn colors still clung to the trees that lined our serpentine route up the mountain that ended at one of the ancient city gates through a crenelated wall.  The hotel had assured us that parking was available on site when we made the reservation several months prior, but a traffic sign warned that vehicles were prohibited and to proceed no farther.  With a quick phone call to the hotel they confirmed that they would register our car with the city and that we could drive through the gate and into the historic district without any worries. 

With a few tight turns between buildings, we drove higher and literally parked beneath the Guaita Tower, San Marco’s first tower and iconic fortress built in the 11th century.  Only a few steps from the paths along Monte Titano’s ridgeline, the hotel was in an ideal location to explore the mountaintop city and had wonderful views from its balcony.

The next morning, we braved the chill wind and climbed to the top of the tower. Donna loves these vertical expeditions. Steep ladders, crumbling fortress walls, and cliffside trails don’t intimidate her. I on the other hand have a healthy fear of heights and am only emboldened with a camera in hand in order to pursue the best photo ops. Spots along the ridge trail connecting the towers were challenging for me, but extremely rewarding for the views.

The panoramic, birds-eye-views from the tower were phenomenal and well worth my shaky knee syndrome while on the ladder to the top. The region of Montefeltro spread out below us toward all the compass points. Northward and south the gentle valleys and hills of Emilia-Romagna were saturated with the earthen tones of autumn. To the east the Adriatic coastline near Rimini shimmered on the horizon and it’s said on the best days you can see the mountains in Croatia.  To the west the borders of Tuscany, Marche and Umbria straddled the rugged Appenine mountains around the Regional Natural Park of Sasso Simone and Simoncello.  During the day the towers were manned by lookouts for signs of any approaching armies and at night to spot their campfires.

To get to the second and third towers we had to pass through defensive wall that protected the core of ancient village and cross an arched stone bridge, called the Witches Path, Passo delle Streghe, above a deep gorge that divides the ridge. It gets its name from the howling winds that whip through the high, narrow gorge and sound like voices. Allegedly, during the Dark Ages a coven of witches practiced their black magic here. More accurately though, suspected witches in San Marino were thrown to their deaths from the cliff edge. Falesia, the 13th century second tower, was built on the highest point of the ridge (2,425 ft) and used to house a garrison of crossbowmen. It now houses a military museum that showcases ancient weaponry, but was unfortunately closed for repairs during our November visit.

A small door through the Falesia’s outer wall connected to a rugged cobbled path that continued to Terza Torre, the third tower or Montale. The slender 14th century tower stands alone in a wooded area on the bow of the ridge. Built as a lookout tower and prison, the only door to the structure is twenty feet off the ground where prisoners were thrown into one large pit in the tower’s foundation.  This tower has never been open to tourists, but the scenery along the trail makes it well worth the visit.  Challenging trails off this path circumnavigate Monte Titano and eventually lead to the valley below.  The early morning and sunset light on the mountain are totally different and enhance a romantic ambience that is especially rewarding for photographers.

Fortunately, at the other end of the tower path there were many restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating.  Opting to eat outside on a breezy day, so that we could continue to enjoy the view, we lucked out and were able to get a table along the cliff edge that was out of the wind. Another advantage to November travel is that merchants are gearing up for Christmas. The town was very pretty with its holiday decorations, and we were just a bit early for the Christmas market, although the cute little cottages were already set up. Donna had fun browsing the shops, and found a nice commemorative: a roof tile with a miniature Christmas scene built into it.

The next morning it almost seemed easier to walk the ridge trail than the steep streets of San Marino’s historic center that were giving our calf muscles a workout.

The Basilica di San Marino and the much smaller Chiesa di San Pietro stand next to each other on Piazzale Domus Plebis.  Encompassing the mountain into its structure, Chiesa di San Pietro originally dates to the 600s and has a carved stone recess that legend believes was San Marino’s bed when he first sought sanctuary on the mountain.  The basilica was rebuilt in 1826 in a Neoclassical style over the ruins of an earlier 4th century church. In the church, relics of San Marino are safely kept under the altar.

Following narrow lanes we came to the Funivia · Città (Libertà), a cable car, that can whisk tourists up or down the mountain in two minutes, to the parking lot by the Castle of Borgo Maggiore. At this end of the city the wide terrace of Contrada del Pianello offered different yet equally enthralling vistas of the surrounding countryside. The panoramas were especially dramatic late one afternoon, when the sun broke through the cloud cover and cast dramatic shadows cross the countryside.

There is no passport control when you enter San Marino from Italy, which is disappointing if you enjoy getting those passport stamps as reminders of your travels, but for diehards like us, the San Marino Tourist Office, located by the cable car station, will stamp your book for five euros.

San Marino has some interesting public sculpture and the first piece we encountered was in a small park plaza across from the tourist office. The Alle Vittime Del Bombardament, depicts a young woman rescuing a small child. It commemorates the bombing of the country, a neutral territory, in June 1944 when allied forces mistakenly believed the German Army had retreated onto Monte Titano. Two hundred sixty-three Sammarinese were killed during that air raid.

Working our way to the Museo di Stato, the National Museum, we passed the old stone quarry where the country’s crossbowmen, a military unit formed in 1295, once trained. It’s still used by The San Marino Federation of Crossbowmen, a group of ceremonial crossbowmen, musicians and flag-wavers who now entertain at festivals in Renaissance dress. Further along, just before the Palazzo Pubblico, San Marino’s capital building where the Captains Regents and the Grand Council conduct the business of the country, more whimsical sculptures graced a small area with benches. 

Piazza della Libertà in front of the Palazzo Pubblico gets its name from San Marino’s own version of Lady Liberty. Sculpted from brilliant white Carrara marble, the Statua della Libertà depicts a striding female warrior, carrying a flag-draped spear and extending a hand in peace, with the three towers of Monte Titano as her crown. It was donated to the country in 1876 by German Countess Otilia Heyroth Wagener, a former Berlin ballerina, who married an Italian nobleman. This was ten years before the French Statue of Liberty was finished in New York harbor.

Adjacent to the entrance of the National Museum, the Grande Statua Nudo Femminile or the “Great Female Nude Statue,” (this title creates such an unflattering visualization for a tranquil figure and anyway the sculpture is only 5.5ft tall) by Italian sculptor Francesco Messina stands in front of the Cassa di Risparmio della Repubblica di San Marino, a bank. The bronze was purchased to celebrate the bank’s 100th anniversary.  I can just imagine the discussion around the board of directors table, “Profits are up this year, we should invest.” “Yeah, big nude sculptures are symbolic of banking success, financial stability!” “One would look good in front of the building.” “Okay, let’s vote.” I’m being sarcastic, of course, though San Marino does have liberal banking regulations and welcomes offshore accounts from wealthy individuals looking to hide their assets.

The Museo di Stato, the National Museum, has an interesting collection of archeological items discovered on Monte Titano and its surrounding territory that spans its early history, along with art and religious items.  We were not aware of it at the time, but San Marino offers a museum pass for 8€ that allows you visit all seven of the country’s national museums. It is a very good value.

It was a long uphill walk back to our hotel, but well worth it to enjoy the quaint lanes of this unique republic one last time before our departure the next morning. If you are looking for an aerial experience over the Italian countryside without renting a helicopter, a trip up Mount Titano in San Marino might fit the bill.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Driving South to Sicily: Part One – Herculaneum to Sorrento, or “They Have You by the Coglioni!”

The car rental agent across from the Naples train station enthusiastically informed us that we were the first drivers of a brand-new Peugeot. Leading us to a shiny set of wheels, parked on busy street in front of the office, he offered a rudimentary description of the car’s technological features, a collision avoidance system and satellite navigation that would show every radar speed camera on the Italian highways.

With our luggage in the trunk and a friendly wave we were off, or so we thought.  Just barely moving forward, the collision avoidance system screeched alive with alarms and red blinking threats on the dashboard display.  It happened frequently as we worked our way through heavy Neapolitan traffic. Scooters, cars, trucks and pedestrians getting close to our bumpers set the system into a frenzy of piercing alarms and flashing lights.  Nerve wracking – it felt like I was Luke Skywalker thundering along in an X-wing fighter while R2D2 whizzed with anxiety, as we tried to evade the Empire’s eradication. In reality we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Fortunately, the congestion eased, and Herculaneum was only a twenty-minute drive from Naples.

We had visited Pompei years earlier, one June when Italy was having an early heat wave and the temperature was over 100F.  As interesting as Pompei was, the size of the site and the heat dampened our enthusiasm for it. This day was quite a different experience, as the weather in November was very agreeable for visiting Herculaneum.

We descended into its excavated ruins, which were destroyed and covered with 53ft of ash on the same fateful night as Pompeii in 79AD.  The towering black walls of solidified ash surrounding the site reinforced the magnitude of the catastrophe. The coastal town was popular with wealthy Romans who built Domus style homes which were richly decorated with frescoes and mosaics.  Arched workshops of boatbuilders lined the shore and were the last refuge of citizens trying to flee, their agony now eternally preserved in casts of their bodies.  The massive amount of ash and volcanic rock that fell created a new shoreline on the Bay of Naples, 2000ft farther west. 

Only a fraction of the size of Pompeii, the Herculaneum archeological area doesn’t draw the immense crowds of the larger site, but is just as interesting and in some ways more so. Unlike Pompeii, which was engulfed in a scorching lava flow which destroyed most of the wood and decorative elements of the homes there, the cooler ash and poisonous gases that killed the populace of Herculaneum preserved the homes to a greater degree, leaving the wooden internal structure of buildings and their interior décors intact.  This combined with an earlier visit to the Naples National Archaeological Museum to see the finest examples of relics recovered from the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii provided us with deeper insight into the opulent lifestyle of the 1st century AD Roman Empire.  Herculaneum was easily explored in a half day and enabled us to continue to Sorrento in a timely manner.

With fond memories of the serpentine Amalfi Coast from a trip a fifteen years earlier, we decided to base our new weeklong exploration of the Sorrentine Peninsula in Sorrento.  The route into town along SS145 didn’t disappoint us when rounding a cliff-hugging bend of the road revealed a view all the way out to the Isle of Capri. By staying in the largest town of the region we didn’t have to worry about seasonal closures, which unfortunately were beginning to happen in mid-November.  Only a short walk from the center of town and the waterfront with Mount Vesuvius commanding the horizon across the Bay of Naples, the lovely Villa Rosa Sorrento with its modest off-season pricing and free parking was a terrific value and perfect for us.

With our attempts at immersive travel, we avoid scratching off a list of designated tourist highlights; rather,  we explore a place seeking how to experience how folks live, the everydayness of a place, and whether we would enjoy living there. “Walk a little, then café,” is our slow travel approach as we soak up the ambience of a locale.

La Tana Del Vino on Via Parsano was a delightful find. This small enoteca features regionally produced wines that they decant for you from large stainless-steel vats into your own glass or plastic bottles.  A variety of red, white and rose’ wines were available, most between 3-4€ per liter.  Samples were freely poured and we very pleased with our selection of these table wines. 

Sorrento with its ferry service to Capri gears itself to the high season.  There were still tourists out and about, but the large tour buses and groups were absent in November, the beginning of the rainy season.  We ran between rain drops the best we could on several occasions. 

With the port as our destination for lunch, it was a pleasant stroll along near empty sidewalks to Chiostro di San Francesco, a 14th century convent with a lush, greenery-filled cloister that now hosted other activities and concerts.  On the top floor Raffaele Celentano’s photography school and gallery had a marvelous patio shaded by the canopy of stately tree. A wooden swing hanging from its branches brought smiles to the faces of many gallery visitors as they playfully took a turn.

The panoramic balcony in the public garden across from the convent is a magnet for sunset worshippers.  In the garden the city operates the Sorrento Lift, two elevators that take tourists and residents down to the harbor level where hydrofoils and ferry service is available to Capri, Ischia, Positano and Naples, along with access to the beach clubs and the city’s public beach. 

After washing our clothes in various sinks for two weeks it was time for a thorough laundering, and we lugged our bundle to a laundromat in town. It was a very clean facility. We were amused to notice that the vending machine that dispensed soap products also offered a very broad selection of marijuana products as well, presumably to allay the tedium of the task.  The selections weren’t inexpensive, with many items costing over twenty euros.  This was something unique that we had never come across before in our travels.  The world is changing so quickly, but we can’t imagine dropping a twenty euro note into a vending machine for anything.

With our clothes in the dryer, we decided to head to lunch, and immediately got drenched to the bone in a sudden downpour.  Looking like water rats, we sought shelter under the awning of a pizzeria. Seeing us, the proprietor of Master Hosts (not a very atmospheric name) ushered us inside and kindly insisted we warm ourselves in front of the pizza oven.  Even if we hadn’t been so extremely grateful for his hospitality, this was some of the best pizza and wine we had in Italy, while our fingers de-wrinkled. His graciousness turned a gloomy day into a wonderful afternoon. 

Another rainy night we made our way early to La Cantinaccia del Popolo, a rustic neighborhood restaurant that stays open all year to cater to its loyal following.  Part deli, part gourmet restaurant, the open kitchen is fronted by a glass charcuterie case with an exotic display of dried meats, cheeses, pates, terrines, and olives. The gastronomic delights from the kitchen are plated in their signature deep dish pans.  Packed and noisy, with a friendly staff, delicious food, and a good house wine, this was a cozy place to enjoy the evening. Fortified with a great meal and drink, we faced a cold November rain as we walked back to our inn.  If you prefer to dine later in the evening, reservations are suggested after 8 PM.

Lemons, lemons everywhere!  Regional seafood, pasta, rice, chicken, pastry, and gelato recipes all use this tart fruit in delectable ways. And remember limoncello! The cool breezes of the Mediterranean that blow against the steep mountains of the Amalfi coast create a unique microclimate where lemons flourish and are harvested multiple times of the year, though the most desirable crop is picked between March and July.  This is a strenuous labor-intensive activity as the steep terrain requires all the fruit to be picked by hand and the heavy grates are carried out of the orchards on the backs of men. 

A morning drive along the sinuous coast and a turn into the mountains brought us to Ravello in time for lunch at a small restaurant with only six indoor tables.  Fifteen years ago, as a wedding present to each other, we splurged and purchased a dinnerware set of ceramics featuring the iconic Amalfi lemons, set against a rich blue background.  Over the years everyday use had taken its toll on our plates.  Fortunately, Pascal Ceramiche d’Arte was still painting our pattern and they ship internationally, so we were able to fill in a few gaps in our service.

After coffee we wandered the town’s narrow, high walled lanes down the hill towards the Monastero Di S. Chiara.  Along the way we encountered a construction worker leading a team of donkeys with rigid saddlebags full of sand to a worksite, the ancient alley too tight for any vehicle to maneuver through.

There’s no way around it, “they have you by the coglioni!” when you are trying to find a parking garage in Positano.  In this most beautiful village on the Amalfi Coast we paid through the nose for the privilege of parking.  Water, café, food and parking, even in the off season, are exorbitantly priced.  But on a sunny day, when the sky clears after a morning storm, the dramatic setting of the terraced village is at its best. Positano rises steeply into the mountains from the sea sparkling like a spectacular Byzantine mosaic, radiating light and color.  It’s well worth the splurge even if you have to eat Ramen noodles for the next three days to get back on budget.

To our delight we found a wonderful, affordable spot for a late lunch in Agerola called Jerla as we navigated our way across the mountaintop on the way back to Sorrento.

Getting there required a breathtaking drive through the numerous switchbacks of Strada Statale 366, also referred to as the Via Panoramica, that climbed through the terraced vineyards of San Michele and had incredible views of the Amalfi Coast below.

We each wanted to be in control on this treacherous road. We argued about who got to drive as we sped around the curves, and who was relegated to digging their fingernails into the dashboard.

Til next time, Craig & Donna

The Road to Naples – Driving Through Basilicata & Campania: Searching for Family History

To the south, the Ionian Sea sparkled in the distance as we left Alberobello behind and headed west along the E90.  Our destination in three days’ time – Naples. There was some family history to investigate before that, though, and we set the GPS course to Sassano on a journey to explore the ancestral village of Donna’s maternal grandmother. On the far side of Basilicata, the small hilltop village sits just inside the border of the Campania region.  This would be the culmination of a trip planned years ago, that was originally going to be shared with her mother, before her passing.  Nearer to Naples, we also planned to visit Volturara Irpina, the birthplace of her paternal grandfather. 

Our road trips rarely involved a direct route between destinations and this held true as we turned away from the coast and followed the E847 through the Basento River Valley into the rugged mountains of Basilicata.  Ancient hilltop villages crowned the ridges on either side of the roadway, each looking worthy of future investigation. The Basilicata region has been referred to as “Italy’s best-kept secret” by the New York Times, but it was once the realm of roving bands of brigands. Highwaymen of legend made traveling in the region notoriously unsafe after the unification of Italy in the 1870s.

Under the Royal House of Bourbon, southern Italy fought against unification.  After the war the residents were disenfranchised by unfulfilled promises; with support from Bourbons in exile and the church, which had much of its lands seized, many in opposition to the new government headed to the hills.  These brigands were informally comprised of people with different motives. Former soldiers, some nobles, criminals, peasants, and farmers filled their ranks. The most famous one, Carmine Crocco, aka Donatello, led a band of two thousand men. Your criminal is my guerilla-fighter hero. I guess it depends on which folksongs you listen to.  The region was remote, and severely poverty stricken. During the fascist era of the 1930’s and 40’s, the Basilicata region was used as an open-air prison, where political dissidents were sentenced to exile in remote villages – Italy’s Siberia.

With mountains deforested of wood for fuel, poor soil conditions for farming, an illiteracy rate of seventy percent, bleak employment opportunities in other industries and a central government dominated by northerners that ignored the region, four million Italians chose prospects for a better future and emigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1924.  Others headed to Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Australia and South Africa.  It wasn’t unusual for emigrants from the same village to head to the same new cities overseas where they continued the tradition of campanilismo, the spirit of “loyalty to those who live within the sound of your village’s church bells.” Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York all drew huge concentrations of new immigrants eager to prosper, and societies like the Italian Welfare League helped folks adapt to a new home in a foreign country.

Castelmezzano, castle in the middle, between Albano di Lucania and Pietrapertosa, was our first stop. Descendants of 6th century Greek settlers in the Basento Valley fled to safety in the jaws of the Lucanian Dolomites when Saracen invaders from North Africa forced the local populace from the river valley into the mountains. The smooth sides of the tall, steep tooth-shaped outcroppings that protected the villages of Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa were perfect for villagers to roll boulders down onto their attackers. 

The same mountains offered safe haven to the brigands of the late 1800’s.  Today the area, only two and a half hours from Naples, is part of the 67,000 acre Parco Regionale di Gallipoli Cognato, a mountainous park with wolves, foxes, porcupines, and wild boar that is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy camping, hiking, biking and rock climbing. 

The area is stunningly beautiful with its unique rock formations, lush forests, olive groves, vineyards, and pastures. During the spring and summer, the small villages of the region host colorful Marriage of the Trees Festivals that combine ancient pagan rites with Catholicism to celebrate fertility and hope. Mid-week in the middle of November the area was nearly deserted, and unfortunately there were not any cafes open. Hopefully, it would be different on the weekends. 

Back on the highway we speculated how interesting a future trip would be, zigzagging back and forth across the valley to explore every hilltop village, large and small. There were so many of them!  We still regret not stopping in Brienza to walk through the historic district at the foot of its 7th century castle, after its profile suddenly burst forth and filled the windscreen as we rounded a curve.

The sun was just setting as we pushed the button on the driveway gate to Affittacamere – Nonno Domenico, located in the valley below Sassano.  Check-in was smooth, but establishing our internet connection required first the involvement of the innkeeper’s teenage son and then his older sister. In the off-season, prospects for dinner were extremely limited. Though Google Maps showed many restaurants in the area, they were closed for the season. After driving around searching, we ended up having a delicious, no-frills dinner at the local pizza parlor. 

We scored big time the next morning for breakfast with our discovery of Pasticceria Tropiano Peccati di Gola & Dintorni. This bakery and café is run by two brothers, Cono and Franco, who are devoted to guiding their customers through the “consumption of sinful delicacies and coffees.”  They offer baked goods of a quality you would expect to find in Naples or Florence, not in the remote area surrounding Sassano. 

The village of Sassano rose sharply from the flat, flood plain of the Tanagro River in the Vallo di Diano, the lower slope of Monte Cervati checkered with the stacked profiles of dwellings built of stone and capped with red tile roofs. 

At the foot of the hill, the spring-fed communal laundry looked newly renovated, with updated washbasins and scrub racks.  Empty laundry detergent bottles indicated recent use.  Outside we refilled our water bottles from an ever-flowing fountain built into the terraced wall.  Basilian monks have been credited with the first construction of a fountain on this site in the 10th century when the village was founded. It’s difficult to believe in this day and age that such facilities are needed and still used. But it reflects the past poverty of the region and the plight of the elderly who still use it.  Just imagine the task of carrying a basket of wet laundry uphill, back to your home to dry.

The lane into the village rose slowly to the small central plaza, Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini, where most of the buildings looked permanently shuttered.  We parked in front of a long-closed butcher’s shop which stood yards from a war memorial that listed the village’s men that did not return from two world wars.  The only sign of life emanated from a tiny bar across the cobbled square, where the barista made small talk with an elderly pensioner sipping prosecco, while warming himself at a sunny table.  We ordered café and planned our morning. Could we find Donna’s grandmother’s home here? 

There are only steep, narrow streets called “carrare,” meaning only as wide as a cart, here. In the early 1900s they would have been filled with farm carts, donkeys, chickens, and a milk cow if you were well off.  Somewhere in the family archive, a photo exists of a young woman returning from the forest with a huge bundle of foraged wood tied to her back.  Water was gathered from the village well and carried home. Extremely hard work and no way to avoid it.

Via San Biagio was a short distance away from the plaza and as steep as expected; it curved its way uphill to a small neighborhood church bearing the same name.  Time has not been kind to the homes on the street. Many showed sign of neglect, with broken stairs and windows along with cobwebbed locks on doors that that looked like they had not been opened in decades. Donna had notes written by her mother, who had passed away only the year before our trip. The familiar clear handwriting stated that Christina D’Alessio DeGondea had lived at Number 10 San Biagio. But Number 10 didn’t exist, only Numbers 9 and 11. A mystery. Perhaps Grandma’s birthplace had been destroyed. 

With a copy of her grandmother’s baptismal certificate in hand, we backtracked past the café to the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista. The 16th century church that stands today was built atop the ruins of an earlier 11th century church destroyed by fire.  Unfortunately, the church and its office were closed during the midweek, the population of the village today only supporting Sunday services, and we missed the opportunity to view its preserved baroque frescoes.  We did catch a glimpse of its notable wooden crucifix by peering through the church’s keyhole. 

Only two hours from Naples and just one hour from the Mediterranean, parts of Sassano are showing signs of renewal with gentrification of some of the architecturally unique homes and those with views of the valley.

Walking along we came to a street named Hoboken, a city in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty only a short ferry ride away from Ellis Island and the promise of new life in America. At a small square we found a mural dedicated to those that emigrated from the village; we sat for a while and wondered about life here in the past. 

For a small village there was an amazing number of churches, but that is true of most towns in Italy. One of our favorites was the Chiesa San Michele. Located on a ridge across from the village, it had a panoramic view of Sassano and was a perfect spot for our picnic lunch. 

Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park, the mountainous area around Sassano, is also known for its variety of wild orchids, containing 54 of the 120 varieties found in Italy. Earning the village’s second name “paese delle orchidee” – village of the orchids. It sounds so pretty, and it’s the perfect excuse to return when they are in bloom. Afterwards a caretaker at the town’s cemetery helped us search for family headstones.

The next day we drove to the neighboring town of Monte San Giacomo to explore the village of Donna’s maternal grandfather, Nunzio DeGondea. Larger, the village looked significantly more prosperous, with several small cafés and an open restaurant, Dei Tigli Di Totaro Domenico.

Without much to go on we worked our way to the town cemetery near the Santuario Di Sant’Anna on the outskirt of town to search for his family name.  As cemeteries go it was gracefully beautiful and very tranquil, though family history eluded us.  At the Sant’Anna, Donna held me by the belt as I leaned as far as I could over a low wall to pick plump ripe figs from a wild tree.

Later we searched for a large statue of Christ that we had spotted from a lower road as we drove into town earlier.  It was a good excuse for a leisurely drive around, exploring. Eventually, down a dead-end near the Chiesa Madonna di Loreto, we found it.

Not much is known about the origins of Quaglietta Castle, but it is thought to be a Norman feudal fort from the 11th century. And as intriguing as it looked from the road, I had to fight the impulse to follow the exit ramp. Next time!

Our desire to reach Naples before sunset required an early start to leave enough time to visit Volturara Irpina, roughly translated as “valley of vultures,” due to a large population of the birds that once inhabited the area until the 1900’s. The village of Donna’s paternal grandfather, or as I referred to it, DiMeo-ville. Farmacia DiMeo, Avvocato DiMeo, Clinica Medica DiMeo were all businesses lining the main boulevard and plaza around town hall. We had found her people! Folks were cordial, and since we were obviously foreigners, a few stopped to chat with us. When Donna introduced herself to one gentleman, he smiled. Making a sweeping gesture with his arm, he proclaimed, “Multo DiMeo!” Closer to Naples, the town had the feel of a relatively affluent commuter suburb. In the town park a monument paid tribute to the men of the village who died in the world wars, and the September 23, 1943, allied bombing, due to Nazis troops in the area, which caused sixty civilian deaths.  Many DiMeos were among those lost that day.

Once again, we tried to locate the home where Grandpa DiMeo lived before emigrating. We visited the town hall, but our lack of an extensive Italian vocabulary prompted the receptionist at town hall to call for assistance.  In a hopeful frame of mind, we followed a kind woman, slightly older than us, back to the archives where she opened a safe-like door and leafed through the century old, dry and torn pages of several thick volumes of town records, taking notes as she went.  We were still having difficulty communicating, though the gist of it was “your grandfather came from a neighborhood on that side of town,” as she pointed the way.  “The streets are still there; however, the names were changed decades ago.”  With several “mille grazie,” a thousand thank yous, followed by hugs all around (after all, this is Italy) we headed to of all places – Via Alessandro DiMeo. Of course! It was a long, quiet residential street with modest, well-kept older homes on the edge of town. Only a few homes looked like they had been forgotten.  What was confusing though was that off the main road there was a parallel lane and several dead-end spurs that all went by the name Via Alessandro DiMeo.  Walking the street, we stopped to take a photo of some just-harvested walnuts which an elderly man had placed in the sun to dry.  Asking of our interest in the area, he led us further down the road pointing to where the grocer and tailor shops used to be, though he did not know any DiMeos still in residence there. Parting, he insisted we take some walnuts with us. 

Slowing to find a parking space near the McMany Scottish Pub & Pizzeria I suddenly yelled “I just saw your Dad!” “What do you mean?” Donna responded in surprise. “That man could have been his twin – same hair, same nose. He even wore the same glasses. We have to ask him if he’s related.” Parking was not easy, so we circled the block, only to have lost him. The search began and fortunately two blocks on the gentleman had stopped to speak to a friend.  We quickly double-parked and introduced ourselves the best we could as he was saying goodbye to a younger man. “Ciao, il mio cognome è DiMeo,” Hello, my last name is DiMeo. His friend had stayed when he saw us approaching and interpreted our tale for him as best he could. 

Unfortunately, he had been born in a different region and there were not any DiMeos in his family tree, which was difficult to believe. He kindly posed with Donna for a photo, so we could show the folks back home. For those of you who knew Donna’s father, do you see the resemblance to the gentleman in the above right photo? The old photo on the left is Donna’s paternal grandparents, Domenico and Filomina DiMeo.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Puglia – Alberobello Part 2: Lecce and Nardo – The Florence of the South

“Signor, mio gattino si è nascosto sotto la yuan automobile ed è salito nel motore.” Roughly translated it means – Sir, my kitten ran under your car and is hiding in the engine! My racing imagination added, I will paint a pagan symbol on your car and you will be cursed for the rest of your life if she is hurt.  I exaggerate a little in jest just so you understand this was a crisis!

The night before we had agreed on an early start to Lecce to rendezvous with our friend Giulia for a day exploring her adopted city.  To help move the day along I offered to retrieve our rental car, which was parked a good distance away, uphill, across from the trullo-shaped Church of Saint Anthony of Padua which crowned the hill.

Donna is the designated linguist of the family. I on the other hand have been lovingly accused of slaughtering a fine romance language with just the utterance of a single word, on more than one occasion.

So, when I heard, “Signor, mio gattino si è nascosto sotto la yuan automobile ed è salito nel motore,” I smiled, as I really didn’t understand a word.  But two very worried young girls and their grandfather were standing next to the car and pointing at the engine.  They had placed a saucer of milk and some cat food near the front tire. I understood and joined the older girl who was on ground, looking under the car and meowing for her kitten, quite convincingly I might add. With no sign of a tail dangling from the undercarriage, I popped the engine hood expecting to find the kitten. Nothing.  I slammed the engine hood hoping the loud sound would jolt her from her hidden perch. Still nothing!  The way the car was parked close to an ivy-covered wall I wasn’t convinced that the kitten hadn’t scampered away unseen earlier.  They were signs of growing concern written on the girls’ faces and a growing crowd of onlookers.  Miming turning the ignition key, I conveyed that I needed to start the car and move it around the corner to jump the curb in order to get better access to the engine from below.  Hesitantly, I turned the starter and was deeply relieved when there weren’t any shrieks of horror from the girls or any fur flying. 

With my entourage trailing along, I drove the car around the corner and put two wheels up over the curb to give me just enough room to shimmy underneath for a closer look.  Fortunately, by this time Donna and Gary were rounding the corner in search of me. Much skinnier and a cat lover, Gary was enlisted to wiggle on his back underneath the car. “I don’t see anything. She’s not here.” I frowned, the girls frowned. “Keep looking.” Time passed. “I see her! she’s tucked up very high – let me have some food.” A few moments later, “I have her!” Beaming with joy, the girls and grandad took the kitten to the quiet sidewalk across the street and set her down on the ground.  Almost immediately, to everyone’s horror, the kitten dashed back across the road. The girls screamed and, oblivious to the traffic, dashed into the street in hot pursuit. The terrified kitten once again raced into her hiding place in the engine!  Mercifully, the second rescue was much faster, and with the kitten firmly in the hands of a local woman who assisted, we jumped into the car and sped away to Lecce.

After circling the port city of Brindisi, the highway (SS613) was a straight shot, past the Mura Urbiche architectural complex that highlights remnants of a once formidable city wall that encircled Lecce, to Giardini Pubblici Giuseppe Garibaldi pretty much in the center of the city.

Even though Lecce is located in the middle of the Salento Peninsular, that is often called the “heel of Italy,” the city has had a long bond with the sea.  Legend has it that the King of Crete, Idomene, was blown off course and shipwrecked here while returning home from the Trojan War.  He married the local Salento King’s daughter, Euippa, and named their newborn girl Lecce, after his Lycia homeland in the eight century BC.

Meter parking was available near the Garibaldi Garden, but we opted to find a 24-hour garage so that we wouldn’t have to worry about time.  Lecce has a population of approximately 96,000 folks, 16,000 of which are students. Their presence was evident with in the jovial sidewalk café life we passed as we headed to meet Giula at the tourist information office on Piazza Sant’Oronzo.  We entered the pedestrian-only historic center through an arched gate that led through the 17th century Palazzo dei Celestini’s impressive, cloistered courtyard. Once the private retreat of nuns, it now seats the regional government. Next door stands the Basilica di Santa Croce with its elaborate façade of carved demons, ogres, gargoyles, and beasts.  It’s enough to send any parishioner questioning his faith inside to seek sanctuary.  Fortunately, our timing to visit Lecce was perfect, as just the month before the façade of the basilica was still under wrap from a multi-year renovation project to freshen the sculptures after centuries of erosion.  Its architect Giuseppe Zimbalo took full advantage of the abundant local rock, called Lecce Stone, with its warm color and malleable characteristics.  His opulent Baroque style along with the lavish designs of his contemporaries is credited with earning Lecce the distinction of being “The Florence of the South” during the 17th century.  The talents of the city’s stone carvers rivaled those in Firenze. 

We had a few minutes to view ruins of the 2nd century Roman Amphitheatre that was undiscovered until construction in 1900 unearthed it. Its full size wasn’t realized until further excavation in 1938 determined it could seat 24,000 spectators.  We think it’s wonderful that ancient archeological discoveries are still happening in cities that have been continuously lived in for over two thousand years.

After joyfully greeting Giulia and making introductions all around, we sat at an outdoor café on the edge of the piazza and relished hearing each other’s adventures over the past year.  “The best way to experience the ambience of historic Lecce is to just wander slowly, discover the small details, touch the walls, enjoy the brilliant light and the warmth of the buildings,” Giulia offered as she stood to lead us through the past glory of Lecce. We followed her along shaded lanes, nearly empty of tourists in late October, past Baroque churches and shops shuttered for the afternoon siesta, still a time-honored tradition in southern Italy. “It’s quiet now, but in the evenings the historic district is transformed into a spirited hot spot. The passegiata brings families into the streets, and later the university students keep it lively with their barhopping.”

Large palazzo, with their arched entrances wide enough for a horse drawn carriage, lined the larger streets. Above, stone buttresses carved with gargoyles and animals supported balconies over the street. Interesting antique door knockers beckoned passers-by to rap on ancient doors, some so covered with cobwebs we wondered how many decades ago they we last used. We resisted the temptation.

As we turned a corner, the large Piazza del Duomo spread out before us.  Unlike other piazza in Italy where there are multiple entrances and shops, this piazza only has one way in and out.  The Lecce stone facades of the Museo di Arte Sacra (once a seminary,) Palazzo Arcivescovile (formerly the Bishops’s residence,) and Cathedral of Maria Santissima Assunta with its belltower enclose the plaza on three sides, giving it the ambience of a tranquil cloister.  The first church on this site was built in 1144 and repaired several times over the next 500 years until 1659 when hometown master architect Giuseppe Zimbalo was commissioned to rebuild the cathedral and design the freestanding 230ft tall belltower in the “Baroque of Lecce” style he helped popularize.  His burial under the altar of the cathedral reflected the honor accorded him.

Sitting on the steps of the museum, we admired the warm glow of the late afternoon light as it lit the walls across the piazza. “I would love to live there,” Giulia said, as she pointed to a small, corner terrace brilliant in the sun on an old building at the entrance to the piazza. I think there was a collective “ah, yes;” we understood.

Later in the week Giulia invited us all to visit her in Nardo, her family’s hometown.  It would be our farthest point south on the “heel of Italy.” The GPS directions from Alberobello suggested the fastest route to Nardo through Lecce, but we chose an alternative route that gave us our first glimpse of the Ionian Sea. Following backroads, we drove through vineyards and olive orchards.  Many of the orchards, though, were suffering from a deadly olive tree disease caused by a bacteria, xylella fastidiosa, that is ravishing southern Puglia and its important olive oil industry.  To curb the bacterium’s further spread drastic measures have been implemented. Infected trees and those within 150ft of it are culled from the orchard. Unfortunately, it has radically changing the landscape and farmers’ lives.

We met Giulia and her family at their winery on Via A. Volta, located just outside the historic district. Giulia’s grandfather started Cantine Bonsegna in 1964. Today her father and uncle continue vinting wines in a 1930’s era industrial building on one of the main thoroughfares of Nardo.  Wines from their vineyards in the countryside are brought into town, then pressed and fermented at the rear of the building, where they cork about 150,000 bottles of wine a year, while the front serves as a retail store.  On the second floor a wine bar is open in the evenings and specializes in small plate fare.  Their Danze della Contessa, Dances of the Countess, label was inspired by Giulia’s love of ballet. We might be slightly prejudiced, but we thought their wines were very enjoyable and definitely worth a visit to taste some fine regional wines and buy a case or two, maybe three. We purchased several bottles to enjoy during our trip, and were disappointed to learn that the Bonsegna label was unavailable in the US.