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.

Lake Como – Natural Beauty, Swiss Olives and Pliny the Elder

We had only been settled into our Milan rental for a few days when, upon checking the long-term weather forecast, we decided to take the train to Lake Como the next day.  The days were solidly cold now in northern Italy, but still very pleasant if the sun was shining. By the end of the week, it was expected to rain for a while. What we didn’t expect was a dusting of fresh snow along the route.  In the distance the snowcapped Italian Alps were a blur as the train sped along, delivering us to the town of Como in an hour, the last stop in Italy before Chiasso, Switzerland.  Unsure of where we were heading, we followed the flow of day trippers into the town center past a blend of Gothic, Renaissance and 18th century architecture.

The famous inverted “Y” shaped lake was created by receding glaciers, 10,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. Since the 1st century, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote about it as an “A list” destination for poets and writers. Today artists and celebrities continue to be mesmerized by its natural beauty. The Goths, Ostrogoths, French, Spanish and Austrians have all contributed to its convoluted history until the region was united into the Kingdom of Italy by Giuseppe Garibaldi’s troops in 1859.  Even Mussolini visited one last time as he tried to flee Italy in April 1945 and cross the border into neutral Switzerland, but he was captured by Italian partisans in Dongo, a small village on Lake Como. He was executed the next day.

It was an especially sunny day and the town’s Christmas market on Piazza Cavour across from the lakefront was thriving with folks enjoying the weather and shopping amidst all the stalls for the quickly approaching holiday. At the restaurants lining the piazza, outdoor dining was still in full swing, but was only bearable if you found a table in the sun and used the provided lap blankets to help ward off the winter chill.

Aside from the usual cheese, jam, sausage and porchetta sandwich stalls, there was an olive vendor with an incredible variety of olives for purchase.  One of his most surprising offerings was Lugano olives which originate from the Italian speaking part of Switzerland! – south of the Alps, on the shores of Lake Lugano, just over the hills from Como.

The Passeggiata Amici di Como, a lakefront promenade, was busy with tourist watching swans bob about on the water and folks queuing for the various ferry boats still offering tours.  We followed the walkway as it spurred onto a long pier that extended almost two thirds of the way across the lake and culminated at a large, futuristic monument called Life Electric. Designed by internationally acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind in 2015, the highly polished chrome sculpture brilliantly reflects the sun, sky and water surrounding it and changes continually with the light, evoking continuous motion. It is dedicated to hometown physicist Alessandro Volta who is credited with the invention of the electric battery in 1800.

From here we also watched and listened to a continuous flow of seaplanes roar across the water from the Aero Club where one can book an aerial tour of Lake Como and surrounding mountains.  It’s been a popular activity since it was first offered in 1913.

Back in the historic center we headed to the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta-Duomo di Como. The façade is an exquisite example of Gothic architecture and includes sculptures of hometown stars Pliny the Elder and his nephew, Pliny the Younger, which flank either side of the church’s rose window. 

The interior is decorated with antique tapestries made in Antwerp, Florence and Ferarra during the 16th and 17th centuries. The church’s construction was started in 1396, but wasn’t completed until almost 400 years later in the later part of the 18th century, due to legendary Italian bureaucracy, civil unrest and a stone cutters strikes. (I’m just speculating here, but in 1629 the bubonic plague halved the population of Northern Italy and brought economic hardship to the area that lasted for decades afterward.)

Farther along, the Basilica di San Fedele commanded the other side of the street.  Substantially altered in the 12th century, it incorporated some architectural elements from a 5th century church that originally occupied the site. Entering the church, we were confronted with a terrifying hand-carved wooden sculpture of hundreds of sinners, painted red, being consumed by flames – it’s reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s Vision of Hell. We imagine it was a highly effective teaching tool in the middle-ages.  By late afternoon only a dim light was filtering through the church’s ancient windows as an organist dutifully labored to get the right pitch from the ancient pipes.

Darkness fell early as we walked back through town. Many of the buildings were colorfully illuminated with Christmas holiday projections. It was magical.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

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

Reggio Emilia – Fine Food and Ancient Alleys

Seemingly never-ending waves of softly rolling hills that we viewed from the towers of San Marino, up-close now, were verdant with the new growth of winter cover crops and persimmon orchards, heavy with their delectable late-ripening orange fruit. The landscape, a patchwork quilt of autumn colors and earth tones, dotted the countryside enroute to Reggio Emilia, like the brush strokes of an impressionist painting.

Still elegant nineteenth century villas now stand where Reggio Emilia’s ancient defensive walls once rose, until a surging population demanded city expansion in the late 1800s.  A wide boulevard lined with trees and a well-used bike path now follow its original hexagonal footprint around the bike friendly city.  Bicycling across the flat terrain of Reggio Emilia is a popular way to commute to the train station or work in the pedestrian-only historic center from outlying neighborhoods, and is supported with 125 miles of well-marked urban bike lanes.  Emilia-Romagna has set a regional goal of getting 20% of all commuters to bike to work and funding 2300 miles of dedicated bike lanes.

The Reggiani’s enthusiasm for bicycling dates back to the 1870s, when a hippodrome was part of Parco del Popolo, and continues today with fierce loyalty to area road-bicycling racing teams that compete in the historic Giro dell’Emilia that has coursed through Emilia-Romagna since the race was first held in 1909. Currently it’s an a 1.HC event on the UCI Europe Tour.

With the assistance of the receptionist at Hotel Posta we were able to park on the street, just outside the historic center, without a fee for a week. This is unheard of during high season, but it was a great savings for us that we fully appreciated.  Located in the center of the city on Piazza del Monte, across from city hall, the hotel is in the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, a historic building which was originally constructed in 1280 as a governor’s palace. For over 500 years, since 1472, the rooms under its crenelated roof have been used as a hotel.

It has been renovated numerous times during the centuries, but still retains the old-world charm. The room rate was quite affordable in late November and we practically had the place to ourselves. From our window overlooking the piazza we watched the ebb and flow of Reggio Emilia pass below, highlighted by a teachers’ protest, a Christmas parade, and nightly buskers who took excellent advantage of the wonderful acoustics that the small plaza offered.

The city’s three large piazzas, Camillo Prampolini, Di Prospero, and Della Vittoria, are lined with historic buildings, churches and restaurants. During high season they would have been bustling with tourists and cafes tables would have nearly filled the squares.

Now in late November, city workers were hanging Christmas lights from the lamp poles throughout the city and erecting a Christmas tree in Piazza Prampolini, while a large temporary ice-skating rink was under construction near the Romolo Valli Opera House. 

Bundled up against the chill now, only the hearty sat at the few tables left outside, though inside the cafes was not really much warmer. Good coffee and locally produced Lambrusco helped ward off the chill as we expanded our concept of “walk a little, then café,” during our wanderings between churches in this pleasant city. 

Cheese is our weakness and we delighted in every opportunity to try different aged Parmigiano Reggianos. (Longer aging produces a stronger or more flavorful cheese, with some cheeses aged up to 36 months for that intense flavoring.) Paired with a locally produced aged balsamic vinegar, it is a surprisingly tasteful combination.

Oh, let’s just face it – Italian food is our weakness and we thoroughly enjoyed discovering the city’s cafes, bakeries, and restaurants as much as we enjoyed the city’s churches and museums.  Charcuterie boards, pastries and pasta tempted us repeatedly in this culinary temple of gastromic delights.  Here are some of our favorite places: Antica Salumeria Giorgio Pancaldi – always worth the wait for a table. Terme del Colesterolo – you have to love the name and their porchetta sandwiches. La Casalinga – a fresh homemade pasta store with super nice ladies who will stop what they are doing and make any tortellini or ravioli you request if the case is empty. Yes, we did buy some to take to our apartment stay in Milan. Dolce Charlottefor their savory and sweet baked goods. And Tabarin Osteria Popolare – even though they confused our order with the table adjacent to us it was still a wonderful dining experience.

The Chiesa di St. Francesco stands on Piazza Della Vittoria adjacent to the Romolo Valli opera house. It was built in 1272 to support a Franciscan convent and monastery. The cloister was converted in 1830 into the Musei Civici di Reggio Emilia to house the private scientific and zoological collection of Lazzaro Spallanzani, an Italian physiologist (d. 1799) whose research into nutrient culture solutions advanced the scientific investigations of Louis Pasteur. 

It’s an amazing collection, still displayed as it was originally assembled, in now-antique wood and glass cases, evoking an earlier time.  There is also an extensive collection of regional archeological discoveries that was remarkably interesting.

On the Martiri del 7 Luglio 1960 plaza in front of the museum, (named for five workers killed by police during protests against a neo-fascists political party there on July 7, 1960) there is a moving commemorative monument to the 615 Reggio Emilia Resistance Fighters, both men and women, who made the ultimate sacrifice during WWII, fighting the German Army that occupied Italy.

A short distance away, next to the Romolo Valli Opera House, the Parco del Popolo, People’s Park, provided a tranquil haven speckled with neoclassical sculptures and pathways through a forest of old growth specimen trees, still holding their fall colors. The city’s ancient fortified citadel occupied this space until its demolition in 1848 to make room for the park.

The twin arches of Porta Santa Croce, built in 1199, are now the only reminders that Reggio Emilia was a formidable walled city.  A walk there along Via Roma revealed antique architectural details and a very large, whimsical sculpture of a bucket of fish, across from a street mural at the train station.

Aside from being renown for culinary excellence, the city has a tradition of supporting academics with ties to the University of Modena that date back to 1175.  But the city’s real claim to fame is the Reggio Emilia Approach, born from the aftermath of Italy’s destruction during WWII when men and women were in the work force to rebuild the country. With this new preschool concept parents “desired for a new form of education that would ensure against future generations being brought up in toleration of injustice and inequality. Where children are valued as strong, capable, resilient and rich with wonder and knowledge.” “With a small amount of money sourced from the selling of a tank, three trucks, and a few horses from the war, and with land contributed by a local farmer and building materials from bombed-out buildings, local men and women of all ages built the first post-war preschool for young children.”  A first in Italy, it was a break with parochial education which was the historic norm.

With a region that boasts about its excellent cuisine and fine wines it only makes sense, with a small leap in logic, that some of the most exotic cars and motorcycles built in the world are made in Emilia-Romagna, Italy’s “Motor Valley.” While Reggio Emilia doesn’t have any automobile factories, it’s close enough that you are sure to get the doors of your Fiat 500 rental blown off on the E35 by a passing Maserati, Lamborghini, Ferrari or crotch- rocket Ducati.

They all have museums in the region, but we spotted an advert in our hotel lobby for Ruote da Sogno, a showroom with more than 100 classic cars and 700 restored classic motorcycles and scooters, all in perfect working condition and FOR SALE! 

It was an interesting space that we wandered about freely. They also conduct traditional and online auctions., while the high-tech showroom is also available as a corporate or wedding event space.  The eclectic collection was very interesting, down to the glass refrigerator case full of champagne for auction winners to celebrate with. Vespas with a sidecar are our passion and speed. Do they ship? We asked ourselves. Zoom, zoom!

The city had completed stringing Christmas decorations down the ancient lanes and on the piazzas.  They were especially beautiful at night when the cobblestones glistened from the afternoon rain and the lights reflected off their still-wet surfaces.  The Christmas market on Piazza Camillo Prampolini was in full swing now and we couldn’t resist the opportunity to weigh down our luggage even more. After all, in late December, we would be heading back to the states to enjoy Christmas with our family.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Vicenza – Grand Architecture, Parks & Waterscapes

Our mishaps of driving in Italy are still memorable. But they were far more forgivable and less costly before the advent of the remote video surveillance systems that Italian towns use today. Years ago, we had briefly visited Vicenza, home to one of the world’s most influential Renaissance era architects, Palladio. After a long day on the road, navigating down from the Dolomites, we drove through the old city gate under the Tower of Porta Castello, the last remaining tower of a 12th century fortress and wall that once enclosed the Renaissance city.  Today it houses an art gallery, and you can climb to the top for views of Vicenza.

The directions to the hotel were confusing and our GPS at the time was no help.  We had already stopped twice to ask the local polizia for directions, but of the four officers asked, each had a different opinion about where our obscure lane was located, which only befuddled us further.  A few moments later we realized Corso Palladio was a pedestrian-only street and we were intruding on its charming ambience. The hotel assured us they had parking, so we continued along slowly through a thickening crowd that didn’t think anything of us.  It didn’t help that the street signs were impossible to see from the car. Traveling the whole length of the street, we ended at a piazza in front of the Teatro Olimpico, designed in 1580; it’s the oldest indoor theatre in the world, with its unique original stage set still in use. It was Palladio’s last creation before his death.

Across the way two police officers with submachine guns stood by their patrol car in front of the Museo Civico di Palazzo Chiericati, known for its eclectic collection of donated art, antique furnishings and toy soldiers from the Veneto region. There was no mention of the “BIG FINES,” we had momentarily anticipated.  Instead, the gracious officers gave us a police escort to the hotel.  Parking was in the narrow lane, in front of reception.  

Our visit was long enough for dinner and a stroll, the next morning, around the Piazza dei Signori with its massive civic building, the Basilica Palladiana, redesigned to its present form in 1546 by the young, as-yet unknown hometown architect Andrea Palladio.  His architecture can be characterized as a refined rethinking of classical Greek and Roman temples with domed and columned buildings favoring a “harmonic Renaissance aesthetic.” The style was popular with many wealthy Italian families across the Veneto region, who commissioned him to design their palazzos. This grand style continued to be extensively influential into the 19th and 20th centuries where it was favored for municipal and government buildings, i.e., the United States Capitol Building and British Museum, among others.

Our original visit was enough time to realize the city was vastly interesting and that we had mis-planned.  Now we stay a minimum of two nights wherever we go to compensate for time lost traveling between destinations.

We figured seven nights this time should be enough to relax, enjoy the city and sample its livability.

Raised in the suburbs of New Jersey, we always shunned living in a city until we retired and sold most everything, including our cars, to finance this two-year adventure around the world.  To our surprise we now enjoy city life. Especially the walkability of smaller historic cities with their pedestrian only centers, a concept not found in the sprawl associated with urban planning in the United States.

As we neared Vicenza our shuttle driver, Fabrizio, from the Venice Airport, detoured slightly to show us two points of interest on the outskirts of the city that he thought we might enjoy, and were afraid we would otherwise miss. Parco Querini, a semi-formal large open green space with sculpture lined paths and a domed pergola, looked stunning on a late autumn afternoon. It was once the private retreat of a wealthy family and was opened to the public in the 1970s. 

Nearer our apartment, Fabrizio took us past the red and white brickwork of the Chiesa de Santa Croce ai Carmini, with its architecturally distinctive facade. We found both sights interesting and vowed to return.

While walking to the park for a return visit, we found the Boutique Del Pane Vicenza, a delightful small bakery at the very end of Corso Antonio Fogazzaro, past the 14th century Church of San Lorenzo with its intricately carved roped portal and guarding lions that have slowly eroded with time.  Years ago in Italy, the concept of “coffee to go” or “take away” as we have in the states was unheard of. Tradition was you stood at the counter for a quick morning espresso or lingered at a table.  Attitudes have evolved and we are not sure if we agree, but this visit, with coffees and pastries in hand, we snacked in the park.

Nearby the twice-weekly artisanal farmers market, Il Mercato Campagna Amica di Vicenza, brought locally produced cheeses, wines, fruit and vegetables to new meaning with a “zero food miles” philosophy.  The artisanal baker was very popular with folks queued three deep at her counter for a chance to buy a wedge of bread from her huge country loafs.  Around the corner from the market, we found the best vegetarian restaurant we’ve ever been to, NaturaSì Silene Bio Bottega E Cucina. With truly the most flavorful and memorable vegetables.

From our apartment on Contra Motton San Lorenzo we explored the historic center of this delightfully compact, Renaissance city, where we were less than a ten-minute walk from everything. As we strolled past intriguing architectural details, we took note of what to do and where to go later in the week.  Discovering pastelería is our superpower and we put it to good use finding tasty creations to enjoy for the next morning.  Walk a little then café – repeat was a well-paced yet caloric approach that we fully enjoyed in our explorations of the city.  Though some days longer walks between cafes were needed when our belts were too tight. Donna says the solution is simply to wear elastic waist pants.

During the time of the Romans the main street in Vicenza was Via Postumia, a military road that connected outposts across Northern Italy. Later during the Renaissance, noblemen competed in Palios, horse races, on the religious festival days for Sacra Thorn and Corpus Domini, when the main street, now lined with arcaded sidewalks, was used as a racecourse. After the Second World War the street was renamed Corso Andrea Palladio, to honor the great architect for his contributions to the city, and an electric street-trolley coursed down the avenue. The Corso and the historic center of Vicenza have been pedestrian only since 1983. It remains a vital artery, with upscale shopping and restaurants connecting either end of the town and the historic sites in between. It’s the perfect street for La Passeggiata, the early evening stroll locals still enjoy. If you are looking for a traditional Italian bar along the Corso, the Gran Caffe’ with its old-world charm is the perfect place for an espresso or spritz. It attracts a diverse following, and is popular with students, professionals and a cadre of finely dressed older women who seem to be as much of an institution as the café itself.

Vicenza’s relic from Christ’s Crown of Thorns is treasured in the Sanctuary of Santa Corona, which was built by the Dominicans in the late 1200s to safekeep the extraordinary gift from the French King Louis IX to the Bishop of Vicenza. 

The centerpiece of the church is a beautiful altar embellished with pearls, corals, lapis lazuli and polychrome marble. Interestingly, outside hanging on the wall of the cloister is a plaque featuring a Cinta senese, an ancient Italian pig breed that is famous for its flavorful meat.

Palladio has definitely left his mark on the city with buildings of his design on almost every street – at least, it seems that way. A tour of the city wouldn’t be complete without stopping at the Palazzo Barbaran da Porto, a Palladio design built in 1570, that is now a museum with interactive exhibits and video displays as well as three dimensional models dedicated to the architect’s work.  Recognized by UNESCO in 1994 for his influential architectural aesthetic, called Palladian, twenty-four of his Palazzo designs and the city itself have been designated a World Heritage Site.

The city also has a wonderful ambience aside from his architectural masterpieces.  Waterscapes from the Ponte S. Paolo and the Ponte S. Michele over the Fiume Retrone reflect a quaint village vibe unexpected in comparison to the grand Piazza dei Signori just two blocks away.  

Pasticceria Venezia – a Vicenza dal 1964, just up from the bicycle parking on S. Paolo and near the Palladian Basilica, is a terrific place for café and a bite to eat.

On the other end of town just outside the Porta Castello, the Giardini Salvi, a treed greenspace with fountains, has been on the city map since 1580. It was the private park to the Palazzo Valmarana and in a brief moment of 16th century civic mindedness, was open to the public for a few years before being closed again for several centuries.  It wasn’t until the 20th century that the park was permanently reopened for public use.

The district south of the Corso Palladio is also worth exploring with the Duomo di Vicenza, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Announcement, as its centerpiece.  Heavily damaged by allied bombing during the Second World War, only the original 1482 Gothic entrance façade remained, while the rest of the church had to be reconstructed.

Diagonally across the street, in the ancient Bishop’s Palace, the Museo Diocesano di Vicenza has a unique collection of Vicentine religious artifacts. Interestingly there is a large collection of fine marble spheres, some the size of bowling balls, given to a former Bishop of Vicenza as gifts.  Discovered on the other side of the piazza during reconstruction after WWII the Criptoportico Romano was the subterranean storage area of a 1st century Roman domus. As interesting as that sounds, if you’ve been in an empty, damp dark basement before, you can skip this.

Around the corner is Righetti’s, a self-service restaurant and another Vicenza institution for over thirty years, that should be experienced. Customers find their own tables and set the cutlery themselves before walking to the back of the restaurant and placing their orders, from the daily changing menu on chalk boards, directly with the cooks in the kitchen.  After dinner, the cashier counts your glasses and plates, then bills accordingly. They are open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, cash only.

Although the weather was noticeably cooler, we enjoyed our November off-season visit to this visually pleasing and gentle city. If you are an admirer of historic architecture, Vicenza is akin to finding a lost treasure. The bonus was the lack of large tourist groups, which we imagine could be quite smothering in this quaint city during peak travel months.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Sicily Part One: Taorima and Castiglione di Sicilia – Sunny Ancient Lands

The clickity clack of our suitcase wheels reverberated through the Porta Catania, the ancient gate through a defensive wall that once encircled the town, as we pulled them past the 14th century Duomo of Taormina, over cobblestones polished smooth by centuries of use and time.  Adorned with crenelations, the church looks more like a fortress than sanctuary and seems at odds with the playful Baroque fountain in the plaza across from it.

Lined with colorful shops Corso Umberto, barely wide enough for a horse cart, connects the two old entrances to the city and is pedestrian only. The adjoining steep, staired alleys were sized just right for the width of a donkey.

Meeting us at the corner, our young host graciously carried our bags up the passageway and to the third-floor room we had rented in a newly renovated guest house.  It was a compact space, but it would work if we sucked in our stomachs. Effortlessly, he trotted up two more flights to the rooftop where he showed us the kitchen, as well as distant views of the Teatro Antico di Taormina, the castle above town, and Mount Etna, all bathed in the last of the sun’s rays. 

The next morning, before the day became too hot, we followed a steep switch-backed trail up the side of Mount Tauro to the Chiesa Madonna della Rocca and the Saracen Castle.  The Arab fortress is believed to be built over an ancient Greek acropolis. Unfortunately, it was closed due to disrepair, but the panoramic view of Naxos on the coast with Mt Etna in the background was phenomenal.

Sicily’s history follows Mount Etna’s turbulent eruptions – quiet for long periods then thrown into turmoil by foreign invasions.  Hanging off the toe of Italy, its large land mass pinches the Mediterranean Sea to the point that the island is only 372 miles from North Africa’s Tunisian coast. For ancient mariners sailing East to West or South to North it was unavoidable, and they collided with it.  Its easy location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean brought Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Germans, British, and Spanish for varying lengths of conquest and cultural influence. It’s an interesting gene pool for sure. 

Appreciating a good beach when they found one, the Greeks rowed ashore and established their first colony, Naxos, on the island in 734 BC.  Later siding with the city state Athens in a war against Syracuse, upon defeat the city was completely destroyed in retaliation. The survivors fled to the high ground and founded Taormina.  Visitors continue to be dazzled by their vision to dramatically construct an amphitheater on the edge of a cliff towering over the sea with Mt. Etna, an active volcano, in the background.  

Finally, Piedmontese volunteers, the red shirts of Northern Italy, invaded to unite Italy. Commanded by Giuseppe Garibaldi, the army defeated the Kingdom of Sicily whose territory extended across the boot of Italy and North to Naples.

But before that Taormina with its multiculturalism was a required stop on the “Grand Tours” of the 18th and early 19th centuries once it was mentioned by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his Journey to Italy. Paris, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples and Pompeii, Athens, Istanbul, Cairo and Seville were also treasured destinations.  Remember, this was the time when all land travel was by horse-drawn carriage and water crossings by sailing ships. Think of it as an extended gap year, when young aristocrats were sent abroad for two to four years to sharpen their sensibilities and further their knowledge of the arts, antiquities and the classics.  Taormina’s big draw though, over those other sophisticated cities, was its clifftop location high above the Mediterranean that caught the cool breezes blowing in from the sea during the summer.

The Nordic invasion continued with landscape painter Otto Geleng. Exhibitions of his paintings in Paris and Berlin left critics saying such landscapes couldn’t exist and that he had an “over-active imagination.” He encouraged all his doubters to see Sicily for themselves, then returned to Taormina and opened the town’s first hotel, Timeo, in a renovated palace. His vision inspired a wave of artists, writers, and actors to visit.  In the 1920s D.H. Lawrence lived there. The books In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s were written by Truman Capote during his stay on the island.

The town can really name drop some famous visitors: Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Cecil Beaton, Jean Cocteau, Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, John Steinbeck, Cary Grant and Tennessee Williams have all worked on their tans in the golden rays of the Mediterranean sun here. 

The Taormina Film Festival, now in its 67th year, still premieres movies every June on a large outdoor screen set up in the 2300-year-old Greek amphitheater.  It attracts a new generation of sunscreen-wearing A listers: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crow, Leonardo DiCaprio and Salma Hayek. Imagine watching Spiderman: Far from Home there, as Mt. Etna sputters trails of lava into the night sky in the background. Aside from the film festival, the amphitheater hosts a vast number of concerts and stage productions throughout the year.

Not being on any lists, including Interpol’s or the FBI’s most wanted, we enjoyed a still warm early November day as we wandered through the Giardino Storico Ex Villa Trevelyan, now the town’s public formal garden, but once the grounds of a villa owned by a Scottish noblewoman. Lady Florence Trevelyan fled rumors of an affair with King Edward VIII, settled in Taormina and eventually married the mayor.  During our visit, intricately stoned paths along the cliff edge, with views of the sea, were still lush with blooming bougainvillea and hibiscus. Eventually they led to fanciful, ornamental architectural constructions called Victorian follies.

Rambling on, we passed an antique Rolls Royce being readied at the Grand Hotel Timeo to whisk the bride and groom away after their destination wedding. 

From the top row of seats at Teatro Antico di Taormina, the views continued to be enthralling; Mt. Etna was perfectly framed by the ancient columns of the stage. 

In the other direction, the coast toward Spisone dazzled in the afternoon sun.  Inland, the homes of Castelmola were precariously balanced to avoid sliding off their treacherous slope. 

A stay isn’t complete in Taormina without multiple strolls along Corso Umberto in the mornings for café and pistachio pastries, and later in the day for pistachio Aranchino or gelato.

The broad expanse of Piazza IX Aprile, adjacent to the Porta di Mezzo clock tower and the elegant Baroque Church of San Giuseppe draws a large crowd at sunset to admire the view, and is the perfect spot to enjoy a classic Aperol spritz. 

Located in the foothills surrounding Mt. Etna, Castiglione di Sicilia is on the list of most beautiful villages in Sicily. Less than an hour from Taormina, it beckoned us to visit. The scenic drive along SS185 through the Alcantara Valley was uneventful.  The fields were dormant now and farm tractors were parked to await the spring planting season. The multiple arches of Ponte San Cataldo, a historical railway bridge, graced one curve of the road.  It was now a bridge to nowhere, the train tracks at both ends long ago removed for scrap. Villages we passed showed barely any signs of life beyond a barking dog or two. 

Numerous signs for campgrounds and agrotourism farms along the route promised outdoor enthusiasts escape from city life.  Turning onto SP7i we eventually passed the rustic 12th century Norman Chiesa Di San Nicola, then crossed a small bridge over the Alcantara River, within sight of Castiglione di Sicilia.  Fed by snow melt from Mt. Etna and Nebrodi Mountains, the Alcantara River is one of the few rivers in Sicily that flows all year-round.  Over the millennia the cool waters of the river have carved a dramatic gorge through lava fields left from Mt. Etna’s volcanic eruptions.  Hiking trails above the gorge and swimming in its cool natural pools are popular summer activities in the region.

Commanding the high ground helped increase your chance of survival in the days when pillaging and plunder ruled the land.  Defenders hoped that attackers would tire and move on to an easier target. From the road in the valley, Castiglione di Sicilia looked formidable, with Castello di Lauria commanding the promontory like the rock of Gibraltar. 

Driving into the center of the village, mid-week in the off-season, we nearly had the whole village to ourselves. It felt deserted, almost as if the village had been sacked and the residents had been taken captive. We followed a warren of narrow alleys and stairways around the upper village until we reached Castelluccio, the ruins a of Byzantine tower, in a small park with an overview of the village. 

From here we spotted the belltowers of six ancient churches and monasteries that dot the hilltop. The oldest, Chiesa San Pietro, dates to 1105. Castelluccio, slightly lower than Castello di Lauria, would be our highest point in the village, since the castle was closed in the off-season. That’s the one disappointment we experience when traveling in the off-season – many points of interest are closed due to a lack of tourists.  It’s the old double-edged sword, less crowding versus less accessibility.  For the most part we are okay with this and enjoy wandering to soak up the ambiance of a locale.

A looping around the huge monolithic rock, Via Edoardo Pantano brought us to the foot of Castello di Lauria, the 12th century Norman fortress built upon earlier Greek and Roman battlements. The views of the Alcantara Valley were beautiful from this vantage point. Farther on the Basilica of Maria Santissima della Catena stood atop a wide staircase at the end of a quiet plaza. The patron saint of the town, she is believed to have saved Castiglione di Sicilia from the wrath of Mount Etna on many occasions.  Her feast day is celebrated every May with a procession through the village. 

It was mid-afternoon by the time we were ready for lunch, and our options had dwindled dramatically since arriving.  Only La Dispensa dell’Etna was still open with all the inside tables taken by a large party.  Interestingly, part of the floor of the restaurant has glass tiles that allow you to look down onto artifacts discovered during a renovation. It was a little chilly for outside dining, but we enjoyed, with the guidance of our waiter, several specialties of the Alcantara Valley. The addition of wonderful home-made house wines from the regional grapes, Nerello Mascalese and Carricante, native to the slopes of Mt. Etna, combined with the delicious food made this one of our most pleasurable meals in Sicily.  Following the Etna Wine Path might be the catalyst for future visits to Sicily. 

Till next time, Craig & Donna

South to Sicily: Part Two – Maratea to the Toe of the Boot

Normally in November we’d head to warmer climes south of the equator, but it was payback time for an extended stay in Africa, and the Italian homeland of Donna’s ancestors was calling.  We’d realized for awhile that Italy was going to be the most expensive part of our two-year journey.  Even with a very favorable exchange rate, traveling through Italy in the off-season was the best way for us to afford this portion of the trip. We’d keep our fingers crossed about Italy’s rainy season. Grey clouds hung low and were as thick as tiramisu as we neared Paestum.  Known for its ancient Greek temples dating from 550 BC, we had planned to stop there, but the day was just too damp and dreary. We drove on to Maratea.

The weather improved, with the sun occasionally making an appearance as we turned off the E45 and headed west, through a rural hilly landscape covered with trees and olive orchards, to the Tyrrhenian coast. Here again most hotels and restaurants were closed for the season, but we found a very nice, four-room Bed & Breakfast in Acquafredda, just above Maratea.  This part of Basilicata resembled the Amalfi Coast with its narrow cliff-hugging road and rocky coves.  It’s one of the regions where Italian families head to escape the crush of foreign tourists that descends on Italy during the summer months. It also makes Basilicata one of the few Italian provinces that borders two seas. The road narrowed to a single lane as we entered the old village.

Fortunately, Donna spotted the traffic light that dictated the direction of traffic flow through the narrow passage before an oncoming bus would have forced us to back down the lane.  We had a little difficulty finding La Giara until we realized it was down at the end of a rutted farm lane more suitable for a tractor than a sedan.  Run by a gracious older couple who patiently dealt with our rudimentary Italian, the inn was wonderful, with our upstairs room having a view of the distant sea. We were the only guests. The turquoise waters and the pebbly, black sand beach of Spiaggia Acquafredda were a short walk away from the inn. We had the shoreline to ourselves one crisp morning as we walked along its frothy surf.

The sun’s golden rays were now shining on the sea as we drove along the serpentine road into Maratea for dinner. We’ve found that even though many tourist establishments are closed in the off-season there is always someone who stays open year-round to cook for his friends and neighbors.  And with their reputations online with a discerning community we’ve found that these very local places are inexpensive and great.  Ristorante Pizzeria Sapore Di Mare did not disappoint us with its variety of fresh seafood and pasta dishes, and we ended up having three meals there over two days.  Blame it on the off-season.   There were not any streetlights or shoulders along this cliff hugging road. Fortunately, there was a solid stone guardrail and no oncoming traffic when we rounded a curve and our car’s headlights lit up a man and woman raking hedge cuttings into the middle of our right lane.  A quick zig zag avoided catastrophe as screams filled the night air inside and outside of the car. Our hearts were pounding after such a close call!

Breakfast the next morning was delicious though a little strained by our lack of Italian until the husband’s eyes widened when we expressed interest in the olive oil that was served with the homemade bread. Pridefully he brought us small tastings of different olive pressings. A large olive orchard was their true livelihood, and this time of year they were busy harvesting the first olives of the season and pressing them for this coveted golden liquid.

We hadn’t done much research on this part of our trip, only knowing that we would encounter some stunning coastline, so we were pleasantly surprised when we found ourselves in the picturesque, man-made harbor of Marina di Maratea.  A small port, with an assortment of pleasure craft and fishing boats, it embraces the coast under a towering 2113-foot-high Monte San Biagio. The mountain is topped with a statue of Christ the Redeemer that is visible for miles along the Tyrrhenian coast.

The day was brilliant and with café on the quay at the aptly named Bar Del Porto we planned our ascent of Monte San Biagio. We were relieved to find we could drive to the top of the mountain, a revered pilgrimage site that celebrates the fourth century martyr San Biagio who is credited with several miracles in Maratea, the most important of which was shielding the town from Charles VIII’s French cannon fire during an attempted invasion in the 1400s. As proof of his intervention, next to the altar in the basilica there is a cannonball with a mysterious fingerprint pressed into the iron; it is believed to be San Biagio’s, left there when he deflected the shot with his hands. Legend states that his relics arrived in Maratea in 723 when a ship carrying them from Turkey to Rome for safety was mysteriously stopped by a bright beam of light from the sky; the vessel was unable to sail forward until the relics of the saint were removed from the ship and brought to the mountaintop. A church was then built over the ruins of an ancient Greek temple dedicated to the pagan goddess Athena.  Maratea celebrates San Biagio’s feast day every May by carrying his silver statue from the basilica in a processional, on the shoulders of teams of men, down the steep mountainside trail. It is a journey of 4-5 hours into the center of town, through streets filled with the faithful, to Maratea’s oldest church, Saint Vitus, built in the 9th century. 

During the high season you are not permitted to drive all the way to the basilica. Instead, for a small fee, a shuttle bus delivers you to the church. In November luck was with us and we were able to zoom up the elevated switchbacks that seemed to float ethereally above the steep slope to the parking lot.  The only other vehicle in the lot was a truck belonging to workers repairing the church roof. Regrettably, mid-week, the church was closed.