Belize – When Iguanas Fall from Trees, Head South

“Welcome aboard, folks. Our flight time to Belize is two hours and ten minutes. The weather is expected to be a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit today when we land,” the pilot announced as we were buckling in. Then continued with “As you know the National Weather Service has issued the very rare ‘Beware of Falling Iguanas Weather Alert’ for Miami and South Florida this morning.”  As funny as this sounds, it actually happens when the temperature dips into the thirties in Florida.  Cold blooded animals, the iguanas slowly stiffen as the temperature drops and eventually lose their grip on the tree branches they have been sleeping on and fall to the ground, stunned, where they lay immobile until the temperature rises.  Iguanas can grow quite large and may cause serious injury or death if you are unlucky enough to get struck by one of the falling frozen reptiles. It sounds like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie – be careful out there. We were delighted to be heading south again to a warmer climate after a cold and rainy November and December in Italy, which was followed by a warm-hearted, but very frigid Christmas with our kids in New Jersey.

On our final approach for landing the wing of the plane dipped to reveal a beautiful azure sea outlined with dense green jungle and brilliantly white sand beaches – and not much else – as far as the eye could see.  It was still much like it was several millennium ago when a prosperous Mayan civilization flourished, supporting an estimated population of 500,000 – 1,000,000 in the region. Columbus sailed by without stopping and landed in Honduras during his last voyage to the Americas in 1502.  Navigator Juan Diaz de Solis did not mention a landfall or discovery during his expedition in 1507 sailing from Panama to the Yucatan. Several theories suggest that the 190-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef, the largest in the northern hemisphere, was too difficult to navigate through so the Spanish fleets sailed past. We witnessed this difficulty once from the deck of a cruise ship as the captain left a snaking wake as he steered a serpentine route through the underwater obstacle course.

The first European to arrive in Corozal literally washed ashore as a survivor of a 1511 Spanish shipwreck. To stay alive, conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero offered his skills as a soldier to Mayan Chief Na Chan Kan at Chactemal, (now Santa-Rita, Corozal Town). He proved his skill as a warrior and married the chief’s daughter, Princess Zazil Há. The children from their union are recognized as the first Mestizos of Central America; theirs was the first Mayan liaison recorded by Bernal Diaz de Castillo in his memoir “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,” written in 1568.

Guerrero defended his adopted homeland against conquest in 1531 when he helped Chief Na Chan Kan defeat the Spanish army in a battle near the Rio Hondo. Today the river is still Belize’s northern border with Mexico.  Spain never established any permanent settlements in Belize.  Gold and silver were discovered next door in Guatemala and Honduras. Belize was absorbed into the Spanish empire of Central America by its proximity to its larger neighbors, but was never colonized until the British subversively entered the territory.

The riches of the new world didn’t go unnoticed for long, but by the time English and Scottish pirates arrived on the scene in the mid-1600s, the treasure-laden flotillas destined for the Spanish crown from central America had been replaced by shipments of logwood.  Native to northern Central America, logwood or bloodwood was used by the indigenous tribes of the region to produce a vibrant red-orange dye. Mixed with other ingredients, a full spectrum of colors was possible. It grew abundantly and was exported to Spain where the cheap natural resource revolutionized the textile industry and afforded commoners a chance to have colorful wardrobes, which before was only afforded by the nobility. Gone were the days of fabrics dyed gray with soot. 

Gold or wood – it didn’t matter. Pirates were pirates and willing to steal your cargo regardless of its content, as long as there was a profit to be made, and the English textile mills were demanding logwood.  After plundering large Spanish merchant ships that sailed across the Gulf of Honduras, the pirates found safe refuge for their smaller vessels in the shallow waters behind the Belize Barrier Reef amidst its 450 cays and atolls, where they could hunt for food, get fresh water, and repair their boats.  In 1670 England and Spain signed a treaty banning piracy in the Caribbean.  The days of the infamous pirates of Belize, Edward Lowe, Captain Charles Johnson, Bartholomew Sharp, Captain Henry Morgan, and Blackbeard, were waning.  By this time English pirates had discovered Belize was full of logwood and many ex-privateers became legitimate and wealthy logwood cutters and exporters after buying African slaves to work in the miserable conditions of the mosquito-infested jungles.  Though Spain considered all of Central America as part of their empire and occasionally harassed the British logwood camps trying to evict them, the Spanish crown never established any settlements in Belize. 

In 1763 Spain signed another treaty allowing English subjects the “privilege of wood-cutting,” but still retained sovereignty over the region. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and Belize finally became the English colony of British Honduras in 1862. Mahogany had replaced logwood as the major export. Conflict with the Mayans escalated as settlers moved farther into the interior exploiting the regions mahogany forests, and forced the indigenous population from their lands by burning their villages and crops. The giant cut logs were floated down the country’s rivers to the coast and where rivers didn’t exist, small logging railroads were built to satisfy the European demand for this beautiful hardwood that was favored for fine cabinetry, furniture and shipbuilding.

Disenfranchised and oppressed, the Mayan revolted in what is called the Caste War against their colonizers. Led by Marcus Canul, a Mayan chief,  his people demanded the British pay for the crops they burnt and for the land they occupied.  In northern Belize, Canul’s freedom fighters attacked and occupied the garrison town of Corozal. The movement lost its momentum when Canul was killed during an unsuccessful assault on Orange Walk in 1872.  Long considered a rebel and criminal, he is now regarded as a Belizean hero who fought against ethnic cleansing. The deforested jungles were replaced by sugar cane, ranching and agriculture plantations.

Belize finally became independent in 1981, though The British Army still maintains a jungle warfare training facility in the country to help deter Guatemalan aggression in an unresolved border issue. Aldous Huxley once wrote, “If the world had any ends, British Honduras (Belize) would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. It is all but uninhabited.”

Today the tiny country of 400,000 supports a diverse culture descended from Mayans, Mestizos, African slaves, Garifunas, Europeans and more recently immigrants from Lebanon, Germany, the East Indies, Asia and North America with an economy centered on tourism and agriculture.  English is the official language of Belize, but it is not the first language of many with Spanish, Belizean Creole and Q’eqchi’ Maya primarily spoken, depending on what part of the country you are in.

The barrier Islands and cays where pirates might have hidden treasure now sport popular resorts on their white sand beaches. Scuba divers can explore shipwrecks, the Great Blue Hole (a marine sinkhole that is visible from space,) and the exceptional marine life found along the Belize Barrier Reef which is now a marine reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site.  Ashore the jungles and mountains continue to reveal the extent of the Mayan civilization in Belize with over 600 known archeological sites discovered so far, ranging from ceremonial caves to towering stone pyramids.

We are on the other end of the tourist spectrum and wanted something very lowkey, inexpensive and relaxing for a month. We headed to Corozal! Located on Chetumal Bay, it is the northern most city in Belize and only 16 miles from Chetumal, Mexico. It was founded in 1848 by Mestizo refugees from Mexico fleeing Mayan retribution from the Caste Wars there. It prospered exporting mahogany logs when there were still enough trees to support the timber industry. Sugarcane now fuels the economy. 

In 1955 Hurricane Janet, a category 5 storm with winds of 175mph, flattened ninety-five percent of Corozal and left 8,000 people homeless.  Surprisingly one of the few buildings left standing on the waterfront, fully intact, was the home of lumber baron John Carmichael.  It was built in the 1880’s using only mahogany.  The house is still used today as a Catholic mission. The pre-1955 wooden structures have been replaced with concrete block houses now, mostly two stories high, except the four-story Mirador Hotel, the tallest building in town.

Our ah-ha moment happened after the two-hour, inland drive from the airport, when we entered Corozal and saw the enticing turquoise waters of Corozal Bay on our way to our Airbnb rental. We drove a mile along a still bay bordered by a low battered seawall and numerous public parks dotted with palm trees.

Turning onto 2nd St. North our driver stopped in front of a flowering bougainvillea-covered wall, less than 200ft from the water, that hid the Villa Imperial Loft Apartment, our home for the next four weeks.  Our host Oscar wasn’t home at the time, but had made arrangements with Sue, another guest, who graciously led us through the flowering garden, complete with a resident mama cat and her kitten, and up the back stairs to our studio apartment. She enthusiastically answered our first questions about Corozal.

The large room was brightly painted and pleasantly decorated with an eclectic mix of antiques, reminiscent of visiting our grandparents.  A wall of windows facing east offered a glimpse of the bay, and any storms approaching, through the neighbor’s tree. Best was the kitchen across the landing at the top of the stairs. It was enclosed on three sides with just screened windows, covered with louvered shutters. In stark contrast to the apartment, it was very rustic with the feel of an old lake cabin. But we soon realized it was the perfect spot to observe the wide varieties of birds that visited the trees in the backyard, and we thoroughly enjoyed cooking and eating there.  Birding over the next month while walking along the waterfront was one of the highlights of our stay in Corozal. Spotting just a few of the 590 bird species in Belize, we saw sandpipers, great kiskadee, white-collared manakin, yellow-throated euphonia, tricolored heron, kingfisher, lineated woodpecker, great egrets, couch’s kingbird, crimson-collared tanager, black and white warbler, and the outrageously raucous plain chachalaca, which you’ll hear well before seeing them.

For many travelers visiting northern Belize, Corozal is just a brief stop on their way to or from Mexico or Guatemala, or a transfer point to catch the two-hour Thunderbolt Ferry or a flight on Tropic Air from the Corozal Airport (CZH) to San Pedro, on the barrier island, Ambergris Caye.  The town doesn’t have a beach, which has probably helped keep it off the beaten path for most tourists that visit Belize. Access to the shallow water is from stairs in the 1.5 mile long stone seawall that has not fared well against the surges of the ocean. We had read that the district has a sizeable expat community, that likes to avail themselves of all the big city options, mainly a Walmart and Sam’s Club that are across the border in Chetumal, Mexico.  But from our experiences we only encountered a handful of North Americans, surely not surging numbers that would indicate it was a sizzling hot spot for vacationing or retirement that would change the character of the town. And that’s a good thing. The joy of Corozal for us was its tranquility; there really was not much to do there aside from chilling and the occasional dip in the gentle waves of the bay.  The serenity of the seascapes compensated for the lack of activities.

We were enjoying the tropical 80-degree weather of Corozal and re-embracing our slow travel philosophy by immersing ourselves in the daily flow of life in this small coastal town. It was wonderful to see parents accompanying their uniform clad children to school every morning. Some parents drove, others walked along or bicycled with their kids. Routinely at the end of the school day an older couple pedaling a three-wheeler sold homemade popcorn to the kids or the youngsters lined up for ice cream on the porch of a home that doubled as an ice cream parlor. The kids waved to us if they noticed us bobbing in the bay across the street.

Our daily walks led to discoveries all across town, mostly culinary in nature. We were eager to find the best places to buy groceries, interesting places to eat and quench our thirst.  Most importantly, our craving for good coffee was easily satisfied directly across the street at the top of a colorful flight of tiled stairs. Here Oscar’s nephew Rudi runs the LVDM Coffee Stop on the porch of his home and makes what are easily the best cappuccinos in Corozal. He also rents two rustic villitas in his backyard. 

In town there were any number of Asian-owned grocery stores that all offered the same staples. We tended to prefer a shop called the Central Supermarket, because they were the closest place to carry our recyclable beer bottles. Diagonally across the street the city’s daily market had numerous fruit and vegetable stands, an open-air butcher, and clothing vendors. A twice weekly farmers market was held outside of town, across from the cemetery.  Fortunately, this location did not reflect negatively upon the quality of produce sold there. At a much greater walking distance, it didn’t offer any real advantage over the produce sold for the same price at the daily market. Shopping there was an early morning event and the atmosphere was very vibrant. It was here we got the first glimpse of the country’s Mennonite farming community, easily identifiable by their conservative dress and spoken Pennsylvania German. Since 1958 when they were invited to settle in Belize by the first Premiere of the country, George C. Price, the community has grown to 10,000, and they have contributed immensely to Belize’s agriculture self-reliance.

Surprisingly, even though Corozal is located right on the bay, we could not find fresh fish and had to purchase locally caught frozen fish, conch and lobster from Frank’s, a great butcher shop that makes their own sausage and offers a wide assortment of fresh beef, pork and poultry.  Directly across from Frank’s on the other side of the civic center field we found Vivi’s for wonderful meat pies.

On one of our walks, we did meet a young brother and sister team carrying a five-gallon bucket on the handlebar of their bicycle. It was full of lobster and conch, caught by their father earlier that morning.  They were going door to door in the neighborhood, selling it so they could buy their school uniforms.  Of course, we purchased some, and it was delicious.

The town does not have a marina for boats, but there are spots along the bay where fishermen pull out their ancient mahogany boats for repairs.  Called sandlighters, many of these traditional sailing vessels were built across the bay in the fishing community of Sarteneja and are over eighty years old.

There were several small bakeries in town, each offering different specialties.  The Y Not Bakery, to the detriment of our waistlines, was the closest and created the best temptations. Another favorite was Caramelo Bakery across from the high school and down the street from Belcuisine, a spice factory that produces flavorful Belizean Recados mixes.

Corozal really was a rewarding foodie’s destination with numerous small taquerias and enterprising folks offering roadside barbeque. Many businesses were operated from the windows of homes, like Ruby’s, who prepared delicous ceviche then sold it through her living room window for take-away.

The only option for eating out was casual dining. We found June’s Kitchen and Mar’s Caribbean Garden for homecooked meals.  Directly across from the bay, Scotty’s Crocodile Cove was a relaxing spot with thatched roofs; it was an enjoyable place for a refreshing Belizean brewed Belikin beer and large burritos that could easily feed three people.  The Tortuga Grill, across from the waterfront Rainbow Park, and the Wood House Restaurant, adjacent to Miami Beach, both offered good food and views of the bay.

Corozal enthusiastically supports its art community and one Saturday a month, in the town’s Central Park, holds the Art in the Park event where local artists and craftspeople display and sell their work. It was a fun time, with live music and delicous Belizean food. It’s held between 5pm – 9pm to avoid the heat of the day.  If City Hall is open make sure to check out the fantastic wall mural depicting the history of Corozal, painted by Belizean-Mexican artist Manual Villamor.

The blank concrete block walls of homes and businesses across from Miami Beach were the canvases for street artists invited to participate in the Corozal Graffiti Festival. In 2020 street mural artists from Belize, Cuba, El Salvador and Mexico were invited to enliven the walls with an “Ancient Chactemal” theme. It was a lively event with a music stage, art and crafts for sale, body painting and food vendors. On the beach, the Corozal sailing club was offering catamaran rides on the gentle waters of the bay.

There is an abundance of civic pride displayed in this small, well-kept community on Corozal Bay that is endearing. We barely scratched the surface of places to explore in Belize and were perfectly content “Snow Birds” with our choice of Corozal for a month’s worth of lazy rest and relaxation.  We’d definitely return to explore the surrounding area more fully.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

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

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

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

Puglia: Alberobello – Trulli, Troglodytes and the Sea

One of the characteristics we most appreciated about traveling through Europe was the ready availability of a cup of delicious coffee, even in the most unexpected of places. The bar on the ferry from Dubrovnik to Bari came through with two tasty cappuccinos the morning after our overnight passage in a windowless cabin. As a hazy sunrise dawned over the Adriatic Sea, we sipped our revitalizing espresso and milk while the ship docked in Bari, capping an otherwise uneventful crossing to the Puglia region – “the heel of Italy” or the “spur of the boot.” 

Behind the wheel of our rental car, we passed through verdant olive groves in the Valle d’Itria, alternately known as the Valle d’Trulli or the Valley of Ancient Olive Trees. Olives trees are celebrated for their age in the region, and several top two thousand years old.  One ancient millennarian called the Elephant is 3,000 years old. The orchards on either side of the road were busy with workers covering the ground under the trees with collection nets in preparation for the olive harvest.

A little aside – we are olive aficionados. All things olive we enjoy. We have even brined our own, ordering California olives, then scoring and soaking them for three months in salt water to remove the extremely bitter oleuropein.  As tasty as they are after this process, they are downright vile beforehand, which has always made me wonder how it was determined that they were edible.  Did a starving hunter-gatherer pluck a floating olive from a salt marsh and make the discovery of a lifetime?

Farther along we sped past a farmer selling yellow melons from the back of his three-wheeled Piaggio Ape, a small truck that is ubiquitous throughout the farmlands of Italy. We did a quick U-turn to buy two from him, and they were delicious.  Our progress slowed through another small town as a brass band led funeral mourners across the road ahead of us.

Our destination was Alberobello, to meet up with three of our sons and especially to live in a trullo for a week.  This was the culmination of a decades-long desire ever since becoming aware of these enchanting, whitewashed dwellings capped with conical-shaped stone roofs with a pinnacle at the top.

Trullo comes from the Greek word for circular domed construction, tholos.  But it is thought the “a secco” style, without mortar construction technique, was brought to Puglia by North African invaders when Sicily was under Arab rule in the mid-800s or even earlier. As the Valle d’Itria surrounding Alberobello was deforested (albero bello translates as “beautiful tree”) to make way for cultivated crops and olive orchards, the building material of choice was the abundant limestone rocks removed from the fields or the wells dug beneath their homes.  The flat stones, called chiancarelle, are precisely pitched so that rainwater runs off the roof and the interior remains dry.  Their local design was firmly entrenched in the 14th century when the King of Naples granted the desolate Alberobello region to the first Count of Conversano as reward for service during a crusade. 

In a ploy to recruit tenant farmers from neighboring regions the feudal landlord offered trulli with the caveat that when the king’s tax collector visited the area, homes would be destroyed by the count’s horsemen using a rope to pull the pinnacle, a key stone, from the roof, collapsing it.  The homes could then only be rebuilt when the tax collector was safely far away.

This miserliness inflicted upon the already hard lives of the peasant farmers was to avoid payment of “new settlement” taxes by the feudal lord.  No wonder there were constant peasant uprisings. This threat literally of “the roof coming down on your head” was used to intimidate or evict rabble rousers and farmers who didn’t pay their crop share to the landowner.  As peasants’ rights changed over the centuries the homes became more permanent, though tenant farming was common in Italy until the end of WWll.

Our Airbnb trullo was located on one of the narrow, steep lanes of the Monti district not far from the Church of Sant’Antonio with its steeples mimicking the stone roofs of the surrounding homes. It was a compact space with two small bedrooms and combo kitchen/living room area.  When the front door was closed it felt like a snug cave, but fortunately the entry had a classic beaded curtain over it as a privacy screen that let in plenty of light and air when the door was open. 

The charm here was a vertical ladder that led to a hatch which opened to a rooftop patio with a grapevine, chairs, a table, and a clothesline. It was delightful and we made daily use of it, bringing coffee up the ladder in the morning and then wine to enjoy while watching the sunset. Immersing ourselves totally in the local lifestyle, we flew our laundry from the clothesline, like a proud flag symbolizing our occupation. 

It took the better part of a day to coordinate the arrival of our tribe; Craig and Gary stayed with us, while Jack and his partner Brian stayed near Matera. The plan was to tour Alberobello, visit Matera in the neighboring Basilicata region together and then spend a day in Lecce with our friend Giulia, whom we met at the very beginning of our journey, fourteen months earlier in Ecuador.

Many visitors savor all of Alberobello’s magic in one day, but if you don’t like changing hotels frequently, like us, it was also the perfect spot to base further exploration of Puglia, which is what we intended to do.

There are over one thousand trulli in the Monti district spread across seven narrow streets that twist and turn in an enchantingly confusing way, yet the area was small enough that we were never really lost.  Early in the mornings or late in the day the neighborhood had a unique ambience, with its cobbled lanes, whitewashed walls and pointed stone roofs painted with various religious, astrological, or folkloric  symbols. The latter were meant to ward off evil or ensure a bountiful harvest. Similarly, there are different thoughts about the meaning of the various shapes of the pinnacles atop the roofs. I prefer the theory that they represent the ancient stone mason’s calling card. Most of the trulli have now been converted to shops, restaurants, small inns, and rental properties. 

Across the main road at the bottom of the hill we climbed a shallow slope to a second, smaller borghi, or neighborhood, equally charming but with a more residential flavor than the Monti. The Aja Piccola is comprised of about four hundred trulli.

Farther afield on the outskirts of town we walked through Alberbello’s central cemetery.  Spanning centuries with classic tombs and modern mausoleums, the graveyard architecture presented a strikingly distinct dichotomy to the rustic trulli.

It was backroads through farmland most of the way to Matera, past larger trullo with multiple rooms, each represented by its conical roof. Some along the way were abandoned or used as barns, while others were pristinely refurbished and doubled as the farmer’s home or agrotourism business.

Matera sprang to notoriety in 1945, at the end of WWII, with the publication of Carlo Levi’s novel about his political exile to the region, Christ Stopped at Eboli, when Mussolini was in power.  He described the squalid conditions in which peasants lived together their farm animals: they inhabited caves, without electricity or running water, and diseases ran rampant.  The Italian government was internationally embarrassed by the neglect the sassi of Matera received, and in a restitution effort, relocated the entire population of some 16,000 cave dwellers from 1,500 sassi, small caverns, to a new town built on the plateau above the honeycomb of caves.

Archaeologists have determined through excavations that Matera grew from a series of water-eroded caves along the walls of the Gravina River canyon, which were first inhabited sporadically 9,000 years ago during the Stone Age.  Permanent populations have existed here since 3,000 BC, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in Europe. 

The Romans declared Matera a town in 251 BC. Centuries later the safety of cave dwellings appealed to many during the turbulent dark ages and the populace grew as folks expanded the natural caves and randomly dug new sassi, above and below their neighbors, from the soft rock of the canyon walls.  During the Middle Ages the prosperity of the city supported many churches and convents.

In the 1200s the Cathedral of Saint Mary ‘della Bruna,’ Saint Eustace, and the Church of Saint John the Baptist were built on opposite sides of the ravine.  Prosperity continued in this area into the early renaissance.  The exterior of the some of the sassi were squared off and ornately carved with columns, while others were expanded with additional rooms and vaulted ceilings.   

Political intrigue over the centuries put Matera on the losing side of several rebellions against the various Kings of Naples. The coup de grace came in 1860 after unification with the Kingdom of Italy, when many of the lands and properties owned by the church in the Basilicata region were confiscated and sold off to wealthy aristocratic families. With support from the church, peasant opposition to the broken promises of the new Italian government grew and soon the countryside was controlled by roaming bands of brigands.  The province was too dangerous to travel through, further isolating Matera even though it was the capital of Basilicata.  Many decades of governmental neglect followed and pushed Matera into major decline.

For three decades the sassi were an abandoned no-man’s-land, the caves used as drug dens and warehouses for smugglers until the first gentrifications began with several small boutique hotels in the 1980s.  During years of renovation and exploration, 150 cave churches, 90 wine cellars and numerous cisterns have been rediscovered after the removal of debris and muck from their last use as barns and stables.

The uniqueness of Matera’s “spontaneous architecture” as it is officially called was recognized in 1993 when UNESCO named it a World Heritage site.  Further interest followed, after Matera was used as a film location to double for ancient Jerusalem in several movies: The Passion of the Christ (2004), King David (2005), and The Nativity Story (2006.) Even some scenes from the 2017 Wonder Woman were filmed there. In 2019 Matera received distinction as a European City Capital of Culture.  Today sixty percent of the sassi of Matera have been restored into small hotels, shops, galleries, and digital workspaces.  

When we arrived in Matera the historic area was hidden from our view by the buildings of the new town on the plateau above the Sassi district. We made our way to Piazza Vittorio Veneto while searching for stairs down into the ancient district. There was a tremendous WOW! factor when we emerged from a narrow alley onto a scenic panorama above the old town, the city’s silhouette frozen in time.

Around the city large surrealist sculptures by Salvador Dali stood in wonderful, whimsical juxtaposition to the surrounding monochromatic walls of the city. One day was not enough to uncover all the mystery that Matera had to offer. Hopefully, we will return in the future. 

A day at the beach, more like a day on the cliff above the beach, drew us to Polignano a Mare on Puglia’s Adriatic coast.  It’s a picturesque town known for its dramatic buildings balanced on a cliff edge that follows the sea, thirty feet below. 

The rock face is incredibly soft and over time sections have fallen into the sea creating grottos, under the homes above, that can be toured by boat.  White-pebbled Lama Monachile is a classic, small Italian beach nestled between cliffs, from which the brave dive into the calm turquoise waters of the cove. 

The quaint historic district is relatively small, and homes are painted in cooling colors which echo the sea. Alleys meander to small piazzas above the water, each with a unique view of the cliff and just large enough to support a small café with a few outside tables.  It was a brilliant sunny day, pleasantly uncrowded, and the weather was gentle enough that we could dine outside in a sunny spot during our November visit. 

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Kotor Part 4: The Ladder of Kotor, Camel Tracks and Pirates

The water barely ripples on the inner reaches of Boka Bay when a storm rages across the Adriatic Sea. The steep walls of the fjord created the perfect harbor to shelter ancient fleets of merchant sailing vessels. Three-thousand years ago starting with Greek triremes and later Roman galleys, the vessels carrying goods through the Adriatic to ports along the Mediterranean were mainly rowed.  The ancient Greeks mostly relied on free men as paid rowers while the Romans used slave labor to expand their empire and propel their merchant fleets.

The city of Kotor was essentially a land locked island until an ancient foot path was widened by the Romans in the 1st century into a cobbled road, six to eight feet wide in many places, with stone retaining walls that zigzagged up the mountain four miles and climbed 3100 ft in altitude, about a five- hour trek.  Going downhill was much faster and more difficult for the camel trains. The danger here was if the camels were going too fast and couldn’t round the tight switchbacks, lost their balance and fell off the trail to their deaths.  The camel wranglers definitely had a difficult task on this route. The caravan trail remained the only land route into Kotor until 1897, when the Austrians built the road that now leads from Kotor to Cetinje.

This early example of infrastructure improvement resulted from Rome’s war against the Illyrian Kingdom after it refused to stop their piracy of Roman merchant ships. The empire determined that an overland trade route connecting to Constantinople/Istanbul and the Silk Road from China was needed as a safe alternative.  Eventually a spiderweb of caravan trails and Roman roads spread across the Balkans. Cilician pirates in the eastern Mediterranean were also creating havoc, at one point kidnapping a young Julius Caesar on a voyage to Rhodes. Piracy continued to be a problem for the Venetians with Omis pirates in the 11th to 13th centuries and later Uskok buccaneers from Croatia pillaged along the Adriatic until the 1600s.  Barbarossa, the notorious Ottoman pirate, commanded a fleet of swashbucklers that were the scourge of the Mediterranean at this time, raiding Spanish and Venetians merchant vessels and selling Christians into slavery. European empires also tolerated and endorsed pirates as long as they were “our pirates.”  Piracy persisted on the waters of the Adriatic and Mediterranean for so long because the rugged coastline had many small islands and hidden inlets to shelter the pirates.

Romanticized views of pirates persist today with the popular adventure movie franchise Pirates of the Caribbean, featuring a beguiling Captain Jack Sparrow, and the TV series Black Sails.  Interestingly there is a Japanese anime film about fictitious air piracy on the Adriatic Sea called Porco Rosso which is based on a 1992 short graphic novel called Hikōtei Jidai (飛行艇時代, The Age of the Flying Boat). It’s entertaining and worth checking the Porco Rosso film trailer.

The afternoons in mid-October were still quite hot so we planned for an early start from our apartment in the center the historic district.  This coincided with the young parents of old town escorting their children through the still shadowed alleys to the Vrata od Škurde, the River Gate, which was constructed in 1539 to celebrate a naval victory over Barbarossa, now an Ottoman admiral. We found ourselves behind an orthodox priest holding the hand of his daughter as we crossed the first and then second bridge that spanned the Scurda.  The Scurda is a wide, shallow stream that bubbles to the surface from beneath the tall rock escarpment that the Ladder of Kotor climbs and flows into Boka Bay. This area on the far side of the bridge was for centuries the market for all the goods brought down the trail from afar or from farms in the mountains to be sold or bartered for.

The old caravan trail starts behind the waterworks where the underground spring emerges and zigzags often in the tight confining space at the bottom of the gorge. The trail continued in the shadow of once towering fortress walls now humbled by earthquakes before the ravine widened out and the distance between the switchbacks increased.  There are seventy switchbacks in total if you chose to trek all the way to Krstac pass where the trail ends near Restaurant Nevjesta Jadrana. Here you can zipline over part of the trail you just hiked up, or catch a taxi or local bus back to Kotor or onto Cetinje.  Hiking back to Kotor is also an option for the hardy.

Our plans were more modest, just wanting to hike to a vantage point above the Castle of San Giovanni, Kotor Fortress, for views over the bay.  The cobbled road and retaining walls have seen better days having been damaged in the 1979 earthquake.  While the fortress has been repaired, maintenance of the caravan trail has been forgotten.  Though many sections of it are in better shape than the stairs to the Castle of San Giovanni and not as bad as some city sidewalks across Europe. Still you need to be aware of your footing and wear sturdy shoes.

It was a gentle hike through a rock-strewn hillside dotted with grasses, small shrubs, occasional pomegranate trees and wild thyme.  Off in the distance unseen donkeys could be heard braying. The pomegranates were just ripening, but were all teasingly just inches out of reach, too far from the trail’s edge.  The views were fantastic from many spots and there were two rustic taverns to stop at along the way to rest.  The lower one was closed for the season, but the higher one referred to as the Cheese Shop, on Google maps, is located where the trail veers off towards the deserted village of Spiljari, which is located under the back ramparts of San Giovanni Fortress. 

I think we were the innkeeper’s first customers of the day, and we ordered two espressos while we rested on the shaded porch.  After serving us he crossed to a refrigerator on the other side of the room to get himself a shot of chilled rakija. Being a good host, he offered us some. It was ten in the morning.  We politely declined. Though I’m sure it would have had wonderful medicinal qualities in case of any mishaps.

The village of Spiljari is over 1,000 years old and was abandoned when its water source went dry. Now trees grow between the half walls of a dozen buildings and the ruins of the Church of St John remain standing.  The ruins of the church alone are worth the detour. 

Slowly decaying, colorful remnants of what one only could imagine were beautiful frescoes remain on walls open to the weather. 

From here you can see a ladder to a small portal in the side wall of the fortress. The Ladder of Kotor? We are not sure if the name refers specifically to this or to the climb in general.  Years ago, this was an alternative entrance into the fortress.  Now it is strictly an exit point for those who have paid the €8 entrance fee to the fortress and walked up the stairs from old town and wish to return to Kotor by the caravan trail.  Though you might be able to purchase a cold drink from an ice cooler manned by the ladder attendant.  

The sun was high in the sky when we made it above the castle and the view was spectacular. We sat for a while and imagined the history of the trail: how it conveyed ideas, merchandise, pilgrims and invaders over the centuries. 

Notably in the 1830s a team of fifty men carried an Italian billiard table up this track to the rightfully named Biljarda House, home to the beloved prince bishop and poet Petar II Petrovic. (Just imagine the amount of cursing involved in that endeavor.)  Years later when Petar II Petrovic was on his deathbed a procession carried him up this same track to the historic old capital, Cetinje.  A few months later Montenegrins would carry his successor and nephew Danilo II Petrović-Njegoš to Cetinje to rule.

And although we took many photographs on the trek up, we took even more of the ever changing view as we descended back into town.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Kotor Part 3: Herceg Novi – Serenading the Ghosts

The days were noticeably cooler now, with a morning mist hanging on the water as we sped around Kotor Bay on the local bus to Herceg-Novi (€3 one way) for the day. The narrow two-lane road hugged the coastline and in spots jutted out over the water to circumvent a sheer rock face.  When the landscape widened enough, houses were built on every patch of useable land in small clusters or standing alone.  At the farthest end of the bay we watched oyster farmers raft between their rows of buoys that marked the submerged delicacy growing in the depths below.

Further along the Lepetani – Kamenari Ferry (€4.50 per car, €1 for a bicycle, people free) offered a shorter and faster route that bypassed Kotor for travelers wanting to stay along the highway that hugged the Adriatic coast from Albania to Croatia.

Unlike Kotor and Budva, which were both built on flat coastal terrain, Herceg-Novi was built on a steep slope that runs many miles inland to the summit of Mount Orjen. The mountain, part of the coastal Dinaric Alps, is Montenegro’s tallest peak, which at 6210 ft is 500 ft taller than the more famous Mount Lovćen (5738 ft).  The town existed as a small fishing village for several hundred years until its first defensive walls were raised in 1382, making it one of the youngest and most fought-over fortified cities along the Adriatic coast. 

The old town is long and narrow, climbing up the hill from the water’s edge like an index finger poking out of the sea, making it a much harder city for the Omis pirates to attack.  Let’s face it, Mediterranean diet or not, it’s much more difficult to properly sack, pillage and plunder a city when you are exhausted from running up steep flights of stairs.  Though it wasn’t always the pirates that folks worried about.

The Turks built Kanli Tower on the highest point in the city after they defeated the Byzantines in 1482, only to be ousted by the Spanish for a brief stint of gentrification in 1538 when they quickly constructed Hispaniola Fortress higher up the mountain, to no avail; the keys of the city were returned to the Turks two years later.  The Venetians had their turn also, strengthening walls and building towers that survived until the devastating 1979 earthquake.  Its turbulent history also included the Austrian, Russian, French and Germans, all battling for beach chairs along the Herceg-Novi riviera.  Fortunately, the communists didn’t see the need to impose their minimalistic architecture on such a beautiful swath of earth and left it alone.  The people of the communist block were not as fortunate.

We were only an hour from Kotor when the bus pulled into the station above old town Herceg Novi, the last stop before the border with Croatia.  Walking downhill, we came upon the daily market, Gradska Pijaca Herceg Novi, and took the opportunity to purchase the makings for a picnic lunch. Bread, cheese, figs and a huge pomegranate filled our knapsack.  Old Town is of course surrounded by the apartment buildings of the new town, a pretty gentrification which has sprawled horizontally between the sea and the highway above town, hugging the hill for views of the bay.

The lane ended in Nikole Đurkovića Square in front of the ancient Sahat-Kul clock tower and gate, built by the Ottomans in 1667, that leads into the historic district.  Once through the gate, the dark passage opened onto palm-treed Belavista Square lined with cafes and umbrella tables. St. Michael Archangel Church anchored its center.  The style of this relatively modern church, built in 1911, is defined as Eclecticism, after its incorporation of architectural influences that reflected Herceg Novi’s diverse history.  Byzantine, Gothic, Romanesque, Islamic and Serbian Orthodox inspirations all blend seamlessly together. 

The old town was very quiet, and we had the narrow alleys and stairs to the Sea Fortress, the first fortification in Herceg Novi, practically to ourselves.  At the old town’s southernmost point, the massive stone wall of the fortress protrudes several stories high from the sea, like the bow of a cruise ship.  Its canons are quiet now, but during the summer tourist season it hosts citadel-top concerts and a film series from the spot where the guns once guarded the bay. 

We chose not to walk down to the harbor, saving our strength instead for the longer one-mile walk to the Savina Monastery. The monks sure did know how to pick locations for inspiration. The first stones of one of three churches were laid in 1030, and the setting above Kotor Bay is glorious. 

Being a Saturday, it was wedding day and we arrived just in time to watch a flag-waving crowd and brass band escort the bride and groom to their get-away car.  Moments later another wedding party arrived to celebratory horns. 

Next to the cathedral where the weddings were being held, the smallest and oldest church, Sveto Uspenje Bogorodice (St. Falling into Sleep of Holy Mother of God) has fascinating, ancient frescoes depicting the life of Christ.  Stairs in the hillside led to a cemetery above the monastery with beautiful views. 

The route back was relatively flat and took us through a pretty neighborhood filled with flowering shrubs to a smaller gateway into the old town, nearer the stairs to the Kanli Kula Fortress or Bloody Tower.