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 Clubwhere 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.
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.
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 Pietrothat 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.
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 Charlotte – for 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.
A curtain of fog blanketed our route as we traversed the Po River Valley and crossed into the Emilia-Romagna region on our way to Ravenna. The purpose – to see some of the finest Byzantine mosaics outside of Constantinople, present day Istanbul, which was once the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. Not to be outdone, Ravenna’s golden mosaics rival Constantinople’s and were created in the 5th century when Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire after Rome’s demise. Eight churches have been recognized by UNESCO for their cultural significance as “Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna.” Most of them are credited to a building boom by Justinian I after a reconquest of the city from the Ostrogoths in 535 that solidified Byzantine power on the Italian Peninsula along the Adriatic coast.
The valley had been the breadbasket of Northern Italy for several millennia when the Etruscans and Romans first started to drain the wetlands to expand areas for cultivation to support a growing populace aligned with city-states of the region. The spring floods from the snow melt of the Alps, Apennines and Dolomite mountain ranges replenish the valley’s fertile soil every year before pouring into the Northern Adriatic Sea.
With the belief that the valleys are always greener on the other side of the Alps, invading armies contested the area for centuries. French kings, German tribes, Galls, Hannibal with eighty war elephants, Goths, Attila the Hun, Papal armies, and Napoleon have all wanted this green acreage, and were willing to shed blood for it.
The fog had lifted, but it was still a moody day as we entered the Basilica di San Vital. The unique octagonal church was one of Justinian’s first commissions to celebrate Christianity in the city on a grand scale. The splendor of its lofty mosaics that rise from the floor, on all sides, to encompass the domed ceiling are dazzling. The golden tiles warmly reflecting the ambient light even on a dreary day.
Byzantine mosaics evolved from the Greek use of different colored river stones to create sturdy designs in ancient roads. Durable marble was preferred for its vast array of colors and was used for interiors floors in palaces. Lasting centuries, these intricate designs are often referred to as “eternal pictures.”
The Byzantine artists’ innovation was to use physically lighter and more fragile material such as different colored glass pieces and mother of pearl, along with incorporation of gold and silver leaf. The color palette expanded with the refinement of glazed tiles.
A short distance behind the basilica stands the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, intended as the final resting place for Teodosius the Great’s daughter. It was never used as a tomb, as she died in Rome. The small, modest brick structure is designed in the shape of a Latin cross and is inspirationally decorated as a “prelude to paradise.” A surprisingly intimate and tranquil space, it is one of the oldest religious monuments in Ravenna dating to 430 AD.
A short walk across town, the Cattedrale della Risurrezione di Nostro Signore Gesù Cristo or Duomo of Ravenna, the Baptistery of Neon, and the Archiepiscopal Museum of Ravenna all share the same campus. Though considerably newer, the 18th century Duomo is built over the ruins of an early fourth century church and retains several early side chapels and fifth century sarcophagi.
Behind the cathedral the former bishop’s residence has been converted into a museum displaying a diverse collection of religious relics. The highlight though was the exquisitely mosaiced sanctuary, the Chapel of St. Andrew. It was built in 495 AD for the private use of Ravenna’s archbishops.
The museum directly behind the cathedral was also interesting. with its diverse collection of religious relics and an exquisite private chapel for the bishop.
The real reward for the trek across town was the early fifth century Baptistry of Neon. The octagon-shaped brick building appears to have settled into the ground, but in actuality, centuries’ worth of construction detritus from earlier settlements in Ravenna have raised the surrounding terrain ten feet since the structure was built. This necessitates the occasional raising of the entrance.
At the baptistry it’s all about the magnificent mosaics that adorn the dome. Above arched windows, the center medallion features John the Baptist christening Jesus in the River Jordan, followed by an encircling outer ring that depicts the twelve apostles. Astonishingly, most of the original mosaic work survives and is still intact. During a minor 19th century restoration, a mosaic artist freelanced with creative license and added the bowl that St. John is using to pour water – a scandal at the time.
The tall ridge of Monte Titano rose above the gentle hills of the Emilia-Romagna countryside surrounding San Marino like a tall ship’s white sail on the ocean; its three fortress towers mimicked the crow’s nest atop a schooner’s mast. The towers served the same purpose: as lookout posts, to spot any approaching threat. They have served the Republic well since its founding in 301 AD, when the Christian stonemason Marinus, who was later beatified as San Marino, fled Rimini to avoid the Diocletianic Persecutions. Also known as the Great Persecution, it was the last and harshest repression of Christianity in the Western Roman Empire before it was accepted as the state religion in 313 AD. The rugged terrain of the mountain provided safe refuge for the small community of followers who built a small chapel and monastery. As the community grew, a governing system evolved that included representation of each family by the head of the household in an assembly called the Arengo. Representatives were summoned to the meetings by the ringing of the church bell. This eventually changed to a Grand and General Council which elected two Captains Regents for six-month terms. In 1861 the tiny constitutional republic bestowed honorary citizenship on Abraham Lincoln. In his acceptance letter he wrote, “Although your dominion is small, your State is nevertheless one of the most honored, in all history. It has by its experience demonstrated the truth…that Government founded on Republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring.” On the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, in 2015, San Marino minted a ten-euro commemorative coin that highlights the great orator’s words to the tiny republic: “Great and Good Friends.”
Giuseppe Garibaldi and a band of followers received refuge in San Marino before the tide of the unification movement turned in his favor. In the 1870’s, San Marino was asked to join with the rest of the Italian peninsula. However, the good will engendered by their gracious treatment of Garibaldi prevented the tiny republic from suffering invasion after they politely declined.
Along with Andorra, Monaco and Liechtenstein, San Marino is a surviving example of a medieval city-state that was once quite common throughout Europe and especially the Italian peninsula. In such esteemed company, one would expect the place be expensively exclusive. That would have held true if we had visited during the high season. But that’s not the case in November when cold winds whip across Monte Titano. With some internet sleuthing, Donna found us a great rate at Hotel Rosa San Marino.
The last vestiges of autumn colors still clung to the trees that lined our serpentine route up the mountain that ended at one of the ancient city gates through a crenelated wall. The hotel had assured us that parking was available on site when we made the reservation several months prior, but a traffic sign warned that vehicles were prohibited and to proceed no farther. With a quick phone call to the hotel they confirmed that they would register our car with the city and that we could drive through the gate and into the historic district without any worries.
With a few tight turns between buildings, we drove higher and literally parked beneath the Guaita Tower, San Marco’s first tower and iconic fortress built in the 11th century. Only a few steps from the paths along Monte Titano’s ridgeline, the hotel was in an ideal location to explore the mountaintop city and had wonderful views from its balcony.
The next morning, we braved the chill wind and climbed to the top of the tower. Donna loves these vertical expeditions. Steep ladders, crumbling fortress walls, and cliffside trails don’t intimidate her. I on the other hand have a healthy fear of heights and am only emboldened with a camera in hand in order to pursue the best photo ops. Spots along the ridge trail connecting the towers were challenging for me, but extremely rewarding for the views.
The panoramic, birds-eye-views from the tower were phenomenal and well worth my shaky knee syndrome while on the ladder to the top. The region of Montefeltro spread out below us toward all the compass points. Northward and south the gentle valleys and hills of Emilia-Romagna were saturated with the earthen tones of autumn. To the east the Adriatic coastline near Rimini shimmered on the horizon and it’s said on the best days you can see the mountains in Croatia. To the west the borders of Tuscany, Marche and Umbria straddled the rugged Appenine mountains around the Regional Natural Park of Sasso Simone and Simoncello. During the day the towers were manned by lookouts for signs of any approaching armies and at night to spot their campfires.
To get to the second and third towers we had to pass through defensive wall that protected the core of ancient village and cross an arched stone bridge, called the Witches Path, Passo delle Streghe, above a deep gorge that divides the ridge. It gets its name from the howling winds that whip through the high, narrow gorge and sound like voices. Allegedly, during the Dark Ages a coven of witches practiced their black magic here. More accurately though, suspected witches in San Marino were thrown to their deaths from the cliff edge. Falesia, the 13th century second tower, was built on the highest point of the ridge (2,425 ft) and used to house a garrison of crossbowmen. It now houses a military museum that showcases ancient weaponry, but was unfortunately closed for repairs during our November visit.
A small door through the Falesia’s outer wall connected to a rugged cobbled path that continued to Terza Torre, the third tower or Montale. The slender 14th century tower stands alone in a wooded area on the bow of the ridge. Built as a lookout tower and prison, the only door to the structure is twenty feet off the ground where prisoners were thrown into one large pit in the tower’s foundation. This tower has never been open to tourists, but the scenery along the trail makes it well worth the visit. Challenging trails off this path circumnavigate Monte Titano and eventually lead to the valley below. The early morning and sunset light on the mountain are totally different and enhance a romantic ambience that is especially rewarding for photographers.
Fortunately, at the other end of the tower path there were many restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating. Opting to eat outside on a breezy day, so that we could continue to enjoy the view, we lucked out and were able to get a table along the cliff edge that was out of the wind. Another advantage to November travel is that merchants are gearing up for Christmas. The town was very pretty with its holiday decorations, and we were just a bit early for the Christmas market, although the cute little cottages were already set up. Donna had fun browsing the shops, and found a nice commemorative: a roof tile with a miniature Christmas scene built into it.
The next morning it almost seemed easier to walk the ridge trail than the steep streets of San Marino’s historic center that were giving our calf muscles a workout.
The Basilica di San Marino and the much smaller Chiesa di San Pietro stand next to each other on Piazzale Domus Plebis. Encompassing the mountain into its structure, Chiesa di San Pietro originally dates to the 600s and has a carved stone recess that legend believes was San Marino’s bed when he first sought sanctuary on the mountain. The basilica was rebuilt in 1826 in a Neoclassical style over the ruins of an earlier 4th century church. In the church, relics of San Marino are safely kept under the altar.
Following narrow lanes we came to the Funivia · Città (Libertà), a cable car, that can whisk tourists up or down the mountain in two minutes, to the parking lot by the Castle of Borgo Maggiore. At this end of the city the wide terrace of Contrada del Pianello offered different yet equally enthralling vistas of the surrounding countryside. The panoramas were especially dramatic late one afternoon, when the sun broke through the cloud cover and cast dramatic shadows cross the countryside.
There is no passport control when you enter San Marino from Italy, which is disappointing if you enjoy getting those passport stamps as reminders of your travels, but for diehards like us, the San Marino Tourist Office, located by the cable car station, will stamp your book for five euros.
San Marino has some interesting public sculpture and the first piece we encountered was in a small park plaza across from the tourist office. The Alle Vittime Del Bombardament, depicts a young woman rescuing a small child. It commemorates the bombing of the country, a neutral territory, in June 1944 when allied forces mistakenly believed the German Army had retreated onto Monte Titano. Two hundred sixty-three Sammarinese were killed during that air raid.
Working our way to the Museo di Stato, the National Museum, we passed the old stone quarry where the country’s crossbowmen, a military unit formed in 1295, once trained. It’s still used by The San Marino Federation of Crossbowmen, a group of ceremonial crossbowmen, musicians and flag-wavers who now entertain at festivals in Renaissance dress. Further along, just before the Palazzo Pubblico, San Marino’s capital building where the Captains Regents and the Grand Council conduct the business of the country, more whimsical sculptures graced a small area with benches.
Piazza della Libertà in front of the Palazzo Pubblico gets its name from San Marino’s own version of Lady Liberty. Sculpted from brilliant white Carrara marble, the Statua della Libertà depicts a striding female warrior, carrying a flag-draped spear and extending a hand in peace, with the three towers of Monte Titano as her crown. It was donated to the country in 1876 by German Countess Otilia Heyroth Wagener, a former Berlin ballerina, who married an Italian nobleman. This was ten years before the French Statue of Liberty was finished in New York harbor.
Adjacent to the entrance of the National Museum, the Grande Statua Nudo Femminile or the “Great Female Nude Statue,” (this title creates such an unflattering visualization for a tranquil figure and anyway the sculpture is only 5.5ft tall) by Italian sculptor Francesco Messina stands in front of the Cassa di Risparmio della Repubblica di San Marino, a bank. The bronze was purchased to celebrate the bank’s 100th anniversary. I can just imagine the discussion around the board of directors table, “Profits are up this year, we should invest.” “Yeah, big nude sculptures are symbolic of banking success, financial stability!” “One would look good in front of the building.” “Okay, let’s vote.” I’m being sarcastic, of course, though San Marino does have liberal banking regulations and welcomes offshore accounts from wealthy individuals looking to hide their assets.
The Museo di Stato, the National Museum, has an interesting collection of archeological items discovered on Monte Titano and its surrounding territory that spans its early history, along with art and religious items. We were not aware of it at the time, but San Marino offers a museum pass for 8€ that allows you visit all seven of the country’s national museums. It is a very good value.
It was a long uphill walk back to our hotel, but well worth it to enjoy the quaint lanes of this unique republic one last time before our departure the next morning. If you are looking for an aerial experience over the Italian countryside without renting a helicopter, a trip up Mount Titano in San Marino might fit the bill.
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.
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.
The weather in mid-November was still nice; most of the days were sunny, but cooler. Sometimes a damp dreary, grey day snuck in and reminded us that winter did come this far south as was the occasion when we started our drive to Cefalu. It was honestly just plain yucky! On the wet roadtrip south, we passed two men selling roasted chestnuts and plastic, one-liter bottles of Vino Novello, young wine, or the Italian version of Beaujolais Nouveau, made from an accelerated fermentation process that eliminates the aging normally associated with vinting wines. With a quick u-turn and purchase our spirits were immediately lifted, as the aroma of the freshly roasted chestnuts filled the car. They took the chill off the day. The bottles of wine would wait until Palermo. This continues a tradition started years ago, stopping at roadside stands for any type of food, craft or wine purchase. Some days we made very slow progress indeed.
Heading inland from the coast road we followed the A19 west across the desolate, mountainous interior of Sicily past sporadically placed hilltop villages of various size. Calascibetta was particularly impressive from the road; its recorded history dates to its Arabic settlement in 851 AD. An area of 300 rock-cut tombs, Necropoli di Realmese, and a warren of cave dug dwellings at the Byzantine Village of Vallone Canalotto called for further exploration. “Next time,” we agreed as we raced to spend the afternoon in Cefalu.
On the Sicilian list of most beautiful villages, it is also thought to be one of the inspirations for the coastal village “Vigata” where our favorite fictional detective, Salvo Montalbano, created by Andrea Camilleri, enjoys quietly eating his beloved Sicilian dishes on his patio overlooking the beach. A step above the typical crime novel, Andrea Camilleri’s inspector Montalbano critically confronts Italy’s difficult political and social issues.
A graceful, curved beach, with ancient stone homes built to the Tyrrhenian Sea’s edge, under a bold headland defines Cefalu’s beauty. Offshore lie the Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago.
The town’s first settlement was atop the nearly inaccessible 1200ft tall promontory that dominates this spur of land that protrudes into the ocean like a bent knuckle. A new town was established on the coast under the cliff face when the Normans captured it from the Arabs in 1063 and proceeded to anchor the new village with a cathedral that was built to fulfill a promise to the Holy Savior by Roger II, the King of Sicily, upon his survival of a vicious storm at sea that cast him ashore at Cefalu. Started in 1131, the fortress-like church, with Arab influenced architectural elements, took over 100 years to construct and was finished in 1240.
A handful of tourists sheltered under the tent of a café on the plaza in front of the Cefalù Cathedral, trying to ward of the November chill with coffee or wine. Unfortunately, the church was closed and we were unable to view its Byzantine mosaics. A trailhead on Via Pitre leads to the top of the massive promontory that towers over the town. Paths connect the ruins of a Greek temple dedicated to Diana that dates to the 9th century BC, as well as a Saracenic castle. The panoramic views of the Cefalu and the Sicilian coast are phenomenal.
A plastic curtain at the restaurant shielded us from a sudden downpour as we sat enjoying pizza, just above the gentle lapping waves. By the end of lunch, the rain had lessened to a misty drizzle and we ventured forth, with our umbrellas at the ready, down slick cobbled lanes to a wide, curved stone staircase.
Legend says the waters of the Cefalino River that feed the The Lavatoio Medievale, a medieval washhouse, were created from the tears of a nymph mourning the loss of her lover. The waters originate six miles away in the Madonie Mountains near the village of Gratteri and flow under the streets of Cefalu before reaching the sea. Lion-headed spouts filled a series of stone basins that the town’s women used from their construction in 1665 until the last traditionalist scrubbed clothes there in the 1990s. An ancient stone plaque at the top of the stairs is inscribed with the saying “Here flows Cefalino, healthier than any other river, purer than silver, colder than snow.”
Our stay on Via Bara All’Olivella, a street known for its Opera dei Pupi, puppet theatres, was on the edge of Palermo’s historic district and near the classical Massimo Theater. Craftspeople carve and dress the puppets with fine cloth and metal armor, and their workshops can still be visited along the lane. The shows, which can last two hours and have three acts, re-tell the legends of medieval Christians kings, chivalric knights, damsels in distress, and Saracen nobles, with a supporting cast of sorcerers, witches, dragons, giants, and various other evil doers. Sicilian puppetry is a dying art and has been recognized by UNESCO an “Intangible Cultural Heritage.”
Sicily and Palermo have a long, convoluted history with the city as the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily when the Normans ruled. Later it was a sister city to Naples when it was part of the Kingdom of Naples. Eventually the distinct regions finally agreed to be called Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1816, until the unification of Italy in 1870. The prestige of both cities is seen in the wealth and the number of their churches. And there really are a lot of them.
Like Naples, this large urban center has fallen on hard times in recent decades. In the historic center the landmarks have been maintained, but the remaining residential areas have been allowed to deteriorate to the point where the crumbling buildings seem to cry out for restoration. With oases of beauty scattered about between gritty and raw neighborhoods, Palermo stands in stark contrast to the experience of Cefalu and Taormina. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t enjoyable and interesting. On the contrary, along with being fascinating and different, it was a very urban experience! Plotting our routes between churches exposed us to high culture and art along with the rough-and-tumble ambience of the city, sprinkled with graffiti, as we wandered the streets.
Only a few blocks away from our lodging, we started our morning at Chiesa di San Domenico. It has under undergone many incarnations since the Dominicans commissioned the first church in 1280. The Baroque façade and interior are the result of an expansion in the 1700s. With the burial of many notable Sicilian artists and politicians within its wall, it is recognized as the “pantheon of illustrious Sicilians,” and continues this tradition with modern heroes, most notably the tomb of anti-mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, who was assassinated by organized crime in 1992, and which still receives tributes.
Somehow, we ended up on the top floor of the department store next to the church. Surprisingly, it had a nice café and patio with a view of the Colonna dell’Immacolata on the piazza and the gateway to the La Loggia quarter, one of the original Palermo neighborhoods.
The colorful Vucciria Market on Piazza Caracciolo and the decaying remnants of past glories on the surrounding streets led to the fountain on Piazza Garraffello. Built in 1591, its beauty was overshadowed by the street art on the grim encircling buildings and haphazardly parked cars that nearly obscured it from view. The area was very quiet when we strolled through but is known for its raucous nightlife that lasts until morning.
Across from the port a heavenly aroma emerged from a small storefront that was doing an active business. The place got its name from its specialty, Pani câ Meusa – Porta Carbone, a street food sandwich famous in Palermo that is made with boiled and then fried cow spleen and cow lung, grated caciocavallo cheese and lemon, served on a sesame roll. We thought its strong and rich flavor was a taste that might take a lifetime to acquire.
Two blocks away, the Giardino Garibaldi’s stately centuries-old specimen trees anchored a neighborhood of fine palazzo now functioning as museums and university buildings.
Around the corner a large, tall-wheeled float shaped like boat, called a Carro Trionfale, was on display in front of the municipal office. On top was a statue of Santa Rosalia, a 12th century hermit who is credited with saving the city from the plague when a relic of the saint was paraded three times around the city in 1624. The highlight of her weeklong festival, held every July, is the procession when the carro is pulled through the streets by teams of men from the Cathedral of Palermo to the waterfront. Every year a different district gets the honor of hosting the carro until the next festival.
Farther afield, our wanderings took us down blocks that seemed to retreat further back in time with every step. We saw contemporary street art on urban housing projects within steps of a ghostly unfinished renaissance cathedral, the Santa Maria Dello Spasimo. Started in 1506, it was never completed and now is used as an open-air theater and concert venue. The juxtapositions of the treasured and the forgotten in Palermo are stunning.
The warren of narrow lanes off the Il Capo district between the Massimo Theater and the Cattedrale di Palermo were ripe for exploration. Off Via Volturno, two stone columns with decorative capitals, Porta Carini, grace the entrance to the Mercato del Capo, one of the oldest outdoor markets in the city. Built before 1310, the columns symbolize the neighborhood’s grand past that’s difficult to visualize amidst the colorful canvas awnings of the raucous street vendors.
Nearby is the site of the brutal assassination of Carabinieri General Dalla Chiesa, an anti-mafia investigator, his wife and a police escort. They were murdered by AK47 wielding gunmen on motorcycles one night in 1982. This vicious event epitomizes the Mafia war or Mattanza, the Slaughter, that gripped Palermo and the whole of Sicily from the 1970s to the 90s with thousands of homicides of rival mafioso foot soldiers, journalists, politicians and judges. Fortunately, things are vastly different now.
Farther along, the street narrows enough that from their balconies, neighbors can easily talk to one other across the lane. At Piazza Domenico Peranni haphazard stalls, some with trees growing through the roofs, house a permanent flea market filled with dusty curiosities.
Every seat of power in antiquity had a triumphal arch to signify its greatness, and Palermo’s is certainly unusual with its columns depicting turbaned Arab slaves. The Porta Nuova gateway was reconstructed in 1570 to celebrate the 1535 triumph of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, over Ottoman forces in Tunis. Landing in Palermo after his victory, the monarch paraded 14,000 Arab slaves through the city. Standing next to Palermo’s Royal Palace, the Palazzo dei Normanni, the 140ft tall monument was part of the defensive wall that once surrounded the city.
When the Normans won Palermo in 1072, it is believed they found 300 mosques in the ancient city and proceeded to change them all to churches, many sponsored by baronial families. Grand, lesser and forgotten, it was nearly impossible to avoid the churches as we walked through the historic district. Many were closed, but the larger ones still open to tourists were all different and magnificent.
The Cathedral of Palermo is definitely one not to miss. It was constructed by the Normans in 1184 over a mosque that was built atop the ruins of an earlier Christian church. It’s undergone many architectural alterations over the centuries, embracing Arabic, Gothic and Renaissance influences which have combined to create a visual compelling architectural façade with numerous interesting details.
The cavernous inside is rather plain in comparison to some of the richly decorated interiors of other Palermo churches. The piazza in front of the church is perfectly scaled for viewers to appreciate the grandeur of the church behind it. The roof, tombs and treasury of the cathedral are all accessible for a fee, while entrance to the church is free.
If you are short of time head to the Quattro Canti (Four Corners) intersection of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda. It is the heart of Palermo’s historic district. A short walk took to us to the fanciful Fontana Pretoria, a tiered fountain from the 1500s, which is bedecked with mythological figures.
Beyond it three ancient churches ring Piazza Bellini, and back-to-back visits of all three then required Bellini cocktails to loosen our stiff neck muscles afterward to reground us after this celestial bliss. The Church and Convent of Santa Caterina d’Alessandriawas originally built as a hospice in the 1300s. Its caverneous, highly decorated Baroque interior, with every surface sculpted or painted with cherubs, angels, saints and martyrs celebrating the heavenly kingdom, was built for the cloistered Domenican nuns from wealthy and noble families who arrived a century later, only to close the hospital and open a bakeshop, “i Segreti del Chiostro – the secrets of the cloister,” instead. Hey, everyone enjoys a good cookie, and the nuns are still turning out traditional Sicilianbaked marzipan sweetslike frutta di Martorana today, from the convent’s original recipes. Near the entrance to the convent its original ruota, a small wheel-like door, is still in use. Through it the cloistered nuns can pass baked goods while remaining unseen, and poor mothers could anonymously leave babies for adoption. The last nuns left the monastery in 2014 and it was opened to the public in 2017.
Across the piazza stands Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglion, named after the Norman admiral, who commissioned it in 1143. Its exterior is a hybrid of Baroque and Romanesque styles with Arab influences. Inside, golden Byzantine mosaics cover the walls, arches, and domes.
The Arab-Norman architecture continues next door with the fortress-like Church of San Cataldo. The smallest church on the square, its austere block shape has three red bulging domes of Arabic style on the roof. During the 18th century it was unceremoniously used as a post office until its façade was restored in the 19th century and the building annexed to Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglion. Without clues to its original interior decoration the inside has been left unadorned, just bare stone.
We only scratched the surface of places to explore on an island that we found enchanting and fascinating. It could take a lifetime to experience all it has to offer – an interesting idea. We hope to return one day.
The wing of the plane dipped one last time to reveal the turquoise waters along the Sicilian coast as we headed for Northern Italy.
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.