Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Naples: Days 2 -4- Sorrento, Pompei, and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale

The past two days we took some day trips outside the city. Sorrento was first- an hour or so boat ride took us to the harbor at the base of the cliffs on which Sorrento sits. Sorrento was beautiful, and had all of Naples' charm, without any of the explosions. The next day we headed to Pompei, a city that was considered ancient when the Romans concured it in the 1st century BC. It was amazing to walk through all the streets. It was really cool to see Vesuvius, although much of it was blown off 2000 years ago. Imagining how tall it would have been makes you realize how much it loomed over the city, and how quickly the city must have been destroyed. After that, we went to the National Archeological Museum. There two of my most favorite sculptures are there: the tired Hercules and the Farnese bull.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Naples- day 1: the city

So we completed our first day in Naples- and we made sure to fill it to the brim. The best place to start is, logically, the beginning, and our beginning effectively was at Cafe Gambrinus, because that is where we had breakfast. Less than a stone's throw from Palazzo Reale and Piazza del Plebiscito, Gran Gafffe Gambrinus has been host to frequents like Gabriele D'Annunzio, and Oscar Wilde. Then we headed over to Palazzo Reale. There was a ballroom there that would have been a fantastic place for us to host a swing dance, but awe well. It soon became apparent why Naples is extremely well known for their nativity scenes. In the palace they had a nativity scene that must have included over 100 figures. To create the effect of perspective, they sculpted the figures smaller as they went off into the distance. After that we headed over to Castel Nuovo, which was considered new around 1279 during the reign of Charles 1st of Anjou. This helped distinguish it from Castel Del'Ovo (Castle of the Egg), and Castel Capuano. The Castle continues to be where the city council meets today. The coolest thing there was the Baron's Hall, which had an eight-pointed star shaped dome ceiling. Finally we saw the Capodimonte- top of the mountain, from which we enjoyed spectacular views of the city and some fantastic works of art. There was a painting by Artemisia, of Judith slaying Holofernes that is spectacular. The artist was obscessed with having the perfect colors, so much so that it is rumored that she used her own blood to make the right color red in her paintings.
Now we're in Naples. It was the capitol of it's own kingdom for hundreds of years before becoming part of Italy at the end of the 19th century. It is organized much like how I would want to build my own capitol city: wide boulevards, imposing castles, galleries, theaters, and one of the most spectacular archeological museums in the world. It's charming in a sketchy sort of way- the wide boulevards are connected by narrow alleys. Although charming it does have a few downsides:
1- the Camorra- the name of the Napolitano mafia is the most violent in the world. More drugs, prostitution rings, and murders flow through these crime families than any other on the peninsula, and they are some of the most powerful in Europe. The most lucrative trade however is little discussed but has an amazing impact on the life of southern Italians: garbage. Hazardous waste has been illegally shipped by the mafia from northern Europe and Italy to southern Italy, where it has been illegally dumped in the countryside. The damage caused in these areas is horrendous, both for the agriculture (nothing grows as well when industrial chemicals are in the groundwater) and for the people. There is a fantastic film that depicts life in the Neapolitan suburbs where the Camorra is most powerful called Gomorra. However, serious government efforts have made significant gains against crime in recent years.
2- A few years ago, you might remember hearing reports of the garbage in the streets of Naples. This was because the Camorra, that wasn't getting enough in kickbacks, stopped taking out garbage. Having a monopoly on the system, the Camorra effectively turned the city into a trash heap in a few days. In the media, this was greatly exaggerated. That being said, Naples isn't a very clean city. It's charming and beautiful, but not that tidy.
3- The waiters can be really pushy- they will insist that you must try the house special, for every course, after the first time when you refused, at least a dozen times. You must be insistent. You must stand by your convictions and not be persuaded by their wiles- if they ask enough they know that you will eventually say yes to stop them from asking again. The important thing is that you must know what you want. They respond well to polite firmness- you don't need to be rude, but state quite plainly what you want and they will get it for you quick enough.
4- Naples, like many other cities, set off fireworks to celebrate new years. Unlike other cities, the Nepolitanos start the explosions over two weeks before hand, and its not unusual to hear pavement-cracking, earth-shaking explosions on a regular basis there. When we were calmly eating our pizza at a restaurant on the street, we heard this explosion from the alley behind us. Car alarms were going off, there was smoke, and we heard a bunch of kids scream. We were a bit nervous, nay, afraid of all the comotion. But the italians all around us were as unperturbed as if a bird had flown by. They saw how worried we were and told us to calm down- that sort of thing happends all the time.
Anyway- Naples in a nutshell: Strangely calm when everything around them is going crazy.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Montecasino

Today we visited Montecasino on our way down from Sienna to Naples. The Abby is on the top of a huge mountain. I found the history of the abbey rather comical. The Abby (founded in 529 by St. Benedict) was built on the foundations of Roman fortifications. It was destroyed first 577 by the Lombards; then the Saracens sacked it in 883. An earthquake then destroyed it again in 1349. A few fires burned down buildings over the next few hundred years, until, finally, the last time it was destroyed was in 1944 when it was bombarded. Being right between the Allied and Nazi forces, it's strategic location was bound to be destroyed. Saints Benedict and Scolastica lived and their relics were kept here. However, considering the number of times it has been destroyed, there is nothing left of them.
The abbey was rebuilt the last time in the 50's and the reconstruction was financed generously by the Italian State. To their credit- they put the money to good use: the abbey is beautiful. Amazingly, the front doors of the cathedral somehow did survive. Made of solid bronze, were a gift from Maudo of Amalfi, and were shipped from Constantinople in 1066. The doors listed the possessions and churches dependent on Montecasino in the 11th century in silver lettering. The fa├žade is a very simple- rhythmic geometric forms of the classical Renaissance style. The only adornment was the coat of arms of Montecasino and the abbots in the pediment: a rampant lion and a tower between two cypress trees. The working abbey, home of dozens of monks and nuns today, was a beautiful sight.
While waiting for the abbey to open for visitors, we discussed what I would be like to live in such a place, and by what means and manner the nuns would entertain themselves. Eventually we imagined all the nuns, complete in their habits, dancing to "single ladies" (because none of them are married) just like in Mel Brook's film (see The History of the World Part 1- Inquisition scene for a fuller depiction of what it would be like).

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas in Italy vs. America

Christmas in Italy vs. America- let me go over some of the key features that we would find novelties and eccentricities back home.
Italian children are traditionally brought their gifts not by Babo Natale (Father Christmas), but La Befana- a benevolent witch that brings presents not on Christmas, but on Jan. 6th, when the wise men arrived. Italian Christmas dinners are characterized by eating 7 different kinds of fish (usually including eel), and one of the two famous Christmas cakes: Pandoro and Panetone. Pandoro is like angle food cake, covered in powered sugar. Panetone is like pandoro with pieces of dried fruit and nuts inside.
Every city makes reenactment nativity scenes and has unique celebrations. Naples, for example, is well known for their sculpted nativity scenes that are very intricate and expansive.
However, my family did not participate in these activities- instead, we just had pizza at a nearby restaurant and got ready for tomorrow.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas in Sienna

The past three days have been wonderfully relaxing. Apart from the exhausting van trip from Viterbo to Sienna, our routine of touring, eating, and sleeping has been uninterupted. On our way from viterbo, we stopped at a town called Monteriggioni. Monteriggioni was a fortified town that defended the border between Sienna and Florence. Her high walls now look over Chianti vineyards. We enjoyed more of the wild boar and porcini mushrooms that we had earlier in northern Lazio and Umbria, but now in southern Tuscany we are greeted by fresh pecorino cheese, served warm with shreded truffles- it was amazing.
I believe that the Duomo of Sienna is the most beautiful cathedral in all of Italy. The structure is incredibly beautiful and the attention to detail is astounding. So many are attracted to the giant pumpkin of a dome in Florence, but if you go inside, what do you see? Shadows. Bare walls. the whole place is murky. It feels unwelcoming. The Siennese Duomo is very well it. The entire floor is made of inlaid marble, depicting scenes from Christ's life and important events in Sienese history. The pulpit is very beautiful with deep, high gothic style carvings.
The crypt became a crypt when the first 12th century church was built over to create another that was, in turn built over to create the current Duomo. The frescos were being retouched when I first visited 3 years ago. The paintings are very simple, using only red, yellow, and blue, and very few lines. The amount of underground space was astonishing. There was one point where we looked down two stories to a deeper level.
Unlike most baptistries that are located in the front of the church, this was placed bellow it. On a level bellow the crypt, the baptistry sits bellow the entire complex. They provided mirrors to view the ceiling which I had never seen before. When I tried to take pictures, my sister Syd used a mirror to reflect light into my lens. it took a little negotiating to finally get a good picture of it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Orvieto


Waking up with about half a day ahead of us, and after an Italian breakfast (espresso and a piece of nutella cake), we made our way over to Orvieto. Orvieto is in Umbria, the green heart of Italy. It's called that because it's the only province without a coastline. It makes up for it with the richest deposit of truffles in Italy, and possibly the world. The white and black truffles found in the Umbrian countryside, in the hills and valleys surrounding Orvieto, Assisi, and Perugia, us full of these delectable treasures. For lunch, we had a ravioli, stuffed with spinach and rocotta cheese, in a black truffle and cream sauce. Absolutely incredible. Umbria is also famous for the wild boar found in it's forests. The boar eats what it finds in the forests: mostly chestnuts and truffles. On such a diet, it's no wonder anything made with it tastes delicious.
Tyler must have taken a dozen pictures of the Duomo of the city- built during the transition between the Romanesque (in the varied capitals, circular arches, small windows and the left-side of the fascade)and Gothic periods (right side of the fascade, stained glass in the windows, and soaring height).
Day one was quite successful.
We're at my host mom, Alba's house- and what an adventure it was to get here!

Plane took forever-
When we entered the plane, the snow was coming down gently, and it had just started. Instead of taking off immediately, however, the pilot decided it would be better to wait, as the snow got heavier and began to melt on the wings. As water tends to do, the ice re-froze sitting there. As we sat their, the crew turned the heat up inside the plane, as the temperature outside went down. Within an hour, the plane was a sauna. Sitting in our hot-box-with-wings, we waited, and waited. Over the course of 4 hours of waiting, the wings froze over complete. Twice.
I am thankful that of the over 20 flights scheduled that night, only 3 of us actually were able to take off.
So we finally took off, but the best was yet to come.
When we reached cruising height, about 34,000 feet, pilot left his seat to check on the wings from further back on the plane. When I asked him what he was looking for, he said he was checking if there was ice on the wings.
I wonder- how would one propose to get ice off the wings of a plane, while 34,000 feet above the ground? soar then dive? Jostle things around and shake it loose?

We finally arrive in Italy, but the mishaps aren't over. The fiat ducati that we rented is about 6'4" wide. The space we were, supposed to fit between to get out of the parking lot, is 6'6". and we were supposed to make a 90 degree turn. The scene was unbelievable. back and fourth, we barely made it without scraping up the side.
We arrived in Viterbo about 5PM on the 20th, just as it was getting dark. We quickly found our way to my friend Alvaro's house, where we had the first of many incredible meals. The whole house was filled with the aroma of rosemary and oregano, topping freshly baked pizza. Slicing a few pieces of prosciutto right off the leg in the kitchen and enjoying Alvaro's wine, we spent the whole night eating and joking, playing buwraco (a card game like rummy) and eating some more. Eda made a fantastic calabrese sauce of crushed red peppers. Fernando made the dough himself. He has the habit of speaking nonsense that sounds like Italian to confuse my sister, who tries to understand what he's saying and can't. They had pizza, my favorites were with potatoes and porcini mushrooms, and broccoli and sausage. Whenever you're at Alba's (or any of their friend's houses), you'll think you're stuffed after just the appetizer. However, you find room to keep eating.
So concluded our first day.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Takeoff!

The packing is done and the car's ready, but a storm's on it's way. Let's hope it all goes well!
I am going to miss all of you so much!
However, in a small way, I get to bring you all with me on this quest, this adventure through this blog. A quest to discover the sights and sounds of Italy An adventure to find the most splendid of tastes and smells on the peninsula. If it is possible, to then extend beyond the bounds of Italian borders, stray beyond the Alps, and explore what there is to see to the north. A journey of this magnitude will surely take months to complete, and tangents galore will occur, but here it begins.
So here we go again..

Sat. 19th

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pre-Trip Day 1- Packing

As anyone who knows what it's like to pack for a trip one will be on for a time of incredible duration will tell you, such an a process cannot occur very quickly. Therefore, to divide my time I decided to establish this blog, from which you may all in the future be updated on my various travels, inquiries, musings, and other assorted mishaps. As Giovanni Boccaccio so accurately noted in his Decameron, the telling of stories can be one of the most remarkable pleasures afforded from friends, to friends, and hopefully, you will all be delighted by the stories recounted herein. I have been blessed with stories, bitter and sweet, throughout my life, and I am certain that the flow will not cease now that a new adventure to Europe has begun. This blog will surely have posted upon it exciting adventures of my own, but will also include tales from more ancient times I hear. Hopefully in reading, one may derive both merriment and useful council. Should this happen (and may God grant that it does), let everyone thank Him who keeps me safe in His care, providing all I need and, what's more: the voice to talk about it. It will certainly seem to some at times quasi una fantasia, but verily I swear that everything will be as true as truth can tell. Therefore, to cease gilding the lily, and with no more ado, so begins my blog.

-Alex
a.k.a. Barbarosa