Surreal Seradina-Bedolina Archeology Park, Capo di Ponte, Italy, 8-2017

 

The half moon shone radiant against the sapphire sky as the morning sun lit the sandstone peaks across the valley. As I paused to take in the rugged grandeur of the Seradina Bedolina Municipal Archaeological Park and wondered how many sunrises have these mountains seen and by whom? Questions such as these is what lured Franz and I to this ancient site in Capo di Ponte, Italy.  The Camonica Valley holds more than 150 engraved rocks with inscriptions and a thousand figures that depict the long ago dwellers in their daily and religious life as well as in more aggressive activities such as in hunting and fighting. The engravings span from the Late Prehistoric through the Roman Age with the majority dating from the Iron Age. The most famous engravings include the “Rock of the Map” and the symbol of Lombardia, the Rosa Camuna.

http://www.archeocamuni.it/seradinabedolina_en.html

The petroglyphs are found on the western side of the valley and the conditions created from the sunny mountainside allows for an interesting combination of succulents and cacti along with a variety of alpine flowers set among the low growing evergreens. We were amazed at the access of the park that was unregulated with limited signage warnings but for the most part visitors were free to roam the park at will. We even came upon a group camping site with children running about despite it being set among the ancient petroglyphs.

To gain a more in depth knowledge of the area we ventured to the commune of Capo di Ponti where the Camonica Valley National Museum of Prehistory is located. The museum was well worth the time and included an extensive collection of engraved steles and menhirs along with informative and interactive exhibitions that are a treasure trove for history buffs like me. Each floor focused on a theme ranging from the sacred and religious sites to material culture offering the viewer a greater understanding of the region’s earlier inhabitants and a fascinating look into their past.

http://www.vallecamonicaunesco.it/museo.php?lang=en

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Beauteous Bienno, Italy, 8-2017

Strolling up the thoroughfare into the old town center of Bienno, Italy my eye was caught by a stately house whose gate was slightly ajar and I could glimpse the garden that lay beyond. My curiosity got the best of me and I just had to have a peek. Inside revealed a lovely courtyard with manicured lawn and hedges. As I admired the setting an older gentlemen greeted me and I excused myself for being a “looky loo” explaining that I had been enticed by the beauty of his home. He was gracious and invited me in and gave me a tour of his garden and patio. Workers were busy readying the premises for a family party the next day. And what event it was going to be. Inside the patio he had an automated spit to roast an entire pig with enough seating and settings for a small army. He told me the following day his large family was coming to visit for the beginning of the arts and culture festival the Mostra Mercado that is held every August and is the highlight of their summer season.

The friendly conversation with the local gentleman was our introduction to Bienno and this hospitality continued as Franz and I wandered the ancient walkways of what has been voted “One of Italy’s most beautiful cities.” We took in the fine ironwork and colorful facades and found the shop owners welcoming and their products were not of the typical variety found in many tourist towns. One such establishment was a traditional leather maker who not only fashioned custom shoes but created scabbard sheaths for swords. Another fascinating building was the Forge Workshop whose facade displayed the artistic work that this “iron born” town had been known for in supplying tools and weaponry. Overlooking the village is a fifteenth century water mill that is still in use and was manned by an elderly couple that sell the freshly ground products. Bienno brought back to life its proud past and is a testament to its amiable people and their creative craftwork all nestled into the fairytale mountain valley.

http://www.bienno.info/bin/index.php?lng=EN&id=storia

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Captivating Carvings Val Camonica, Italy, 8-2017

The turquoise sky was cloudless and the temperature was climbing as Franz and I made our way into the forest canopy in the Camonica Valley near Brescia, Italy. The coolness of the air beneath the trees combined with the early morning solitude lent a feeling that we were stepping back into time. And we were for these mountains had been formed during the Ice Age when glaciers cut out the deep valleys and polished the gray sandstone. It was upon these rocks that the early valley dwellers pecked away at the hard stone to leave their markings on the surfaces. Over time they left an extraordinary prehistoric record that we had come to see as we made our way into the Naquane National Park of Rock Engravings. This historic area was chosen as the first recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site established in Italy in 1955.

The Naquane Park covers over 14 hectares of rock art land and holds 104 engraved rocks whose chronology ranges from the Neolithic (5th-4th millennium BCE) to the Iron Age (1st millennium BCE) when the region was inhabited by the Camunni and and it is these people who are best represented. The stone surfaces tell the story of man’s inhabitation in the valley including a thousand human stick figures found in numerous postures portraying them from hunting to fighting and even dancing. Village life is depicted in daily living situations and is complete with scenes of religious life ranging from what is interpreted as shamanistic rituals and divine like images. Camunian inscriptions and symbolic symbols are found as well. Taken as a whole it is no wonder that the park was chosen over the incredible historical treasures that this country holds and attests to the singular importance of the landmark .

The Camonica Valley has more than its share of historical significance as well as an array of good food and wine that rivals any in Italy, but there is one downside to the region and that is the northern access into the valley itself.  Franz and I even came up with a new table for us which we dubbed the “barfometer.” Unfortunately the road we took rated a 10. Our chosen route represented on google maps did not mirror the reality of the seemingly endless WINDING road. At one point I came close to giving up on our destination but with Franz’s optimistic “we’re almost there” I persevered and was happy that I had. Just a heads up unless one drives from Milan the road in is not the most “motion friendly” route.

http://www.vallecamonicaunesco.it/parco-naquane.php

Despite the challenging drive the Valley was fascinating. We stayed at a local Airbnb the Valtili’-Camera Blu in Berzo Demo which had just opened. The family was gracious, the breakfast superb, the rooms were modern and tastefully decorated, and the location overlooking the Po River offered easy access to the major routes. The nearby Ristorante Pizzeria Piz Tri served up well priced and delicious local food and with a smile too. Our sojourn to Val Camonica was a blast to the prehistoric past but with good eats. This Natives kind of journey.

http://www.ristorantepiztri.it/?utm_source=tripadvisor&utm_medium=referral

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Skiing The Top Of The Alps, Courmayeur, Italy, 2-2016

The light spot at the end of the tunnel grew larger as we completed the last 7 Miles from France into Italy. The Mont Blanc tunnel from Chamonix to Courmayeur saved us from a long drive around the highest mountains of the Alps. The sunset view over the Aosta valley was breathtaking, but we had only deep powder in mind. My son Stefan joined me to ski some of the most scenic areas in Europe, including France’s largest glacier, the Mer de Glace, the sea of ice.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mer_de_Glace

Courmayeur is a quaint town at the end of the Aosta valley, a family oriented ski resort. But it is also a magnet for free riders from around the world. We were not disappointed! More than two feet of powder had just fallen the night before we got there and all we had to do was follow the guys with the long fat skis and avalanche packs to the top of the ski area, where two tiny metal gondolas brought you up to the edge of the sky, like sardines packed for their final delivery.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courmayeur

Huge bowls on either side beckoned with steep descents, we chose left at first, then right on our second trip to the top. Well equipped with our own avalanche gear, transceiver, shovel, probe and airbag we dove into the deep powder and the ravines, Stefan always charging ahead. At the end of the day two tired but happy snow warriors ended up at the restaurant where we came out of the forest, only to find a suckling pig roasting on an open fire. A couple of beers and some pork made us the happiest people alive!

_DSC7088On the second day we continued our quest to find unchartered territory. It had gotten warmer and we had to work harder. A long descent at the boundary of the resort with the snow getting stickier by the minute at the bottom was our last hurrah for the day.

Courmayeur Punta HelbronnerThe grand finale on day three was the guided tour through the Vallée Blanche from the Punta Helbronner down to Chamonix, on the Mer de Glace. Two cable cars with revolving cabins take you up to a spectacular 11,358 ft, with views across the glacier to the Aiguille du Midi, a sharp needle close to the highest mountain of the Alps, the Mont Blanc, or Monte Bianco, its peak shared by France and Italy. The “White Mountain” stands 1272 ft taller than Mount Whitney, the highest mountain of the continental USA, at 15,777 ft.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pointe_Helbronner
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mont_Blanc

_DSC7106 _DSC7126Our charming and seasoned mountain guide Mario Ogliengo provided our small international group with transceivers and climbing harnesses. These are especially important, because they provide the means for rescuers to pull you out of a crevasse if necessary. Crevasses are an ever present danger on glaciers, one can never be too careful.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvjUUgJgxJ4

The 20 km (13 mi) long tour provided us with amazing scenery, a bit of powder, and a day of feeling transported to another world. Dive with us into the abyss of rock and ice.

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Sicily, The Glory And The Decline, Italy, 4-2015

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The marble walkways gleamed in the near empty streets of the old Arabic city of Marsala, Sicily. The main square Piazza della Repubblica was quiet and the silhouette of the Baroque facade of the Church of Purgatory was bathed in soft lights and made for an ethereal sight to begin our Easter vacation in Sicily. We enjoyed the spectacle of some trendy bars buzzing with pheromone mating rituals but opted instead for a quiet enoteca to indulge in a few glasses of the famed wine from the Marsala region. We met some friends from Bregenz for a midnight tasting and sipped our way through a fruity 2012 Caruso & Minini Sachia Perricone and downed a plate of local salami and crusty bread. The next morning we toured the inner city and learned a bit of the history of the old town whose name derives from the Arabic “Marsa Allah” or Port of God. The city dates from 369 BC and has been an important trading port as well as a strategic stronghold into North Africa. It has been besieged and invaded by Arabs, Romans, Carthaginians, Vandals and much later in 1773 the English appeared on the scene, fortunately not to invade, but to make wine. After admiring the Duomo, we set off to explore the salt flat estuary and the windswept coastline that’s paradise for windsurfers and sailors before heading to our next night’s destination of Agrigento via Sciacca.
http://www.italyheaven.co.uk/sicily/marsala.html


Orange trees grow everywhere in Sicily. This iconic symbol of the island was brought by the Arabs in IX-XI century A.D. and their citrusy magnificence grace the hillsides. The Mediterranean landscape is similar to California with the same coastal brush and succulents, especially the prolific euphorbias that thrive in the warm climate. Sicily is essentially a bread basket disguised as an island. The earth is so fertile that wild asparagus, fennel, and artichokes sprout up right alongside the road and the fields abound with tomatoes, capers, and eggplant. The rolling hills are lined with rows upon rows of fruit trees laden with succulent oranges, almonds, and olives that follow the lay of the land. The culmination of the bountiful harvest is displayed in the produce markets that are a feast for the eyes and the day’s abundance is impossible to resist. It’s no wonder that Sicily is famed for its cuisine. The best fresh produce and seafood combined with the influences from North Africa and Spain make for the most delectable food combinations that it’s simply a foodie paradise.
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But it gets even better. Those resourceful Sicilians have taken all that earthy goodness and sunshine and perfected their winemaking art and bottled it up into the aromatic Sicilian wines that we partook of with great pleasure. We tasted our way from Marsala to Palermo and reveled in the delights of the fermented fruit and offered our thanks to those long ago Mycenaean traders who introduced the drink of the gods for us mere mortals to enjoy. The local wines we savored were the Nero D’Avola made from the oldest indigenous grape, the Syrah that thrives in the hot climate, and the Etna Rosso, a gift that arose from the volcanic ashes of Mt. Etna.
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/14/dining/reviews/from-sicily-reds-worth-the-hunt.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

The parking lot vibe of the port city of Sciacca emanated an authenticity to the historic fishing harbor. A few benches lined the lot and were presided over by small clusters of beret clad older men who most probably occupied those benches on a daily basis. The town is a bit like these old men, well worn yet fully authentic. Tourism has overlooked Sciacca although it earlier had been an important fishing and trading port for Greek and North African traders, and it was famed for its Roman thermal spas that date from the 7th century. Fishing still remains the dominant industry as do the sulfur spring baths. After rambling about for a few hours we enjoyed a lip smacking fish lunch and took in the panoramic views then set off for Agrigento for the evening.
http://www.italyheaven.co.uk/sicily/sciacca.html

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The scirocco winds swept over the rows of Doric temples that dominate the summit of the famous UNESCO site of the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. The early spring sunshine made it easy to forget that it was only the first week of April but the relentless gales reminded us that winter was hard to shake off as we huddled further into our jackets. The hilltop archaeological park dates from 510 B.C to 430 BC and is comprised of: the Temple of Hera, The Temple of Concordia, the Temple of Heracles, The Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Temple of Hephaestos, the Temple of Demeter, and the Temple of Asclepius. The original city Akragas, now Agrigento, was built by those handy Greeks who came from Rhodes and Crete and colonized the valley on the banks of the Akragas River. As we hiked about the ruins we admired the commanding view and the handiwork of these early builders. We were also surprised at the incredible shape that the site had been restored to. These temples were in better condition than what we’ve seen in Greece with the exception of the Acropolis. One particular piece of sculpture that stood out “head to toe” was a massive winged statue that lay resting on its side as if he were sleeping. And this beauty looked as if it had been dozing for many eons. But it wasn’t. This bronze sculpture was a recent edition to the site in 2011 by the famed artist Igor Mitoraj and was aptly named Ikaro Crashed. The sculpture represents the story of the unfortunate Icarus from Greek legend who in his quest to fly from Crete using his wings made from wax flew too near to the sun thus melting the wax and he plunged tragically to earth. So much for reaching for the heavens. Nevertheless, the site specific sculpture “theme of failure at the hands of hubris” exuded the strength and beauty of the ancient Greek culture.
http://www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/agrigento-temples

Caution Catania

Ahhh Catania. What can I say about this city in the Mediterranean infamous for its Mafia connections. Unfortunately the city does not make a good first or a lasting impression. Upon settling into our disappointing Airbnb accommodations we strolled into the inner city. Dog excrement littered the sidewalks and graffiti defaced the ancient buildings including the churches. Within five minutes we encountered a couple of young men walking towards us on the sidewalk who hurled expletives at us for the egregious error of not clearing the entire way for both of them to pass. But not all the people were unfriendly. We had bought some copper jewelry from a vendor in the pedestrian area and he told us of the challenges of work and life in the city. He was a bright spot in a place filled with the problems of poverty and crime. But the buildings were quite spectacular if one looked beyond the neglect. Among those included the Basilica Catthedrale Sant’Agata and the Church of Sant’ Agata la Vetere dating from 264, the Piazza Duomo Church of Saint Francis Assisi, and the monumental gate Porta Garibaldi, and lastly the Cavea of the Greek-Roman TheatreWe spent the day sight seeing then found the Reitana Pizzeria where we enjoyed a great Pizza and strong Sicilian red wine. We retired early feeling better not to wander the streets too late.

We opted to leave early the next morning. As we drove to the outskirts of the city a pedestrian walked out in front of us forcing us to stop. As he crossed the street he suddenly made for our rear car door and reached in and stole a backpack that was filled with our camera equipment, iPad, etc. We reacted yelling and tried to bat at him from the front seat. He quickly ran to the passenger side of the vehicle where I sat and flung open the door trying to steal a camera and my purse but he didn’t succeed and he gave up and fled. Franz and I flung open the doors and ran after him, but to no avail. A motorcycle was idling curbside and he hopped on and zoomed off. Unfortunately for us we had no idea that the locks of our rental car were not working properly.

What followed was a comedy as we visited the Catania Police Station to satisfy our insurance requirements. It was a combination of keystone cops meets Benny Hill. The police station itself does not inspire confidence. The station is a fenced and wired fortress protecting itself against its own citizenry not unlike entering a prison. The officers themselves were apologetic telling us with a shrug “that’s Catania”. Suffice it to say, that the police department is ineffectual at best. After our robbery misadventure we escaped and were glad to be out of the “city of thieves”. The robbery had placed a damper on the last couple of days in Sicily. My advice to potential visitors skip it or be very wary.


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Freeriding The Monte Rosa, Italy, 3-2015

Spring was in the air and that means time for some springtime skiing. For this years trip we ventured to a rather unknown ski area, the “freeride paradise” of the Monte Rosa. The Monte Rosa is a huge mountain between Switzerland and Italy with its highest peak, the Dufourspitze, being the second highest peak of the Alps, at 4,634 metres (15,203 ft). The Monterosa ski area covers three valleys with the highest cable car reaching Punta Indren at 3275m. We discovered quickly, that this area is a meeting point for freeriders from around the world. The sparse forest at the bottom and the huge bowls at the top lure daredevils and film teams when the conditions are right. And right they were! After a foggy start we glimpsed a bit of the mountain on our first day, the following day we woke to heavy snowfall and a fresh base of almost two feet of the lightest powder you can imagine. The top of the mountain remained closed for two days while the hoards of freeriders raced through the forest like ghost warriors in the Lord of the Rings.
http://www.monterosa-ski.com/?lang=en
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monte_Rosa

My son Stefan and I rented fat long free ride skis and joined in the chase, and what an experience that was! The forests on the northern side of the Alps are much thicker than in the Monterosa, and they are protected so normally skiing through them is forbidden. In the Monterosa there is plenty of space to make fast turns between the trees one just has to watch out for the numerous buried rocks that love to strip you of your gear and turn you into a gasping snow diver.

Stefan1

The third day found us exploring the Champoluc area with some beautiful deep powder bowls while we all hoped for the sun to come out. The sun came out the following morning and there was a special electricity in town as the sounds of a helicopter and explosions echoed from the top of the mountain. We all waited and hoped for the top of the mountain to open up for we had reserved a local guide in anticipation of a last day of glorious skiing. At promptly 8:45 we met our local guide Jimmy at the bottom of the hill. He was a very charismatic guy, known to almost everybody in town, and we immediately took a liking to him. He proved to be an excellent guide and we followed him without reservations for our first amazing run down the mountain. After our initial warmup we discovered that the top of the mountain had opened up and we headed there to begin a day of indescribable freeriding in the amazing landscape.

Stefan2

 

Sheer dark granite faces lined the winding road as our small car climbed the steep incline up the narrow route that led us to our skiing destination in Northwestern Italy in the remote Gressony Valley of Gressoney-Saint-Jean. My husband, our son, and I had made our way from Austria via Switzerland over the San Bernardino Pass and we had made a small detour around the picturesque Lago Maggiore. The lake is known for its beautiful gardens and the camellias had just burst with vibrant shades of pink and spring was definitely in the air. We stopped for lunch in the quaint town of Cannero Riviera that was decorated throughout with yellow and orange ribbons and lemons. The town was beginning a weekend Citrus Fruits Festival to welcome the coming of spring by celebrating the acidic fruits of the region such as lemons, mandarins, oranges, and grapefruit. We enjoyed a special menu for the day with house pasta specialities and topped it off with a delicious lemon tiramisu. http://activitieslakemaggiore.com/whats-up/citrus-fruits-festival-2014/

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As we entered the the Valle di Gressoney-Saint-Jean we were greeted by the characteristic gray stone houses nestled in the valley floor that had been settled by the industrious trading people known as the Walser from nearby Switzerland. The Walser people are of Germanic origin in custom and costume and speak a distinctive “titsch” dialect http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walser. Within the valley a mixture of French, German and Italian is spoken called Valdôtain and the signage and food reflects the melding of the three cultures. Gressoney-Saint-Jean is a charming small town nestled along a sparkling river with the snowy high peaks of the Monte Rosa (4634m) referred to as “His Highness” that hold the snowy treasures we had come to experience. The Monterosa ski resort attracts international skiers beckoning them with over 180km of skiable area complete with the highly sought after free ride and glade skiing terrain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aosta_Valley.

A few highlights of the town that I found of interest was the regional fauna museum, the Alpenfaunamuseum Beck-Peccos that displayed an eccentric but interesting collection from the region and an anomalous hunting and horn collection. Another historical tour was of the stately castle that overlooks the valley, the Castel Savoia built by Queen Margherita of Savoy and King Umbetto I of Italy in 1899. The royal couple were avid hunters and nature seekers and made their holidays in the valley and it was to become a fashionable destination for the high society.

Castle

The food of Gressoney-Saint-Jean is simply magnificent. We wined and dined ourselves through some of the best restaurants in the town such as The Nordkapp https://it-it.facebook.com/pages/Nordkapp/156303271136763 and My Hostaria https://www.facebook.com/pages/My-Hostaria/601500593295445 reveled in the robust bounty of the region. The food combines the Italian, French, and German cuisine into flavorful dishes fit for a king. We enjoyed antipasti appetizers with local salamis of beef and chamois and local cheeses such as Fontina, Toma and Seras complete with rustic beads. A speciality dish is Valpelline which is a type of breaded soup with cabbage and cheese, polenta of all varieties, and tender local beef steaks and beef cheeks.

Stefan eating

One wine we enjoyed with our evening meals was a local Donnas made from the Nebbiolo grape. The highlight of our culinary Aosta adventure was in celebration of my son’s twenty fourth birthday. We booked a table at Punta Jolanda at the top of the mountain and it just happened to coincide with the highly anticipated heavy snowfall. And snow it did. We were met at the base of the mountain in a blizzard of snow with an enormous snowcat that transported us up to the top of the mountain in an unusual mode that was noisy but fun despite the almost white out conditions. The restaurant was a cozy enclave with a commanding view of the valley below that unfortunately we could not see but admired nevertheless. We enjoyed a delicious meal, began with a fruity prosecco and our main course was an enormous 2 kg of florentine beef paired with a lovely rich Piedmont Barolo. We topped our meal off with lovely desserts of fruit, mousse, and crème brûlée. A wonderful meal, in a wonderful place, for a wonderful son. Life does not get better.

steak

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Scaling the Marmolada by Via Ferrata, Italy, 9-2014

Once a year I get together with three of my cousins and a couple of friends and scale a mountain, preferably one with a glacier where we also have to climb a bit. This year’s choice was the Marmolada, the queen of the Dolomiti mountains in Northern Italy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marmolada). We chose the highest of the five summits on the ridge, the Punta Penia. We drove to our starting point near the town of Canazei. The area is called South Tyrol, it was the site of heavy mountain combat in World War I (http://www.worldwar1.com/itafront/marmolada.htm). After hiking for an hour and a half we reached our beautiful hut for the night, the Rifugio Contrin (http://www.rifugiocontrin.it). After a good night’s sleep we started our tour and reached the “Forcella Marmolada” in a couple of hours.

Marmolada1

That was where the real fun began. A “via ferrata” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Via_ferrata) is an “iron path” that leads up the steep rock face. We all brought a via ferrata kit which served to attach the climber to the metal cable. Every few yards one has to disconnect the carabiners one at a time to continue to the next rock joint. This enabled us to scale the steep rock face that would otherwise have been impossible to climb. Below you can see the entire course starting at the bottom right.

Marmolada Westgrat Klettersteig

 

Two hours later we reached the end of the via ferrata and the beginning of the glacier. Here we took out our crampons, attached three people to one climbing rope for protection against falling into a crevasse, and marched to the peak.

Marmolada

We then descended along the glacier, on the diagram above on the bottom left. An antique single person lift then took us to the bottom of the valley. It was a fantastic two day tour!

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The Most Serene Republic of San Marino, San Marino, 12-2013

Today is the last day of 2013. So to close the end of the year we took a tour of the coastal regions of the Po River Valley in the Province of Rimini. It was quite interesting. The information available for the area had been quite kind to this strip along the Adriatic that had long ago seen its glory days. Unfortunately it’s downright unattractive. The main road from Ravenna to Cattolica is packed full of concrete blocks lacking in any architectural personality. And what’s peculiar about these drab structures is they have such tiny windows although there are full sea views available. As to why they don’t take advantage of this my guess is that the air conditioning costs are probably pretty high to keep the humidity levels bearable during the steamy summer months. I could only imagine the mosquitos feasting on the sunburnt bodies of the corpulent tourists that flock to this swath of coastal track. The beaches and empty wall to wall hotels were closed for the season as were the numerous concession stands that rent out beach chairs and a square of sand to bake in. The shores were lined with a plethora of faded Little Tykes play structures. For me they were a symbol of this area. Shabby, dated, and plastic. These were our impressions of this most curious of places.

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The city of Rimini is a well known destination for packaged tours that pack in the hordes of sunbathing tourists during high season. It offers the sun seeking masses nine miles of sandy beaches with thousands of hotels, bars, restaurants, as well as decked out discos pumping the latest techno pop tunes for the nightlife partier. Its other claim to fame it was the hometown of the famous Italian director Federico Fellini. If Fellini were alive today it would be interesting to see what kind of film he would make here now.
After getting more than our fill of this monument to mass tourism we drove through Rimini to San Marino about 10 miles away. It’s an easy drive and the inland countryside was surprisingly rich in agricultural land and the landscape similar to that of Croatia which is located right across the pond. The same evergreens and salt loving shrubbery and plants grace the hilly landscape. The roads are narrow and not well maintained but they are popular with bike riders who whizz by in their colorful cycling fashion.

We drove through the hilly terrain of the north-eastern Apennine Mountains until we reached the Republic of San Marino. The hilltop microstate is perched high above the surrounding plains with a commanding view of the lands that lie below. It’s small, covers only 24 square miles and has a population of 30,000. It is one of the wealthiest countries in the world with low unemployment, no national debt, a stable economy, and a budget surplus to boot. They are also highly protectionist as we were to find out. They have one unique regulation they have instituted in order to “protect” their rich elderly men from foreign gold-digging housekeepers. The minimum age of housekeepers is kept at 50 years so that enticing foreign young women cannot snatch up some of the available older men of means to attain citizenship and money. Somehow I don’t think this has been a big problem for the feisty old men. In addition the land is handed down only through the male line. It seemed that women’s rights were not a priority for this conservative society .

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The tiny republic has a Disneyland like quality to it. The stone buildings are meticulously maintained with ultra cleanliness and perfect facades but it exudes an air of artificiality. It’s a city made for mass tourism from its underground parking garages to its numerous tourist kiosks that are well organized and tailored to handle the large hordes of tourists that flock to the city for a few hours during high season. It seems that every seating area is designed for the perfect photo shot. Even on New Year’s Eve it was teeming with busloads of tourists (like us minus the bus) making the obligatory trek to view the highlights that the fairytale city has to offer. During our wanderings we stopped for a bite to eat at a small cafe shop. We had a sandwich with mozzarella cheese, tomato, and arugula served on a a piadina flatbread that was quite delicious. After our obligatory round of the city we made our way back through the undeveloped coastal backroads and looked forward to the New Year’s Eve festivities back in Ravenna.

New Year's Eve 2013

Ringing in the New Year 2014
After our day’s excursion we returned late and had not yet made a reservation for dinner. But with luck we found a table at the same place we had dined at the previous night. The hostess lamented that it was so early, for Italians yes, but for us perfect. The name of the restaurant is Ca’ de Ven and our meal was delicious, the service knowledgable, and our waitress charming. The restaurant is housed in a lovely 15th century building with aged brick walls and a beautiful restored interior that lent an authenticity to the bustling ambience of the establishment. In addition it has a fine wine cellar that offers a large selection of wines from the fertile Emiglia-Romagna region. They also have a great happy hour with all kinds of cheese and cured meats such as prosciutto and salami and other goodies from the area. We began our meal with bubbly Veneto Prosecco and an antipasto platter served with piadina flatbread. Our second dish was steaming gnocchi with smoked goose breast garnished with radicchio and we had a glass of white Albana wine. For our main course we chose a succulent lamb with asparagus and potatoes and paired it with a deep red Burson. What a wonderful feast to close 2013 with.

After devouring our dinner we stepped out to stroll the streets of Ravenna to partake in the revelry of the evening activities. We found the city to to be lively but subdued and that fit us just fine. We are a tad leery of big Italian New Year’s crowds. A few years back while ringing in the New Year in Rome we had experienced a dangerous situation when someone set off a series of firecrackers in the middle of the crowded Piazza del Popolo and the massive crowd reacted accordingly. It was a frightening episode and one we do not care to repeat. But in Ravenna it was a merry but mellow mood as we wandered into the Piazza del Popolo il salotto di Ravenna where a live jazz band played to an appreciative audience. We enjoyed the music and toasted to the end of 2014 in one of the most beautiful of Byzantine cities. Buon Anno!
http://www.cadeven.it/index.php

New Years Day 2014
To welcome the first day of 2014 we drove along the Northern Adriatic coast from Ravenna to the Po River Delta where the fresh waters empty into the coastal lagoons. We stopped in the sleepy town of Lido de Volano. It was quiet and there was practically no traffic although there were remnants of the previous night’s partying with its tell tale fireworks strewn about. It was a nice day to travel because there was very little traffic. Along the coast almost all of the businesses were closed until the summer season when the vendors would return to hark their wares to the throngs of tourists. We enjoyed the quiet drive through the rich agricultural delta until we reached the Po Delta Regional Park where we took a stroll among its well preserved ecosystem that supports water fowl and the much needed wetlands.This protected landscape stood in stark contrast to the concrete jungle of Rimini.

From the marshy environment of the park we drove to the UNESCO World Heritage site of the city of Ferrara. The medieval inner city was a maze of streets that lead the unwary driver through narrow alleys and dead ends. And unwary I was. I found myself driving through closed pedestrian areas and I had no choice but to continue on until we found our way out of the labyrinth. Fortunately for us it was New Year’s Day and the streets were pretty empty so luckily I had displaced only a few wary pedestrians. Oops! Unfortunately everything was closed but we were still able to enjoy the red bricked architecture and to wander through the streets admiring the well preserved facades and the crowning achievements of 12th century architecture the San Giorgio Cathedral, the Piazza della Repubblica and Etense Castle, and the Palazzo del Municipio. We’ll definitely be back to further explore this gem. After our delta drive we began our journey homeward via the Brenner Pass. Happy Travels in 2014!

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A Master Architect in Vicenza, Italy, 5-2014

After our short jaunt to Venice our next stop on our whirlwind tour of the Veneto region was the city “where the world’s most excellent tragedy was performed” at the World Heritage site of Teatro Olimpico (Olympic Theatre) in Vicenza Italy. For me this side excursion was more of a pilgrimage. As some of you know in my work English Alive Theatre I have written and my students have performed my adapted fairytale musical theatre pieces and other plays as well. So for me visiting this testament to beauty of the performing arts was exhilarating to say the least. The theatre was designed by the renown Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio in 1580-1585 and his theatre creation was based on a classical Roman theatre that he adapted into an elliptical form complete with a semi circular seating area and “is one of the oldest surviving theatre stage sets still in existence.” It was here that Sophocles’ Oedipus the King was performed in 1585 for the grand opening of the theatre. And it must have been beyond magnificent.

Olympic theatre2

Unfortunately Palladio died before he could see through the construction of his masterwork project. The stage was designed and the work completed by the Vincentine architect Vincenzo Scamozzi. The elaborate stage set that he designed with its trompe l’oeil street scenes visible through the central archway and his innovative use of perspective views within his work was nothing short of breathtaking. I was in awe of the grand scale and richness of the interior and felt the need to whisper as if I were entering a sacred space.

After visiting this architectural wonder we set out to admire some of the other 23 buildings that Palladio designed within the beautifully preserved city center that has profoundly influenced European architecture and other countries worldwide. Among some of the highlights were the Renaissance Basilica Palladiana in the central Piazza dei Signori with its 1172 Gothic clock tower, the Torre della Bissara that stands at 82m high, the Chiesa di Santa Corona, an austere church that dates to the 1200’s and was built to house a thorn relic from Christ’s crown, the Loggia del Capitaniato with its characteristic four column facade where we viewed an exhibition titled Non Dimenticateci! about the Italian involvement in World War I and the devastating trench warfare and the tragic loss of life. The city of Vicenza is quite a treasure waiting to be explored and is well situated for walking to appreciate this tribute to the finest of Italian architecture.

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