Monday, March 27, 2006

Spring in Naples, or jetting to Capri



No really we did jet to Capri -- by jet boat!

Our good weather disappeared to be replaced by some pretty nasty weather and we awoke to a rainy, overcast and generally dreary Wednesday morning. Our original plan was to head out to Capri after breakfast and so we did. We walked the 10 minutes or so over to the ferry terminal (another good reason for staying in this part of Naples is the proximity to the ferry services) to catch the jet boat to Capri. We bought our tickets and waited a half hour or so until we boarded the ferry.

And what a great little ferry ride too – the boat had only indoor seating, with very comfortable chairs, all facing forward and we quickly picked a couple up toward the forward part of the boat. After about 40 minutes through pea soup and rain and some choppy water we landed on the isle of Capri (KAH-pree we are told is how they say it here) and were faced with the thought that we had six hours to kill before heading back. (Our return tickets specified a particular hour of departure although we wondered if we couldn’t have taken an earlier boat. particularly at this time of year. As you’ll soon see it wasn’t necessary.)

The little town of Capri – mostly residences and hotel and shops – sat on a bluff overlooking the harbor. (For those seeking a trip to the famed Blue Grotto they would catch one of the small boats right from the landing, and that boat would take you to the Blue Grotto and you would transfer to a much smaller boat, which would then row you into the grotto, or so we were told. Anyway word was there would be no visits to the Blue Grotto today due to rain and, more important, rough seas.)

Now normally there is a “funicolare” or cable car, which takes you right to the top from the harbor (Marina Grande) but it wasn’t running the day we were there and so there were large masses of people waiting in the rain for the alternative bus services, which were ferrying people up the hill. We decided to walk and so climbed our way up yet another sizeable hill, winding through tiny narrow alleyways where much work was being done in the middle of the path laying new pipe of some sort or another.

What astounds me is that we seem to be spending far more time walking uphill in Italy than down hill. It seems for every 10 steps I go up I go down two. I don’t get it.

So we eventually got to the top amidst the drizzle of a light rain and along with a small group of Italian students also on spring break and picked out a café where we could sit and have a cup of caffe and get out of the rain while we decided on what exactly we intended to do here.

After a short while the rain let up and we took out our map – we had stopped at the little tourist office by the ferry landing and picked one up for 80 cents – and figured we would head off to the south side of the island opposite from where we landed at Marina Grande to the vicinity of the Marina Piccola, or Small Marina, an easy walk. The woman we spoke with at the tourist office also suggested another itinerary as well which looked intriguing: walking along the bluffs overlooking the water on the south side of the island toward the natural arch. So we were off.

The town of Capri is pretty cool to be sure – although we could not imagine what it must be like in high season. These tiny, narrow streets packed with tourists and tour groups, with every shape and size of human being imaginable wandering aimlessly looking for gelato, lunch, a handbag or just a way to get away from everyone else made our blood run cold. We were glad to be doing this in late March although we still found ourselves inundated with numerous large groups of Italian students (all trying to look cool) and of course lots of folks who were also here because it is, well, spring break. And the tour groups from the Netherlands, America, Japan, wherever. Looking for what I have no idea.


Anyway, first we walked over to the Certosa (the Carthusian monastery which is undergoing serious renovation) and came across something I have never seen before in my life: Bird of Paradise growing wild, or rather growing in large bushes which I suppose were less than wild but still it was a first for me. Right away I knew this had been the right thing to do, coming to Kahpree. A few meters away from the Bird of Paradise we walked to some grand scenic overlooks where we couldn’t help but notice the tiny curving stone path, which wended its way down toward Marina Piccola. It was almost a work of art – sort of a work of art that made one queasy just looking at it,


From the Certosa and Bird of Paradise we set off to get away from the tour groups and headed toward the natural arch, and into the wilderness. From the Via Certosa you find your way to Via Tragara, which will eventually become Via Pezzolungo and will eventually lead you to the natural arch.

There were very few people out along this part of the island to be sure – we did meet up with three Italians part of the way and the five of us shared some small discoveries but we quickly found ourselves totally alone as we plunged deeper into the wilderness. (We assume the three Italians got home OK.)

The path although probably well maintained in high season, became increasingly covered with debris as if to remind us that the further we went the less attention this particular part of the trail received simply because it was away from any sort of ease of access. And of course much of the debris was from inattention during the winter as well.


The cliffs both above and below us were quite steep and there was much undergrowth. Still we were fortunate that it was not raining and at one point it even cleared enough so that we could see the tip of the Sorrento peninsula. Moreover, there were times when we caught a glimpse of the truly spectacular color of the water. In fact there were a couple of spectacular overlooks, which were a bit off the trail but which called to us nonetheless.

After about an hour or so of pretty level walking we started climbing up steps, about 5,000 steps or so it seemed to me. In fact we climbed for about another 15 or 20 minutes up some very steep steps –adding to the difficulty each riser was quite high from the next one and they had not been cleaned all season and were littered with detritus.

As we reached the top (thank the gods) we found ourselves at one of the coolest out-door bars you can imagine: with one of the outrageously beautiful views. They were doing some end-of-winter repair work and obviously getting ready for high season. We could just picture sitting out at one of the tables on a summer evening sipping wine and watching the world slip over the horizon. Wonderful!


To the left at the top of the Steps from Hell would take us back to town in short order; to the right through the patio of the bar and another 300mts would take us to the natural arch but involved going down (and thus up) more stairs. We had come this far and so unlike the Russian family which had just gotten to the top of the Steps of the Cursed ahead of us and who chose to go back to town we headed off for the arch. Down we went and soon we were standing in front of, well, a big natural arch (what did you expect, that would find Jimmy Hoffa?) The arch was actually an old grotto, which had caved in – or so we were told.

After 60 seconds of appreciating this tiny little wonder we turned our back on it and climbed the steps – there were clearly more steps going up than down again proving my earlier point – and after a walk of another 15 minutes or so we were back in town.

It was mid-afternoon and we still had a couple of hours to kill before our boat so we thought we would find a reasonable place to eat in Capri (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!). Excuse me but I couldn’t help myself for a moment there.

Earlier we had spied a ristorante overlooking the harbor where we landed so we bought our bus tickets (to be used to take us back down to the harbor later) and then went to lunch.

We were nearly the only ones in the place – although toward the end of our meal a woman from Chicago and her friend from Lithuania came and sat down at the table next to us. When the sky cleared enough we could actually see the outline of Vesuvius at one point and the food was good I must admit although grossly overpriced. But then it is reasonable to assume that most everything on Capri is overpriced.

But at least our timing was impeccable. We had no sooner settled in and started sipping wine than a serious – and I mean serious -- rainstorm began and raged off and on for the next hour or so, even to the point of causing a bit of flooding in the ristorante. In fact, two women who were sitting at a table near us asked to be moved inside the ristorante proper because they were greatly disturbed by the noise and rain pelting their window (we were actually sitting in what was in fact the outdoor section although it was properly and securely battened down).

We finished our meal, had our dolci, caffe and a glass of red wine from Fruili-Venezia (red wine from Friuli of all places) which was very good indeed, compliments of the couple from Chicago-Lithuania, paid our bill and headed to the bus stop all of about 50 mts away. The rain had let up and we got to the landing in plenty of time to catch the boat back to Naples.

After we disembarked we stopped at a nearby newsstand to pick up a couple of cooking books Susan had her eye on for the past few days. One of the interesting things about newspapers and magazines in Italy is they will often bundle their publications with a DVD or music CD (usually classical) or a book or special publication.

For example, a recent issue of “Oggi” (“Today”) magazine carried with it the Michelin atlas for Italy. So for less than 10 euros you get the magazine and the road atlas (quite a savings actually).

Anyway, the newspaper “La Repubblica” has underwritten “L’Enciclopedia della Cucina Italiana” (the encyclopedia of the Italian Kitchen) and we happened to see an advertisement for the 13th volume in the series, “Small Pastries”. While we were waiting for the ferry to Capri I went into the newsstand to pickup a newspaper and saw the volume Susan was keen on getting so we planned to stop on the way back. She bought not only that one but also volume no. 11 on Torte (Cakes). I can’t wait for the homework.

Thursday morning the weather was overcast but no rain. After breakfast we packed, paid the hotel bill and walked over to the Piazza Trieste e Trento to catch the bus for Piazza Garibaldi and the train station. We got there in plenty of time to catch our 9:30 train for Florence. We were back in our apartment and unpacked by 1:30 that afternoon. Love that Eurostar.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Spring in Naples, or the Pompeii trek


We awoke to a beautiful, warm sunny morning in Naples and decided to make the most of it. After a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit and pastries, cappuccino for Susan and macchiato (espresso with a splash of hot milk) for me we were off back to the train station. Our plan was to pick up the little local train, which runs out to Pompeii and Sorrento and back as well as around Mt. Vesuvius, thus the name “Circumvesuviana” or ‘around Vesuvius”. (Photo on the left is from one of the small theaters in Pompeii. Interpretive history at its best.)

It was such a grand morning we decided to walk rather than take the bus and after 20 or 30 minutes of dodging insane traffic and wending our way around the incredibly huge metro station construction projects going on in downtown Naples we found ourselves back at Piazza Garibaldi and the central train station.

As a note in addition to the new metro stops being put in at several of the major piazzas in the historic center of the city, there is also a project underway (apparently) to completely renovate the main train station. Lots of confusion was apparent to us but we couldn’t really see anything of significance happening to the station itself.

In any case, the changeover is sorely needed: none of the escalators work nor do the moving sidewalks which lead to the Circumvesuviana platforms and a couple of the escalators at the Circumvesuviana station were also out – but then many of Italy’s train stations (Florence’s included) could use major facelifts as well.

We found the stairs to the lower level and within a few minutes were standing on the platform waiting for our train to Pompeii. (It should be pointed out that the Circumvesuviana isn’t really a station per se but just several rail platforms underground.) Since we had our 3-day unlimited travel tickets we were spared having to find the best source for tickets on the local run. Moreover, there is little help available in the tiny station leading down to the platforms so you will have to rely on your guidebook for up-to-the-minute information. All I can say is you will want the train to Sorrento – but if you are still uncertain just ask someone if this train is going to Pompeii “scavi” (SKAH-vee, “ruins”).

We boarded the train along with quite a few people – many of whom were tourists but this is a major commuter run as well -- and after about 30 minutes traveling we got off at the Pompeii Scavi station. (Open daily Apr-Oct 8:30am-7:30pm; Nov-Mar 8:30am-5:00pm; cost 10 euros. www.pompeisites.org.)

We entered the park about 100mts or so to the right of the station proper – moving briskly past the tacky vendors and stopped at the information booth to pick up a map and handy little guidebook -- both very well done and extremely handy. (Although in retrospect we should have opted for the audio guide.)


The Rough Guide suggests that you spend a few minutes getting acquainted with the map and ask if any of the sites were closed. Pompeii is constantly undergoing renovation in one part or another – we inadvertently stumbled into a closed area ourselves – so it might be nice to know where not to go and thus use your time wisely. In our case we had no set schedule to follow and our only plan was to try and see everything we could and go everywhere possible. (Photo looking across Pompeii toward Vesuvius.)

Anyway, when we tried to enter the park just by showing our artecard we were told to return to one of the ticket booths, pick up a paper ticket and return which we did. The paper ticket was then torn in half – rather like “punching” the ticket – and in we went, where we were immediately trapped between two different groups of American tourists. (As an aside, you can glean some fascinating insight by occasionally drifting in among one of these tour groups – and while it shouldn’t become habitual my personal take is it’s the price they pay for being so pervasive and invasive.)

So we headed off through the Porta Marina and spent the next four hours wandering around nearly every corner of the “city”.


Along the way we explored pretty much every “porta” or gate, outside of which one could find the usual necropolis, or city of the dead (Roman law prohibited burials inside the city walls). One or two were quite large and the one at Porta di Ercolano – the old gate which lead to Herculaneum – was in fact an entire street, the Via delle Tombe, where you could see the rows of large tombs, some nearly house-like, on both sides of the street.


An interesting sidelight of following some of these ancient excavated streets – remember they were outside the city walls – was you can actually see how the lay of the land has changed dramatically since the city was entombed nearly two millennia ago. In fact, one of the streets seems to literally disappear into a wall of earth! Which is of course where the excavation stopped. And as you survey the surrounding land, nearly all of which is developed, you have to ask yourself, “what exactly lies under all those new buildings?” In fact, the city of Pompeii is in large part on a much lower level today than nearly all the land around it so whatever existed at the time of the eruption, roads, farms, whatever, must lie under 20-30 feet of earth and detritus. Fascinating.

Oh and as you are walking up from the Porta Marina entrance along Via dell’ Abbondanza, the “main” thoroughfare through the complex, you can see that much of the city remains unexcavated even to this day – in fact you can see on your left where some of the streets just disappear into a wall of brick and stone, and indeed much of this part of the city is “walled in,” possibly to prevent erosion of the unexcavated area. If you look closely you can also see gardens “on top” of the so-called unexcavated area. What’s up with that we wondered?

And speaking of gardens the well-known Campania wine producer Mastroberardino in conjunction with the Pompeii Archeological Superintendent, has several small plots of grapevines under cultivation inside the walls as part of an ongoing project to produce historically accurate Pompeian wines. In fact in 2003 some 150 bottles from these vineyards were auctioned off in Rome, although there are reportedly no plans for commercial production.

Aside from the unpleasantness of having to contend and occasionally vie with tourist groups – some of which are quite large – for entry into some of the sites in Pompeii we spent a wonderful four hours, drifting from one side of the excavated area to another, trying to see or catch a glimpse of one of the truly great wonders of the ancient world.

Although there is little use of useful interpretive signage throughout the complex – a rather common problem in Italy in our opinion – the small guidebook which they gave us at the entrance proved very handy. Our only regret was that we didn’t pack a picnic lunch for there are several places just outside the walls which make for a wonderful spot to relax, catch your breath and grab a bite to eat before pushing on. Go either to the Porta di Nocera and turn left heading toward the exit/entrance at the end of the park but just skirt the exit or to Porta di Sarno and turn right and track along walls; either way you’ll see an enormous open green space where you can relax for a while in or out of the sun. (Above photo is of part of one of the thermal bath complexes at Pompeii.)

It was early afternoon by the time we finished our tour through the ruins at Pompeii and although we had talked of also visiting the Herculaneum site we felt we had seen all the ruined stone we could take for one day so we decided to alter our itinerary. We had also talked about heading up to Vesuvius –and it was a beautiful day to be sure – but frankly we didn’t want to deal with that hassle. (Sad to say the Italians don’t make it easy to get to the edge of the crater – train to Herculaneum, bus to partway up, lots of uncertainty about schedules and reliability issues. No wonder so many people take a tour.)

So we hopped back on the train and went to Sorrento, which is the end of the line from Naples. In 2004 we spent a very short and very wet hour in Sorrento and so we thought we might just see what the fuss is all about. So after another 30-minute ride we got off at Sorrento and walked to Piazza Tasso, the center of town about 10 minutes from the train station. We found our way to one of the local tourist offices where we picked up a map of the city. While we were there we inquired about the schedule for taking the jet boat back to Naples. (They also run frequently to Capri.) Well naturally we had just missed one and the next wouldn’t be for another two hours so we strolled for a bit, ate some gelato and hopped on the train and after an hour we were back in Naples. We grabbed the bus for Piazza Trieste e Trento and in no time we were back in the room relaxing.

We got cleaned up and headed out for the Café Gambrinus for an aperitivo after which we strolled down (or up) Via Chiaia to Piazza dei Martiri where took a right off the piazza onto Via Alabardieri and at number 30-31 we found Umberto’s a great ristorante and pizzeria. I had “baccala’” (salt cod) for the first time and it was delicious; Susan had wonderful risotto with pistachios and walnuts and we both thoroughly enjoyed the meal. I’ve made risotto several times since we’ve gotten to Florence and am now eager to try one with nuts.

After a leisurely dinner we of course took a leisurely stroll back to the hotel and passed another grand night in the heart of Naples.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Spring in Naples, the museum part


Since we had to catch the 8:53 am Eurostar to Naples we got up a bit earlier than usual on an overcast Monday morning. After an easy 15-minute walk to the train station and a short wait for the train to arrive we soon boarded and found our seats. In our recent short trips to Bologna we rode 2nd class on whatever train type was available. For this trip, however, we opted to pay a little more not just for reserved seating (thus assured of a place to sit down) but also to spend a bit more for the Eurostar: it is faster and provides somewhat more room both in 2nd as well as 1st class than the other types of long-distance trains in Italy. In fact the trip south only took about 3.5 hours with just one stop in Rome (where most of the people in our carriage got off).

I have said elsewhere but want to reiterate our impression of Trenitalia. Their website, which is in English, is very easy to use and makes ordering tickets a breeze. Using their website not only gives you access to their timetables and train types as well as ticket purchase but also allows you to bypass waiting in queues to pick up your tickets. With the Eurostar you also have the option not only of using the ticket machines to pick up your ticket at the station but, and this is really cool, you can opt for their email ticket. You just print out the email confirmation and hand it to the conductor on board the train. He then issues you a ticket then and there! Is that the 21st century or what?

Anyway at half past noon we arrived on schedule at the main strain station in Naples and were looking forward to a brand-new experience of the city famous for pizza and Sophia Loren. We had passed through the city in April of 2002, just to change trains for Pompeii so we counted this as our first trip to Italy’s 3rd largest city.


OK let’s get the bad stuff out of the way right now: it is dirty, noisy, people are indeed packed into some of the most overcrowded living conditions imaginable in the west, with streams of humanity moving in every direction imaginable, gargantuan construction projects adding to the general anarchy of the place, and lots of people just itching to take advantage of the person next to them, tourist or local it doesn’t matter which.

(This last point is particularly true of the taxi drivers. We were overcharged by one and still count ourselves lucky. After that we relied on public transportation. Even our hotel gently tried to pull the “Oh and you need to pay for. . . “ “But we have already paid for that and have the receipt right here.” “Oh, OK.”. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

With that out of the way we thoroughly enjoyed the short time we spent in the city. The food was great, the wine delicious, people are very friendly and certainly more animated than northern Italians (or so it seemed to me) and the history unbelievable. From the Palazzo Reale to Pompeii every historical era in western civilization imaginable is represented in the very stone used to build the city. Incredible.


After a short (and expensive) taxi ride we found ourselves very close to the Palazza Reale, just a few blocks up from the water on the Piazza Trieste e Trento, at Via Chiaia (KEE-eye-yah), a pedestrian-only street full of shops and bars and restaurants and, not surprisingly, the Hotel Chiaia, where we would spend the next three nights. The hotel is located on the first floor – there is no lift. (We found this hotel through both online research as well as a note in the rough guide to Italy; we reserved it through www.venere.com. Via Chiaia 216, ph: 081.415.555. www.hotelchiaia.it.)

In our search for hotels in Naples I discovered that the Rick Steves’ guide to Italy 2005 recommended staying in Sorrento rather than Naples although they did suggest several accommodations near the strain station. However, we thought this area was certainly one of the least attractive and, as the Rough Guide notes, not conducive for going out at night. We tend to agree with the Rough Guide that the centro storico is both lively and great for passegiata in the evening down Via Toledo or down Via Chiaia for example, making for a wonderful evening stroll.

After we checked in and dropped our things off in our small but comfortable room – which overlooked Via Chiaia -- we returned to the front desk to see if they had any of the Campania Arte cards on hand. These city-wide cards are by far and away one of the best deals we have yet to find anywhere in Italy. There are several different variations of the card; we opted for the 3-day, “tutti I siti” (“all the sites”) card. For 25 euros you get (1) free access to the first two sites and 50% off all the other sites visited during that period, and includes all the sites in the Naples area as well as Paestum; (2) unlimited travel on the entire Naples transportation network, which includes the local buses as well as the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii and Sorrento. The entrance fees to Pompeii and Herculaneum alone are almost as much as the cost of the card! The cards are widely available throughout the city and, as we discovered, most hotels have them for sale as well. There is also a 7-day version of the card for and additional three euros but it does not include transportation. (Odd we thought.)

So with our new Artecards in hand we walked out of the hotel, turned left onto Via Chiaia and then left on the Piazza Trieste e Trento up Via Toledo heading to the Archeological Museum. It was drizzling off and on during our stroll uptown. After about 15 minutes we found the museum but decided that before we became entangled in spending who knows how much time inside we would need to recharge our batteries so we went across the street to a ristorante, the Voce e Notte, to have lunch. After relaxing for an hour or so over a tasty lunch of pizza (this is Naples after all) we headed in to the museum where we swiped our Artecard in the machine and passed right through inside. Cool.


While Naples is not really much of a city for museums, the Archeological Museum (“Museo Archeologico Nazionale”) is certainly one of the reasons to come to this city. (Open daily except Tuesday, 9:00 am-7:30 pm.) It houses some of the best pieces of mosaics and statuary found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. You should definitely opt for the audio-guide (price not included in the Artecard though). Oh and if you’re interested in the erotic artwork found at Pompeii you have to make a reservation for the “secret room” at the information kiosk right as you enter the building on the right and before you come up to the ticket booth (where you rent up the audio-guides). It’s actually a rather small collection of art, most of it not terribly graphic and some quite interesting. The mosiacs were absolutely stunning, the exhibition on coins was fascinating and of course the statuary compelling. When we visited there was also an enormous exhibition of Chinese art from the Tang dynasty.


After we left the museum we took a leisurely stroll back down Via Toledo, passing by a couple of fantastic galleries, in particular the Galleria Umberto, as we headed toward our hotel. Upon reaching the Piazza Trieste e Trento we decided to keep going straight, down to the water. We passed through the Piazza Plebiscito, and on our right was the church of San Francesco di Paola (photo below), which is flooded at night and a great place to stroll. We continued to walk another 300m or so down to just short of the bay. We couldn’t see the volcano since the sky was darkening and of course it was still overcast. So we turned around and headed back to the hotel, stopping at the Café Gambrinus, at the edge of Piazza Plebiscito and just around the corner form our hotel; a wonderful place for an aperitivo and one would be a regular spot for our brief stay in the city.


On the way into the hotel we stopped at the desk and asked for a recommendation for dinner, someplace nearby which served local fresh fish. A few minutes later we had reservations for 8:30 at Lucillo, a ristorante in the Santa Lucia area (that’s the place where the song came from), just a 10-minute walk from our hotel.

We arrived at the trattoria on time – although it was quiet and we probably didn’t need the reservations -- and had a thoroughly enjoyable meal, the two of us sharing a whole grilled fish and drinking some wonderful Falanghina white wine from Campania. We also enjoyed the conversation with our waiter and host, over old photos of the Santa Lucia area showing how until the last century the area where the ristorante was located had been in fact in the water, and also showing pictures of his great-grandfather and grandfather (as a young boy), indeed his family had lived in same area for several generations and who had operated the ristorante for many years.

We strolled back to the hotel and went straight to bed. Tomorrow the weather is predicted to be sunny and warm and we are planning our big trip to Pompeii and, we hope, to Herculaneum (“Ercolano”) if time permits.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Bologna Special Report

4 February It's a nice Saturday morning in Florence, with the temperature in the high 30s and partly sunny skies.

We had our first day excursion out of Florence yesterday and in fact our first trip ever to the city of Bologna, which is only about an hour, 20 minutes by train (less than an hour on the Eurostar). When we left Florence at about 10 am it was a gray, drab, cold morning but about midway through the mountains on our way to Bologna the sun came out and it turned nice and warm by the time we arrived at about 11:20. Since this was a Friday we had made our return reservations online the day before so we had both tickets with us when we left Florence – as it turned out this was a smart thing since many of the trains leaving Bologna late in the day were full already and we wanted to be assured we had seats on the return. The downside is we wont’ have much time to explore the city since we have to catch the 16:40 train back to Florence.

Curiously Bologna is given short shrift by most guidebooks while some, like Rick Steves doesn’t even mention the city in his Italy guides. Anyway we relied on Matt Lepori’s travel notes found on www.slowtrav.com. Matt is an American who studied in Bologna for a year in 2003. His notes (dated 2004) were very helpful and insightful, albeit a bit weak on directions (left/right instead of east/west). He also provides lots of good tips for the college age traveler to Bologna. We used the online map provided by Matt (it turns out to be a scanned copy of the local tourist map) but the printout wasn’t great; still it was enough to get us headed in the right direction. Be aware that there is no tourist information office at the train station but there is an excellent office with plenty of advice and great free maps at the TI office off the Piazza Maggiore. They can also help you with getting tickets for the museums etc.

OK so why go to Bologna then. I mean people must be avoiding it for a reason, right?

Well you should go for several reasons: one it is the home of one of the oldest and largest universities in Europe; it’s also the home of one of Italy’s greatest pasta sauces (Bolognese), and it’s in the heart of the region of Emilia Romagna which also lays claim to parmigiana reggiano cheese. (OK and it also gave the name to a particular type of sausage favored by young and old in America: “baloney”.)

The city is, we thought, an architectural wonder. In the early days when the city was still enclosed by a wall (small parts of which can still be found in evidence) in order to use every bit of space available and foster growth the citizens would build extensions of their homes out over and above the sidewalks, developing in essence a rough sort of “portico”, These eventually evolved from wooden overhead affairs to beautiful ornate porticos covering most of the city center. According to Matt in 1289 porticos became a mandated feature of the city and if you built a new building it had to incorporate a portico. The result is spectacular and photos cannot do justice to the sheer scale of these things. Today you can walk and shop and chat or whatever all under the protection of a wonderful portico covering very wide sidewalks, a real treat for us after negotiating the narrow, dog-poop infested sidewalks of Florence.

Speaking of dog poop – I mean why not? – Italians have a fondness for dogs but not a particular fondness for cleaning up after them, and although it is a law that they do so, like many laws the Italians pretty much ignore this one too. However, unlike in Siena where the city streets, which are shared by vehicles as well as pedestrians and their dogs, are cleaned daily, the Florentine sidewalks remain minefields of poop requiring paying more attention to the pavement than to the surrounding buildings, lingerie stores and motor scooters whizzing by in every direction.

OK so Bologna is cool from an architectural standpoint. This makes it a great city to just stroll around in, and since we had no real sightseeing objective that’s pretty much what we did.

We crossed Viale Pietro Pietramellara, turned left and walked one block toward the entrance to the Parco della Montagnola – believe me you can’t miss it. But we didn’t go into the park and instead turned right and walked through one of the old gates of the city, the Porta Galliera, standing forlorn it seemed without any attached walls. As we were walking through the gate however, looking down you could glimpse not only some of the original wall structure but part of the canal system, which at one time covered the old city inside the walls as did numerous gardens (some of those remain today). Now they are all pretty much paved over but here you can see the canal still filled with water, and the water seemed to be moving at a pretty quick pace too I might add.

Anyway we were headed for the very heart of the city, Piazza Maggiore and so we turned right onto Via Indipendenza and walked beneath our first portico. Well OK we’ve walked under porticos before, it’s true, but these went on and on and on; I think you get the picture. So we joined the thousands of other people strolling the city, going somewhere, many of them in a hurry, but some like us, particularly the young (the University of Bologna has 100,000 students, 80,000 of whom live in the city) taking their time about getting there.

After a walk of about 20 minutes or so we were at the very heart of the old city, in the Piazza Nettuno (Neptune) – which comprises some strikingly unique and typically Italian statuary. Right off this piazza is something else worth seeing: an enormous permanent photographic monument to the partisans who died during the Second World War. A unique tribute indeed and one can only assume Bologna resistance played a large part in the destruction of fascism.

A few meters away is Piazza Maggiore where we decided to sit outside in the sun at one of the café’s on the piazza overlooking the enormous (and unfinished) Basilica San Petronia. (Matt’s notes informed us that it is the 5th largest church in the world. It was never finished or rather at least the outside facing was never finished because they ran out of money. A pretty typical story for all of us.)

We had caffe and “spremuta”, or freshly squeezed orange juice, in this case, blood oranges from Sicily. These were the best we’ve tasted so far, very sweet indeed (they are often very acidic we think). After watching people for a while we decided to walk over to the Basilica and go inside – which we did. Matt warned us the church was enormous and he was right; to use his word, “cavernous” is almost an understatement. But curiously it was largely devoid of any large-scale decoration.

Equally curious, however, were two fascinating and still somewhat mysterious discoveries: in one of the numerous side chapels is a large, active replica of Foucault’s pendulum, and along much of the floor on the left side of the church was a line representing I believe a meridian used in the measurement of the earth. Unfortunately before we could inquire as to either of these two fascinating features and find out more details the church closed and we had to move quickly before we became locked in for the day. Anyway I’ve tried to find out more online about these two features of this church but have so far been unsuccessful.

Matt had suggested a walk outside the walls to a small church southwest of the city on a hill, which gives (he claims) a wonderful view of the city. The thing that intrigued us about the walk was it is entirely under a portico! He also suggested checking out the two towers in the heart of the city. But since our time was severely limited we will have to say that for our next trip.

So instead we walked around the city for a while longer, and continued to be amazed at what a cool place this is. We stopped at a great little bistro, called oddly enough, “Rosarose Bistrot” (Via Clavature 18/b), located just off the Piazza Maggiore. In fact, we think it was their “Rosarose Café” on Piazza Maggiore where we had had our caffe earlier in the day. Anyway we each had a delicious salad (“insalata”) with a Lugana white wine and after a relaxing meal resumed our stroll. We walked without any real direction and soon found ourselves skirting the eastern side of the huge basilica walking along Via Archiginnasio where we came across an open door leading into a beautiful courtyard. Naturally we had to explore and found ourselves inside the aptly named Archigennasio, home to the city library. It was also reportedly the first site for the city’s university.

Anyway we followed the open stairway to the left off the courtyard and admired the frescoes in the stairway as we walked up to the second (OK first) floor. There we found the anatomy theater. According to Matt this is Italy’s second oldest (after Padova), and it is built entirely out of wood. Originally constructed in 1647, the theater was heavily damaged by bombing during the Second World War and is today a copy of the original. But, as Matt says, it “is still very, very cool.” Note the figurines behind the lecturer’s chair are carved, skinless nude men, showing the muscles, ligaments, etc.

Off we were again to stroll, look at the city’s wonders. It must also be added that one appealing aspect of a city which has so many young people about is the expressions of love seen almost everywhere. Pretty cool I’d say.

We are continually amazed at why more tourists don’t come to Bologna for at least a day or two – in fact we don’t know anyone who has been here. One would probably need at least an overnight if not two nights to savor what this city has to offer

So we walked back to the train station arriving about 20 minutes before our train was scheduled to leave. The station was packed and it was a good thing we had gotten our tickets from the self-service machines in Florence before we left since even the machines had terribly long queues. We found our train on the departure board and walked to platform no. 9 (“binario 9”). Our train was the express from Milan to Siracusa (on the island of Sicily) so naturally is arrived about 30 minutes late. We found our carriage (“carrozza) and then our seats (“posti”) which was a good thing since many people don’t opt to pay the small additional charge for a reserved seat and therefore one can find oneself without a seat whatsoever. (This was particularly true of the young men sitting in our compartment when we got there. Fortunately for them a couple of seats remained available during our leg of the trip anyway.)

Anyway we left Bologna about 40 or 45 minutes late and yet arrived in Florence only 10 minutes late (hmmmmmm). Since we had had little choice on our return train we had to get off at the Campo Marte station, or rather non-station, which is on the eastern side of the city – Santa Maria Novella is the main train station on the western side of the city – and in effect you walk off the tracks, under the other platforms and directly onto the street. That’s it, no building, no terminal, nothing, “niente”. But we had our map and figured it would be an easy stroll home, and since it was a nice evening out we walked. And since we had not yet been to this part of the city we appreciated the opportunity to stroll through the neighborhood and to just be together.

So we got back to your neighborhood, stopped at Osteria Ortolano and picked up some fresh pasta stuffed with artichoke and ricotta cheese on our way home. I fixed the pasta with a gorgonzola and cream cheese sauce, paired with a wonderful Carmignano red wine. Hungry yet?

19 March About 8:30 Saturday morning we headed over to the Santa Maria Novella train station and caught the Eurostar to Bologna. We used the Italian railway’s website to order our tickets in advance and even though we went second class we had to buy reserved seats when using the Internet – which as it turned out was a good thing. The trains going and returning were packed and lots of folks who didn’t have seats reserved spent part of their time aboard looking for open seats after each stop.

Here let me put in a couple of unpaid plug for Trenitalia, the Italian railway system, and in particular for the Eurostar trains.

First using the internet, which we do nearly all the time now, works like a charm. Order your tickets online and you have the option of going to the station and using the ticket machines to get our purchased tickets (and it worked fine) or, depending upon the train you can just print out the email sent to you by Trenitalia and show it to the conductor on board. They then issue you a ticket. We used this latter method for this trip and it worked great as well. No muss no fuss. Oh and Trenitalia also sent text messages to my mobile phone with all the train information (including reservation number.) for each leg of our trip. Pretty slick. Second, the Eurostar trains are newer than the IR (Interregional), IC (Intercity) and most of the other types as well, and so the facilities are in better shape as well. They also make far fewer stops.

You can now access most Italian city bus systems online and download and print out maps and timetables. Some cities like Bologna for example, even provide an interactive online map. Very helpful to be sure but it also means you spend less time looking for the tourist information office which may or may not be open.

So we arrived at the train station just northwest of downtown Bologna a little after 10 am, pick up a handful of local bus tickets inside the station at the “tabacchi” and cross the street from the station to the major city bus stop and pick up the D bus which will take us to the Porta Saragozza, on the southwest side of the city. (The number 20 will also take you there as well.) When we visited Bologna before we had heard about the world’s longest portico, which climbs to a large hill overlooking the city and so that is one of the two reasons we have returned. The other is that we read about an enormous home show going on in the city and thought we would drop in and see what it was all about. More of that later.

So we got off the D bus at the Porta Saragozza, crossed under the porta -- effectively outside one of the ancient walls of the city. We see the portico directly ahead of us, cross the street and begin our “trek” to the Santuario di Madonna di San Luca. Originally designed for pilgrims who would make the climb to the top of the mountain for worship, the portico, at least, in its initial stages, is lined with shops and caffes as it runs alongside Via Saragozza. After walking for about 15 minutes or so the porotico crosses the road, or rather above the road, and then we begin the most arduous part of the trip: the steep, uphill climb to the Santuario. This is something to clearly bear in mind for this is not for the weak of limb or lazy of bones. This is a serious climb so be prepared.

After 666 arches, nearly 3.5kms (some 2 miles), stripping away half of our clothes, and what seems like four or five hundred thousand steps (well OK maybe not that many but pretty close) we arrived at the top. The views of the northwestern part of the city were pretty dramatic indeed – but the letdown was that we could not see much of the rest of the city – the really great views were in the back of the church, which was apparently inaccessible to the public. But it was a great hike and well worth doing – and I think just to walk the portico is something that should be done by the traveler looking for something different. It is the journey after all, right?

So we walked back down, crossed Via Saragozza and picked up the D bus, (both the D and number 20 busses go up and down Via Saragozza). At the train station we picked up the number 10 bus. After about 10 minutes we got off at the Bologna “Fiera” (“fair”) which is basically an enormous conference and exhibition complex. And enormous is probably an understatement here. The place consisted of some 15 or so pavilions, some larger than a football field, nearly each of which had eating areas and many had multiple stories. Man was this place big.

So we had read about this huge home show that was ending on Saturday, the 18th and thought hey let’s go back to Bologna, walk the portico and check out the home show. Well we get to the home show and the first pavilion we went to, the “Color and Decorating” pavilion, was, you guessed it, all about paint; everything you could possibly want to know about paint: how to make it, how to mix it, and on and on. The pavilion with the wrought iron was designed largely to demonstrate the machinery used in making the wrought iron. OK you get the point.

This was a home show all right, but a show for men and women involved in the trades, for those involved in the building processes and the building supplies aspect of the home construction world. I mean there was one pavilion focusing just on heavy security doors and the like; another on wood and wood processing equipment.

Once again we let our American-based assumptions get the better of us and didn’t read closely enough – I mean after the fact we said to ourselves, it was curious that in the online catalog of exhibitors not one of the appliance companies or makers of bathroom fixtures listed. We agreed we read what we wanted to read – maybe it was just a subconscious excuse maybe to return to Bologna.

Still there were some interesting things to see: the painting of women’s bodies b local artists -- although I’m still not sure what the point was here – it was of course a booth display by the paint company Arco. Of course, for Italians when it comes to women’s bodies just showing them is often the point I suppose. And there was the display of enormous one piece (?) curving staircases; the huge wrought iron grates, to mention just two. But mainly it was lots and lots of equipment and machinery used by the pros. Not an appliance or tablecloth in sight.

We needed a break so we popped into one of the eating areas, grabbed a couple of pannini and relaxed before striking out for the natural stone pavilion. I let Susan tackle that by herself and I found a place to sit and take some photos.

We then grabbed the no. 10 bus and headed back to the train station where caught the 5:46 for home.

We slept for 10 hours. Go figure.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Spring break . . . so far

It’s been a rather chilly, overcast Sunday so far. (You can tell it’s Sunday by the incessant tolling of bells reminding folks to go to Mass. That and of course by looking at the calendar.) It’s a household chore day here, laundry and housecleaning before we head off tomorrow to Napoli for a few days during Susan’s spring break. We then hope to get down to Siena Friday or maybe over the weekend.

Susan finished her last midterm on Thursday and on Friday we took the no. 7 bus from Piazza San Marco, just around the corner from the Accademia and our apartment, up to Fiesole, a ride of about 15 minutes or so. It was a beautiful sunny day, although a bit chilly and blustery, when we headed for the hills above Florence but it was a blast to be back there after nearly 12 years. (The last time we were there was in 1994 with Dick and Dorothy and we’re not sure if we had changed or the town had changed but some things definitely looked very different. I suppose it was the huge construction wall surrounding the main piazza that threw us off. Ugly is an understatement here.)

Perched high above Florence, the Etruscans had settled Fiesole more than two-and-a-half millennia ago and parts of their city are still there as is their amphitheater, which is still used for plays and concerts. (I mean will the Houston Astrodome be around in a couple of thousand years?)

While it was sunny the haze prevented any decent photography so we just strolled around the top of the mountain and then returned to Piazza Mino where the bus stop is and sat outside and had a bite of lunch. It was the first time we sat outside to eat since last October and it felt great to enjoy the sun at the same time we were enjoying good food and wine.

Aside from the view and the bit (very little bit really) of Etruscan ruins there is little to detain the traveler in Fiesole. The nearby cemetery looked interesting but appeared devoid of any statuary and seemed primarily packed with row upon row of headstones; in any case was closed when we were there. Still it was good to return and the bus ride was most enjoyable. We continue to experience and see more of the city. After all we are going to be here for another four months, and possibly longer.

About 8:30 Saturday morning we headed over to the Santa Maria Novella train station and caught the Eurostar to Bologna. We used the Italian railway’s website to order our tickets in advance and even though we went second class we had to buy reserved seats when using the Internet – which as it turned out was a good thing. The trains going and returning were packed and lots of folks who didn’t have seats reserved spent part of their time aboard looking for open seats after each stop.

Here let me put in a couple of unpaid plug for Trenitalia, the Italian railway system, and in particular for the Eurostar trains.

First using the internet, which we do nearly all the time now, works like a charm. Order your tickets online and you have the option of going to the station and using the ticket machines to get our purchased tickets (and it worked fine) or, depending upon the train you can just print out the email sent to you by Trenitalia and show it to the conductor on board. They then issue you a ticket. We used this latter method for this trip and it worked great as well. No muss no fuss. Oh and Trenitalia also sent text messages to my mobile phone with all the train information (including reservation number.) for each leg of our trip. Pretty slick. Second, the Eurostar trains are newer than the IR (Interregional), IC (Intercity) and most of the other types as well, and so the facilities are in better shape as well. They also make far fewer stops.

You can now access most Italian city bus systems online and download and print out maps and timetables. Some cities like Bologna for example, even provide an interactive online map. Very helpful to be sure but it also means you spend less time looking for the tourist information office which may or may not be open.

So we arrived at the train station just northwest of downtown Bologna a little after 10 am, pick up a handful of local bus tickets inside the station at the “tabacchi” and cross the street from the station to the major city bus stop and pick up the D bus which will take us to the Porta Saragozza, on the southwest side of the city. (The number 20 will also take you there as well.) When we visited Bologna before we had heard about the world’s longest portico, which climbs to a large hill overlooking the city and so that is one of the two reasons we have returned. The other is that we read about an enormous home show going on in the city and thought we would drop in and see what it was all about. More of that later.

So we got off the D bus at the Porta Saragozza, crossed under the porta -- effectively outside one of the ancient walls of the city. We see the portico directly ahead of us, cross the street and begin our “trek” to the Santuario di Madonna di San Luca. Originally designed for pilgrims who would make the climb to the top of the mountain for worship, the portico, at least, in its initial stages, is lined with shops and caffes as it runs alongside Via Saragozza. After walking for about 15 minutes or so the porotico crosses the road, or rather above the road, and then we begin the most arduous part of the trip: the steep, uphill climb to the Santuario. This is something to clearly bear in mind for this is not for the weak of limb or lazy of bones. This is a serious climb so be prepared.

After 666 arches, nearly 3.5kms (some 2 miles), stripping away half of our clothes, and what seems like four or five hundred thousand steps (well OK maybe not that many but pretty close) we arrived at the top. The views of the northwestern part of the city were pretty dramatic indeed – but the letdown was that we could not see much of the rest of the city – the really great views were in the back of the church, which was apparently inaccessible to the public. But it was a great hike and well worth doing – and I think just to walk the portico is something that should be done by the traveler looking for something different. It is the journey after all, right?

So we walked back down, crossed Via Saragozza and picked up the D bus, (both the D and number 20 busses go up and down Via Saragozza). At the train station we picked up the number 10 bus. After about 10 minutes we got off at the Bologna “Fiera” (“fair”) which is basically an enormous conference and exhibition complex. And enormous is probably an understatement here. The place consisted of some 15 or so pavilions, some larger than a football field, nearly each of which had eating areas and many had multiple stories. Man was this place big.

So we had read about this huge home show that was ending on Saturday, the 18th and thought hey let’s go back to Bologna, walk the portico and check out the home show. Well we get to the home show and the first pavilion we went to, the “Color and Decorating” pavilion, was, you guessed it, all about paint; everything you could possibly want to know about paint: how to make it, how to mix it, and on and on. The pavilion with the wrought iron was designed largely to demonstrate the machinery used in making the wrought iron. OK you get the point.

This was a home show all right, but a show for men and women involved in the trades, for those involved in the building processes and the building supplies aspect of the home construction world. I mean there was one pavilion focusing just on heavy security doors and the like; another on wood and wood processing equipment.

Once again we let our American-based assumptions get the better of us and didn’t read closely enough – I mean after the fact we said to ourselves, it was curious that in the online catalog of exhibitors not one of the appliance companies or makers of bathroom fixtures listed. We agreed we read what we wanted to read – maybe it was just a subconscious excuse maybe to return to Bologna.

Still there were some interesting things to see: the painting of women’s bodies b local artists -- although I’m still not sure what the point was here – it was of course a booth display by the paint company Arco. Of course, for Italians when it comes to women’s bodies just showing them is often the point I suppose. And there was the display of enormous one piece (?) curving staircases; the huge wrought iron grates, to mention just two. But mainly it was lots and lots of equipment and machinery used by the pros. Not an appliance or tablecloth in sight.

We needed a break so we popped into one of the eating areas, grabbed a couple of pannini and relaxed before striking out for the natural stone pavilion. I let Susan tackle that by herself and I found a place to sit and take some photos.

We then grabbed the no. 10 bus and headed back to the train station where caught the 5:46 for home.

We slept for 10 hours. Go figure.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Getting your permesso di soggiorno per stranieri in Florence.


[Caveat: this information was valid for Florence and as of mid-March 2006. I urge you to check with your local Questura for any differences or changes from what I experienced in Florence.]

There is a lot of talk online about the paperwork hassles and nightmarishly lone lines awaiting those foolish enough to think they can deal with the Italian bureaucracy, particularly for foreigners wanting to stay for an extended period of time in Italy. I am here to tell you that this simply isn’t true – at least it wasn’t for me at any rate.

Unlike some Americans I’ve spoken with who had “a friend with friend who knew somebody” I had to go to the local Questura (police station) in Florence to get my permesso di soggiorno per stranieri, my “foreigner’s permit to stay” longer than the “normal time” allotted to tourists (whatever that is).

First, the permesso is NOT a visa, which is in fact attached to your passport and which one needs to apply for at the Italian consulate nearest your place of legal residence. Visas are required by most schools – private language schools are an exception apparently – so this is something you will need to arrange in advance of travel, assuming your school program did not make the visa arrangements for you. There are in fact agencies such as Study Abroad, which, for a fee, will take care of all the necessary paperwork.

As for long-stay tourists visas are not required. One can by law remain in the Italy traveling for a maximum of 90 days. But you must get a permesso, which is essentially a form of registration with the local police. To do this one must check in with the police within 8 days of arrival to a particular city. Assuming you have the paperwork in hand when you go and apply for the permesso it might be another month before you actually get the permesso from the Questura! Moreover, it remains unclear what you are is supposed to do if you were only go to be in a city for a few days before moving on to the next city and so on and so on. I suppose that since most “extended stay” tourists remain in one location for an “extended period of time”, whatever that means, one should register with the local police.

In some places, landlords for example and most schools, need to ensure they are protected from the vagaries of Italian law by making sure that their tenants or students are themselves complying with those laws. In the case of most schools this is all done for the student – as noted above. In the case of those of us just spending some quality time in Italy it is up to us to do the leg- and paperwork.

Since my wife had enrolled in a year-long pastry and baking program at a school in Florence we knew we were going to be living in the city for some time and that we would be faced with the need to deal with the Italian bureaucracy. In my wife’s case she had to apply for her student visa back in the US – while the school here in Florence would take care of getting the permesso. For me, however, I had to go to the local Questura myself. Fortunately, the agency through which we rented our apartment in Florence provided us with a list of the documents I would need to bring along. These consisted of the following: (1) a copy of rental contract with the necessary local stamps; (2) marca da bolla stamp, available from any tabacchi shop for 14 euros and change; (3) 3 passport sized photos; (4) the permesso application form (blue) available at the Questura; (5) copy of passport; (6) evidence of health care insurance for the time you are in Italy; and (7) and evidence of “means of support”, in other words photocopies of your credit card.

Once I had gotten all my paperwork together and my photos taken I headed over to the Questura’s office on San Gallo, an easy 10-minute walk from our apartment. Having scouted out the place the day before I noted that it seemed to be somewhat chaotic at the one small doorway into the building,at Via San Gallo, 81-83 and that a couple of vaguely-defined lines formed close to the entrance where a policeman guarded the door and who would occasionally call out names. What was this all about, I asked myself? Well I observed for a few minutes and soon noticed a woman walking up to the policeman, ask him something – and in reply he pointed around the corner and off she went and so I followed. No I don’t know why but I’m glad I did. Sure enough the Questura’s main entrance was on the other side of the building, on Via Zara, 2.

So the following day I arrived at the Questura about 15 or 20 minutes before it opened and already the line was halfway down the block. After standing in a light rain, the doors opened on time and in we went. As we entered the main lobby a policeman handed each of us a number and we were off, rather like the flood tide, sweeping everything before us, into the main interview room, which really consisted of two blocks of booths, lining two walls, rather like betting booths at the racetrack actually, with rows of chairs lining the other two walls and also in the middle. And very quickly this room was packed with foreigners of all shapes, sizes, colors and apparently problems.

And since it was also the waiting room it was there that we waited and waited and waited. . . I looked up at the electronic number board and it read 343; I then glanced down at my number which read 771 and wondered to myself how long this was going to take. I soon figured out that in fact the only numbers that mattered were the last two digits so with a sigh of relief I sat down to wait my turn.

I had the foresight to bring reading material with me and of course just watching others of my species is a fascinating way to pass time too. Eventually my number was called and I shoved my paperwork under the glass partition and a couple of minutes and 20 or 30 stamps later I was given a little piece of paper and informed that I had to return on the date and time noted on the receipt to pick up my permesso. Off I went.

So I returned on the scheduled day and this time I went to the Via San Gallo entrance but there was hardly anyone there – maybe because it was late afternoon -- and even though I was early I went right in and was given my permesso with a smile and an arrivederci and home I went. It was really that simple.

So why was this not a trying time?

First my “papers were in order” (I’ve been wanting to say that) and second I didn’t have any really serious immigration issue to present. In fact, had I chosen to get to the Questura an hour or so earlier on the day I submitted my paperwork I would have likely gotten a much lower number and my wait inside would have been significantly less as well. The Questura opens at 8:30 am and will take applications until noon or maybe 2:30. But the important thing is to get there early.

In any case, the pickup went smoothly and so there you have it. And now so do I.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Internet access in Florence

If you are in need of access to the Internet while you are in Florence you have plenty of options. Most hotels provide some kind of Internet access, often Wi-Fi, but cost may be a factor here.

If your hotel does not offer Internet services or if you are renting an apartment there are a certainly many places where you can easily connect to the web. It should be noted that the further you get away from the historic center of the city and the University facilities in downtown Florence the fewer access points you will probably find.

Just to give you an idea of what’s available, I checked out the web access points in our neighborhood, which runs from where my wife’s school is located at the western end of Via Guelfa to the eastern end of Via degli Alfani (they are in fact one and the same street), both of which skirt the northern section of the historic center (and are just about 5 minutes north of the Duomo). In the space of an easy 10-minute walk I found no fewer than 7 Internet access points (not including several other locations just off the cross streets as well).

There was NetGallery, 63 Via Guelfa, with some 12 computer stations and 4 laptop access points; some additional services; coolest layout with lots of local art on the walls. They have clean facilities, relaxed atmosphere, and friendly staff.

Heading east you will come across three tiny "International Phone Centers" whose major preoccupation is, you guessed it, making cheap phones available for “inexpensive” long distance calls abroad. These will have between 2 and 5 computers, usually in the back with severely limited additional services and spotty staff assistance.

Next is Internet Train, one of the if not the largest Internet access point chains in Italy, at Via Guelfa 54/56. In fact they have twelve franchise operations in the city of Florence and vicinity. The Via Guelfa location is one of the largest shops with 40 PC workstations and 3 laptop access points. The cool thing about IT is once you register you can use your IT card at any of their facilities in Italy. They also provide extensive shipping services. Very helpful and knowledgeable staff.

Almost right next door to IT at Via Guelfa 50 is the Firenze Internet Point, a much smaller facility. It has laptop access points as well as some 11 PC stations.

At no. 8 Via degli Alfani is a small internet access point with 6 PCs but no laptop access; they do have the cheapest cost found in the area at 1.50 euros per hour.

And speaking of cost: an hour of online time will run you from more than 4 euros to less than 2, if you’re a student. Anyway, 2 euros is about standard student rates.

Most of the larger Internet access shops are open seven days a week with long hours. Evenings tend to be the busiest.

If you have a laptop you might want to think about getting a PC card, and all the major telecom companies offer them through their dedicated stores: Vodaphone, TIM, Wind. But unless you are fluent in the language and can understand the nuances of the various subscription plans and can deal effectively with the erratic service support you might opt for one of the local companies which can help foreigners make the transition to Wi-Fi in their home.

There are one or two places in Florence that offer foreigners the convenience of wireless access “from their apartment” and allow for multiple users – clearly targeting the foreign student population. Webpuccino is one such place. However you're going to be paying a bit more for the convenience and ease of setup than going directly through a company such as Vodaphone or TIM.

In any case, remember that the connect speed of using a PC card will be somewhat lower than using an Ethernet connection at one of the Internet access points.

Another option for anyone staying in Italy for an extended period of time would be to use their mobile phone as a modem for their laptop or desktop computers. While this is only good for dialup band-with it can be useful in many parts of the country. Most of the larger, dedicated mobile stores such as TIM or WIND carry all the necessary adapters to get you up and running. Since this is similar to a dialup connection the access speed is going to be quite slow.

It all boils down to how much time you spend online, how much money you want to spend, and your computer configuration (for example I have found that the Mac OS presents a number of challenges in setting up both PC cards and in finding modem adapters). And of course you need to decide how much of a hassle you can handle in getting and staying online.

Ciao,

Steve

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

You meet the nicest people in a cemetery


OK so you’re asking, why write about cemeteries let alone visit them? I mean, that’s pretty morbid isn’t it?

Well I suppose in some parts of the world anything connected with death must be avoided at all costs; but in Italy there is not only great respect for the dead but there is a concrete link between the living and those who have passed on. This is evident, for example, in the sheer number of flowers, fresh and otherwise that constantly adorn Italian cemeteries.
There seems to be a keen desire to share the memories of those who passed away, either through the use of photographs (very widespread) or, even more fascinating, through the use of sculpture to help the passer-by understand that this was a person of some fame, or a person who died young, or a person who was in love, or a person who died for the glory of his country or . . . well you get the point.



There is also a link with the past in yet another way, a link to and between the spirit of the living and the dead. In fact, there are Italian cemeteries such as Porte Sante and adjacent to the Basilica of San Miniato and Trespiano some four miles northwest of the city, which are linked to the famous Etruscan necropoli. Built more than 2500 years ago those Etruscan “cities of the dead” housed not just the remains and the spirits of their dead but also the spirit, the very essence of their culture, their world. Today as you stroll down “streets” of Porte Sante, flanked by “houses” made of stone and marble, in a variety of fantastic architectural styles, you cannot help but feel that you are a witness to a direct connection between what you are seeing and those “houses” of death which once lined the Appian Way, themselves a continuation of the Etruscan view toward the vitality of maintaining a life spirit after death.

And another thing that makes many Italian cemeteries like Porte Sante and Trespiano worth a stroll on a beautiful spring afternoon: there are no lines to stand in for these artworks. You can stand and take it all in at your own pace. Moreover, each piece of artwork comes with a very real human-interest story. There are the war heroes, the artists, the rich and the very rich, the one-time great noble families, the teachers, the visitors, they are all here and many wanted to leave a bit of themselves behind so that you, a passing stranger will know a least a small part of their story. So we find a bit of marble or stone chiseled, sculpted, created and placed in such a way as to help you understand who they were, those long-dead men, women and children.


Take Emma and Bianca Marchesini, two sisters, who both died very young sometime in the early 1870s; the older sister died first followed soon after by her little sister. The statue shows the older sister veiled and standing behind the cross on her grave looking down at her younger sister who is running toward her with her arms outstretched.

Or the Sembranti brothers, both of whom died during the First World War while fighting for their country. The surviving family wanted you to know just what their sacrifice was all about and the statues represent them in their uniforms with the bust of Ubaldini resting atop a female figure representing perhaps Italy, the motherland.

Then there’s the Cappella Lorenzini. Known simply by his village name “Collodi”, Carlo Lorenzini is known by children and parents around the world as the creator of that little wooden puppet, Pinocchio. His little chapel is still filled with fresh flowers. And there’s the small bust of Pellegrino Artusi, the father of Italian cookbooks.

And then there’s Mario and Maria Mazzone. The life-size statues of these two young people who died so very long ago make even the most casual observer stop and look for details of this “love” story. One sees a young man in an airman’s uniform with a broad smile on his face looking squarely at the young woman whose gaze is turned slightly aside, and downward, with just a hint of a smile on her face, their hands just about to touch. One looks closely and reads in the inscription that Mario, born in 1919, was killed in Hamm, Germany on 22 April 1944; Maria, born in 1922, died some 11 months later, in May of 1945. No other Mazzones are buried there nor are there any clues as to who these people were? Were they lovers, husband and wife, what? And what was Mario doing in Germany some 10 months after Italy switched sides? Was he killed during the US bombing raid on Hamm on 22 April? And what about Maria? Did she die of a broken heart? In fact, according to Graziella Cirri, who has done an exhaustive analysis of the sculpture in several Florentine cemeteries, Maria and Mario were in fact brother and sister and the statue was commissioned in 1947 by their mother.

There are 17 cemeteries operated by the city of Florence, not including those burial grounds which are generally closed to the public, or are privately owned and maintained, for example the Jewish cemetery on Viale Ariosto, the Misercordia cemetery on Via degli Artisti or of course the “English” cemetery on Piazzale Donatello, the final resting place for Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (See my blog entry on the English or Protestant cemetery as it’s also called, just scroll down to "Valentine's Day.") And of course these don’t include the most famous Florentine burials in the churches of Santa Croce and San Lorenzo.

My personal favorite is Porte Sante at San Miniato, in part because it overlooks the city of Florence and but largely because it has the largest outdoor collection of sculpture I've seen so far. (Via S. Salvatore al Monte 34).


As the first “city” cemetery, Trespiano was created in 1784 as a result of a new law prohibiting the burial of anyone inside the city walls – it was deemed too unhealthy. But according to one source only the bodies of the poor received burial in Trespiano while the wealthy continued to use the old cemeteries. Trespiano eventually became the city’s primary burial ground, however and remains so to the present day. (it is an enormous cemetery and although lacking the monumental flair of Porte Sante it does have a large burial ground for the “Garibaldini” as well as a huge “Potter’s field” and a large military section.)

In 1854 the cemetery of Porte Sante was created on the grounds adjacent to the Basilica of San Miniato and quickly became the burial location for the wealthy and well-known Florentines and indeed the monuments reflect both their wealth and status.

If you're interested you can see additional photos on Porte Sante and Trespiano.

An excellent guide to five cemeteries with unique sculpture is Guida ai cimiteri Comunali di Firenze, by Graziella Cirri, Firenze: Edizione Polistampa, 2003. Ms. Cirri analyzed the sculpture of San Felice a Ema, Settignano, Rifredi, Trespiano and Porte Sante at San Miniato. In Italian. With very handy maps and notations where each statue can be found.

Hours for Porte Sante and Trespiano as well as the other cemeteries operated by the comune are:

8.00 - 17.00 (1 October-31 March)
8.00 - 18.00 (1 April-30 September)
8.00/13.00 (Sundays and holidays)

Porte Sante is 20-minute walk from Piazza della Signoria; about half of it is uphill.

To get to Trespiano, take the no. 25 bus from Piazza San Marco, and get off at the cemetery bustop.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Mazzone "love" story



It’s been a pretty quiet week here for us: very calm and “molto tranquilo”. We hope your week has been the same. (Nope the photo has nothing to do with anything in the story; I took it during the Carnevale parade here in Florence and just wanted to share it with you.)

The weather has been on and off rain and sun and so we have just been cruising our neighborhood. Naturally Susan has been baking at home and we have been enjoying a variety of tasty items made with her homemade puff pastry – this afternoon for example she made little squares with brie and dried cherries on top and baked them as a sort of mid-afternoon snack. Tomorrow morning I’m counting on fresh-baked apple turnovers. . .

Aside from just enjoying being here we have really little new to report this week.

The “big” news – and it shows you how “small” our lives have gotten in the last few months – the big news is our last two boxes of “stuff arrived this past Tuesday, the very same day my camera was returned from the Nikon service center in Turin.

I suppose now that the games were over they could all get back to work there. But really I can’t say enough about Nikon or about their reps here in Italy. Shortly after we returned to Italy I discovered the camera’s focus was all haywire. After spending several frustrating days trying to find a repair shop in Florence I dropped the camera off at a local shop and it disappeared up north to the only Nikon repair center in Italy (presumably)– oh of course I did get a text message on my phone letting me know it arrived but other than that I had no idea what had happened to it. Anyway come to find out they had to replace the fleebus in the exposure dingis and they did all that for free – they didn’t even charge me shipping! Nikon rules!

But the boxes came as a surprise – we shipped three boxes via the US and Italian postal services on January 4 and one was waiting for us here when we moved to Florence the end of January. But where were the other two? No one had any idea. Everyone kept saying, “Don’t worry, they’ll show up someday”. And sure enough this past Tuesday they showed up – of course they had been opened, rifled through and resealed by the customs folks but everything was there. Whew. Now we can get on with our lives.


Now for an update on our "Mazzone love story". This concerns the statue of Maria and Mario Mazzone in the Delle Porte Sante cemetery and our Valentine’s Day “love” story. As you may recall right around Valentine’s Day we were strolling through the cemetery on a beautiful afternoon and came across this fascinating life-size statue of a young couple, Mario and Maria Mazzone. Mario is smiling broadly and looking directly at Maria; she on the other hand is looking off to the side and a bit downward but also with a hint of a smile on her face, and both are just about to touch hands. From the inscriptions we knew that Mario died in July of 1944 in Germany (presumably killed during an American bombing raid on that city although why he was there remains a mystery) and Maria passed away the following year. Other than that we had no idea what happened in the story.

Naturally we assumed that they were young lovers and probably just married before he was killed (Maria had been born in 1922 and Mario in 1919). Well after a bit of research I just learned today (Saturday) that Maria and Mario were in fact brother and sister! According to the guide to the cemeteries in Florence their mother arrange din 1947 for statue dedicated to these “due fratelli” or two siblings to be placed over their graves. Quite a story there I’d say.

Take care of yourselves and as always,

Wish you were here.

Steve