Loving Palermo!

My AirBnB apartment in Palermo is the best I’ve had. It’s been converted from the ground floor barn of a centuries-old building into a 21st century apartment with everything anyone needs for comfort. It’s located near the foot of Via Victor Emanuele, the principal north/south street, near the point where that street ends at the edge of the Mediterranean. This area is called Piazza Marina – it’s where the city’s pleasure craft marina is located. (The photo above shows the corner near my apartment: the church was built in the 1500s and the masts of sailboats in the marina are seen in the background along with one of the small mountains that protect the harbour.)

My apartment in Palermo is very comfortable.

The walk to the center of the city from the apartment is less than a kilometer. The city’s free circular-route bus is just outside the door. The wide street around the corner runs between ancient city walls and the Mediterranean Sea. Good, affordable restaurants are there and all over town. Sunday morning I found a large flea market outside my door. Less than 24 hours after I arrived I asked to stay another week and cancelled my plans for next week.

This photo of the cathedral of Palermo doesn’t include the entire exterior. The building is a full block long.

This city that has known may rulers over the centuries. There are layers of history to explore. Just one example — the cathedral. Quoting from the tourist brochure: “The cathedral was erected in 1185 by the Archbishop … on an ancient basilica, which had been transformed into a mosque by Muslims and was later reconsecrated to the Christian faith by the Normans.”  The façade dates from the 1300s – 1400s and the dome dates from 1781.

One of the many beautiful parks in Palermo.

The city of Palermo is alive with busy people, young and old. It’s filled with beautiful old churches. Many of them don’t get much use these days. There is an enormous opera house and many theaters as well as art galleries and museums. Parks are dotted all over town. The one across the street from my apartment is said to be the location of the largest tree in Europe. Another is a playground running for blocks along the edge of the sea. A well-regarded botanical garden and a neighboring park are near it. Small mountains (or big hills) overlook the city.

The wide walking area along the Mediterranean Sea in Palermo, showing a restaurant that specializes in pizza and gelato!

Yesterday I boarded the free bus that runs through the old part of town just for the free city tour it provides. I got on at the first stop about 9:00 in the morning. The bus took me to a part of town with modern apartment buildings, large stores (including one of those big German groceries that are covering the world), and past the hospital. Soon it was packed with people, most of them pensioners. The noise level was surprising. The lady sitting next to me was so insistent that another woman using a walker take her seat that she argued loudly when her offer was declined. At each stop the noise level increased as people pushed their way on and off the bus. It was all a new experience!

An out-of-focus photo of a family enjoying a day out in Palermo. Don’t miss the horse’s hat!

The people here are genuinely helpful and friendly. I got really lost a couple of days ago and asked a number of people for directions back to the cathedral, which is my major landmark. Invariably they smiled and struggled to understand what I needed and pointed me in the right direction. One woman actually interrupted her conversation with a friend to walk me part way “home.” I have found Italians to be this kind and helpful everywhere I’ve been.

Stay tuned for the further adventures in Palermo!

Libbie

PS: Here’s AirBnB’s site for the apartment I’m loving.

Catania: Living Dangerously

Catania is Sicily’s second largest city. Home to more than a million people in the metropolitan area, it is located 24 miles from Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano.

Snowy Mount Etna looms over Catania. Here you see the main street, lined with 18th century buildings and leading directly to the volcano which is still very active. I stayed just two blocks from the yellow building in the background of this picture.

The city was destroyed by an eruption of Etna in 1669 and by an earthquake in 1693. Little remains of pre-1700 Catania. I have read that one-third of the city population died. There was so much lava that the city’s port was partially filled and the city’s area became much larger.

Much of Catania is built on the lava rock that was left in the late 1600s, The owners of this large building just left it there and built on top of it several centuries ago.

Today much of the city is comprised of large buildings lining the streets densely, most of them dating from the 18th century. Grand palaces are scattered throughout the city but today many of them are broken up into small apartments where laundry flies from the windows. Catania seemed to me to be smaller Naples. Like Napoli, there are no traffic lights in the busiest area of the city. I thought I was going to die in the taxi that took me from the railroad station to my apartment.

Beautiful old churches seem to be found in nearly every block. I thought this one was especially fine. Can you spot the angel?

Crossing streets is really a challenge!

Catania has two famous market areas: the fish market located just outside the cathedral  where I found the man with the swordfish head shown at the top of this post, and a larger market that stretches through the center of the city beginning within a couple of blocks of my AirBnB rental. That one not only sells food of all kinds but also shoes and clothing, household gadgets – just about anything you can imagine. If you’ve followed this blog for a while you know I love taking photographs of markets. Here’s some of my favorites from Catania.

 

Lecce: Things I’ll Remember

Wandering the narrow streets of Lecce (and always getting lost) over several days was one of the best travel experiences I’ve had. Although the city has a population of about 100,000 and a very active and successful business community, the ancient city at the center is protected, authentic, delightful. I thought it might be fun for you to read about and see some of the bits of Lecce that made it very special.

Roman around
On my first night in town, taking a walk without any idea where I was going or how to find my way back… stumbled upon the remains of the Roman amphitheater. Just behind it was a recently restored  14th century building that’s served as the center of town forever. The next day I found the stage and remaining seats of the Roman’s theatre. Everywhere I found late renaissance churches and palaces and ordinary homes. A block from the theatre stand the pair of ancient olive trees I  shown above. I wonder if the Roman’s planted them?  I think I slept in a renaissance barn. It was all enchanting.

Some of the extant Roman coliseum with the 13th century building at the upper left. Hidden somewhere in this picture is the symbol of a famous 20th century American institution. Can you find it?

Getting lost
No matter how hard I  tried, how much attention I paid, how much a planned ahead, how many maps I used, I got lost every day at least once.  This is a really small area! I got the most lost on the last morning lugging my bags to the train station. I had been there at least three times but I got so twisted up near my apartment! I came upon a group of men chatting on a Sunday morning and asked “which way to the stazione?” Two of them immediately disengaged from their friends and began leading me to the station, taking my luggage in hand. On the way there one of them had to head off in another direction but the other stayed with me all the way.  He was so nice, dragging my stuff, testing his English with me. I have found the young people everywhere I’ve gone in Italy to be very good to old ladies!

This lovely young woman allowed me to take her picture because I told her she looks like someone I know.

Hard-headed carvings
As reported in my last post, the soft stone of Lecce is said to be easy to carve. Saints and angels peer down at pedestrians all over town. The palaces (palazzi) have lushly carved window and door surrounds but my favorite thing about them were the balconies outside every window. Balconies held up for centuries by carved heads and shoulders of men and women and animals.

An example of frequently seen carvings holding up an 18th century balcony.

Another tradition in Lecce is papier maché. Our guide pointed out to us in one 17th century church that the ceiling was entirely made of the original papier maché.  But the most fun use of it appears as small souvenirs for tourists to take home and small street sculptures. Here’s one example.

A very old elephant made of papier mache and his rider.

Pastries, pasta and prosciutto
Of course food!  Good homemade (bakery and restaurant made) traditional food. Every day begins with a “cornetto” – a croissant filled with vanilla custard or Nutella or something equally good and a tiny cup of espresso used to transport several teaspoons of sugar into a body.  Cheese: I ordered a caprese salad and got an entire mozzarella the size of a baseball. Pizza everywhere! Naples style. Pasta with an unending variety of toppings.  Sandwiches and salads topped with ham, usually thin slices of prosciutto. My favorite restaurant was called Nonna Tetti (correct me if I’m wrong but I believe “nonna” means grandmother). A charming small trattoria with a varied menu and low prices.

Charming Nonna Tetti, a good restaurant near “my house.”

Humor.
I must share with my friends this work of art I found in the town’s modern art museum.

This man has few admirers in Europe. I’m told the two-finger salute is the Italian version of the American one-finger salute!

Next: surprising Catania!  Come back soon.

Libbie

In the Heel of the Boot!

If you look at a map of Italy you will see that it’s shaped like a high-heeled boot. This week I’ve been in Lecce, an ancient city in the center of the heel. There was an organized society living here 4000 years before the Romans came. The Appian Way, the most famous Roman road, ended here. In the next 1000 years or so following the demise of Rome a highly successful agricultural economy based on olive oil and wine developed here with Lecce the financial capitol. Some of the merchants and financiers became extraordinarily wealthy. They built massive, ornate homes that continue to exist today. They financed the building of a great many baroque and rococo churches.

I’ve been wandering through a maze of narrow streets that wind around those palaces (palazzi in Italian) for several days, getting lost every time I venture out, feeling grateful that the historic district of the town is too small to become permanently lost in. Google maps led me home most days. Let me show you a bit of what I’ve been seeing:

This church is my landmark, the nearest one to where I’m staying. It’s dedicated to Saint Matthew. Inside and out it is beautiful

Here’s another example of an ornate church. The map I’ve been using lists 25 churches like this within the old town walls. My guess is that the town is about 1 mile on each side.

An early evening view of the street behind one of the most decorative palaces — in pink and white stripes and with a tower.

This doorway surround is typical of many found on the old palaces. Huge doors insured the privacy of the inhabitants.

This town is a mixture of ancient beauty and the 21st century ugliness.

Here’s the street my tiny apartment is on. Too narrow for automobiles but ok for bikes. It’s quiet.

Merry Christmas from Venice!

blog venice frari

Buon Natale as I said to people who passed me on the street early this morning. I got a mixed bag of responses that led me to understand that people in Venice don’t do that!  The lady whose job is to sweep the streets was out working – she was delighted by my wish and responded with a long string of words I didn’t understand and a big smile. The reactions of men on the street varied from a startled look to a grunt to a buon giorno.

For the past week I’ve been searching for Christmas in Venice. This city is filled with churches, sometimes two or three in one block. St. Mark’s Basilica offered a number of times and languages for late night mass last night. Stores have displays ranging from a simple string of lights to extravagant, expensive window displays in the shops of world famous designers. But the old way of celebrating Christmas with one’s family with dinner and mass last night and small gifts and a Christmas lunch today seem to still be the way most Venetians celebrate Christianity’s day of joy.

The best thing I found in Venice at Christmas time was a concert in the only gothic church in Venice, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (shown above). A small orchestra, a choir of 30 or so, and five soloists performed some Bach and Mozart and Bing Crosby (yes, they sang “White Christmas.”)  It was lovely.

Here are a few photos of Venetian Christmas scenes.

 

IMG_1081 St Lucia

The first thing most people see in Venice: Santa Lucia rail station, now dressed for Christmas.

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Agi and Blaine on the high water walkways outside St. Mark’s Basilica.

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A little high water made a nice reflection outside the upscale shops near St. Marks.

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Somehow a Walmart Santa made its way to Venice, where it stands guard over an ancient well.

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A window display of Venetian Christmas glassware.

Verona, Italy

A medieval/renaissance city filled with history and beauty and lively people, Verona should be on every tourist-to-Italy’s bucket list.  Wander through one square after another, finding marvels everywhere.

One of three ancient sculptures in Verona’s ancient mark.etplace

The market place has fulfilled that role for 2000 years, and has a Roman statue in the middle in a fountain to prove it.  The square where the court has been held for hundreds of years is next, with a magnificent stairway of carved pink marble.

Perfection!

Go through an opening in the wall, and come into a beautiful square surrounded by renaissance palaces.

Here stands Dante, pondering the scene all around him. The building in the background is considered to be one of the most perfect renaissance structures in Europe.

A statue of Dante, the Italian writer/philosopher, stands proudly in the center of the square.

I envy the people who live in Verona.

My favorite restaurant in Italy, Ristorante Dante, is in that square. On a good day you can sit for hours, enjoying fine wine, delicious food, the beauty of the surroundings and delighting in people-watching.

Lovely Juliet, standing and waiting for the return of Romeo.

A popular place with tourists is “Juliet’s House.” Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet are supposed to have lived in Verona. It’s a small stone house completely covered in graffiti, the old fashioned kind with names written in a heart “4-ever.” A lovely “Juliet” sculpture stands near the entrance.

We found a gladiator outside the Verona coliseum.

Verona has an intact Roman coliseum.  In summer a series of some of the best-loved operas are performed there: LaTraviata, Aida, La Boheme, Romeo & Juliet among them. The coliseum seems to be the centerpiece of the city. A wide street lined on one side with sidewalk cafés runs along one side of it and a park filled with greenery is on another.

A perfect example of the residences found in central Verona.

The city streets of Verona are lined with upscale shops and lovely old buildings. It’s all spotlessly clean with pots of flowers everywhere. The entire city flaunts its age proudly!

Memorial to a tired tourist!

Parma, Italy

Parma is a beautiful old city.   Before we went to Italy all we knew is that Parma is the source of Parmesan cheese and Parma ham. We discovered a busy and appealing city with a very long history and a collection of fine old buildings. Parma dates from 183 BCE. An earlier Celtic settlement existed in the same place. It’s small and easy to explore because the center is laid out in a grid pattern which is unusual for a city this old.  It has many glorious churches and palaces.  Today it is a rich and proud small city, one of the most prosperous in Italy.

The Baptistery stands alone to the right of the cathedral and its tower. In medieval times only baptized persons were allowed to enter Italian churches causing baptisteries to be adjacent to churches.

Parma’s most notable structure is the Baptistery at the cathedral, called “the most perfect medieval structure in Europe” by every book I’ve got, a building which illustrates the change from Romanesque to Gothic architecture.  It is seven stories high, octagonal, made of pink marble.  The exterior carving is very fine and the signs of the zodiac run in a band around the outside.

This doorway is 800 years old. The skill of medieval sculptures, working only with primitive tools, astonishes me. The “tympanum” is the carved half-circle piece above the door.

Scenes from the life of Christ and other Biblical views are carved around the three exterior doors.  Each of them has an exquisite tympanum, two of which still have some of their original paint.

The extraordinary interior of the Baptistery.

It is the inside of the Baptistery which is spectacular. Sixteen “rays” made from stone extend from the floor seven stories to the roof. The interior is entirely covered in beautiful, bright frescoes, originally created by famous native artists of Parma.  This building dates from around 1250 AD.  Think about how difficult it must have been to design, to construct and the paint.

One view of the interior of the cathedral, with apologies for the poor quality of this old photograph.

The Parma cathedral is beside the Baptistery. A purely Romanesque cathedral built in the 12th century, small looking from outside but feeling huge and deep inside.  It too is made of pink marble and is covered inside in floor to ceiling frescoes.  The nave is smallish but serves almost as an ante-chamber to the altar which is raised and is reached by many marble stairs.  Side altars on either side of the main altar add more richness and beauty.  There is a tall bell tower from the 14th century standing beside the cathedral, slightly tilting.

Some of the kids who visited Parma shown in front of the 12th century cathedral.

During our visit to the Baptistery a large group of school kids came in.  They were part of a larger group, probably a hundred and fifty or more.  Kids are the same everywhere – funny, cute and noisy. They were getting their art lessons with the icons and items in the churches as teaching aids.  Few of them will remember much of it for long I suppose, but how great it must be to grow up among all this beauty and history and art.

The government building in the center of Parma was a palace many years ago. Note the sundial beneath the clock.

Today’s city center is focused on a large, bright yellow building with a massive clock tower on top known as the Palazzo del Governatore, once the palace of governors and princes. The city streets are lined with upscale shops and fine restaurants. A narrow river runs through the center of the city, crossed by five classic bridges.

This picture makes you wonder who thought the building on the right was a good idea, doesn’t it?

Parma has many historic sites to explore. There’s a five-pointed “cittadella” (fortress). The “Parco Ducale” is an enormous park and garden open to visitors today  It was originally part of the Farnese-built ducal palace.  This small city requires several days to fully enjoy, but taking your camera and your taste buds there for a night or two will keep you busy.

 

Sources:

Wikipedia’s entries about Parma are very detailed and have excellent photographs. Some of them are:

The Cathedral: Wikipedia’s page is found here.

The official webpage for the cathedral, in English, is very detailed. Find it here.

The Baptistery – click the blue text for the link.

The Parco Ducale (in Italian but instantly translated by Google’s translation button at the top of the page.)

The Parma tourism office has a very complete site here.

Ancient Ravenna Italy

Imagine a city filled with 1600-year-old buildings richly decorated with original artwork. Ravenna, Italy, is just that place. The capital of the Western Roman empire from 402 AD until the fall of Rome in 476 AD, Ravenna’s earliest extant religious buildings date to that period. The larger, grander buildings were constructed in the 6th century. Mosaic tile artwork covers the interiors of many of the ancient churches, baptistries and mausoleums begun between 400 AD and 550 AD that remain in perfect condition today. Here are some of my photos of many of them.

The Neonian Baptistry, ca. 430 AD, is one of the oldest buildings in Ravenna. The interior is lavishly decorated in mosaic tilework and sculpted stone.

The Mausoleum of Galla Placida, also dates to the early 5th century.

This is the ceiling of the Arian Baptistry, built in the late 5th or 6th century. It was placed next to the ancient cathedral which was destroyed long ago.

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, dedicated in 504 AD, features a row of 22 Virgins along one wall and 26 Martyrs along the other.

Possibly the most beautiful because its interior is covered in ancient mosaic art, the Basilica of San Vitale was constructed in the mid 6th century. The building is considered to be one of the best examples of early Christian architecture in Europe.

Sant Apollinare in Classe is another beautiful mid 6th century Christian church in Ravenna.

In addition, two other important buildings of this era, the Archiepiscopal Chapel (ca. 500 AD) and the Mausoleum of Theodoric (ca. 520 AD) can be visited.

Resources:

Find more about Ravenna’s ancient churches at the UNESCO World Heritage site here.

Wikipedia’s entry for Ravenna is a detailed history of the city with links to entries about each of these ancient religious buildings.

Ravenna is jsut 85 miles south of Venice and is linked to that city by train and highways.

Slowly Exploring Italy

“Slow travel” means taking time to explore the places you visit. It’s a “hub and spoke” way to travel.  Staying in one cottage or apartment for a week or longer and taking day trips to surrounding places is an ideal way to discover more than just the touristy centers of major cities. Italy, for example, offers many opportunities for exploration of historic, artistic cities and beautiful agricultural areas.

The early spring view from “our” kitchen window in Montaione.

On our first trip to Italy my husband and I stayed for three weeks in Montaione, a village in Tuscany. We caught the train from a nearby town for day trips to Florence several times. We explored Siena twice —  one of those days was Easter Sunday. We spent days in San Gimignano, Pisa, Cortona, Assisi and Volterra. We explored the Chianti region. We enjoyed just roaming the countryside, poking around in small ancient villages, going inside very old churches. (Here is a link to the place where we stayed in Montaione.)

The villa called Castel Marinoni in Barbarano, Italy.

Another time we spent ten days in the Veneto, the region in northeastern Italy that includes Venice. We stayed in a very Italian apartment (that means a kitchen and a bedroom – no living room) in a village named Barbarano near Vicenza. (Here’s a link to gorgeous pictures of the property where we stayed and the surrounding area.) We made three train-trips into Venice, several drives to Vicenza, went twice to Padua and to Verona. We were there in the off-season when the rent was very low. That trip was really our introduction to Italy and we couldn’t have chosen a better place to begin.

The village children of Cetona after their performance, dressed as winter, summer and autumn.

On our third trip to Italy we stayed in a small village named Cetona on the line dividing Tuscany and Umbria. Although we were tourists who visited Orvieto and other small cities, what I remember best was the experience of “living” in a small Italian village for a week. We were there in May when the school year was ending. One evening all the children in the village put on a performance with all the village in attendance. Children dressed in homemade costumes representing summer, autumn and snow danced in the village center. Although we didn’t understand a word, we loved the experience of temporarily being part of life in a small Italian town. (The place we rented on that trip seems to no longer be advertised on the internet. Prices of rentals in that area have sky rocketed but some good deals are still available on AirBnB.)

I plan to share with you in my next few posts some of the beautiful but less well-known places we have visited in Italy. I hope you’ll discover that renting a small place and exploring the Italian countryside can be very affordable and very interesting, and that you’ll plan your own trip there soon!

Libbie

The photo at the top of this post is of the doorway of our apartment in Cetona.

 

Memories of Venice

Frari-choir-stalls

It’s been my good fortune to visit Venice several times. On my first visit in 2002 the sun was shining and the sky was blue. That was lucky because we were there in March and Venice tends to be pretty gloomy at that time of the year. Because it lies between mountains and the Mediterranean Sea fog is a frequent wintertime occurrence.

But we were there on a glorious day. I’ll never forget walking along the canals, through the ancient city of Venice. We were staying in a vacation rental about 40 miles away which enabled us to return a few days later. That day the sky was gray and the fog hung on all day but still we loved exploring. We bought a pass that allowed us to visit several of the largest churches, all of them old and impressive. We discovered the church called Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. A rare gothic church in Venice, the Frari (as it is commonly called) dates from around the turn of the15th century. It is filled with intricate, centuries-old carving. The choir pictured at the top of this post is an example. The great Italian artist known as Titian is buried in this church in an elaborate marble tomb. Perhaps his greatest work, The Assumption of the Virgin, is installed over the main altar.

In my days as a travel agent I often booked passengers on the ships of the company known as Star Clippers. I escorted two groups on cruises, once from Rome and the other from Athens. Each time I had the memorable experience of sailing into Venice at dawn on a true clipper ship. Seeing that magnificent city in the early morning light while standing on the deck of a small ship is a never-to-be-forgotten experience.

I’ve created a slideshow featuring a few photos of Venice. For readers who have been there, I hope these pictures of Venice will bring back good memories. For those who haven’t seen Venice yet, I hope it will inspire you to visit Italy and this important city.

NOTE: Some people are having trouble viewing my latest slideshow. I contacted WordPress, the company providing software for this blog, and was told that it requires JavaScript to be installed in order to properly view slideshows. You can easily download and install it here: http://enable-javascript.com/. There has been a change in the program since the last time I posted a slideshow.  My apologies for any inconvenience this may cause you. ~~ Libbie

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Resources:

Learn more about Star Clippers cruises here

Learn more about the great church called Frari here

Learn more about Titian and see The Assumption of the Virgin here