Duomo Monreale , also referred to as the Cathedral of Monreale, sits at height over the valley in which Palermo resides. The views of the city, the large natural port, and the surrounding urban and rural zones are expansive. Here’s a video with some good shots of the valley, taking you then to the Duomo and the adjacent cloisters.
The cathedral was built under the Norman King Guillermo II, who along with his brother is buried here in a coffin aside a petition near the altar. Legend would have it that he fell asleep beneath a tree in the nearby forest. In a dream, Mary told him to build a church here. They found treasure in the tree’s roots. The gold financed the project, which began in 1172. The result today is a UNESCO Heritage Site, one of Italy’s finest churches. It is in the Arabo-Norman Style, 102 x 40 meters in size. The interior is wall to ceiling in what I would call ‘late’ Byzantine style mosaics. The underlying drawings are a bit more realistic than what you might find in Orthodox churches. There is not a bare centimeter anywhere in the buliding. The floors are exquisitely formed patterns in marble. The arches are Moorish in style as is the external decor.
We were walking near San Giovanni in Laterano when we ran across this scene. San Giovanni is one of four churches in Rome. It dates from the 4th century although it is much renovated. The main doors come from the Roman senate in the forum. The Pope opens them during Jubilee celebrations. We were there when Pope John did so in 2000. Across the street is a set of steps supposedly used by Jesus when he was questioned by Pontius Pilot.
Herculaneum (Ercolano in Italian) is an archaeological site on the Italian coast a bit south of Rome. The town, inhabited since the 6th century BCE, was destroyed in 79 CE, by the same eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii. Herculaneum was buried in pyroclastic rock and ash – 15- 20 meters/65 feet – and was struck by extremely high temperatures, killing all the remaining residents instantly. As a result the site offers a far greater insight into the life and death of the residents of populations destroyed by the eruption than Pompeii, and because of its greater state of preservation, is a more interesting place to visit.
Where in Pompeii there were no skeletons, just the area hollowed out in the ash by the skeleton (filled in with plaster of Paris), in Herculaneum they found some 300 intact skeletons. Analysis showed us their occupation, health, diet – we can even distinguish those who ate meat from those who did not. Some had lead poisoning, perhaps from lead pipes Romans sometimes used.
These individuals died from exposure to intense heat, in the range of 500C, close 1,000F. They were in structures built to protect inhabitants from falling debris, as the area was highly prone to earthquakes. Those in the shelter were women and children. Just outside the arched shelters on the beach – which as a result of the eruption is now some 400 meters/yards further west – they found the skeletons of a few men. A boat was nearby, so they were planning an escape.
The archaeologists found food intact, e.g. olives and flour, as well as furniture and fabrics. The relatively light weight of the fallout meant that roofs remain intact, as do other wooden elements such as doors, lintels and trim. They found wooden furniture, sculptures and frescoes with bright colors.
Every summer the Italian government sponsors outdoor music events as part of a broader cultural initiative. The Polo Museale del Lazio (Museum Center of Lazio) put together one hundred activities for this summer’s entertainment. See http://art-city.it
To date we have attended three concerts, one at Castle St Angelo and two at Piazza Venezia. The former is in Vatican territory and the latter overlooks the Roman forum and the ‘centro historico’ of Rome. Two more fabulous venues would be hard to find.
From the Castle you have a great view of St. Peter’s Cathedral as well as the River Tevere and it’s many summertime tents, where patrons sip cold beverages or have a plate of pasta while sitting on the banks of the river that divides Rome.
We were privileged to enjoy the Barcelona Gypsy balKan (sic) Orchestra seated on the upper levels of the monument, erected circa 139 as Hadrian’s tomb. You too can watch the performance we did, without the venue unfortunately:
Their lively performances fuse Roma and Klezmer. Klezmer is a musical genre created by Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. The groups are called klezmorim and originally it was largely dance tunes and instrumentals that they played for weddings and other celebrations. It is every bit as energetic as Roma music and likewise there are dances that go with some songs. When we were in Budapest one summer we watched a band and dance group performance, men in traditional black hats and suits dancing on an outdoor stage along the Danube. It was impressively athletic, including bottles balanced on heads.
The concerts at Piazza Venezia take place within the monument to Vittorio Emannuel II, made king of Italy at the time of unification in 1861. (You may recall that in 2000 Peg worked with the nephew of Lampedusa, who wrote the Leopard, a novel about Sicily at the time of reunification- Gigi was working on a novel). The monument overlooks Piazza Venezia on one side with great views of the historic center, and portions of the Roman forums on the others. You can easily see Trajan’s column.
While waiting for the concert to begin, I sketched Trajan’s column. The column recounts the conquest of Dacia, in what we now call Romania. Romanian is a romance language, adopted as a result of the conquest depicted here. The sculptors who did these columns came to be called columnists, from which we get our use of the word.
Romans are not fond of the monument, pejoratively calling it The Wedding Cake for its many layers. That you have to climb 260 stairs to get to the terraces does not make it any easier to like. They say it is two floors to the terrace, which is true I suppose, it’s just the ceiling height that kills you. There is an elevator to the highest level but you pay for those amazing views, but there is no stop on the level where they hold the concerts.
One evening there was a jazz band that whose offerings were too far from melodic for us. The second night was Bach. There were a flutist and a violinist, each accompanied by a virtuoso pianist, and a cellist who joined the rest for a third piece. Fortunately I am a Bach fan, but if I were not, there would have been far too many notes for comfort.
These concerts and other events continue until September. What a pleasure!
We landed in Rome’s Ciampino airport. We are barely on the ground and already Rome’s disarray hit us.
The last time we landed here there was only one bus to Termini, Rome’s central transit point. We presumed that was still the case when we bought our tickets from the vendor in Valencia’s airport, thinking what a good idea it was to sell tickets ahead of time. But then we walked out the front door, saw the bus platforms and four bus lines” names, but the name printed on our ticket was not there. I asked several staff and passengers to find which line was ours. We stood in that line for 15 minutes (at least we were shielded from the hot sun). The confusion was not over, however. as we were told to get in another line, whose placard was for another company. Indeed our bus appeared but as we waited we wondered if we had been mislead. Then there was getting on the bus. Italians do not stand in line, they crowd around the door, outflanking you. Eesh- I was already exhausted. And the struggle goes on and on. Why? Because Rome is chaotic like a turbulent fluid.
Traffic moves like a raging river one moment and a logjam in the next, herking and jerking until the wee hours. Yet like the fluid that finds its level, people get to where they are going, eventually, competing with each other and the buses and trams. The latter are what the drivers avoid using, but once in their cars they spend lots of time trying not to hit them and the other cars and the jillion darting scooters. Everything would work better if most everyone used mass transit, or the recently added bike lanes which they might do if there were enough buses, subways and bike lanes, but there aren’t since people spend money on cars instead.
The enormous trash bins are another sign of chaos. They are emptied daily yet each day overflow in an unsightly mess. Rome city government is getting advice on how to solve their trash mess from Palermo, of all places- that’s how bad it is. Even the upscale neighborhoods of the city have these problems, such as on Viale Giulio Cesare, which runs past the windows of our summer abode. Down a bit from our place tourists by the millions line up for St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museum. The back streets are lined with upscale stores, wine bars, restaurants and made to measure shops. But trash mars the area. The platforms upon which the containers nicely sit hold four dumpsters, one for household trash and three for recycling. They need perhaps two more but there’s no room on the platform and cars take up the room otherwise available.
Rome’s other issues contribute to the strain. Refugees, street people, tax avoidance, pollution, street trash. The list is seemingly without end- this is not an easy place to run, so no wonder there’s so much dysfunction. And yet people come, because Rome eternally beckons. Where else would you find an Eternal City, a city of such high art? There are countless richly decorated and appointed churches, public buildings and monuments, private palaces such as the Pamphili Palace, still occupied by the family but mostly a museum. There are Egyptian columns and Roman era ones such as Trajan’s which tells the story of the conquest of Dacia, modern day Romania. And there is ancient Rome. Every shovel full brings up a history lesson, it seems. This is why Metro Line C is not yet done after so many years, delaying one of the remedies for the chaos. There is plenty of cultural modernity to bring you in and keep you here. Wanted in Rome publishes huge lists of things to do- concerts, expositions, talks, walks, plays and of course opera. The Italians invented this high soap. Good grief, are they melodramatic or what? http://www.wantedinrome.com/whatson/.
Summer brings the Music Fest, starting June 21. Nighttime is filled with outdoor concerts and plays and acrobats and who knows what else, all free, and all the ones I have seen have been very good. My favorite venue is atop Castel San Angelo. Order a glass of wine and enjoy the music and the view of St Peter’s!! And of course any time of day or night have a cappuccino. Maybe you’ll find a delightful something to draw.
Then there’s the odd public service we ran across. At Ottaviano metro, where you exit the subway for the Vatican, there is a free water spot. Rome has had public drinking fountains, these little green creatures called ‘nasoni, for eons.’ They run constantly. But this fountain is different, like the old milk dispensing machines, standing some 2 meters/7′ tall. You put your bottle under the spout, press the button showing the size bottle you have and presto! You can get fizzy water as well, yet it is totally free! What?
Only in Rome would you get free carbonated water. How do they manage this and yet not be able to adequately handle the trash and sweep the streets? Or perhaps more importantly, why bother with this at all? Perhaps it has something to do with the trash. Millions of plastic bottles filled with water fill landfills and float in the Tevere that winds through the city. Can we help if we give away the sparkling water? I’d say so.
The government is trying. You can see that with this strange giveaway, with the trash platforms, another metro line. But you see the challenges everywhere you go, the trash strewn streets, the refugees, the homeless, the African street vendors.
I did not realize how complex the matter of Piedmont wine is when I became interested while in Turin (Torino in Italian). What intrigued me were the lightly bubbly wines we were getting at restaurants as a house wine. Red, not white, and not bubbly like champagne. I wanted to learn more about them so I could avoid them! Neither of us liked the ones we had and needed to know how to ask if they were going to serve one and identify them on the wine shelves. We bought a few by mistake.
I have found meager references to this style on the Internet but one thing that is helpful to know: they are referred to as ‘frizzante.’ Knowing that would have helped a lot.
A frizzante wine has between 1 and 2.5 times atmospheric pressure in the bottle, compared to 5-6 for a ‘spumante,’ such as the famous and not my favorite by any means Asti Spumante, from the town of Asti not too far from Torino. I have only found references to white frizzante wines- see below for their names. I have no idea what they are like, having never tried any of them.
But not too worry. The wines of this region are mostly red, and still (versus spumante or firzzante). There are many excellent ones.
Nebbiolo is considered the greatest wine from Piedmont. It’s a high tannin grape with red cherry- a very common flavor for red wine- tar – not so common and if too strong is a fault – and rose flavors with. There are some 13 DOC or DOCG (a higher certification) wines in the region made from this grape and they vary widely from one another in nose and tongue.
Barolo, made with Nebbiolo, is a DOCG southwest of Alba and not far from Torino. The only vineyards with this status are on the southern facing hills. The wine is a brick red with 13%+ alcohol. The wines are aged for at least 18 months in barrel and not for sale for at least 3 years. The Riserva is five. Best ones are 10 years old or more.
Barbaresco DOCG is located northeast of of Alba on the south-facing slopes. These wines are lighter than the Barolo products.
Other Nebbiolo Wines
Langhe Nebbiolo is a region the grows Barolo and Barbaresco without the classification status so they are less expensive. There are sub-regions:
Albugnano, Carema, Fara, Ghemme, Gattinara, Langhe Nebbiolo, Lessona, Nebbiolo d’Alba, Roero Rosso, Sizzano* *Nebbiolo is known as Spanna in these areas
Barbera is the most common red grape in Piedmont. They are dark and you should taste black cherry, anise, and herbs. It is less expensive than Barolo wines and goes with many foods. There are 2 DOCGs :Barbera d’Asti and Barbera del Monferrato Superiore. ‘Superiore’wines are aged for more time and have more alcohol.
Dolcetto are dark in color with flavors of blackberry, licorice and tar. The wines do not age well. They are tannic, which some producers are reducing, making the wine more fruty. There are 3 DOCGs Dogliani, Dolcetto di Ovada Superiore and Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba. ‘Superiore’wines test at 13%and are aged longer which reduces the tannic impact.
Moscato Bianco has been around a very long time. Roses, mandarin orange, cotton candy touch the nose. Asti Spumantea very bubbly (‘Spumante’) sweet wine with only 9% alcohol. No wonder I do not like it!
Moscato d’AstiIs a Frizzante’ that’s very sweet with about 5% alcohol.
‘Gavi’ wines from Cortese are dry with lemon-like flavors with good aacidity.
Arneis Roero DOCG, Arneis is medium-bodied with almond notes on the finish, and are grassy similar to Sauvignon Blanc white of Bordeaux.
Burlotto Langhe Freisa 2010, about $18: “The Piedmont region of northwestern Italy is best known for its nebbiolos and barberas, but oddball grapes like the freisa lurk there as well. Burlotto makes excellent Barolos, yet its 2010 Langhe freisa is fascinating. It’s reminiscent of nebbiolo with its combination of textural lightness, firm tannins and deep flavors, and if it is maybe more Naugahyde than leather, it’s perfect for burgers and sausages off the grill. It might even benefit from another year of aging.”
Produttori del Barbaresco Langhe Nebbiolo 2010, about $15: “Produttori del Barbaresco is one of the world’s finest wine co-ops, offering great values throughout its range. The Langhe nebbiolo is generally made from the grapes of young vines, or grapes that for one reason or another don’t go into the Barbarescos. This is a lighter gauge than a true Barbaresco but still offers all the classic leather, floral and red fruit flavors.”
These are very reasonable prices for New York City especially. I was just there and could not find anything decent from anywhere under $13 US, and that was a very good Zinfandel from California.
Torino (Turin), historically important and a surprisingly entertaining city in northern Italy
Turin is more than the home of the Shroud of Turin and the home of one of the world’s largest car manufacturers, Fiat-Chrysler. It is also home to many museums, most famously the Museo Egitzio (Egyptian Museum), Museo di Antichita, the wonderful archaeological museum; Museo dell Automobile with an astounding collection dating to the first Fiat in 1892; the excellent Palazzo Reale; There are many more, as well as astounding architecture and urban design. Getting around is super easy with its excellent public transit system taking you just about anywhere efficiently and inexpensively. Read More
From Graz you take a railroad operated bus to the train that carries you into Italy through the Alps; the bus avoids a much longer train ride through the mountains. The scenery alone makes the trip worthwhile. There are viaducts and tunnels galore. Human have inhabited this area for thousands of years, although it is well west of here,in the Oetztal Alps, where researchers unearthed the frozen body of a man who died in the mountains some 5000 years ago. For more information on that, go to http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/oetzi-iceman-mummy-alps-lyme-disease-lactose-intolerance/story?id=15816788
Croatia is just to our south, and we’d never been there. It has a certain allure because it is Western European but somehow not, as it was part of Yugoslavia during the post war period. It became more Slavic during that period and the traditional folk dance music you hear in the video (link below) reflects that origin.
Pula like Trieste is on the Adriatic. Most noted for the Roman Amphitheater, it also has a temple and other bits from the Roman era. It is an attractive town with 20 km of rocky beach the locals love.
To get there by land you cross Slovenia, so it’s 3 countries in two hours on the fast bus, but four hours through even more of the Croatian countryside on the way back. Slovenia is in the EU but Croatia is not, so there’s no border check leaving Italy but in and out of the other two countries there is. With my shiny new Italian passport we had no problems, although Peg was stamped in and the border guard suggested she get a ‘permesso di sojourno,” (residence permit) which as my wife and with an officially registered marriage certificate, should be no problem at all.
It’s a lovely town with architecture from the 13th, 19th and 20th century. There are pedestian zones, lots of cafes and eateries, summer sunshine and today a very pleasant temperature, in the low 20’s. People walk about in shorts and lightweight shirts. You hear what I assume is Croatian, lots of Italian and perhaps as much English; people who deal with tourists spoke it reasonably well.
It’s about a ten minute walk to the Amphitheater from the bus station. The amphitheater is enormous, probably not as big as the Coliseo in Rome, but it is much more intact. Only the seating area is largely gone, maybe a few hundred left out of the original 25,000. It must have been spectacular when filled, and the fabric roof in place.
The main pedestrian zone is one of the more attractive ones we’ve seen but not all that different from others. We had lunch in the area. The service was very attentive, and the food quite good, for a bit less than Trieste, even, although we’d heard Croatia has become quite expensive.
It is still an active port and ship building continues. There are large bays for ship repair as well as large yellow cranes for unloading and loading cargo vessels.
A Bit of History
Human remains (Homo erectus) in the area date to 1.5 million years. Pottery dates to 6000 BCE. Inhabitation in Pula proper dates to the 10 century BCE. Greek pottery and statuary remains attest to that people”s presence.
Starting around the 1st century BCE a Venetic or Illyrian tribe lived here. Under Julius Caesar the town became an important port, with a population then of around 30,000. However it sided with Cassius against Augustus, and the town was destroyed. It was soon rebuilt and with it came the amphitheater (finished in 68 CE) which you will see in the slide show video.
The Venetians took over the city in the 1200’s and the Hapsburgs arrived in 1997. After WWI the whole peninsula became part of Italy. Mussolini persecuted the Slavic residents and many fled. The Germans took over in WWII after Italy collapsed, and Pula was bombed heavily by the Allies after the u-boat installation. Pula joined Yugoslavia in 1947. Most of the Italians fled in 1946-47 in the run up. To this day, Croatia is predominantly Roman Catholic.