27 April, 2012

Around Tuscany : Cortona

Raise your hand if you've ever wanted to pull a Frances: quit your job, buy a fixer-upper villa in Tuscany, write a novel about your incredibly hilarious and romantic experiences, have said novel turned into every single girl's favorite guilty pleasure movie, and retire early upon the laurels of fame and fortune.

Yeah, I see all those hands.

Well, Tuscany is beautiful and romantic, but it's also a place where real people live and time refuses to stand completely still -- as we discovered upon arrival in Cortona, where visitors are shuttled up into the "rustic" hill town via shiny new escalators.

Welcome to rustic Tuscany!
Once inside the city walls, though, I enjoyed Cortona very much.  It is small and manages to not be too commercialized.  There are independent art galleries and family-run ceramics shops, and cozy restaurants serving up things like blueberry pasta.  And the view...Well, it's entirely pacifying. 

Old space, new purpose

Blueberry pasta with beef ragu and pine nuts


23 April, 2012

In the Hallway, Unfinished

It is Good Friday and we are waiting in a long line of people who have come from every corner of the earth to see one thing out of the many things housed in Florence's Accademia:  Michelangelo's "David."  I turn up my nose at tourists I overhear admitting that they're just there to check it off the bucket list - but I must be honest with myself and admit that I'm not really sure why else I'm there, either.  Sculpture has never intrigued me as much as other media, but I know I should see the David after traveling all the way here.  I am unkind and hypocritical in my heart as I wait in line.  My thoughts are rarely turned toward Calvary.

We go through the metal detectors and ticket checks.  I tell Carrie I'll go through the painting galleries and eventually find the David, and meet up with her later.  But I turn the first corner and there he is.  He stands firmly at the end of a long hallway lined with unfinished sculptures also by Michelangelo, half-formed bodies writhing, struggling, trying to break free from the solid marble and attain life.  My friend Kristin later tells that they remind her of each one of us bearing the weight of our sin on our backs, longing to break free into perfection.  Incomplete statues usher us into the rotunda where David stands, looking so alive.

Sudden awe disarms me, and I can't explain my all-consuming need to sit down and study the statue for a long time.  It demands so much more than the 30 seconds (maximum) that we usually spend in front of a single work of art.  Cameras aren't allowed, so I set out to sketch it.  I work so slowly.  Groups of tourists come in and out, blocking my view, looking over my shoulder.  I'm not able to finish before it's time to go, but the time I spend is valuable; in trying to replicate the lines and shapes in front of me I am discovering, respecting the skill this statue attests.  It's hard - impossible - for me to replicate it well in two dimensions on paper, so how difficult must it have been to carve from solid marble? 

While I sketch I glean information from passing tour guides.  David was created from a block of rejected marble; Leonardo da Vinci had refused the commission to sculpt it.  A rejected stone...  When Michelangelo completed his statue, all who saw it proclaimed it a miracle.  Perfect, powerful, ready to spring to life at any moment.  A rejected stone, now a fully-formed, beautiful thing perfect in its maker's eyes.

On Sunday we attend an English-language Easter service, and the priest reads to us of the stone the builders rejected, now the cornerstone.  I remember the David, and the statues preceding him waiting to be free.  Right now I am likewise burdened, half-formed, reaching for the realization of who I am meant to be.  I'm waiting in the hallway.  But I am not rejected; with every year my Maker chips away more of what ought not to be, inching me closer to freedom and perfection.

20 April, 2012

From the City to the Sea : Portovenere

A Room With a View

After Rome, our next stop was the coast.  Portovenere, on the "Gulf of Poets," was recommended as an alternative to flood-damaged Cinque Terre.  After a harrowing bus ride over steep, snaking roads we arrived at Hotel Paradiso and had a fun 24 hours exploring this little town full of capital-R Romance.  Dramatic cliffs, abandoned churches, a castle, connections with brooding English poets...Portovenere has it all.

Refreshing white wine and farinata at Il Timone
Lovely Il Timone
One of my favorite restaurants of the whole trip was Il Timone, near the town's main square.  It is totally charming...the kind of restaurant I'd like to have if I ever live that dream!  It's owned by a beautiful, shy and serene woman named Antonella.  She has lived in Portovenere for 40 years and serves classic Ligurian food.  The simple starter of farinata was one of my favorite things I ate on the trip.  It's a simple flatbread made with chickpea flour and served warm, usually enjoyed with olive oil.  The inside was soft while the outside was just slightly crispy...So delicious! 

The Artist in His Studio

Down a nearby side street we discovered a small ceramics studio.  The owner was perhaps 60 and has only been making ceramics for about 5 years.  He makes objects about the sea; fish, lighthouses, rowboats.  His trademark piece is an adorable rowboat painted with stripes.  Different boat sizes, different colors.  Small ones served as the sugar-packet dish at Il Timone, with the restaurant's name painted on the sides.  I loved that little example of supportive relationships between local artisans.

Although not a long stop, our visit to Portovenere was the perfect break from cities and busy sightseeing.  We paused, we strolled, we breathed deeply of the clean sea air and welcomed the sunshine on our skin, as if storing them up for the weeks to come.  Next stop: Florence.

17 April, 2012

The Emperor

We took a train north from Rome to a coastal town called Portovenere.  There was an old man, in his 80s I think, who stood the entire journey.  Rather than taking a seat he stood at the window outside the cabin, gripping the railing and studying every sight his two eyes could hold.  Mountains, trees, villages, ocean - he received it all with the disarmed joy of a wonder-struck child.  But he also had an air of pride for and familiarity with everything he saw, as if it was his and he had tended and cherished it and said that it was good.  He smiled like this was at once his first and last journey.  Discovery and offering; craving and satiation; beggar and king.

16 April, 2012

Rome: In Which There Are Many Ruins and No Gregory Pecks

What was I expecting?  Once upon a time I hoped to relive Audrey's Roman Holiday (well, until the part where she has to choose her stifling job over Gregory Peck.  GRE-GO-RY-PECK!), but I've experienced enough of Europe to unlearn my assumption that it's 24/7 romance.  More recently my expectations were of something closer to the way New York City feels to me: dirty, extremely crowded, one big money-sucking amusement park of over-rated landmarks that everyone photographs and then forgets.

(Don't worry, I'm not usually that cynical.)

The Colosseum, not a costumed interpreter in sight
Rome was neither of those polarities, instead somewhere safely and contentedly in the middle.  Yes, there were souvenir shops galore and a few costumed "gladiators" trolling for tips, but I was amazed by how un-kitschy the city is despite being so full of sites that could be capitalized on!  It really felt as though the Italians wouldn't even notice that these things are here if the rest of the world didn't show up in a continuous stream to remind them of it.  In the US when we discover historic ruins, we excavate them and then build a replica so that we can see, touch, and move through our past.  We often throw in a few costumed re-enactors to "interpret" it, for good measure.  We like "living history" in the good US of A; restoring what was, rather than simply conserving/preserving what's left in the condition in which it was left.

Rome, however...Aside from some supportive additions to simply keep the structures standing, nothing has been added, no attempts have been made at any of these sites to reconstruct/recreate the past before our eyes.  There are no costumed senators and servant girls, there is often hardly even any signage to explain or distinguish what you're looking at.  It's almost as if the Italians can't be bothered; their city is just going to be speckled with random ancient ruins, you'll have to use your imagination, and they'll get on with their day.

The Arch of Constantine
I found myself wishing that I could approach some of these landmarks -- the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine, Trajan's Column -- with the eyes of an ancient Roman.  We have lost our sense of wonder.  I look at these structures and can't help thinking, "There are apartment buildings taller than that."  If only I could come without my contextual comparisons to fully grasp the staggering, dwarfing accomplishments they were in their time.


03 April, 2012

Siracusa, Sicilia

On our second day in Sicily, we took a little roadtrip down the coast to the ancient city of Siracusa (Syracuse).  As we drove all I could think was, "Sicily is crumbling."  Buildings are crumbling, cars are rusting, cats wander wild.  It basically feels like a second-world country.  But there is so much beauty, too, flying in the face of decay; citrus trees glow from the side of the highway, from people's yards, from behind churchyard walls.  Lemons, blood oranges.  Signs of life.

Sicily is crumbling
Lemons everywhere!
Siracusa spreads from mainland Sicily onto a small island called Ortigia.  We started on the mainland at a park of ancient Roman and Greek ruins.  Abandoned caves and quarries once inhabited and worked by slaves, now roamed by little green lizards and overgrown with lemon trees.  The Apostle Paul stopped in Siracusa on his way to Rome (it's ok, I didn't remember either until Becca mentioned it!); as I walked through the skeletons of temples and amphitheaters I liked to wonder if he ever walked where I did.
Me, Carrie, Becca, Lena, and Greek amphitheater ruins in Siracusa
Piazza del Duomo, Ortigia, Siracusa
Ortigia completely charmed us!  Elegant (though also crumbling).  We strolled the produce market and eyed beautiful Sicilian ceramics for sale.  Sometimes the only thing stopping me from a dreadful splurge is that fact that there simply isn't room in my suitcase for something like a full set of Sicilian dinner plates!! 
Pizza with potatoes, bacon, rosemary, mozzarella, and sweet gorgonzola.
We ate a delicious lunch at La Volpa e L'Uva (The Fox and the Grape) on the Piazza del Duomo.  Guys, this might be my favorite pizza ever.

The next day, after a brief stop to check out Carrie's ancestral hometown of Caltanissetta, we flew back to Rome to begin our exploration of mainland Italy!  To be continued...

Catania, Sicily

Our first three days in Italy were spent on the island of Sicily.  Our wonderful hosts were Becca, Elliott, and little Lena, who opened up their home and lives to us for a few days.  Becca and Lena were excellent tour guides and fellow explorers!  I was thankful for this sojourn on many levels...For one thing, true hospitality is a rarer but more nourishing experience than being anonymously sequestered in a strange hotel in a strange city.  Also, we learned a lot from observing how Becca ordered in restaurants, communicated with market vendors, and survived driving the Italian roads -- useful skills for the rest of our trip!

On our first day we explored the town of Catania.  The highlight was the lively (and pungent!) fish market, where Becca got fresh mussels to prepare for dinner that night.  I loved the melodic calls of the vendors, trying to out-shout each other and garner the most attention for their daily specials. 

Fish market in Catania
Mussels caught fresh that morning, and eaten for dinner that night!
That night we ate such a delicious dinner!  Fresh bread; steamed mussels in a sauce of white wine, tomatoes, and onions; and this completely addictive salad made with Sicilian blood oranges.  I can't wait to make this for my family when I get home...although our blood oranges won't be fresh and free from a neighboring tree!

From Becca and Elliott's kitchen -- nestled under a castle in the hilltop town of Motta -- we could see Mt Etna, lazily puffing a haze of volcanic ash into the blue sky.  Below us were lemon and orange trees, olive groves, the sound of many birds.  And there was so much sunlight.

Mt Etna seen from Motta
The next day we visited fascinating Siracusa -- but more on that later, as Carrie and I are about to set out in search of coffee, and then visit Florence's famous Duomo.  Ciao for now!

02 April, 2012

Eine Gute Reise

I write this from Florence, Italy, already nearly two weeks into my post-London travels and  already feeling so “full.”  Full of good experiences, sights, sounds, and yes, food.  There is so much to write… This post will begin the project of getting up to speed by telling a bit about the five days I spent in Germany after leaving London.

On March 20 I flew from London to Leipzig, stepping from one language to another in a few hours.  Suddenly I was gone from an island of soft accents and had arrived in a country of umlauts and mile-long nouns.  Two parts of my heritage, very different and very dear.

I was met by Amy, one of my very oldest friends.  We met when I was nine and, together with my sister Emily, were essentially glued at the hip and helped each other survive those wonderfully awkward teen years.  Post-high-school life took us in different directions (literally!  Amy to Germany, Emily and I to Pennsylvania) and we don’t see each other very often now.  It was very sweet to spend five days with her and her husband in Halle Saale, Germany, and get a glimpse of the life she has carved out there.

Halle’s old city is lovely; the buildings are so elegant, with beautiful wood fixtures, pastel colors, and flourishes of Jugendstil.  There is a wonderful art collection in the Moritzburg, an old castle proudly overlooking the Saale river.  [Art History Geek Alert!]  I loved seeing paintings by Die Bruecke artists and Caspar David Friedrich.  

Leipzig Wildpark
On Friday we went to Leipzig and visited the animals at the Wildpark.  I fed rams out of my bare hand.  So that makes me kind of outdoorsy, right?  But this up-close encounter with nature was balanced out by another artsy museum experience.  We visited the Museum der bildenden Kuenste, and I loved so many things there!  [Art History Geek Alert!] Highlights included works by Max Beckmann and Max Klinger.  I was happy to get a dose of 20th-century German art before being completely immersed in medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque Italian art for three weeks.

Bauhaus Dessau
Sitting in a very comfortable Marcel Breuer masterpiece.
On Saturday we met Amy’s friends Karl and Kordelia in Dessau, where they showed us around the [Art History Geek Alert!] Bauhaus buildings and then took us to their home for a meal.  The Bauhaus is one of the 20th-century design movements I am most interested in, so I’m  thankful to have seen the home of its Dessau iteration.  We also toured the houses that some of the instructors lived in; duplexes nestled amongst pine trees, flooded by natural light.  PaulKlee and Wassily Kandinsky lived in adjoining houses.  That seemed appropriate, somehow; such mutual delight in color unleashed on such orderly space.

We had a great meal at Karl and Kordelia’s home.  They live in an old schoolhouse in a village of 40 people.  They love to eat good food, drink good wine, and be free.  I learned a bit about German reserve that evening -- At one point after I thanked Kordelia for a cup of tea, she looked at me for a second and then said, “It makes me uncomfortable when you thank me so much…But I guess it would probably make you uncomfortable not to thank me, wouldn’t it?”  Cultural differences.

On Sunday I flew from Berlin to Rome, another surreal day of language limbo.  I was immersed in words I do not know and spent the day largely mute, for the only words I could possibly use with any fellow travelers are the words of children.  When, where, please, ticket, bathroom, coffee.  Do children know how much more they could wish to express?  I don’t remember feeling so handicapped or being aware of how much expression was out of my grasp.

But at last, I landed in Rome and was met by dear Carrie to begin our Italian adventure!  To be continued…