Monday, May 21, 2012

Italy: Spring 2012: Monday, May 21: SPECIAL EARTHQUAKE REPORT

Italy: Spring 2012: Monday, May 21: SPECIAL EARTHQUAKE REPORT

I am stepping out of sequence to report on the earthquake that took place near Modena on Sunday morning.  We woke up at 4 am because the bed was shaking...not violently but steadily for about 20 seconds.  Diana felt that the whole building and room were rocking and she thought it lasted a long time.  Then it stopped and all was quiet.  We heard no street noise, no sirens, no commotion even after opening the window.  We immediately thought that it might have been an earthquake and confirmed that there had been a quake with a quick search on my smartphone.

But nothing else happened and we went back to sleep.  We learned from the internet in the morning that the quake had been much more severe than we thought but all seemed normal at the hotel.

Only after we went out in the morning did we notice a lot of areas near older buildings roped off with tape.  And when we got to the tall bell tower, there was a sign posted that it was closed so they could make sure there was no damage.

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But the cathedral was open as was the Duomo museum.....and people seemed to be going about their business normally on a cloudy, damp Sunday morning.

On the way back to the hotel, the street was blocked off and people were staring at the front and roof of an old church.  Cracks were easily seen on the facade

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The effects were more evident when we drove to Carpi, a nearby city, planning to visit the museums there.  On the very grand main piazza, the castle that houses the museum was closed as was the Duomo.  The area in front of the long porticoed side of the piazza was cordoned off because of the danger of decorative chimneys on the roof falling.

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Across the piazza at the castello, the falling debris was even more evident.

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It's lucky that no one was standing underneath when the bricks began falling.

You have probably seen the television reports of the extensive damage elsewhere in the area.....but we are fine. 

Jim and Diana

Italy: Spring 2012: Wednesday, May 16: Day 22: Pisa

Italy: Spring 2012: Wednesday, May 16: Day 22: Pisa

We continue to luck out in the weather department....a little cooler this morning but still clear and sunny.  Breakfast again in the charming hotel garden and then back to the Piazza dei Miracoli to visit the Baptistery and Duomo.

The Baptistery is a very impressive building...a very large structure with intricate carvings and sculptures on the exterior.  It was completed in 1363.

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Inside it is largely unadorned....very high dome with a large, elaborately decorated baptismal font

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and an impressive carved Pisano pulpit 

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A notable feature of the Baptistery is the perfect acoustics...every half hour a staff member demonstrates how the sound travels and echoes and he is applauded by the people watching.

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Here is the view from the second level that rings the building.

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While I am on the second level of the Baptistery, I take two pictures that I like of the Duomo and the Tower from the grated window.

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The Duomo--which is earlier than the Baptistery (begun in 1064)--has some very appealing features.  First, the bronze doors to the center entrance, are very impressive--the panels tell the story of the life of Christ and is the only original door remaining.

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The gilded wooden roof of the cathedral is ornately decorated 

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and has the Medici coat of arms displayed in the middle.

An even more impressive Pisano pulpit from the 13th century stands on the floor

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Ironically it was only re-placed in the Duomo in 1926 after having been stored away after the disastrous fire of 1595 which caused heavy damage to the building.

There is impressive mosaic over the altar reminsicent of the mosaics seen in Monreale Sicily

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and Diana especially likes the tiled Cosmatesque floors.

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We walk back to the hotel and decide to have a light lunch in the garden since the day is so nice.....we enjoy the sun and the peacefulness.

After lunch, we have arranged a visit to the Jewish cemetery which is located just outside the Piazza dei Miracoli behind the Baptistery.  It is said to be the oldest continually used Jewish cemetery in Europe, dating from the 17th century.  The Jewish community in Pisa was very similar to the community in Livorno--very integrated into the fabric of the city and there was no ghetto.  One of the graves tells that the person was Mayor of Pisa in the early 20th century.

It is always a bittersweet, melancholy experience to visit these cemeteries....this one being in the shadow of the Baptistery gives it even more poignancy.

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Parts of the cemetery are well kept up but others have become overgrown.

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I take another walk around another part of town and find the vegetable market where i buy some good strawberries.  We go out for an aperitif at one of the bars in the student section passing by a big celebration for a recent graduate who is wearing the traditional laurel wreath.

The restaurant where I planned to eat dinner is full so we go to another place just down the street.  I am a little apprehensive because there is no one eating there but dinner turns out fine...the people are friendly and the food quite good.

After dinner, we make a return visit to the Piazza dei Miracoli to see the buildings at night without the is a very different experience.

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Tomorrow we head south to Umbria to check out the villa we are renting next year for the whole family.

Jim and Diana

Italy: Spring 2012: Tuesday, May 15: Day 21: Pisa

Italy: Spring 2012: Tuesday, May 15: Day 21: Pisa

The sun is out again today....we have been mostly very lucky with the weather up to now on this trip.

After breakfast in the charming garden in back of the hotel

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we walk over to the nearby Piazza dei Miracoli, the grassy field where the Leaning Tower, the Duomo and the Baptistery are located. This is one of the most crowded tourist sites in Italy, lined with stalls selling souvenirs and there is a never ending stream of people flooding in from all directions.

But it is also a very unusual open setting for the three buildings

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that somehow can handle the crowds, even all the people taking pictures of people holding up the leaning tower.

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We walk around the Piazza and then take a short stroll towards the center of town passing through the very grand Piazza dei Cavalieri (unfortunately being restored) with its elaborate painted palazzo 

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and the building with the clock that gives our hotel (Relais Hotel dell'Orologio) its name.

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We are meeting our friend (and my travel colleague) Maddie Bacarelli 

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for lunch in Quarrata, a town near where she lives.   Quarrata has been called the ugliest town in Tuscany by some but we think that is unjust...although its modern piazza with this war memorial is a bit strange.

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Lunch is fine....and we have a good time catching up.

We try to drive back through the countryside but our first attempt ends us up on too narrow and curvy a road for our comfort so we turn around and try a different route.  But we do pass a hillside with olive trees and poppies that are very striking.

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The ride is taking too long so we find the fast road and get back to Pisa in time for a rest and some work.  Later in the afternoon, we walk into the center of Pisa. We pass through section of town where the University of Pisa is located; there are students everywhere--walking, riding bikes, sitting in bars--which makes the town seem very lively.  We walk along the river Arno which is flanked on both sides with impressive palazzi and some scullers on the river

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past the statue of Garibadi in the Piazza Garibaldi

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and then back to the hotel by way of the main shopping street

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In this part of town, you wouldn't even know that the Leaning Tower and the enormous crowds of tourists was a kilometer away.

We have dinner at another Slow Food recommendation, Trattoria della Faggiola which is just steps away from the hotel.  We have some doubts when we walk in since only one table is occupied but we sit down anyway.  The menu is very brief 

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but dinner is quite good...asparagus soup and mixed salami and cheese plate for Diana and pasta with sausage and mushrooms and meatballs for me.   We drink a local Pisan red with dinner.

Tomorrow we will visit the Baptistery and the Duomo.

Jim and Diana

Italy: Spring 2012: Monday, May 14: Day 20: Olbia-Pisa

Italy: Spring 2012: Monday, May 14: Day 20: Olbia-Pisa

A lazy morning at the Doubletree in Olbia....our ferry doesn't leave until noon so we have a leisurely morning in our comfortable room.  

Even the short drive from Olbia to Golfo Aranci (about 10 miles), where the ferry terminal is located, is scenic.  No lines for this ferry (we are returning to the mainland on a different ferry line--Corsica-Sardinia Lines, a French company) and we are quickly sitting in the lounge area, getting set for the almost seven hour ride.  Diana quilts and reads, I work on the computer, read and walk around--the trip is quite uneventful and pretty boring, but comfortable enough.

The drive to Pisa takes about 30 minutes and we easily find our hotel (close to the Leaning Tower but a bit removed from the tourist path), park the car and get settled.  The hotel--the Relais Hotel Orologio--is a stylish, old-style hotel with period furnishings, frescoed ceilings and tiny least the one we are given.   We ask about a larger room, are told nothing is available but we should ask again in the morning.

By now, it is almost 9 pm so we go for dinner to the trattoria located next door to the hotel, I Miei Sapori.  Not only convenient, but good as well...DIana has a good steak and I have a very rich zuppa di farro and a plate of lardo and greens.  With a local Pisan wine, we are happy.and glad that the hotel is right next door.

Tomorrow we explore Pisa...we have been here for day trips before but we will have time to see much more than the Piazza dei Miracoli.

A few thoughts about Sardinia....even though it was the only Italian region that we hadn't yet visited, I was not enthusiastic about going there.  And I was less enthusiastic about scheduling the visit to coincide with the big festival in Cagliari....

But was I wrong....we both loved Sardinia--the scenery is just spectacular from the long sandy beaches and rocky coastline to the rugged interior, driving around the island is a constant pleasure.  And it turned out that I really got into the Festa di Sant'Efisio and had a great time following the activities around town as well when we met up with the procession in Pula.  The Roman sites at Tharros and Nora were fascinating and the wildflowers in bloom everywhere only made the scenery more beautiful.

Another positve was how wonderfully friendly and welcoming the Sardinian people are...we had more pleasant interactions in hotels, restaurants and shops than we have had in other parts of Italy.  And I enjoyed staying in Cagliari very much...I found it extremely lively with lots of things to see.  And the food was very good...I had wonderful clams and mussels all around the island and we generally ate very well.

Two things were quite different than other parts of Italy...we found that the villages and towns for the most part were not particularly attractive...and the art and culture was less accessible to us than it is on the mainland.  

And even though we don't take advantage of all the outdoor activities available there--swimming, boating, snorkeling, hiking, riding, etc---I think we would certainly like to return....

Jim and Diana

Italy: Spring 2012: Sunday, May 13: Day 19: Alghero-Olbia

Italy: Spring 2012: Sunday, May 13: Day 19: Alghero-Olbia

Yet another beautiful day...a little misty in the early morning but bright and clear after breakfast.  We take our time in the morning, packing (we have to leave this beautiful place today), doing a little work and quilting on the terrace in the sunshine.

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We check out of the hotel (but leave our luggage) and drive an hour south (on the same beautiful coastal road we drove on three days ago)...somehow driving in this direction is even more striking than in the opposite direction.

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The restaurant where we are going for Diana's pre-birthday celebratory lunch--da Riccardo--is located in a small village south of Bosa.  Maureen and Franco have been there twice before and have memories of a delicious lobster dish.  Unfortunately, they have no lobster this afternoon but we do have a great meal....three of us have the seafood antipasto featuring delicious octopus and potatoes and artichokes while Diana has the antipasto di terra--prosciutto, salami, etc.

The pastas are all excellent....I have clams and the rest have some variation of pasta with bottarga (pressed mullet roe--a Sardinian specialty) and then we share two large grilled spigola (sea bass).  The local white wine (a torbato) we have is very light and crisp.

We then retrace our route back to the hotel, pick up our bags, say goodbye to Maureen and Franco at the airport and get on the road to Olbia--a two hour drive to the east side of the island--where we will get the ferry tomorrow back to the mainland.

The drive is fine...we get to see a nice variety of Sardinian scenery--rolling hills, rugged mountains, lots of sheep--as we go from coast to coast.

Once in Olbia, we have a problem locating our hotel..a Doubletree by Hilton (we are using points to stay there.)  We can see the building but the GPS can't locate the street name and the signage is spotty.  After cruising through back streets, we finally make the right turn and arrive.

The Doubletree is a modern, American style hotel set in the middle of an undeveloped area of Olbia.   It has an eight story high atrium with an elegant bar and large lobby area.  The room is comfortable and bright, lots of electrical outlets, a spacious bathroom--we feel we are in some kind of time warp.

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We go to the restaurant which is large and empty.  There is an elegant maitre d' who is very welcoming and three other staff waiting to take care of us but we only want something quick and light which we have.

It's been a long day...the elevator takes us back to our room quickly.

Tomorrow we get the ferry to Livorno....we have had a great time in Sardinia.

Jim and Diana

Italy: Spring 2012: Saturday, May 12: Day 18: Alghero

Italy: Spring 2012: Saturday, May 12: Day 18: Alghero

Yet another beautiful morning....I take a walk before breakfast to explore all the "nooks and crannies" of the hotel grounds and to take a closer look at the Spanish tower and small lighthouse (faro) next to the hotel.

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At breakfast we discuss plans--Grotto del Nettuno, nuraghe Palmavera--for the day but it looks like this may well be a "vacation from the vacation" day.  Franco and Maureen rent a double kayak and set out for Capo Caccia, the high promontory at the head of the bay.

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A couple of hours later, they return triumphant.

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Meanwhile the "landlubbers" remain at the hotel....working, reading, quilting and periodically scanning the horizon for the kayakers.

When they return, they have a swim and we go out in search of sandwiches for lunch, which we find at a bar on the very crowded beach across the bay.  We sit in the sun and eat and then the kayakers have a rest while we get in the car and drive to Capo Caccia.

It is another stunning drive with beautiful views and steep precipices

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Dinner tonight is at an agriturismo, Sa Mandra, which is near the airport.  Our first impression is not favorable--large parking lot, big playground for kids and a wedding party--but all turns out fine.  Everyone gets the same food which is terrific and plentiful...we have lots of salume and cheeses, an excellent fregola dish (the Sardinian pasta that looks like Israeli couscous) and moist and crisp roast pig.  Franco and I enjoy the cordula....lamb intestines served with peas.  A very nice evening....

An easy drive back to the hotel....tomorrow we will have an early birthday lunch for Diana, drop off Maureen and Franco at the airport and then drive to Olbia for our ferry back to the mainland.

Jim and Diana