Wonderful Italy

Exploring Italy via our travels — places, people, things…

Italy is Still in mind!

At the moment, the Spring equinox of 2020, Italy is in lockdown amidst the throes of the world Coronavirus pandemic. We are saddened that the virus is hitting Italy so hard, while we ourselves are trying (likely not very successfully) to mitigate as best we can the same situation here in the US.

This site recounts some of our experiences in Italy, starting in 2007. More recently, in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 we enjoyed walking long-distance pilgrimage routes: The Via Francigena from Switzerland, ending at Rome, and also two routes traversed by St. Francis, parts of the Via di Francesco. Stories and photos from those excursions are coming soon. kc


February 6, 2019 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Italy in Mind

We haven’t posted here in some time.  This does not mean Italy is out of mind — in fact, as we plan for a next trip I wanted to share some recent thoughts and a reading tip. Pompeii, with its “window to the ancient Roman world” quality, is high on my list for a return visit in 2010.  There’s a grand new book for the general but serious reader,  The Fires of Vesuvius:  Pompeii Lost and Found by Mary Beard, a Don at Cambridge University (Belknap Press/Harvard U. Press, 2008, 360 pp).  A review in the New York Times (15 March 2009) captures the book’s tone thusly:  “Beard…takes cheeky, undisguised delight in puncturing the many fantasies and misconceptions that have grown up around Pompeii.”

Adding this book to “must read” prior to a visit, I’d now recommend reading this book (which itself has a great, concise set of tips for a visit on pp. 314-16), then Robert Harris’ novel Pompeii, then visiting Pompeii, and finally, going to see the amazing Pompeii materials in the Archaeological Museum in nearby Naples.   See my entry on Pompeii for a bit more in the way of tips.    Buon Viaggio!

P.S.  Mary Beard (the Cambridge Don) has many publications, but another readable and recent item I’m now enjoying is her The Roman Triumph (Harvard, 2007, 434 pp).  This broad exploration of Roman society and its influence takes as its focus the ceremonial spectacle, the “triumph”  (a central part of which was a grand march through Rome with the spoils of war, captives, etc).  She manages, as in Fires of Vesuvius, to draw together an amazingly interesting trove of information and connections, all ramifying from or to the concept of Triumph.

January 30, 2010 Posted by | Art and the Arts, Exploring Italy, Language and Culture | 1 Comment

The Palio of Siena

On July 2, 2007 we experienced the Palio! This exuberant pageant, centuries ancient and pitting the 17 Contrade of Siena against each other in a 90 second dash of a horse race in the Piazza del Campo, cannot be caught in a few paragraphs. For us, being in Siena for this event felt dream-like, since we’ve wanted to go for many years and one of Keith’s graduate school advisors had written a book on the topic decades back.

The Palio is really just a culmination of a full year’s worth of events among Contradioli, members of the district guilds of the town. There are street dinners and other festive events after the race each year, but before long the Contrade begin planning for next year. Costumes might be redesigned, strategies for the race planned, jockeys one might hire discussed. Fund-raising meals, sales and auctions are held. In April, young drummers and flag teams begin training and the echoing of drums is heard throughout Siena’s narrow cobbled streets. In May a ceremonial lottery determines which Contrade will take part, for the circuit can only accommodate ten riders and jockeys — seven won’t run. Streets bedecked with elaborately painted lights and guild flags become the norm in June, for the race is now just weeks away.

Finally, in the last few days of on June, Siena is given over. Many central streets are blocked, the huge Chianina white oxen to tow the ceremonial cart bearing the Palio banner are stabled right off the main square, race horses are sequestered lest some treachery befall them, and trial runs are staged in the Piazza. The square itself is transformed, into a race course set off by stout wooden rails, lined with packed sand, surrounded by steeply tiered bleachers. The glitterati of Siena will look down on the spectacle from the balconies of the elaborate palazzi that surround Campo, each balcony now featuring hanging banners of various colors.

Luckily, our apartment was only a five minute walk from Campo, so we could make our way to the plaza around 2pm and still hope to find standing room. We knew that once inside the inner ring we would not be able to leave until the race was over around 8pm, so we took water and snacks, reading material, our hiking binoculars, and some picnic cloths to sit on. Time passed. Families from Belgium, South Africa and France were near us, as were many Italians. Soon the crowds thickened to standing room only, a sea of people such as we’d never experienced. About 5pm the slow paced Palio procession entered the piazza and made a circuit – a two hour process. The various entities processing included town, regional and state dignitaries, representatives of all the medieval guilds, delegates from towns that had come to Siena’s aid in the battle of Montaperti (1260 A.D. — info at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Montaperti ), contrada no longer in existence, the seven that would not be racing, and finally the ten horses and riders competing today. Good thing we brought snacks!

After about ten efforts to line up the impatient horses and three false starts, the race began. Two horses fell on the first turn, the jockeys unhurt and the horses running with the pack. Two laps, then three, 90 seconds gone, and the winner was……well, the initial call was the Pantera (Panther) district, but after a minute or two of confusion, its flag was pulled back into the Palazzo Publico and out came the flag for Oca (Goose) — disappointed Pantera fans stopped running around the race course and were replaced by Ocaioli – members of the Goose district. It was a jubulent time, a great time to belong to the Oca Contrada. We made our way home, but the city of Siena was up almost all night with drums, bells ringing (even at 2:30 a.m.), celebrating in the streets, and with hundreds of Sienese donning Oca green and yellow scarves if they had any connection to this Contrada. For the next few days it seemed ever third person in Siena, down to infants being pushed in prams, wore the Oca scarf.

The Palio has been the subject of dozens of books and hundreds of other publications — a couple of these include Alan Dundes’ and Alessandro Falassi’s La Terra in Piazza: An Interpretation of the Palio of Siena (Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 1975) and Mauro Civai and Enrico Toti’s Palio: The Race of the Soul (Siena, Edizioni AL.SA.BA, 2002).

December 10, 2007 Posted by | About Tuscany, Language and Culture, Siena | , , , | Leave a comment


May 26, 2007

Pompeii, a place Anne and I had visited separately many decades before, felt as if it might disappoint us. Coming back is always uncertain – will the good memories prove to have been inflated? Especially so when you were just twenty years old the last visit, or in Anne’s case, a young teenager. However, there need be no fears with Pompeii, we discovered, as it is one of those places that is better than one remembers.

I think one reason this is so is the sheer drama of its demise. Over two mornings in August, 79 A.D., the thriving resort town of Pompeii just near the stunning bay of Naples was first showered by light ash and pumice from conical Mt. Vesuvius some five miles away. Then came successively heavier rock, and then searing flows of hot, poisonous gas. When it was over, the city was dead, buried under some 12-15 feet of volcanic debris which had collapsed roofs and crushed every living thing. When the smoke and haze finally cleared, Vesuvius was found to have literally blown its top. The top of the cone was gone, the summit now more gently sloped, not unlike Mt. St. Helens in Washington state’s southern Cascades.

For reasons I’ve not understood, Pompeii lay largely unplundered and eventually forgotten for some 1700 years. A chance discovery of pieces of inscribed marble led to some probing and the town was gradually excavated beginning in the 1800’s. It is still partially un-excavated and work is ongoing. The hollow pockets found in the ash layers were mysteries until about 1880, when the chief archaeologist realized these were imprints left by human bodies. He ingeniously poured plaster into the cavities, then carefully chipped away the ash and rock to reveal grisly statues of people as they lay trapped in the eruption. These famous plaster casts of humans and animals caught in their last agony are a moving part of this horrific, unforgettable drama: huddled against the hot rain and gasses suffocating them one sees a mother and child lying together, hands stretched toward each other; a man sitting upright hugging his knees to his chest; a pregnant woman lying face down, arms extended.

More positively, Pompeii, despite its sudden death, lives hauntingly to tell its story to us today. We empathize with the people of Pompeii. We imagine their dilemma as the mountain threatened them – flee and leave everything behind, or huddle at home and hope for the best? The best did not come, unfortunately. Today, their recovered household goods in Naples’ Archaeological Museum show that they lived amazingly like we do – they cooked in frying pans that look as if they’d come from a kitchen store in Ashland, drained food in colanders that are like ours, had small painted pictures of loved ones sitting (as do our photos) on dressers, enjoyed nice necklaces and earrings, drank wine from hand blown glasses not unlike ours in shape, and (like us too) frequented some 90 restaurants and fast food places fitted out with marble countertops.

As one wanders the streets of the town the audio guide comments on some of the finer houses. Only some of these can be entered (the rest have chained metal grills blocking entry, although the atriums and gardens are sometimes visible from the street) and I found myself pleased to get to see the “backstage” places the wealthier residents enjoyed. As in most of the Mediterranean, walls out front secluded the living areas and open gardens and fountains, making these houses real places of reguge and comfort. Not unlike our own lives, where the well-off have larger houses, gates, swimming pools, and privacy. Anyway, two other thoughts on this: the owners of these places and even their names, are mostly unknown today. Houses instead are called after some feature found there, as in the bronze dancing Faun found in one house, an utterly magical sculpture now in the Naples Archaeological Museum. Another precious sculpture in marble that lent its name to a house is Bikini’d Venus! See the photo of this small marble statue with a costume painted in gold leaf — sure enough, a bikini in 79 A.D. Imagine that in 2000 years your house is unearthed, your names and your lives are unknown, but your house is named by future archaeologists after some item in it — house of the big pink sofa! I doubt the Pompeiians are happy about this!

Anyway, this was a magnificent day, one in which we feel we made a start at understanding this intriguing town and its past. There were lots of other visitors there, but it’s a huge place and it is quite easy to escape the crowds and find quiet places to sit and ponder, eat one’s sack lunch, read, or listen to the audio guide.

Tips for visiting Pompeii:
a) Allow a full day, early morning til closing time (they open about 8am, close at 7:30pm in summer). There are frequent busses from the port of Napoli (30 minutes, about 2.30 Euros one way), as well as the Circumvesuviano train from Garibaldi station.

b) Rent the audio guide (E10 for two of them), one for each person – extremely well done, this not only describes individual buildings, villas, etc but has general sections on history, the eruption, extracts from plays performed in the Pompeii theater, etc. Superb.

c) Bring sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat, wear shorts and very comfortable shoes (we both wore comfortable jogging shoes with good soles). Take lots of water (at least a liter a person). We brought a sack lunch too, and snacks and fruit. There is a single modern snack bar with public restrooms, but it is the only one in the large area of Pompeii. It sells sandwiches and snack foods, coffee and other drinks, and has a hot food cafeteria. Except for the coffee, it has fairly high prices.

d) DO go all the way over to the Amphitheater and work your way back. Its grassy interior is a good resting place too.

e) Although most tourists congregate closer to the snack bar area, the main street heading east toward the Amphitheater has some of the best preserved parts of town, including many painted political slogans and some parts of two storey buildings. Just north of this street is a large as-yet unexcavated area, so the building fronts you walk past are cleared but the buildings themselves are still filled with 15 feet deep volcanic rubble. A great contrast to the more fully excavated parts of the town.

f) Enjoy one of the icy fruit drinks available at the Marina gate upon exiting

Finally, to get the most out of this incredible town and its history, you might wish to think of your visit as having three parts, best savored in this order:

* A day-long visit to Pompeii itself
* A 3-hour visit to the Archaeological Museum in Naples the next day (all the “stuff” found at Pompeii is there and is very impressive)
* Reading Pompeii, the novel by Robert Harris (2003), soon afterward. Having just been there, you’ll find that this “good read” captures the last few days of the city, taking you to familiar places you’ve just walked in, but as it was 2000 years ago just before life and the city was snuffed out.

The story, and it is a good one, not just history, is told through the eyes of the aqueduct chief engineer, who discovers sulfur in the water supplies of Naples and has to go to Pompeii to try to figure out and fix the problem.  Its a bit of a mystery and page-turner, definitely to be enjoyed.

June 11, 2007 Posted by | Art and the Arts, Exploring Italy, Language and Culture | 2 Comments

The Bay of Naples

The Bay of Naples

25-27 May, 2007

The map of Italy shows Naples on its crescent shaped bay far below Rome – the mystified “south” of Italy, home of the Mafia and other gangs, origin of immigrant hoards pouring into New York city last century and before. A poorer part of elegant Italy, and perhaps more dangerous. But this other world is easily accessible, and we did not find it threatening. It was surprising to discover that the fast Eurostar train from Florence can reach Naples in under three hours, and even the regional lines from Siena don’t take much longer.

Our three-day excursion to Naples and to explore Pompeii was planned for this weekend free of program activities. The students had scattered to their own travels and we walked early Friday morning to Siena’s train station, caught the bus to Chiusi station, then the train to Rome and, after a short wait, the one to Naples. The trip from Siena to Chiusi cuts diagonally SE across Tuscany, giving good views of the rolling wheat-sown countryside and some of the hill towns: Rappolano Terme and Asciano among them. Chiusi itself, with a hill-top ancient center and modern suburbs around, was once the Etruscan capital of central Italy and many elaborate tombs can be visited. We were just changing trains, so we spent our 45 minutes wandering around the station area and ate lunch in a park.

On to Rome by train (pretty views of the mountains to the west), taking under two hours. After a change at Rome’s amazingly bustling Termini station (felt like the train hub of the world), the Naples leg of the trip was in compartmented cars, the old fashioned style seen in the movies. We shared our compartment with a young woman from Sardinia and a man and his 9 year old son from south of Naples. Though we did not talk much with either, it was interesting to hear the woman speaking the Sardinian language on her cell phone.

We’d booked a room at the Bella Capri, right at the port of Naples near where ferries depart for Capri and cruise ships berth. While it took a bit of effort to find this nearly hidden hotel which occupies the 7th and 8th floor of an office building on a gritty street, inside we were in a pleasant, modest haven. Our double room had a small balcony and a view (looking to the side) of the port. The better rooms, already taken, face straight out with splendid port views – something we will try for next time. Breakfasts, of croissants, cereal, fruit and coffee or tea, were served in a sunny, colorful common room on the floor above, which housed a hostel. We met one couple from Ireland and it was clear that younger people from all over the world were staying here, a pleasant space with dorm style rooms, couches and three computers with flat panel screens for using the internet, and information about hostels all over Europe and the Mediterranean.

Of course we spent little time in the hotel, since we’d come to explore Napoli and to have a full day at Pompeii. Our hotel was near the university and ancient city area, and Friday afternoon we enjoyed walking its crooked, narrow streets hung with laundry. Though grimy and gritty, Napoli in this area (near the church of Santa Chiara and Piazzeta Nilo) felt safe for walking and we gradually relaxed and enjoyed this lively and truly ancient place. Our destination was the famed Archaeological Museum, which houses most of the movable items excavated from Pompeii – household items, sculptures, and even wall frescoes and floor mosaics. There is a “secret room” (appointment only) displaying the best of the erotic art and artifacts from Pompeii – well worth a visit. Our two hours here were a key element in enjoying Pompeii tomorrow.

We also managed to walk along the port and waterfront north and west, climbing the hill behind the “Castle of the Egg” for grand views of the bay, and discovering the pleasantly upscale Via Chiaia area. Napoli, a city with ancient Greek and pre-Greek roots, is a place whose past lies below, its ambiance seeping out all over, but whose exuberant present is lived out and about in its streets and piazzas.

Having studied Italian for some time now, we were interested to hear how different is the Napolitano version of the language. So much so that as we sat at a street side restaurant our first night we could overhear the conversation of the four people at the table next to us, we had to ask ourselves if it was really Italian. It was Neapolitan, the language of Naples – a version of Italian, but distant enough that we could not understand more than a word here or there. Our Italian colleagues here in Siena tell us they cannot understand it either.

What is interesting is to reflect on the fact that ALL of Italy is this way. Standard Italian is spoken on television and is the language of politics and academia. But at home, in restaurants and at work, people speak their own strongly marked dialects with each other: Siena and Florence, just 40 miles apart, have different dialects; that of the Venice area, Sicilian, and so forth. These dialects are more than merely accents, involving intonation, vocabulary, localized terms not used in other places – all amounting to a local language. Italians often switch to standard Italian when speaking to foreigners or to those from other parts of Italy.

This was the case for the Sardinian woman in our train compartment – she made one phone call to someone apparently not from Sardinia – I could understand most of what she was saying in Italian. The next call was probably to her home: I heard a staccato set of sounds, intonation different from Italian, the words not comprehensible. I’d not have known it was Sardinian if she’d not told us where she was from, but it was pleasantly different from standard Italian and none of it was comprehensible to us.

June 11, 2007 Posted by | Art and the Arts, Exploring Italy, Language and Culture | 2 Comments

Rome and its Ancient Port, Ostia Antica

Program Excursion May 31-June 3, 2007 – kc

This past weekend we made a four-day trip to Rome, an excursion by bus for the entire program group (43 students plus one of their sisters, one of their mothers, Anne and me, Claudia and Pergiacomo).

Of note on this trip:

  • Rome’s crazy, noisy, grubby, hectic multi-lingual “in-your-face” presence
  • The impressive ruins of Ostia Antica, the capitol’s ancient port city
  • Walking by a small store and noticing it had a Roman temple on its side
  • Hare Krishna dancers, pan-demonium and pan-deoism
  • A “Punch and Judy” puppet show for kids show going on in a park
  • Discovering several quiet refuges from Rome’s otherwise intense crowds

Urban Throb
Rome is an intense place in late spring and summer. The traffic noise is famous, the hubbub of life exuberant. As we crossed the city on foot several times, Pergiacomo, our art historian, told me with a slight cynical tone, “I think I am the only Italian in this city…” — we were hearing many different languages passing us by, but not much Italian. The Trevi fountain is being loved to death, thronged to overflowing at most hours, a standing room only place. Thousands of digital photos taken, coins thrown, and roses (thrust into hands by clever vendors) refused. A few still come here to take wedding photos, though how they can avoid having strangers in their pictures is not clear. For Anne and me Trevi fountain was endurable for only five minutes, though our students report it is beautiful and deserted at 2 A.M! Piazza Navona was not much different, nor the Pantheon; the line to go through the metal detector and then enter Saint Peter’s stretches for a quarter mile, for the Vatican Museums even longer. Somehow it is still enthralling, but to be savored in small doses, not in large groups, and surely with enough quiet time to discover the smaller surprises.

Ostia Antica
Rome depended on control of the seas for its dominance, and its economic survival. Grain, oil, timber, and the stone that built the capital traveled by barge up the Tiber (Tevere) river from Ostia, Rome’s bustling commercial port city on the Mediterranean. Ostia flourished from about 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. It was in decline for the last several hundred years, as the Tiber changed course away from it, as silting put the sea further away, and as malaria made it an unhealthy place. Unlike Pompeii, Ostia was not overtaken by a sudden calamity – it faded away. And then it was plundered, its marble recycled to be used elsewhere, leaving the brickwork tracing the structure of the city, as it still is today after the detritus of 1500 years was excavated away. While it lacks the drama of Pompeii, with its tragic sudden destruction, Ostia makes a feasible and far more tranquil alternative, especially as it has grass and trees and perhaps a thousandth of the visitors who go to Pompeii.

The photos capture some of the flavor of this city which flourished for over a thousand years (click at top right below our photo, where it says PHOTO SETS).

Temple in the side of a store
Dozens of examples of new-upon-old exist in Rome and throughout the Mediterranean rim. But one wonderful and unnoticed example struck me. On the route from the ancient pedestrian bridge over the Tiber, Ponte Sisto, to the piazza called Campo de’ Fiori, Anne and I skirted down a narrow lane with a small storefront on the corner, grimy with Rome’s urban polish. As we walked down the lane I noticed with surprise that the side of this nondescript structure was in fact an old Roman temple, complete with carved marble columns set on bases about 18” above the cobbled road, and with capitals at the top. The intervening spaces were filled in with masonry made of brick and rubble, and the building served a simple commercial purpose today. But embedded in it is a temple that no doubt served one of the ancient “pagan” gods of Rome. Which god or goddess? Perhaps Baedeker knows.

Punch and Judy on the Janiculum Hill
After the crowds at St. Peter’s, Anne and I found an escape, walking to the Janiculum hill near the Trastevere area of Rome. We discovered a place where ordinary Romans go on a Sunday afternoon. Young lovers cuddling against the wall with an extraordinary view out over the city, people walking dogs, and a quiet café with an outdoor terrace and view over the city. We sat here, enjoying the view while we sipped Campari and soda and savored the snacks that accompany aperitifs in Italy. At the top near the equestrian monument to Italy’s famed 19th C. freedom-fighter, Garibaldi, we encountered a Punch and Judy puppet show in full swing. Fascinated kids sat in tiny chairs reserved for them in front, protective parents behind. For photos, click link at top right of this page.

For more info on Punch and Judy and this tradition’s ancient Italian roots (as Pulcinella), see: “Punch and Judy.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 6 Jun 2007, 07:52 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Jun 2007


Hare Krishna at the Pantheon
The Pantheon, the domed temple designed by Marcus Agrippa and built about 30 BC (later destroyed, but rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian using Agrippa’s design in about 125 BC) is Rome’s best preserved ancient building. Agrippa, consul for a third time in 27 BC, designed this temple to commemorate Rome’s victory at the battle of Actium four years before. The temple honoring all of Rome’s gods, goddesses and cults originally had bronze and marble statues of them in its many interior niches, as well as an ornate bronze ceiling lining. Virtually all of the bronze except the massive doors, the largest ancient doors remaining in Rome, has been removed, most recently by the architect of St. Peters, Gian Lorenzo Bernini working under orders from Pope Urban IV — the bronze was melted to make Bernini’s huge altar canopy for St. Peters and some cannons. Despite this incalculable loss, the building is impressive, sitting today beside a small piazza with an Egyptian obelisk and fountain at its center. To its left side, the original street level can be seen, some 20 feet lower than today’s streets.

It was Saturday evening and we sat on a low wall enjoying the evening hubbub as dinners selected awning covered sidewalk cafes and younger folks sat on the fountain steps. Rome at its crazy best I suppose. Suddenly we heard drumming echoing from a narrow side street. A familiar rhythm turned out to be the chanting and singing of some 30 Hare Krishna devotees, ecstatically making their way into the square. As they drummed, danced and sang their way into a frenzy, Anne and I remarked on the juxtaposition of religious history being acted out here. On one side, the Egyptian Obelisk, 4000 years old and no doubt inscribed with an invocation to Ra or another of Egypt’s main gods. On the other side the Pantheon, dedicated with exemplary liberality to ALL of Rome’s gods and goddesses, including Mithraism and the cult of Isis among others, and with one niche left empty for the “unknown god” (that is, one still to come). Thus the name, Pan (all) – Theon (gods). And, this evening right in the middle of this scene, modern Hare Krishna dancers spreading their version of religiosity. As there should be, there is room for all, nicely presaged by the inclusive message the original Pantheon provided — leaving space for the unknown god always needs to be part of our thinking.

More on the Pantheon and Agrippa:

“Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 7 Jun 2007, 10:44 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Jun 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Marcus_Vipsanius_Agrippa&oldid=136570436>.

June 8, 2007 Posted by | Art and the Arts, Exploring Italy, Language and Culture | Leave a comment

A Wolf, a Walk and Many Wildflowers

A Wolf, a Walk and many Wildflowers

14 May 2007

Gubbio, nestled against jutting flattened conical peaks in north Umbria, was our destination this past weekend. A walled town with roots in the ancient Umbrian culture (a pre-Roman society contemporaneous with but culturally and linguistically different from the Etruscans to the west), Gubbio is an intriguing and beautiful place. To get there we took the train from Siena east to Perugia (about 3 hours with two changes), then north by bus (just over an hour). Gubbio can be traversed on foot in only 20 minutes – except it is so pretty and with nooks and crannies to explore everywhere that it is impossible just to walk across it. We had come without a hotel reservation, wanting to see our options for ourselves. After getting a map at the local information office we sat on a bench and phoned several hotels listed in our guidebook. The least expensive sounded interesting, was only two blocks away, and we immediately liked the atmosphere and the room we were shown.

We may have been the only guests at Albergo Grotta dell’Angelo (hotel “Cave of the Angel”), which is run by the extended family of Silvano Ceccini. In the course of our two days there we met the 3 year old granddaughter Anna, her aunt, her father and the grandparents. Our small, quiet double-bedded room was spotless, with a view out the window onto a lovely garden and the upper part of town, backed by mountains that pop up right behind Gubbio. The attached restaurant, one of the best and least expensive in town, does a great business and we had a nice dinner in the covered patio area that first night after a walk exploring town.

We had come here to hike the “Gubbio Double Ring Walk” from our hiking book, and spent all day Saturday doing that. We first stopped at a small deli and had them make a panino sandwich with pecorino cheese and salami (cost determined by weighing each part), picked out a few of the season’s first apricots at a fruit shop, and set out for Porta Romana (the road out this gate leads, of course, to…Rome). The start of our walk was unusual. Just outside the gate is the Funivia, a sort ski lift. But instead of seats you ride in a metal basket, which holds two people standing up, both of them hanging on tight and wondering how secure this is. The funivia goes up quickly about 1500 feet to near the chapel of Gubbio’s patron, St. Ubaldo. There are incredible views out and a coffee bar where we had one more cappuccino before setting out.

Our walk was about 12 miles in all, longish but along pretty back country roads in perfect weather with spectacular views and a seeming endless supply of wildflowers we’d never encountered before. The high Apennine peaks of Le Marche region formed a dramatic backdrop for much of the day, and coming back toward Gubbio we climbed to the top of Monte Ingino, about 900 meters and topped by rock wall ruins – an old watchtower? Looking down at Gubbio from on high, it is clear from the numerous rings of high stone walls that defending against hostile visitors was an ongoing need – nasty and brutish seems to have been the theme of the town’s long history.

Other highlights of our stay included seeing the remains of a Roman theater just outside the walls, Gubbio’s “corso” main street alive with hundreds of young people strolling and being boisterously seen on Saturday night, and sipping Campari and soda at an outdoor café while watching the locals go by. We enjoyed talking with our Kosovo-born waitress at Trattoria La Lanterna our second night about her Albanian ethnic origins and her parents having come here as refugees after the war with Serbia – asked how she like Gubbio, she smiled and said “I am here by force, not choice..,” meaning she came as a young girl with her parents, with whom she still lived. She hoped Kosovo would be able to achieve its independence (currently disputed by Serbia but supported by the US and others). She confirmed what we’d noticed on the main street that night – there are lots of young people in Gubbio. Many more than one sees in Siena.

So what about the wolf? Well, back in the 1200’s, Gubbio’s ferocious wolf used to terrorize the town and now and then gobbled up some of its citizens. Then Francis from nearby Assisi came and had a chat with it. The wolf agreed to desist in return for the townspeople leaving food out. This instance of Francis’ unique ability to talk with animals is commemorated in a life sized bronze statue depicting the wolf with its head on Francis’ lap. Little statues of the Lupo di Gubbio are available in souvenir shops.

Gubbio’s fame also comes from its odd and exuberant Festa dei Ceri, Ceri Festival, held each 15th of May (tomorrow!). A frenzy builds as this time of year approaches and dozens of members of three guilds, each dedicated to a saint, carries a tall (15 feet at least) structure looking a bit like a big wooden candlestick with the saint’s stature at the top through the town on a raft-like structure with poles, allowing the very heavy Ceri to be carried on the shoulders of about 20 people. We were a few days early for this ceremony, but a local TV station broadcast a film about last year’s event which we watched in our hotel room in fascination. The festival includes marching drum corps, priestly blessings of the three guilds that compete in racing their Ceri through town, drinking of white wine directly from large decorated urns that look as though they came from 2500 year old Umbrian tombs, and great merriment.

Before we set out on our Saturday hike, the barista at the coffee bar told us that in Gubbio people think of this Festa as equal in importance throughout Italy to Siena’s Palio horse race. She admitted with a wistful smile that of course they knew it was not quite as famous or important, but a close second! She had ready to hand a calendar to show us the important aspects of the Ceri festival. The deeper meaning eludes us and we clearly need to know more!

Two nights in Gubbio was not enough. We would like to go back again and have time to see the Roman ruins, the archaeological museum and the famous Eugubine (or Iguvine) Tables. These seven bronze plates, discovered in Gubbio in 1444 but dating from about 300 BC, are inscribed in the ancient and now extinct Umbrian language, a distant relative of Latin. They are unique in the world, no other similar description of pre-Roman, pre-Christian religion written by adherents themselves exists in Europe. In all, our Gubbio weekend let us explore an utterly charming place, one not overrun by tourists and possessing a strong sense of itself. For us, this place had both a liveliness and a feeling of serenity.

May 14, 2007 Posted by | Walks and Hikes | 1 Comment

Visiting the Contrada of Val di Montone

Visiting the Contrada of Val di Montone

May 7, 2007

Today we had a treat – the students in program director Silvia’s class were to visit one of Siena’s ancient guilds, one of its 17 Contrade, and we were joining them. A Contrada, technically one of seventeen districts of the city, is more like a city or state within this city. Every Sienese is born into a Contrada, has a secular baptism formalizing this, and grows up with loyalty to the Goose, the Tower, the Unicorn, the Porcupine, the She-Wolf, or one of the other colorfully named groups. Most friends and from one’s own Contrada, and ideally so is one’s husband or wife.

The Contrada don’t really have any equivalent in life most anywhere else in the world. They are age old, dating back to the middle ages (1200’s) at least. Back then, each Contrada supplied a military contingent to the city’s army. Each had its elected leader and council, its bylaws, colors, standards, flags, patron saint, songs, and its headquarters. Also its social hall, a museum, a church, a fountain, and a stable for the horse (more about the horse below). They still do. The headquarters and museum was what we would visit today, of the Contrada called Val di Montone, the Valley of the Ram. The ram, mountain sheep, features in all of this Contrada’s emblems.

As we walked across Siena, past the Piazza del Campo (reputed to be the ancient Roman Forum), and along the ancient “Via Francigena”, the French road that led from northern Europe to Rome and beyond and passed right through the heart of Siena, we began to see elaborate yellow and red flags and light standards mounted high on the stone buildings on either side of the narrow canyon like main street. We were in the Val di Montone district and since it is springtime and the Palio is coming, the flags were out.

Our group of over 40 students was ushered into a modern addition at the back of the Contrada’s church, Santa Maria dei Servi. As we went down the stairs to an ultra modern hall with raised dais and table where the Contrada’s leaders meet, we found ourselves sitting in an exceptional blend of old and new. Stark white curved steel supports opened this room and allowed it to be three or four stories high, lit by high windows. But the walls were ancient rock and at the rear we could see the bare “tufo” packed soil that Siena is built on – so stable that the Etruscan tombs dug into it need no reinforcing and are still used as storerooms in many parts of the city.

With Silvia translating, we heard one of Val di Montone’s leaders tell us in eloquent Italian about the history of this and the other Contrade, and of the importance of the upcoming Palio horse race slated for 2nd July, as it is each year. The Palio, its origins centuries old, is far more than a race pitting 10 of the Contrade against each other. It is, he said, a sort of mini-war in which the horses fight instead of the members of the Contrade.

We’ve not seen a Palio yet (but will this July), but it is one of Siena’s most famous features. Sienese, many of them anyway, take the race, and the medieval costumed pageant leading to it, very seriously. Winning the Palio (a cloth banner with the Virgin Mary’s image on it) is an event that is remembered for centuries – as we saw from the banner of 1806 proudly on display in Val di Montone’s museum. Tears are shed (of joy or despair depending on who wins), street feasts are held, and tales are told. In some cases, where bribery is suspected or the jockey is thought to have thrown the race, post race violence may take place.

And the horses? They are bred in the Maremma, the rural grasslands of southern Tuscany. Contrada are assigned their horse each year by lot, but then care for it as if it were sacred. It has its stall, and on an assigned day before the race, it is led into church and blessed. Getting the beasts up the stairs into the building is said to be a struggle, and its exceptionally lucky if they leave a horse mess behind.

From now until the actual running of the Palio in early July the streets of Siena will be colorful with banners and light standards lining them, making clear which district is which. There will be street banquets and dinners (some open to the public for a fee), mini-parades in costume and with flags and drums, and much practicing of the elaborate flag acrobatics and drumming that is part of the lore of each Contrada. Siena is alive now with Contrada activity, helping remind us that its ancient past is really still here, in some ways. And, importantly, the Contrada pageantry is put on by the Sienese for themselves, not for outsiders.

May 14, 2007 Posted by | Language and Culture, Siena | 1 Comment

St. Catherine of Siena

Saint Catherine of Siena

May 6, 2007

The bells of San Domenico church just sounded for their 9am ringing. This is one of Siena’s landmark churches, just a bit more than a football field’s length from our apartment, with its massive orange-red brick presence standing 6 or 7 stories tall, and the bell tower higher than that. This church dominates one entrance to the city and its bells punctuate the mornings: at 7am, 7:30 and 9:00, again at 12:00 – cheery, raucous, though no doubt there is pattern in this ringing (a “tune”) that means something, even if we cannot decipher it, except as a call to mass.

This is a church of the Domenican order (following rule of St. Benedict, 5th C and the first “order” of monks recognized by the Catholic church). Built in the 1100’s, it was probably on a site where a smaller church stood, and before that it was likely a Roman temple – this is a common pattern. In fact, Siena’s main cathedral is known to have been built over the Roman temple of Minerva which stood there – sadly, no trace remains of that temple.

In San Domenico, cavernous and immensely tall inside, is a side chapel dedicated to Saint Catherine of Siena, who died in the late 1200’s. She was born just a block or two from here, and thus San Domenico was her family’s church. Caterina Benincasa was from a middle class Sienese family, practical-minded business people in the cloth trade. But from early childhood Caterina was unusual and drawn to religious observance and visions. After much protest, her family consented and allowed her to follow a religious life. She became a Domenican “tertiary” (not a nun, a sort of lay associate of the Domenicans).

In her short life (she was not yet forty when she died, essentially starving herself to death) she visited and discussed theology with numerous popes, and worked hard to end the schism that divided the papacy between Avignon and Rome. She wrote hundreds of letters, about 370 of which survive – testament to her political action and strong and somewhat odd religious beliefs (blood was a particular fixation). Today, Catherine is patron saint of Italy (along with St. Francis) and of the entire European Union. She was reportedly the most important and powerful woman of the entire middle ages.

Some of the many miracles attributed Catherine happened in San Domenico, including her receiving the stigmata (scars and marks similar to those Jesus suffered on the cross). Her chapel at San Domenico houses relics including her head and one finger (this is Italy!), plus items such as a small whip she used on herself.

The Benincasa family house eventually had a shrine and small church built over it – but some of it is preserved, including part of the kitchen and, most moving, Catherine’s bedroom. After her religious visions began she was allowed to live in a small stone room, sleep on the floor with a rock for a pillow, and to pray day in and out. The room, decorated with a few of her things, sits screened off from the rest of the house, which has been painted with frescoes depicting main points of Catherine’s life.

This past April 29th, Catherine’s feast day was celebrated in Siena with costumed processions through town to her chapel in San Domenico. That evening we went to a gala ceremony in Siena’s main square, Piazza del Campo where throngs of onlookers watched the 17 Contrade (district guilds) march in with elaborately costumed flag and drum corps, past formations representing every branch of the military standing at attention. On the podium in front of Siena’s renowned 13th century town hall, the Cardinal and Bishop were holding up the reliquary with Catherine’s finger to bless them.

Our photos show San Domenico as viewed from our front window. Also here is the procession along the street below our bedroom window with Siena’s Bishop and Cardinal, Anne standing at the window watching things while grading papers from one of our classes here, and in no. 245, our 2nd floor apartment, which is on the corner, the window is open (just behind the flagpole) — odd to be so bound into a brick and stone urban setting, but quite in the midst of it all too, interesting new exp. for us. And several of the flags and ceremonies for Catherine in the piazza on the 29th.

May 14, 2007 Posted by | About Tuscany, Art and the Arts | 1 Comment

An Adventure in Murlo

An Adventure in Murlo

May 10, 2007

Last weekend’s adventure was to Murlo, a tiny ring of a castle-town some 20 miles south of Siena. Anne and I had plotted out a loop walk which could be done on Sunday, despite the lack of busses to the countryside. Luckily, the local rail line from Siena southwest toward Grosseto passes this mountainous area, and equally fortunate although unlikely seeming to us, the tiny abandoned station at La Befa is still a stop for several trains a day.

Two students in our study abroad program, Caroline and Alyssa, avid walkers and joggers, were interested in our country excursions and wanted to join us. We agreed to meet at Siena’s train station at noon on Sunday 6th May. We all bought round-trip tickets to La Befa (€2.70 one way) and made our way to track number two. As the 20 minute ride took us past seas of deep green wheat covering the rolling hills descending from Siena, we began to wonder if the train would actually stop at the station, or perhaps we had to let the conductor know there were passengers for a station that was virtually never used?

When we stopped at Buonconvento, the only station before ours, I hopped off the train to speak to the conductor. He assured me we would stop at La Befa in just 7 more minutes, but that we needed quickly to move to the first car in the train since the platform at La Befa was short and only those on the first car could exit. We scrambled through several cars to the front and a couple minutes later got off and stood watching our train head south.

Stazione Murlo, as the rusted barely legible sign says, consists of a weed overgrown platform and several stuccoed buildings which feel boarded up. A house with fenced yard next door had an aging dog that looked like a shaved Old English Sheepdog – with a bark so deep it was below baritone.

We walked up the tree-lined gravel road to La Befa itself, a hamlet with about a dozen houses, mostly restored old stone and brick places, charming with spring flowers. An 11th Century chapel, locked tight, had a sign saying its art works had been removed to a museum in Siena. A quarter mile east of this settlement and near the tracks are the ruins of a 1st C AD Roman villa and bath – La Befa used to be a Roman town. Except for that villa, which Anne and I explored on a walk a few years back, there are no signs of this vanished world.

Our hike began above the town, the trail (its start handily marked by an Italian Hiking Club marker) heading off into fairly wild woods following the Crevole river along the roadbed of what was once a small mining railroad. Along the route are interpretive signs in Italian describing flora, fauna and geology of this area, which has clays and rocks from the old sea floor some 160 million years ago (Cretaceous, age of dinosaurs). We were serenaded, as on almost all our Tuscan walks, by a symphony of song birds, but did not see other wildlife. Reportedly it includes foxes, weasels, hedgehogs, badgers, porcupines, three or four kinds of snakes including the poisonous viper (an “asp”!), and many smaller critters. We walked fast, a bit too fast for me to fully appreciate the many wildflowers, and made good time, coming out in about two hours to Le Miniere di Murlo, where ruins of the old mine plant tantalizingly provide no clue as to what was once mined. A twenty minute walk steeply uphill on the small road brought us to Murlo, our destination.

Murlo, a walled ring town only 150 yards in diameter, commands a view over the plains north toward Siena as well as east and south. Several small rivers diverge here, and this was a defensive fort allied to Siena in the middle ages, later became a palace for the Bishop of Siena, and most recently is a “borgo,” a tiny town. Besides its beauty and charm, what makes this a really interesting place is that before Murlo was a medieval Italian fort it was the center of a major Etruscan settlement, a connection point in a network of Etruscan trade routes that linked important centers including Chiusi, Fiesole (above Florence) and Volterra.

This was the heart of the great Etruscan high culture that dominated central Italy from the 8th to about the 1st C BCE, “before the current era.” Roman civilization borrowed freely from the Etruscans (it is thought that the first Roman kings were in fact Etruscan), who themselves were in contact with and influenced by ancient Greece. Recently, a major archaeological project excavated the hilltop just over from Murlo, uncovering the only Etruscan villa ever found substantially undisturbed. That is, its ruins were uncovered – the house and outbuildings had burned and been buried by the Etruscan inhabitants in 600 BC. The former Sienese bishop’s palace in Murlo is now a small, ultra-modern museum devoted to displaying the finds from Poggio Civitate, the name given the hill with the excavated Etruscan villa.

Among the wonderful displays are small gemstone carved sphinxes just an inch across, gold work and incised ivory or bone items of exceptional delicacy (also small), black decorated pottery plates on small pedestals or with elaborate animal or god-figure handles, reconstructions of how the villa and other buildings looked and, most exceptional, half life-size terracotta figures wearing what look like huge Mexican sombreros. Whether these were Etruscan gods, ancestor figures, or creatures from folklore is not clear, and likely will remain unknown. These enigmatic seated figures with arms crossed in lap seemed to have been mounted on the roofs of the villa.

We could not forget that we had four miles to go to get back to La Befa for our return train at 6:56 pm, especially as it was the last train of the day. Murlo’s only business, a small but excellent restaurant built into the perimeter wall and with a nice view out, had just closed for the afternoon, disappointingly. We did use their restrooms, and the great fragrances made some of us wish we could have ordered pizza. But we sat and ate our bag lunch in the tiny deserted piazza. As we did so, a man strolled by and said good day, and we began chatting. We found that this elegant white-haired retired businessman had bought and restored one of the houses built into the ring wall, after having come here from his home in Milan on vacation over a dozen years before. His wife had not wanted to leave Milan, but he moved here and now lives with a girlfriend. We were treated to a tour of his apartment, itself many centuries old and carefully restored to maintain this character, keeping the original worm-eaten (but now preserved) beams, old terra cotta floor and roof tiles, with lintels over the doors still showing hand-adzed marks. The view was superb and on a clear day he could see Siena’s towers and spires on the hill in the distance.

We turned down his generous offer to drive us part way back to La Befa, and set out on the other half of our loop hike. As it turned out, our trail took us right through the archaeological area on the next hill, the old Etruscan settlement. I was especially interested to see if any house foundations or other clues were visible. Sadly, we had to make fairly quick time if we wanted to catch our train home, so it was not possible to linger more than a few minutes. My main impression, other than a weighty feeling that I felt to be the presence of truly ancient human settlement and hundreds of generations of people living complex lives, was of low scrub oak forest canopy over tantalizingly up and down disturbed ground, lumps and hill-lets, mounds, perhaps old terraces.

What used to be here? I suspect it was mainly cleared and open 2,500 years ago, that farming of olives, grapes and grain went on in terraced hillside plots and down on the lowlands – but all I could see were lumps and bumps! Their lives, their loves, philosophies, children’s laughter and play…. all erased, or nearly so!! I’d like to go back one day and sit among them with a bag lunch and poke around a bit more.

Our winding trail home passed by deserted semi-ruined farm houses, agriturismo (bed and breakfast establishments in renovated farm houses), a small shrine to San Biagio (patron saint of sore throats), and an 11th C church now housing a “New World” spiritual retreat center, before arriving back at La Befa almost where our outbound trail started. We were an hour early! This cluster of houses has one commercial establishment, a small coffee bar. No coffee back when the Etruscans and Romans farmed here. Wonder what stimulant they drank, if any?

For our part, we had coffee and snacks, served us by two Nigerian women who told me the pleasant sounding language they were speaking was Eddo, one of Nigeria’s many tribal languages. Finding it a bit mysterious to encounter Nigerians working in a coffee bar, especially in a town that is far removed from anywhere, we continued down the gravel road to the Murlo/La Befa station. The baritone dog barked listlessly a few times, but there was still no sign of any people in this out of the way place.

Our joke, as we waited for our train, was a) will it really come? and b) will it actually stop? We heard it coming and, playfully, Anne, Caroline and Alyssa put out thumbs in hitchhiking mode as the three-car train rounded the curve and pulled up — I snapped a photo. This tiny but ultra modern train that plies the Grosseto-Siena-Florence route took us in comfort back to Siena’s station, just 23 minutes from the wild, exotic and ancient Etruscan/Roman world of these canopied woodlands near the Crevole and Ombrone rivers.

May 14, 2007 Posted by | About Tuscany, Walks and Hikes | 2 Comments