Monday, April 20, 2009

Weekend in Venice

This weekend, we went to Venice to meet my parents, who were there after my mom's big birthday. On Friday, we took the train from Florence, met my parents at the train station and immediately started the sightseeing by taking the vaporetto (water bus) along the Grand Canal to our hotel. We were lucky to get seats outside in front, and the weather on our arrival was fantastic, so the parade of palazzi along the canal was spectacular. After arriving at the hotel, we quickly dropped off our luggage and then walked back to the Piazza San Marco, where the evening light made everything look even more picturesque than it already is. We took the elevator up to the campanile on the piazza, from which we had a great view over the city. At 7, one of the bells started ringing, which was unexpected and quite loud! Finally, we walked further west, looking for a restaurant. Unfortunately, the one we had chosen from our guide was closed, and most other places were already full, so we ended up in a touristy restaurant, which was however better than expected.

The next day, we took a vaporetto back to Piazza San Marco again, and went to the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's palace). This was quite impressive in the abundance of monumental paintings by Tintoretto, Veronese, and others, as well as for the insights into Venetian buerocracy. I guess now we understand that Italian buerocracy has a long tradition... Afterwards, we went into the Basilica San Marco next door, which was overwhelming with all its gold mosaics. Maybe less is more in this respect. Then we made our way over the Rialto bridge to the Ca' Pesaro for a rest from all the old and religious art we've been seeing the last few months to go to the Museum of Modern Art and the Oriental Art Museum. From there, we slowly made our way back south and crossed over to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, from which we had a good panoramic view to Piazza San Marco and the buildings on the main island. Finally, we went to dinner at La Zucca, a good restaurant in a quiet area near the Rialto bridge, which I can recommend (but make reservations!).
On Sunday, the weather was more overcast, cooler, and it rained lightly at times. Nevertheless, we started out in the former Jewish ghetto, then took the usual combination of vaporetto and walking to the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, where the attractions include some giant stone funerary monuments, as well as two famous Titian paintings, and the tomb of Claudio Monteverdi. Finally in the late afternoon, it was time to pick up our luggage and return to the train station, from which we took the Eurostar back to Florence.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Easter trip - Day 4 - Massa Marittima, San Galgano, and back to Florence

After packing up the tent, we drove back to Florence today. However, we didn't take the fast, direct route, but stopped at a couple of places on the way. The first stop was Massa Marittima, a hilltop city (nothing maritime about it...) with a gorgeous Romanesque cathedral. We briefly walked around the city, then drove onward through the countryside along some quite windy roads to the former abbey of San Galgano. This abbey was abandoned in the 18th century, and nowadays only the walls remain, making it an interesting place to explore. Nearby is the Montesiepi chapel on the place where San Galgano built a hermit hut and rammed his sword into the stone in his rejection of war (you can still see the sword in the stone).
By this time we were quite hungry, so we stopped nearby for lunch in a restaurant located in a hilltop castle. It was a bit expensive after our economic camping trip, but the scenery, view and good food justified the expense. Finally we bypassed Siena and took another curvy road through the Chianti, stopping in Greve in Chianti to visit the Antica Macelleria Falorni, a fabulous butcher's shop where you can get all kinds of salami, prosciutto, cheese, etc. as well as the largest wine shop in the Chianti. From there it was only a short trip back to Florence, with some mad traffic as we crossed town back to our apartment.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter trip - Day 3 - Pitigliano, Sovana and Saturnia

Another day, another day trip from our camping location on the coast. Today we drove into the interior to visit a series of hilltop towns and Etruscan sites. First stop was Pitigliano, sitting atop of tufa rock, and quite a good photo op. After finding a parking space (good thing our rental car was a tiny Citroen C1!), we walked across a small bridge into the historical center. There's not too much of interest in the actual town, except to wander around and take in the alleys and dead ends. There's a small Ghetto quarter (the town used to have a significant Jewish community), though we didn't tour that since there was an admission fee, but we did pick up a stick of sfratto, a large honey, nut and wine bar surrounded by some hard dough.
Our next stop was Sovana, just a few kilometers down the road. This town basically consists of one street, but it's a pretty one. Our first stop was actually a sandwich and wine shop for lunch, where I got a panino with wild boar mortadella, and Kristen one with cheese (a huge serving of cheese... pecorino, of course). We then wandered through this small town, with the highlights being a 9th century ciborium in the Chiesa di Santa Maria, and the Romanesque cathedral on the edge of town.
A little further, we stopped for the Necropoli di Sovana, a series of Etruscan tombs and vie cave, walkways carved into the soft rock. It was quite impressive to see the ruins of this ancient civilization (older even than most things in Germany). Even though erosion and decay has taken its toll on the structures, you can still some of the detail and decorations of the stone carving.
Finally, our last stop was the Roman town of Saturnia, or rather, the hot sulphurous stream outside of town. We decided to skip the fancy spa and hot springs and go for the free Cascate del Gorello. We passed it the first time, but were then able to see the pools and waterfall from an overlook on the road, and then realized why there had been so many cars in that field. Apparently, this is quite a popular destination for Italians to come to. Of course, while we arrived in our T shirts and bathing gear, the Italians were decked out in their bath robes. We both enjoyed the hot water and massage from the water flowing between the pools (a coveted spot), and Kristen also enjoyed (???) the bathing fashion of the Italian men.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter trip - Day 2 - Maremma and Monte Argentario

Today was our hiking day in the Parco Naturale della Maremma. We got to the parking lot of the visitor center where we were to catch a shuttle bus into the park and saw row after row of campmobiles. Luckily, many of the people seemed to be more interested in biking to the beach or packing out their tables and having a relaxed lunch than in actually hiking in the park. After thorough consultation with Kristen, we decided on an itinerary to the remains of two old watchtowers and down to the beach. It was quite warm in the sun, but also quite hazy, so the views weren't the best, but the landscape was nevertheless quite beautiful. Very mediterranean, with some olive groves, shrubbery, and rosemary bushes growing on the trailside. We had lunch on the beach, then hiked back to the bus stop.
After getting back to the visitor center, it was still quite early, so we drove down the coast to Monte Argentario, a former island that's now connected to the mainland by some land bridges. This is apparently a popular vacation spot for rich Romans, and it did appear to be that way, at least judging from the houses and villas on display. We simply did a turn around the island on the Via panoramica before heading back to the campground.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter trip - Day 1 - Volterra and beyond

Springtime in Tuscany is a perfect time for exploring the area -- it's green and in bloom, usually warm and sunny, but not yet unbearably hot as in summer. So we decided to take advantage of the Easter weekend and rent a car to go to the southern part of Tuscany, which isn't easily reachable in day trips. We also decided to give camping a try, since it's the most economical way of spending the night.
We started out Saturday by driving to Volterra, not quite in southern Tuscany, but on the way. We wanted to see the old town center here, as well as the Etruscan artifacts. After finding a parking spot (not so easy, and we paid some Red Cross people for it, though I don't know if we actually needed to), we started by walking by the Medici fortress (nowadays a jail) and through a pleasant park into the town center. After a quick visit to the Roman amphitheater on the edge of town, we went to the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum, which has an overabundance of Etruscan art -- for example, some 600 funerary urns. Some of the rooms were filled floor to ceiling with pottery, which I would call the exhaustive, or 'variations on a theme' style of curating museums. Kristen was quite pleased to be able to see some of the works she had been studying.
After a quick look inside the cathedral and adjacent baptistry, we then headed off towards the coast, stopping twice to buy some supplies which we had forgotten we needed. At around 6 pm, we were still at least an hour's drive away from our destination, so we thought we'd look for a campground a bit further north for this night and then drive the rest of the way the next day. However, the campgrounds we found were not yet open for the season, though we did see some scenic hilltop towns on the way. In the end, we just drove the rest of the way and got to the Voltoncino Camping Village just when it was starting to get dark. We'll talk about camping in Italy some other time... Since Kristen had put so much effort into finding camping fuel back in Florence, we cooked our dinner of pasta with pesto and then engaged in the popular camping activity of sleeping.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n!

The concerts keep coming... Tuesday we went to see Mahler's Symphony No. 2 at Teatro Comunale with Zubin Mehta conducting. If you haven't heard this piece, do yourself a favor and get a good recording (I have the Gilbert Kaplan with the Vienna Philharmonic, but I've heard very good things about the Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic as well), and cuddle up in front of your stereo for some 90 minutes. Maybe you should tell the neighbors, because this thing gets loud! (While we're promoting things, if you're at all interested in "classical" music from Mahler up until today, or if you're wondering why you should be, get a copy of Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century)
In any case, hearing the symphony live is of course an experience all by itself, considering the forces required. There were some intonation issues at times (not surprising when you have 10 horn players...), and the pacing was sometimes a little shaky, but these are minor grievances. I was a little disappointed in the alto solo by Marjana Lipovšek in the 4th movement (Urlicht), who sang this beautiful song a little too plainly for my tastes. Kudos to the choir, who delivered an excellent performance, especially in the hushed passages when they first came in (and to the audience for not coughing too much at this special moment). We're now looking forward to seeing the orchestra again in the production of Götterdämmerung in May as part of the Maggio Musicale festival.