Sunday, October 11, 2015

2015 Italy Trip, Day Eight, Nine and Ten – Milan, Italy

When first planning the trip Milan was primarily the arrival and departure city. The first draft schedule had us arriving in the city of 1.3 million (5+ million including the suburbs) the day prior to our departing flight, taking a few sites and then leaving the next morning. The Milan 2015 Expo and the da Vinci’s Last Supper changed those plans. 

Milan is a modern city with a modern business district with skyscrapers. Like other European cities, Milan has two city centers....the old historic central city and the modern business district many miles away from the old central city. 

Given all that is being done to preserve what remains of this classic artistic work, it is not easy to get in to see Da Vinci’s work on the wall of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie. Viewings take place in 15 minute blocks with no more than 25 people per group. Walk-up tickets are hard to secure…such as when a scheduled person does not arrive on time. Tickets are best secured 4 to 6 months ahead. As we had done so our day was scheduled around our afternoon viewing time.

The work is in poor shape due to the techniques and paint da Vinci used, moisture in the wall from an underground stream and the fluctuations of weather as the mural is painted on an exterior wall. Over the centuries work has been done to repair the painting….including special cleanings and repeated touching up of the paint. Today, after extensive restoration work to remove all the touch up paint layers, we have only about 45% of the original left, but what remains is still impresses. The symbolisms, the subtle messages in the position of the bodies, hands, feet and facial expressions are powerful. The original must have been stunning (the picture of the Last Supper is not mine as taking pictures of it is prohibited). We have a good idea of what the original looked like as Giovanni Rizzoli under the supervision of da Vinci painted on canvas a full scale copy. Rizzoli's copy is on display in London England at the Royal Academy of Arts.

After viewing the Last Supper we visited the grounds of the Sforza Castle which was on the way back to our apartment. The castle first built in the 1300s was added onto the expanded throughout the centuries into a huge fortress. The castle is so vast that it houses nine different art collections and museums as well as a rare book library. As it was late in the day we didn’t have sufficient time before closing to do any of the collections. Visiting the collections and museums would be left to another day.  

On the second day we headed to the Milan Expo for the day. Arriving as the gates open we found that long lines were already forming at the pavilions. Long lines from the outset of the day are inevitable as the pavilions don’t open until an hour after the gates open. The Milan Expo is designed with the pavilions flanking one main street. Though we visited several pavilions, as the morning progressed the lines became longer. By 12:30 we took a break for lunch and had difficulty finding any place to sit…all the lunch lines were about a half hour long.

After lunch we looked cueing up for the Italian pavilion but with a 2.5+ hour line we changed our minds. With other lines becoming well more than hour long, and the central street a mass of people moving slowly along together, by 2:30 we decided it was time for us to leave. The Milan Expo was such a disappointment that we both agree that we are not likely to visit another Expo in the future.    

On the way to the Milan Duomo early Sunday morning we walked around Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II. Built in the 1860s and 1870s this covered shopping mall is one of the oldest malls still operating. With glass vaulted ceilings, decorative stone work and stone flooring, the Galleria is well worth viewing.

The Duomo (Cathedral) which dominates that area of the city is too ornate and gaudy for my taste. To say it is grand and elaborate would be an understatement. The Cathedral is located in an older part of the city and well removed from the modern skyscrapers of the modern business district. The Duomo is the 5th largest church in the world and took nearly 700 years to build it (started in 1386 and was completed in 1865). Its stonework is currently undergoing needed cleaning to restore it back to its glistening white condition.  Its many roof is adorned with such a multitude of spires that a trip to the roof is now an attraction that can be accessed for a price. Once on the roof, one has a wonderful unobstructed view of that area of the city.

As we were visiting on a Sunday, we elected to take in one of the several worship services taking place over the course of the morning. While not anywhere close to the nature of St. Mark’s in Venice, the interior d├ęcor and artwork is rich. The space is expansive with marble floors, high vaulted ceilings and multistory stone colonnades.

We spent the end of the day relaxing, walking around our area of the city and having dinner before returning to our apartment to prepare for our journey home.

While flying into Milan passing through customs and immigration was efficient, our departure process was different. We had to do high amount of walking to get from the train terminal to immigration control, and a long walk from immigration control the airline’s check-in in, then another long walk to security and then a long walk to the gate. Our total walk time was about a half hour, excluding the time waiting in line. Arriving at the airport at least two hours before one’s Milan flight is definitely advised for Milan, and when you arrive at the aircraft gate be prepared to find seating for less than a quarter of the passengers.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

2015 Italy Trip, Day Six and Seven – Verona, Italy

Leaving Venice mid morning we arrived little more than an hour later in Verona, the second city on our list as a potential base and home.

With the train station about a 10 minute walk to Piazza Bra, we decided to walk even though the skies threatened rain showers. Unfortunately, we took the wrong exit from the station, extending the distance and time to get to our apartment. Just past the halfway point we were getting wet in the rain. Our travel jackets and hair getting more soaked by the minute. Coming across a restaurant we stopped for lunch and hope the rain would pass…not only were the staff most helpful and understanding but the meal was absolutely delightful. By the time we finished lunch the rain had ended and we had dried out.

Our apartment was a minute’s walk from Piazza Bra well within the early medieval city and on the edge of the Roman city. The city has evidence of three fortresses and walls…the Roman walls, the early medieval city and the thick late medieval city walls. Today the late medieval broad walls with its fortresses that were designed to resist cannon shells have been turned into a parkway that runs from the river on the east side to the river on the west (the old city sits inside a “U” in the Adige River).  

Like Parma, Verona is in the lush agricultural Po Valley. Serving as the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and The Taming of the Screw, Verona has a population of just over 265,000 (725,000 people in the greater region). The northern Italy city has long been a transportation hub that today is on the main rail line between Venice and Milan, and at the end of the Brenner Pass route into Austria. Lake Garda is less than a 20 minute drive to the northwest and the ski resorts of the Dolomite Mountains to the north.

 Our first afternoon evening was given to visiting our immediate area, the Arena and Piazza Bra, and then walking through the ancient shopping street Via Mazzini to another major square, Piazza della Erbe. Built by the Romans before the Roman Coliseum, the Arena is still used today as a major venue for concerts. With a renown summer opera season, opera is its most common entertainment. Unfortunately all but a small portion of the outer ring no longer exists due to a 12th century earthquake.

Originally seating 30,000 the Arena seats only half that number today for concerts. As we sat and walked around the inside of the Arena we both wondered what it would be like to attend a musical performance in the 2,000 year old venue. Artists take such pride in having performed there that they often mention it in their professional summaries that are printed in concert brochures (when we went to Carmen at the Kennedy Center, one of the major performers had the Arena as one of four notable places where he had performed).

I was struck that many of streets in the old city have marble walkways and streets. A number of the smaller main streets that don’t carry large heavy vehicles are marble. With marble quarries nearby, the builders of 1,800-2,200 years ago were making do with what they had nearby.

The Arena isn’t the only antiquity performance site still in use in Verona. Just across the Adige River, almost opposite the Roman bridge Ponte di Petra, is an outdoor theatre built into hillside, the Teatro Romano. We were unable to tour the theatre as a stage and lighting from a recent event was being dismantled.

The Ponte di Petra, built in the second century before Christ, is one of two ancient bridges in use today by pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the river. Ponte di Petra, like the 14th century Castelvecchio Bridge, was destroyed by retreating Nazi troops in World War II. Both bridges were carefully rebuilt using much of the recovered original material as possible.

The medieval Castelvecchio Bridge crosses the river at the Castelvecchio, a red bricked castle. Today the castle is a city park and museum.

As it was at the end of our street we passed through the Porta Borsari several times. Porta Borsari, an archway entry built in the 2nd century as an entrance into the Roman city. It stands today astride a major shopping street. Since Porta Borsari was the main entryway into the city, it was more elaborately constructed and decorated than other entry ways.

We spent a good portion of our full day in Verona walking the streets and visiting four medieval churches…Verona’s Duomo built in the 12th century,  San Zeno Basilica also from the 12th century (its bell tower is mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy), the 13th century Sant’Anastasia and San Fermo Maggiore. The space of each of the four churches is filled with artwork used to explain and remind biblical stories to worshippers, many of whom had little to no reading skills when the churches were erected.

We didn't venture off to see the "home" of Juliet and her balcony. Seeing the home of this fictional character was not high on our list as it is for other visitors.

Overall, we enjoyed our stay in Verona. Thursday, over dinner at a Piazza Bra restaurant we wished we could stay longer in Verona. We loved the city’s character and feel...and knew that we could readily live here.  

Friday, October 09, 2015

2015 Italy Trip, Day Five – Venice, Italy

On day five as dawn arrived we were boarding on an open ticket a train in Parma bound for Bologna where we transferred to an express train to Venice.

 We love visiting Venice and taking in its character, but Evie and I would not want to live there or stay more than a few days. It is an expensive city, partly due to the nature of the city’s infrastructure and partly because of this water locked city being one of the top destinations in Europe for tourists. With a high volume of tourists, housing costs, hotels and restaurants are costly. As with our prior visit, we selected a hotel central to the primary sites high on our list to visit. Previously we stayed just off Piazza San Maro. For this trip we found a family hotel that is adjacent to Accademia and near Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute (Church of Good Health) which along with Basilica San Marco and San Giorgio Maggiore were the focal points of this visit. The many centuries old beams of wood were evident not only at the check-in desk but evident elsewhere too.

Shortly after arriving at our hotel we boarded vaporetto #2 bound for San Giorgio Maggiore for a light lunch overlooking the San Giorgio Maggiore marina and across the water, Piazza San Marco. If you visit Venice for more than two days, we suggest that San Giorgio Maggiore and its tower with a fantastic view be on your list. The wait for elevator is short since few people cross the lagoon to visit the church.

By mid afternoon Evie and I were walking around the opulent Basilica San Marco. The marble and gold leaf throughout the church is impressive to say the least but it gave me pause. I understand that the church not only reflects the wealth, and power of medieval Venice, but was also build to impress upon visitors the depth of their wealth and power. That said, it seems contrary to the primary messages of the gospel (posted picture of the interior of the Basilica is a stock picture...taking pictures inside the Basilica is prohibited). 

Later in the afternoon Evie and I relaxed on a vaporreto as we traveled the outer sides of the main islands. Most people picture Venice as a city of canals lined with buildings that are 350 to 700 years old. While the area primarily visited by tourists is full of such buildings, the outer areas of the city has apartment buildings that reflect the modern age. Sitting on the back exterior deck of the vaporreto exposed us other aspects of the islands as well as allowing us to stop off for an hour or so at Lido, an island where many who work in the heart of Venice reside. Most of Lido is filled with buildings and homes of a recent vintage, and has streets with vehicles and buses.

The next morning, after an early breakfast we visited Accademia and the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Then we were off to the train station to catch a late morning train to Venice. Accademia is well worth visiting if you enjoy looking at grand art.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

2015 Italy Trip, Day Three and Four – in Parma, Italy

Before exploring the city, day three commenced with a lovely mid morning breakfast at a restaurant a block down from our apartment. Breakfast consisted of sampling various cakes, pastries, cheeses, Prosciutto and the lightest scrambled eggs I’ve ever enjoyed. 

We found ourselves at the Palazzo della Pilotta, a three minute walk from the Duomo, and less than ten from our apartment. Each of the buildings in the Palazzo were damaged in the spring of 1944 by Allied bombing (the Allies were bombing the rail yards a little more than a half a mile away and some bombers dropped their loads short of the rail yards). The bombs destroyed the Church of St. Peters, severely damaged the Teatro Farnese that was built in 1618 and destroyed one of the wings of the city’s grand library the Biblioteca Palatina. It took decades to raise the necessary funds to restore and rebuild the grand Baroque theatre, it is was rebuilt and opened in 1962. Since the wooden Teatro Farnese has been hosting concerts and plays since.

Our first stop was the Biblioteca Palatina, a rare book library still in use today. Walking through the collection of books, many going back 500 to 1,000 years, was a special moment for both Evie and I. Due to the bombing, a portion of the collection was lost. When looking at the outside of the library one can see the damaged wall. The wall in its damaged state has been preserved as a reminder of what history can be destroyed by a war.

After looking at the collection in the one wing, I sat in the reading room taking in the atmosphere, wishing I could gain permission to open some of the books and spend more time in the library. Alas after sitting in the reading room surrounded by shelves of ancient books the librarian’s throaty grunt informed us that it was time for us to leave.

From the library we visited the Archeological Museum and then Teatro Farnese. The Farnese is open to the public only for a few hours each morning. When they rebuilt it they followed the original plans as they carefully restored to help preserve their history and culture. Along with one other couple we were given freedom to wonder around…the only thing that we were prohibited from doing was climbing up to the top of the theater.           

Early afternoon found us in Piazza Garibaldi and watching the various neighborhoods parade in for the Medieval Festival. Behind their banners, each neighborhood paraded into the heart of the city with their musicians and flag wavers dressed in colors. Behind each musical group followed a parade of people attired in their medieval attire.

After taking in the festivities in the Piazza Garibaldi (the city hall square) we returned to the Duomo for another visit followed by going into the Baptistery next to the Duomo. Through to modern times you could not go into the church unless first you had been baptized…hence the separate building and its primary focus and function. I found the artwork and the Baptistery as a whole was intriguing.      

For the last full day in Parma we wondered the city, exploring the neighborhoods and parks. One of the stops was the Parco Ducal and the Ducal Palace. The large park is located across the river from the medieval city and contains the grand palace built in the late 1500s and today is the home of the military police. The park is vast, with a large pond and a lovely reasonably priced snack bar.

We were not impressed with the was mostly dry and weedy. Having an apartment with a river view would not be a premium view in our minds.

Also, we spent 15 minutes or so visiting a grocery store to check out the selection and the prices. On the whole the prices were comparable to those we see in Fairfax. Rent for a one bedroom furnished apartment in the old town is in the E550 – 680.

On our final evening as we enjoyed dining all’aperto, Evie and I agreed that we liked the city, found it to be as affordable as many average size towns in the USA, and we could see ourselves more than content as a home base for a year or two.