Sunday, August 15, 2010

Italy Retrospective--December 2009, January 2010

Leysin, Switzerland, August 25, 2010

I'm just going to post a brief summary of some of the things that Joanne and I saw in our two-part tour of Italy. The first part, visiting Trieste, Aquilea, Venice and Rome (before flying off to Libya), was great fun. We had places to stay in Venice (my friend Manuel lent us his apartment steps from the Ponte Rialto) and Rome (Joanne's cousin), so we had good bases for exploration. The second part was a crazy road trip in a rented Alfa Romeo, flying into Catania from Malta, circling Sicily, then driving up to the Naples area before the long drive back to Joanne's Aunt Severina's house in Friuli.

I had been to Venice twice before, but I had never enjoyed it as much as this time. Having a place to stay, and visiting in the lowest of low seasons, made a huge difference. We didn't go into lots of museums and churches; we'd done that on previous visits. Mostly we wandered around taking pictures and exploring the backstreets, trying to get more of a feel for the city. Having just finished my Silk Road bike trip, I was keen to see Marco Polo's house, but it burned down about 400 years ago and now there's only the site, the Corte di Milione, to see. I loved the colours in the low winter light, especially with the reflections on the water in the lagoons.

Rome was great fun too, armed with a wonderful guidebook to the ancient ruins of the Eternal City. The last time I wandered around Rome, the ruins on the Palatine Hill weren't open, so they were completely new to me. The guidebook pointed me the way to a number of smaller ruins that I hadn't seen before, and helped me visualize the layers upon layers of history that make up the fabric of the city. Joanne loved the photographic opportunities, although she was distinctly unimpressed with the Vatican and the ostentatious wealth displayed by the Roman Catholic church.

After seeing part of the BBC travel series called Francesco's Italy: Top to Toe, we made time for the Galleria Borghese and its extraordinary collection of Baroque sculpture, particularly by Bernini. Sadly, cameras were forbidden inside. If you find yourself in Rome, you really should find time in your schedule for a visit to this gem. I had also hoped to visit the Domus Aurea, the underground rooms of Nero's vast palace that abuts the Colosseum, but we ran out of time. As the roof subsequently collapsed after heavy rain, closing the site for the foreseeable future, I now regret not visiting.

I also, with lots of help with Joanne, finally manage to track down the infamous rubber stamp in my passport, translating the information page into Arabic. You need this in order to get a Libyan visa, and it's almost impossible to find someone who will do this service. I had been searching for this stamp since Sofia, Bulgaria six weeks earlier, and it was just in the nick of time. I picked up my passport from a translation agency one day before we flew to Tripoli to start our Libyan tour, followed by our brief sojourn on Malta.

We returned to Italy in early January, when we flew from Malta to Catania. We had rented a small car over the internet, but when we got to the rental place, Joanne used her charm, blond hair and Italian skills to get us a slightly larger and much better car, an Alfa Romeo, which was our home base for the next two weeks. It also meant that we got to fulfil an old dream of ours, driving through Italy in an Alfa.

The plan was to spin around Sicily before heading north towards Friuli, via the Naples area (Campania), checking out the great classical ruins along the way. Sicily was one of the centres of the Greek world, known as Magna Graecia, and features some of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world.

We started off with a run up to Taormina. It was a tough job finding parking on New Year's Day in this popular resort. The weather was rainy and the scenery and ruins didn't inspire us too much; the peak of Mt. Etna was hidden from view by clouds. It was a pity, as I have a poster of a painting of Taormina by my favourite Hungarian painter, Csontvary, on my wall, and I had had very high hopes of spectacular views. On the drive back south, towards Siracusa, we passed by the offshore islands said to be the rocks hurled by the blinded Cyclops Polyphemus at the fleeing ships of Odysseus.

Siracusa, the ancient Syracuse, was quite nice. Syracuse was one of the largest, most powerful city states in the classical Mediterranean, and its extensive museum is chock-full of wonderful vases, statues and other art. We strolled around the ruined theatre and hippodrome, and drove out of town to see the large-scale walled fortifications that the city erected to ward off a Roman army in the late 3rd century BC. It didn't work, and the city was sacked in 211 BC, with one of the most notable casualties being the greatest Greek mathematician, Archimedes.

The next day, we drove inland from the south coast to visit the wonderful Baroque town of Modica. The town was destroyed in an earthquake in the 18th century and rebuilt in a riot of exuberant Baroque architecture. We saw plenty of wonderful, quirky detail in the balconies that overhang the stone streets of the town centre. It was only afterwards that we realized that we had forgotten to find what is rumoured to be the finest gelateria in all of Italy. We consoled ourselves with some great artisanal chocolate in Ragusa, then drove hell-for-leather towards Piazza Armerina and its extraordinary Roman mosaics, another great tip from Francesco's Italy.

I have seen lots of wonderful Roman and Byzantine mosaics all over the Mediterranean, but this was quite amazing for its scale and conception. The house, which seems to have been an Imperial hunting villa during the 3rd century AD, had floors completely covered with mosaics depicting hunting, and also the capture of live animals for the Roman circus. There are a dozen or more rooms, although some are closed for restoration, and we walked on overhead walkways to look down on the artwork. It was pretty breathtaking stuff, and deserves to be better known, although I'm not sure it could handle many more tourists on its narrow walkways.

We drove west along the coast, ending up in a campground near Agrigento, ancient Akragas. The next day we devoted to the wonderful Valley of the Temples (a strange name, as they sit atop a ridge), one of the best-preserved ensembles of Doric temples anywhere. The Parthenon, for all its fame, can hardly hold a candle to the Greek temples of Sicily and Campania. We started off in the museum, but the real highlight were the three best-preserved temples, which were like a course in the history of Doric architecture. The temple of Juno and the temple of Concordia are remarkably well-preserved, with Concordia almost completely intact thanks to its conversion into a Christian church in AD 597. The ruins of the temple of Zeus are impressive for their sheer scale, although they're hardly standing. Lots of other more fragmentary ruins testify to the size of the city in ancient times. Nowadays the town is apparently better known for its dominance by the Mafia.

That evening, we drove onwards to the next ancient site along the coast, ancient Selinunte. It was the most westerly Greek colony on Sicily; further west was the territory of the Carthaginians, and to the north were the indigenous and slightly mysterious Elymians. It has a wonderful seaside location, and walking among the ancient stones on a sunny day, with a sea breeze, was absolutely magical. The ruins came in two lots: a few enormous temples close to the parking lot, and a more distant ruined city core with a couple of temples. The size of the nearer temples was absolutely colossal, and the sight of the fully reconstructed Temple E, surrounded by the scattered enormous blocks of Temples F and G, was particularly photogenic. I loved the walk between the two sets of ruins, although Joanne rather wished we had taken the little shuttle train.

That same day we had a double-header of great temple ruins, as we headed to Segesta, located on a high plateau inland from the coast. There are really only two ruins of note here in the capital of the Elymians. The Doric temple is magnificent in its setting, even though it was never completed. The hilltop theatre has a magnificent view over the plateau down towards the sea, which would make for a great play-going experience.

From here we drove into the big bad city of Palermo, once one of the great cosmopolitan cities of Europe, especially under the rule of Arab kings and then the Normans, when it was the second largest city in Western Europe after Cordoba. Driving into town was more than a bit hair-raising, and we got lost despite our satellite navigation system. We parked the car and had a wander around the historic centre of the city, past the great Norman Gothic cathedral and the palace. Although the architecture is impressive, much of the centre is falling into ruins, a stark contrast to most of the other cities we had seen on Sicily. The usual explanation for this is that urban renewal money after the war was siphoned off by the Mafia and never reached the centre.

The next morning we visited the cathedral of Monreale, with its exquisite, large-scale mosaics. I loved them, although Joanne found them a bit over the top and too religious. Much of the Bible, both old and new testaments, is depicted in luminous gold, making for an overwhelming impression.

We spent the rest of the day driving east along the north coast, stopping very briefly at Cefalu to take a picture of the pretty coastal town, and then at the fragmentary ruins at Tyndaris. Although situated in a pretty location above the sea, and with an interesting history, the ruins could not really hold a candle to the wonderful series of ruins we'd seen up until then, and we left fairly quickly. Nowadays Tyndaris is better known for a church which attracts hordes of religious pilgrims.

That evening we made it to Messina and, unable to find a campground that was open during the winter, we ended up taking the ferry to the mainland and camping just up the Calabrian coast at Rosarno in perhaps the most beautiful campground of the trip, high above the ocean. Sadly, the next day, just after we had left town for Naples, the city erupted in a four-day race riot orchestrated by the local mob, the 'Ndrangheta, in which the local Italians chased out all the African migrant workers who usually pick fruit and work in factories, doing jobs that Italians refuse to do. The Italian press spent the rest of our time in Italy hand-wringing about what was wrong with Italian society that such an outrageous event could have occurred.

I had imagined that Sicily would be the poorest part of Italy, but I was, Palermo excepted, wrong about this. Instead Calabria looked a lot poorer, and the Naples area was absolutely dismal, with urban and suburban blight wherever we went. The city was a sea of garbage and urban decay, with suburbs that alternated between sad and menacing. We stayed at a campground in Pompeii, well outside the downtown, and after a good night's sleep in our tent, we moved inside to cabins as the heavens opened in a four-day downpour. The only drawback to being warm and dry was that we discovered the cabins were used by local prostitutes to turn tricks, resulting in some interesting late-night background noises.

Our four days of sightseeing were jam-packed with great things to see, although the rain took some of the fun out of photographing what we saw. We began with Pompeii, a place that I had skipped 21 years before in favour of Herculaneum. No place in the world better captures the feeling of a Roman city than these ruins, entombed in ash and mud in AD 79. Almost all the wonderful ruins that I've tramped through over the years have the problem that walls are not left standing to any great height, meaning that most of the city's urban fabric has to be imagined, rather than being seen. Pompeii, buried to quite a depth by the eruption of Vesuvius (a much smaller mountain than I had thought) lets us see the first storey and sometimes even the second storey of Roman houses, complete with frescoes, graffiti and mosaics on the walls. Much of the ruins are, sadly, out of bounds, but enough is open to allow a full impression of a prosperous Roman provincial town frozen in time. I particularly liked the brothel, and the amazing mosaic of Alexander the Great facing the Persian emperor Darius III in battle.

Herculaneum is a much smaller site, but even more deeply buried, allowing for even more detail on the upper stories. I liked Herculaneum a great deal, and the obscure villa, probably belonging to the emperor Nero's family, in Torre Annunziata was a great find. Torre Annunziata itself, however, was one of the most dismal towns I've ever seen, and driving around the back streets, foiled by a one-way street system, we actually felt a little concerned for our own security.

We spent a day in Naples itself. The town looks like a poster child for a failed attempt at civilization, amazing since it was, in the 18th century, one of the great cities of Europe. We walked from the train station and its population of druggies and street crooks to the archaeological museum, one of the great collections of Roman antiquities in the world, rivalling those in Rome itself. Fantastic sculptures everywhere, but the real highlight was the collection of mosaics and frescoes from Pompeii. There's even a Secret Cabinet, where the collection of Roman erotica was kept hidden from Victorian eyes. On the way back to the train station, we ate pizza at the Trianon pizzeria, allegedly the finest in Naples and, by extension, the world. I was skeptical: pizza is pizza, I thought, but I was wrong. It was exquisite, and made up for the misery of the city itself.

Our last day was spent exploring the most northerly of the great Greek ruins of Italy, at Paestum, an hour's drive south of Naples along the coast. Although I thought that the temple at Segesta was the single best temple of the trip because of its hilltop setting, the three large standing temples at Paestum may be the best, or at least the most educational, ensemble that we saw. The temples, all from the 6th century BC, allow the visitor to trace the evolution of the Doric style from its overtly Egyptian early phase, with lotus capitals and swelling, bulbous columns, to the austere, formal perfection of the classic phase. In the museum, we saw very rare Greek wall paintings, from the elaborate local Greek cemeteries. My favourite showed a depiction of death, with a man's soul making a perfect swan dive into the waters of the river Styx.

It was, of course, raining heavily by the time we left, and so our tour of the Amalfi coast was less spectacular than it might have been. I had been skeptical of claims that this stretch of coast, along a peninsula south of Naples, is the most spectacular bit of scenery in Europe, but it did largely live up to its hype. The towering, vertiginous coast, with villages and towns clinging to its cliffs, was stunning and I wish we had had more time and better weather. It's hard to believe nowadays that tiny Amalfi once rivalled Venice, Genoa and Pisa for mastery of the seas in the 10th century.

We drove north, taking advantage of the only clear day in the forecast, all the way to San Vita al Tagliamento and Joanne's aunt's house. We spent a few days resting up, with a couple of side trips by car, up to the mountains of Forni di Sopra, and to Udine, looking for the tomb of the little-known 14th-century traveller Fra Odorico di Pordenone. The church containing it was always closed, but on the last day, I managed to cycle to Pordenone, on my newly rebuilt rear wheel, and see the tomb and its stained glass. Odorico travelled to China about 25 years after Marco Polo's return, and wrote a book about his exploits. He comes across as rather more religiously zealous and credulous than the Venetian, although curiously several of his stories about more outlandish bits of the world are the same as Polo's account.

And then it was time to leave; Joanne to fly back to Canada, and me to ride my bicycle into Venice, to Marco Polo's house. Joanne and Graydon's Excellent Alfa Romeo Tour of Italy had come to an end.