Friday, November 3, 2017

Tuscan Hill Towns: Circling "San Jimmy-Johnny" & Ascending to Volterra

San Gimignano
One September afternoon in 2015 my friends and I headed for San Gimignano, perhaps the most famous of the Tuscan hill towns. San Gimignano is easily recognized from a distance by the 13 medieval towers that rise from within its city walls. Originally the town had 72 of these tall towers, built as status symbols by prominent 14th century families to show off their wealth and power! San Gimignano (my friend Laurie dubbed it San Jimmy-Johnny) was mobbed with tourist vehicles on that day, and we couldn't find a parking spot! We circled the town walls twice, searching for somewhere to tuck our car, but all parking lots were full, as was the street parking. We gave up and set our sights for Volterra, a 40 minute drive west from San Gimignano. 

Volterra is perched high on a hilltop, with spectacular views in every direction. On the steep winding drive up to the town we happened upon a very cool sculpture- a giant circle that framed the picturesque hills in the distance. I later learned that it was created by Mauro Staccioli, a native of Volterra. 

Many Tuscan towns were built on hilltops during medieval times, when such a position gave a defensive advantage. Steep, narrow streets are the norm, and many of these towns are still surrounded by their high city walls.

tufa fossils
Volterra's streets were really steep, testing our leg muscles! They are paved with local tufa, a type of limestone. To our delight, we discovered that many of the pavers have fossils embedded in them! The ancient buildings are built with limestone, too, giving Volterra the appealing ochre color that bathes so many of the Tuscan towns.

Alabaster table in the Palazzo Viti 

Volterra is famous for another type of stone: alabaster. Inhabitants of this place have been carving alabaster since Etruscan times. The Guarnacci museum here has hundreds of cinerary urns fashioned from this stone as early as the 4th century BCE. We saw shops offering all kinds of things carved from alabaster, including lamp shades. In the Duomo there were alabaster windows that filtered in a soft dreamy light. Because alabaster is translucent, and can be cut very thin, it was used in medieval churches for small windows. We visited Volterra's Palazzo Viti, where we saw huge candelabras carved from alabaster, and rooms full of the rich furnishings that the alabaster trade afforded the family that once owned this wonderful place.  

Alabaster in Voterra: window in the Duomo, an alabaster workshop, alabaster candelabra in Palazzo Viti
In 1850 alabaster trader Guiseppe Viti bought his palazzo, which had been built by a Volterran nobleman at the end of the 16th century. Viti made extensive changes to the interior, and furnished it with items he bought on his extensive travels, and with plenty of alabaster treasures made in the Viti factory: tables, chandeliers, sideboards, frames, and candelabras. Viti's descendants still inhabit this fantastic place, and have opened 12 of its rooms to the public.

The Palazzo Viti is enormous! This long view through a number of rooms gives an idea of its size. 

At the far end, framed by the last doorway, was a curious figure...a creepy blue-headed, hand-less guy with baggy purple leggings. He appeared at the end of the self-guided tour (perhaps as a warning of what would happen to sticky-fingered tourists who tried to escape with a purloined souvenir of the palazzo:) He reminds me that in recent years, Volterra has become a magnet for fans of other creepy creatures. In the popular Twilight books written by Stephanie Meyer, Volterra is the ancient city inhabited by the most powerful coven of her fictional vampires, the Volturi

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Villa in Tuscany

Le Redi, in Quercegrossa

In September two friends and I rented this sweet villa called Le Redi in the village of Quercegrossa. It's perched on a hilltop, and the views from our terrace and windows were classic Tuscany! It was a relaxing, fun week. 

provisions from Fratelli Zanzobini
Chris and Laurie flew into Florence from Boston a day before I arrived. They shopped for provisions at the Mercato Centrale in Florence. My Florentine friend Massimo had recommended a great wine shop near the Mercato named Fratelli Zanzobini, and my friends took his advice and made "a few" purchases from the very helpful proprietor. 

On our first evening at the villa we drank at least TWO of these bottles:)

The villa was spacious and comfortable. We ate our dinners out most days, but one evening we hired a delightful lady named Elisa to cook for us. She made a delicious meal of pork roast and fresh local vegetables. There was also pasta, and a meravigliosa fruit tart for dessert. We enjoyed watching her prepare the meal, and of course we enjoyed eating it! Elisa also gave us lots of advice on where to shop locally, and what to see.

Every day we'd set out in the car on a new adventure. No matter where we went, we got lost! We had a GPS...sort of. It was supposed to work via iPhone. But the GPS was temperamental, and road signs were not always helpful!

This Italian road sign is a good descriptor
for the natives' wild & crazy driving style
We dubbed the Tuscan byways  "spaghetti roads," and prayed to all the Italian saints to help us find our destination. It took a while to get used to the Italian driving style: fast, aggressive, and ignoring all the rules. Stop signs are meaningless; tailgating and passing on curves is the norm...and there are LOTS of curves in the switchback Tuscan roads! Laurie was our fearless driver. She wielded that standard shift knob like a native Italian (she's of Italian descent), and gave those crazy Tuscan drivers some competition. 

Chris and Laurie in Montepulciano

I've known Chris and Laurie for a long time. Chris has been my friend since kindergarten, and she and I met Laurie in high school. We'd often spent weekends together, but never had a week-long adventure like this one. They were so much fun, perfect travel companions. We had a GREAT time together, driving all over the Tuscan countryside, exploring the ancient hilltop towns of Volterra, Montepulciano, and whatever else we bumped into on our daily viaggio. We also visited Florence and Siena. And we had lots of laughs, practicing Italian swear words on the insane drivers we encountered:) 

Yes, the Italians are crazy drivers. But they are also the nicest people you can imagine: friendly, generous, and welcoming. Molto simpatico. They are Italy's most precious asset. Italians love their wonderful country, and they are delighted when they hear that you love it, too.

At the end of our week together we vowed we'd return to Italy for another adventure. I look forward to enjoying more wonderful Italian scenery, food, wine, and sunsets together with these great ladies. Prima è meglio è: the sooner, the better.

Sunset at Le Redi

Monday, October 26, 2015

Prague: Veletrzni Palac (Trade Fair Palace)

The grim looking Veletrzni Palac
A disappointing experience in Prague was my visit to the Veletrzni Palac (Trade Fair Palace). This museum holds the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in the city. The artwork is housed in a huge, ugly grey hulk of a building that looks like a communist era construction. But it was built in the 1920s, in the avant grade "Functionalist" style.

The interior isn't much better- linoleum floors with industrial lighting...and color-wise, there's some strange stuff going on here: pink walls with pink labels for some exhibits- disturbing! There were some lovely artworks, but it seemed that they were few and far between.

A few gems: Gustav Klimt and Alfons Mucha

Detail from Slav Epic: Holy Mount Athos

The museum's saving grace is a cavernous gallery on the ground floor where Czech artist Alfons Mucha's impressive Slav Epic is displayed. Mucha created this series of monumental canvases between 1910 and 1928. The 20 paintings depict the mythology and history of Czechs and other Slavic peoples. 

This is a beautiful exhibit! Being almost alone in such a vast, silent space, surrounded by Mucha's massive, atmospheric paintings, was an amazing experience.

Alfons Mucha's Slav Epic

Colorful, Baroque Prague

We arrived in Prague on a dismal cloudy day in October. No problem. Even on a cloudy day, this lively city is colorful and cheerful! Its ornate baroque buildings are washed in a pastel rainbow of colors. Some buildings are decorated with a two-toned sgraffito technique (where a surface layer of plaster is incised to reveal a lower layer of plaster in a contrasting color). Even the sidewalks are decorative, cobbled with patterns in shades of granite. Every neighborhood we explored was beautiful and well maintained. And there were crowds of people wherever we went, day and night. It's hard to imagine that this imaginative, spirited city was once under Communist rule.

Mosaic sidewalk patterns in old Prague

Prague is a very photogenic city. Ancient towers, interesting buildings, and scenic views abound. A walk along Prague's riverfront is delightful, so many lovely things to see! Our hotel was on the eastern side of the Vltava, the river that divides Prague. High on a hill on the opposite bank is the magnificent Prague Castle, an awesome sight when viewed from the river.

Entry gate to Prague Castle
St. Vitus Cathedral

Prague Castle, founded in the 9th century AD, is a huge complex of buildings that covers more than 18 acres. St. Vitus Cathedral dominates the castle and the skyline of the western bank of the river. The Castle has 3 large courtyards and a mix of buildings within its boundaries: palaces, churches, great halls, a monastery, towers, museums, art galleries, and the state apartments. Today, the president of the Czech Republic rules from the Castle.

Charles Bridge and its Old Town Bridge Tower, viewed from the Castle

Wallenstein Palace
Just below the Castle is the wonderful Wallenstein Palace and its gardens, created in the 17th century by Albrecht von Wallentstein. He was famous as the Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial forces during the Thirty Years War. Albrecht only lived in this beautiful place for a year before he was assassinated by order of Emperor Ferdinand II, who suspected him of treason. Now the Wallenstein Palace is home to the Czech Senate.

Cerny's In Utero
There are statues everywhere in Prague...on rooftops, balconies, building corners, bridges, gates, and in the churches, of course. Many of them are from the baroque period, but Prague is famous for its contemporary public sculpture, too. Walking to the Old Town Square from our hotel we passed a 20 foot tall stainless steel sculpture of a naked woman, titled In Utero. It's the work of the Czech Republic's most famous contemporary sculptor, David Cerny. In Utero is an amusing, flashy counterpoint to its baroque surroundings.

Another of Prague's major tourist attractions is the Charles Bridge, named for King Charles IV, a 14th century emperor. Spanning the River Vltava, this 400+ year old concoction is decorated with 30 statues!

Crossing the Charles Bridge, heading for Prague's "Little Quarter."
St. John Nepomuk

One of the statues has a halo of 5 golden stars. This is the martyred St. John Nepomuk, who was thrown off the bridge in March of 1393- punishment for displeasing King Wenceslas IV. John's unique halo commemorates the 5 stars that hovered over the Vltava River on the night of his death.

The Old Town Hall's Astronomical Clock

Prague's history is littered with the untimely deaths of people being thrown off of or out of somewhere! In fact, there are incidents in Prague's history officially called The Defenestrations. This interesting term is defined as "an act of throwing someone or something out of the window." The first Prague Defenestration took place in 1419 when radical Czech Hussites (followers of murdered Czech religious hero Jan Hus) threw 7 city council members from the Town Hall's windows. Those who survived the fall were murdered by the angry mob below.  

Site of 2nd Defenestration

The Second Prague Defenestration happened at the Old Royal Palace of Prague Castle in 1618, the result of another religious disagreement. It ended on a happier note. The 3 Catholics who angry Protestants threw out of a second storey window at Prague Castle survived the fall. Catholics claimed that the men survived because they were caught by angels; Protestants insisted that their fall was cushioned by the pile of manure they landed on:)

U Fleku, a great way to end our Prague adventure!
On our last evening in the city we enjoyed a hearty roast pork and dumplings meal at Prague's Pivovar U Fleku (U Fleku Brewery), which was founded in 1499. This is a cozy, noisy place. Dark wood paneling lined the walls of our dining room, and an accordion player roamed between the tables singing traditional Czech songs. We sat at a long wooden table with other diners. The food was great, as was the signature U Fleku dark beer. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Coolest Barber in Maastricht

The waiting room at Piet's

My husband needed a haircut. Our Maastricht friend Thieu recommended his own barber, Piet Andela. Piet's shop is in Kapoenstraat, a short walk from our apartment. From the outside it's pretty ordinary, but step inside and it's a whole different world! The waiting room contains some old stadium seats, and red and yellow chairs in the shape of hands. There were vintage kids' vehicles in the waiting room, too. That was just the beginning of Piet's eclectic collection...

Piet collects and refurbishes vintage juke boxes, and he has a few of them in the barbershop. There are a variety of sculptures on display, too, including a giant mechanized switchblade knife that is in constant motion. Against the opposite wall is an odd multi-armed object, looking like a prop from a science fiction movie. Piet explained that it was once used to dry hair, but the red lights were annoying to some of his customers so he no longer uses it. But he likes the way it looks, so it has become part of his collection.
 There's an old dental instrument cabinet, and a slot machine topped by a sign that says "What? Me Worry?" A curious Belgian "Eau de Cologne" dispenser hangs on the wall nearby, inviting passers-by to insert a Belgian franc to receive a refreshing spray of cologne! Other curiosities are displayed on table tops throughout the shop. 

The unifying theme here is simple: these are all objects that Piet likes. He is a very interesting guy, and the conversation is lively while he is cutting hair. His English is excellent, as well as his knowledge of American culture. During Jim's visit Piet chatted about a variety of topics, everything from the Dutch royal family to Keith Richard's taking offense that he was not knighted (as was his bandmate Mick Jagger). 
But the BEST thing about Piet Andela the barber is that he gives a GREAT HAIRCUT! Jim left looking much better than when he entered. Piet came to the door with us to say goodbye, and to invite Jim to return for another haircut before we leave Maastricht.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Looking Up in Heidelberg

Strolling on the Hauptstrasse, in Heidelberg's Altstadt.
At the end of our Rhine cruise we headed for Heidelberg, home to Germany's oldest university (founded in 1386!) Heidelberg straddles the Necker River, a major tributary of the Rhine. It's a fun city to visit, with its many nice shops and cafes.

Schloss Heidelberg towers above the Altstadt (Old Town)

The picturesque Schloss Heidelberg is perched high up on a mountainside, overlooking this romantic city. Construction of the castle began in the 13th century. It was later destroyed by fire (two separate lightening strikes!) and a series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries. Parts of the castle have been restored, but much of it remains a ruin. 

The Heidelberg Tun

The castle cellar is home to one of the ancient city's treasures- the Heidelberg Tun. The tun is a HUGE wine barrel, made in 1751. It has a capacity of nearly 58,000 gallons. Its wine-storing days are long gone. Now it's one of Heidelberg's major tourist attractions.

In Heidelberg I found myself always looking up! I had to look up to see the beautiful old castle ruin, of course, and to see the church towers high above the narrow streets. One afternoon when I was strolling on the Hauptstrasse, I looked up to see where bubbles floating through the air were coming from! A little mechanical bear was blowing them. He was perched on a red chair attached to a balcony railing above my head. There was no sign to explain why the bear was there, or why he was blowing bubbles. This mysterious bubbly bear was one more reason to love this charming city.

There were lots of other beautiful things to see on- and above- the streets of Heidelberg. High on the corner of one building I found beautiful mosaic portraits of famous German citizens. Religious statues adorned the corners of many other buildings. The Hauptstrasse Starbucks had a beautiful Madonna and Child sculpture on its corner. Not something you see at most Starbucks!
Most corner statues were of a religious nature. Some celebrated more down-to-earth pursuits:)

But the best part of visiting Heidelberg was the chance to see some of my friends who live nearby. Martin Ost brought his son Adrien into the city and we had a lekker snack at a very cool cafe called Urban Kitchen. Adrien is my godson. He was born in Pennsylvania while his parents were working in the states. Now they're back in Germany, so I don't get to see them so often.

Martin was wearing a "Johnny Cupcakes" t-shirt that I had bought him in Boston. He collects t-shirts, so every year I send him a few unique selections made in the USA.
I'm sure he's the only guy in Heidelberg who was wearing a Johnny Cupcakes t-shirt that day:-)

Before we left Urban Kitchen, Martin told me to check out their unusual rest rooms, so I did (taking my camera along!) A door labeled with a word that I guessed said "rest rooms" opened into a circular area with a large stone sink in the middle. Doors off of the circular washroom were cleverly labeled to indicate which were ladies' rooms, men's rooms...and whatever rooms:-) 

Das ist super cool.