November 26, 2006

Thanks for Thanksgiving

I’ve been so taken up with work for the last couple of months that I haven’t had energy for much of anything else, but this four-day weekend was just the thing. I got some rest, let the work stuff subside for a while, hit Wagner’s twice, and visited my family in Seattle for the annual feast.

Months ago, I had decided on a new car, but was stymied by the anticipation of a repeat of the deeply annoying process of buying my last car. So, I dawdled for months, while getting more and more over my eleven-year-old Kia Sephia. This weekend was my chance – a couple of days to rest and get psyched – so on Friday I went into the local dealer and bought a new Subaru Forester. Much to my surprise, it turned out to be a pleasant experience (except for the expense, of course, but we try not to think about that). My timing couldn’t have been better, because this morning we were greeted by an inch of slippery snow.

Red Subaru Forester
The Forester passed the test: it was able to climb the driveway into the garage. No trouble at all.

November 10, 2006

Bruce Cockburn is a Treasure

My wife and I attended a great Bruce Cockburn concert at the Washington Center last Tuesday. It was a near thing – we almost missed it – and I’d have to say that it was poorly promoted. Perhaps the change from the Capital Theater, where I saw him perform to a packed house a couple of years ago, interfered. The audience that was there certainly seemed to enjoy and appreciate him. I know I did. His band of a drummer and keyboard player-and-singer were very good, as well. He played a pleasing mix of old and new songs, though many in the audience knew them all (I was behind on the new ones, though I think it’s time to pick up another CD).

For those that don’t know, Bruce is a Canadian songwriter and guitar player and singer from Canada. I’ve followed his work for decades and have seen him in concert eight or ten times, in Seattle, Olympia, and most recently, aside from this week, at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.

He’s a superb songwriter, an amazing guitar player, and an inventive singer. He is also a person – and a musician – of uncommon integrity. He’s not much for the clever banter and never appears comfortable with the crowds, but he his very comfortable with his music.

Our host at our second agriturismo on our recent trip to Italy was a guitar player and fan of popular music. I was surprised and pleased that one of the names that he rattled off as influences was Bruce Cockburn (pronounced phonetically). He even played one of his songs for us (forgotten which, but one I knew). I see Bruce whenever I get a chance. You should consider it.

The Sights We Saw

In my first Italy post, I mentioned a lot of the places we visited and the sights we saw. In this one, I thought I’d highlight the, well, highlights of the places we visited.

No visit – certainly no first visit – to Italy would be complete without spending at least some time amongst great art and amazing antiquities. This trip was no exception, but we also saw some wonderful modern art and beautiful countryside that was at least a match.

The highlights of Rome were the powerful statue of Moses by Michelangelo, tucked away in the  San Pietro in Vincoli, quite near our hotel, actually. I remember seeing slides of this statue in my seventh grade Art Appreciation class. (That class was one of the great awakenings of my young life. I still remember portions of it vividly.) It made it on our list because my sister-in-law had insisted to my wife to not miss it. San Pietro in Vaticano was stunning, enormous, and oddly soaring and oppressive at the same time. Walking back from San Pietro, we passed by the Pantheon, which is more beautiful for its antiquity and simplicity. For a thousand years, it was the largest dome in western Europe. My biggest delight of that day of delights, though, was the Trevi Fountain. As you approach, you begin to hear the rush of the water and then, you enter the square and you’re there, with this Baroque wonder.

We spent the following few days staying in Montepulciano and touring the hill towns of Tuscano and Umbria. That topography was one of the highlights of the trip. Long, misty vistas, dramatic, cloudy skies, and charming, walled towns perched on all of the highest hilltops. The fa├žade (and interior) of the Duomo in Orvieto was stunning. We arrived in late afternoon and the lowering sun struck the face directly, absolutely lighting up the gold and white of the decoration. Inside is another delight – one of the chapels is decorated by amazing frescos depicting the Apocalypse. Meanwhile, a small gang of kids was playing soccer against the white and black stripped side walls.

Besides the views of the city from the town of Fiesole to the northeast and the Giardino Boboli to the south, the highlights of Firenze were in the museums. The Galleria degli Uffizi was too big for the time we had allowed for it, but we saw some wonderful paintings in a beautiful building, which has been an amazing museum for centuries. But the best for me was the Botticellis, with the prize going to his The Birth of Venus, which is the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen. Later that afternoon, we visited the Galleria dell'Accademia nearby, where the star, by far, is Michelangelo’s David. It is amazingly impressive, if only because it is so much larger than I had supposed. I must have circled it a half-a-dozen times.

The next segment took us to Liguria and we spent two days on trips to the coast. My favorite element of that were the Ligurian Sea and the dramatic rocks and cliffs of the coastline. The water was clear and blue and warm. The cliffs plunged into the sea, with only a few pockets of beach, around which the little towns were clustered and sometimes piled. That and the wonderful seafood.

Venezia itself was a highlight. For all of the antiquity that we’d seen in Italy and for all that Venezia contains, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection came as a refreshing surprise. Jumping five centuries in art can be a shocking experience (I remember skipping from the seventeen century to the nineteenth in the Louve and being struck, for a time, until my eyes adjusted, by the thought that those crazy Impressionists couldn’t paint.) but it came as a revelation to me. The collection is awesome. Nearly every early twentieth century artist I’ve heard of was represented there, including Pollack’s stunning Alchemy. There were also amazing works by Calder, Chagall, De Kooning, Duchamp, Ernst, Giacometti, Klee, Magritte, Mondrian, Moore, Motherwell, Picasso, Rothko and a bunch more I hadn’t heard of. As for buildings, the Palazzo Ducale was amazing, a huge house for and monument to the power of Venezia.

Still want to go back.

November 5, 2006

Our Lodgings in Italy

I’ll expand my previous post, in which I described the itinerary of our recent trip to Italy, by describing the places we stayed in more detail and bringing a focus onto the big discovery for me – the agriturismo. All of the places we stayed in Italy were very nice, with helpful staff, enough English to get by, and comfortable beds. They’re marked on this map with the blue tags.

In Rome, we stayed in the Hotel Nardizzi Americana on Via Firenze, between the Termini and the Spanish Steps. It’s on the fourth floor of the building (though our rooms were on the first floor, just up from the ground floor). The stairs are large and gentle, but for those with luggage or other issues with stairs, there’s a small and Spartan, but smooth and quiet elevator. The rooms were spacious and attractive and the breakfast was good. We used the Internet terminal to look up agriturismos in Liguria. The hotel is also well-situated for getting around in Rome.

Our second stay was at the Azienda Agriturismo Nobile, just outside of Montepulciano. This was our first agriturismo and it certainly impressed for the beauty of the farm and its surroundings. We arrived after dark and were greeted in our room by the full moon streaming directly in the window of our bedroom. The rooms were in a remodeled and expanded farmhouse and our rooms were an apartment, really, with three bedrooms, two baths, and a kitchenette.

The farm seemed to be that of a gentleman farmer – it was very well-groomed and prosperous-looking – and had both grapes, some of which were being harvested while we were there, and olives. This agriturismo falls into the more luxurious category, as it even had a swimming pool. It didn’t, however, include meals for guests, nor did it involve any real interaction with the people there. They had there own nice house on the other side of a big hedge and the owners spoke no useful English (and our Italian was equally useless), so we didn’t really learn anything about them.

Our beds in Firenze were in the Hotel Villa Bonelli in neighboring Fiesole. This was a very nice place in a nice little town (with a longer history, actually, than Firenze down in the valley), up on a ridge above the valley. It offered a couple of nice restaurants and marvelous views of the city below and the surrounding hills and towns. The hotel was also very comfortable and offered a nice breakfast. There was a big German tour group staying there, which was kind of interesting. We used the Internet terminal to finalize our list of agriturismos in Liguria and made the reservation from there.

Our second agriturismo was the Azienda Agriturismo Carnea, just north of La Spezia and east of the Cinque Terre. It was well out of the beaten path, but offered the best views of all, as it was perched near the top of a wild and rugged ridge, from which we could look east to the marble mountains of the Apuan Alps and south, over the ridges and La Spezia, to the Ligurian Sea. The rooms were quite small, but comfortable and more than adequate. Because the hospitality was the joy here. We took breakfast in a large, sunny room, part of the house of our hosts, Beppe and Laura Castiglione. And two of the nights, we had dinner with them in that room, too.

Laura is a terrific cook and nearly all of what we ate was grown or produced there, on the farm – fruits, vegetables, bread, yogurt, and jams and preserves. Beppe had more than enough English to facilitate wonderful conversations, so that we learned that they had left jobs in the city (Milano) to take on this farming-and-hospitality life. We were thoroughly charmed by how well-suited they were to it. The topper was when, on our last evening there, Beppe pulled out his beloved Martin guitar and played folk and popular tunes, while some of us sang along with him. Best evening of the trip.

Our last stay, in Venezia, was at the Pensione Guerrato/Guerratino. This one was on the fourth floor, too. I don’t think there was an elevator, but it was worth the huff. The staff was very nice and had excellent English. The rooms were very large and quite stylish. And, the breakfast was also very good. The best thing about this place, though, was the location: it was in Italy, in Venezia, and well-placed within Venezia (location, location, and location). Around the corner was the fish market (where I saw more than one fellow starting a cut on a whole tuna), down the street a couple of blocks is the famed Rialto bridge, and just around the corner was a terrific restaurant where we had our last dinner in Italy (but that’s another post).

November 1, 2006

Italy Was Great

I had the wonderful pleasure of spending two weeks in Italy last month with my wife and another couple, friends of ours. This was a long-awaited trip for us – it’d been postponed at least once in the past – and we are grateful that we were able to finally to make the trip.

We arrived in Rome on the evening of Oct. 3 and had a fast and interesting taxi ride (that Fiat hit 170 kph on the way) to the Hotel Nardizzi Americana on Via Firenze. We had two full days in Rome, mostly walking from site to site, taking in the Forum archeological sites, the Coliseum, the Michelangelo statue of Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli, the Pantheon, and the fantastic Trevi fountain.

We left Rome in a rental car. Between the hassle of getting the car and the difficulty of driving it through town, we didn’t hit the ring road until about 3:00 PM. From there it was smooth sailing to Montepulciano, with a stop at Orvieto along the way (where a poster informed us that Bruce Springsteen was playing with the Seeger Session Band in Perugia the next evening).

We spent three nights at the Azienda Agriturismo Nobile, just outside of Montepulciano. During the next two days, we toured Tuscany, visiting Pienza, Montalcino, Cortona, and Assisi. This is beautiful country and the hill towns are very interesting. The first day was really a quest for wine, especially the famous Brunello, but our timing was poor: most of the wineries were closed for tasting on Saturday. We finally came across Fattoria dei Barbi, which was open – its tavern was hopping with a wedding reception – so we bought a few bottles.

The next day we headed north to Firenze, with a stop-over in Siena, where I climbed the Torre Del Mangia, which gives a panoramic view of the town and its surroundings. We stayed in Hotel Villa Bonelli in Fiesole and rode the bus down into the city and back each day. In our two days there, we visited the Giardino Boboli (which brought to mind Versailles, on a smaller scale) and Giardino Bardini (which has terrific views of the city), the Galleria degli Uffizi, and the Galleria dell'Accademia. We spent our evenings in Fiesole, on the hills above the city, watching the sun set over the panorama below.

Next, we headed west, toward Liguria. Along the way, we stopped in Pisa, to take in the Field of Miracles, and in Lucca, to walk the walls around the city. We then headed up the coastal highway to tiny Carnea and our home for the next three nights, the Azienda Agriturismo Carnea. While there, in addition to the wonderful company of our hosts, we took day trips to the coast. The first day we visited the Cinque Terre. I walked the trail between Monterossa and Vernazza while my companions took the boat. We all then took the train to Manarola, from which we walked the Via Dell’Amore to Riomaggiore, where we had dinner before returning to Carnea. The next day we visited Porto Venere, where we walked through the lovely town, beautifully situated on the end of a peninsula. The Ligurian Sea is very beautiful.

We left the agriturismo and headed for Venizia, where we dropped the rental car at the lot near the train station. We took the vaporetto to the Rialto bridge stop and walked a couple of blocks to Pensione Guerrato/Guerratino. We spent the next two days seeing the sights of glorious, doomed Venezia. No cars, no motorbikes, and boats everywhere. (No flooding.) My wife and I were blown away by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and amazed by the Palazzo Ducale. We decided pretty early in our stay there that we’d like to come back, and soon.

Italy is a great country and I loved it. The people were friendly, the land was beautiful, the cities were layered in history, the art was awesome, and the food (the food!) was the best. You can see the sites on a Quikmap here.