Italy: architecture, food and history

For years the Tuscany region in Italy sat at the top of my bucket travel list. Photos, articles, books, movies continued to feed this desire. And when “Under the Tuscan Sun” was released in book form, and then in an incredibly enticing video depiction in movie form, I was hooked. To date, I have only had the pleasure of visiting Italy once, and sadly never made it to the Tuscany region – but I will get there one day!

Happily, my years have been filled with travel that has fulfilled my travel interests and desires, if not always my exact bucket list. This world we live in is full of hidden gems that deserve equal narration in comparison to the major highlight destinations like Paris, Rome, London, Montreal, Dubai and so many more. But there is a reason, many reasons, these major destinations have earned the reputation of becoming must see places.

Several years ago my mother, daughter and I took off on a 14-day European excursion with Trafalgar Tours via train and bus, that took us through many of Europe’s iconic locations. We started in London, and made our way through Brussels, Cologne, Zurich, Venice, Florence, Rome, Pisa, Monaco, Nice, Lyon and finished up in Paris. A great experience and way to see lots of places in a short amount of time, to help you decide where you might want to go back for longer visits.

Six of those days were spent in Italy. The diversity from northern Italy to southern Italy is as diverse as northern California to southern California. The diversity begins with food: creamier/buttery pasta sauces with some tomatoes in the north, to spicier red pasta sauces in the south. The myriad of the Venice canals sit in stark contrast to the Umbria countryside rolling with ancient grape vines and groves of olive trees, to the free-flowing Mediterranean along the rocky coast of Naples. The inland cities of Milan and Florence exude a higher fashion sense to go with their more formal attitudes, stand in contrast to the more laid back attitudes and lax fashion sense along the Mediterranean cities. The architecturally used colorful natural stones stand strong along with the robust fashion of the north country, in contrast to the earthy subdued limestone and travertine architecture of the south where so many more buildings stand in ruin.

A spicy red sauce pasta served up in a southern Italian town.

A spicy red sauce pasta served up in a southern Italian town.

But even these ruins stand as examples of historical architecture that is seen very little anywhere else in the world. Architecture that has stood the test of wars, environmental decay, man’s negligence, lack of funding – but yet they still stand strong and continue to be a major tourism pull. And a highly coveted design style. The rustic elegance that is achieved by not forcing perfection into what nature made, and honed only slightly by man’s manual tools, are looks that are heavily sought after, and hard to replicate.

Our first induction into Italy was Venice. Not a bad way to start! We began encamped at St. Marks Square where we took in the views of the expansive canals jutting out in every direction, with gondolas lined up to take you to one of the 117 islands. Or down one of the narrow inland canals bringing you nose to nose with amazing architecture like the Bridge of Sighs. Creativity reigns in Venice with visionary mask makers and master glass blowers. I display examples of both in my home today.

The Bridge of Sighs, in the background, spans one of the inland canals in Venice.

The Bridge of Sighs, in the background, spans one of the inland canals in Venice.

Our introduction into Italian cooking was a full-on experience. We took a large gondola over to Burano Island, which is lined with brightly colored pastel houses, to enjoy a seven-course lunch of fresh seafoods, homemade pastas and breads, olives and everything else you think of when craving Italian food. Upon our return to St. Mark’s Square we saw all the outdoor tables in the square had been removed and walking risers installed. Feeling perplexed, we stood with other tourists waiting for the show – the show was high tide that comes in and covers St. Mark’s Square for minimal time and then recedes and life resumes like nothing had ever happened.

Next it was on to Florence. Ah, Florence – land of exquisite leather goods at amazing prices – I think I bought 8 pairs of gloves – red, blue, black, brown, lined, unlined, zippered, unzippered. I stood with mouth agape for eons looking at the colorful architecture of the Duomo (Florence Cathedral) – stones of lush forest greens, soft mint greens, with deep blood reds infused into graying whites make up the structure. Michelangelo’s David, one of the world’s most reproduced and famous statues, stands in all its nude glory in the Accadamia Gallery. And what a treat to watch most every Italian dressed to the nines, going to work, going shopping, stopping for an espresso, heading to lunch or dinner. No occasion was too small or too big to “be seen.”

The Duomo in Florence, showcasing the locally mined stone used to build this beautiful cathedral.

The Duomo in Florence, showcasing the locally mined stone used to build this beautiful cathedral.

No trip to Italy would be complete without a visit to the iconic city of Rome. We needed two full days to tour structures that make Rome exactly that – iconic:

Colosseum – replete with costumed gladiators standing guard at the gates and more than ready to take a picture with you for a few euros; a structure so massive you stand in awe to think of how it was built, so many centuries ago. Close your eyes and imagine the stands filled with patrons watching gladiators fight or the chariot races – kings and queens on one side, peasants on the other.

Trevi Fountain – It was here I finally understood the energy level of our tour guide, Eliana, who speaks 5 languages and herded her 32 charges from multiple countries through 9 countries in 14 days with such fortitude. She grabbed my arm and we ran across the street from the highly ornate marble Trevi fountain to her favorite Italian espresso caffe’. As I began to sip my espresso Eliana giggled and said,”No, slam it like a shot of whisky!” After that boost we took our coin change and she showed me how you stand with your back to the fountain, throw a coin over your left shoulder with your right hand and make a wish.

Tucked in the middle of residential and retail buildings, the Trevi Fountain has not lost its lustre as a tourist draw.

Tucked in the middle of residential and retail buildings, the Trevi Fountain has not lost its lustre as a tourist draw.

Catacombs – definitely not for the faint of heart (or tall people), but an amazing site to see the size of these ancient people and intellectual engineering of these unending funeral tunnels. We visited the Catacombs of Domatilla, built beyond the only subterranean basilica, are the oldest (2nd century), largest (9 miles of tunnels) and the only catacombs to still hold bones.

The Vatican – this independent state within Rome encapsulates everything that is Italian culture – architecture, art and Catholicism. We spent a full day on the grounds: standing in a 3-hour line to bare witness to Michelangelo’s iconic ceiling murals in the Sistine Chapel; tried to absorb the immensity of St. Peter’s Basilica – the anchor of Vatican City; and finish up with an Italian gelato on the Spanish Steps.

St. Peter's Basilica bathed in the light from the setting sun.

St. Peter’s Basilica bathed in the light from the setting sun.

Our final stop in Italy landed us in Pisa. There are no words or pictures that can truly convey this anomaly of architecture finished in 1372. It defies all logic how this tower not only was built with this much tilt (where were the inspectors?) – because of being built on ground that was softer on one side; but that it never fell over prior to being stabilized in the 20th century. The 4 degrees of lean may not sound like much, but I didn’t step up to the front of the line to check out the view from the top.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa. What else is there to say.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa. What else is there to say.

Betwixt and between these amazing cities lay the Tuscan hillsides, with their long cypress lined driveways leading up to magnificent villas just waiting for visitors to come sit on their verandas to relax with a glass of Barolo, nibble on estate grown olives and almonds, while reading a favorite book. Hopefully my next trip to Italy those visions will come to fruition.

(A special thank you for the use of pictures from “A Portrait of Italy” by Dwight V. Gast)

St. Petersburg – Part 1: Drunk on beauty

Following is a post written by my first guest blogger (and daughter), Allison Malecha, assistant editor at Grove Atlantic Publishers, a published poet and a great travel companion. Allison is a graduate of Columbia University with a degree in Comparative Literature and the Humanities – with a focus on the languages of French and Czech. Allison has traveled the world extensively, with extended studies or internships in Paris, Prague, Amman, Oxford and Florence. She brings to her writing a very old soul with a very young heart. 

St. Petersburg is a city that has had many names—Saint Petersburg at its founding by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, Petrograd in 1914 after the fall of the tsarist monarchy, Leningrad following Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, returned to its original moniker in 1991 after the fall of communism, and nicknamed “Piter” throughout. My phone, set to Czech, still called it Petrohrad.

However you title it, the city is Russia’s second largest, and it is the northernmost big city in the world, with just under five million inhabitants. From 1713 to 1728 and again from 1732 to 1918, the city was the capital of Russia (the governmental seat then moved to Moscow)—and its monumental architecture and wide Parisian boulevards fit that bill. But the fact that the city is basically an assortment of swampy islands bisected by the Neva River, which runs from Lake Ladoga in the northeast to the Gulf of Finland in the west, keeps it from achieving anything like a grid. Partly because of this, and partly because I spent my seven days in the city with a friend who is fluent in Russian acting as my 24-hour guide, I still had trouble navigating the 10-minute walk from my friend’s apartment to Nevsky Prospekt, the famed artery of St. Petersburg, until the very end of my trip.

A map of St. Petersburg showing the highlighted attractions and the many waterways off the Neva River that flows through the city from Ladoga Lake on the east side to the Gulf of Finland on the west side

The first step, though, to seeing St. Petersburg, or any of Russia, is just plain getting there. You need a visa, and to get a visa, you need an invitation, which you can buy for around $30 on this website. It looks fake and feels fake and is fake, but it works. The same site also directs you to the visa application, which you fill out online and then finish processing at a visa issuing office. The total cost for me was around $150, but the price varies depending on time constraints and type of visa.

Once inside the St. Petersburg airport, I wasn’t asked a single question by the customs officer, and with the tap of a button inside her glassy cubicle, I was let loose on the whole beautiful city. I had flown in from Prague, and the colors of St. Petersburg’s buildings looked sober to me in comparison: yellows, beiges, and peaches instead of greens, pinks, blues. But I soon learned that these more stately exteriors hid many vibrant treasures: from the Hermitage’s Golden Drawing Room to the jewel-encrusted eggs cushioned in gleaming display cases at the newly opened Fabergé Museum.

The Gold Drawing-Room at the Hermitage

The Gold Drawing-Room at the Hermitage

My first full day was Thursday, May 1st, and since the Hermitage Museum offers free entry to all visitors on the first Thursday of every month, my friend and I stood for an hour and a half in the cold to avoid paying for tickets. Once inside, every goosebump became well worth it. My mom has mentioned Versailles here, but the rooms of the Hermitage, Russia’s most famous art museum and the former residence of the Russian monarchs, made the Hall of Mirrors look chintzy in comparison. Truth be told, I couldn’t describe a single painting or sculpture I saw, but I can remember feeling awe in a room done entirely in gold leaf, putting my hand around a crystal doorknob the color of a ruby and the size of a tennis ball, and craning my neck in each room to gaze at the wooden ceilings, intricately carved and painted pale blue and white, or cream and gold, or in splashes of color formed into murals.

Me in front of the Hermitage

Me in front of the Hermitage

Ruby red crystal door knob, the size of a tennis ball, on a door at the Hermitage Museum

Ruby red crystal door knob, the size of a tennis ball, on a door at the Hermitage Museum

Ceiling at the Hermitage

Highly ornate ceiling at the Hermitage

The large-scale extravagance of the Hermitage is mirrored in miniature at the Fabergé Museum, just off Nevsky Prospekt along the Fontanka Canal. One of St. Petersburg’s newest treasures, the museum has only been open to the general public since April and still must be experienced through a Russian-language tour. But it is worth finding an interpreter, or screwing comprehension altogether, to ogle the imperial eye candy on display. The French and German-trained jeweler Carl Fabergé began making his priceless ostrich-egg-sized artifcats—often fashioned from mother of pearl and spackled with gems—for Tsar Alexander III in the 1880s and continued it as an Easter tradition for his successor Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia. The yolks of these eggs are the real treat—pint-sized portraits or gem-covered toys that reveal themselves through impressive feats of mechanization. The museum’s collection doesn’t end with the eggs, though; Fabergé designed everything from cigarette cases to dinner plates to icons, a staple of traditional Russian households. And it’s all housed in the elegantly restored Shuvalov Palace, which once saw some of the finest fêtes in St. Petersburg come through its ballrooms.

The only picture I was able to take of the Faberge' Exhibit at the Shuvalov Palace

The only picture I was able to take of the Faberge’ Exhibit at the Shuvalov Palace

As in any big city, St. Petersburg’s art doesn’t end indoors. For each of the five million living, breathing inhabitants, there seems to be a stony-faced statue. St. Petersburg boasts more statues than any city I’ve ever seen: scientists and tsars, politicians and literary greats, and a Lenin and Pushkin for every neighborhood. Carved into the walls of subway stations and building facades, guarding the many bridges, and standing proudly in every square and half-square of the city. Some of my favorites were the self-effacing Raskolnikov (Dostoevsky’s murderous protagonist in Crime & Punishment) on Stolyarny, and the immense Lenin in front of Finland Station, one hand clutching at his armpit, the other thrust outward at an invisible crowd. The day we visited, we were the revolutionary’s only audience, along with a cluster of snowflakes the clouds had suddenly let loose from the sky. The most renowned statue, though, is the Bronze Horseman, along the bank of the Neva and not far from the Hermitage. Catherine the Great’s 1782 tribute to her idol Peter, the statue is mounted atop the “Thunder Stone,” which the Russians claim to be the largest stone ever moved by man at 1,500 tons.

Lenin statue in Lenin Square in front of Finland Station

Lenin statue in Lenin Square in front of Finland Station

Unlike in most European cities, almost all of these statues are secular in nature. But as anyone who has read Russian literature—and if you haven’t, Crime & Punishment is an excellent place to start—knows, Russian Orthodoxy is integral to the nation’s culture, and remained so even through 60 years of communist state-imposed atheism. The orthodox church’s onion domes strongly flavor the skyline: from the coal-colored domes of Vladimirskiya, which Dostoevsky frequented while writing the Brothers Karamazov, to the Candy Land-esque spires of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The name of the latter hints at its origin story: it was built at the end of the 19th century by Tsar Alexander III in honor of his father, on the spot where he was fatally wounded by a bomb-throwing anarchist. I could have walked around the building for hours, analyzing its deep rainbow shades and flourishes of gold. But after waiting in line for a ticket, I walked inside the cathedral. Though every wall is covered floor-to-atrium in mosaics, I felt less that awe-inspired. Not because I’m unreligious, though that’s true, but because my head immediately became filled with the snaps and clacks of cameras capturing every tiled face and lit candle. I couldn’t concentrate, and after one tour, I pushed my way back outside.

Church of the Spilled Blood

Church of the Spilled Blood

Earlier that same day I had resented Fabergé’s no-photography policy—compounded by the fact that its museum store seemed indefinitely closed for business—but my experience at the Church on Spilled Blood (for short) made me think they might have had the right idea. Sometimes, the beauty of a city, especially a city as overflowing in beautiful things as St. Petersburg, is better sipped in silence.

 

To Paris with Love: rain or shine this city lights up life

Back across the pond, to a city that mesmerizes me. Paris. There is as much to do in this beautiful city as there is in any other major city I’ve visited across the world, but the culture and attitude beg you to breathe, to slow down, to enjoy. So counterintuitive to how we American’s live.

What Parisians have is unique, magical and oh so creative. The architecture, the museums, the gardens, the food, the wine – have all been created for their own enjoyment, not to lure in tourists. But lure in multitudes of tourists is what all these showcased works of art has done. Sadly, to the dismay of a lot of locals. The hurry-up go-go-go attitude of westerners must be like nails on a chalkboard for most Parisians. I was once scolded by a Parisian when talking in English to my family, “When in Paris, do as the Parisians do!” In short, do not taint our culture with yours.

I may not have learned to speak French, but I have learned after a few trips to Paris, to not hurry or force the days activities. To do Paris justice, it is best to plan on being there a week plus. Spend several days getting the rush, rush attitude of home out of your system by seeing all the major sites: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe’, Champs Elysees’, Versailles….

The Louvre, Paris

The Louvre, Paris

Arc de Triumphe', with the tip of the Eiffel Tower in the background, Paris

Arc de Carrousel, with the Eiffel Tower peering over the treetops in the background, Paris

Then go back and do it all over again, but this time grab a bench outside the Eiffel Tower or along the Champs Elysees’ and watch the people, take in the whole of what you are experiencing. Take a long stroll along the Seine, both sides, grab a book at one of the many kiosks along the way, or better yet book a dinner cruise and enjoy French cuisine showcasing their magnificent sauces paired with an exquisite French wine. Take that book you bought and grab a seat at one of the many city gardens or French cafe’s and lose yourself into the poetry of the book and of your surroundings, while sipping a cafe’ au lait.

Reading a book on the steps of the National Opera House, Paris

Reading a book on the steps of the National Opera House, Paris

Streak and frites, smothered in a rich thyme butter sauce, Le Relais L'Entrecote, Paris

Streak and frites, smothered in a rich thyme butter sauce, Le Relais L’Entrecote, Paris

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

One of many versions of a cafe' au lait, Paris

One of many versions of a cafe’ au lait, Paris

I do not consider myself to be an overly creative person, but in Paris I feel a desire to test that element. Being creative can be painting still life or writing poetry, or it can be simply learning to slow down enough to appreciate the true masters exhibited from past and present. Sitting in front of a Monet, allowing you to see the depth of colors, the different brush strokes, the layers of the landscape is worth every deep breath needed to force you to slow down enough to see these elements.

640px-Claude_Monet_038.jpg

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Monet_038.jpg#filelinks

Where to eat: Anywhere! You can’t go wrong – whether a local creperie, a brasserie serving a baguette filled with brie cheese and jambon (ham), or fine dining on lobster at Chez Julien (circa 1780.) French macarons at Laduree’ on the Champs Elysees’ or at Pierre Herme’ (try the ice cream filled ones).

What to do: Rain or shine – and be prepared for both – walk, walk, walk. Any direction you go you come across amazing architecture, museums, cafe’s, parks….Some favorite stops: Musee’ de l’Orangerie, Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Bon Mache’ (for shopping), Luxembourg Gardens.

Check out more Paris pics in the Global Gallery.