Sunday, June 5, 2016

Sun? Sun!

I have just been hit by the first ray of sun I've seen in a week.  Sitting on the couch in the apartment I suddenly realized that the light coming in the window was the sun.  Getting up off the couch was the next step.  Despite the grim weather we've been averaging about four miles a day and this afternoon I finally felt the need to put my feet up for a while.

But we can't let this pass, who knows when the sun might be out again, so we dashed out for a walk as did everyone else in the area.  Suddenly streets that had been echoingly empty were filled with strollers and finding an outdoor café table became a challenge.  We finally played tourist and snagged a table at Deux Magots to watch people pass by.  For the first time in a week I wore my sandals, wore no jacket and left the umbrella at home.  Summer might really show her face.

Earlier in the day we had checked out the Seine to see what the water level was.  Late Friday was when it was expected to peak and then begin to recede.  It did in fact look about 8-12 inches lower, judging by the water marks on the tree trunks that had been submerged.  The rising river had become THE tourist attraction of Paris, particularly as nearly all the museums near the river had closed to move threatened art from lower storage levels to safety on a higher floor.  The Louvre and Orsay museums continue to be closed until Tuesday, but the Grand Palais had reopened after only a day so we walked over there to see "Carambolages", a cleverly curated exhibition of many different works in many media, all hung to lead thematically from one to the next, like a row of dominoes. Very interesting and well worth the visit, as the Michelin guide would say.

Dinner at the apartment for only the second time in a week.  All this eating is getting old.  In Sicily I had been suffering from a bit of indigestion and had had very little appetite, which helped my waistline.  Here I'm eating as usual and the four or five miles of walking per day is only keeping it from growing back.

Postscript: woke up this morning to bright sun!  Fingers crossed for the rest of the week, despite the forecast.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Washed Away

So we headed for Paris, arriving on the rainiest day I've seen since Venice.  What is it with the weather in Europe lately?  In California climate change gives us drought.  In Europe it gives us floods. Yes, really.  Floods.  The Seine in Paris has risen to the Zouave's feet.  You probably don't have any idea what I'm talking about, but there is a statue of a colonial soldier called a Zouave on one of the bridges crossing the Seine in the center of Paris.  Traditionally the height of the river is measured by how high on the Zouave the water reaches.  His feet?  Pretty high.

We crossed the river today and did a double take.  All the riverside roads, i.e. the lower banks, where traffic runs along the Right Bank and where the Left Bank road has been replaced with pedestrian walks and cafés, and where in July the city installs a little "beach" called Paris Plage for Parisians who can't leave the city on vacation, all of this is underwater.  The barges and sightseeing boats are floating way too high and the arches under the bridges are not high enough above the water level to permit boat transit.  The underground Memorial to the Deportees at the point of the Ile de la Cité behind Notre Dame is closed because the crypt is inundated.  This is serious.

Not far from Paris, we see on the news, traffic on a major national highway is stalled because of flooding and drivers have been taken to shelters for the night.  Some towns are evacuating hospitals and prisons, not to mention private homes.  Not the kind of thing you think about when going on vacation.  

With luck, the next few days will be relatively dry. It didn't rain today.  Yesterday we went out to find Gene a waterproof jacket, something he got away without in the rain in Venice but it's worse here.  And today I bought a pair of sturdier shoes and an raincoat.  Those sandals I brought won't cut it.

We've set up a number of dates with old friends, dinners, drinks, movies.  We wander a bit saying things like "oh look, didn't that shop use to be a bar?"  We can't seem to work up much enthusiasm for going to the hot new restaurants even if I knew what they were.  It's quite nice sitting in a familiar café watching the world go by.  

Speaking of the world, much less of it seems to be here.  I've heard few American voices and the streets are much less crowded than a usual early June.  There's a sort of blanket of quiet over the city, which may of course just be the cloud cover.  People have said that business has been picking up after all the terrorist attacks but that the weather is keeping tourists away.  I don't think it's just tourists.  My very uninformed impression is that Parisians are staying home as well.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Getting Out of Dodge

OK, we are sitting in the Palermo airport waiting for our flight to Paris and I have to tell you our brief feeling of content in Piazza Armerina evaporated pretty quickly.  In Agrigento we checked into the Villa Athena, the only hotel actually on the grounds of the Archeological Park of the Valley of the Temples.  The Villa has rooms with views of the Temple of Concordia and we snagged one when we made the reservation.  Well, sort of.  The view was from the little terrace attached to the room but it was nice nonetheless, particularly since the line of temples on the crest of the hill was visible from the dining terrace and the swimming pool as well. You will get that it was a nice hotel.

We arrived, had lunch and in the late afternoon headed for the temples.  Two of these are impressively virtually intact, another couple are just lines of standing columns.  Coming close to them is an extraordinary feeling, trying to imagine a life that included them even more so. 

The greatest of them is a collection of blocks that represent the Temple of Jupiter which stood about 90 feet tall, and the length and breadth of a football field.  The upper part of the exterior walls were held up by male figures called Telemons, at least 25 feet high.  One remains in the local museum and dwarfs anyone standing nearby.  A walk along the length of the valley takes about three hours.  It's hot and tiring but well worth it.

Getting back to the hotel I stepped out on our terrace and heard American voices from the tables below.  I moved closer, past the blocking plantings, and saw my doctor from Berkeley not ten feet away.  Smaller and smaller world.  I decided not to ask her about my troublesome indigestion.

There must be tourists who do their in-depth research and spend days seeing the wonders of the Valley of the Temples.  We are not among them.  We thought of going back the next morning but didn't.  Instead we drove out to see another less historic sight that several local people had recommended us not to miss, the Scala dei Turchi, Turkish Staircase.  We managed to get lost on the way and found ourselves in Porto Empedocle, the hometown of Andrea Camilleri, author of the much loved Inspector Montalbano series of mystery novels.  Italian TV ran this show for 12 seasons, the most popular in TV history.  Although Camilleri changes the names of the towns, Porto Empedocle is meant to be Montalbano's Vigatà and bar owners all over town use Vigatà or Montalbano in their business names.  It was this show playing for a time on US television that seduced us into coming to Sicily.  Great art direction, not so much a reflection of reality we have learned.

When we finally got to the Scala dei Turchi we were underwhelmed once again. A white chalk cliff steps down to the sea.  That's it.  Maybe we had just reached the point where nothing would please us, like cranky children.  

Yesterday morning we hit the road for Palermo where we would spend one night before this morning's flight.  We had originally planned to spend a week before I upended the schedule to decamp for Paris. We can only say thank god.  Palermo has some wonderful old churches, mostly rundown and crumbling away.  Other than that, niente.  True, we missed seeing some of the most important sights because the Palazzo Normanni closed at noon and we couldn't stop at Monreale to see the renowned mosaics on our way into town as we had been warned by local people not, on any account, to leave our baggage in the car while visiting the Duomo. There are many people who love Palermo, who rave about its markets, its street life.  It was a Sunday we spent there so the shops were closed and the traffic limited by a military parade.  We had some forgettable food at a table in the street at what looked like a popular place in the Vucceria market, and later had a good meal at a trattoria.

On the way to dinner we thought we would find a café to have a drink and watch the passeggiata, hundreds of people of all ages watching each other walk up and down the main streets off the Piazza Politeana, but apparently Palermitano culture doesn't permit sitting and watching.  No cafés along the streets.  At all.  It appears you have to keep moving like a school of sharks until you go home for dinner.

I'm sounding pretty grumpy,  I know, but in fact I'm grateful we recognized our lack of connection with Sicily early enough to do something about it and I'm quite happy to be waiting for the flight to rainy Paris.  You can't have everything.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Mi dispiace, Sicily

I owe Sicily an apology.  We left Noto yesterday feeling we had made a mistake coming to Sicily.  We hadn't much cared for Siracusa, we loved our hotel in Noto but didn't think much of the town, we visited Modica and based on that decided not to visit Ragusa.  We found the landscape dull.  We were on a "no" roll. We were wrong, at least in part.

Yesterday morning we left for an overnight visit to Piazza Armerina, a middling size town that is the closest point to the Villa Romana del Casale, an enormous Roman villa that had been covered by a landslide and forgotten for 700 years, leaving the spectacular and extensive mosaics protected and for the most part intact.  We drove to Piazza Armerina through the countryside on the Catania-Palermo autostrada, a countryside completely different than that of the southeastern part of Sicily where we had been so far.  Here we had green fields, enormous rolls of hay, hills that felt more like Tuscany.  It was lovely.  When we reached Piazza Armerina we checked into a B&B in the modern part of town, above a café, someplace we would typically not consider, but it was great.  Modern, clean, well decorated, great shower, nice owner. Unlike the fancier places we had been staying I was forced to use my Italian.  No one we met in Piazza Armerina spoke English.  

The mosaics were extraordinary.  It was blazing hot but with enough of a wind to make it not too uncomfortable and we kept on and on, through thousands of square feet of room floors, all covered in exquisite mosaic scenes. We've seen a lot of ancient remains over the years but these were special.

The guide at the Villa suggested a bar for us to have a light dinner and when we mentioned the name to the girl behind the bar at "our" café she told us it was her uncle's place.  Once we got there I told the barman we had been sent by his niece.  This was the beginning of a conversation with him, his wife, his son (who made the delicious arancini the bar was known for), various neighbors who dropped in to get their own arancini, the niece from the café, the niece's old high school teacher, who rushed back home to bring us some fresh cherries after I said the ones we had bought were no good, and a nurse from Lago Maggiore who was back home visiting the family and tossing back a few glasses of vino bianco.  We discussed the lack of outdoor tables in the old part of Piazza Armerina, which led to a discussion about the venality of local politicians who were concerned only with lining their own pockets rather than improving local business conditions, which led to the differences between countries and their politicians, which led to travel and to work and to retirement and...

After a round of cheek kisses we found our way home and fell happily asleep.  A good day in Sicily.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


I have grown to detest travel, by which I mean the transfer from one place to another. The shortest trip by air takes at least 2 hours longer than the actual flight and often much more. And don't get me started on connections. 

All of this is by way of saying getting from Venice to Siracusa Sicily was a long slog. A water taxi to the airport, a delayed flight to Rome, a delayed flight to Catania, a 30 minute taxi ride to Siracusa and a jerk of a hotel manager on arrival. Basta!

The desk clerk though is a sweetie and a drink and a bite to eat helped immensely.  The first morning we wandered out into Ortygia, the oldest and most charming part of the city, early enough to enjoy it before the tour groups arrived.

Later we are sitting on stone benches (thin cushions provided) in the ancient Greek theater waiting for a production of Sophocles Electra in Italian. Go figure. We weren't sure what to expect but it was incredible! Great acting and a full Greek choir in red robes. A truly super experience!

Repeated wandering around Ortygia, a visit to the large and somewhat dilapidated archeological museum, and several reasonably good meals later, we were ready to leave, not enormously impressed so far with our Sicilian experience.

The next morning we walked around the corner to the car rental office where I asked jokingly whether they had an automatic shift vehicle.  

When I booked the car through AutoEurope I was told it was virtually impossible to get an automatic in Sicily and if we could they price would triple.  So I borrowed a stick shift car from a friend and renewed my 30 year lapsed acquaintance with the standard gearshift.  I felt reasonably secure with it and Gene had expressed a preference de for me to drive, so I was ready to bite the bullet, putting out of my mind winding roads, sheer drop offs and Sicilian drivers.  Well, somewhat out of my mind. Or was it I that was out of my mind?

I did a double take when the agent said that he was giving me an automatic shift for the same price.  Apparently an American had rented it, turned it in the day before, and this Good Samaritan agent had assumed we would want it so he held it for us til the morning!  I was overjoyed and relieved.  It's pretty big and I can't figure out how to turn off the radio without also eliminating the GPS, but va bene.

I've never used a GPS before and have little trust in it but Gene assures me it's working perfectly and the fact that he can't navigate his way to the grocery store will not be an issue.  So far so good.

Our next stop was Noto, only 45 minutes away but I fell in love with the hotel when I found it online and decided it would be our base for driving around the area.  The 7 Rooms Villadorata is part of one of the most important palazzos in town and has been done up beautifully by the woman who owns it.  Our room is about 15 feet x 20 feet, 20 foot ceilings, two floor to ceiling French doors opening onto a balcony, cool tile floors, a great huge shower, breakfasts served on the roof terrace overlooking the countryside...need I go on?  Need I ever leave the building?

Well maybe, but leaving it isn't all that satisfying.  I have a confession to make.  We aren't particularly enamored of Sicily.  At all.  Everyone we've ever talked to about it raved and we watched a lot of the Italian police series Commissario Montalbano and were seduced by the overhead shots of the landscape.  Why would we expect to be....bored?  But we are.  Too many churches in Venice maybe.

Yesterday we bit the bullet and rearranged our trip, dropping a vineyard resort and a week in Palermo and getting out of Dodge.  We're flying to Paris a week early, after a visit to the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento.  How did we ever think a week in Palermo could beat an extra week in Paris? 

N.B. You might notice the absence of photos on this post.  For some reason my iPad is rebelling and I can't get it to show the photos I've been taking with the iPhone.  The cloud is not cooperating.  I'll figure it out and post photos somehow.  Meanwhile, check my Instagram account: shellioreck.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Veniced Out

We are alone again, all our friends from Paris gone back and the rain over for a few days.  We haven't been doing much sightseeing as such, rather wandering around, stopping for coffee or a spritz, watching parents bringing their children home from school, chatting to friends they meet in the campo.  

We who go everywhere in cars no longer have the experience of running into our neighbors in the street, of knowing what time the old lady across the way goes out to do her shopping, and of being part of the fabric of a neighborhood.  Certainly privacy and the nuclear family experience have its advantages but we've lost something we may not even have known we had.  In Venice it's definitely still here.

We did drop into the Accademia for an hour to see some of the collection.  There was no line for tickets and the galleries were nearly empty.  When we had looked in on the weekend it was jammed, with dozens of people waiting to buy tickets.  Lesson for the future, avoid Venice on the weekend if possible.

There is not much in the way of street performers, just one fellow who plays music on drinking glasses who moves from one tourist passage to another, but yesterday we heard some lovely music up ahead and found this fellow swinging on the top of the wellhead in Campo San Barnaba.  He was very good.

We found ourselves on the Zattere for lunch, with a wonderful view across to Giudecca and boats of all sizes going by.  Someone had recommended Ristorante Riviera to us and there it was so we sat down under the umbrellas on the dock and had a delicious lunch of poached sous vide egg on tiny thin asparagus, two kinds of seafood pasta and pieces of grilled beef with vegetables.  Do you realize how difficult it is to get vegetables in a Venetian restaurant?!  

We're ready to leave Venice and head to Sicily but we have another two days here.  I think we'll take a boat out to Burano today and explore among the pastel painted houses and shops selling lace made in China.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Living in Another Century

Saturday morning was bright and sunny and our moods matched.  Gene and I set off to meet G and M to visit the Scuola San Rocco, a treasure house of Tintorettos virtually around the corner from the apartment.  The Scuola is one of the religious confraternities established to honor a particular religious figure, e.g. the Virgin, one saint or another.  These organizations are centuries old and are meant to do good works and honor their patron.  Scuola San Rocco has always been a particularly rich scuola and hired Tintoretto, a member of the scuola, to paint the ceilings and walls.  

The lower level is quite impressive, but the upper hall is breathtaking.  Virtually every inch is painted and painted beautifully, and whatever is not painted is carved or gilded.  Particularly striking is the consistency of vision.  It's rare to find a place like this done by the hand of the same master.  I wish my photos could do it justice.

Later in the day a different vision of the heyday of Venice was opened up by a visit to Ca' Rezzonico, the museum of 17th century Venice.  Built by one of the enormously rich and powerful Venetian families, it was allowed to deteriorate as so many of the palazzi were when the fortunes of the city and her ruling class declined at the beginning of the 18th century.  Restored and opened to the public, it offers a glimpse of what it must have been like to be Venetian aristocracy.  It was a little bit like too much rich cake covered with whipped cream.  I couldn't manage to get to the third floor to see the painting museum.

And the day spent in the past was not yet over.  We joined the organization called Musica a Palazzo which puts on considerably edited operas in multiple rooms of a faded palazzo with an excellent small orchestra and three very very good singers. We followed Violetta, Alfredo and Giorgio from salon to salon to bedroom as they put on La Traviata.  We were as close to them as if we were attending the same party and what a swell party it was.

Happily the palazzo is very close to the Gritti Palace hotel, so obviously we had to all go have a very expensive but well worth it drink on the terrace as the sun set.  We'll never be able to stay there but the budget will run to a glass of Prosecco and a fantasy.

Exhausted yet? So were we but it was then that the skies opened and the lightning and thunder started.  We dashed to the vaporetto station (thank god they cover them!) and got the next boat.  The continuing dash through the twisting streets to the apartment left us breathless and soaking, but so what. It was Venice, both good and less so.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Trying to Keep Up


Wednesday was a miserable day, raining hard all day.  In all our visits to Venice I realize I haven't had rain, at least more than a slight drizzle, if that.  This was what much of the winter must be like in this city on the Adriatic.  No thanks.

Our friend S. from Paris arrived mid afternoon, just about the time my phone credit ran out so I couldn't text or call her to change our planned sunny caffè meeting place to an inside venue.  Luckily there was only one direction she could go from the vaporetto.  Va bene.

Dinner that night was at what is probably the only restaurant in Venice that does not serve fish, La Bitta on Calle Largo San Barnaba.  I asked the native Venetian woman who owns it why she come to focus on meats and poultry.  "Because I hate fish!" she replied. "I can't even be in the same room with it!"  She must have been a trial to her mother growing up in Venice.

The next morning we got on a train to Padua to visit the Scrovegni Chapel, entirely frescoed by Giotto at the beginning of the 14th century with the life of Christ, his mother Mary and his grandfather Joachim.  One must make reservations in advance for a 20 minute window to view the chapel, preceded by a 15 minute stay in a stabilized antechamber to protect the condition of the 800 year old work, which, when you finally reach it, is extraordinary.  Giotto is credited with the creation of Renaissance painting.  In Dante's Purgatorio he is mentioned as having far surpassed Cimabue, the previously acknowledged genius of his time.  This is more than worth the 30 minute train ride from Venice.  I'm sorry not to have done it before.

Also very much worth seeing in Padua is the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua, one of the major pilgrimage sites of Europe.  Quite spectacular but equally interesting because of the pilgrims themselves, groups from many Catholic countries coming to touch and kiss the tomb of the saint in its very elaborate chapel.

A return to Venice and dinner at what may be our favorite restaurant in Venice, Antiche Carampane.  Hidden on a tiny street in San Polo, I only know one way to reach it and have to recreate my steps every time so as not to get lost in the alleys and canals.  It was worth the trouble, as usual, with the freshest fish cooked the most appetizing ways.  Moeche, delicious little soft shell crabs, were in season and incredible.

Unfortunately we had to recreate our out-of-the-way route the next day because we had left an umbrella there the night before.  This turned out to be reason to have a lunch of cicchetti standing at the bar at Bancogiro, between Rialto bridge and the fish market.  Delicious and filling at E10 for 3 of us.

We usually try to avoid Piazza San Marco at any cost.  The crowds and souvenir crap make me very annoyed.  But we were nearby at this point and Gene had seen some pictures of the elaborate marble flooring in the Basilica that he wanted to see so we went in, climbing only to the loggia level to see the mosaics as close as possible and the original horses that had been restored and moved into the museum.  Pretty good view of the Piazza from up there too.  Once every 30 years or so will do for me though.

A dash back to our neighborhood to meet G and M, friends from Paris who are spending a long weekend here, drinks at the apartment and dinner at our new favorite restaurant, Ai Artisti.  The sauté of mussels and clams in a ginger spiked sauce may be the best thing I've eaten all year.

And so to bed ( after a walk to help digest it all.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

On and On

No matter how much you see in Venice there's always more.  Yesterday's destination was the Fondazioni Querini-Stampalia Museum and Library in the Castello sestiere or district, pretty much across town from our apartment.  It's a palazzo that belonged to the Querini family for centuries and is now refurbished to give you an idea of what such a house might have been like when it was liven in.  Enormous, elegant, full of art, including an important and lovely Bellini, a portion of it, including the garden, has been redesigned and built by the modern architect Carlo Scarpa.  This too is wonderful.  For some reason I'm not able to upload yesterday's photos but I'll keep trying.

But there's always more, as I said.  On the way to the Q-S we stopped for a coffee and found ourselves in front of the church of Santa Maria Formosa, another place we'd never been before.  We stepped inside for a peek and wound up buying the Chorus Pass which allows free entrance to over a dozen of the more interesting churches in Venice for a year.  With this in hand we headed later to the church called I Gesuiti, the most Baroque church in Venice, but on the way we passed Santa Maria dei Miracoli, a tiny perfect little church of the 15th century in pink and white and pale green marble with a horde of little children released from school shouting and running in front of it.  No respectful silence here!  The Chorus Pass got us in to gaze at the portraits of Biblical and religious figures in the 50 individual coffered sections of the ceiling, along with some charming statues of St. Francis and Santa Chiara, to whom the church is dedicated.

Okay, that makes two stops we hadn't planned but were excited to have stumbled upon.  I Gesuiti is even farther away, just off the Fondamenta Nove, where you get the boats to the islands.  After missing the turning a few times we arrived at a huge church with gigantic statues on the roof which were difficult to see because of the close quarters in Venice.  No matter.  The interior is where the real show is.  Unlike most of the churches we've seen here, this one could be in Rome, with its tortured columns and marble draperies and faux marble painting all over the walls.  Baroque to the nth degree.

And then the eternal question.  How do we get home?  The easier (not actually easy, just easier) way is to walk to the nearest vaporetto stop.  The more adventurous (not to say cheaper) way is to walk all the way back.  Hearty adventurers that we are, we set out, fortified by a coffee and a tramezzino, the ubiquitous triangular white bread sandwich sold in every cafe.  Through the throngs in the center of town, over the Rialto bridge, where a stop for a Prosecco at Naranzaria keeps up the theme of fortification, through San Polo, past the church of I Frari, over a couple more bridges, under a few sotoportegos, streets that run like tunnels beneath buildings, and finally home.  Thank goodness Gene is willing to give foot rubs.

A mediocre dinner in the neighborhood and so to bed, with thanks to Samuel Pepys. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

On the Road Again

Well, in the air again anyway.  Coincidently exactly two years since we were last in Venice we're back, this time for a couple of weeks.  We are in an apartment with the view above, large, well located, convenient to pretty much anything, with one drawback that had never occurred to me: that pretty canal is sort of a major thoroughfare for motorized boat traffic and the bridge on the right leads to the huge Campo Santa Margherita, favorite hangout for the students of the Ca' Foscari University.  Especially on Saturday night.

So, let's talk about jet lag.  It's hell.  I know some people say they simply get over it, wake at 8:00 in the morning and hit the sights.  I think they're lying.  I'm lying too, in bed, sleepless until the time my body thinks is night.  In California.

One of the great advantages to staying in an apartment is you can have breakfast at noon (on your beautiful terrace.  Did I mention the beautiful terrace?) and not venture out until afternoon and no one looks askance at you for being such a lazy twit.  So that's what we did yesterday.

I've never had an activity app on my phone on previous visits but I now have evidence that a stroll around the narrow streets and over the bridges in your path during a typical "where the hell are we?" outing in Venice will cover about four miles a day.  With breaks for coffee, spritz, lunch, chats with darling old men standing in the doorway of 16th century palazzi, etc.  

I've been using my Italian as much as I can, trying not to let the Venetians, who mostly speak better English than I do, divert the conversation to make it easier on their ear.  I was particularly proud to understand a few sentences spoken to each other by people passing in the street.  Of course I find myself going blank often enough when trying to remember a word, and yesterday I wound up in a conversation in French because that's what came out of my mouth in spite of myself.  Well I assume it will get better.

Since we are awake and fed and dressed I think we'll get moving before we remember it's the middle of the night in California.  More later. A presto.