Ants and Virgins

Big bottomed ants, a virgin, and tropical dry forest add up to “the most beautiful city in Colombia”
January 6, 2018.
If you look at the CIA World Fact book, as I did, you’ll get an idea of the expanse of Colombia. Superimposing a Colombian map on the United States stretches the country the length of the Mississippi River, from Minneapolis to New Orleans. While we’ve sampled only a small part of it (we’re only 150 air miles from Bogota), but that includes a wide variety of habitats and a lot more than the 150 miles through the mountains. We’ve left the savanna behind in favor of high desert and canyons (and a 30 minute plane ride or 8 hour automobile ride back to Bogota, which says something about the transportation system. There are only a few “third generation” roads—six lane highways, and the road here, probably second generation, is a two-lane toll road that goes through every town, roughly following the ridges). As we’ve lost elevation, though still at around 4500 feet, we’ve passed through banana, orange, and coffee farms. The big product here, though, was tobacco.
Two things about that crop: first, it required sunshine, which mean most of the existing trees were cut down. The brochure on Barichara, where we’re staying in a charming boutique hotel, Moorish/Spanish style, says the tropical dry forest is the most endangered ecosystem of all, with only 2% remaining pristine. Tobacco and other agricultural pursuits have had a hand in that environmental change.
Second, the tobacco industry has declined, with the purchase of the local manufacturer by the British American Tobacco conglomerate. One result was a rather imaginative conversion of the old tobacco plant to a mall, with the foreman’s house converted to a museum. The exhausted tobacco lands need banned fertilizers to be productive again. The second-rate tobacco still produced here is for local consumption.
The current “cash crop,” however, is tourism, based around the 8000 population in Barichara. Legend has it that a peasant here around 1700 found a rock with the image of the Virgin, and convinced his friends to build a church, around which the town grew. The local clergy, however, condemned this as idolatry, destroyed the church, and built a “purified one” on the site in the mid 18th century. That church still stands, anchoring the square (which unlike Villa de Leyva has trees) that was and is the center of life in Spanish colonies.
The town is full of colonial and republican period homes, white adobe, housing the usual knick-knacks—like indigenous themed jewelry and textiles, specialty coffees and chocolates, restaurants and hotels. Eight thousand inhabitants live here, too. Surprisingly, you don’t see any modern construction in the city proper; the red tiles of the roofs and the hilly nature of the town provide part of the charm.
When we went for a walk to explore what there was, two visits stood out. One was a culture house, which local people created with a variety of gifts—art, cultural artifacts—and the docent who took us around shared a lot of information about the town.
The other visit was to the Paper Museum. It’s an NGO operation designed to provide gainful employment to women. The museum grows a variety of plants that can be turned into paper (did you know pineapple can be made into paper?), gives tours, and creates a variety of paper products for sale. I really liked the lampshades, but I’m certain I’d have shreds if I tried to bring one back.
The town overlooks a deep valley, and the upper part of the town is where one finds the inevitable Liberator statue. What I learned there is that the Boyaca battle ended the war for Colombian independence. There were battles fought to liberate the other countries (the five were Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela; I had listed Panama, but that country did not exist until Theodore Roosevelt helped convince revolutionaries there to separate it from Colombia around 1905 so the US could build the Panama Canal).
It was on that walk we purchased the fried big-bottomed ants that are considered a local delicacy. The “princesses” are captured as they attempt to fly out of the nest to start new colonies, deprived of wings, and roasted.
Supposedly, the ants date back to the indigenous Guane people who inhabited this area from about 1000 a.d. until they were assimilated (or annihilated) by the Spanish. Relatives of the Muisca, they were reputedly taller and lighter-skinned than their neighbors.
We learned more about the Guane today at a museum at what purported to be a National Park, which turned out to be a private park. Located at a breathtaking canyon that drops over 3000 feet (“Gran Canon” in local advertisements), the park had a water park, bungee jumping, a zip line, and the second longest cable car ride in the world. We took the last named, which dropped 2500 feet or so to the floor, then went up about 3500 feet to the other side, where we spent an hour wandering among the live traditional entertainers, local foods, and tchotchkes.
So if you want to eat ants (another local delicacy I tried was a mixture of goat intestines) and stay in what was voted the most beautiful old Spanish village in Colombia, you have to come to Barichara. Like we did.
The next day—the ride to Bucaramanga duplicated part of the previous day’s ride through the mountains on a two-lane toll road, but detoured to visit a coffee farm The company, Hacienda de Roble, has been in business for over 150 years. Coffee grown for export has to meet strict standards. Like tobacco, certain soils and weather are important for growing the crop. A lesser brand, apparently not meeting global tastes, is sold locally. We got to taste four main varieties (there are over 300 different varieties of coffee), and I thought it was easier to tell the difference between the $5 Port and the $50 Port than to distinguish varieties of coffee, which can be even more costly than expensive Port. The farm has a garden with supposedly 72 varieties of coffee, mostly variants of Arabica (you can tell by the name it’s not native to Colombia), fertilized by chicken manure…..Ask for HR-61 if you want to try a coffee developed at the farm.
What impressed Carolyn was the Hacienda. Built by a woman artist in the 1860s, and now a boutique hotel, it’s in the Spanish colonial style. Set on the Mesa de los Santos, at roughly a mile high, the house would make for a comfortable stay. No wonder Carolyn said our next trip should be to visit other haciendas.
Time to go home to our own villa, though. No more mesas, mountains, or colonial villages. Sigh.

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Villa de Leyva 2 January 4, 2018

January 4, 2018
Villa de Leyva (continued)
When we got to explore the city and the region, I found Villa all that I hoped it would be. The Plaza Mayor, the largest public square in Colombia (perhaps outside of Bogota), surrounded by cobblestone streets, and lovely old colonial architecture—the stucco with balconies or overhangs with arched walkways—looked like something out of a movie set (as indeed it has been featured in a number of movies and TV programs); we were lucky we got there early, when the square was relatively empty, and the tourists still recovering. We pretty much had the square to ourselves, and headed for the old colonial church that marks it; the church dates from the 16th century.
The area around Villa has been settled for a long time. The combination of salubrious weather, and enough water from the mountain run off, has made it a desirable location even before the wealthy from Bogota scouted it out for summer homes (some of which are truly palatial).
We set out to visit four tourist spots, ranging from several hundred million years ago to the present. Working from the ancient—this area was part of a sea as the great continent broke apart. That accounts for the minerals here (salt among others), and fossils. Hence, one of the places we went to was a fossil museum. The centerpiece was a complete fossilized skeleton of a 36 foot “baby” seagoing dinosaur, a Kronosaurus. I’m glad I met him in this state; his teeth showed no signs of decay (no sugar in his diet), and his crocodile head made it clear who would win that battle. Interestingly (to me anyway), our guide said there were no restrictions on taking fossils from the country; human artifacts, however, can get you in a world of trouble. Not enough room for any of the sauras in my suitcase, except maybe a theo.
Closer to the present (maybe 1300-1500), I’ve mentioned the Muisca before, and they were here too. There are two sites locally—another lake (where humanity began)—but we went to an astronomical observatory. It’s fascinating how various peoples who depended on agriculture figured out how to take advantage of weather or predict it. From Cahokia to Stonehenge to the Temple of Heaven in China, they found a way to determine the solstices and the equinox. Here, there were lines of stones running east to west, and when the sun cast shadows in the right places, people knew it was time to plant or to harvest. That information kept emperors in power in China (if nature cooperated). The grounds also contained a tomb of a prominent woman (Muisca were matrilineal) with four men. Unfortunately for posterity, the tomb was looted, so only bones were left—and the buried tomb was on a north-south axis).
Third tour spot was a former Dominican monastery. It had been overrun by armies since Independence, and fell into disuse, but is now a museum, and well preserved. What I appreciated most about it was the information was in three languages—Spanish, English, and French (French?), and was pretty basic about what had been the purpose of the rooms.
Taking us to the present was a visit to a vineyard. Chile is the South American standard for wines, and when I saw the empty bottles had all come on pallets from Chile, I knew that this was primarily for tourists. The wine is distributed locally, but I had no desire to bring the first (and probably only) bottle of it back to Bloomington-Normal.
When we came back to the Bell Tower Inn where we are staying, I went back to the square. One of the museums I wanted to see was dedicated to religious art, and another museum was residence and collection of Luis Acuna, a prominent 20th century artist. I liked both the artist’s house and his paintings, which were part of the Bachue movement. He incorporated a lot of local themes in his art, including a mural depicting the origin of the human race a la Muisca. The explanation takes about half the brochure for the museum, which is to say it’s a large and complex story, and a large and complex mural.
Withal, an interesting day in Villa de Leyva.

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Villa De Leyva (1)

Villa de Leyva January 3, 2018
The trip to this city took root over a year ago when, in Cartagena, I read in the Lonely Planet guidebook that Villa de Leyva was one of the best preserved colonial cities in South America. That and about $5 leftover Colombian pesos closed the deal for me.
It’s day three of our trip to inland Colombia, but we just arrived here in Villa de Leyva a few hours ago, having flown to Bogota and spent two nights there. A few observations on that capital city—of 7-10 million people on the savannah de Bacata, a plateau in the Andes that stretches several hundred miles (Bogota is at 4 degrees, 37 minutes north of the equator, at 8600 feet). The climate in Bogota is almost always the same, we were told; 66 during the day, 45 at night—only about a 75 degree difference from this week in Bloomington. That difference (the 10 degrees below in Bloomington) nearly cut short our trip by a day, since when we got to the airport Monday afternoon, I saw the dreaded “flight delayed” on the board, and a “We’ll do our best to reschedule your affected flights” email message. Fortunately for us, that delay coincided with a delay in Atlanta, which got us into Bogota on time.
We spent a full day in Bogota, and a full day getting to Villa, and here’s a few thoughts to share:
1) The pre-Colombian past lives not just in museums, but in some of the ways Colombia has addressed its indigenous population—rather like the Canadians have (recently) discussed and treated the first nation. The biggest local tribe, the Muisca, has recently been reorganized, and one of the visits (a 2 mile hike to a sacred lake—at 10000 feet) was on tribal land. Our guide told us that the history of the country has been rewritten to separate the arrival of the Europeans from the arrival of the first nations. The Muisca in particular had a reverence for the outdoors, especially the sun, earth, moon, and water. In Bogota, one of the first things we did was take a funicular ride up to almost 9000 feet for an overlook of the city. This mountain was sacred, and represented the sun. Of course, because it was sacred to the Muisca, the Spanish, who killed the last king of the tribe in the 16th century, built a church on it, and did the same on a neighboring hill, representing the moon.
The Muisca “coronated” kings in few area lakes (depending on the branch of the tribe). As I said, we went to one, which had a ceremonial house where the new king prepared for his “anointment” in the lake. On the specific day, he would go out on the water, and to give thanks for his people, deposit gold and emeralds (still two objects mined or found in Colombia) into the lake. Archeologists count 48 kings who went through the ceremony.
Being into shiny was one of the reasons for the Spanish conquest; the lake gave rise to the myth of an El Dorado of riches, but subsequent generations also sought the wealth supposedly beneath the waters. The Spanish tried in vain to drain the lake, as did more contemporary engineers. The government finally stepped in to preserve the lake, and entrance is now monitored and restricted.
The most impressive museum in Bogota (a city of contrasts; from the peak the guide showed us the old city, the centro, and the north—the economically well off; and then the south, which even from 9200 feet looked like favelas I’ve seen in Brazil and Chile, and townships in South Africa).

2) One of the consequences of Spanish rule is that Colombia is predominantly Catholic, and that’s reflected in a number of the churches we saw in Bogota, and on the way to Villa. The older churches in the capital reflect the wealth of the Church (the independence movement was not anti-clerical; that came much later), including several whose baroque interiors were by products of the wealth the new world gave to the old. Perhaps the most striking, however, was the “Cathedral of Salt.” Its origins were in the shrine at which miners prayed before going into the salt mines, or returned from them, thankful of surviving. When the original flooded in the 1990s, miners built a bigger one that was voted the “Number 1 Marvel in Colombia.” All underground, the entrance to the cathedral is via the Stations of the Cross, which ushers into a huge vaulted room that Pope Francis visited last year.
3) Colombian history has been politically troubled for hundreds of years. Bogota owes its settlement partly to the fertile savannah, but partly to the fact that it wasn’t on the ocean; the wealth of Cartagena of the Indies attracted pirates and the Dutch, French, and English who saw looting as a short cut to riches.
The turbulence in 20th century Colombia has contributed to the paucity of colonial-era buildings in Bogota. In 1948, a left-leaning presidential candidate was assassinated (think CIA?), which led to riots resulting in hundreds of homes being burned, and thousands of people killed. More recently, in the 1990s, one of the militant parties (the recent truce lured the FARC into running for government in return for turning in their arms; FARC was the last major anti-government force) seized the Judiciary building, along with hostages. The army besieged the building, with over 100 dead, including most judges, and the building had to be replaced.
Not all the violence has been counterproductive, and it has been interesting to follow the career of “The Liberator,” Simon Bolivar. I saw where he died, in Santa Marta, last year. This time, we visited the Quinta de Bolivar, a house given to him, which contained a replica of his sword (the M-19, one of the anti-government groups stole it in the 90s, and the recovered original is in the archives; a copy is in the Quinta).
While the center of Bogota is the Plaza de Bolivar, perhaps the most moving place for me was on our way here—the site of the Battle of Boyaca. Fought on August 7, 1819, it marked the end of the war for independence. On the hill above the bridge where the battle was fought, Colombians erected a statue to Bolivar with angels representing the five countries he liberated: Colombia-(which included Panama), Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and Panama. The hillside was still decorated for Christmas with a lot of topiary, including bicycles (honoring a local cyclist who is setting world records and triggering interest in cycling).
Independence in Colombia was the result of an almost a 10 year war, one that began in Bogota supposedly when a pure blood Spaniard refused to give a vase to a Colombian-born Spaniard (such were the distinctions made in 1810 when the government in exile—Napoleon’s brother was elevated to the throne–tried to rule the new world). The broken vase supposedly ignited the revolution; it’s in the museum of independence which I also visited.

The political structure that Bolivar sought to build—rather like the European union of the five countries—collapsed in the politics and past history and personalities of his generals and the countries concerned. Colombia itself has had trouble balancing centralization and federalism. Villa de Leyva faces the geographical diversity that is Colombia—forest, jungle, desert, etc. I look forward to seeing it in daylight. That’s for tomorrow.

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How to Spend One Day in Florence, but Don’t Try This At Home

August 22, 2017

With only one day, I had to plan carefully to get my ration of churches, forts, palaces—and here, Renaissance art museums.

I’m happy to say that, despite the challenges of being one among 22 million, I was reasonably successful.

The morning began with a local guide taking us past the highlights: the Duomo, the Medici palaces (two of them), the ancient bridge (14th century) still used today.  When the Medicis moved across the river, they changed the use of the bridge; previously it housed all kinds of vendors. The family objected to the smells of rotting meat, and so ordered the bridge to be used only by jewelers.  “Gold smells good,” someone quipped.

The tour took us past the religious center (the Duomo is larger than the one in Siena, which it resembles in the white and green striped marble). The Duomo can accommodate 30,000 worshippers, but had a hard time accommodating the 30,000 tourists, who wanted to take advantage of one of the few free attractioIt’s also the burial place of Michelangelo, who put Florence (and later the Vatican) on the art map.  He’s standing in front of the town hall, or at least a copy of his famous statue of David is.

She explained that the history of the Renaissance is largely tied up with the Medici family, which ruled Florence until the last family member died in the 1740s, and the area became part of the Duchy of Tuscany. The Medicis were sponsors of the arts, and Michelangelo lived in their palace and was schooled with their sons from the age of 9 until 17. Thereafter, he completed many projects (i.e., was paid) until the Medicis got too powerful and were overthrown briefly.  He never made peace with the family, and went to Rome, where he spent 30 years painting the Sistine Chapel.  The Medicis brought his body back, though, for a funeral in Florence.

With that background, I decided that with only one day, I would try to concentrate on the Medicis (who could resist Lorenzo the Magnificent) and Michelangelo.  I fear I scratched the surface, given the surfeit of palaces and works associated with two of Florence’s major citizens.

I went to the first (of three) Medici palaces, and realized that the family had good taste and funds.  They were not nobles, but traded money for favors from royalty.  One such trade brought them the right to use the fleur de lis (the Bourbon sign) which is now part of the logo for Florence (along with the iris, which is a legacy of the Roman founders; Florence comes from flora).  The other directly Medici buildings I saw came from their piety.  They wanted to build a chapel and literally built a chapel and a church, both stunning works of art.  The chapel has the family tombs. The church, named for St. Lawrence, was designed by Michelangelo, but when he broke with the family, he refused to finish the façade. The unfinished outside hides another stunning interior, with paintings from the Renaissance masters, and pulpits by the well-known sculptor, Donatello, who is buried in the crypt.

Carolyn insisted on seeing the real statue of David, not the copy that is in the square.  That took us to the Academy, a building erected especially to house the statue (it’s about 20 feet tall), and is the most famous item in the building.

That left the Uffizi, once the offices of the Medici government, now turned into one of the great art museums, based at least originally on the holdings of the family. Well known paintings mostly from the Renaissance abound; there’s four rooms of Botticelli, for example. Two hours was almost enough to see just the highlights.

Not a bad day’s sightseeing—for the last day of our Malta/Italy trip.

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The First Italian Meal in America–Verrazzano tartare


August 21, 2017

Twenty-two million tourists visit Florence every year, and while they aren’t all here now, the presence of 22 million in a city of around half a million certainly is obvious. It’s Florence’s biggest business (public restrooms are 1 euro—x  million); the other is fashion.  The Ferragamo family owns one of the biggest old palaces along the Arno, a no-longer navigable stream that cuts through the city. Gucci owns another.

The tourists have flocked here for centuries. Some have stayed.  There’s an old English cemetery that contains the remains of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for example.  Famous guests at our 1903 hotel include two infamous 20th century leaders—il Duce and Hitler met here in 1938, plotting the Axis around which Europe would revolve.  So, too, the Allied high command in World War II headquartered at the Baglioni

There’s good reason for the tourist influx.  Florence is a beautiful and historic city. The beauty came partly from Florence’s being the temporary capital of the united Italy in the 1860s, before the capture of Rome and the transfer there.  In the meantime, Florence was “modernized,” which meant it had to look like Paris, with broad boulevards (mostly) sacrificed, and new buildings—neo-classical, primarily, erected to house the embassies of foreign countries.

The significant attractiveness of Florence came from the reemergence of Roman and Greek ideas that led to the Renaissance. The reemergence of Europe from the dark ages—can you say Gallileo and Michelangelo?—began here.  We’ll be seeing as much as we can of that today.

On the way here (it’s 30 direct miles from Siena, where Gothic prevailed until its 16th century submission to Florence), we passed through the beautiful vineyards of Chianti, a province with a brand of wine (since 1924) that used to be in bottles with a straw base.  With candles in the empty ones, they were a staple in the dorm rooms at the University of Chicago in the 1950s. Today the straw bases are so expensive, those bottles are mostly for tourists.

Chianti, though, is alive and well as a brand, the black rooster in the red seal, whose quality is enforced by inspectors at the variety of farms in the district.

We stopped at a small town, Greve in Chianti, for an introduction to the region, then went to one of the vineyards for a business visit. We learned that the good wines come from higher on the hill, table wines from lower down. Sugar is added to “priests’ wines”, a dessert wine that tastes rather like port.

The castle/vineyard was the birthplace of Verrazzano, who left to explore the coast of North America (for the French. Florentine bankers financed his trip, and wanted it led by someone they knew).  Verrazzano “discovered” New York’s harbor, and sailed from Nova Scotia to South America.

When the Verrazano Narrows bridge was built (he lost a z crossing the Atlantic), some stones from the castle were part of the bridge, while the castle acquired red, white and blue stones in return that are now prominently displayed.

Verrazzano, according to our guide, was part of the first Italian meal served in America.  Stopping in the Bahamas, a hungry tribe had him for supper.

We were luckier. We had wild boar salami, one of the delicacies of the district.

Now to be one of the 22 million.

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Two surprising days in Siena

August 20, 2017

When people ask me, “What’s your favorite place,” I usually respond, “Where I am.”

While that’s unusually diplomatic for me, it may well be true about where I am now; Siena would definitely earn a place in my top ten. It certainly has many attractions that have kept me busy the last two days, to my surprise and pleasure.

Our introduction to Tuscany (the part of Italy we’re in) was a series of fortified towns we whisked by, atop hills, an indication of the warlike period that dominated Italy after the fall of the Roman empire.

We stopped at Pienza, one of them, which gave us a taste of what we’d see in Siena—a walled city, dominated by a church and town hall that reflected the wealth of the Piccolomini family.  The family crest intrigued me, since it included 5 crescent moons, which our guide explained represented the five crusades that the family sponsored.  We were soon to learn that the family contributed at least two popes, and were partly responsible for creating, in Siena, one of the best medieval cities, still preserved as such, today. It “helped” that the plague in 1348 killed 2/3 of the population and reduced the ability of the survivors to update the city’s architecture.

In the middle ages, say 1100-1500, Siena vied with Florence for domination of central Italy, a rivalry that continues today. In 1555, the Florentines defeated the Senese, destroyed the Sienese fort, and replaced it with a Florentine fort that exists today.  You know I love forts, and the Fortezza is a block from here.  Our guide said I was the first person on his trips to actually seek it out, and I took Carolyn there for dinner in what had once been the dungeon and arsenal.  The Florentine conquest inaugurated Medici rule.  The new rulers ordered the leveling of towers on the palazzos.  Towers had been necessary because the rivalries were not just between the cities, but frequently between families as well (see West Side story).

Senese still celebrate a 1260 or so victory, and any football victories, with gusto. The city, which was larger in the middle ages than it is today, had three major centers.

The first was the religious. Atop one of the hills sits the Duomo, a 13th century masterpiece in white and alternating black (they say it’s dark green) that is visible miles away, with a massive presence and glistening with medieval art. It’s part Romanesque and part Gothic. One of the most stunning chapels is the Piccolomini library, built to house the collection of manuscript-books of that famous Pienza family. I visited the church museum (where many of the real sculptures are kept; so is the rose window. Copies are in the church), the baptistry, and the crypt.  The last named was rediscovered in 1999; it had been filled with debris on which the church rested. Opening it required using steel to support the church.

Across from the church is what had been a hospital since the 12th century.  Our local guide said it was a hospital until 1996, and she’d been born in it.  It’s now a museum, with some relics that date back to 1359, when they “came from the East.” I’d read that the Byzantines literally sold off the family jewels to repay debts, and these relics were purchased, and included what purports to be a nail from the true cross and a vial with blood from Jesus.  That the Senese could purchase these items reflects the wealth of the town.

There are lots of other churches here, too.  We visited one last night that houses the head of St. Catherine of Siena (15th century).  Our guide said that before the Council of Trent, relics from martyrs were sold as money-makers for the church (the Duomo has an arm of St. John the Baptist, given by one of the Paleologous, the Byzantine royal family, to the city).

The second center of the city is civil.  The city was a republic in its glory years, with Nove (9) elected counselors who held forth in a city hall.  I toured the museum there, which had some frescos celebrating the results of good government (people dancing), and lamenting the results of bad government (watch the news today).  There were 9 districts—today there are 42, and we visited one of the “community centers.” Their rivalry culminates in two horse races a year, one in July, and one August 15, which we just missed, run in the “Campo”, a field in front of the city hall.  The districts draw horses by lot and jockeys by lot, and bless the horses in the district and in the fountain in front of the city hall.  It sounds like the world series, but there’s obviously a lot of chance in it. The Romanesque tower, 500 steps high (I resisted the temptation to climb it), next to the hall, is iconic.

The third center is economic, and that was the key to Siena’s success.  Siena was on one of the major pilgrimage routes, from Canterbury to Rome.  Hence, the hospital, which started as a bed and breakfast, hence the churches, and hence the development of services for the pilgrims.  Essentially, that meant the evolution of banks.  People would set out boards (banko or something like that in Italian), and offer to change money, the ATMs of the day.  Thus emerged the bank of Siena in 1472, still in existence today, although a recent 8 million euro bailout has damaged its credibility.  And, when a banker died, his “board” was broken and left in front of his former place of business (hence, in Italian, bankrupt!)

In other words, Siena’s wealth came from tourism, and, from what I’ve seen on the streets in the old city, that may still be true today! Some things never change.

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We’re ruin-ed

We’re ruin-ed

August 16, 2017

We saw a (bad) movie, “My Life in Ruins” on the boat, which was about a tour group in Greece.

Our ten days has been about “ruins” and yesterday we arrived in the “biggest open-air museum in the world,” the city of Rome.

The day began with ruins.  We woke up in Gaeta, the port where we were leaving our ship.  Looming high above us were two joined forts, one 6th century Gothic wars), the other constructed under the Bourbons. Today, it serves as part of the Italian Navy’s training facility, but it’s a reminder of the conflict that marked the Italian peninsula after the end of the Pax Romana.  (Gaeta was, until recently, the home of the US Sixth fleet, the latest in the line of defenders; the fleet has moved to Naples).

Carolyn wondered why Gaeta was not in the Lonely Planet.  I pointed out that the guidebook was already 900 pages (thank you Wikipedia; ouch, I did say that).

The road continued along the coast, with ruins of other towers that once withstood invaders. Today, they withstand hordes of tourists going to the beach in August, a month European workers basically take off.

We stopped at the ruins of a medieval village, which once housed 5000 people and had 14 churches.  While only the palace (with a huge tower; our guide said the higher the tower, the more powerful you were thought to be) and the town hall (restored as a summer home for the family that bought it) in reasonable shape.  It’s called Ninfa, in honor of the nymphs who supposedly inhabited the lake. The village is now kind of a nature preserve, with 14 full-time gardeners, and 25% of the property set aside for animals.  We saw trees from all over the world, many of which have adapted well to the local climate. Incidentally, the area also grows 30% of the world’s kiwis, a plant we mistook for grape vines.

And then there was the grand entrance to Rome, past the arch of Constantine (it was in the battle for Rome that he saw the image of Christ and, at least in the telling, that image led to victory, his conversion to Christianity, and the rest is a different chapter in Rome’s history); the immense neo-classic building of the 1870s celebrating the emergence of the Italian state; the balcony where il Duce mobilized Italian fascists in the 1930s; the Coliseum; the Forum (where the Republic extended the Greek concept of democracy); and the obelisks brought to celebrate the expansion of Empire.  Rome should have a 900-page Lonely Planet, too. And a peek across the Tiber River revealed the dome of St. Peters and the Vatican City. And that was just on the way in!

We’ve been here once before, so I tried to see different things.  Our hotel is near the ancient walls—and the Borghese park.  The museum in the park is listed as “the one art museum” to see, and I’m off inhour or so to pick up my reserved tickets (Rome has 4 million people and I think 8 million tourists).

It was really spectacular, both the contents and the building.  Cardinal Borghese was the secretary of state for the Papal States (appointed by his uncle, the pope), and used both his money and his power to collect art reflecting the greatness of imperial Rome and its Greek predecessor—and his own times.  The power helped; part of his collection came when he threatened its previous owner with jail if he didn’t sell. Fortunately, he liked a lot of the same artists I do: there was a Caravaggio room, paintings by Raphael and Titan, and sculptures by Bernini. The museum was so popular that I had to get reservations yesterday, and had only two hours in the museum.  I got there at 8:30, lined up to get my ticket, then lined up for the “rush” at 9 a.m.  At 10:50, the loudspeaker announced that we were to leave and make way for the next group. The grounds constitute the biggest public park in Rome, and I went back later to another museum, dedicated to a late 19th-early 20th century sculptor who had aristocratic clients.  One client was Attaturk, and the artist’s renditions of the great leader of Turkey are in Ankara. Another was Grand Duke Nicholas, whose statues were delivered to St. Petersburg in 1914, but did not survive the Russian Revolution.

Carolyn’s target was the Pantheon, built originally by Hadrian in 120 AD.  It was the largest dome in the world until the 16th century, and remains the largest unsupported concrete dome today.  Once dedicated to all gods, it became a church in 608 AD and it still is. The 16 Corinthian columns in front are striking—and so were the armed guards, but this is Europe.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the on-off bus, mostly on, seeing what we could in the one day we were in Rome.

Otherwise, our day would have been totally ruined.

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The Pontine Islands

The Pontine Islands

August 15, 2017

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words.  If that’s the case, our visit today should be worth over 100,000 words, since I took over 120 pictures on our two trips to the island of Ponza, the biggest island in the Pontine chain. I’ll try to make it shorter….

In some ways, it’s a fitting summary of our ten days at sea.  It’s our last full day at sea before we embark on the land portion, which will take us from Rome to Florence.

The two-plus hour tour circling the island revealed the power—and beauty—of volcanic action; the shapes and colors were spectacular. 100 of my pictures were from this part of the day (and I’ve only used 122 words so far!), with every kind of lava, ash, colors we’ve seen, all in one place: white, black, yellow, and brown; some of the formations dripped and dried, sort of like sand castles at the Indiana Dunes. There were caves and grottos that made me wish there were possible potential dive spots was the wreck of the “water ship” that supplies fresh water every day to the 4000 permanent residents (and the 20,000 summer visitors). When we went back later, I quipped, “If we pool our water bottles, we might be able to buy the island.”  I’m not sure it’s for sale, but we did pass an island that a family had bought, and put the only house atop the cliffs on that island.

I’ll try to post some pictures on Facebook so you can understand why I took what would have been three rolls of slide film (for those of you who remember film!)

When we got back, the captain offered us a treat; we’re anchored offshore, and he created a swimming area behind the boat, so those of us who wanted to jumped in.  Having brought my diving mask, I couldn’t resist the temptation.  The water was cool; I confess I was expecting the bathtub water of the Keys.  It was, however, clear, but there wasn’t much to see underwater.  Do cross off “swimming in the Tyrrhenian Sea” from my to-do list.

If volcanic activity and its results have been one constant, especially since Sicily, the historic tour of the city (generously termed!) was a reminder that the Greeks and Romans really influenced the area.  In Roman days, it was a resort for wealthy Romans, and something of a fish farm.  Grottos, cisterns, and tunnels provided both fresh water and a farm for eels, apparently part of the Roman diet.  2000 years later, current Italians are importing water for the mainland.  Having seen many Roman ruins, I think Europe technologically is still struggling to get up to the civilization that disappeared when Roman civilization gave way to the dark ages.

I walked to the top of the hill, overlooking the town. It now houses a church, naturally, but it was the site of a Roman villa, and the headquarters of a Roman fleet. Next to the church is a naval headquarters, and behind it is a cemetery where Roman graves have been found. Along the way, I passed a Roman necropolis, a battlefield from the Napoleonic wars,  and a tower, remnant of the Bourbons as Kings of the Two Sicilies. The island was used as a prison, ironically, by Mussolini, who was housed here when Italy changed sides in the second world war.

Too pretty for prisoners, it now brings loads of tourists in the summer from Naples and Gaeta, a port of Rome, and where we disembark tomorrow morning.

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I Was in Hell (again)

I’ve been to hell (again)

August 14, 2017

I say again because you may recall last year hell was in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

That was then.  This is 2017, and hell—the Roman entrance to it at least—is but a short cab ride from our boat in Pozzuoli, Italy.  I went there today, and discovered it is really Campi Flegrei, an active volcano that has “streaming jets of Sulphurous vapour at temperatures of 160 degrees C…..” Set in a caldera, hell has fumaroles with traces of the “rare red arsenic Sulphur crystal called Realgar…”  For those who have never been to hell, I can report that it resembles places at Yellowstone.

This area is historic both in a geological and an historical sense.  In addition to being the entrance to hell, the volcanic activity is in the “epicenter of the cyclic phenomenon of the rising and lowering of the ground level in the Phlegrean Fields known as brandisim.”  I’m quoting from the brochure, since I couldn’t possibly make it up.  The rising of the land in 1538 created the youngest mountain in Europe—Monte Nuovo, 430 feet high, that originated when lava shot out of the earth. I can see it from the ship.

Historically, too, Pozzuoli was an important port in the early history of Rome. Some vestiges of that background remain, including a huge coliseum, one of the largest in the empire, and a partially reconstructed (and equally huge) marketplace. It lost its importance as Rome built ports closer to the city. I think we’re about 150 miles away.

Still, what we had come to see was not hell, or still more Roman ruins, but a picturesque 17th century village on the island of Procida , the smallest island in the Bay of Naples. To get there, we boarded a public ferry, filled with merry makers; tomorrow being Assumption Day, many Italians were getting a head start on vacationing. (In addition, the earlier ferry broke down and so we had a double load; “this is Italy,” quipped our program director).

Fortunately, no one but residents can bring cars to the island during the summer—fortunately, because the roads, if one can call them that, are barely wide enough for a well-greased car to slide through, and there are probably 11,000—one for every resident on the 14 km island.  We took taxis for our tour of the island, which featured spectacular views of the Bay of Naples, the commensurate “special” church, this one with a baroque interior hiding behind a 1890s façade. Its claim to fame is a wooden vaulted ceiling. The town of Corricella, at the bottom of a cliff, is distinguished by pastel-colored houses, supposedly a nod to the fishermen there, who wanted to be able to see their houses from the sea. The colorful appearance is striking.

The other claim to fame for Porcida is that the prize winning movie “Il Postino” was shot there (and one of the other islands we’ve been to). We had lunch at the restaurant where the movie was filmed—and now I feel compelled to see the movie!

In other words, I had a hell–err, heck, of a day.

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August 13, 2017

Heeding the strong northwest wind that more than rippled the waves, our captain changed course slightly today—we left Salerno at 5 am, bound along the Amalfi Coast for Sorrento, about 40 miles away.

While that meant we didn’t get to see much of the small villages tucked on high cliffs (I should have realized that the Saracens raided much of this area in the 16th century), it did get us to Sorrento with our bellies still full (one of the hazards of a cruise is food!), and in time to sightsee in Sorrento, one of the larger cities on the Bay of Naples. Sorrento’s other claim to fame is in the Odyssey; it was where the sirens lived.  Fortunately, we did not hear them, since they lured sailors to their death.

We had about three free hours after a brief walking tour of the city, known for its lemoncello, a liquor made from the ubiquitous lemon. The city sits on a cliff above the Bay, reached by a road through a fissure (or an elevator), its fort (damaged when Napoleon took the city) replaced with a plaza named for a famous local poet Tasso. Carolyn and I took the “city train,” which gave us a tour of the historic district, and then I was able to return to a few museums.  The local cathedral was built in the 14th century, with some artifacts from its predecessor, and an interior redone mostly in the baroque period. The church has several inlaid wood pieces that represent one of the crafts of the area (there’s a woodworking museum).  It also has a bell tower that likely dates from the 8th century.  The Saracen sack of the city in the 1550s required rebuilding of a lot of it.

A little farther on the main street was the Villa Fiorentino, built in the early 20th century by a couple who made their fortune in handkerchiefs—and brought in an American architect to build a house later donated to the city.  I went to the current Chagall exhibit, which filled six rooms.

We then were whisked to homes for lunch with local people.  If farm to food is “in” in the United States, I suspect it never went “out” here.  Our host families (an extended family of mom, daughter and son and families) gave us a tour of their farm (we were, I think in the city!) where they had two pigs, three cows, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, corn, and peppers (broccoli comes later); they were bottling tomato sauce, making wines (they bought the grapes), and served us a fresh meal.  I should have known that the pasta was an appetizer, for what followed was another main dish with meatballs, salad, peppers, and wonderful bread, all prepared from fresh items for us. Not to mention homemade wines and lemoncello.

When we came back to the boat, we learned that Greek god Aeoli’s failure to keep the winds in check meant a revision of the schedule, and so, instead of sailing up and back to Sorrento, we were going to detour to our next port by way of Capri (hence the pun for the title).

Capri is a photogenic island, rocky but distinctive, with homes of many wealthy people, including, at one time, the famous ballet star, Rudolph Nureyev. We sat on deck for about an hour and learned about the island (one of many in the Gulf of Naples, a huge caldera in sight of Vesuvius).

Our guide told us that Jackie Kennedy was responsible for “Capri” pants.  It’s said she liked Capri sandals so much that she had pants made that would let her show off the shoes.  Hence was born a fashion trend that, from the tourists we saw in Sorrento, is still very much in vogue.

One other item: many Italian immigrants to the United States came from Naples, and so a lot of the music we think of as Italian is from here.  Such as funiculi, funicula.  The origins of that song, however, bring tears to my eyes as a marketer.  It was an advertisement for a funicular company in Naples, urging people to ride to the top.  Sounds better in Italian when you don’t know the words!

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