Saturday, June 25, 2011


Wednesday we explored two distinctly different but equally stunning hill towns, Cortona and Sienna, neither of which we had ever seen, although we have seen a number of others and have been charmed by them. Nor were we the least disappointed by these jewels.

Cortona will be familiar to many of you as the town which first charmed Frances Mayes and led her to the fateful decision to buy a beautiful but decrepit villa in its outskirts and, along with her husband, invest three years and hundreds of hours of backbreaking work to resuscitate it. Obviously the investment paid off royally, not only in a whole new lifestyle for these displaced academics but in a whole series of books which have introduced many Americans to the delights of Tuscany. If you’ve been living under a rock and never sampled them, do yourself a favor. Mayes is a skilled and perceptive journalist and writer who pens just the kind of highbrow fluff that I love to escape to after hours of slogging through student papers or some ponderous academic tome.

Cortona defines one of two prototypical hilltown we visited this trip, one built along the side of a mountain ridge, where the fortress is placed at some high knob and then the rest of the town cascades in a spreading delta down a series of terraces and zigzag lanes to create a sort of long, skinny isosceles triangle. Assisi is another. Cortona, due mostly to the political dominance and consistent neglect of its neighbor, Florence, has perfectly preserved its Medieval persona. It’s simply amazing: tier after tier of brownstone buildings, set at odd angles along narrow, cobbled lanes. Seen from above, it is a sea of terra cotta roof tiles, weathered to a beautiful gray by the ravages of time and the little lichens that love to settle down and colonize Italian tiles. Here and there a taller building and a campanile mark one of the churches of the town.

The bus was parked in a lower lot outside the town and we huffed and puffed up a steep viale into the main piazza. After a brief introduction from Oshri, Sandy, Carol, several students and I strolled down to the western gate of the town for an eye-popping view over the valley below and beyond. Overhead literally thousands of swallows swooped and dove in a twittering chorus. We were amazed at the sheer number of these birds, a hoard which reminded one of the students, Kelsey, of the movie, “The Birds”. But there was nothing sinister here, as we soon discovered. Looking back toward the town, I noticed hundreds of holes drilled into the stone walls of the buildings, about four inches in diameter and so regularly spaced and dimensioned that there could be no doubt they were man-made. From one I noticed a tiny head appear and a swallow took flight. These were nesting holes! Our little friends were out having a morning feast—the time was bit after nine—on the local zanzari, mosquitoes. In the distance we saw the western end of Lago Trasimeno, one of central Italy’s largest lakes and the historic site of Hannibal’s devastating defeat of a Roman army in which the Romans suffered some 15,000 losses through sheer tactical stupidity. Trasimeno, which we explored on our first trip to Perugia, is swampy in many of the reaches of its western end, perfect breeding ground for the little malaria carriers. Cortonesi and swallows have been living in a happy symbiotic relationship for over 500 years.

Retracing our route, we took another road, this time up, up, up and around the western perimeter of the town, the vistas of the town’s rooftops and of the valley below growing more dramatic every time we stopped for Shutterbug to click some more. After several switchbacks we came to the remains of the fortessa at the top of the town, now little more than the stumps of two large ramparts. Another switchback took us out of the town, through a beautiful pine grove and, suddenly, into a large piazza which faced the Chiesa di Santa Margherita della Penanzia. Wow! The church was no monster by the standards of a Florence or Sienna, but in tiny Cortona, which can scarcely house more than 5,000 souls, pretty darned impressive. A Romanesque marble-inlaid facade. Inside, a classic Gothic interior with a nave and side aisles and a corss-vaulted ceiling. Renaissance paintings and frescoes on the walls and a glittering high altar.

By now I’ve seen this disparity between town and church enough to suspect the presence of a pilgrimage site centered around some especially popular relic. Big, expensive churches are often the product of a wealthy community, but we forget that often they are also the producers of that wealth, a focus for a thriving tourist trade, so to speak. And there beyond the high altar was a gorgeous silver casket with glass panels, which contained the mummified remains of St. Margaret herself. St. Margaret had lived in the convent located behind the existing church and there she served the poor for many years and died and was sainted soon thereafter.

I mean no disrespect, but I’ve often wondered exactly what the tour books mean when they refer to the ‘uncorrupted’ bodies of saints, protected as they are thought to be by their divine aura. But in several cases, including this one and a sainted pope we had seen three days before at St. Peter’s, the body has shriveled to a leathery covering and head and extremities are little more than covered skeletons. And the whole skin has taken on the most unsettling shade of moldery green! Geez, how much more ‘corrupted’ can you be than a green, skeletal mummy? But I’ve no doubt the blessed saint fully deserved her sanctification for her benefits to the poor, both before and after her death. Strolling through the central part of the town later we saw a charity hospital established in her honor, so she does her good work still.

Once we had descended by a series of zigzag lanes to the central piazza, we ambled along the corso (main drag), peeking into shops, admiring the rustic charm of the church of San Francesco, and made our way to the eastern extremity of the town where we enjoyed the oozing luxury of great gelato in a small belvedere park which provided more spectacular vistas in yet another direction.

The short bus ride to Sienna provided time to rest the weary feet, recharge our batteries, and ooh and aah together over beautiful Cortona. Sienna defines a second prototype hilltown, one built at the apex of a mountain, providing maximum protection for its Medieval citizens and a dramatic approach from twenty miles away for us modern gawkers. The apex of Sienna’s mountain is actually defined by three knobs and Oshri explained that after centuries of bloody internecine fighting, followed by more of brutal papal suppression, the liberated citizenry had had all the orneriness beaten out of them and were now famous for their serene, congenial demeanor. After the citizens had ousted the papal forces they decided to build the political hub of the new polity in the crotch in the middle of these three knobs, which had previously encouraged, in a sense, three mutually jealous polities. And all the street are cleverly arranged to bring the populace, by simple gravity flow, to the new focus of the town, a huge piazza, an irregular hexagon, before the Palazzo, the center of Republican government.

This square is now one of the most famous in all Italy because it is the site of Il Palio, an annual horse race among representatives of the town’s districts. As you can imagine, located as it is amidst three hills, the square has a sort of undulating topography, with a sort of perimeter street in front of the surrounding buildings and a large ‘bowl’ in the middle. During Il Palio the perimeter street is filled with several inches of sand, barriers constructed on both sides, and thousands of spectators crowd into the bowl to watch horses and jockeys, decked out in lavish Medieval garb, run three times around the square. Three circuits of the square, a minute and a half of sheer terror, danger, exhilaration, death, injury, tragedy, mayhem, glory, and despair. Followed by a solid week of hard-core carousing. There’s just nothing else like it in all Italy. On our first visit over we had planned to visit Sienna during the week of Il Palio but couldn’t find a hotel room anywhere within a thirty-mile radius.

The other jewel in Sienna’s crown is her Duomo, or mother church. For centuries Sienna competed for political and military dominance of Tuscany with her powerful neighbor to the northeast, Florence, and one way to show your municipal machismo, I suppose, is in building the biggest and most elaborately decorated church. “See, God likes us better, nanny, nanny, pooh pooh!” No doubt about it, it’s a gem, a huge Romanesque basilica with facade and side walls in local white and black marble, the facade decked with an incredible array of pedimental sculpture and a gorgeous rose window. And the interior is equally elaborate. The pavement is completely covered in marble, much of it in the technique of opus sectile, what we call intarsio, that is, pattern of cut marble of varying shades to create patterned marble ‘mosaics’. At regular intervals across the pavement, marble reliefs of sibyls, philosophers, scientists, a “Who’s Who” of the ancient and Renaissance world. Everywhere around the walls of the nave and side aisles masterpieces of Renaissance painting and sculpture. A soaring vaulted ceiling, another huge rose window in the apse of the nave, an incredible altar and high altar. The whole thing is so over-the-top it takes your breath away.

For me the highlight of the visit was a brief stroll through the Piccolomini Library, located in a bay of the western side aisle. Here were displayed around the perimeter of the room huge, lavishly decorated antiphonaria and graduales, the ‘hymnals’ of antiphonal music. Think of the psalter at church, only the priest sings the verse and then the choir sings the response. The pages of the books were easily two feet wide and three tall, the musical staffs (treble only) a good six inches tall, with the notes marked with squares instead of our familiar little ovals. And the decoration! Wow! Each page that was displayed had a miniature masterpieces, most about 6” X 8”. To my uneducated eye the works of Giovanni de Verona were the most gorgeous thing in this indisputably gorgeous church: exquisitely rendered ink drawings of biblical scenes were painted with brilliant hues and the borders embossed and then gilded to create a sort of parchment bas relief. And since the gold used was pure 22K, it is every bit as brilliant now as the day it went onto the page.

But perhaps the most spectacular thing about this church is the part you don’t see. Oshri explained that the church as it exists today was originally designed as merely the transept of the proposed basilica! Had the original nave been completed perpendicular to the existing church, the church created thereby would easily have eclipsed the later St. Peter’s in size and therefore would have been the largest Christian church in the world. But after centuries of struggle and suffering, Florence under the Medicis finally established undisputed dominance of the region and Sienna began slowly to retract. Fortunately for us, of course, since, once again, its Medieval character is now almost perfectly preserved.

The third prototype hilltown is one we did not visit this time around, that is, a town built on an escarpment, what our neighbors in Arizona call a mesa, with a complete circuit of sheer cliffs, often 200 feet high or more. Such towns were literally impregnable and often nigh impossible to access even in peacetime. You can imagine the sheer determination it takes to build narrow access roads up the side of sheer cliffs, switching back and forth to create a zigzag course up the mountain. Today the most practical way to reach such towns is by funicular, the little cantilevered trams that you see in many places in Italy such as Capri and Orvietto. Their cousins in America are ski trams. Orvietto is in fact an example of this type hilltown we’ve been fortunate to visit. Something about that mesa just jutting out vertically from the stump of a mountain is breathtaking. On our way south in the car this time we passed another which may be even more dramatic: little Orte, some thirty miles north of Rome. Orvietto has a large tourist trade because of its locale and its huge duomo (pilgrim site again), and little Orte has no such basilica. But if Orte has no tourist industry, I can guarantee it’s only because the Ortans prefer their tranquilita´ to the temptations of filthy lucre.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Rome is frustrating. Only two and a half days in Rome is almost criminally so. There’s just so much to see and experience. As in New York, you could easily spend a year in this incredible city and barely scratch the surface. But that’s one of the real pleasures of travel as well. I have students ask me on a regular basis if I get tired of doing these tours and seeing so many of the same sites. No way! I always see a thousand new things, not to speak of a hundred old things in a different way, sometimes subtly different, sometimes radically so.

This trip to Mater Roma has been no different in any of those respects. We arrived at Fiumicino, Rome’s main airport, around 11:30 on Friday (Italy is six hours ahead of us in the summer), collected our bags, met our friend and guide Oshri, had time for a potty break and a trip to the ATMs, boarded our bus and made our way from Ostia to our comfortable hotel, the Cardinal St. Peter, on the lower slopes of the Janiculo, the ancient Janiculum Hill, about a mile west of St. Peter's. When I’m in Rome I love to stay in the central district, within walking distance of ancient sites such as the Fora , the Colosseum, the Pantheon, etc. But of course, just as in Manhattan, you pay for that proximity, either in cash or in comfort. Personally I’m OK with staying in an affordable rat hole if I can walk to the center of ancient world. But our modern hotel made a great transition to Italian travel for us American travelers, spoiled as we all are by our creature comforts.

Friday afternoon was under the expert care of Oshri, who took us to some of the most famous piazze (squares) in Rome, such as that of the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, etc. A special treat was my first visit ever to the Basilica of San Clemente, a perfect example of the complexity of this city. The ‘modern’ church is a beautiful, twelfth-century, classic basilica with nave, side aisles, apse decorated with a brilliant mosaic that is easily sixty feet high. But the real charm of this church lies beneath. Winding down a flight of stairs you reach a level some thirty feet below where you see...the Basilica of San Clemente! Only this one is a product of the fourth century CE. Think about the significance of that fact, remembering that Rome openly tolerated Christianity only in 313 BE after Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. Thus, this is one of the first, if not the first, officially recognized church in Christianity, built by none other than Constantine himself.

And he did it right. Like its later iteration, the church was a huge basilica with classic nave, side aisles, apse— in short, the classic form, right from the get-go. I should explain that the Romans invented the basilica form, but the Roman basilica was basically a courthouse. So how did a secular building become the prototype for the canonical Christian church? We’re not exactly sure, but here’s the theory that makes most sense to me.

If you look at the plan or footprint of a basilica, it’s basically a huge rectangle. Within the rectangle , along the longer sides, are two rows of columns or pillars that mark out the side aisles, The larger rectangular area left over in the middle is the nave, usually built significantly higher than side aisles to provide room for clerestory windows But as early as the first century CE, Romans began modifying the plan by adding an apse (think of a cylinder with half a globe stacked on top) at the far end, and from time either an apse or a rectangular ell on either sides to create a transept. Thus if you were a bird flying over, you’d see the shape of a cross. But there’s more. Beginning in the second century, a dome and cupola were sometimes added at the intersection of the cross’s axes, and a huge statue of the emperor, by then worshiped as a god, was placed in the apse at the end of the nave. Now look at your basilica in three dimensions; we have created north-south and east-west axes, so to speak, as well as a vertical axis through the cupola, through the intersection of the horizontal axes, and ultimately into the underworld. We have constructed a three-dimensional axis, what the Romans called an axis mundi, an ‘axis of the universe’ a place where the powers of heaven and hell communicate with the horizontal plane of the temporal world. Big mojo, to put it more simply. And what happens at that exact spot in the Catholic mass? Why, the consecration of the host on the altar, of course, the place where the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. And what goes into the apse where the pagan emperor-god’s once stood? The most sacred of Christian icons, the crucifix. In other words, the Roman basilica is an ideal architectural form for the Christian church, and here in San Clemente may well be where it all began.

Fortunately for us, the basilica burned in the ninth century and, in typical Italian fashion, the builders of the new Medieval church leveled the walls to thirty feet or so, walled up the side aisles, created barrel vaults and cross vaults on these, and built the new church upon this foundation.

But there’s more. You descend yet another stairway some twenty feet or so and there you are on a classical Roman street, beautifully made from herringbone-pattern bricks, with houses on either side which you can explore. And as you make your way toward the area of the western apse of the church above, there you find almost perfectly preserved a Mithraeum, a shrine to the popular mystery god Mithras, conqueror of mortality and ensurer of resurrection and eternal life. In such shrines the initiates were baptized, not in water but in blood, in this case the blood of a bull positioned on an upper level over a grate in the ceiling. Imagine this fearsome ritual: the initiand kneels in the center of the shrine before the altar of the god and recites his vows. Above him, as the priest of Mithras recites the liturgy, one officiand stuns the bull with a mallet and another deftly lifts his head before he falls and draws a knife across his jugular. And out gush literally gallons of blood, blood which falls through the grate beneath and cascades over the initiand below. “Are you washed in the blood of the....bull?” If you’re interested, the HBO series “Rome” has an incredible recreation of the ritual which will leave you shocked but awestruck.

Well, it cannot possibly be a mere coincidence that arguably the first official Christian basilica in the Roman world was built precisely here. Mithras was perhaps the most popular of the many pagan gods who represented immortality to the pagan Romans, and the early Christians, by placing the crucifix of their new church above this shrine, sent a not-so-subtle message that the new guy on the block was now in charge. And when the church burned, they wanted to make sure that old dude stayed defeated and in Hell. Amazing.

I confess, the rest of our tour of Rome was a bit anticlimactic for me, though it was great fun. Saturday morning was what I affectionately call “The Day of Popery” (my Catholic friends will understand I'm just kidding). Vatican Museums, an incredible place which I find incredibly frustrating because there is a standard tourist itinerary which shows you some real eye-poppers such as the Laocoon, the Apollo Belvedere, the Rafael rooms, and many more, but leads you right past a priceless but inaccessible trove of classical art. Then there is the Sistine Chapel. I won’t insult your intelligence by trying to explain how magnificent this room is. But the atmosphere here created by the hoards of tourists practically guarantees that what should a deeply moving spiritual experience has more the effect of a circus side show. On the day we were there the room was so jammed it was frankly dangerous, and the guards who usually make some pretense of maintaining a respectful silence just gave up and let the mob shout and flash away with their cameras.

Fortunately the tour ended with a visit to the basilica of St. Peter, always awe-inspiring. The problem here is one of scale. The building is simply so huge that one has difficulty grasping how huge it really is. For example, the baldacchino (altar canopy) of the church, an incredible work of art designed by Bernini. The first time I saw it I thought to myself, “Gee, that thing must be fifty feet tall!” In reality it is 92 feet tall, as tall as a ten-story building. The church from the pavement to the lantern of the cupola is 423 feet tall, as tall as a forty-five story building! Simply amazing.

But not entirely original. The original architect of the church, Bramante, had thought to place a scaled-down version of the Roman Pantheon atop eight massive pillars within a Maltese cross. In other words, one of the classic Byzantine forms. But when Michelangelo received the commission to redesign the church upon Bramante’s death, he decided Bramante’s plan was not audacious enough. And so he decided to set the eight pillars within the Basilica of Maxentius, figuratively speaking, the biggest basilica in the classical world. Thus did St. Peter’s become the biggest Christian church in the Western empire.

Sunday was our day for the tour of classical Rome, but that will have to wait for another blog, I fear. Our bus is entering Umbria and the scenery, always stunning, is quickly becoming irresistible.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Sitting at a desk overlooking our balcony, which in turn overlooks the beautiful Bay of Naples. From our balcony we have about a 120° view, and everywhere the view is stunning. On the far western horizon twinkle the lights of Capo Miseno, ancient Misenum, the port from which Pliny the Younger observed the fearsome eruption of Vesuvius, some twenty miles away, in 79 CE. Stretched out along the northern peninsula of the bay opposite us are other glittering jewels: Cuma, site of the famous Sybil at the entrance to the underworld, Posilippo, Erculano, and the queen of the Bay herself, Napoli, with her glittering lights cascading down the lower reaches of the sleeping giant. And there on the northeastern horizon, silhouetted against the sky, is the towering bulk of Vesuvio himself. Closer at hand: Pompeii, Torre Annunziato, Castellamare, and then along the Sorrentine peninsula, seemingly pasted up against the precipitous cliffs of the Monti Lattari, “Milky Mountains”, the lights of Seiano,Vico Equense, Valle della Luna, “Valley of the Moon”, Meta, and the lower suburbs of Sorrento herself. Pure magic.

If I seem to be waxing poetic here, I’ll have to ask forgiveness; I’m under the influence of the Siren Parthenope, the beautiful seductress who governs these cliffs in myth, lures sailors to destruction (and writers to purple prose) by her seductive song, and ultimately gave her name to the seductive little town. I can catch a glimpse of her statue sitting on the terrazza diagonally from the balcony.

Our hotel, the Hotel Europa Palace, is quite simply one of the nicest we’ve ever been lucky enough to stay in. It’s perched on an absolutely sheer cliff, 250’ above the sea, with a spectacular view of the Bay. Below us a small harbor shelters fishing boats, yachts, and the small hydroplanes which ferry tourists and locals to many of the islands which define the western rim of the gulf. Hey, it’s one of those places which practically compels a hick like me to sit out on the huge terazza with the love of my life and a glass of wine, prop my feet up, stare out at all that spectacular scenery, scratch my chin and say,”Weeeeeeell, wonder what the po’ folk are doin’ today?” It’s as close as Dave and Sandy will ever come to living like plutocrats. But, trust me, it’s close enough. And more.

It’s been a wonderful trip so far. First of all we had a trip over that was probably the most trouble-free we’ve ever had. I’m almost scared to brag about it for fear of jinxing the return flights: planes departed on time, connections were made with a little time to spare to grab a bite and shake the dew from our lily pad, luggage showed up in Rome in a reasonably timely fashion and without damage!

The one small problem we encountered was transferring in Munich. This was our first trip through this airport, and I’ll bet my friend Ed will attest that it has a pretty weird configuration. It’s basically a high-rise terminal, built on three levels in a long, straight series of gates, with boarding ramps that sometimes descend as much as two stories. But even at that there’s really not enough boarding space for all the flights in and out, so many departing travelers have to be bused from the terminal to planes on the tarmac, and gate numbers change with alarming speed. Our boarding passes directed us to gate 16 where an agent of Lufthansa spun us around and sent us off to find gate 65. You can do the math there, that’s quite a haul. And you can probably predict what happened when we arrived: back to gate 8, only four gates down from where we’d been at the far other end of a very long terminal. No extra charge for the impromptu tour of the lovely Munich terminal. But that’s a quibble in the scheme of things; the rest of the trip was as pleasant as 12 hours of air travel can be.

And then there are our traveling companions, a pure delight. First, we have one of the nicest, most congenial groups of students and adults we’ve ever had. These folks are so punctual, alert and organized I almost feel like we should ask them to shepherd us along. Plus they’re just darned nice, a delight to be around, to talk to. And, God love ‘em, they’re hearty eaters, something that warms ole Dave’s heart. And makes weary travelers a lot less cranky.

Then there are our local guides. Our head honcho, by earnest request, is a wonderful young man named Oshri who’s simply the most knowledgeable, charming and engaging tour director we’ve had in our many trips with students. We’ve made enough tours with this company that I suppose our request carries some weight. And he’s so good looking that Sandy is shamelessly atwitter around him. And, truth to tell, I have such a man-crush on him that I don’t much mind. Our local guide in Rome was a displaced Austrian named Heidi whom we also love for her combination of intelligence and spunk. And our guide tomorrow in Pompeii will be Massimo, again, our preference by far.

Most important from a purely personal perspective is the fact that we are traveling with a dear friend of over forty years named Carol. Carol is a master gardener, of both the kitchen and horticultural variety, as well as a talented artist and decorator. It’s such a pleasure to experience again through her keen eye all these incredible sights. And though I won’t intrude on Carol’s privacy by yabbering on here, I’ll let it suffice to say that I’m also honoring a promise I made two years ago which I consider nothing less than a sacred trust.

I’m nodding here, and we have a busy day tomorrow what with Pompeii, Capri and Sorrento all three, so I’ll catch you up on some of our fun in ‘Bella Roma’ a bit later. I have an appointment with a cozy bed and some delightfully cool Sorrentine night air, filled with the scents of jasmine, oleander and the salty waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea.