Pisa 2008

Rosemary's Travel Diary

Jane led us to our hotel, where street parking was forbidden and the manager knew only one word of English: "Reservation?" This was not a problem, just my opportunity to prove I speak enough Italian to communicate on the relevant issues. After we unloaded our bags, Steve went off to find a legal parking spot, and was, fortunately, able to do so just a few blocks away. We asked the manager for a restaurant recommendation and followed his directions to an "authentic, not tourist" trattoria. Its appearance was good, but when we stepped inside it was unbearably hot (which may explain why there were only two other customers), so we hastily exited and set off to find a place on our own. We picked a place that had a sidewalk dining area. It seemed authentic enough, as all the other customers were Italian. Dinner was good, and we went back to the hotel where the manager asked us what time we wanted breakfast. What we learned was that he had only five small tables available in the breakfast area, so reservations were necessary. He hadn't thought to ask us when we first checked in, and by now all the good times were taken, so we had to settle for 7:30am, about an hour and a half earlier than we had planned.

Steve realigns the tower
Sat - As it turned out, our early breakfast had an unexpected benefit. We were out of the hotel in time to find a new parking spot before they became completely unavailable, and we arrived on foot at the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) before the big crowds. Steve decided he would climb the famous tower if tickets were available. Only a small number of people can enter at a time, and it's necessary to purchase tickets for a specific time slot in advance. Because we were there relatively early, he was able to get a ticket for the next group. I stayed on the ground and snapped pictures of him waving from the top.

It didn't take long for the area to fill with people. We entered the cathedral, but could not visit the baptistry because it was closed for renovations. We are used to something always being closed for renovations. Keeping these centuries-old structures in usable condition requires a lot of maintenance.

Traffic and parking in Pisa is a real nightmare. The road in was crowded last night, and the road out was even more crowded this morning (and the road in was now even worse). People were simply pouring in, on foot, in buses, and in cars. I felt as though we were facing an invading army.

On the Autostrada, we stopped at an Autogrill for a lunch of toasted sandwiches. They were quite tasty and just the fuel we needed to keep on going. [Steve: The Autogrills are pretty interesting. They can be as simple as an AM/PM style convenience store, with fast food and bottled or canned drinks, or as complex as a modern truck stop, with different types of food, a coffee bar, shops, supplies, and items you would never think of buying while traveling, like an inflatable children’s playhouse.] The Autostrada is a toll road. When you enter, you get a ticket stamped with your time and location. When you exit, you pay based on how far you have come. At some point, I realized our ticket was missing. Apparently when we cleaned some trash out of the car at the Autogrill, someone (who shall remain nameless) had discarded the ticket as well. We didn't know what would happen, but I envisioned an expensive penalty. I began coaching Steve to say, "Ho perso il biglietto." The Bologna exit was one that was all automated, no live attendants in the booths. Yikes! But there is actually always at least one person supervising, so Steve pushed the red help button and repeated the phrase into the speaker. Somehow, the guy didn't seem to understand. I imagine that lost tickets are rare, and he may never have encountered the situation before. At first he apparently thought Steve was trying to say that we were lost. So I talked to him and managed to explain it. We ended up paying 11.00E, which was probably what we would have paid anyway.

Stopping for a snack at the Autogrill.

The famous tower, in the morning before the crowds arrive.

I'm up here
Steve waves from the top.

The tower isn't the only thing to see in Pisa.
Here's a section of the ceiling inside the cathedral.


Cinque Terre 2008

Rosemary's Travel Diary

Terracing the hillsides
Fri - Today we drove to the Cinque Terre (Five Lands). These are five small villages built vertically on the cliffs above the sea along a remote section of the Italian Riviera. The area has been designated a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. For hundreds of years these villages were almost inaccessible to the outside world. Now they can be reached by train or by car. We did it the hard way, but not intentionally. An unfortunate confluence of vague guidebook wording, my confusion, and the stubbornness of the GPS system led us to spend an extra hour driving along the winding mountain road that provides access to the villages from above. We were treated to incredibly beautiful views of the coastline, but the trip was stressful for Steve, who had to cope with narrow lanes and blind curves along the entire route.

We parked (and were lucky to be able to do so) near the tiny beach at Monterosso, the westernmost of the towns. Although we had been led to believe that this area does not become overrun with tourists until a little later in the season, we found that the good weather had attracted thousands of people. This is a vehicle-free zone, with the exception of a few shuttles that carry people to and from more distant parking lots. The towns are connected by train and by hiking trails. As it turned out, we didn't take any of the hikes between towns, but one man who did told us that at one of the checkpoints (purchase of a ticket is required to hike) there were at least 100 people stalled in line. Many of the hikers, especially the German groups, had long, pointy hiking sticks carried incorrectly in their backpacks with the sharp ends sticking out.

We had lunch and then strolled around the town a bit. The town has two sections, the old and the new, separated by a pedestrian tunnel (or a short hike along the cliff). The new section has shops, cafes, and the train station; the old is where the people live and includes the church and many other buildings and landmarks, as well as shops and cafes.

We took the train to Riomaggiore, the easternmost of the towns. It seems almost completely vertical. While it is possible to hike up to the top of the town, we chose to take the elevator. That alone was worth the price of our tickets. At the top, the main street was, at first, not nearly as crowded as Monterosso. But as we got closer to the businesses and the harbor, the road was once again jammed with people. This is truly a beautiful place, the kind of place that people picture when they imagine an idealized, classic Italian village. But with so many sightseers filling every available space, it can be hard to really see it that way. The residents are very wise to have designated some sections as off-limit to tourists; otherwise they would have no peace. At the harbor, there were a couple of areas so crowded that people were simply standing, shoulder to shoulder, barely able to move.

A treat for tired feet
There wouldn't be enough time to see all five villages, so after consulting the guidebook, we chose Vernazza, and got back on the train. Again, we strolled through the town with our guidebook, noting points of interest. By the time we were ready to take the train back to Monterosso late in the afternoon, it seemed everyone else had the same idea. We soon realized that we would have to become very aggressive to get a spot on the train, and that it might happen that one of us would make it and the other would not. If we were separated, the person who made it would simply wait for the other one to take the next train. It's a good thing that didn't happen, because even though the trip between each town takes just a few minutes, the trains run only about once an hour, and not necessarily on time. We were pressed, standing, very closely against our fellow passengers, but everyone who had made it on board was good natured and we survived the trip without getting elbowed or stomped. Back in Monterosso, we took a few minutes for a symbolic dip in the ocean (feet only) and then got back on the road. We were able to find a shorter route to the Autostrada and headed for Pisa.

The Italian Riviera
View of the beach at Monterosso.

It looks good either way
Same beach, looking in the opposite direction.

Tourists fill the main road through Riomaggiore.

Tightly packed
Buildings are stacked up the steep hillsides.

Tote that barge, lift that bale
This huge mural at the Riomaggiore train station is one of several
depicting the life and work of local citizens.

"Nice uniform." "You too."
Cinque Terre police on the beat.

Exterior detail of the cathedral at Monterosso.

Interior of the cathedral.

A statue of Garibaldi in Monterosso.

When the beach is full, sunbathers park on the rocks.

Local residents farm these steeply terraced hillsides.


Genoa 2008

Rosemary's Travel Diary

Today is a holiday (May 1, International Workers Day). There was hardly any traffic in Milan. It was an amazing sight, and very welcome as it made it easy to get out of town. The scenery along the road to Genoa was lovely: flat, green farmland much of the way, then beautiful hills and valleys. We arrived a little before lunch time to find the weather warm and sunny, with a pleasantly cool breeze from the sea.

Not actually playing together
Of course, most people had the day off today, and they flocked to the aquarium, which was also our destination. The area is like a circus sideshow, with food and souvenir vendors, street performers, and a larger than usual collection of characters selling counterfeit designer goods. We got pizza from a vendor and then went into the aquarium. Despite a crowd control system that issues tickets for specific times, the place was densely packed with people. It was often difficult to move through the hallways, and, of course, it was hot and humid inside. It's a huge place with a lot to see. There are large and small exhibits reproducing the environments of different ocean areas. Very popular are the big tanks for dolphins, sharks, seals and penguins (where the air conditioning actually works if you know where to stand). There is also a "hummingbird forest", a special area where visitors can get very close to free-flying hummingbirds. And there is the "biosphere", a glass dome featuring tropical plants, birds and butterflies.

Our hotel is right on the water, just a short walk from the aquarium. Steve had to spend some time online dealing with business matters. The wireless reception in our room wasn't very good, so he went down to the lobby. In the evening we walked a little bit around the Porto Antico area. It's very lively, with a children's playground, street musicians (most of them not very good), vendors, and people just sightseeing and socializing. We had dinner at an excellent restaurant on the waterfront.
But the laundry is real
Many of these colorful buildings in the Porto Antico area have
architectural details that are just painted on.

We were surprised to see Native Americans selling CDs and handicrafts in Genoa.

Vu compra
Vendors of counterfeit goods and cheap souvenirs line the path to the aquarium.

A nice way to relax
An afternoon stroll along the waterfront.

Coming up for air
A resident of the aquarium.

A place in the sun
The biosphere.

An inhabitant of the "biosphere"

Yo ho ho
A replica of earlier times.

Scenes from the Genoa aquarium:


Lake Como 2008

Rosemary's Travel Diary

Wed - We got up early to ride the metro to the train station where we picked up our rental car for our drive from Milan to Como. Along with it we got a GPS navigation device. When I enter our destination into the device, it displays a small map and provides audible instructions. The voice is a female with a British accent, identified by the menu as "Jane". It didn't take us long to start calling the device Jane and referring to it with feminine pronouns. [Note: For years afterwards, we referred to all GPS devices as Jane.]

The dark, rainy weather was not favorable for our drive to Lake Como. It was cold in the town of Como, where we had lunch and walked around a bit in the intermittent rain. Naturally, we visited the cathedral, which is known for its marble exterior.

Another way to get around the lake
The Funicolare is a popular cable car that takes passengers up a very steep hill to the village of Brunate. We could see it from a distance, slowly creeping up the track. Given the weather, we didn't think the view would be worth the trip and decided that our time would be better spent taking a boat ride. There is a hop-on, hop-off tourist boat that makes many stops along the full length of the lake. The lake was very smooth, so there was no worry about seasickness. The weather remained gloomy and wet, even colder on the lake, where I was glad I had brought a very warm scarf. We didn't make the entire circuit, but stopped at Cernobbio, where we walked around and had some gelato. These little resort towns are picturesque and seem peaceful, with hotels and luxury villas, cute little shops, and small cafes where people can sit and enjoy the view. On a clear day, the Alps are visible, but unfortunately this was not a clear day. Even so, we could appreciate what a lovely area this is, surrounded by steep, green mountains studded with pretty houses. We spotted huge construction cranes in the process of adding even more houses.

We drove back to Milan. Steve wanted to get back before dark, given how confusing the streets are, even with a map and a GPS device. As it was, we had problems using the device, which can't know which streets are currently under construction. It kept trying to get us to drive through a chain link fence and into a big hole in the ground. I finally figured out how to reprogram it, and eventually we found our way to the big parking garage just down the street from our hotel.

Exhausted, we had dinner at a mediocre place along the main tourist walkway. We know better, but we were just too tired to go further. Tomorrow we will leave town and head to Genoa.

Thu - When Steve got the car out of the garage this morning, he realized that it had suffered some damage while we were parked at Como. A big, ugly scrape on the left rear fender. Now we are glad we got the full-coverage insurance! It is very difficult to maneuver inside these parking garages, even with a small car, and the spaces are almost impossibly tiny. I have seen billboards here advertising SUVs, but they can't be practical for anyone who drives in an Italian city with so many narrow, winding streets and such limited parking.

Rain in the forecast
It was cool and misty on the lake.

Details over the door
The cathedral at Como is known for its beautifully decorated marble exterior.

I think I can...
The funicular is a cable car that takes tourists to the top of the hill for a
better view. The day we were there, it was too misty to make the trip worthwhile.

Lakefront property
There are many beautiful villas, mansions and hotels surrounding the lake.

Steve enjoys the boat ride.

Exterior details on the cathedral at Como.

A chapel inside the cathedral.

Crowded together
New construction brings more housing to the area.

Out for a swim
A swan enjoys the water at Cernobbio, one of the lakeside towns.

Milan 2008

Rosemary's Travel Diary

Sat/Sun - This was a long travel day: Los Angeles to Chicago, Chicago to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Milan, with long layovers between flights. On the long taxi ride from the airport to our hotel I had the chance for some Italian conversation, discussing the weather and the toll roads with the driver. The good news is that I was able to understand most of what he said. All that time spent listening in class is finally paying off. We took a short nap and then walked out for dinner. Our hotel is just a couple of blocks from Piazza del Duomo, the big square around the cathedral. There is a large pedestrian-only zone that extends along some of the streets that connect to the piazza. After dining at one of the touristy sidewalk cafes we went back to the hotel for some much-needed sleep.

Mon - Our first excursion was to the roof of the Duomo. This proved to be a good decision, as we were able to enjoy it early in the day, before the big tour groups and rowdy teens arrived. It is the second largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and has the most elaborate exterior of any building I have seen. Construction and decoration, inside and out, took place from 1386 to about 1858, with finishing details added in 1965. Still a work in progress, the cathedral's facade is currently under renovation, its scaffolding shrouded in canvas covered with ugly advertising. But the other sides of the building are fully visible, and they are amazing. There are thousands of statues from different artists and eras. Many stand dramatically on the tips of tall spires where they are hard to see from the ground, making the climb to the roof a must. Gargoyles act as spouts to drain rainwater from the various levels. High above everything else is a golden statue of the Madonna, nicknamed Madonnina, one of the symbols of the city of Milan. Inside, the cathedral is filled with more artwork, and here we can appreciate just how huge it is. It was designed to hold 40,000 people, the entire population of the city at the time. After visiting the cathedral, we tried to go to the nearby museum, but it is closed for renovation.

The Galleria
Near the cathedral is the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele, a covered shopping mall designed by Giuseppe Mengoni and built between 1865 and 1877. The glass roof is over 90 feet high, and the sidewalk is decorated with mosaics. Here we had lunch, being wished "Buon appetito" by passing students, then continued walking through the Galleria to Piazza della Scala, which faces Milan's opera house, La Scala. We had checked ahead of time to see if we could get tickets to a performance, but there are none while we are here. We went inside and got a good look at the interior of the theater, then visited the museum, which is filled with antique instruments and mementos of the many composers and performers who have worked here. There was also a special exhibit honoring Maria Callas.

Milan is known for fashion, and there are plenty of high-end boutiques and shops here. We enjoyed some window shopping in the late afternoon. Lots of lovely and interesting things to see. Nearly every person (not counting tourists!) who walks by is beautifully dressed. Whether the clothes are expensive or not, business or casual, they always fit perfectly and have a "well put together" look. I have noticed two fashion trends that I don't like: the return of textured stockings, and extremely short, severe-looking haircuts on women.

After a nap, we met with Steve's publishing colleague Federico Monti Arduini and his son Nicola, who took us out to a wonderful dinner. They are charming and friendly, and were kindly flattering about my Italian vocabulary, which is nothing compared to their fluent English. Federico also introduced us to an after-dinner beverage called Mira, which is made in a way similar to limoncello, using berries. Afterwards we all went to Chocolat, widely considered the best gelateria in Milan. It was excellent, and the only two-level gelateria I have seen. It rained, or drizzled, very lightly, on and off during the pleasantly cool evening.

Modern art helps us appreciate the Renaissance.
Tue - We had planned to walk along Via Dante to the Sforza Castle, but it was raining too hard, so we took the subway instead. The castle dates back to the 14th century, but over the centuries it has been damaged, particularly during WWII, and much of it has been reconstructed and restored. Leonardo da Vinci lived and worked here for many years. It now houses several museums. We toured the Museum of Ancient Art until it closed for lunch. We had the "business special" at a nearby restaurant and then went to the Museum of Arts and Science. What an odd place! It has a relatively small exhibit on da Vinci, a small collection of African art, and a huge amount of space devoted to educating the public on how to tell the difference between authentic and fake art and antiquities. It reminded us very strongly of a high school science fair project. Later, we took a subway ride on a quest to see "Leonardo's Horse", the largest equine sculpture in the world. It has a twin in Grand Rapids MI, which I have also seen. It wasn't easy to find, and people whom I asked for directions had never heard of it, even though it was only about a half mile away. (I realized later I should have asked for directions to the stadium, which is across the street from the sculpture and much more visible from the street.) A bus driver finally pointed us the right way. The horse is exhibited in a courtyard next to the Cultural Park and a racetrack. Although it is as big as the one in Grand Rapids, this setting somehow makes it seem smaller and less dramatic than the large, grassy field that surrounds the other one. While we were there, just one other couple showed up, and we took pictures of each other.

Back at our hotel, we took a nap and then went out looking for a place to have dinner. The top of the nearby Rinascente department store had been recommended to us, so we rode the escalator through nine floors of designer fashions and housewares. The top floor has a very impressive deli and restaurants, one on the terrace with a view of the duomo. But it was too cold to eat outside, and too hot inside, so we rode back down and returned to the Galleria where we had a nice meal.

An eternal work in progress
The famous facade of Milan's cathedral is partly obscured by draped scaffolding as it continues to undergo renovation

Elaborate details everywhere
Over the centuries, scores of artists and craftsmen have decorated every inch of the building.

Here's a closer look at some of the detailed work along the upper edge.

How did they get them up there?
Many sculptures are mounted on tall spires and can barely be seen from the ground.

So tourists climb to the roof for a closer look.

Thousands of sculptures, representing five centuries of work by countless artists, cover the cathedral. Particularly impressive are those mounted on the tall spires that give it such a distinctive look.

That's gotta hurt
Inside the cathedral is Marco d'Agrate's sculpture of
St. Bartholomew, who was martyred by being skinned.

Piazza del Duomo features an equestrian sculpture of
the ever-popular Vittorio Emanuele II.

Leonardo and students
Piazza della Scala, facing the famous opera house, is
dominated by a sculpture of Leonardo da Vinci.

Sforza castle
Entering the Sforza castle.

A head in the courtyard
Modern art on display outside the Sforza.

Window view
A window overlooking Piazza dei Mercanti

From the art collection at Sforza Castle:

Sepulchral Monument of Bernabò Visconti by Bonino da Campione

14th century decoration

15th century fresco

Over a period of 17 years in the late 1400's, Leonardo da Vinci worked on the design for a massive horse sculpture. He built a full-scale clay model, but the project was never finished, and the model was destroyed when Milan was invaded by France a few years later.

In 1990's a team of sculptors working with Leonardo's sketches and related materials created two 13-ton bronze statues. One was placed at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the other at the Cultural Park in Milan, Italy.

Rosemary gets close
"Leonardo's Horse" in Michigan.

"Leonardo's Horse" in Milan.