Thursday, July 28, 2016

Bassano del Grappa, Italy

This is my final post from this trip. When we left Austria and crossed over into Italy, my spirits lifted. As we crossed the border there was confusion, the autogrill stop was a mess, things seemed mildly chaotic, the drivers were maniacs. Home! Strange isn't it, what we bring into our heart that feels like home. The Stoic One said I would be happy once I got to the "home of my people" and he was right. Italy is far from perfect, but for me it is real, the good and the bad mix easily. I'm not afraid to look under the covers in Italy, all the mess is right out there in the open to see.

So Bassano del Grappa. A sweet little town. Here are some photos.

A twenty four hour clock tower that was originally built in 1430. It has had a few updates in the last 600 years. 

The town has the look of some of the buildings in Venice, and indeed its history has been strongly influenced by Venetian culture.

The Ponte Vecchio, not the one in Florence, is the symbol of the city. It goes over the Brenta River. The bridge was originally designed by Palladio in 1569. It's been destroyed and rebuilt several times. We saw bullet holes in the buildings next to bridge a remnant of one of the wars.

A bit of Italian patriotism as you walk across the bridge.

And what would a return trip to Italy be without some food shots.

And finally, the grappa museum. Fun place to wander.

And there you have it folks. A fascinating trip. One of the things we wanted to do when we moved to Italy was to explore nearby countries, and yet it has become harder and harder for me to leave Italy, for I have fallen deeply, madly in love with this chaotic, mess of a country. Yes, it isn't perfect, and yet......

On the other hand, I was also quite taken by Slovenia. I was suprised at how great all the roads were on our trip, except for the dreaded E45 in Italy. The rest of the roads were very good. We stayed on the main highways and had no problems.

I was surpised at how much you can learn about a country by their road signs. In Austria, a very common highway sign was "Be Fair Take Care". It must be an effective admonition for the Austrians to drive safely, as it is used frequently.  I can't imagine it having much effect in the US, and I doubt it would even be seen by Italians zooming by. 

It was a fascinating trip with good friends. Can't wait for the next one.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Durnstein, Austria

We drove through Poland, and the Czech republic in order to get to Austria, about a 5 hour drive. Now a word about "vignettes". No, not the literary device. I'm talking about a road tax that you must pay, and then put a little slip of paper on your windshield as you drive through Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Austria. Additionally, if you are driving through Switzerland, Bulgaria, Hungary or Romania, which we did not, you also have to pay. It is not always obvious that this toll is required, so be attentive when you cross borders and see if people are pulling over for some type of sticker. Our friends Dorothee and Mike were subjected to a big fine going through Austria so be attentive.

So we arrived in Austria to the little town of Durnstein in the Wachau area which is part of the Danube Valley. There are many wineries in this area, and some of the best white wine that I have had in Europe. Nancy picked this town for us because it was a five hour drive out, and she knew the area. It is picturesque and peaceful.

Durnstein's major claim to fame involves Richard the Lionhearted. Barbarossa, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1188 had promised the pope that he would participate in the third crusade to retake Jerusalem. As luck would have it, Barbarossa died on the trip and infighting broke about among the leaders as to who would get the loot and who would be in control. Richard tore down the Austrian flag and this ticked off Duke of Babenberg from Austria. On the way home back to England Richard was shipwrecked off the coast of Italy. He tried to get home through Germany but was recognized when his servant attempted to pay for food with a "suspicious" Byzantine coin. He was taken prisoner and imprisoned in.....Durnstein. (You knew there had to be a point here somewhere, right?) His imprisonment wasn't too bad as he could have visitors and troubadours to amuse him. The English paid a king's ransom for him and he was returned to England in 1194 after a 2 year stay.

Richard's mother was Eleonor of Aquitaine, one of my favorite historical figures. She was strong, smart and determined. Here is a placque about her.

These plaques were used throughout town and always explained the characters using the first person which I thought was quite creative.

We again stayed in a lovely, historic hotel, the Hotel Richard Lowenherz, which was a former Augustinian monestary originally built in 1340.It was later repurposed to a tavern, and then the current owners, the Thiery family, bought it in 1884 and have managed it as a hotel since then. This is the back of the property which shows the remaining monestary wall.

This monastery, called the Durnstein Monastery was built in 1720 on a site of an older building form 1410. I loved the blue color. It was recently cleaned last summer and is like an exquisite piece of sculpture.

This is the clock tower. Lovely isn't it?

.We took a river boat cruise down the Danube to Melk. Very tranquil trip inspite of the storm.

Tomorrow, we return to Italy!


Will, a good friend of ours, told us to see Auschwitz as the last site we visited in Poland because of the trauma of it. In retrospect, this was good advise, but it didn't work out that way. The heavy feelings generated by my experience at Auschwitz stayed with me. My sadness probably colored my experience of Krakow, although I was still able to experience Krakow as a charming city with great food.

The city is going through a restoration period of the old part of town. Note the difference in these two buildings. The one on the left has been rennovated and the one on the left is still waiting for someone's tender loving care.

Beetroot soup. The color is a bit off putting, but it was surprisingly delicious.

In Poland we are back to the Roman Catholic church, which in Poland is socially conservative which puts the church at a bit of odds with the current pope. Poland is deeply religious. It has more church parishes than it does hospitals or schools, and unlike Italy, people in Poland still attend mass. As you may recall, Pope John Paul II was born in Wadowice, Poland. Being socially conservative the church struggles with Pope Francis's attempt at inclusion, as well as his edicts about a humble life style. According to one article, the Polish cleric are particularly sensitive to this as some Polish clergy have a very lavish life style.

Certainly the churches that we saw were anything but modest, but I don't think that this makes Polish catholic churches the exception.

We did a tour of the city and realized we had not seen most of it. Many of us wished we had one more day, but I was ready to move on.

Auschwitz; Oświęcim, Poland

We arrived in Krakow after a four and a half hour drive from Slovakia. Nancy had made arrangements for us to take a tour out to Auschwitz the next day, so we had a bit of time to acclimate ourselves.

The first thing I noticed was the name of the city. The Germans changed the name of the city from Oświęcim to Auschwitz. The town now uses the Polish name, Oświęcim for the community outside of the camp, but the world still knows and calls this place by its German name: Auschwitz.

As bad as I thought it would be to visit this place, it was worse. A Jewish rabbi friend of mine said that we honor the dead by remembering, and we remember by making these types of journeys. I know that is true, and it is horrific to see and experience this place first hand.

The day of our visit was cloudy and bleak befitting the circumstances of the place. We took a bus from Krakow out to the the camp. I was surprised that the buildings on the compound were all made of brick. For some reason, in my mind, I thought they would have been made of wood. It was originally built to hold Polish political prisoners.

Here are some facts:
* More people died in Auschwitz than all of the combined loses of British and Americans in WWII.

* 1.1 million people died during the four and a half years of Auschwitz's existence.

* Only 144 people were known to have escaped from Auschwitz.

* Witold Pilecki, a Polish soldier, volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz in order to gather information, escape and let the world know about the mass murders that were being committed there.

*The camp commandant was arrested in 1946, convicted of murder and hanged at the camp.

People during the war arrived by train on these tracks. A decision was immediately made whether they were fit for work or if they would immediately go to the gas chamber. Old people, children, the infirm were immediately sent to be killed.

They initially entered through this gate with the cast iron sign over it
Arbeit macht frei

Work sets you free.

 Originally the Nazis took photographs of entering people to identify them. There was a wall of photographs that we walked by that was haunting and incredibly sad. Soon the Nazis realised that after three months, the photographs were useless because the people were no longer recognizable as a result of starvation and unrelenting manual labor. They then came up with the idea of tattoos. 

We saw the building where some children were originally kept. Generally they murdered the children immediately since they couldn't work, so I don't know how these children survived for a while.

We saw rooms of shoes, glasses, hair, items that had been carefully saved by the Nazis.. Personal items of the arrivals were stored in a building that the camp people called "Canada" because in their mind that was the land of plenty. It was almost unbearable to go through the exhibits. So many lives lost for no reason. Such deprivation and unrelenting dehumanising behaviours from the guards. 

The question is how do human beings become so disassociated from their better selves that they can do something like this? The Nazis did not view the people in the camp as human. They made the "other" so vile in their own minds that it didn't matter if they were worked to death or starved to death. The purpose of the camp was to kill people. People lasted only about 3 months at the camp. Disease, starvation, and/or the gas chamber killed 1.1 million people in this place. 

It is important to remember that we human beings are capable of doing such a thing.

Even though the Allies knew, more or less, what was going on here, they did not bomb the tracks leading into the camp as had been requested by a Jewish Community to the Assistant Secretary of War, John J McCloy. The Russians were the ones to liberate the camp.

I include this as a piece of reflection.

It is important to remember that we must never vilify the "other" to such an extent that we lose the sense of our common connection with them. No matter how evil we believe their acts are we are all of the same human race.

The next week after we were in Auschwitz Pope Francis was there.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Bratislava, Slovakia

Slovakia felt very different than Slovenia. Less playful, more serious, more closed rather than open. It could be because Slovakia is the recently appointed 6 month home of the rotating President of the European Counsel, a political governing instituion  of the EU. According to a Slovakian web site:

"It is not enough for the country holding the Presidency to be merely the 'manager' of the Council and the Council's voice for its six monthis in office. It must also act as an honest and neutral broker, working towards consensus between all Member States and the other institutions of the Union."

Slovakia as established as a country in 1993, has a population of 5.4 million, more than twice the size of Slovenia. It joined the EU in 2004, and like Slovenia, its currency is the Euro. Slovenia was part of the ex-Yugolsalvia and Slovakia was part of the ex-Czechoslovakia. George W. Bush, remember him? got the two confused when he was president, so try hard not to follow his example! Bratislava is in Slovakia. Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia. Ok, back to Bratislava. It was HOT, HOT, HOT while we were there so not too many photos.

The main square with surrounding embassies.

This is a picture of Michael's Gate, which is the only city gate that has been preserved from the medieval fortifications. It was built around 1300.

On to the food...Well the national dish is dumplings, cheese and bacon. What's not to like with that except 10,000 calories?

I must say it was very delicious, but one was enough for a day's meal.
We had lunch in a gastropub that reminded me of a place I ate in Oakland, Ca.

We stayed at a very nice hotel in the Old part of town.

The airconditioning worked great, and the service, once again, was outstanding.

Conclusions on Bratislava. I was glad we visited, but the old part of town lacked the charm of Ljubljana. Probably would not return unless there was a special reason to go.

Next stop....Poland.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana was an unexpected delight. I fell in love with this young and vibrant city. Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, and the home of the University of Ljubljana. The university has a population of about 54,000 undergraduate students in a city population of only about 270,000 people.  Considering the fact that Slovenia itself has only about 2 million people, young people play a large part in Slovenian society. The population is composed of 58% Catholic, 2.5% Muslim, and about 2.2% Orthodox Christian. Interestingly to me, 38% do not identify with any religion. The country is bordered by Austria, Italy, Croatia, Hungary and the Adriatic.  The north western part of the country is quite mountainous.

According to Slovenian Facts, there is also one winery or brewery for every 70 people! It became an independent country in 1991 and became part of the EU in 2004.

Hugging the sides of the Ljubljanica river, Ljubljana boasts a cafe society where most people are not only young but also speak English. People were friendly, professional, and seemed genuinely happy to have visitors.

I love this photo with the "Petit Bateau" on the sign.

The population seemed so young to us that we were making jokes about what they did with all of the old people. At home working? In the fields? Died off? I don't know, but compared to Italy, Slovenia seemed very young.

Tivoli park provides a large green space in the heart of the city. Ljubljana is serious about their "green" reputation of sustainability.

Okay. You may think this photo is weird, but I thought it was so cool that they give away trash bags in their park! Not just dog poop bags, but actual trash bags. I might add that there is no trash on the streets or in the park. It is a remarkably clean city for its size.

The hotel we stayed at, was quite lovely, although an odd combination of Victorian and Communism. You'd have to see it to get it.  The service was excellent. Many other famous people had stayed there, including the Dali Lama and Bill and Hillary.

The city is known for its 3 bridges, and indeed Melania Trump, who was born in Slovenia,  supposedly hung out at one of the cafes near here, just to give everyone equal time.

This is a photo of the dragon from the Dragon Bridge. He is made of copper. I love this photo by the Stoic One. The tail of the creature is great.

Now, a minor lesson in theology. Many of the churches we saw on this trip were Eastern Orthodox. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches split in 1054...a bit of a time ago. The Eastern church has been centered on the Greek language while the Western church on Latin. The differences get more arcane, and if interested you can research it, but one of the noted differences, at least to a protestant, are the use of icons in the Orthodox church. These are more than just a painting. True believers posit that it is a window into heaven.

The rules about sacred icons are strict. The iconographer must fast and pray before beginning the painting. The icon will never be signed. Everything about the icon is predetermined based on history. The colours, facial expressions, poses are all predetermined. The purpose of the icon is to convey a divine reality.

Here are some photos from the Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Cyril and Methodius in Ljubljana .

As ornate as the church is inside, the outside is very plain. When you walk in and see the colours and the intricacy, it literally takes your breath away.

A few more facts about Slovenia. The prime minister is Miro Cerar. He has been in office since 2014. It was the the first new EU member to adopt the euro as currency in 2007. It has a highly educated work force and has minimum foreign investment. Those of you who might be looking for a place outside of the US should look at Slovenia. The prices are good, the people are friendly and it has great beer and good wine. What more could you ask for?

Next up....Bratislava in Slovakia.

A trip to Poland

Below is a map that you can use to orient yourself through the upcoming blog posts. Knowing world geography is not most Americans' strong points, so I thought it would be helpful to start with a map that shows you the location of Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland, and Austria. I presume you know how to find Italy!  
We will start this trip in the charming town of Ljubljana, Slovenia. You will find it very close to the Italian border.
The next town that we will visit is Bratislava, Slovakia. Look for Vienna and you will find Bratislava. Slovakia borders Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and Hungary. Can you imagine building a wall around that country??? 
After Bratislava, we will travel to Krakow, Poland. Krakow is in the southern part of the country and holds the purpose of this trip, which is to visit Auschwitz, which is about an hour south west of Krakow.
We then leave Poland and travel to to the small town of Durnstein, Austria, which is not on the map. The town is on the Danube, which is green not blue. 
Anyway, the trip ends in Bassano del Grappa back in Italy and then we headed home. We spent two days in each town, except for Krakow where we stayed 3 nights.
Lots of time in the car, but the scenery and conversation were always interesting. We took our car but the Stoic One happily shared the driving with Luther, who is also conveniently fluent in German. Nancy, who planned the trip, and Chole, our GPS kept us on track. I tried not to ask "Are we there yet?" too many times.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Seventy in Senigallia

Another reason I haven't posted recently is I have been having a birthday celebration that has lasted a month, and I'm not even kidding. I was one of the Baby Boomers born in 1946. That means this year, I turned 70. Holy Cow! Most unexpected. Turning 70 has been a very sobering event, in spite of the celebrations.. A friend of mine said, "Well, we're now playing on the back 9 of life." It you're a golfer you know what that means. I said, "No, we're teeing off on the 17th hole and it's a long one."

At 70 it's no longer possible to deny that you're a senior. Well, I suppose some people could, but really what's the point? No matter how much exercise, surgery, good lighting, you have, you will NEVER be 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60 ever again. Being 70 means you don't have to pretend to be the "new" 50 or 60. It means you have a lot less time in front of you than what you've lived. When I think back on 60 it seems like this decade has gone by in an instant. If the 70's go that fast, my next post will be celebrating my 80th birthday. Good grief. Let's not rush that!

In some ways, it's easier to face aging in Italy. It is certainly easier than being in southern California where there is tremendous pressure to look and act young.  Really the Italians don't care. Their first sort is not your age but your nationality. Can they talk to you? Oh you speak Italian? Good. They don't expect their 70 year old grandmothers to compete with the 30 year old mamma's and if fact they think women who try are slightly off. On the other hand, the "Bella Figura" - looking good-  is always important in Italy. So at 70 you are expected to put yourself together in the the best way you can. Not a bad way to approach life.

So, for my birthday, I went to the US to see friends, flew down to Miami to visit with my sister and then came back to Italy and went to Senigallia, my new best friend. I love this town!!!

Senigallia is the Marche district, which is the province to the east of Umbria. I have previously written about Ascoli Piceno, also one of my favorite cities,  which is also in the Marche. Not many Americans visit here, and that really should be remedied. They appreciate visitors, have lots to see and have some of the best food in Italy!

But we are now talking about Senigallia. It is not an African country, that would be Senegal. Anyway, Senigallia is located on the Adriatic coast between Ancona and Fano.

It has wide, sandy beaches and two 2-Star Michelin restaurants. There are NO 2 stars in all of the Perugian part of Umbria, and this little city, (45,000) has two! We had to find out about that. So the Stoic One, my friend Christy and I went off to Senigallia to discover if the food could really be that good, or was this just some "French" thing.

Restaurant Number One
Madoninna del Pescatore

This restaurant has a famous chef, Moreno Cedroni, who has also been a TV star. The restaurant opened in 1984.

We had been here twice before, and loved it. What's not to love? Inventive food, relaxed atmosphere, impeccable service.
We invited our friends Joseph and Paul to join us and we had a marvelous time. Some of the food we sampled.

This one one of our favorite dishes from both restaurants. It was anchovies fixed 3 ways. The one in the middle is ice cream. Don't make that face. It was so delicious, we asked for seconds and they brought us 6 more spoons for the table. This was the amuse-bouche so you know we were in trouble!

A very interesting dish was seafood lasagne with a sauce made of coconut milk and parsley. Incredible.

What a fun birthday dessert. Cotton candy.

And a perfectly wrapped present and card.

We gave this restaurant a 5 star review.

We didn't eat any dinner that night, really. Had a VERY light lunch the next day and then on to our second 2 star, Uliassi.

It is way north in Senigallia and on the beach.

It is beautiful inside

and has the beach right off the porch.

About the food...indescribable. It stopped conversation. We would take a bite and then just stare at one another it was sooooo good.

Cuttlefish was the astonishing dish here. This photo is of roasted cuttle fish.

The cuttlefish was tender with the taste of the sea. Even the salad in the middle was so spectacular that I ate each green leaf one at a time!

More cuttlefish. This time fixed as paparadelle...don't ask...with toasted quinoa...more delicious than you can imagine.

The Stoic One had fish soup as his main dish. He deemed it spectacular.

We had a light, refreshing fruit dish for our dessert.

It was one of the best birthdays I've ever had.

May all of you have the best birthday celebration that you can imagine.

PS. The food in both restaurants is that good. It is not just a "French" thing. Expensive, but for a special memorable celebration, they are 2 of the top places in Italy that I have eaten. And no, I can't choose between them. But if I had to choose....I guess I'll have to go back and try each one again.