Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bella (e calda!!) Italia!

Buongiorno, bambini!

We've just returned from a week in the Veneto, Italy, and as wonderful as the trip was, it's nice to be back in the relative cool of Sofia! Italy was at its hottest this summer, according to our sources, but that didn't stop us. Here are a few tales and photos from our adventures in the region...

Our trusty steed, the Panda
First stop, Bassano del Grappa, a small town just south of the Dolomites. From Venice Marco Polo airport, we rented this sporty little Fiat Panda and drove west towards the mountains. The Dolomiti are incredibly striking, even on hot and hazy days, for their sheer and jagged peaks in some areas. When we weren't exploring local hamlets, we were winding our way along mountain paths, trying to keep our eyes on the road while still enjoying the incredible scenery--this is a difficult exercise, as you know if you've experienced the Italian "tornantes", or switchbacks in the road, that seem to come by the dozen. From Bassano, we drove through the mountains to Asiago, a small mountain town famous for their cheese...

Action shot of Phil at the Panda

Ponte Vecchio, Bassano del Grappa

First beer of the voyage, in a piazza in Bassano

The Brenta river in Bassano seems to be a favorite fishing hole for locals

First glass of delicious vino at Antico bar, Bassano

This is the view of the hills around Bassano, from the center of town

Bearing down on a hay truck long the road towards Asiago

Overtaking the hay truck

Phil "Panda-handler" Altman after the successful hay truck maneuver

Asiago, which is up in the hills, has an Alpine appearance to it

While the town seemed to be taking their siesta, we had a little picnic in the park in Asiago

One of the many breathtaking views on the drive

Me at the wheel of the Panda

More great views...

A little town along the drive to Asiago from Bassano

From Asiago and surroundings, we headed back to the lowlands and finished in Asolo, an enchanted little village close to Bassano that's famous for one of the most beautiful villas of Andrea Palladio, the Venetian architect who characterized the look of Vicenza and many other cities in the area. The town feels a little too perfect--almost like a historical village set up just to charm visitors. And it does...

One of many perfectly manicured gardens in Asolo

Charming archway in Asolo

Classical garden on the outskirts of the centro, Asolo

Central piazza, Asolo, just across from the main Church

View of Asolo from a surrounding hillside

A classical garden in Asolo

Another view back towards Asolo from the hills
From Bassano, a trip to Vicenza was in order, as it's very close by, and we knew relatively nothing about Palladio's work. Venturing to the city was a daunting prospect given the heat of the days, but we didn't knock ourselves out to see every site; rather, we moved like lazy sharks through the streets and admired the architecture and, to our surprise, the silence--nearly all of urban Italia seemed to have vacated for the beaches and mountains! This meant that we didn't get to the see the city at its liveliest, but we also zipped through unfettered and never waited for a table--at the open restaurants, that is! Our plans to try a supposedly-great restaurant were thwarted more than once when we arrived to find a hand-written note from the proprietor announcing that they were "chiuso per feria" until the day after we left. Nonetheless, Vicenza was well worth the visit. After touring the centro and having a delicious lunch at Antica Casa della Malvasia, in a little alleyway off the Piazza dei Signori, we headed to the outskirts of town to see Palladio's famous Villa Valmarana, and then back to town for a look at Teatro Olimpico, another of his major projects in Vicenza central.

Monument in Piazza dei Signori, which also features the Basilica Palladiana, by Palladio

Impressive and imposing guard atop the monument

We played a game on this giant chess board and attracted some fans

One of the best ESL moments of the trip was featured on this t-shirt: "I sleep ONLY with the best."

Gorgeous facade of a building in Vicenza

And its equally gorgeous door

Villa Valmarana, also known as "ai Nani" for the little garden gnomes that top the walls of the gardens

One of the "Nani" at Villa Valmarana

View from the balcony of Villa Valmarana

Grape vines in the Valmarana gardens

At Valmarana, ceiling fresco by Tiepolo depicting Blind Cupid driving the chariot

Another Tiepolo fresco at Valmarana, this one depicting Vulcan at his forge

Entryway to Teatro Olimpico, designed by Palladio and finished by his protege Scamozzi

Entryway gardens to Teatro Olimpico

Gardens of Teatro Olimpico

The coming season at the Teatro

The stage is meant to depict the seven streets of Thebes; the perspective makes it look like they sprawl out into the distance from any angle where you may sit

A contemplative visitor to Teatro Olimpico

The back and sides of the theater are almost as elaborate as the stage
Relief from stage right

Back in Bassano del Grappa, on the banks of the Brenta

After three days in the mountains, we left for San Bonifacio, which is just between Vicenza and Verona. The route we chose brought us back through the mountains, as if on our way back to Asiago, and then around Lake Garda, a favorite vacation destination for Italians at this time of year. The Lake itself is dramatic and the drive there well worth the visit. However, the raison d'etre of this portion of the trip was to visit Sirmione, a small peninsula at the southern end of the lake, where Catullus had a villa. He composed a poem about it, which is why Phil knew of the place and wanted to see it. Well, poor Catullus would be rolling over in his grave if he could see the place now. While his villa--the remains of it--is a wonderful visit, the heaps of tourists and over-development that usually precedes their arrival were enough to send us running as soon as we had enjoyed the views from the peninsula. 

Views from the drive through the mountains towards Riva del Garda, at the north end of Lake Garda

Phil taking a plunge in Lake Garda

Olives ripening on the branch

View of the Lake from Catullus's villa

Exploring the ruins of the villa

The end of the peninsula, which Catullus's villa dominates; he had good taste

Another view from the end of the peninsula

This might be the little room from which Catullus composed his poem about Sirmione

The view from our room at Villa Bongiovani, Locara, near San Bonifacio
Since the stop in San Bonifcaio was to serve the purpose of seeing Sirmione, we stayed only one night. That evening, we visited a local trattoria, recommended by the proprietor of our hotel. Indeed, the place was lovely, and the owners even more so. They literally had to turn the lights on for us in the dining room, as we were the only guests. We had a pretty comical dining experience, where the waiter--to his credit--treated us as if we spoke fluent Italian; we understood him well, but perhaps couldn't make OURselves as clear as we would have liked. For my part, I asked if a certain dish could be done without coniglio (rabbit); if not, NO problem, I'd just have the other one that was clearly vegetarian. The waiter thought it would be no problem, but he would ask. When our dishes arrived, mine was the first dish I had asked about modifying, and with his incredible sing-song and bob of the head from side to side, the waiter graciously explained that the kitchen made the dish with "POCO, POCO, POCO coniglio!" I suppose it was difficult to imagine that someone really didn't want ANY rabbit in such a dish, or any dish, and so they threw in just enough for flavor. So, I had my first taste of bunny in the hills outside of Soave...

We shoved on the next day, stopping in Verona en route.  Now the weather was REALLY hot. Surprisingly, though, Verona was substantially more crowded with tourists--though still relatively quiet--than Vicenza. We spent a few hours there, seeing il Duomo and several other prominent sites, had some lunch, and moved on. This little city is worth a return trip, perhaps to see an opera in the Roman amphiteater when it's not upwards of 95 degrees; as it was, people must have been cooking like little pizzas on the stone seats they were stuck in for hours in the late afternoon. This was a moment where our lack of planning had served us very well, as some fellow travelers who had the foresight to book ahead soon regretted their decision when they contemplated the alternative: sitting in the gardens or by the lovely little pool at our last stop, Agrituirsmo Tenuta la Pila.

Facade of Palazzo Maffei and Torre del Gardello, Piazza dell'Erbe, Verona

Another imposing figure guarding the piazza

This whale bone is fabled to fall on the first virtuous person who walks under it, and the local joke is that Popes, politicians, and the like have all paraded under it for centuries...

View of the "other" side of the Adige River, as seen from the centro

Facade of il Duomo

Local love birds put these locks on wires over the river and throw away the keys

View of the city over the Adige River
Our last real excursion was to Ferrara, which is a much smaller, medieval city, less than an hour from where we stayed in Villa Bartolomea. It's known as the Citta delle Bicicletta, which we saw in evidence despite the extreme quiet of the city at this time of year. It also was sponsoring a festival called "Night of the Buskers," a series of concerts for street musicians. Stages were set up around the town piazzas, and restaurants and hotels were offering discounts for the buskers. We saw no evidence of them at first, but when we walked atop the 14th C. wall that rings the city center, just outside of it, in the city gardens, loads of buskers were camping out on the grass in tents, warbling for each other, napping, etc. It was like a tiny little corner of the parking lot at a Phish concert. 

Piazza della Catedrale, Ferrara
Facade of the medieval Catedrale, featuring many more scenes of anguish and despair than the Renaissance period churches we saw in Vicenza and Verona

This guy stands guard outside the Catedrale

A few of the Buskers, resting up for their jam sessions

Part of the 14th C wall that rings the centro

Phil exploring the wall above the city

Much of the architecture of Ferrara is more "semplice" than other cities we saw; very beautiful even in its decay

Spots of color are everywhere to brighten up the dusty, crumbly brick of much of the old part of the town

A typical scene on a quiet day in August: a biker on his cell phone, on an otherwise sleepy street

Does everyone come back from Italy with a series of photos called "Doors"? They certainly do have beautiful doors everywhere we went...

Campari spritz time back at Tenuta la Pila

This was the main building of the farmhouse

These orchards were mostly kiwi trees, and some other fruits, which ring the pool and sitting area of the farmhouse
All in all, a pretty fabulous trip! We start "work" tomorrow, which consists of orientation through next week. Our first activities will include one day trip and then an overnight trip to a couple of important Bulgarian sights, so there will be some tales to tell after that experience with group bonding, no doubt. 

Until then, arrivederci!

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