Italy with U--- (June 2008)

July 6, 2008

June 30, 2008

I arrived in Bologna yesterday from Lausanne. The train was on time until it paused without explanation for twenty minutes no more than a kilometer from Bologna station.

I took possession of the apartment U--- and I are renting for our week here -- a pair of rooms with a bath and enough of a kitchen to satisfy me -- then walked back to the station to meet U---'s train.

The train was eight minutes late, and no one else seemed perturbed. Truly, I have lived in Switzerland too long.

After she had settled in, we took a walk, then had a pizza at

Pizzeria/Trattoria Belfiore
Via Marsala 11/A
Bologna
Tel. 051/226641
(closed Tuesdays)

We ate at a table out on the sidewalk, where the waiter kept us informed of the progress of the European soccer final.

Today we saw most of the sights of Bologna: the university, the botanical gardens, the cathedral, the sanctuary of Madonna di S. Luca on a hill to the southeast, and the view from the tallest tower in the city.

I must allow myself a brief rant on cathedrals. Someone decided long ago that bare shoulders were simply unacceptable in cathedrals. In most places this means there is just a small sign on the door which you can ignore. But in the last few years both the cathedrals of Bologna and Milano have started checking people's bags before letting them in --- and enforcing the bare shoulder policy at the same time. U--- tells me it's worse in Russia, where women must wear skirts and have their hair covered to enter a church. I find it appalling that public buildings like cathedrals can demand dress codes that would never be accepted in grocery stores or town halls.

The sanctuary of Madonna di S. Luca also deserves comment, or rather the path to it. The sanctuary itself is a Baroque church and small cloister on the top of a hill with lovely views, but it is connected to the city by a loggia several kilometers in length. The Bolognese love there loggie, but this verges on the absurd. It was a lovely climb, occasionally wandering through pools of air scented by sun-warmed jasmine and cedar.

I produced dinner: ravioli with a meat and spinach stuffing, tossed with melted butter and sage, then a pan fried orata, its gut stuffed with a slice of lemon, and fried slices of eggplant.

1 July 2008

Today we went to Ravenna by train. Ravenna was the capital of the Roman empire late in its existance, a town in a swamp chosen because it was hard to attack. Today it's a sleepy little Italian city except for the presence of San Vitale, the basilica built by Justinian and Theodora, famous for its rich mosaics. The mosaics haven't the skill and subtlety of the more extensive yet almost unknown works in Aquileia, but they are beautiful nevertheless.

After a long inspection of the basilica, and the older, less gold-encrusted mosaics of the baptistry, we sat down in the courtyard and discovered that I had forgotten our lunch!

Remedying this grave situation lets me tell you about

Babaleus
Vicolo Gabbiana 7

which has a lunch buffet or a pizza, plus a bottle of water for 7 euros. We both took the buffet, U--- tastefully sampling the dishes, I descending upon it like a horde of locusts. There were probably twenty dishes. Of the ones I tried, all were good except the grilled zuchini which was slightly bitter.

Thus restored we saw the rest of the mosaics of the city. Ravenna has a single ticket for all its attractions, probably in an attempt to siphon off some business from San Vitale. Of these, the mosaics in S. Appollinare are a close second to San Vitale itself.

A final recommendation in Ravenna: the gelateria Nuova Monde across the street from the train station has very good gelato.

We were both tired and not that hungry after our enormous lunch, so dinner was prosciutto and canteloupe, then a frittata with onions.

2 July 2008

Today we went to Florence, an hour's train ride to the north of Bologna. I had never been there, scared off by tales of endless bogs of tourists and endless lines to get into anything.

We arrived at Santa Maria Novella, the main train station, paid a euro for a decent map of the city at the tourist information office, and walked south. There were stands selling leather goods -- for which Florence is famous -- and souvenirs, and of course lots of people. As we walked south to Santo Spirito, the stands quickly vanished. The people didn't.

Santo Spirito, one of the places my father dredged up from his memory as particularly worth a visit, was closed. We were not deterred, and U--- navigated to the duomo. U--- did all the navigation, and I thoroughly enjoyed shuffling along behind without worrying where I was going, except for occasionally locating our exact position on the map for her. But she has a very strange habit of orienting the map to match the area around her. Every time she did this I got competely confused.

The duomo of Florence is faced in colored marble. Unlike so many cathedrals which are plain white or grey, it retains its original bright colors. We walked around the outside, but the line to get in stretched a quarter of the way around the cathedral. I put my foot down: I don't wait in line. We compromised on climbing the campanella, which had no line and gave a wonderful view of the city (but cost 6 euros).

Florence stretches along the valley of the river Arno between gentle, green hills. The city is quite narrow on the south bank, but sprawls away to the north. The major tourist sites -- San Spirito, the duomo, the Uffizi gallery, and Santa Croce -- are gathered along the river towards the eastern end of the city.

So it didn't take us long to descend the campanella and walk to the Uffizi to pick up our prereserved tickets. You almost must prereserve. The line without reservation looked a couple hours long.

The Uffizi gallery is frustrating. They have a lovely old palazzo on the river, and a stupendous collection, but they manage to make it as ill organized and unrewarding as possible, which is not very: Renaissance Italian painting doesn't require extensive classification, and the quality is truly unbelievable.

I have an odd way of looking at art galleries. I walk into a room, glance at every work there, and pick out the best one or two. I ignore all the rest, and I don't glance at the captions until I have finished with the painting. At the Uffizi, I would walk into a room, and a beautiful Perugino madonna that anywhere else I would gaze at for several minutes, I wouldn't spare more than a glance.

The most astonishing piece is Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus.' We all know this painting from every book on the Renaissance, Italy, or art history we have ever read, but prints and pictures don't do it justice. They don't capture the idiosyncratic swirl of the water, Venus's weightless tread on the clamshell, the ethereal coastline in the distance, or the cathedral like order of the forest on the shore.

The 'Birth of Venus' hangs in the same room as 'Primavera.' 'Primavera' is a painting that I can see how to do, or at least how to compose, if I only worked hard enough. But in its sibling, no air could actually ruffle water and gowns that way, no gravity can provide the connection of the bodies with the ground, no water can produce the wavelets on the surface. And yet it all works. It works so well that I probably spent ten minutes looking at it.

Finally we left the Uffizi, tired and in my case almost unwilling to look at another piece of art. U--- directed the way to Santa Croce and, more importantly, the Pazzi Chapel.

Sante Croce is a large and magnificent church with the tombs of lots of famous dead people. They have the tomb of Michelangelo, the tomb of Galileo Galilei, and one of the numerous tombs of Dante Alighieri scattered throughout this country, leading me to conclude that Dante was a hive mind.

Next to the church is a brick cloister and a plain, stone building known as the Pazzi chapel. It's everything the church is not: Spartan, hidden, giving the impression of a gazebo hidden in the garden. The church is a giant cross with the main altar dominating the top. The altar in the Pazzi Chapel is relegated to a little alcove at the front. This is a place for man. The altar is added rather the way a larder is added to a kitchen: you must have somewhere to keep the raw materials for your activity -- a god cupboard if you will.

It seems to strike people very differently. U--- thought it nice, but not even interestingly decorated. A tour guide told his flock that the long echo was the most interesting part of the chapel. And then there were the solitary people, not rapt, but calmly enjoying the pleasant space.

U--- led us across the river and up the hill to the southwest to the monastery of San Matteoto. The view of the city and the neighboring green hills is lovely, the church is comely, but she had hidden that the monks still chant mass at 17h30 each day. At that hour, we settled into the crypt of the church and listened for the better part of an hour, then left when they started the boring parts of the service where they talk instead of sing.

We mosied back to the train station, pausing to admire the view, to walk across the Ponte Vecchio with its jewelers, to find an really ugly statue of a pig just to the north, and to take pictures in the largely empty Piazza della Signora.

It was almost 21h00 when our train got to Bologna (late, of course). We tried to go to the Caminetto d'Oro, a restaurant I remembered from traveling here with my family, but found it closed. A little casting around produced an outside table across from Bologna's last bit of canal at

Trattoria dal Biassanot
(look for the sign of the black cat)
via Piella, 16/a
40126 Bologna
tel. 051 23 06 44
fax. 051 26 07 88
www.dalbiassanot.it

where I had a lovely piece of green lasagna and lamb chops cooked in white wine, and U--- ate green gnocchi in a gorgonzola sauce and veal stewed with wild mushrooms.

3 July 2008

Abortive attempt to take a bike ride north to Ferrara this morning. Still speaking to each other, but split up to do our own thing this afternoon.

I cooked fresh tagliatelli with a shrimp, eggplant, and tomato sauce, then we ate half a canteloupe and an apricot.

4 July 2008

Today we went to Siena, the other great tourist bog of Tuscany. Again, there weren't nearly as many people as I expected.

Getting to Siena requires getting to Florence, then taking a bus or a once an hour local train. From Bologna it's a three hour trip.

It's a Tuscan hill town --- a large town, it's true, but too small to really be considered a city --- with all that implies: the winding streets stretching along ridgelines and sprawling down hillsides, and the almost Escheresque shape of the buildings which fit themselves to the streets, or occasionally hang across them.

Unfortunately, it's a dead Tuscan hill town. The only business is tourism, plus a single bank that has persisted for the last few centuries. It's a pretty fossil, but the bustle in the streets is entirely the purposeless wander of the tourist.

Interestingly, there were very few Russian tourists. Florence was full of Russian tourists, who have apparently stolen the title of "most annoying nationality in Italy" from the Germans, only narrowly hold it against the English. They are bad enough that U--- claims there are now tours advertised as Russian free.

The Senese have had delusions of grandeur for centuries. They fought a series of wars with Florence until the Medicis finally put them under permanent Florentine rule. They have a cathedral, and had ambitions of building an even bigger one --- ambitions thwarted by the realities of bubonic plague and soil mechanics --- and were determined to have an enormous main square, though they didn't have a large enough flat space for it. The square is shaped like half a bowl with the town hall at the bottom.

Today the town hall houses the Museo Civico, which advertises as its main attraction a series of frescos on the effects of good and bad government (the bad government frescos have largely worn away). This a shame because it's a lovely building, and some of its other frescos are actually much better.

After we emerged from the Museo Civico, I set out to buy food for lunch since we had left to early to buy it in Bologna. We found a fruit store, then a butcher, and from him I asked directions to a cheese shop. The cheese shop, cleverly tucked away on the side of the Piazza del Mercato, site of the city's covered market, is actually a full grocery store: cheese, staples, meat, and prepared foods.

We took our lunch to the far end of the covered market, which looks out over the valley beneath Siena. We shared our bench with a grandmother watching her grandson run around the empty marketplace. The other spectator to this exercise was an old priest waiting for the bus, who cheered on the child and chattered with the grandmother.

After lunch we went to the duomo, which charges admission, and U--- convinced me to wait in line for about ten minutes. The duomo, like that in Florence, is faced in colored stone. The inside has lovely decorations, but the high point is the Libreria dei Piccolomini, a room lined with lovely frescos of scenes of the life of one of the Piccolomini popes above and illuminated book of plainsong below. After gazing my fill of the frescos, I amused myself sounding out the chants.

Finally we crossed the neighboring valley and climbed up and along the ridge to the Medici fortress, a classic star-shaped fortification of the sixteenth century.

A little more wandering in the streets, at first intentional, and later unwilling until I took over and extracted us, and we caught the bus out of town.

I have a theory about Siena's popularity as a tourist destination: as the Florentines watched ever more tourists pour into the city, they realized that preserving the surrounding region from thir depradations required a sacrifice. And who better to toss to the wolves to those nuisances in Siena? For I have to say that Tuscany contains much prettier cities and much better art than Siena can boast.

5 July 2008

Today we went to Cremona. A word of warning to anyone trying to reach that city on weekends: the direct commuter train from Bologna only runs on weekdays. We took a local train to Fidenza, and changed to the diretto, which stopped at every hamlet and farmhouse along the track before depositing us at Cremona.

What a relief to step out into a city totally untouched by tourism! The locals were out wandering around and chatting and the open air market was in full swing.

We wandered past the park with its little train for the children to ride in the Piazza Roma and into the cathedral square. In the cathedral old ladies or mothers and daughters had taken refuge from the heat with their purchases to talk quietly in the wings. A monsenor shuffled around exchanging greetings with them.

Bologna's cathedral only has a marble facade on the front. The rest is bare brick, and surrounded on all sides by a terraced piazza nearly inaccessible to cars. Florence's cathedral coyly hides behind buildings. Siena's tries to dominate its surroundings. Bologna's looms over its main square. Cremona's has the feeling of a cheerful dog plopped in the middle of the square, thinking, "Hi there, I'm a cathedral."

And we had to climb the belltower, of course. From the top I made the discovery that Cremona stops suddenly and turns into countryside, almost on a strict line. I hadn't realized that before.

The belltower closed for siesta at12h30, and we headed east to La Locanda, my favorite restaurant in Italy.

La Locanda
Via Pallavicino 4
26100 Cremona
Tel. 0372.457834 or 457835
Partita IVA 00931110191

U--- again didn't eat that much, but did manage a plate of tagliatelli al pomodoro with slices of parmeggian and a sprig of basel. I could not resist the tagliolini al ragu -- the ragu made with duck -- and then prosciutto and melon. We were the only people there, as they were planning a big buffet for Saturday night.

After lunch I dragged U--- through the violin collection at the Palazzo Muncipale, across the square from the cathedral, and then the Museo Stradivari which has a detailed description of how to make a violin with parts in various stages of completion on display. She put up with the whole thing well.

The Museo Stradivari is part of the Museo Civico, otherwise devoted to Cremonese art through the centuries. It's a nice collection, but the violins are more fun.

At this point we weren't far from time to catch our train back to Bologna. We had an orange juice at a table set out under the Palazzo Muncipale's loggia and admired the cathedral, then walked north to the station.

Our train back to Fidenza consisted of a single car. The conductor drove it with abandon, bouncing and bumping along the tracks and screeching to a halt at each tiny station, some so small they lacked a sign.

The train from Fidenza back to Bologna was different from our prosaic ride from Cremona in two respects: it was air conditioned, and full of loud, obnoxious youth off to party in Bologna on Saturday night. I looked over U---'s shoulder and made comments about her notation while she tried to figure out a calculation.

For dinner I cooked gnocchi in a tomato and cream sauce, then we ate the second half of the melon we started yesterday.

6 July 2008

Saw U--- off from the station at 4h00 on the express to Genova, nicknamed 'Espresso.' Caught my own train at 9h15. Changed in Milan without incident.


Fred Ross
June 2008
Lausanne, Switzerland


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