Sunday, July 28, 2013

Florence

Mercato di San Lorenzo

Thank goodness for long days of summer. We made the most of our 24-hour visit to Firenze. After a nice lunch at Trattoria Dante (which is big on ambiance), we took the bus to San Lorenzo where we browsed the outdoor stalls for decent bargains to take home as presents for family and friends. My cousin was particularly interested in finding a good leather jacket. We arrived at the market just before their fold-up time of 7 p.m. and the bargaining was intense. In the end, I bought four lacy scarves, left the leather bags alone and walked happily away. My cousin found the jacket he wanted the following day. Shopping done, we strolled to the Duomo and Baptistery of San Giovanni for art history lessons. My favorite Florentine story is about the competition for the crafting of the bronze doors of the Baptistery. Both Ghiberti and Brunelleschi submitted their quatrefoil panels of the Sacrifice of Isaac. Ghiberti won and was awarded the commission to sculpt the reliefs for the north facing door of the Baptistery (the original door is now inside the Museo dell'Opera). While it appears that Brunelleschi failed, it was really a stroke of luck for him. He moved on to build the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Il Duomo, the first octagonal dome built without a wooden supporting frame. Proof that "when one door closes, another opens".

At the Piazza della Signoria, we gazed at the sculptures of Neptune, Michaelangelo's David (a copy), Cellini's Perseus and the Head of the Medusa, among others, from the very spot where the Dominican priest, Girolamo Savonarola, burned books, works of art, fine clothes and jewelry and a host of "immoral and frivolous objects" in what was dubbed the Bonfire of the Vanities and where Savonarola himself was hanged and burned at the stake in 1498. Karma?

 
Sunset on the Arno River

We stopped at Ponte Vecchio to view the sunset and its reflection on the Arno River. It was fiery and it bathed the old buildings in what I would call, the colors of Tuscany. What a perfect way to cap the day! Across the bridge and a couple of blocks down on Borgo San Jacopo, we found Trattoria Cammillo, a restaurant recommended by a colleague at work. There was a long line outside the small trattoria and we nearly gave up, but upon entering the dining room, we were told we could have our table in ten minutes. And we did.

Trattoria Cammillo dining room

We were seated in the first dining room which was packed with guests and people waiting for a table. it was rather entertaining to watch the buzz of activity around us.  My cousins ordered lamb and a mushroom omelette while I got breaded fried chicken cut in cubes. While the food was nothing spectacular, we were happy with our selections. The service flowed though the restaurant was fully booked until we were ready to leave and we had to wait a little bit to get our bill as our waiter was up to his ears serving in the other dining room.

Façade of Pitti Palace

The next day we walked to the Pitti Palace. It was such a relief that fewer tourists explore past the Ponte Vecchio nor venture into the Oltrarno because we didn't have to deal with the crowds. With some time before taking the train back to Rome, we wandered in the area around Via Guicciardini where we discovered a few excellent shops selling pottery and leather goods at reasonable prices.

Tuscan Pottery

It was nice to absorb Florence one neighborhood at a time - Piazza San Lorenzo, Signoria, Pitti and we were ensconced in a restored villa on Piazza del Carmine which was formerly owned by the Prince of Rospigliosi from Pistoia. The Brancacci Chapel (with frescoes by Masaccio) is a stone's throw away.

Florentine Sonnets
Through these old streets I wander dreamily;
Around me Florence sweeps her busy tide
Of life; quaint palaces on every side.
Here, where I pass, perchance in former day
Petrarch hath walked, composing poetry
to oft-sung charms of Laura. Here hath hied
Dante, of Florence now the greatest pride,
But whom in life, she fiercely drove away,
To write in gloom his epic. Here, beneath
This loggia, Boccaccio hath told
His laughing tales, to comrades, merrily
What wondrous memories these scenes bequeath
What artists, sculptors, painters, here of old
Fashioned this lovely gem of Italy!
William Leighton, 1906

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Eats: 
Trattoria and Pizzeria Dante
Pizza Nazario Sauro, 12/r
Borgo San Frediano

Cammillo
Borgo San Jacopo, 57/r
Closed Tuesdays and Wednesday

Where to stay: 
Santo Nome di Gesu - this is a religious casa managed by the Franciscan sisters. There's a curfew for guests. Good location. Friendly staff. Nice garden.
www.fmmfirenze.it
Piazza del Carmine 25

Getting around:  Walking is the best way to explore the city. Buses are convenient if you're too tired to walk. Buy bus tickets at tobacconists, cafés, or shops around the bus stop before you board the bus.
Where to shop:
For leather bags and accessories 
Simone
Via Guicciardini, 33/r

Across the street from Simone are various pottery shops.

Mercato di San Lorenzo (under the shadow of the Basilica of San Lorenzo)
There's a wide assortment of goods sold at this outdoor market including clothing, leather products, scarves, pottery, souvenir items, home decor. Bargaining is the norm.

Mercato del Porcellino on Piazza della Repubblica
The stalls at this market sell the same wares as those at San Lorenzo but with a difference. I found the scarves sold here were of better quality and the selection of fabrics a tad more chic. 

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Images by Charie

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Lake Lugano

   View of Lugano, Cassarate, Castagnola and Monte Bré

Lugano is definitely one of my favorite places in the world. On my first visit to this lakeside beauty many moons ago, I walked everyday along the lake from Paradiso where I was staying to Piazza della Riforma to have lunch at one of the cafés or restaurants in the city center. On the way back to my hotel, I'd stop by the Church of Santa Maria degli Angioli on Piazza Luini to marvel at the 16th century fresco of the Crucifixion by Bernardino Luini, a follower of Leonardo da Vinci. 

The Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus Christ

In the same nondescript Church of Santa Maria is a painting of the Last Supper which is also attributed to Luini. Whether you're facing the altar or the main door of the Church, you are blessed with a visual treat, one man made, the other, by a divine hand. The Church door opens to Lake Lugano.


If I were staying in Lugano for a few days, I would have stocked my hotel refrigerator with food from this deli shop, D. Gabbani. It has a good selection of meat, poultry, fish, pasta and cheese products at reasonable prices. It is a combination macelleria, salumeria, and charcuterie. What a great place to pick up goodies for a picnic basket!


Many buildings in Lugano are painted in bright or pastel colors and are decorated with religious images like this one. Moreover, the streets are clean and state-of-the-art garbage disposal units are strategically installed throughout the city. We also tested the free wifi available on benches along the waterfront. But though I was connected to their wifi, I couldn't browse at all. 

Drop your 'basura' here

We took one of the ferries from the lakefront to the picturesque village of Gandria which is a pleasant 30-minute cruise away. This village of 200 residents (according to Wikipedia), hugs the slope of Monte Bré and spills down to the water's edge.  It's possible to walk back to Lugano from Gandria through olive groves to Castagnola instead of taking the ferry back. But we didn't do this as we were pressed for time.

Gandria

Many years ago I took the funicular up to Monte San Salvatore for an incomparable view of the lake and surrounding towns including the Lombardian countryside in the distance. This was definitely one of the most memorable adventures I had in Lugano. Missing the funicolare ride up to any of the nearby mountains this  time around, I nevertheless had the opportunity to take a funicular from Piazza Cioccaro up to the train station. This cable railway has a track length of 720 ft. and it takes 2 minutes to reach the top. In comparison, it takes 10 minutes to reach the top of Monte San Salvatore. It's easier to take the funicular than to walk uphill to the bahnhof especially on a rainy day (it started to pour heavily just as we got to the station). One way costs CHF1.20. 


The streets of Lugano are empty and quiet after work hours except for this bar where office workers congregate to unwind and catch up with friends. The shops close its doors as well. The sound of silence everywhere. 
"How beautiful the coolness
Of this lovely summer night!
How the soul fills with happiness
In this true place of quiet!
I can scarcely grasp the bliss!"
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ( from The Lovely Night as translated by A. S. Kline)

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Logistics: 
The bay cruise on Lake Lugano to Gandria may be arranged at the ticket office of Navigazione del Lago di Lugano which is located on the dock at Riva Albertolli, across from the Tourist Information office. It costs CHF26.40 round trip. There are many cruise tours to choose from. Check www.lakelugano.ch for more information.

The train from Milan to Lugano takes approximately one hour. We had to stop for Customs inspection on the Italian side of the border on the return trip and it took a few minutes more to get back to Milan. 

Where to eat:
Manor Department Store on Piazza Dante has a restaurant upstairs with choice offerings. My salmon with rice and contorni (side order of vegetables) was CHF19.30. 
For a view of the rooftops of Lugano, try Coop's cafeteria which has both indoor and outdoor sitting. They have a tempting array of desserts.

Where to shop:
Via Nassa is the shopping street to check out. For leather and travel bags and accessories, Pelleteria Poggioli is my preferred store because of their warm and attentive service. It's on Via G. Luvini 5.

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Images by Charie


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Padua


Basilica of St. Anthony

Prayer to St. Anthony of Padua
Blessed be God in His angels and in His saints.
O Holy St. Anthony, gentlest of Saints, your love for God and charity for His creatures made you worthy, when on earth, to possess miraculous powers. Miracles waited on your word, which you were ever ready to speak for those in trouble or anxiety. Encouraged by this thought, I implore you to obtain for me (your request). The answer to my prayer may require a miracle. Even so, you are the saint of miracles. Amen.

My purpose in visiting Padua was to pray at the tomb of St. Anthony in the Basilica dell'Santo, which fortunately was across the street from our hotel. I've been planning to make this pilgrimage for a long time and while I've visited neighboring Venice a few times, I never did make it to Padua until recently. We attended mass at the Basilica on the day we arrived along with pilgrims from Rovigo, Italy who were that day's sponsor of the Eucharistic celebration. We learned later that there are 13 days of special masses in early evening preceding the feast of St. Anthony which falls on June 13 and devotees from surrounding towns make the pilgrimage to Padua on each of those days. St. Anthony was born into a wealthy family in Lisbon, Portugal but he chose to live a simple life in the service of our Lord. St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost articles.

Gattamelata by Donatello

Donatello lived here

While taking art history lessons in college, I was introduced to Donatello and his masterpiece, Gattamelata, an equestrian statue of Erasmo da Narni, a condottiero (mercenary leader) who served under the Republic of Venice. His family commissioned this sculpture after his death in 1443 to honor him. It soars above Piazza del Santo, in front of the Basilica. This is the first Renaissance equestrian statue. I wasn't  aware that Donatello lived in the house within site of the statue. There is a marker on the front façade of the house that indicates his stay around 1450. A local kindly pointed this out to me. What a pleasant surprise!

Prato del Valle

Though we could have walked to the center of town, we took the tram from Piazza Prato dell Valle which is a vast square populated by a myriad statues and is the site of a Sunday outdoor market. We wanted to dine at Caffè Pedrocchi but alas, it was hosting a conference and closed to the public. So we walked to Piazza delle Erbe for a view of the 13th century Palazzo Ragione. This square and the Piazza della Frutta on the other side of the palazzo is occupied by stalls selling clothing and accessories, home goods and fresh produce during the day. The squares are peaceful in the evenings when the stalls are gone and the locals take possession once more of their piazza and the bambini can ride their bicycles without obstacles.

Palazzo Ragione (Palace of Reason)

It's worth roaming the center of town at night to see Padua from a different perspective. The silhouettes are enchanting!

Where to stay: 
Casa del Pellegrino
Via Cesarotti, 21
Padua

Getting around:
We found the tram efficient, safe and clean.  A ticket costs €1.20 and may be purchased at the coin operated machines on the main tram stops. The tram connects the Basilica dell'Santo with Palazzo Ragione, the train station, the Scrovegni Chapel. It operates till 11 pm.

Where to dine:
Osteria al Peronio on Piazza della Frutta. I ordered their grilled swordfish and it was fresh, simply prepared and tasty. They also serve a variety of salads in generous portions. Peronio is also a pizzeria. Attentive and friendly service a plus.


Most restaurants in Italy have a cover charge which ranges from €2 to €3 (or more) per diner.

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Images by Charie



Thursday, July 11, 2013

Venice - A Feast for the Eyes


One too many gondolas on a narrow canal spells traffic. This is the scene during the busy summer months. Trying to find a quiet corner can be challenging. 

"But come back in November or December, February or March, when the fog, la nebbia, settles upon the city like a marvelous monster, and you will have little trouble believing that things can appear and disappear in this labyrinthine city, or that time here could easily slip in its sprockets and take you, willingly or unwillingly, back." Erica Jong, A City of Love and Death: Venice


Love is in the air. We congratulated the bride and groom of this wedding party whom we saw cruising the Venetian canals. On our way to Dorsoduro, we discovered these love locks on the Ponte dell'Accademia. Yes, love may be eternal but the lock is only good till it rusts. Good luck with that! Speaking of love, every year during the Festa della Sensa (Feast of the Ascension), Venice renews its wedding vows with the sea. These are the words the Mayor (formerly the Doge) recites during the ceremony: "We wed thee, sea, in the sign of the true and everlasting Lord."  The Mayor then throws a ring into the Adriatic Sea. Venice is indeed for lovers!

Campanile of Santo Stefano

The leaning campanile of Santo Stefano, a wizened palazzo, a bonbon shop, a door handle, a lace curtain: these are tableaux I fondly associate with Venice.


An exquisite lace curtain drapes down the side of an old palazzo. Lace was one of the main handicrafts of Venice (along with glass), a once thriving industry on the island of Burano. Lace making a la Veneziana is sadly a dying art with the influx of machine made lace.


The Carnival of Venice originated in 1162 when Venice celebrated its victory against the Patriarch of Alquileia. It was then banned in 1797 during the reign of the Austrian monarch and was not resurrected until 1979, an absence of nearly two centuries. The mask is one of the main components of the Carnival and a competition is held towards the end of the festivities to find "la maschera piu bella", the most beautiful mask.


Colorful fruit-shaped marzipan cookies look as good as it taste. How Venice plays with our senses - an appetizing treat, a feast for the eyes, a musical note echoing along shaded canals, the scent of freshly baked bread in the early morning hours, a brush with Titian!

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Images by Charie

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Como


The town of Como is not just the gateway to the villages along Lake Como, it is a destination in itself. Surrounded by mountains and fronting the shores of Lake Como, it has a lot to offer its visitors. How about starting with a nice, cool prosecco at the Piazza Duomo as you watch the play of light against the walls of the Cathedral?

                        

The construction of the Cattedrale de Santa Maria Assunta or the Duomo di Como was began in 1396 and it was completed in 1770, nearly 4 centuries later. The front façade features a rose window flanked by statues of the illustrious Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, both natives of Como.


As I was walking around town, I was struck by this architectural overhang, typical of medieval houses. Surprises abound in Como.


Another gem from the 12th century is this tower, Porta Torre, one of three remaining towers which once formed part of a wall that surrounded Como. Notice the four rows of arched windows which correspond to four internal storeys in this Romanesque structure.


Locals lucky enough to live by the shore get the best views of the lake. It must be hard to tear one's eyes away from the calming waters of Lake Como which measures 28.5 miles in length, 2.8 miles at its widest point and 414 meters in depth.


Some people take pride in keeping their water taxi in tiptop condition. Couldn't help but notice this sleek speedboat with its American flag. What a way to cruise the lake in style!

To get to Lake Como from Milan, take the train from Cadorna Station to Como Borghi. The fare is €4.55 one way (as of this writing) and it takes 45 minutes. It's a 10 minute walk to the lake from Borghi.

Como Borghi Train Station

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Images by Charie

Monday, July 01, 2013

Villa Melzi

Villa Melzi was the residence of Francesco Melzi d'Eril who was the Duke of Lodi and Vice President of the Italian Republic under Napoleon. This simple and elegant neoclassical villa was designed and decorated for the most part by Giacondo Albertolli. The villa's English garden stretches along the shores of Lake Como from the Bellagio entrance to the Loppia neighborhood on the south end. Plane trees lead to the villa and across the path, rhododendrons and azaleas dot the hillside. The garden was designed by Luigi Canonica and together with the botanist, Luigi Villoresi, they created a garden of aesthetic proportion, with the lake as its natural boundary. 


Plane trees and a well manicured lawn lead to the villa from the Bellagio entrance. 


This Moorish style temple holds the busts of the Austrian Emperor, Ferdinand I and Marianne of Savoia and the Duke Lodovico Melzi and his consort, Josephine Melzi. The Duke and Josephine were the last of the Melzis to own the villa. The Gallaratti Scotti family inherited the property after them. Across the lake is the village of Tremezzo.


This Venetian gondola steals the scene in the southern section of the garden. It feels and looks like a musical instrument, quite lyrical. Enough inspiration for the gondolier who can sing to his heart's content without interruption. Ahhh, but it's only for display.


What an entrance this gate promises to its visitors. And what a view from the main house and terrace!


No matter where you are in the garden, you can always catch a glimpse of the lake. This is the lily pond in the Japanese garden. The rays of the sun filter through an umbrella of trees. And just beyond, Lake Como or Lario, as it was called once upon a time.

Franz Liszt was a guest at Villa Melzi. He was inspired by his stay here to compose Dante's Sonate between 1847 and 1855.  He said and I quote, "When you write a story of two happy lovers, place them on the shores of Lake Como". 

Villa Melzi is open from 9:30 am to 6:30, March to October. Entrance fee is 6 euros (as of this writing) for the garden, chapel and orangery/museum only. The house is not open to the public. From the wharf in Bellagio, turn right along the lake, past the Lido on Lungolago Marconi.

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Images by Charie