Friday, October 23, 2009

October 23, 2009

We can't believe that in a few days we'll be home. On one hand it seems we've been one for ages, but on the other it has gone so quickly!

After we left Lake Como we had two nights in Milan. There was so much to see that we broke down and took a tour of the city with a visit to the Last Supper. First of all, parts of Milan are beautiful and the downtown area just wonderful. Our visit started with a walk through the Sforza Castle- the Sforza's were a leading family in Milan who developed a special relationship with the Medici family in Florence. It wasn't until the late 19th Century that Italy became a unified country- which is so easy to forget... so their were all of these little kingdoms fighting one another (with the Jews caught inbetween).

We also saw the incredible Galleria, tres chic.. and La Scala- the most prestigious opera house in the world.. but the highight of the trip, without a doubt was seeing the Last Supper.. what an unbelievable piece of artwork.. I can't do it justice.. let's just say that I got faklempt... it is just just beautiful.. so sayeth the Jewish girl from New York.

With this experience under our belts we traveled to Florence for the last major leg of our trip. Visiting Rome and Venice are akin to becoming part of a living museum... having the museum come alive with the treasures around y0u.

Florence is being apart of the history. You can feel the energy of the streets, you understand what it is like to walk the streets of the 14th Century. You feel as if you know the Medici family personally.

I admit that I couldn't remember anything about the Medici family so having come to Italy prepared I began reading about the Medici family history. Few families have ever had the impact on a country's history as this one did. The Medici's were bankers. Not being Jewish (who were already stigmatized because of their religion) they had a stigma, as good Christians eschewed the banking industry. So they decided to increase their power and influence not by bribery, but by dazzlement. They began building Churches and commissioning artists the like of Michelangelo and Leonardo to beautify the city of Florence. They were extremely philanthropic and invested in the area so that all would benefit. Now of course this is the good and bad news as the citizenry both appreciated and distrusted the family simultaneously. Mind you, they were also shrewed and power mongers...

So, of course the Medici family grew in power and influence to the point where they controlled much of what went on in the city. There were coup attempts and so forth. The end result, in addition to their being a few Medici Popes - was the creation of churches and museums that are without equal. Their investment in art and culture gave birth to the Renaissance movement which has had its reverberations throughout the world. Rick and I haven't known where to look first.

The height of our experience here has to be the viewing of Michaelangelo's David. If the Last Supper left us faklempt- David left us speechless. 17' high and created when Michaelangelo was but 29, it is breathtaking. We couldn't move.

Rick was so moved he wanted to draw David's face, which you can see above.

One of the many interesting aspects of the Medici family is the focus on learning. During the Renaissance one didn't just go through a set curriculum of study.. one went through a life time of reading, learning and debating. Lorenzo the Magnificent had tutors and philosopers surrounding him throughout his life. I think the first "Salons" were held here- intellectuals brought together to debate particular issues.

To enrich my experience I also read a number of essays and other books. I read essays by Henry James (whiney) and Charles Dickens (enamored) about their visits. I also broke down and read "The Prince" by Machievelli - a contemporary of the Medici family during their height. I was chilled when I read his chapters on vision vs. opportunism and dumbfounded when I read his chapter on whether or not a leader should provide an opportunity for others to speak the truth. It was clear that George Bush had read and embraced this philosophy!

Needless-to-say, we enhaled as much as we could.

We also visited the synagogue, which is quite something and also the Piazza which used to be the Jewish ghetto.

It was then time to brave the roads and head for Tuscany. We plugged in different areas into the GPS and told it to have us stay off the main roads. The result was three days of adventures and the golden colors of Fall. We started in Sienna, an ancient midieval town and then meandered to San Gimignano (the town with 11 bell towers) and along the Chianti drive (with a stop at a vineyard for a wine tasting of course).. At each place we stopped we visited and read up on Jewish history.

In Sienna, a shop owner ignored all of her customers as she pulled out a huge poster of Sienna to explain exactly where I might find the ancient Synagogue (all of this in Italian). She was so excited that I wanted to find the Synagogue, that I was Jewish and that I was doing this exploration in pidgeon Italian, that she didn't stop until she was sure I knew where I was going.

Perhaps the most magical town was totally off the beaten path....Monte San Salvino. We were tired and decided just to drive to "that town on the hill"... again a midieval town, teenie, where almost no one spoke English. We wandered and enjoyed this little town of maybe 500 people and 10 churches... when we passed a little sign that said, "Sinagoga." Again, so many people helped us find the little synagogue which has been closed for years. The town had a strong Jewish community but, as in many other places, the Jews were held responsible for the Black Plague of the 1300's and were lynched, killed and kicked out. The final Jews were kicked out i the 18th Century, leaving the remains of this teenie synagogue built in the 1600's behind. It is a tribute to the tiny town that it has not been sold and turned into a hotel.
This trip has been surprising in so many ways.. The extraordinary amount of history that is packed into this one litte country is mindbending.. We have experienced so many "aha!" in- "so that's where that reference came from---- so that's what that means".. truly amazing.
For me, perhaps, even more so has been connecting with the fragile Jewish history of this country, from community to community. I've said the Mourner's kaddish more times than I ever imagined -throughout this country. I've felt the loss and sorrow of communities who have been forced into ghettos, welcomed, banished, blamed, welcomed back - and finally devastated by the Holocaust. I've also felt wondrous amazement at a group of young Jews meeting and sharing a meal at a Kosher restaurant. The Jewish spirit never ceases to amaze me and I never for a moment feel anything but pride and joy at being able to count myself among them.
Tomorrow we are off to Pisa (to do our part in helping to hold the Tower up), then we fly to London on Sunday and fly back to SF on Monday.
For those interested, we are staying at the Hotel Francesco in Pisa:
and the Sheraton in London:
Not sure if I'll have a chance to post photos but I'll try. In the meantime..

Monday, October 12, 2009

It has been a busy time, but the main reason we haven't posted is that the internet has been a challenge! I keep forgetting that just because we are traveling with the latest technology it doesn't mean that Europe is keeping up with us! Oh, speaketh one who lives a stones throw from Silicon Valley..

So where have our hero and heroine been since Naples? We know you've been wanting to know! Well from Naples, we headed up to the Italian Riviera staying in a wonderful apartment with a view of the water, Portofino and Santa Margherita Lagure.. fabulous.. the view and accomodations were just great... We aren't sure how the neighbors deal with the church bells ringing every half hour (and then again five minutes after the hour and half hour just in case you missed it and, no they didn't stop at night.. The church is right next door.. so for the first few days I kept thinking someone was at the door.. We were meant to stay there though.. the bathroom is purple and has photos of New York..

Our first day we set out to find a little market and couldn't believe it when the shopkeeper said that he didn't take debit cards so that we should just bring him cash the next time we came to the store. We were dumbfounded.. We can't imagine anyone offering that in San Francisco! (We had enough cash)..

Have I mentioned that we rented a car for this little adventure.. Well Rick changed his name to Ricardo and hit those curves like a native.. I admit to keeping my eyes closed during most of our drives!

Our first full day in the area we ventured out to explore Portofino and Santa Margherita Lagure.. What beautiful towns, showcasing pastel colored homes and water front parks. An interesting thing about the area is that they do 3-D accent paint jobs on their homes.. so rather than using brick accents or molding, it is painted on and looks very real..

The northern part of Italy does not have the same vast amount of history as the south does... The coast is dotted with abandoned or reutilized forts that harken back to a time of marauding pirates.. but other than that one mainly visits the north for its beauty, relaxing environments and its incredibly cute towns..

We became backpackers and threw one night's needs into our packs and headed for the Cinque Terre (or 5 lands).. these are old communities that are built between cliff and ocean.. very sweet towns that are connected by railroad and boat (when the weather is nice).. At first I was overwhelmed by all of the tourists and felt it was like Disneyland for adults- even taking the train between the different lands..but then in the late afternoon the hoards departed and what was left was a rather extraordinary little community - we were in Vernazza the middle community.

With our Rick Steve's guide in one hand and our Italian phone in the other we just started calling down his list of places to stay. Showing up without a reservation takes guts, but we thought why not?? Edgy (yes, that is his name) showed up a few minutes after our call and showed us upstairs to a studio apartment that we rented for the evening... It had everything- a closet that is the kitchen- no cooking allowed.. and a bathroom where you have to remove the toilet paper before taking your shower so it doesn't get wet.. The shower consists of a shower head a foot to the right of the toilet, just sticking in the wall.. a very utilitarian bathroom.. Anyway, it was clean and right in the center of the little town, so we grabbed it.

We had dinner at the top of an old fort, where we sat next to a couple from Australia.. we hit it off and laughed the night away. It always strikes me how friendly fellow travelers are- as if we are sharing a grand adventure together.. and in many ways we are..

The next day we shifted from train travel to boat travel going from one community to another. We even walked Via d'Amore (Lovers Lane) from one town to the other and looked at all of the locks hanging from fishing nets declaring "locked hearts" forever... and of course, we did our own scmooching along the way..

Our last day in the area and we took a break for housekeeping- meaning finding a place to get our laundry done ... yes, in Italian... and looking for a craft store, which we also found.. this place is not to be believed.. I'd expect to find it in Brooklyn.. it is two rooms crammed with every imagineable yarn, embroidery, needlepoint, fabric on and on.. and Gilda knows where EVERYTHING is.. I mean you couldn't move in this place.. and of course she was so excited when I told her where we are from.. because she has relatives in San Francisco, Daly City and Millbrae! Go know..

From the Italian Riviera it was onward to Lake Como.. to relax and soak in the beauty.. our hotel here is the Hotel Metropole.. . We have a room with a terrace and view and have just spent a few days taking in the beauty and working on our art.. We are staying in the community of Bellagio. The water color at the top is my attempt at capturing the view out of one of our windows...

Tomorrow we head for Milan just for a couple of days.. we have a tour of the city arranged with a viewing of the Last Supper.. then it is off to Florence for the last leg of our trip..

Ordinarily we don't stay in American Hotels while we are traveling, but Milan is so expensive we threw our lot in with priceline and we got a great rate at the Milan Hilton..


who knows if that will work.. if not and you are interested, just google Milan Italy Hilton

Then in Florence we are staying at Piero's - he's been staying in our apartment in San Francisco while we've been gone..


We get to Florence on Rick's Birthday.. October 15th..

Uploading photos and/or pictures has been impossible and is oh this is so frustrating.. I'm not able to upload any more pictures or photos.. why it just accepted the one it did is a mystery!!! Facebook won't accept any either, so I can't even do a cross link.. boo.. Hopefully we'll be able to upload both more of our artwork - Rick has done some incredible pencil sketches.. and some of his great photos as well.. hopefully Milan will have better access.. more soon!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

October 2, 2009

Oct. 2nd:
So as high as my expectations were for Venice, my expectations for Naples were extremely low. Having heard and read about the crime and robbery in Naples, I was extremely nervous about visiting here. But what is a visit to Italy without a visit to Pompeii and the Amalf?

Since I was a bit nervous, and since we havem't yet spent a cent on loding since we landed in Italy, we decided to splurge and checked into the Hotel Excelsior, with its marble lobby, terraced breakfast area and balconied room overlooking the bay of Naples.

And, since we were spluring, we really splurged and hired wonderful Carmine from "Sea Almalfi Tours" as our guide for a day. Okay, so he also picked us up at the airport and drove us to our hotel. So when asked if I was scared driving through Naples, I was able to respond - "Not from the back seat of a Mercedes I wasn't."
Driving through Naples I understood the reaction - though mine differs slightly. What I see is Naples is a city that has not yet recovered from World War II...Modern buildings with bullet holes amidst ancient dwellings representing Napole's vast and varied history. It's a city that takes pride in its history and yet not for its present. The focus is on the economic driving force of the Amalif Coast. My guess is that most Americans just pass through Naples en route to Sorrento and Positano or Capri. Naples is gritty and dirty and teaming with life.

We went out to dinner last night at a fish restaurant that had been recommended by the hotel. Unlike Rome and Venice, where locals tripped over themselves to welcome us into their establishments - the staff at La Scailuppa acted more as if they were honoring us by making room for us in their establishment. We found the contrast funny and the food excellent.

So Carmine picks us up first thing this morning and off we go to explore the Amalif Coast. To connect with Carmine is to have him adopt you, so the day became a family adventure, and one that is possible because you don't have the constraints of a large tour bus while keeping track of scores of others.

We started at the top of a mountain giving us a view of the entire area in tiny Rovello. They are reknown for their ceramics which are truly incredible.

Along the way, we stopped at the Donadeo Cameo factory. This region is home to the world's great masters in cameo crafting which was introduced by the Romans some 2,000 years ago. I didn't realize that cameos are carved out of shells and you don't belive it when you see the ringlets, lace, etc. So much that is done today is by laser. We met Vincenzo Scirla who is considered one of the grand masters. He is ancient and his hands have taken the shape of the tools that he holds.So, in his honor, of course we had to purchase on of his creations, the "Goddess of Flowers".

Then on we went exploring Amalfi, Sorrento, Positano and more. I've often thought that the folks who decided to build a town on the hills of San Francisco were crazy. Well, after having spent a week in Venice, which was basically built on marshlands, and a day on the Amalfi Coast with towns built into mountains, I'm not so sure.

Each town, with its windy roads and alleys and building ranging from new to hundreds of years old, provides such a contrast even to itself. No nook is left unutilized - have a four foot a vegetable stand. Have a partial remain of a Norman fortress, open a jewelry shop. Crowded and close and dark - an alley suddenly opens up to a breathtaking view of the sea, or a piazza with a Byzantine church. I was never sure what to look at first.

And then, on top of a mountain, Carmine stops the car and says "For this you will never forget me....." and he shepherds us into La Tagliata, a restaurant barely seen from the street - a hidden Shangri La w ith a stone floor and thatched roof and an amazing view of Positano. "I have ordered for you", he says, "All you do is eat what is before you."

I don't even know where to begin. We have never tasted such food in our lives. Both of us were dumbstruck. We sat down and a side table was put next to ours and both tables were filled with plate after plate of tastes - just tast - each set to tease the palatte in a different way.

My first bite was of brocolli cooked in such a way as to burst with flavor in my mouth. I literally gasped at the surprise. I mean how could someone make brocolli taste like that? This was followed by a pumpkin souffle, then spinach with seasonings that, again, had us moaning in heaven. There were potatos and a sauteed bean salad. Taste upon taste, seasoning, texture, color, smells. The tomatos made me understand for the first time that they really are a fruit - and this, combined with goat cheese that was so subtle as to coax the flavor of the toast and tomato even further.
Then eggplant parmesana. My sister loves eggplant and occassionally I will indulge her and share a dish with here - but I've never understood its appeal. Well, one bite into their eggplant parmesana and I started singing (not too loudly). There was simply no other response.We turned around and the dishes were cleared and out came the pasta course - again tastes - a sample of ravioli, canneloni, gnocci and something else that is the Italian version of a blintz.

The restaurant is family run and Mamma gets up at 5:00 a.m. every day to make the pasta from scratch. Then desert - again little samples served with lemoncello - a dessert lidqour that we had tried in Rome and hadn't cared for. This lemonciello - homemade. The wine - homemade. Since everyone who works in the restaurant is family, each and every one takes great pride in every moan, smile and sigh. We were brought into the immaculate kitchen to meet Mama who welcomed my kisses of appreciation and beamed when told that her cooking made us sing.

Back in the car it was back to Naples for a quick downtown tour. We got back to the hotel and could only shake our heads at the experience of the day's sights, sounds, smells and tastes.
for more photos click on the following:
Next stop Zoagli, outside of Genoa - the Italian Riviera.... not sure of wifi capacity, so it may be a few days before we post again... Click below for our next home exchnge>>

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Part of our goal for the trip is to develop our artistic appreciation and eye.. here are our beginning attempts...
Rick drew this at a cafe in the Jewish Ghetto.. My attempt at capturing the vibrancy of the boats on the Canal...

Rick drew the above at a cafe near Piazza San Marco..

We were having dinner near Piazza Roma and I just loved this spot so tried to capture it during dinner (Rick was thrilled)...

Rick and I sat down on one of the canal edges and drew buildings.. this house was right on the water..

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sept. 28, 2009

It has been a whirlwind few days.. I keep saying that don't I.. well we haven't been letting any grass grow under our feet..

My sister asked me if we've gotten lost yet.. I think the more appropriate question is when have we NOT gotten lost.. the maze that is Venice is... amazing.....

On Friday, the 25th, we headed back to the train station to take a tour of the Grand Canal .. with Rick Steve in our ear it gave us a wonderful orientation and then it was onto St. Mark's Square where we purchased our musem passes and caught our first gander of it all.. we splurged and sat in the square people watching and listening to the restaurant's orchestra play.. There were too many people to fight to get into St. Marks so we decided to get lost.. and that we did.. for the next several hours we just wandered from alleyway to campo, to church to canal. We did stop for awhile to sketch and then continued on our way.. We must have wandered for about 5 hours before we ended up at the train station which is the main gateway for most visitors to Venice.

We have been trying to draw and or paint a little every day.. you will see from the photos a little of our progress.. Rick is doing studies in pencil and I am venturing forth into ink and water color.. Everywhere we look there is something we want to capture... (actually, we'll post art photos in the next blog,,,

Have I mentioned Rick Steve's yet? Do not plan a trip anywhere in Europe without one of his guide books.. we have yet to stand in a line for anything because of his tips!! Anyway, I digress.. on Saturday we got up very early to visit St. Marks Cathedral (1100 ad) and the Doges Palace (1370).. The Cathedral is a mishmash of styles showing an attempt to keep up with the Jones' even back then! They have an Ottoman influence, Greek and who knows what else. The inside shimmers with gold.

The Doges palace was where the grand poobah of Venice lived and held government. I had forgotten that Venice wasn't part of the Italian state until the late 1866. The family apartments were nothing to write home about but the government rooms are amazing.. the art and decoration.. the floors and ceilings.. not sure about the obsession with ceilings, but they are impressive..

Venice is definitely in transition.. they loose about 1,000 people a year- and with a population of only 60,000 that is nothing to sneeze at.. especially since the population is older. The fear is that eventually Venice will become Disneyland for adults.. already there are huge billboards and I mean humngous advertisements of companies helping with restoration of various buildings... it is quite a disconnect.. (Disney is no where to be found)..

By the afternoon we were peopled out and so caught a vaparetto out to Murano island.. reknown for its glass blowing. If the heart of Venice is on speed, Murano is laid back central.. where in the heart of Venice there are barkers calling you into restaurants and shops... in Murano you might have to wake the shopkeeper up from their nap.. The buildings are also shorter so there is a feeling of more space and breath.. it was a lovely counterpoint and we enjoyed visiting the Glass Museum.. My Nana always said that the perfect woman could do anything but pee in a bottle.. at the Museum they had bottles for the toilet from the 1st century and I wondered if this was an early attempt to test the theory. We couldn't figure out what else they were for..

Yesterday, in honor of the coming of Yom Kippur we spent in the Jewish Ghetto, where there is a debate whether Jews have been here since 1100 or 1300.. either way... it's a long time.. There are three synagogues dating back to the 1500s, and two other that came along a few hundred years later. Unlike the area churches, the synagogues are all but invisible from the outside, with the only demarcation being five windows of slightly greater size than the others near it. To imagine this small community of over 2,000 confined to this teenie space is incredible.. and yet again a tribute to the spirit of the Jewish people. It was actually Napoleon who brought down the ghetto walls and decreed that there would no longer be a ghetto.. Go figure.. There are only 500 Jews left in Venice but you can feel the Jewish presence wherever you go.

It hasn't all been idyllic, we flooded the bathroom when we tried to use the washing machine and the apartment looks like I don't know what with our laundry all over the place.. and then of course people have been stopping us on the street wanting to play connect the dots with the mosquito bites all over our faces.. the mosquitos have actually declared a national holiday and celeberation in our honor..

Naples is our next stop.. for some reason the link isn't copying..
just google, Hotel Excelsior in Naples, Italy...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sept 24th

Yesterday was a great farewell to Rome.. After viewing the mosaics and beauty of Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, we headed off to spend the day visiting the Jewish Ghetto, the synagogue and Jewish museum and then spending three hours with a guide who is working on her doctorate in art history. After spending so many hours in Rome's beautiful churches, I admit to feeling a bit of relief getting back to my own roots.

The bad news is of course, the persecution.. dating back some 2,000 years, when Jews were slaves, forced to build some of the glories in Rome.. knowing that when we were dining in fabulous Piazza Navona, that Jews used to be raced down the center and stoned for entertainment's sake.. that the Jews, among others, endured the Inquisition and lost their lives in the Campo di Fiori- the Camp of Flowers.. the Jewish Ghetto, where some 12,000 Jews lived in an area about the same size as the inside of St. Peter's... And the markers of exactly where Jews were seized to be sent off to Nazi Concentration camps.. Indeed I found myself murmuring the Mourner's Kadish throughout Rome..

The sweet side is that what was once the Jewish ghetto is now the Jewish
quarter, with kosher restaurants, shops and schools.. and an area that is enjoyed by Jews and non-Jews alike.. hearing that through the worst of the Holocaust Romans tried to hide Jews and came to their defense...and now today celebrate the community as a special part of itself..

It was a meaningful juxtaposition to a rather amazing week...
And then today.. hoping onto the Eurostar and traveling to Venice in but a few short hours.. Then catching a Vaparetto (water bus) and of couse getting lost, because how can where we are staying possibly be down this teenie weenie alley.. and yet, it was and is.. and is charming in a building that is hundreds of years old.. with exposed beams and tiled floors.. and with one bathroom the size of a shower stall and in that bathroom is a toilet, sink, washing machine and a shower head.. mind you without a shower, just the head stuck in the wall of the bathroom..

We aren't exactly sure how everything works, but oddly we are more comfortable here then we were at the modern apartment that was tres cool.

Here's the link ...

Many more experiences to come..

Sept. 22nd

We're back at the Vatican so Rick can climb the Dome of St. Peter's. I'm sitting at the 8th column in from the end on the left if your facing St. Peter's.

Things learned so far in Rome:

1) The city is amazing- There are so many antiquities that if they couldn't build up to and into the antiquities they'd have to move Rome some place else. Literally, they have brand new apartment buildings built into 2,000 year old ruins!

2) Sitting at an outdoor cafe, listening to music and enjoying a city that truly doesn't sleep is wonderfully invigorating. Two nights ago, we had dinner at the oldest restaurant in Piazza Navonna. We dined while listening to an outdoor Spanish concert. We then wandered to the Pantheon and listened to a wonderful opera performance. It was topped off by a stroll by the Trevi fountain to throw in our coins..and stopping near street musicians for a gelatto. It was after 10:00 pm and there were so many people on the streets you would have thought it was a Saturday afternoon.

3) The Vatican is truly awe inspiring. Everything is on such a huge scale. We spent 4 1/2 hours here yesterday and there is still so much more to see. The priests have definitely learned a thing or two about commercialism as there is a shopping kiosk in every nook or cranie.. but not so much about preservation. They could use a little advice on temperature control and atmosphere..

And what can you say about Michelangelo.. holy bajoley.. did he churn out work.. except for his little snafu putting those horns on Moses, he really was extraordinary!

4) Romans are very big on ceiling art--oy our aching necks.. We can't even imagine how it was done.. we got dizzy just looking at the art, let alone painting it!

5) The Borghese Gallery is a treasure of art and they know from preservation... the contrast in colors and definition of art done at the same time as that at the Vatican.. well they should be taking the Vatican in hand...

6) I find myself fascinated by the Mosaics created 2,000 years ago... how intricate they are and how the colors endure, how dramatic the effect..

7) We are pleased to report that at least 25% of taxi cab drivers are honest and do not pad the fare by taking you meandering around the city.

8) The pasta here is terrific no matter where you eat. The chicken is fine as long as you bring your own saw to cut it with.

9) Almost everyone speaks some English, but if you even try Italian, faces light up and you become family..

10) Within the past three days I've spoken English, French, Spanish, Hebrew and Italian... Rome is truly universal!

11) The Pope is useless in doing anything for hot flashes..

12) The CIA has undertaken a new spy tactic... I swear I've seen Leon Panetta all over Rome..