Like most of you, I am reeling from the results of last week’s election. I feel out-and-out shock as I try to reconcile this new external reality with my lifelong internal framework of America. I now see (or perhaps only fear) how many fundamental values and protections I took for granted. I have thoughts about post-election life in the U.S. from the perspective of someone who has spent the last 20 months living in a seriously hobbled democracy, but I need time for things to settle down (and in) before I post something on this blog. In the meantime, I have two posts to share: one about my September trip to Italy and the other about my October trip to Central Europe. I hope the pictures will provide a few minutes of distraction.
One of the benefits of a Peace Corps assignment in the Balkans is the proximity to the rest of Europe. Peace Corps Volunteers get about four weeks of vacation per year and I have saved a big chunk of them for trips to nearby countries.
In September, I met up with my good friend Margaret for my (and her) first-ever trip to Italy. We had planned the trip even before I left the U.S. for Albania, but then the opportunity for Margaret to attend a conference in Milan helped us get serious about timing and itinerary: Cinque Terre, Milan, and Rome (where we were joined by Margaret’s husband Steve). After Rome, Margaret and Steve continued on to Florence on their own. I returned to Albania understanding why people say they want to “learn Italian,” impressed by Italians’ ability to create great food from very few ingredients (something their Albanian friends have not yet mastered) and intent on returning for more art, architecture and history.
Mostly what follows are pictures. There are enough guidebooks to Italy around that you don’t need any sort of in-depth tour from me. But, if you want to know what you are looking at, click on each of the photo galleries below to see full-size versions of the pictures with their captions.
Cinque Terre: Lots of Pesto, Lots of People
Cinque Terre* is located on the Italian Riviera, in the Liguria region — known for olives, lemons, anchovies, and everyone’s favorite: pesto. Most people have never heard of Cinque Terre and have no idea where it is. The rest, thanks to Rick Steves, are aware of the joys of Cinque Terre and now swarm CT’s five villages by the thousands (this includes Margaret and me) as they eat fried calamari from paper cones and lick gelato from waffle ones.
*Officially, it’s the Cinque Terre (the Five Lands), but that’s awkward so I’ll stick with just Cinque Terre.
Everyone who’s been to Cinque Terre says that it’s a must see, and it is — colorful, charming, dramatic, authentic. It was a great place for Margaret and me to re-connect and catch up after an 18-month interval. We did a lot of sitting and talking over cappuccinos, local wine and rapturous (seriously!) rosemary-salt-tomato focaccia.
Our home-base was Riomaggiore, the second-to-least busy of the five villages….
With the exception of Vernazza, which was completely overrun with tourists, we spent time in each of the other villages.
Milan and Lake Como
We took the train from Cinque Terre to Milan, where Margaret attended her conference and I explored mostly on my own, with the two of us meeting up for dinners. Milan is Italy’s business capital — fashion, finance, manufacturing — and it feels very much like a bustling major metro area with a modern, easy-to-navigate subway system, lots of young men in dapper suits that look a couple of sizes too small (which is what makes them dapper), and restaurants whose focus is artisanal toast. Milan is not usually at/near the top of a first-time-to-Italy itinerary and I doubt we would have included it in our trip if not for Margaret’s conference. That being said, I was glad to see it: I enjoyed seeing what “modern Italy” is like, I was able to get my first taste of Italian history and I had the opportunity for a side-trip to beautiful Lake Como.
Milan’s #1 tourist attraction is the Duomo, the largest Gothic cathedral in Italy. The structure is so large and so ornamented (more than 3,000 statues inside and out) that it was hard for me to absorb and I found — later in the trip — that I was better able to appreciate cathedrals that, while huge, were relatively more modest. I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with Oscar Wilde that the Duomo is “an awful failure,” but I do agree with Henry James that it is more an “impressive, immeasurable achievement” than “commandingly beautiful.”
Adjacent to the Piazza del Duomo is one of the world’s original shopping malls: the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, named after Italy’s first post-unification king (the guy on the horse in the picture above). Dating from the mid-1800s, the Galleria is a dramatic cross-shaped arcade of cast iron and glass with a marble and mosaic floor and (as compared to the Duomo) beautiful and beautifully restrained architectural details.
Here are a few other pictures from my meanderings around Milan.
On my second day in Milan, I took a trip to the Lakes Region, about an hour north of the city, just at the Swiss border. The area is most famous for Lake Como and its adjoining towns — Como and Bellagio — and for the fact that (who knew?) George Clooney has a villa there. On the way into Como we passed several public parks that were serving as make-shift refugee camps for hundreds of migrants — mostly from Africa — hoping to cross the border into Switzerland. Earlier in the year, Switzerland had been accepting migrants, but then, in late summer, they starting turning away more than two-thirds of the people seeking asylum. Although Italy would provide asylum, most of the migrants were refusing because of lack of employment opportunities.
We stopped in Como, a fortified city dating back to Roman times, for a couple of hours. Many of the people on the trip shopped for silk (who knew, number two!) while some of us wandered around. I ended up spending much of the time inside Como’s much more modest cathedral — the Como Duomo — hovering on the periphery of a service that included beautiful call-and-response a cappella singing.
We then boarded a boat — essentially a water taxi — that made its way around Lake Como, stopping at each of the little towns. The Lake has been a vacation destination for the wealthy for hundreds of years and the villages, while small, are full of lakeside villas, hotels and spas. The boat made its way to Bellagio, another of the major towns on the lake, for lunch, exploring and shopping.
Rome: Crowded, Noisy, Polluted and Amazing
Margaret’s husband, Steve, met us in Milan and then the three of us took the high-speed train to Rome, a city I found over-crowded, noisy, hard to navigate and completely captivating. I knew ahead of time that Rome would feed the parts of me interested in history and architecture, but I did not anticipate feeling such awe: the omnipresent layers upon layers of history, the sheer volume of architectural wonders (more domes in a single city than I thought possible, Roman ruins extending as far as the eye could see, etc.) and the beauty of the obelisks, the mosaics, the statues.
I had seen Roman ruins before (in the south of France and a few other places) but never in this volume, at this size and with this level of preservation. I had learned that the Romans were “great engineers” but never fully appreciated that until I saw — among other things — the Colosseum and the Pantheon.
And, of course, the glorious food. I will spare you pictures and lengthy descriptions of the things we ate and say only that the food — throughout the entire trip — was great and I am amazed at how Italian cuisine can create such amazing tastes with so few ingredients.
The famous (and infamous) Colosseum, nearly 2000 years old. The largest amphitheater in the world, it held up to 80,000 people….
Here are some street scenes with some Rococo craziness thrown in:
Margaret, Steve and I stayed in an Airbnb in the other side of the Tiber River, in an area called Trastevere, a mostly medieval area that served as Rome’s first Jewish settlement even before Middle Ages. It turned out that our apartment was right next to a jail, which was a little creepy and, once we figured it out, explained some of the odd happenings on our street. Here are some miscellaneous pictures taken around Trastevere, followed by a set taken at/in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome and home to some stunning mosaics.
The church of Santa Maria in Trastevere is the first Roman church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. As currently constructed, the church is about 900 years old (the original foundation is estimated to be more than 1,500 years old) and the interior mosaics date from the 1200s. This was the last church I saw before returning to Albania and it might be my favorite from the entire trip. I loved the mosaics — the swirling patterns on the floor and the shimmering images in the apse. I was also fascinated by the remnants of more than 100 pagan grave-markers embedded in the walls of the church entryway.