Monday, June 11, 2012

The Coolest Bridge You've (Probably) Never Heard Of

Italy is starting to feel long ago and far away, so it's past time I finished blogging about it. This post is about two Umbrian towns: Todi, which Tyler and I visited together after our night at Titignano, and Spoleto, which I went to see by myself on Tyler's last day of measurements in Perugia.

Like Assisi's, Todi's buildings have a remarkably consistent look. Every street in this hilltop town looks much like the one below--i.e., every street is lovely.

Count the arches!
As usual, we found a church tower to climb. The sweep of red roofs in all directions made for beautiful views.


The arches over the doors of the church, like so many in Umbria, were adorned with column after column, each carved in a different intricate pattern.


One of the wonderful things about Italy is that there are drinking fountains everywhere. (All of Germany's decorative fountains have plaques proclaiming them "KEIN TRINKWASSER," and American-style drinking fountains are almost unheard of.) I particularly liked this angry yet helpful duck.


For those interested in sociological aspects of our travels, I photographed this notice board announcing deaths in Todi. Some of them are funeral announcements, some are from families thanking the community for its support in their time of grief, some are memorial notices from societies the deceased belonged to. We saw boards like this one in a few other Umbrian towns, too. I think it's both a nice tradition and a good way to learn some new Italian names.


As you can tell, Todi was very pretty, but not the most stimulating place we visited. The most exciting part of the trip was trying to get home. The train station was at the bottom of the hill, and though there was a bus, we feared that it would get us to the station to late to get tickets. Google told us it would take about 35 minutes to walk down to the station, but not that we would have to walk on the shoulder of a small highway the whole way. When we finally made it to station (with shoes full of plant matter, but otherwise none the worse for wear), the ticket office was closed. A sign informed us that we could buy tickets at a shop on the main square--back up at the top of the hill. Luckily, the conductor sold us tickets on the train with no more reproach than a weary look that clearly said "turisti."

Spoleto's train station is a mere 10-minute walk from its old town, and the slope of the hill it sits on is fairly gentle, so it was the easiest of the hill towns to visit. As you'll see, though, the buildings get cooler the farther up the hill you go. This is a picture of a section of the city wall in which you can see several different building techniques, from several different centuries. The earliest part, the middle-right section where the stones are unshaped, dates from the 1st century BC.


After a lunch of polenta with gorgonzola sauce and roasted vegetables (every bit as delicious as it sounds) I followed the signs for the Roman theater, my first. A church and cloister were built over it some time in the Middle Ages. The church, now an archaeological museum, still stands, taking up about half of the space that used to be the stage.

The back of St. Agatha's Church and the orchestra, with remains of its colorful marble floor still visible.

For a measly two euros I was allowed the clamber all over the benches and run through the tunnels underneath.


A cool column in the yard behind the theater.
The remains of the theater's facade.
I loved the theater, but I was on a quest to find Spoleto's most famous sight, so I soon continued up the hill. Spoleto is just as lovely as Todi, but has a much greater variety of styles.

A house with a fountain built into the facade.
I pulled myself away from churches, piazzas, and interesting twisty streets until I came to a wide promenade encircling the crest of the hill. Only the fortress stands above it, and the whole town is spread out below.

The cathedral, as seen from the promenade.
I followed the promenade around to the back of the hill. With my goal in sight, I went down into this olive grove to get a better look ...


... at the Ponte dei Torri (Bridge of Towers).

View of the bridge from the olive grove. You can only see about 3/4 of its height in this picture. The gorge at the bottom is steep-sided but dry.
The bridge was built in the 13th century, though according to Wikipedia, some scholars think it was built on the remains and to the plan of a much earlier Roman bridge. It connects Spoleto's hilltop to the much higher hill behind the town. The fortress stands above it on the Spoleto side, and a ruined guard tower at the other end.

The bridge is only wide enough for two, maybe three, horses to ride abreast.
View of the bridge and guard tower from the other side.
I spent about an hour walking across the bridge, climbing on the ruins, and gawking at the view from as many angles as possible. Afterward, I still had some time to walk up to the fortress and wander back through the town before my train came.

Wild poppies growing along the road up to the fortress. We were too early to see sunflowers in Italy, but we caught the poppies right at their peak.
Fortress tower and roses
Fortress training yard with Umbrian hills beyond
Flowers growing on the wall above the training yard
I love how you can see the painted ceiling of this covered terrace from below. Quite a few buildings in Florence and around Umbria had top stories like this.
Here is the cathedral and main piazza. The clouds very obligingly made a dramatic backdrop but refrained from soaking me.


The cathedral boasts amazing frescoes by the Florentine painter Filippo Lippi. It is dedicated to Mary, so the fresco at the front depicts important moments from her life: the Annunciation, her death, the Nativity, and her coronation as the Queen of Heaven.


I saw a lot of Annunciations in Italy. I wish I could tell you about all the different formulations of the scene that I observed, but I'll just point out one odd thing about this one: the Holy Ghost is about to strike Mary on the shoulder.


Female prophets, sadly damaged.

I'll leave you with a picture of the floor of the cathedral. At the time I couldn't think where I'd seen something similar, but during our friends' visit last week I realized that it looks rather like the floor of the Aachen Cathedral.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

German Drinking Games

A few months ago we received a tip from a friend and former resident of Germany saying that if he could have anything to eat from Germany he'd choose Döner Kebabs and Müllermilch. Döner you may have heard of--huge skewers of meat slowly rotating in a heater, part of which is shaved off into a bread sandwich with some salad and, if I have my way, a spicy sauce. Allegedly developed in Berlin and the canonical German street food, it's something that I like fairly well and that Sara tolerates occasionally. The Müllermilch is, as they say in Deutschland, total anders (completely different). We hadn't even tried one for a long time since they looked simply like expensive, flavored buttermilk in a bottle. Neither of us typically care for buttermilk, so we didn't bother. Until one day at the store, Sara decided to bring some home and we got hooked. This hooked:


I may have gone a little crazy, but we decided to try ALL of the flavors one day. (We'd only tried one or two before, so we decided to got bold.) If you can't see the picture clearly, we have (left to right) strawberry, cherry-banana, banana, pistachio-coconut, coconut, and vanilla. And yes, those are little tiny shot glasses in front. (I searched until I found a pack of disposable ones, so we wouldn't have to buy 12 real shot glasses.) How was it?



Sara struggling to keep a straight face.

Fantastic. (By the way, pistachio-coconut and vanilla are the best. And I recently discovered a buttermilk-ier version with lemon that is fabulous. Now we treat ourselves with Müllermilch whenever we lug groceries up the 79 stairs, thus countering any caloric deficit incurred by said lugging.)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Italian Essentials: Pisa and Florence

Let's go back in time a bit (3.5 weeks ago now, wow!) to the beginning of our Italian adventure. We flew into Pisa mostly because it's close to the Cinque Terre, but in part because we wanted to see the Tower. I was struggling to remember even the most basic Italian phrases at this point (from the year's worth of Italian classes I took in college), but I did manage to come up with "Dov'è la torre?" ("Where's the tower?") I said it to myself as we powerwalked through the old town, but didn't actually have occasion to try it out on anyone else, as there were plenty of signs for the duomo and torre. This was our first glimpse of them.

I find it very endearing that whenever the tower is framed by other buildings it looks like it's either leaning shyly out of the picture or poking its head in.
In person, it's rather disconcerting how much the tower leans. I was surprised by my visceral response. It just looks so wrong!

We refrained from taking any cheesy tower-propping pictures. Mostly because it was raining.
The other thing I was surprised by was how beautiful the tower is. Its stones are not only clean and bright, they're also variegated and far more intricately carved than I expected.


Even the base leans!

Everyone forgets about the cathedral (the Leaning Tower is just its bell tower, after all), but it's very beautiful, too. It was my first Italian cathedral, and unlike anything I'd ever seen before. We didn't have time to go inside, unfortunately, but we walked all the way around. It's big.


The baptistry
The front (facing the baptistry)
On Wednesday we went through Florence on our way to Perugia, and Tyler gave me a quick tour to get me oriented. (He spent a week there in the summer of 2010.) The next day I went back by myself and packed as much as I possibly could into eight hours.

My first, middle, and last stop of the day were all in the Piazza del Duomo. I'd seen pictures of the cathedral before, of course, but I still didn't know it would look like that. It's like Pisa's cathedral but much, much more so. I probably spent a good hour over the course of the day just gawking at the exterior.

The dome was the largest in the world for centuries, and is still the largest dome ever built from bricks.
I have no idea how I captured those rays of sun, but I'm pleased with them.

In the middle of the day I went back to see the inside. Compared to that facade, it's not much to look at. Presumably the architects spent all their money on that fancy pink and green marble for the outside. The inside of the dome, however, is very cool--beautiful frescoes that took two different artists and over ten years to complete.


Just one piazza over is another monumental building, the Palazzo Vecchio. It's really hard to take a good picture of because it's SO TALL. The top of the tower is 308 feet high. In point of fact that's only 13 feet taller than the top of the cathedral's dome,  but the effect is totally different. The cathedral is massive, of course, but the Palazzo Vecchio is all in-your-face with its great height.


At the bottom right corner of my oddly-framed picture above is a reproduction of Michelangelo's David. The original (which used to stand there) is now in the Accademia, where I went later in the day. The towering Palazzo Vecchio dimishes David's effect, but inside the gallery he towers in his own right. In the hallway leading up to his plinth are several other Michelangelo statues in various stages of completion, which gave me a much more specific appreciation for just how much work it is to carve marble. From museum signage I learned that David's contemplative, even troubled look was a radical departure from traditional depictions of the young giant-slayer. The statue, completed in 1504, soon became a favorite of the Florentine people and a symbol of civic pride. [I'm too tired to integrate those two sentences any better with the rest of this post. /sounding like a textbook]

Earlier in the day I went to the Galleria degli Uffizi, where I saw works by Botticelli (The Birth of Venus!), Lippi, Correggio, and so many more. Perhaps my favorite thing about it, though, was the ceiling decoration. Sadly, there was no information about them in the museum and I'm struggling to find anything substantive online, either. The frecoes are whimsical, grotesque, never-repeating, endlessly inventive. Lots and lots of breasts. I wish I had pictures for you, but photography is verboten inside the gallery. Here is the outside, however.


And here's Dante, looking devious.


The following picture shows much more than a lovely building, something much more significant. It shows the home of Grom in Florence. Tyler led us straight there on our first brief jaunt into the city. Two years were not enough to confuse his internal Grom compass. Grom is a gelateria of surpassing excellence that luckily has a home in Perugia as well. We ate at the Perugia store more times than I care to count, but this is the place I had it first. My first Grom flavors were dark chocolate (the most perfect dark chocolate ice cream I have ever tasted) and Crema di Grom, an eggy gelato with corn cookie crumbles and chocolate chunks. It tasted like Argentina, though I couldn't say why.


Late in the afternoon I finally made it to the banks of the Arno. Although the water itself does not bear close examination (scary!), the view of the hills rising on the opposite side, crowned by more churches and palaces, is incredible.


My last touristy stop of the day was the Ponte Vecchio. (Although this sounds like a very fancy name, it simply means "old bridge.") The fronts of these buildings--the sides that face toward the inside of the bridge, that is--all boast windows full of the most elaborate jewelry I've ever seen.


On my way back to the train station I made my third visit in two days to I Due Fratellini, a tiny sandwich shop frequented by real Florentines for its amazing food and incredibly low prices. I shall close this post by listing the sandwiches I ate there. I've got a serious hankering for one right now.

1. Fennel-infused salami with soft goat cheese
2. Pancetta and marinated bell peppers
3. Fresh sausage and eggplant