Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Northern Italy

After spending ten days in Bavaria and Austria, Italy is quite a shock. It is difficult to believe that Austria and Italy can be neighbors and yet be so different. Although the topography changes slowly, the architecture and the general ambiance change almost immediately when you cross the border. Can you imagine a welcome to Austria sign with miscellaneous stickers and graffiti on it, surrounded by weeds and rusted relics of an earlier era? Inconceivable! (It seems to be no accident that graffiti is an Italian word.) Driving habits also seem to change at the border. Although the signs in Italy looks the same as the signs in Austria, none of the signs (or markings on the pavement) seem to have any meaning to the Italian drivers. 

Nonetheless, northern Italy grows on you quickly, particularly the small towns. We stayed at the Ca'Orologio Agriturismo in Baone, Italy (southwest of Venice) for three nights and in a small inn in Vigevano, Italy (near Milan) for two nights. Although we visited some of the larger cities, it is the small towns that we will remember most fondly. A bell was almost always ringing in the distance, seemingly at random times, and wonderful smells wafted through the air. At first, the ringing of bells at odd times surprised us because in Austria all the bells seemed to ring at exactly the same time according to a master schedule (clock?), but in Italy every church bell seemed to be on a slightly different schedule.

The best part about the villages was that everybody seemed interested in helping and nobody seemed to be in a hurry. If we asked one person a question, usually others joined in the attempt to help us. Although I find it easier to speak German, I must confess that I love to listen to Italian. Even watching Italians speak can be entertaining. A helpful owner at a small cafe could not speak to us without gesticulating energetically, which resulted in the wine glass he was holding being launched into the air. While this might have embarrassed an Austrian, the cafe owner and his wife just laughed about it.

We particularly enjoyed a bicycle ride to a couple of nearby towns.  (Well, that might not have been exactly true for Joanie during the bike ride, but I hope that Joanie will remember the bicycle ride through the countryside fondly at some point in the future.)  This is not to say that everything went smoothly, or that there were no tense moments.

Yes, we got lost a couple of times. Yes, it was hot. Yes, the wifi was sporadic and slow. Yes, there were bugs biting us when we ate outside and when we tried to sleep with the windows open, Yes, the power was off when we woke up on the first morning, but somehow that was all part of the charm. Did I mention that the food was great and that everybody did the best to help us understand the menu?

What about the big cities? I must admit that my initial reaction to Venice was not entirely positive. We took the train into Venice and upon exiting the train station we were greeted by crowds of tourists and hordes of vendors hawking cheap souvenirs. (The vendors will not be satisfied until every tourist carries a selfie stick and has a bag of trinkets made in China.) Due to the strong dollar and strong pound, it seemed that English was more common in Venice than Italian. When Bronwyn (who loves Venice) asked me what I though of Venice as we battled our way through the t-shirt stands, pizza shops and selfie-stick vendors, I told her that my initial reaction was that Italians must view Venice as the Atlantic City of Italy. I don't think that is the response she was hoping for. However, my tune changed as the day progressed.

Despite the decaying buildings sinking into the mud, the crowds of tourists and the stench of filthy water, who can deny that Venice has a unique beauty and charm. I was impressed that the churches we visited seemed to combine the best of Byzantine and western European churches. The churches were creative in their design and magnificent in their decoration. After a 45 days in Europe, I have had my fill of Gothic churches with their predictable Roman layouts. The churches of Venice (and many other towns in northern Italy) were almost always a surprise. I found myself wanting to take a peak into every church door.

And then there is the water. I love water so how could I not like a city with streets of water. After we tired of walking around the narrow streets of Venice, we rode the Vaperettos (busses on water) from island to island, and then finally around the islands. The longer we rode through the bustling waterways, the more impressed I was with the city.

Our next big city was Verona.  I had no knowledge about Verona other than that Shakespeare wrote a play that mentioned Verona so Verona was a wonderful surprise. We found the cathedral in Verona to be particularly interesting both because of its beauty and its history. It has tile mosaics and artwork dating back to 380 A.D. The current cathedral, which was started in 1117 A.D., but renovated numerous times, is a unique combination of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. When standing in a chapel from the 4th century adjacent to the cathedral, you can look through the glass floor and view the tile floor and pillars of a church from an earlier era.

Our final couple of nights in Italy were spent in Vigevano, a small town southwest of Milano. Our initial impression of the town, and appearance from the street of the small inn where we had a reservation, was not positive. The town appeared to have once been a prosperous industrial town that had fallen onto hard times. The inn was on the noisy main thoroughfare. We considered finding another place (in a different town) to spend the night. In fact, we purposely drove past the inn a couple of times while we surveyed the situation and decided what to do. Eventually, we rang at the gate and were greeted warmly by the owners. They ushered us into the courtyard where we skeptically surveyed our room (actually two rooms, one with air conditioning and one without). The owner explained that the front part of the structure was his parents' home, and the back part of the structure had once been apartments for many families.  Our two rooms would have housed two families. 

Panoramic photo of Piazza Ducale (curvature due to panorama shot)
The longer we stayed in Vigevano the more we liked it. Vigevano had been an important fortress in the medieval eras and in the 20th century Vigevano was a center of shoe design and manufacturing. Vigevano has made the shoes for the Pope for centuries and Vigevano is the home of the stiletto heel. Needless to say, the town has a shoe museum (where we spent a rainy afternoon). Even today, Vigevano is the home of high end shoe designers and a place to get expensive hand made shoes. The other guest in the inn had traveled to Vigevano to try to find a shoe designer he liked and to try to get the designer to make him a pair of shoes. The designer worked out of a small, unimposing shop, in a dilapidated medieval arcade.

The first surprise of Vigevano was the town square - the Piazza Ducale (pictured above) and the medieval fortress and palace that guard the square. The piazza is exquisite. As the pictures will testify, we spent most of our time in Vigevano enjoying the restaurants, stores, and people around the Piazza. Joan particularly enjoyed the hot chocolate that was almost as thick as melted chocolate bars.

The second surprise of Vigevano is that we made it out of town without a pair of designer shoes hidden in Bronwyn's luggage. ... At least, I haven't discovered the shoes yet. Now, we are headed back to France via the Mount Blanc tunnel and the Alps.  We will miss Italy but look forward to being in a country where we can speak a little bit more of the language.

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