The Royal Palace at Caserta

In the 1750s King Charles VII of Naples determined to build a royal palace that would outdo Versailles in beauty and grandeur. He chose the architect, Luigi Vanvitelli to make that goal a reality. The result is a 1200-room marvel of a palace, in fact the largest royal palace in the world, by volume. Each of the four inner courtyards is nearly an acre in size.

A waterfall along the long watercourse behind the palace.

A waterfall along the long watercourse behind the palace.

I had read reviews of visitors who complained that the interior which is available to tour was just empty rooms deteriorating in the heat. That was not my experience. Period furniture and artworks were in most of the rooms on our tour–though no interior photography was permitted. The tour covers a small fraction of the palace. Some areas are used for offices of government agencies. I believe most of the palace is unoccupied.

The exterior is perhaps even more of an attraction than the palace itself. A dramatic waterway forms the centerline for a series of parks and gardens.

For the rest, my photos will speak for me.

One of the four massive courtyards inside the royal palace.

One of the four massive courtyards inside the royal palace.

This spectacular staircase leads to the "piano nobile", the floor containing the royal apartments. In the film 'Angels and Demons' this staircase was used for a scene set at the Vatican.

This spectacular staircase leads to the “piano nobile”, the floor containing the royal apartments. In the film ‘Angels and Demons’ this staircase was used for a scene set at the Vatican.

A little more stairway detail.

A little more stairway detail.

One of the ponds along the watercourse in the palace's "back yard."

One of the ponds along the watercourse in the palace’s “back yard.”

 

Artistic detail is everywhere!

Artistic detail is everywhere!

Luigi Vanvitelli's statue stands in a park named for him, in the town of Caserta, a few blocks from the palace he designed.

Luigi Vanvitelli’s statue stands in a park named for him, in the town of Caserta, a few blocks from the palace he designed.

 

Gaeta and tiella!

Tiella!

Tiella!

Thanks to my Facebook friend Nicola Tarallo, Vern and I enjoyed a fun afternoon in Gaeta, Nico’s home town and home of the savory pie called tiella. Through his website and books, Nico is doing all he can to put Gaeta on the map and tiella in your kitchen.

After corresponding via Facebook off and on for a year or so, I was happy to stop in Gaeta and finally meet Nico in person. Vern and I visited Gaeta several years ago, but this time we had a one-man public relations firm showing us around. We strolled along the oldest street in the original townsite listening to his steady patter of details about the history and life of Gaeta. Nicola studied English in Washington state (where I now live).

Gaeta 3 (768x1024)Our first stop was a tiella bakery, Antico Forno Giordano–in business more than 120 years according to their sign. There was a line out the door when we arrived–always a good sign for any food place, right? Inside, Nico introduced us to the baker, explained the different kinds of tiella, and we had a photo op with the baker.

Nico, me, and the baker.

Nico, me, and the baker.

We bought four different types of tiella, 1/4 of a pie each, for Vern and I to have a late lunch. Octopus tiella? We thought we should try it, even though neither of us is big fans of octopus. Next, escarole tiella. That’s right, not just a fluffy addition to your salad, escarole is often cooked in Italian dishes, which reduces the slight bitterness. Next, zucchini and onion tiella. Yummy! The fourth, I think, was eggplant–more delicious flavors!

But before we tasted any of them, Nico asked what we’d like to drink with our lunch. Wine! (What else?) He led us down a side street (more like a little alley) to what looked like the back door of a shop, where a couple of men were busy working. In a blur of Italian he conveyed our request, and they invited us to step inside. On a waist-high shelf, four giant vats of wine awaited bottling as the need arose. We were offered tastes, and made our selection. Grabbing an empty (previously used) liter bottle, the younger man began filling it for us, but the older stopped him when he saw Vern taking a photo. He called me over, put the bottle in my hand and invited me to open the tap myself for the picture you see here. Oh, the price? About two bucks.

The wine shop.

The wine shop.

We’d parked near a park, and decided to head back there to eat, hoping to find a dry spot after a rain squall passed through. But along the way, Nico took us into his favorite pizzeria: Pizzeria Rustica. Another line out the door, even longer this time, but moving quickly. Inside, three or four men with cleavers hacking large square pizzas into pieces to sell. If I had a video, it would be a blur with the activity going on back there! Unfortunately, we had more than we could finish with the tiella, because I would love to have tried some of the great looking pizza too.

At Pizzeria Rustica, where hunks of pizza were flying out the door!

At Pizzeria Rustica, where hunks of pizza were flying out the door!

We did find a park bench, and continued to visit with Nico. He’s excited about a new Russian translation of his cookbook, Mangia Tiella! which is already available in English and Spanish. He has written a travel guide to Gaeta, and hopes to publish more books in that vein. You can also find him on Facebook.

Vern and I continued down the road to Caserta, still feeling the buzz of energy from Nico’s enthusiasm for his home town.

Favorite day in Venice: Brenta Canal

La Malcontenta, designed by Palladio.

La Malcontenta, designed by Palladio.

Not really in Venice. Not really a canal. But a really great day of relaxation and effortless sightseeing!

Cruising past an open bridge on the Brenta Canal.

Cruising past an open bridge on the Brenta Canal.

I found the website for Il Burchiello while searching for how we’d spend five days in Venice with another couple, longtime friends of ours. It looked so relaxing, motoring along in an air-conditioned modern boat, stopping along the way for three villa tours and a lunch, then back from Padua at the end of the day on the train or bus.  Il Burchiello lived up to its claims, and the tour guide and boat staff were accommodating and informative. In four languages!

Turtles and ducks along the river.

Turtles and ducks along the river.

The boat has a capacity for 110 passengers, but we had only about a dozen on board the day of our tour. This added to our comfort with a sense of “private” touring, and we were able to get acquainted with some of our fellow travelers. In addition to the air conditioned cabin with a mini-bar selling espresso, various drinks, and snacks, the upper open-air deck provided ideal viewing of the dozens of villas along the canal, most built in the 1500s to 1800s.

We boarded the boat along the waterfront not far from Piazza San Marco, and soon were motoring across the lagoon. The Brenta “Canal” is actually a natural river. We entered the river in an industrial area, but soon came to the first of five locks and several swinging bridges. These were interesting, but the main attraction for me was seeing so many villas, and being able to tour three of them. My love affair with castles and palaces began in childhood, and these villas, the summer homes of the wealthy Venetians, played to my heart. Brenta-Malcontenta2

Lunch along the way was not included in the cost of the tour, and the four of us opted for the “light” lunch, sandwiches, drinks, and a snack. A bit overpriced, but the restaurant was comfortable and clean. They offered a full seafood lunch, and the one passenger who ordered that seemed happy with it.

After touring the third villa, in the late afternoon, we were still 90 minutes from Padua. Our guide offered us the option of returning by Venice by bus from there, rather than going on to Padua and having a longer trip back. Several of us found our way to the bus, and rode back to Venice a little earlier than we had planned. We were very refreshed, and ready to hit the more active sightseeing circuit the following day–our last full day in Venice.

I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story, and I encourage anyone who needs a day out of the crowds in the city to book a river cruise on Il Burchiello.

Villa Widmann, with gardens full of statuary.

Villa Widmann, with gardens full of statuary.

 

Statues in the pleasure garden at Villa Widmann.

Statues in the pleasure garden at Villa Widmann.

An original Murano glass chandelier at Villa Widmann.

An original Murano glass chandelier at Villa Widmann.

 

Not Villa Pisani--only the stables!!

Not Villa Pisani–only the stables

Villa Pisani. Hitler and Mussolini met here.

Villa Pisani. Hitler and Mussolini met here.

Gondola: An iconic image of Venice

Gondola: An iconic image of Venice

Gondolas at rest

Gondolas at rest

I read somewhere that in 1600 there were 10,000 gondolas in Venice. They made up the entire complement of private transportation, delivery wagon, garbage truck, and most other vehicles you think of as part of everyday travel within a city.

Today, there are a few hundred. They are a tourist business, no longer part of the ordinary life of Venetian citizens. Venice is like that, a city capitalizing on her history, her glorious past, for those of us who find it intriguing and romantic. Tourism with this intensity changes a place. Instead of neighborhood grocery stores, butcher shops, and stalls, the shops are filled with masks, Murano glass, and souvenir t-shirts, hats, shopping bags. One friend likened it to a theme park, a kind of Disneyland, where everything you see seems to be there for the benefit of paying tourists. And a theme park is not like a real city where people live, work, raise families.

Most telling to me was an early morning walk around the Piazza San Marco and then through the neighborhood to the south. We saw almost nobody hurrying to work, no corner bar where people scanned the paper with their morning espresso before starting the day. These were images we had seen over and over again in the non-tourist towns. Not here. We saw a couple of men sweeping the piazza–plastic and glass bottles, wrappers from ice cream and candy, the litter of thousands of tourists. Nobody walking the dog, nobody taking the children to school. In fact, we saw almost no children except occasionally the overheated, oversugared children of tourists.

But I was talking about gondolas. Along the canals there are gondola stands, like waterborne taxi stands, with gondoliers in their striped shirts. Some call out, “Gondola, gondola,” hoping to hustle up business. Others lean against a wall, smoking or reading the paper, but keeping one eye on passers-by for signs of interest. I didn’t hear any of them singing.

We had a conversation with a girl from a family of gondoliers, and when my husband sang the first few notes of “O Sole Mio” she cringed. “That’s a song from Naples. People always sing songs from Naples here,” she added with disgust. When I asked what would be a good Venetian song to sing, she just shrugged, leaving me to think that singing gondoliers were just a myth, another aspect of them park hype.

Though their numbers are shrinking, you just can’t see a gondola without thinking of Venice. Here are some images to bring Venice to mind today.

The Venetian taxi stand.

The Venetian taxi stand.

 

Waiting for a fare.

Waiting for a fare.

Gondolier with cell phone.

Gondolier with cell phone.

A gondola under the Bridge of Sighs

A gondola under the Bridge of Sighs

 

August vacation in Italy

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I’ve heard lots of advice about avoiding the August heat and August holiday, Ferragosto, celebrated on August 15, was established by the Roman emperor, Augustus, in 18 BC (according to Wikipedia). The date also marks the Roman Catholic celebration of the Assumption of Mary, widely marked with religious processions in Italy.

The August heat is just too much for me, reason enough to find a cooler month to visit. But why avoid the holiday celebrations? Here are a few visual aids:

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Yes–many businesses are closed for the full week, and often longer, even up to a month. All these signs were along one street in Caserta, where we stopped on our way to Calabria.

In August, families gather, those who have moved away come back to visit in their hometowns. Big family dinners are held, and even those who don’t celebrate the religious holiday take pretty seriously the Latin origin of Ferragosto, a phrase that mean’s “Augustus’ rest”. It’s the Italians’ time to take a break.

So what did five Americans do in Calabria for Ferragosto? We joined a lot of Italians at the beach at Squillace Lido for the day, rented a couple of umbrellas and five chairs for a few hours. By three in the afternoon we were in Soverato having lunch at a seafood place near the beach. They served a special Ferragosto menu, four courses at a set price of 18 Euros per person. Salad of octopus with potatoes, tomatoes, parsley, lots of olive oil. Then mixed seafood lasagna. Then a big swordfish steak (again, heavy on the olive oil). And for dessert, watermelon slices.

By 6PM we were in our ancestral village to see the religious procession with our distant cousin. This was very interesting, and far outside my own Christian tradition. Following a service in the church, the statue of Mary, with a couple of cherubs hanging on, was carried on a circuit through town and back to the church. We visited afterwards with my cousin’s family.

Outside the church, as we waited for the statue to be carried out, my cousin greeted nearly everyone who came by–people she has known most of her life, even though she grew up in Rome and lives in Denmark most of the time now. Scigliano is her home town, and she returns every August, reconnecting with aunts and uncles, cousins and schoolmates, and reconnecting with the church and the meaning it brings to her life.

There are plenty of tourists in Italy in August, non-Italians playing at the beaches, lakes, and in the mountains. But it is clearly an essential Italian family time. As we watched the Virgin carried aloft through the streets, I wondered if my great-grandmother Giusseppina watched the same thing when she was a girl, 125 year ago. I wonder how she felt on the first August she spent in America, far from her village and if she felt keenly the cutting of those family ties–the ties I am trying to rediscover with my cousins in Italy.

Morning in Venice

Vern and I were awake at 4 AM yesterday and about 6:30 decided to go out for a look around while the day was still cool–by which I mean 77 degrees or so. We headed for Sst. Mark’s Square, passing only a few pigeons in the narrow streets. Approaching the archway into the square, the morning haze was bright with early sun. First an Asian girl, then a solitary man, then a scattering of others came into view–photographers all, repositioning themselves for one shot after another of the domes, the clock tower, the great winged lion, gilded by the sunrise. The hordes who fill the square by day and night were still abed. The only other souls about were two men sweeping the pavement with twig brooms, gathering the discarded butts and candy wrappers, plastic water bottles and ticket stubs, into piles. They called out to one another as they worked, but my ears aren’t yet tuned to Italian to know what they said. We crossed to the waterside where gondolasrocked gently in their blue covers, and looped south past the little Kaffeehaus before turning back into the narrow streets toward our apartment. Now a few signs of commerce appeared–not yet an open bar (we had hoped to find a coffee) but men pushing hand trucks piled heavily with cases of bottled water or boxes of eggplant, tomatoes, lemons, headed to a restaurant. The trash man came, picking up plastic bags set ot for him. And as we walked along one canal, a boat with a large metal tank collected sewage through a fat flexible hose. We neared our apartment, and passed a couple of sleepy tourists in the restaurant of a large hotel, picking at their breakfast. Finally, by 7:30, the world was coming back to life.
This was so unlike our experiences in other Italian cities off the tourist path. There, they have business to conduct, shops to open, and they gather early for a quick espresso and a glance through the newspaper along the way. But here, the tourist rules, and seems almost to have become the reason for Venice’s existence. Strangers gather to view her history, and there’s money in it. But no real reason to be up at 7 AM.

Festive travels in Italy

Travelers to Italy often plan most of their visits around those “must see” tourist attractions like the Coliseum in Rome, the leaning tower in Pisa, and the ruins of Pompeii. Italy has enough of these to occupy many months of vacation time.

Italian Landscape with a Country Festival by Francesco Zuccarelli (18th c.) Image from Wikimedia Commons

Italian Landscape with a Country Festival by Francesco Zuccarelli (18th c.) Image from Wikimedia Commons

But there’s more to Italy than the typical tour itinerary includes. And one consideration might be local festivals. Just like local festivals here in the U.S. (and probably wherever you live), the festivals in Italy usually include booths with food vendors, special entertainment, and an atmosphere of excitement.

An internet search for “festivals Italy 2013” ended in frustration. The information was too general, and often too limited to a particular area. So I began a search including the name of a region, and found much more of interest. For example, through this link for Abruzzo:

http://www.craftsmenofabruzzo.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=53&Itemid=62

I found festivals throughout the year in towns large and small–ranging from a Trout and Shrimp Festival to a Bonfire Festival, to a snake-handling event with Roman origins. You might notice that this is the business website of a construction company in Abruzzo, but what a great service they have added for the English speaking traveler! Even a referral for an English speaking auto mechanic. Bravi, Craftsmen!

There are festivals for all kinds of interests: food (of course!!), religious holidays, history, music, and many more. You many belong to an organization with members in Italy you can connect with through a local festival in their town. And just as visitors to my town learn a little more about it if they attend our annual Irrigation Festival (going on this week, by the way), you can absorb some more Italian culture by enjoying a festival there.

So tell me, readers, have you attended a festival in Italy? Share about it in the comments, please!

 

Cross-cultural adventure: Regional railways in Italy

My sister Marlie boards the regional train to Scigliano--JUST KIDDING! We saw this 'retired' rail car in the station at Cosenza.

My sister Marlie boards the regional train to Scigliano–JUST KIDDING! We saw this ‘retired’ rail car in the station at Cosenza.

Vern and I watched Italy stream by through the train windows on our way from Rome to Sorrento. We were excited to begin our Italian language classes, and just plain delighted to be in Italy. Sure, it was February and cold and damp, but I’d lived most of my life in Alaska, where June is liable to be colder than February in Italy.

In Naples, we needed to change trains. At Garibaldi station, we were directed to a long corridor, more like a tunnel, which led to a platform for the Circumvesuviana railway, much smaller than the main station. Having rarely traveled by train, the large timetable posted on the wall mystified us. I asked for help from a woman nearby, another traveler, but wasn’t sure she understood me. She waved in the direction of a train, and we boarded it.

The schedule fro another regional train system. We went for a Saturday evening event , and discovered that the train did not operate on Sundays, so spent an extra day exploring before we could get back to our plans.

The schedule for another regional train system. We rode to Piedimonte for a Saturday evening event , and discovered that the train did not operate on Sundays. We had an extra day at the end of the line.

With standing room only, I sat on a suitcase as the train chugged out of Naples. We were the only passengers with luggage–somewhat surprising since Sorrento is such a tourist destination. The little train stopped at a couple of stations, and a man nearby overheard us talking about Sorrento. He didn’t speak English, but assaulted us with a barrage of Italian dialect of which I understood nothing. Nothing of the words, anyway. But he was clearly urging us to go back and take a different train.

We declined. Our conversation was attracting the attention of several other passengers, but none offered any help. This seemed to be a commuter train, and a few people got off at each station. Eventually, after failing to persuade us, the man who wanted us to go back also left the train, shaking his head in frustration.

It was clear to us by this time that the train had left to coast and headed inland. The cone of Mt. Vesuvius rose up on our right, and small farms and vineyards fell away to the left. This was not the route to Sorrento. We asked a couple of other people if they spoke English–no one did, except for a few words. But one man took pity on us, and struggled along with my poor Italian.

Yes, we were on the wrong train. Ma, non ti preoccupare. Don’t worry. We could get off at his stop, and another train from there went back to the coast, where we could resume our journey to Sorrento. What about our tickets? Don’t worry.

Map of the Circumvesuviana rail lines showing our circle tour of Mt. Vesuvius on the way to Sorrento.

Map of the Circumvesuviana rail lines showing our circle tour of Mt. Vesuvius on the way to Sorrento. This is the same train line that goes to Pompeii.

And he was right. Nobody asked about our tickets. We were soon on the train to the coast, and then on to Sorrento–an hour or two later than we expected, but laughing at our mis-adventure already.

That was our first experience with the regional railways of Italy. The Circumvesuviana line operates in an area that attracts many tourists, and has an English language option on its website. This is not true of all the regional railways. A few months later, we traveled from Cosenza to Scigliano on the Ferrovie della Calabria (Their website has some great photos of their vintage passenger cars.) for a delightful hour surrounded by high school students on their way home from school and fascinated to see American tourists on their train. By this time my Italian was much improved, but most of them wanted to practice English phrases on us.

What can you expect on the regional trains? Far fewer English speaking employees, so be prepared. Generally inexpensive fares–but then the trips are shorter too. The train cars are quaint, rustic, still in service after many years. No sleek, high speed modern trains, no dining car. But a great place for cross-cultural adventure, so don’t be afraid to try one!