Tag Archives: Italy

Life is a Fountain

Fountains seem decadent these days. They use precious water and electricity (or some other magical gravity-based process before electricity was harnessed that I barely understand), and they’re not practical. What are they for anyway? To cool the air? To sit by? To put your feet in? To look at? Originally a water source, and then monuments to popes and kings, they’re definitely one of my favorite forms of art and they were everywhere in Rome (and other Italian cities I visited in October).

Here are two of my favorites: the Trevi Fountain and the Fountain of the Four Rivers by Bernini.

The Trevi Fountain is a major attraction in Rome and has a long history with tourists. Custom says that if you throw a coin in this fountain, you are sure to return to Rome someday. I made sure to toss in 2 Euro just for extra insurance. Also, a friend said they periodically pull the coins from the fountain and use them to feed Rome’s hungry.

I particularly loved the way this fountain looked at night, although it was more full of tourists than I would have liked. Hard to find a place to stand to get a good photo without someone walking into the shot.

The current version of this fountain was apparently built in 1629, although the aqueduct that feeds it dated back to 19 B.C.!

The Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, below) is in the urban square Piazza Navona and was designed by Bernini in 1651, who won a competition to build it there. The architectural beauty in the background is the Palazzo Pamphili, and although not shown in the photo, to the left is the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, so ornate and beautiful that I could not keep from crying as I walked through it. Like many churches we visited, no photos were allowed.

Four rivers, one each from the continents known at the time (the Nile, Danube, Ganges, and Plata) are symbolically represented by four river gods.

Although I loved the setting sun on the Palazzo, I preferred the look of the fountain at night, with the water illuminated.

The fountain is topped by an Egyptian obelisk built for Roman Serapeum in AD 81, shown below blocking the moonlight.

It’s interesting that the perception of god-like male beauty has not changed in more than 400 years.

Bernini had never seen an armadillo, but he met someone who supposedly had, and this is his interpretation of that description.

While searching for a park, we stumbled across this beauty below in Rome,  the Fontana dell’ Acqua Paola, dedicated to Pope Paulus Quintus. Rome, in particular, was a city where getting lost was never a dilemma because you were sure to accidentally discover another unforgettable treasure.

Next time I’ll share my photos of the Roman Forum, the equivalent of downtown ancient Rome.

Roma! (Not Just a Tomato)

Rome was such a historic city. Every corner held a giant monument or ancient building. We stayed in the neighborhood known as the Jewish Ghetto, named as such because the Romans forced the Jews of the city to live only in this area of the city for centuries. The area has kosher bakeries, butcher shops, and restaurants, as well as a museum of Jewish relics and history and well-known synagogue and school. We noticed a police presence in the area, still present because the area is still a potential terror target due to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

The most impressive part of the neighborhood was this ancient ruin. The original structure pre-dates the Colosseum, from around 27 B.C. and was built by soon-to-be Emperor of Rome Augustus for his sister Ottavia (Octavia). I was fascinated by the modifications that have been made over the centuries, as you can see in this photo.  

Walking among the ruins was a treat, in the same foot steps as those that lived thousands of years ago.

This arch, called a portico, was built for Ottavia and in later centuries housed the largest fish market in Rome.

Many rounds of work have been done to maintain, modify, and/or continue to use these ancient structures over more than 2000 years.

I took this picture of an ancient Roman fragment because I realized that if you go to any Home Depot, you’ll see these same ancient styles replicated in wood moldings, wall paper, crown molding, and other decor used in modern homes today.  

Tomorrow I’ll share some photos of my two favorite fountains in Rome (there are so many to love).

Sadness in Lovely Vernazza

I’ve been blogging about my fabulous trip to the quaint village of Vernazza in Cinque Terre, showing the breath-taking photos. Unfortunately, last Tuesday, only two weeks after I visited there, the area was hit by torrential rains and subsequent flooding.

Here are some before and after photos of the devastation that they are now having to deal with. Thanks to Dona and Scott for sharing them with me.

Very sad. They have a lot of work ahead of them. If you are in a position to help, please do so.

On an unrelated note, today is the first day of National Novel Writers Month (NaNoWriMo). Although I won’t be going for word count this year, I will be using this as motivation to commit to working on my book for two hours each day for the month of November. It all starts with a commitment and a plan. Are you NaNoWriMoing?

Watch for pictures of Rome tomorrow.

More Cinque Terre

I loved the smell of the fresh salt air as it blew through the canyon-like village of Manarola. All the towns had a terraced nature, the streets winding upward gradually. It was impossible to get anywhere without climbing a hill of some sort.

While there, the science nerd in me couldn’t help taking this picture of the eventful geology of the region. I’m no geologist, but this looks like uplifted sedimentary layers, but also in two directions (geologists, please correct me if I’m wrong).

Each village seems to have dealt with the natural geology in stride, building on cliffs and slopes, terracing bare ground for use as personal gardens, and perhaps bringing in sand to make beaches more savory for tourists.

 The village of Monterosso is supposed to have the greatest number of resorts, and I can see why with a beach with views like this. We made sure to walk down to the water and put our feet in the Mediterranean. We also noticed parachuters riding thermals above the villages, they never seemed to come down on that 80+ degree F day. I can see myself returning to Monterosso with my husband someday for a special anniversary, easily as beautiful and memorable as any Mexican beach I’ve walked.

It was also hard to pass restaurants with an atmosphere like this. I believe this one was in the village of Vernazza, although we visited four villages in a single day, so they started to run together. Each offered quaint little cafe’s where we could stop for a drink, antipasti, or a several course meal.


This restaurant in Monterosso (below) offered atmosphere and this view. My camera couldn’t quite pick up the exact, unique tint and shade of blue of the water there.

I could have sat in the marina of Vernazza all day long. Although we didn’t eat there, I’m told there is a great restaurant just to the right of this photo. We went inside the small church center left in this photo. The churches in the villages of Cinque Terre were less ornate and embellished than those in other Italian cities, but equally beautiful and historic. Each was very different, and I like the idea that a single church served most of the population of the village, bringing a small isolated population (pre-tourist inundation) together on another level.  

I took this picture of one of the villages (Corniglia, I think) from another of the villages. Each was pretty close together, connected by narrow walking trails that can just be made out in the photo below (rock below and vegetation above). A train also connected the villages, sometimes passing through ear-popping tunnels in this rough cliff rock.

One village, that of Corniglia, was perched well above the water, and when we stepped off the train the walkway went in only one direction, directly toward a mountainous stack of stairs in switch-back form (below). Someone counted around 430+ steps on the way up. Even with my knee I was able to make it eventually, and I think challenges like this one have helped me in my recovery from knee surgery this week. Of course, after lunch in Corniglia, we did the 430+ back down to the train. I think up might have been easier.

It was hard to leave Cinque Terre after only two nights there. I feel like we barely scratched the surface there so I look forward to returning someday with the whole family to explore for something closer to a full week.


It seems like we just missed a lot of upheaval in this area, according this article in the Washington Post. Flooding from torrential rains early last week caused at least nine deaths and significant damage to buildings in these lovely villages, as well as parts of Tuscany.

Tomorrow I’ll share some of the photos of our four days in Rome, a city also recently in the headlines for an “Occupy Wall Street”-like protest that went a little crazy. But more about that tomorrow.

Unforgettable Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre means “five villages” in Italian. You won’t find it  as a single location on a map, but instead you’ll find the names of each village (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso), which are all part of Cinque Terre National Park. This destination has gained popularity recently, since Rick Steve’s declared it his favorite location in Italy. The villages are literally perched on hillsides along the Mediterranean sea on the northwest coast of Italy. The villages are connected by hiking trails (for which you must purchase a 5 euro National Park pass) and also by train. My companions were not in the mood to hike, perhaps out of consideration of my gimpiness, but more likely because it was the third italian city we’d visited and burning the candle at both ends was catching up to us.

We stayed in the village of Manarola, considered one of the quieter towns. We also stayed there Sunday and Monday nights, two of the quietest nights of the week in most Italian cities. The villages are also connected by roads at higher elevations above each village, but we only rarely saw a vehicle.

Because Manarola was so beautiful and relaxed, we spent a lot of time there and most of my photos are of that village. It’s beauty changed throughout the day and so I just kept taking photos as it got more and more enchanting. We hiked up to a small park perched on a hillside each evening to watch the sunset, drink wine, and be silly together.

Emphasis on the silly.

Cowboy Ken tamed this bucking bronc.

The view from our room was also among the best of the trip. This looks out at the ocean from our room. The park we played in was midway up the hillside from the left.

Each village also had terraced hillsides containing small gardens, presumably of the vegetable variety.

In each of the villages, you can see the influence of tourists. We witnessed a game of “spin the bottle” in this square at the center of the village.

Small shops sold tourist items like post cards, scarves, and hand-made pasta and wine. Very occasionally, we saw a note addressed directly to tourists.

Or I guessed it was for tourists since it included an english translation.

Manarola also had great restaurants. This area is famous for originating pesto and focaccia and well-known for its anchovies and other seafood. Manarola also offered more American breakfast options than any other location we stayed in. 

But instead of American breakfast, I opted for this fruit crepe and a hot chocolate. Hot chocolate in Italy is not made from some powder or syrup, its made of some version of melted pure chocolate. My cup below was so rich and thick it was more like a melted mousse than a hot drink. Mind you, I’m not complaining, simply stating a fact.

I think all my companions would agree that we found a restaurant with the largest portion sizes, la Trattoria Locanda Il Porticciolo, because we all groaned when they brought our second courses and we could barely walk home after eating antipasti, pasta and fish courses at this restaurant mentioned in the Rick Steves’ book.

Tomorrow I’ll share more stunning photos of the other villages of Cinque Terre.

The Real Florence

The food in Florence was one of its best assets. The lovely Donatella of Monte Oliveto suggested the restaurants at which we ate. We had some of the simplest and most savory dishes of our trip at these restaurants. Our favorite was Quattro Leoni (The Four Lions). A zuchini cream soup just a hint of strawberry? Sounds like an odd combination, but it was divine and I only hope I can find a recipe to replicate it at home. Below is the mammoth steak that my travel companions shared. 

And the carcass that remained after their carnivorous orgy.

While in Florence, I couldn’t help but notice the rest of the world as we walked through the streets toward famous museums and delicious restaurants. As an environmental scientist, I’m particularly interested in recycling programs and environmental planning. I had to snap a photo of these public recycling containers. 

And I was fascinated by this approach to curbside plastics pickup in streets that are only 10-feet wide. Below is “the recycling man” who gets to use a mini-crane to empty the big blue container full of the neighborhood’s plastics recycling.

I’m a little afraid to show this to my boys. Using a crane might look so fun to them that “recycling man” might be bumped to the top of their list of “what I want to be when I grow up.” The street is only a foot or so wider than the truck, and there’s no way around it, so just hope you don’t get stuck behind the recycling truck.

While in Florence, we also witnessed the start of a protest. Because it was in itailian, we didn’t entirely understand what was happening.

Some of the signs and banners contained the words meaning labor and jobs so we’re pretty sure this was the beginning of a protest similar to the “Occupy Wallstreet” protests that have been occuring in the U.S.

This protest started on this street and marched along a major street, gaining momentum and noise as it headed toward the center of the city. Obviously, the issues are complicated. Although the sign at the left of the photo is tough to read, it advocates freedom for a Kurdish militant named Ocalan.

I took this photo of a scooter shop simply to show how much they can pack into a small amount of real estate. This store is about 8′ x 20′. Total. Amazing.

Outside of the Uffizi gallery was this piece of modern art work. The picture was on a fence covering restoration work in progress on the building’s exterior. It says, “Gentrification and tourist speculation are killing our hometown.”

Sometimes art is considered good when it speaks a truth that is found no where else. Florence is a deeply historical city going through thoroughly modern changes.

Tomorrow we’ll head to a chain of breath-taking, romantic villages, together called Cinque Terre.

Homesick for Tuscany

Ernest Hemingway once wrote in a letter to a friend, “I’m so homesick for Italy that when I write about it, it has that something that you only get in a love letter.” (from the new book The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Vol. 1, 1907-1922). I feel the same way. It’s hard to describe the bliss I felt when I was there, the romantic feeling I got walking through each city, church, and museum, even though I wasn’t with my sweet heart. That feeling was strongest when we rode into the hills of Tuscany with villas in the country side and miles of grape vineyards and olive orchards.

This is the estate we traveled to for our wine tasting. A family has owned it for a couple of generations and uses its land to make wine and olive oil. The only view better than the one of the estate was the view from the estate below.

Our wine tasting was a big learning experience for me. I always bought inexpensive wine because I felt like I couldn’t appreciate the difference between expensive and inexpensive wine. But after the class, I’m buying slightly more expensive wine, and spending more time with my choices.

Although the tasting was in an outbuilding of this beautiful home, we were able to walk around it and look in the windows. The owners stay in this villa in the summer, and also host a fashion show here because they have invested in fashion in Milan.

During the tasting, we learned a lot of things I didn’t know before. You should let a wine breath for 10 minutes for every year that has passed since it was bottled. The glass is big and round not so that you can fill it fuller, but so that you may better smell it’s aroma while drinking it. Italians don’t drink wine without eating food. Italian table wine is not really bottled, or meant to be bottled for long, its meant to be drank, so it has less sulfite preservative, and therefore causes fewer headaches and hangovers. We also learned about a few different kinds of wine, including Chianti and a dessert wine called vin santo, that is barreled and placed in the attic for 5 years before it is bottled. I loved its depth and sweetness and will look for it in the U.S. as a special treat.

We also talked about olive oil. When our host cut some bread, put it on a platter, and started drizzling olive oil over it, I thought she was over doing it. That was until I tasted it. She was using fine, fresh olive oil, and it was light and delicious. She told us that lighter, fresher oils are for eating in salads and bread dipping, while older, darker oils should be used for cooking. Many different types of olives go into olive oil, and those picked from an orchard aren’t edible until they’ve been processed for a couple of months to draw out their bitterness. Olive harvest and the making of the oil is apparently a lot like apples, in that they need labor when the olives are ready and they stay up all night around the clock cold pressing the oil out of the olives until the job is done so that they may obtain the “extra virgin” label, which means heat wasn’t used to extract the oil. Heat alters the natural flavor.

After the wine tasting we hopped in the van and drove to a rustic home on a hillside for our cooking class. The home was impressive because it had been built around a 1000-year old watch tower.

They left a lot of it rustic and beautiful. Our class was in the basement of the tower.

We learned to make linguine and my favorite, ravioli. For the filling we put in ricotta, zucchini, and nutmeg. Once I learned how, I was excited to buy my own pasta maker and make a different ravioli every day, with a different filling. Once I recover from my knee surgery, I will be hosting a number of pasta making parties with my friends.

I’m also going to buy a good italian cook book. While in Italy I learned that the secret to italian foods is simplicity, quality ingredients, and choosing the right combinations of foods.

When our pasta making was complete, we went upstairs into the home where a full Italian meal had been prepared for us, including the pasta we made. This big guy was on the 1000-year old stairs on the way up.

The home’s owner, Christina, was a lovely woman who cooks for and let’s tourists into her home several days a week. I was overwhelmed by the decor, the original art, the antique china and furniture, and the atmosphere during our meal. We talked to our host, a mom of two originally from Germany who once did a foreign exchange program in my home state of Michigan. We also sent well wishes to a couple on the tour from the U.S. who were on their honeymoon.

My plate was full of succulent food, and afterward we all sleepy like snakes with big lumps in our tummies. The van ride back to Florence was quiet except for the snoring.

This was the view from the bathroom! I thought about what it must be like to live in a place where you’re surrounded by beauty. It made me want to spend more time making the views from my windows more whimsical.

This is the view down into the valley below the watch tower home. The home’s owner was also interesting. When we arrived he was wearing camouflage head to toe, which I thought was unusual. Later I saw certificates and photos of his service in the Italian military as an alpine ski-parachuter, apparently a corps of specialized service. 

The day of our wine tasting and cooking class was one of my favorite in Florence. We learned so much and returned so satisfied that we slept hard that night.

Tomorrow I’ll write more about the practical side of Florence, its businesses and even its recycling program.