Dec 31, 2010

Ending 2010 with somethings OLD

My love affair with the old things in Italy took me to an abandoned village near Bivongi in southern Italy. I see this group of homes every time we go to visit A's parents and finally, we crossed the river bank to see what was left behind almost 40 years ago.

Behind the ruins, the dirt road led us past an olive grove that has been in existence for hundreds of years. The trunks tell it all.

Orange groves lie between the two sides of the village. So no one wants to live here but at least someone still comes to take care of their orchards. The groves stand behind a protective stone wall as the river, almost non existent for most of the year, has been known to swell in the past to swallow up anything in its path. I don't think I'd mind living here. 

By the way, the oranges were jiuuuucy

Technology from a time gone by. In order to slow down the river, the wall was built in curves to turnthe current back into the flow. 

More recently, bars are built at the bottom. Between the two, the one with curves is certainly more pleasing to the eye.

Curtains on 2010. Looking forward to a new year of discovering more of the old. 


Dec 29, 2010

Italian Artist Giambattista Piazzetta

From the Chiesa di San Vidal in Venice. 

Giambattista Piazzetta 1683-1754
The Archangel Raffaele and the Saints Antonio from Padova and Luigi

What do you see in this painting? Courage, strength, peace, protection, direction?  Maybe all of them. 
And perhaps we interpret things according to what we need at the moment.


Dec 25, 2010

Merry Christmas from Southern Italy


At the end of every year, we join our feathered friends and head south in search of warmer weather. We arrived just in time for an unusual snow storm that almost reached sea level. I feel it's quite typical that the weather would change from 24 degrees C to 10, the day we arrived (!!!)

However, if the weather was a bit chilly in welcome, the southern hospitality made up for it. I don't ever remember going to a store in or near Borgosesia where they not only chatted you up, but also brought out coffee and drinks. This was our reception when we went to buy salami and cold cuts from the nearby butchers in Calabria. And they didn't even know us.

I was also surprised to see a van parked at the neighbor's door up the road, filled to the brim with plastic wrapped material goods. They still have door to door vendor service for household goods like sheets, blankets etc or produce. It's going out of "style" but the old ways still are hanging on in the south.

I don't hear very many Christmas carols here. It's rare. So it's even more special when they are played by the town's youngsters toting their trumpets, flutes and drums from store to store just to play for everyone's pleasure. A very nice tradition.

I wish you all a blessed Christmas, in the company of those you love and who love you. This of course includes furry family members as well.

Merry Christmas from A, Tala and me.

Nov 30, 2010

The churches around Cellio, Vercelli

A couple years ago we took the dogs for a nice long walk and found ourselves at a church sitting among the trees on top of the hill. I thought I'd take Tala there as there were several trails leading away from the church; the only difference this time, I didn't want to walk there. I had the brilliant idea of driving her to the top and THEN we'd walk around.

Pity I couldn't remember the name of the little church. Nor did I know which road to take. And so began a discovery of churches splattered around Cellio.

View Larger Map
My first stop was Breia, followed the road toward Vignallo and ended up passing Fronto and off the map to Valduggia. A sucker for punishment, (and wisely filling up the tank), I headed back into the maze of narrow asphalt, looking for a church on a hill. Well, I found a lot of them, alright. I passed back through Agua, to Cellio and again past to Carega and Allera. 

The first church I came across at Breia
A close up of the Breia church entrance


Across the street from the church entrance, overlooking the valley

The road leading out the other side of the town.
I decided to NOT go through and parked the car to walk.

View from the other side of town



Town laundry in Breia, once upon a time
View of the church at Cellio from Breia
 Church on the other side of Cellio, near Agua

An Italian two way street in Carega. I did NOT drive through here either.

Church at Carega, just below Cellio.

On the other side of the valley, I headed to Parco Monte Fenera where I knew of another trail, but stopped along the curvy, windy road to explore another snow covered path that I'd seen. It led to nowhere so I turned back, only to come face to face with these curious buggers.

After several hours driving around, looking for the road that would lead to that elusive retreat, I returned home and later asked A where we had gone for that walk. It turns out, if I'd continued through that narrow road past the very first church I'd visited at Breia, I would have found the little chiesa di San Bernardo.

Next time. 


Nov 28, 2010

Italian Banks and their Service

...or the lack of it. Take note of their hours (at least here) and their impeccable customer service.

I have an account that I needed three years ago when I first came here. I use it so little since then that what balance I had was slowly eaten up with bank fees. I kept it open with the thought that I might need it again but I recently decided to close it.  Unlike banks in the States, an open account will go into a debit instead of just being closed and the patron will be responsible for the accumulating fees.

At my first visit, I was encouraged to consider other options before closing and I agreed. After some more thought I again went to the bank to close the account and thus began one of the most unbelievable experiences I've ever had from a service.

Keep in mind bank hours are strange in my area.... 8:25 am to 1:25 then 2:30 to 3:30pm. I went at 2:30 and the teller told me that I needed to come in the morning to close my account. (What!!!!!!!) But then she noticed there was Mr. Fiorello in the office and she sent me around the corner. He looked at my account then talked to the same woman who approached me and again asked why I wanted to close. After briefly explaining she pushed me again to reconsider, then lost patience with me, walked away and spoke over her shoulder that I couldn't close unless I returned the ATM card and Internet key. I'd forgotten the key at home so I said I would return. The gentleman was very helpful, gave me a printout of my account with the necessary info to close it and told me to give it to the next person if he was not in the office when I came back.

Considering the teller had said I needed to come in the morning to close the account, I returned in the morning. The same teller saw me and her first words were "What are you doing here?" What a greeting! I explained I'd returned to close my account with the items they requested and asked if I needed to go around the corner again.

"How would I know?" was the answer. I stepped back in astonishment muttering "She doesn't know". This prompted her to ask me what her colleague had said. When I explained that I was to return etc etc, she raised her voice to say that I needed to come back IN THE AFTERNOON when he was there to finish the job that he had started.

I responded that I couldn't keep coming back to the bank to just close the account. Certainly there was another person who could help me. She became more agitated and insisted that I had to come back to see the same man, which of course made me angry. Speaking a little louder for that, I said that was absurd, that this was a bank and supposedly a service for their clients and that I wanted to speak with someone else. She refused so I repeated my request to close my account, said I was convinced I was doing the right thing and then asked that woman what on earth she had against me. She seemed to have taken personal offense to me taking care of my own business.

She claimed to have nothing against me but was about to dismiss me by calling another patron when another woman came up and for the benefit of both of us, she took care of my request. It is surprising that one can not just close an account, take the balance and leave that chapter behind you. They hold the account, perhaps for people who have checks etc outstanding, but from my account it is obvious that there is absolutely no activity. So I am still waiting to finalize and I am sure they are waiting for the next cycle so they can deduct another month of fees.

Nov 2, 2010

A Glimpse of Montepulciano

At the beginning of October, my good friend Mary came for a short visit. It was too short for me and it seems like ages ago that she was here.

In no particular order, here are photos that cover our mad cap trip around Italy.

Of course, with all the good memories of this place, I had to take Mary there and we again stayed at La Casetta just outside of the town. We walked around town around lunch time which explains the very empty streets.

This must be the Montepulciano landmark, which looks like a cat, bird and human all at once.

Streets like this, without or without crowds are so attractive to me.

The sculptures above the church door that caught my attention as Mary visited the nearby ATM.

I'd be just fine with a teeny, tiny balcony if I had a surround like this but my preference is still for an ancient arch. Yes, yes, I keep on talking about doors.


Nov 1, 2010

There's still room for "first" experiences

It's the Day of the Dead, November 1, and a holiday in Italy. It's gloomy outside, what with the non-stop rain since Saturday afternoon. Tala is working a bone over and I am sitting by the fire thinking about what a weekend it has been. A lot of firsts for me, all packed into two days.

When I opened my eyes early on Saturday morning, a red haze stretched across the sky and urged me to get up and take a photo. It held promise for a beautiful day, but the first program of the day was anything but lovely. We were getting ready to go to the funeral of one of A's good friend's dad. Death can be a difficult thing to handle; watching someone in pain is even harder.

The service was held at La Parrocchiale dei Santi Pietro e Paolo, in the historic center. My first funeral in Italy and the first time I set foot in the Central Church. The most poignant moment for me was at the end of the service -- the pall-bearers lifted the casket on their shoulders and walked solemnly toward the entrance of the church to the strains of Handel's Largo. What transfixed me was the vision of the silhouetted casket moving towards to the dazzling midmorning light.

It was also my first visit to the Borgosesia cemetery, even though I've visted others in Italy. Soon after the casket was in place, the clouds gathered, welled up in tears and cried along with the youngest of the three sons. The rain didn't stop me from taking Tala for her walk, but I drove some distance to a mountain village called Ara and walked through the lonely streets. I imagine these tiny mountain villages have been losing their essence for years now. A rainy day doesn't help matters much.

I discovered a grotto nearby and took Tala for a quick look. She wasn't too fond of the dark recesses and her reluctance to go anywhere near the caves made my hair stand on end. She's still a puppy though and I can't place much faith on her reaction since she runs from large trash cans.

Another first took place when we went to the Bowling center at Serravalle where they also have ping pong tables. I think I found a sport where I am hair's breath better than A. But I imagine that won't last long if I don't find a way to practice.

Another first was going to a film in Borgosesia. Starting time was at 9pm, when I would be winding down for the day and getting ready to sleep. We saw Benvenuti al Sud and if it comes to the States, I recommend it. Beautiful scenery, good comedy and a hilarious play on the generalizations Italians make of the the north and south.

Sep 5, 2010

Visit to Serra San Bruno, Calabria

When the heat gets too unbearable, we head for the hills and settle for a bit of cool 2,600 feet above sea level at a town called Serra San Bruno. We had previously eaten at the Agriturismo "Fondo dei Baroni", but this year we landed at another Agriturismo "La Cascina del Monastero" near Certosa. The food was delicious.

We were just about to leave when I passed a woman standing just outside the door. I didn't hear what she said, but when the answer came back, I stopped to check if I heard right. "Yes, it's better." It was in English!. Her accent was familiar so I asked her where she was from.

"You speak English!!!!" came her excited reply. Turns out she lives in Carmel, about an hour from my folk, and has come to visit her relatives in Calabria who speak no english except for one aunt. Her situation made me think of myself years ago when I got here and hung onto every English word I heard because I was drowning in unintelligible italian.

Before heading back to the coast, we took a short walk through the old center of Serra San Bruno and of course, my door fetish kicked in.



It is also my favorite place for buying ceramics. The pattern below is very typical of Calabria.

Then on the way back to the car, we passed by a gathering of people dressed all in black. I kept looking to see if the priest was about to exit with a casket to start the solemn procession. 

Then the bride walked out...


Aug 30, 2010

Being Neighborly

In a land where dryers are a rarity and space is at a premium, being neighborly comes in very handy.


Aug 26, 2010

The water is crystal clear, the round stones the line the bottom easily visible. We had settled down for a relaxing morning, me reading and A soaking in the hot sun when we heard the rumble of an engine approaching. Not a boat, that would have been normal, but from above.

A blue plane with 'Polizia' emblazened on the side, flew by low enough for even someone like me to throw a stone and hit its mark. My curiosity was instantly awakened and I discovered that while I've been spending hours relaxing under the Calabrian sun, the police have been busier than ants in a disturbed nest.

A week before, I'd heard a helicopter in the area and noticed that it was hovering over a house a short distance away. The police had ordered everyone out of the house and were conducting a search...for what I don't know.

Days before, more helicopters and sirens in the early morning - the authorities had discovered a plan to bring in illegals to the country and had busted the operation. The boat laden with people wanting to exchange their life in Africa for one in Italy anchored far offshore so as to not bring attention. A rubber inflatable was driven out to bring them to shore but they had a welcome that they had not imagines. The leaders are now in jail.

Ferdinando Rombola'
Also within the week, a known mafia personality was killed in front of his wife and child while he relaxed under his umbrella at the beach near Soverato. Interestingly, he is the last in a long line of "tit for tat" murders that have taken place over the year beginning with the murder of Damiano Vallelunga in front of a Riace church in September 2009. The feud is over the possession of land and never has it had so high a price.

As I write, I hear another helicopter, but this time it is collecting water to douse a fire in Riace Superiore. Not an unlikely event in this blazing and unrelenting heat, but do you blame me if I wonder if it started as an accident or not?

Aug 24, 2010

Thoughts on the Veneto region

Millions come to this region to get lost in the ancient beauty that is Venice, or to wander in awe among the rugged mountains. I passed by so many large villas with gorgeous gardens imprisoned behind iron gates; curious gawkers like myself find ourselves standing under the protective gaze of the lifesize statues that flank the entrance.

Veneto has so much to offer as it is so diverse with sport, relax, the canals that make the region unique, the history, the wine. Yet, for all the tourism that it draws, it lacks one thing. Hospitality. 

I've become so used to the warmth of the people from the south and the civility and courtesy from those from the Northwest, that it came as a surprise when I ran across rude Italians. Twice. In the space of a week.

The first time was at a cafe where one would expect service. No one came to take my order, but they did come to serve the family that arrived after me. Even after going inside to the bar to place my order, the woman spoke as if I were bothering her. I took a bottle of water and waited at the table until the water was finished. I wanted so badly to just walk away since they had ignored me but decided to go inside to pay. If you can believe it, they still didn't pay me any attention and I had to ask to pay! I am an idiot.

The second time was at an agriturismo, a bed and breakfast type facility where food is typical of the area and more than likely produced at the property.

When I arrived just before the dinner hour, the women setting the large outside farm-style table completely ignored me. I could have been invisible. I followed them unhindered through a door that I discovered led to a small kitchen and bar. Ok, wrong entrance. I then caught the attention of one woman and asked if a room was available and she indicated that I needed to talk to... the other lady. The one a few paces ahead of me. I couldn't believe it. What happened to service?

Once I was registered...part of the clan so to speak, they warmed up like I flipped a switch. But if I had had a   choice, I just might have gone in search of other lodging.

PS. This dinner brought back memories of another dinner about 3 years ago when I was near Bagni di Lucca. I found myself seated next to a long table where only men filled the room. They all turned to greet me as I left at the end of my evening. Here, I found myself seated, the only woman among nine men, Italian and German. Italian men are wonderful and can boost a woman's ego in milliseconds and this group made me feel incredible. I laughed and laughed and laughed. That was an awesome dinner. Food was good too.

Aug 23, 2010

Baptism at Bivongi

I've had another "first" in Italy...attending a baptism. A's brother chose this vacation, with the natural migration of family that comes with the month of August, to mark this milestone in his son's life.

On Saturday afternoon, we gathered at the church doors and waited for the priest. He was late. A's sister and her son were honored with the responsibility of being godparents and when the service began, the four of them, along with a very good natured baby, sat in the front pew.

The time slowed to a crawl as the priest slowly read the service from a book, his monotone inviting me to allow my thoughts to wander. Considering the event, scenes from The Godfather came to mind, when Pacino's revenge played itself out during the ceremony of the holy ritual.

I was bored, nothing spontaneous, sincere or warm about the whole service. I did note that the Catholic church has changed a LOT. Our gathering of people could not be more offensive to the church's standards; the father of the baby is separated from his wife and not even yet divorced and the godmother is divorced.

There was a time when the Church was very particular about it's congregation and we would not have been able to enter. On the other hand, the other attendees in church were there to celebrate 50 wonderful years of marriage for one elderly couple.

Aug 18, 2010

In the early morning hours, I load up the car with leash, treats, water and bowl, towel and the all important ball, in order to head to this beach on the Calabrian coast near Riace.


Those seeking solitude will be the only ones found on this sandy turf as there are no facilities nearby; no refreshments, no shower service that is found on other beaches, no bins for garbage. Nothing, just sand, sea, a lot of sun and a lucky sight of dolphins.

I have to keep an eye out though, for when four black legs come together and a little rump lowers to the ground, leaving behind gifts.  And for when that same little butt comes round to face me while Tala does what comes naturally...


Now you understand why my garden is in constant danger. 


Aug 16, 2010

Americans love Italy; Italians love America

It happened when I was riding to Grignasco one morning. At the open space in front of the one lane bridge to Serravalle Sesia, I saw the Polizia set up to stop vehicles passing by. I wasn't going fast so I was dismayed and confused when I saw his hand holding the large red dot raise up to stop me. I was even more dismayed to see that I'd not remembered to put my insurance and paperwork for the bike in my purse. I cursed the whole idea of fashion and changing purses to go with different outfits. 

He waited as I shut down the bike and pulled off my gloves, then informed me that it was mandatory to ride with my lights on. This came as a surprise as my bike is old, and there isn't an option to turn them on an off independently of the bike. I started to say something then decided to just say, with some natural surprise in my voice that I'd check on it. 

Then of course came the request for my license. I handed over my California license which led to more questions. How long was I in Italy? For what reason? How come I didn't have an Italian driving license Was the bike mine? Can he see my insurance? I know I looked sheepish when I said I'd left it at home. I could feel him thinking "Yeah right." (in italian of course.)

More questions and then he said almost apologetically that he had to give me a ticket. I smiled and good naturedly chatted with him as I walked over to the car. After all, if I was him I'd have given myself a ticket, if for nothing else, for being an idiot for leaving my documents at home. 

More questions, but this time about California, interspersed with questions about my stay.When he asked "Why Italy?" without skipping a beat I said "because we Americans think that everything in Italy is beautiful."  He looked at his partner at one point, then opened the "book". He stopped and said something to his partner that I didn't understand, then he straightened, looked up the road where I'd come from and gave me instructions. 

I could feel my good fortune but in case I didn't understand and then did something completely contrary to what he just told me, I asked him to please repeat. I was to return home, get my documents to keep with me and then go wherever it was I was intending to go. He was letting me go without a ticket!! 

As I got ready, he asked me when was the best time to go to California because he too was fascinated by what he'd heard of it. I could have kissed America; I could have kissed him!

Aug 12, 2010

At the beach at Riace Marina

It's raining in Borgosesia, but I don't care now. I am absorbing the hot Calabrian sun and letting myself succumb to afternoons of laziness. My day starts early as Tala and I walk to the beach to enjoy a private frolic before the crowds arrive. Not everyone is open to dogs on the beach.

Today was stupendous...it's the most appropriate word that comes to mind as I overheard two people use the Italian version 'stupenda' to describe the silky smooth warm water. During the early morning hours without any breeze to speak of, the sea transformed itself into an enormous pool, lined at the bottom with the smooth pebbles that come and go with the tides. The water is crystal clear from up close, but a vibrant blue from our balcony. Reluctant to leave the water, I let Tala have an unusual freedom to roam as she liked. She chose to leap in after me and swim, a little fluffy black lab turned to scrawny water rat.

Almost two hours later, I ran my fingers through the underwater pebbles one more time, chose a translucent white one and then headed back to the car as an older couple made their way to the beach. If tomorrow turns out like today, I will be spoilt forever.

Aug 1, 2010

Stories of Slovenia

It started on the coastal town of Portoroz with a small stand that brought back memories of my childhood as it blared the music "Eres Tu" on the street. Photo taken minutes before a thunderstorm.

I then visited Piran, seen here. before heading for the hills.

On the way up to the mountains, I took a short detour underground, to Postojnska caves. A train, similar to the ones on roller coasters, takes visitors for a part of the 5 km tour. Very fascinating place, especially the large cave with the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. (Sorry no photo as my trigger finger was not ready)


Along the road to Kamnik, I saw this house, but to be honest, it isn't one that seems to say "happy". Interesting though.


View from my room in Kamnik, the day I arrived....and the day after. Seems like bad weather is following me.

Where I stayed in Kamnik. There is a bar on the ground floor and rooms above it. I lost count of the number of bars there were in this small town. Lacked restaurants though. Another interesting building on the right, a bar of course.


A morning at Snovik spa...one of the many that can be found around the eastern part of Slovenia. This one was small, but the closest to Kamnik. Had an incredible Chinese massage where I was kneaded like bread dough, ironed out like a sheet and then flipped as when you toss a sheet over a bed. It was amazing!

Typical church steeple.


I ordered a cake, then went to the bathroom. When I came back to the table, that was outside, I found my unattended cake sitting alone on my table, with an increasing number of flies coming to visit. How many of them landed on it, I don't want to know, especially after perhaps landing on this proud village inhabitant ...and who knows what else.

The island at Bled. There is a better view of it from above but I didn't take the time to go up higher.

Heading to the Julian Alps and stopped for barley soup with sausage at this mountain restaurant.


At Bovec Pass (1611m) along Route 206 with several types of transport. See the clouds?


My favorite sight.  I missed lovely Italy. I may joke about the million round-a-bouts they make, but in a country like Slovenia where the road itself is incredibly uneven, it's not that safe to do a U-turn on a motorbike. I also missed the service at gas stations; it's all self service in Slovenia. And then the food, there is absolutely no comparison. I am spoiled.