Highlight: Rafting in the Jungle

October 24th

I don’t know if the Agung River Valley is technically considered jungle, but it sure looks and feels that way. We have done a fair amount of rafting (George more than I, of course, since he used to be a white water rafting guide), but no setting has been quite this lush with vegetation. And no other river has had monkeys cavorting along the side.

We met our guide, Made…

Nice abs!

He looks strong enough to get us down the river even if there are only the 3 of us in the boat.

We got geared up and set off on the river.

We weren’t able to take pictures during rafting, but we pulled over to the side several times to take photos.

Once at this beautiful carving of the Ramayana story, carved directly into the boulders that make up the bank of the river. This carving was done in the last 7 years and it took the artists 2 years to complete it. It is nearly 1 km long! It’s so appropriate that this sacred story is found along the banks of the river that flows directly from Bali’s most sacred mountain.

Then we stopped at a waterfall and played in the water for awhile.

While there were plenty of rapids to keep us entertained and plenty of rocks to make the run challenging, the most spectacular part of this trip was the lush jungle scenery all around us. It made us long for a waterproof camera and another day on the river.

 

Highlight: Ubud

Today we spent the day in Ubud, the town made famous by Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love. Our little village of Abiansemal is about a half hour drive from Ubud, even though it is only about 12 kilometers away. This is due in part to the disrepair of the roads, the incredible traffic in and around Ubud, and the lack of a direct route there. Initially, we thought we would rent a car so we could be independent and see Bali at our own pace. My good friend, Reta, said that it might be wiser to hire a driver, and she was absolutely right. On days when we want to go somewhere, our host can arrange a car and driver for us for less than it would cost to rent a car. We are paying $15.00 to be picked up at our “home” and taken to Ubud, and then driven home at any time we want. If we wanted to do an all-day tour to far-flung places on the island, it would only cost about $50 (including gas and parking.) Even if it weren’t cheaper this way, it would still be worth it because of the chaotic nature of driving here. Driving is on the left, there are motor scooters everywhere, often with 3 or 4 helmetless riders, and they pass on both sides of the vehicle (right and left). Although it’s not as extreme as what I imagine India and China to be like, it is still quite intimidating and nerve wracking. I prefer to leave the driving to the locals. One of my favorite cars we’ve ridden in is a VW Thing. Remember these?

Our driver, Made Bagus, ready to take us to Ubud in his VW Thing

Ubud is often referred to as the cultural and artistic heart of Bali. There are several museums, many art galleries, upscale shopping, spas, yoga retreats, dance performances, many different temples, rice terraces, gardens, and myriad restaurants. Everyone wants to get a little piece of the tourist action generated by Eat, Pray, Love (EPL as it’s called here.) During the 20 minute walk down Monkey Forest Road to, you guessed it, the Monkey Forest, we were asked about 50 times if we needed a taxi ride or a massage. We declined because we already had a taxi driver and we were scheduled for massages the next day in our own room back in Abiansemal. (By the way, $8 for a one-hour massage, and an excellent one at that.)

When we first arrived in town, we visited the gathering space just outside the temple where we saw little girls attending a dance class.

After that we visited the Puri Lukisan Museum which houses traditional and “modern traditional” art ranging from paintings and pen-and-ink drawings to wood carving. The gardens are at least as spectacular as the art. (No photos allowed inside the museum, but here are some pictures of the grounds.

Statue wrapped up in the roots of a huge banyon tree.

Lotus in the pond outside the museum

Our museum ticket came with a beverage at the little cafe, so while we sipped our iced tea, we watched (and listened to) a gamelan orchestra made up of school-aged boys. The dance classes for the girls and music practice for the boys are common Sunday activities, as Sunday is their one day out of school during the week. Monday through Friday they are in school from 7:30 until noon for the younger children, and 7:30 until 2:00 for the older children. On Saturdays they go to school only in the morning for dance or sports.

Boys practicing gamelan

The monkey forest sanctuary was great fun. Monkeys are sacred in Balinese Hinduism and they have their own temple and forest area to hang out in. When we walked up to the entrance (entry fee $2), there was no gate or enclosure of any kind. The monkeys are free to come and go as they please, but mostly they stay because they are fed by staff and by visitors. Just outside the entrance you can buy bananas to feed to the monkeys. There are hundreds of them, all throughout the sanctuary forest. Their personalities seem to range from playful (the younger ones especially) to bickering to territorial and hostile (with each other, not so much with humans.) Although most guidebooks say it is an overrated experience, I found it charming. It’s hard to resist monkeys. I loved the temple, the statues, and the monkey graveyard almost as much as watching the critters themselves.

Provocative Pigs

My favorite statue in the Monkey Forest. Love those tongues.

When the monkeys die, they are buried in the Sacred Forest and given a headstone.

Here’s a close up of one monkey’s headstone.

And another little monkey

We also took a walk through the rice fields around Ubud, which are very pretty.

Path through the rice paddies.

On our walk we met a man named Made and bought a green coconut from him for $1 (more than enough for the two of us). While he opened it for us, we sat in the shade of his little wooden shelter and talked about Bali. He asked where we were from and where we were staying. When he learned that we were retired, he asked how much retirement money we got. When we told him, he assured us that we could move to Bali and live like kings if we wanted to. He said that a nice 3 bedroom house with all the modern conveniences rents for about $500 a month, or, if we wanted to live more modestly in a smaller place (but still nice), we could rent a house for $1,000 a year. Sitting in the shade, sipping fresh coconut juice and looking across the rice paddies, I was sorely tempted.

Bella Italia

We’ve said good-bye to Italy many times over the past eight months, and one week ago we bade farewell to bella Italia once again.  We don’t know when, but we’ll be back.   A friend of ours just asked why.   For me, the answer has to do with the way that Italy values beauty.

One of the things that has always most surprised me about Italy is its natural beauty.  From the Italian Alps and the northern Dolomites, to the Appenines and the Lucanian Dolomites, to the coastal bluffs of Amalfi and Maratea, to the gorgeous green Adriatic of the Gargano and the beautiful beaches on the Ionian Sea, Italy’s landscapes are stunning and diverse, much like California’s.

Grand Sasso National Park, Appenines

Lake Como

Tyrrhenian Sea Coastline Near Maratea

Adriatic Sea off the Gargano Peninsula

Beachside Bistro at Marina di Pulsano on the Ionian Sea

Beach on the Gargano Peninsula Looking Toward Vieste

Californians sometimes compare the hills of Sonoma or Napa to the hills of Tuscany or Umbria.  Still… California’s hills are not crowned by this:

Locorotondo

And its towns are not decorated like this:

The Main Street of Pulsano in Southern Italy

Italy’s land was developed before industrialization brought along its more pragmatic approach to the built environment.  Pragmatism was not the guiding force behind the building of the magnificent Duomo of Florence (pictured on our blog-site home page), or the wonderful cathedral of Pisa, which is far more worth visiting (in my humble opinion) than its much more famous bell tower.

Interior, Pisa Cathedral

Much of Italy’s development was guided largely by spiritual and aesthetic values (with lavish financial support from the Church and other wealthy patrons).   The creation of beauty and grandeur was seen as an essential component of the worship of God and the honoring of the saints.   Although most visitors to Italy find her cathedrals to be breathtakingly beautiful, I’ve seen some who react with a kind of repulsion that can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation, and even farther back to the Old Testament.   For these folks, the cathedrals of Italy are examples of the materialistic excesses of the Church, and the countless exquisite paintings of Madonna and Child as well as sculptures of the prophets and saints violate First Commandment prohibitions against idolatry and the creation of likenesses — especially representations of the spiritual realm.  For its part, Catholicism reckons that once God actually took on physical form in Jesus, the Old Testament admonitions against representing the divine through art were superseded, much like the way most Protestants currently believe the Old Testament Kosher and Sabbath laws were superseded.  It’s no accident that the greatest Western masterpieces of art were created in Italy and other nations where Catholicism was historically prominent.  Even though religious fervor has cooled a great deal in Italy over the years, it still considers the beauty of its art and its built environment to be its great national treasure.

Correspondingly Italians have a much different attitude toward their cities and towns than Americans generally have, particularly their old towns.  These towns are not practical.  Americans would have no patience for them.  They were created before the automobile.  The streets are too narrow; the towns are often surrounded by ancient walls that make traffic flow so inconvenient that people often have no choice but to walk….and interact with each other, violating all sorts of New World notions of privacy in the process.  The stone walls in their buildings are two-feet thick and not conducive to phone, TV and internet wiring.  Still society gives them so much value that remodeling one’s home or widening a road in the “centro storico” (historical center of town) seems to require an act of God.  Of course, Italy does have its suburbs and its box stores, as I mentioned in a long-ago post about Florence’s Ikea, but Italy is far more reluctant than the New World to tear down its old buildings and walls.  They are too charming, too historical….too beautiful.

Similar attitudes can be found in other parts of Europe where the Catholic Church has had a strong presence.  In early October we spent a week in Barcelona, Spain and visited La Sagrada Familia, a grand church that has been under construction since 1882, initially under the design of Francisco de Paula del Villar, but almost immediately taken over by the great 19th Century modernist architect Antoni Gaudi.

La Sagrada Familia — Currently Under Construction

Facade, La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia has been open to visitors since 2010.  It will be many decades before it is finished, but the church is already absolutely stunning, both outside and inside.   Still, it must be utterly mystifying to those who see the value of a building in terms of functionality.

Sagrada Familia Altar

La Sagrada Familia Dome — Interior

It’s very hard for me to imagine Americans having the patience to take centuries to construct a church….or any building for that matter.

The styles of architecture that predominate in La Sagrada Familia are modernist and neo-Gothic.  Modernist elements are present especially in the facade, which clearly takes its inspiration from the natural world.  To get a sense for why La Sagrada Familia is called neo-Gothic, it helps to compare it with the Gothic Cathedral of Barcelona – soaring spires reaching toward the heavens, and tall, high stained-glass windows that pull in sunlight.

Cathedral of Barcelona

Many consider La Sagrada Familia excessive, even outrageous.  The same has been said about both the baroque cathedral and the Basilica of Santa Croce in the southern Italian city of Lecce (the Florence of the South), which we visited at the end of September.  Both were designed by the wild and crazy brothers Zimbalo in the 16th Century.   Gargoyles, cherubs and critters of all kinds (some undetermined) cover the exterior façade of Santa Croce.

Sections of the façade of Lecce’s Basilica of Santa Croce were hidden by scaffolding during our visit there.  Parts of the great churches are almost always being repaired or cleaned – a small price to pay for their preservation.   So my photo doesn’t fully capture the fancifulness of the façade.

Facade of Santa Croce, Lecce

Baroque, Gothic and neo Gothic styles are not for those with more sober tastes in architecture.  Those folks are more inclined toward the Renaissance and the Romanesque.

My tastes seem to lack sobriety.  One prominent visitor once said that the Basilica of Santa Croce in Lecce was a nightmare produced by a lunatic.  Of course, the same might be said of Dante’s Inferno — one of the world’s great works of literature.

Speaking of Dante, one of my main reading projects during my travels has been to read the complete Divine Comedy.  I’d struggled through the Inferno and was just finishing the last cantos of the Purgatorio when we left Europe.  The flight was long and exhausting.  It was nearly 36 hours before we actually slept in a bed again.  We awoke to a chorus of roosters and the smell of incense in a beautiful bungalow in Bali – just as I made it to Dante’s Earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden at the apex of the mountain of Purgatory.

Family compound where we are staying in Bali

Highlight: Getting to know the neighborhood

October 13th

Today we began to get to know our host family better, and we took a walk through the town and the rice paddies near our house.

We are staying in a guest cottage at the home of Wayan Sueta and his family. His wife, Ayu, and his two boys, Agus and Anta, have welcomed us into the family. They keep telling us that they feel so honored that we have chosen to stay with them for a whole month and that this is to be our home. “There are no rules in Bali” so we should just feel at home and do as we like.

As it turns out, there are lots of rules in Bali, like we aren’t allowed to help with cleanup after meals. There is no restaurant in town, so Ayu cooks all our meals.

Ayu, chef extraordinaire.

She doesn’t want us to help out because they are charging us for meals – $4 per person. Coffee, tea, and bottled water are complimentary.  We had told them in advance that we are vegetarian, but we wanted to make sure we had the same definition of vegetarian (eggs and dairy ok, no fish). She asked us when we wanted to eat our meals and we said, “Oh, whenever your family is eating.” She said, “We have different times of hungry. It is not our culture to eat meals together. We cook all our food in the morning and then eat whenever we want during the day.” So, as it turns out, our meals are at different times of hungry, too.

We also said that we hoped it wouldn’t be too inconvenient for her to fix vegetarian meals for us when her family isn’t vegetarian. Then she laughed and said, “Oh no! Vegetarian is much more easy.” I believe she is the first person to ever say that to us. The food has been spectacular, by the way. They make their own coconut oil from the coconuts that grow all over the property and this is what she uses for cooking. It is so aromatic. In Bali, tofu, tempeh, and seitan are much more common and inexpensive than meat. They get fruit from their own property, along with many of the fabulous Balinese spices.

Breakfast is usually fruit and coffee or tea, sometimes with Balinese pancakes made from tapioca flour. Lunch and dinner usually consists of a noodle or rice dish, a vegetable dish, and a protein dish like tofu or tempeh, with fruit for dessert. I feel like we have landed in vegetarian heaven. My favorite dishes so far are sweet tempeh with chili, tofu crackers, and the stir fried noodles. I asked Ayu if I could hire her to teach me some of these dishes and she shyly and grateful accepted my proposition. I’m looking forward to my first class.

This is how the food comes to the table, under these colorful covers to keep the flies off. (It’s mango season so there are more flies than usual now, but not too bad.)

And under the covers we find… fried rice, cucumbers from the garden, and fried, salted “nuts” which are actually the little beans inside long beans. Yummy!

Both Wayan and Ayu have talked with us about religion and culture in Bali. I will let George go into more detail about Balinese Hinduism, but I will mention that every family compound has its own temple, and every community has temples to various gods that are used for specific rituals. Offerings are made several times throughout the day at the family temple. We are looking forward to our first community temple visit on Friday.

One of many offerings that appear each day. This one was just outside our bungalow.

 

On our walk through the town, we learned that not only are we the only guests at Wayan’s home, we are the only Westerners in the entire village. Everyone is very friendly and curious about us. The people who speak English stop and ask us where we are from and where we are staying. Those who only speak Balinese say hello and smile when we pass.

We are also a two minute walk from beautiful, terraced rice fields. Here are a few images from our first walk through the paddies. I’m sure there will be many more.

Wayan, our host and guide, chilling out in the rice fields and checking his voicemail.

This rice is almost ready to harvest, so an offering has been made to Dewi Sri, the goddess of the rice fields (and also of the market where the rice is sold.)

A shrine in the rice field. These are at the corner of every farmer’s plot, marking boundaries and protecting the field.

Looking good. His clothes are getting too big for him.

Beautiful terracing of the fields.

Sunset on the border between the rice field and the village.

Highlight: The Long Flight

October 11th and 12th

I know I completely neglected our week in Barcelona, mostly because we didn’t have wi-fi and we were SO busy seeing stuff. I will do some Flashback posts on Barcelona as soon as I can, but first I want to get you caught up on where we are now.

Today was the longest flight of our entire trip. We got up at 7 am to check out of our hotel and get to the airport in plenty of time. Our flight out of Milan took off at noon and arrived in Singapore at 6 am (midnight Milan time), a 12 hour trip in all. I know you’re not supposed to get all excited about a flight, but this was one of the best I’ve ever been on. We flew Singapore Airlines, and boy, do they know how to make people comfortable. As soon as you sit down, before you even take off, they bring you a warm washcloth for your face and hands. They feed you throughout the trip, and the food was excellent.

But the big excitement of the day was movies! We haven’t seen movies for a LONG time, so this was our big chance to catch up. We watched Woody Allen’s latest offering, To Rome With Love, followed by Men in Black 3, and then the quirky and wonderful film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I also started learning a little Spanish during the flight, and I watched a program on Memory and the Brain. (Granted, it would have been better to learn Spanish on the flight to Barcelona, but this was the flight that had the cool interactive learning program as part of the in-flight entertainment.)

We had a 3 and a half hour layover in Singapore and then another 2 and a half hour Singapore Airlines flight to Denpasar, Bali. We snoozed a little on this flight, but not much because they kept waking us up to feed us. When we arrived, it took us awhile to realize that we had to pay for a visa, which really just amounts to an entry fee. We had worked very hard to get rid of all our Euro cash before flying away from Europe, and we didn’t have any American cash anymore. We tried to use our credit card, but that didn’t work, so we had to go get Balinese cash. After finally locating an ATM, we made a mind-blowing withdrawal – 1,000,000 rupiahs! That’s right – one million. There are 10,000 rupiahs to $1 USD, so 1 million rupiahs turns out to be $100.

We were met at the airport by our driver, Made (Mah-day). He was incredibly sweet and very enthusiastic about Bali. He pointed out every landmark on the one-hour-plus journey to our new home. We were both nodding off in the back seat, but he seemed undeterred. We passed beautiful temples, amazing statues, and bewildering traffic behavior (they drive on the left here – nominally, at least). Eventually we wound our way into what Made called the jungle, although I think it is really a rainforest. Surrounded by coconut palms, banana trees, banyan trees, exotic flowers, and beautiful shrines, we knew we had truly left Europe behind and entered a whole new reality. By the time we arrived at our little cottage in the village of Abiansemal (12km outside Ubud), we were smiling and happy and falling asleep on our feet. In our hazy state we worked out that it was 7 am in Milan – exactly 24 hours since we got up to go to the airport in Milan. We met our hosts, Wayan and Ayu, told them how happy we were to be here, and headed straight to bed.

Here are a few photos of our new home for the next month. Let the new adventure begin…

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Hill Towns Revisited

Since my last post, Lois and I took a major detour in our tour of southern Italy.  After spending a week in a beachside apartment on the beautiful Gargano Penninsula (much of which is a national park) in southern Italy, we veered north to Umbria in the very center of Italy to visit Ben, a friend we had met in Italy in 2009.   He and his parents own a home in the tiny hill town of Pissignano,

Old Church Tower — Pissignano

about fifteen minutes down the road from its more famous neighbor Spoleto and only a few minutes south of the very epitome of a hill town, Trevi.  Consequently, my last post on hill towns now needs a bit of supplementation.

Trevi

We had spent over a week in Ben’s place in 2009, and our return this time felt a bit like a homecoming.  We also had an opportunity to visit with Ben’s parents.  Ben now works for EF Tours in Italy.  His father is a recently retired community college instructor (which sounded suspiciously familiar), and his mother has spent a number of years working in theater in the U.S.  There was lovely wine, prosecco, bruschetta, cheese and wonderful conversation that ranged from travel to education and, of course, to politics – Italian and American.  We stayed for three days and could not resist visiting some of the charming hill towns in Umbria and Marche (Marche is one of only a few regions in Italy we had never visited).  Ben is now a trained sommelier, and took us to do some tastings in two of his favorite wineries in the hill town of Montefalco where we sampled some wonderful Sagrantino.  Then we moved on to another gorgeous Umbrian hill town – Spello – where we had lunch on a terrace overlooking the Umbrian countryside.

Street in Spello

On the drive back to Ben’s house, we stopped and took a walk through the town of Foligno, an Umbrian town working hard to restore its medieval character.

Foligno

Lois and Ben on Cathedral Steps in Foligno

The following day Lois and I struck out on our own.  We just could not resist another visit to Assisi, which is only a half hour from Ben’s house.  It is one of my favorite places in all of Italy.  Like Bergamo farther north, much of Assisi lies on a broad plane, but on a hill rising above modern Assisi is the ancient town. Its beauty hasn’t faded since our last visit in 2009.  Even in the latter part of September the town was still crowded with tourists, but it was always possible for Lois and I to ditch the crowds by wandering up one of the many small alleyways and stairways that wind through this lovely medieval village.  The Cathedral of St. Francis in Assisi is one of my favorites in all of Italy.  It is perched on a hillside overlooking the plane far below. It is one of the few cathedrals with a large lawn in front, and on that lawn the letters PAX are inscribed in shrubbery, along with the characteristic Franciscan version of the cross, shaped like the Greek letter Tau.

 

Cathedral in Assisi

There are actually two interiors in the church, one on the ground floor and another one floor higher.  Decorating the walls of the cathedral is a series of frescoes commemorating the highlights of St. Francis’ life.  These sorts of fresco series are fairly common in Italy.  The remarkable thing about these frescoes, however, is that they were painted by Giotto, a 13th Century friend of Dante’s who advanced the art of painting to such a degree that he is considered to be the artist who was most important in laying  the foundations for the Renaissance.  Mum’s the word, but although photos are prohibited inside the church, I took this one of the ground floor.

Interior of Cathedral in Assisi 

Although St. Francis would frankly have been appalled at the size of the church that was built in his honor, I do think he’d have loved the blue ceiling displaying the heavens above.

St. Francis was “married to the Lady Poverty.”  The sort of church he favored is the Porciuncola – which St. Francis built.

Porziuncola

This tiny and humble church is now preserved inside the grand and gigantic cathedral of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which dominates the newer and much larger city of Assisi in the valley below the old town.  The inconsistency in this is not exactly lost on the Italians.  They simply loved St. Francis, and this was the only way to pay appropriate tribute to his stature (he is one of the two patron saints of Italy).  Italy embraces paradox, as is evident in the following traffic signs we saw on the road just outside of Pulsano in southern Italy.

Paradox

Ben had suggested that we drive into the hills beyond Assisi to the town of Gubbio.  The drive was absolutely spectacular, winding through the foothills of the Appenines.  Gubbio is not on the top of a hill; it is on the slope of a mountain, looking down over the valley.  At the base of the town are the walls of a 1st Century Roman amphitheater,

 

Roman Amphitheater — Gubbio

but for the most part Gubbio is a medieval town, although it has not been scrubbed up quite so nicely as Assisi; in that way it feels more medieval.

Shop in Gubbio

In its own way, Gubbio is very closely associated with St. Francis – or rather, a friend of St. Francis…..a man-eating wolf.  The story goes that this wolf was terrorizing the town of Gubbio in the early 13th Century.  When St. Francis was told about this, he ventured out to have a conversation with the wolf in which the two of them arrived at the following peace accord: the wolf would agree to stop eating the residents of the town if the residents of the town would agree to set out some food for the wolf every day.  This was agreeable to Gubbio’s residents, and the humans and the wolf lived peaceably ever after.  In fact, St. Francis’ followers reported that when the wolf eventually died of old age, St. Francis said that the wolf was buried in consecrated ground.

St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio

By the way, a common way of wishing someone good luck in Italian is to say, “in boca dal lupo” – in the mouth of the wolf.  There are many other stories about the ability of animals to communicate intelligently with St. Francis and even to worship God.  He calls them his brothers and sisters.  Theologians debate the significance of stories such as this. Did Francis really believe that creatures can communicate in such a sophisticated manner?  Did he believe they have intelligence?  Did he believe they have souls?  Many theologians are reluctant to draw such conclusions about Francis because this would mean that Francis didn’t accept the traditional interpretation of what it means to say that humans (and only humans) are made in God’s image.  For my part, I find it very difficult to read what Francis’ followers wrote about him without coming to the conclusion that he truly believed that animals, and perhaps even some of what we call inanimate nature, had souls.  Why this hasn’t impacted the attitude the Church has toward feedlots is something of a mystery to me…..although I suppose it’s no more a mystery than the lack of impact that New Testament cautions about the accumulation of wealth have had on Christianity, including most of the Catholic Church’s Protestant counterparts.

From Gubbio we drove into a region Lois and I had yet to explore – Marche.  It is dominated by Italy’s northern Appenines, and wraps around the eastern and northern edges of Umbria.  Gino Muzatti, a colleague of mine when I taught at Santa Rosa Junior College (so very long ago), takes American students each summer on a tour of Italy, where they receive intensive instruction in Italian in a town called Urbino, in Marche.  Thinking that we might one day participate in this program, we decided to take a look.  Dusk was settling in as we drove north through the spectacular mountain terrain.  Night had fallen by the time we parked our car, and walked up one of the very steep streets of the hill town of Urbino.   The road we climbed was flanked with dignified, palatial Renaissance buildings that were part of an extensive university complex.

The elegant and impressive buildings throughout the town are so consistently high that it is nearly impossible to see the valley below from inside of the town.   The town seemed deserted, until we crested the hill and found piazzas and restaurants teeming with college students on a Monday night.  They were not doing homework.  It almost made me want to be a university student again.

**Sorry, no photos of Urbino…..it was dark.

The next day Lois, our designated driver this month, heroically drove from central Italy all the way down to southern Italy not far south of Bari.  Our destination was Castellana Grotte, famous as the location of the most extensive cave complex in all of Western Europe.  What was unexpected was that our drive culminated in a harrowing complex of roads that resembled narrow cave tunnels themselves; the one-lane roads were lined by high white stone walls that are quite lovely I’m sure – for geologists, spelunkers, and those who are not suffering from exhaustion or claustrophobia.  We eventually made it to our bed and breakfast, a very charming place we’d love to return to.  The following day, we took a tour of the cave complex (which will have to be the subject of a separate post), and drove on to the last true hill town we would visit in Italy – Ostuni.   Ostuni is in extreme southern Italy, near the Adriatic Sea, just north of Brindisi.  It is a place where the landscape of Italy becomes drier and is dominated by white rock and extensive olive orchards.   Ostuni is a classic hill town, circular in shape and draped evenly over the hilltop like a skullcap.  It is as though Greek islanders had decided to build a town on an Italian hill – which, is not far removed from what actually happened here long ago.

Ostuni

From the town there are sweeping views east across vast olive groves to the Adriatic Sea.

 

View from Ostuni

Ostuni is part of the old Magna Grecia, and accordingly the town is dominated by whitewashed buildings.

The streets of the old-town center are paved in white stone and flanked by shops and restaurants.

The façade of the Ostuni Cathedral is unique, the only one that we’ve seen with inverted, rounded gables.

Ostuni Cathedral

The cathedral faces this lovely arch, and just beyond the arch lies the Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale.

Restaurants in southern Italy generally open for dinner at 8:00 pm, but never earlier than 7:30, at which time Lois and I are generally starving (which is my theory about why Americans so love the food at restaurants in Italy).  It is also why we often have an entire restaurant to ourselves as we did at Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale.  We walked in famished the moment it opened.  Italians are still recovering from their four-course lunches until 9:00 pm or so.

 

Lois in Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale

We left the restaurant so uncomfortably stuffed (a common Italian ailment) that dessert was unimaginable.  Then we walked down to a lighted fountain rising out of a white tiled piazza and listened to jazz music drifting down from the balcony of a bar.

Fountain in Ostuni

A gelato shop materialized like magic in front of our eyes, and we were suddenly –and paradoxically — famished once again.  Ah…Italia.

 

Highlight: Italy top to bottom – in ONE day

October 2nd

I can’t believe it is October already. We are now 5 months into the post-retirement portion of our journey. We have almost exactly 100 days of travel remaining. Nearly half of our total year abroad will have been spent in Italy. I thought that when the time came for us to leave Italy, I would be ready to go, but I’m not. I’m never ready to leave Italy it seems.

Today is our last full day here and we are traveling almost the full length of the country. I’m finding that each piece of the day is a little farewell to a land I love. We started the morning by cleaning up our adorable little apartment in Salve and writing a thank you note to our charming hosts, Claudia and Giancarlo. We packed our two suitcases, one backpack, and one guitar into the car and headed toward Bari.

Our path took us past the town of Gallipoli on the Ionian sea to say a brief goodbye, then up past Lecce and over to Brindisi on the Adriatic for a more prolonged farewell. We dropped off our car in Bari, grabbed a bite to eat, and are (in questo momento) traveling on the train beside the sea. Soon we will turn inland and wind our way between mountain ranges, ending our journey in Milan, 687 miles from where we started. Here. I’ll show you.

George and I were reflecting yesterday on how much of this country we have seen on our various trips. Italy is divided into 20 regions and we have spent time in 18 of them. Only the island of Sardinia and the Val d’Aosta (in the way northwestern corner) have eluded us, but that is all the more reason to return. We have seen way more of Italy than most Italians (at least that’s the impression we get from our conversations with them.) We have been from the snow-covered Alps in the north to the arid and rocky Greek ruins in the southernmost reaches of Sicily. We have been baptized in three seas; the Tyrrhenian, the Ionian, and the Adriatic. We have marveled at the masterpieces on offer in her great cities and in her national parks. We have shared food and wine, stories and laughter with her people. We have been bewildered by her politics, and bewitched by her music and poetry.

All of these things sound like reasons that I love Italy, but the truth is that my love for Italy is beyond reason. I love so many places in the world, but Italy seems to have taken root in my heart like no other place on earth. I am sad to say goodbye, but I know that she is always here waiting for me.

 

P.S. Don’t think you’ve heard the last about Italy from me. I have several stories left to tell that will show up as “flashbacks.”

Highlight: Bones, Bays and Beauty

October 1st

Today we drove from our adorable little place in the town of Salve on the Ionian coast, to the seaside town of Otranto, on the Adriatic coast. The drive from the very tip of the heel of the boot of Italy along the Adriatic seaside was absolutely gorgeous. It is a rocky and dramatic coastline with trees, flowers, and beautiful rock outrcroppings. Otranto’s centro storico (old town) is surrounded by golden walls, complete with a castle, a basilica and several other churches, all overlooking the pale green waters of its lovely bay.

We have been in so many churches in Italy that they are all beginning to blur in my mind, but this one had some features that made it stand out. The entire floor of the basilica is a giant mosaic called the tree of life with fantastical characters and creatures twisting every which way.

Floor mosaic in the Otranto basilica. This is the trunk of the tree, leading all the way up the nave.

A chapel at the front of the church commemorates a grisly and storied event in Otranto’s history. In 1480, the Turks sacked the town. All those who survived the battle were required to convert to Islam. Those who refused, 800 men, women and children in all, were marched up to a nearby hill and beheaded. The stone that was used for turning these townsfolk into martyrs is displayed under the altar in the chapel. Even more striking though are the 7 glass cases artfully displaying the bones of all 800 people who were killed.

Here are three of the seven glass cases holding the bones of the martyrs. You can just see the stone upon which they were beheaded peaking out from under the altar.

I know you’d never guess it from my sweet countenance, but I am fascinated by cemeteries and charnel houses (also called ossuary or bone houses.) A few years ago we saw an amazing charnel house chapel in Halstatt Austria containing the decorated skulls of the deceased from the town. Halstatt is located on a tiny patch of solid rock next to a lake. The local church only has enough workable ground to contain the bones of deceased residents for about 10 years. In order to make space for others, the bones are removed from the cemetery, bleached in the sun, and then the skulls are lovingly hand painted by descendants and placed in the chapel.

For most people, this is a creepy thought. For me, it is a practical solution to a real life problem that is carried out with love and dignity. I like it. The practice actually stopped mid-way through last century when the Catholic Church decided that cremation was permissible after all. The last bones to be placed in the charnel house were those of an elderly woman who passed away in the 1980s. She wanted to rest forever with her ancestors.

But, I digress. After the fascinating viewing of the bones, we walked around the rest of the town and attempted to get into the castle, but starting in October it is closed every Monday. Oh well. The heat and humidity were increasing, so after staring at the fish in the beautiful green harbor for awhile, we set out in search of a beach where we could swim, too.

A few miles north of Otranto we located Baia dei Alimini (Alimini Beach), a stunning stretch of white sand and turquoise waters, backed by a pine forest.

Mmmmm… such wonderful waters. Makes me want to go back.

After some serious swimming and some serious napping, we lunched on grilled veggie antipasto and potato croquettes.

On our drive back along the coast, we discovered a stretch of road we had missed earlier due to the creative meanderings of our GPS unit on the trip out. Suddenly, rock cliffs and lush greenery rising straight up out of the sea surrounded us. On our left, a small gorge opened up to let the Adriatic in.

To our right, the canyon continued and curved up and out of sight. We decided we had to get out and take a look. THIS turned out to be the real highlight of the day.

As we looked off the edge of the bridge, we saw a tiny “beach” and a water cave down below us.

We followed the trail down to the beach and then up into the canyon. At the top of the trail we found an old deserted village made of stone structures typical of the Salento region.

They’re called pajara. I have no idea how old this village was. There were no signs of any kind, although there was a maintained trail leading up the hill, topped by a parking lot. Apparently you can drive in from the other direction. I know we didn’t discover it or anything, but it felt like a secret we had stumbled on to, all because we were willing to get out of the car and follow our feet and our hearts up a beautiful canyon. Benissimo.