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:


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: 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.