Monday, July 20, 2009

Italy - Bologna

On the last day of the trip, we took the train to Bologna and met up with another friend. He gave us a quick tour of the city (really excellent, so if the astronomy thing doesn't work out...).

This is the Basilica of San Petronio. The building was started in 1390 and completed in 1659, although the facade remains unfinished. Many plans for completing have been proposed but, as our friend remarked, "in typical Italian fashion, nothing's happened." Inside, there's the longest meridian line in the world, 66.8m, calculated and designed by Cassini. A description and photo of it can be found here.

Bologna is notable for all its arcades, allowing pedestrians to walk protected from the (very hot) sun. I didn't get a good picture of them, unfortunately. Bologna is also home to the University of Bologna, the oldest existing university in the Western world (founded in 1088!). Here's a photo of the anatomical theater (which dates to 1637).
The Seven Churches (Santo Stefano) is a collection of four (once seven, hence the name) Medieval churches, interlocked into one big complex. Parts of the church date to the 5th century and it's well worth a look. This photo isn't of the front or any particular part, but the wall caught my eye.
There were once over a hundred towers in Bologna, built by the richest families in Bologna in the 12th and 13th centuries. Many have collapsed or been destroyed. The two towers here are the most famous. The taller one is the Asinelli tower (97m) and the smaller the Garisenda tower (48m). Both of them are crooked. The Garisenda tower once stood 60m, but was lowered when it started to lean dangerously. It's mentioned several times in Dante's Divine Comedy.
After the tour, we had lunch (I had some really excellent melon and prosciutto) and headed to the airport.

And (woo-hoo!), I'm done blogging about Italy just in time to go to Salzburg tomorrow.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Italy - Florence

A couple random notes on Italy: 1.) Despite my fears and the many horror stories I'd heard, every train we took was more or less on time. 2.) Italy is pretty cool and now I kind of get why it's such a ridiculously popular tourist attraction (kind of). It's too bad that my itinerary wasn't particularly me-friendly since the mountains were full of flowers (and I have allergies), there's tons of cheese (and I'm lactose-intolerant), and I had to ride around in buses through mountainous regions (and I get carsick).

Anyway, on to Florence.
This is the Duomo in Florence. What you're looking at is the Baptistry in the foreground, with the church behind, and Campanile (bell tower) jutting up behind the Baptistry. The giant red dome you see in the back is the largest brick dome ever -- created by Brunelleschi, completed in 1436 -- and the thing to do is to climb the stairs between the inside dome and the outside dome all the way to the top (not a great picture).
It costs 8 euros and there are some 460 steps. That's only 80 more than in Corniglia, so we scoffed at the signs warning that there is no lift. We were right to scoff; it was pretty easy.

Here's the fresco on the inside of the dome.
On the way up, you stop at the lower balcony, below the stained glass windows, while on the way down, you stop at the upper balcony.

Here's one of the balconies:
Looking down from one of the balconies:
From the top balcony, looking across
and looking up.

A little aside: inside the cathedral (and every cathedral), bare shoulders are a no-no. At the Milano Duomo, women sold cheap shawls right outside. Here, they gave out hospital gown-stype paper ponchos:

The top of the dome had some pretty good views. To the front of the cathedral and now you can see actually see the bell tower.
The big church in the middle is Santa Croce, which we visited the next day.
The large tower to the right is Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall. To the right of it (the three arches) is the Uffizi. The Uffizi is right next to the Arno River, so the green hills you see in the background are across it.

After climbing the dome, I was pretty hot and thirsty, so I got a granita from an ice cream place across the street. As we were standing and eating/drinking, a gypsy woman came up to us to beg. I guess she didn't like my response because she ripped the cup out of my hands (and I had a firm grip on it!) and walked away. We just stared in shock. I was basically done with it, though, and already thinking of where to dispose of it, so thanks random gypsy woman, I guess.

On the way back to the hotel that evening we saw these sidewalk chalk artists working.

The next day, we got up early to go to the Uffizi. Since we hadn't reserved tickets weeks in advance (as every guide book will suggest), we were somewhat nervous about waiting in line for hours for nothing. The museum is supposed to open at 9AM. We got there at 8:45AM to find signs saying that due to a staff meeting, the museum would open at 10:30AM. The without-reservations line was probably about 100 at that time. If the museum had opened at the usual time, we probably could have been inside within an hour. We could have left and come back, of course, but the line would have continued to grow while we were gone (and I'd guess that maybe only 20% of the people in line realized that the museum would not open on time). So, in the end, we waited. And by the time, we made it into the museum, we had waited for 3 hours (yikes!).
The most famous pieces are probably Botticelli's The Primavera and The Birth of Venus. This work is also in the collection, although in a room so dim it was nearly impossible to see. We got the audio guides but found them rather disappointingly unenlightening.

The Uffizi is near Ponte Vecchio, a Medieval bridge crossing the Arno with shops built onto it. All the shops are jewelry stores. I took this picture from inside the museum, I think.
For tiny streets, there's a tiny public bus:

Afterwards, we went to the Basilica of Santa Croce.
They had a really cool audio guide (totally worth it), although we got there kind of late and had only time to hear the highlights. They were restoring parts of the church and here you can see them working on it as tourists wander past.
Santa Croce holds the tombs of many famous Italians, such as Rossini,
and Dante.
Afterwards, we crossed the river and went up Piazzale Michelangelo. Even though it's basically a parking lot with some benches and a railing, I guess it's known as the place to be because it was full of tourists and people hawking knock-off handbags. (We heard about it from another tourist in the line at the Uffizi. He warned us about the 'many, many steps' to get up there. Pshaw.) The views were excellent. In this one, you see the old city wall to the left, the Boboli Gardens behind that, then down the river to the west, with the Ponte Vecchio the first bridge you see.
And here's the view in another direction, lookin across the river, where the Ponte Vecchio is out of the frame to the left of the photo. Coming down from the hilltop, I took this photo crossing the river at sunset.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Italy - Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is in the Italian Riveria and consists of five villages:





Monterosso al Mare:
We stayed in Manarola. Here's the lemon tree garden in the back of the hotel:

And here's the view from Manarola. In the distance you can see a bit of the hiking paths that go from village to village. In the foreground, you can see a small swimming area. I took a quick dip there (never been in the Mediterranean before).

Cinque Terre is a fairly popular tourist desination and the thing to do is hike between villages and enjoy the scenery (if walking isn't your thing, you can also take the train or a ferry). By the way, you need to buy a ticket to access the trails. Our first day there, we walked the Via Dell'Amore to Riomaggiore. This is the easiest path -- 20 minutes, flat, well-paved. Then, we walked back and went the other way, to Corniglia, which probably took an hour.

A little bridge on the path!

One stretch of the path ran through a row of abandoned one-room shacks. What the shacks were for, who would want to live there, I have no idea.

These cool flowers were everywhere. It's hard to tell, but the 'petals' are just like leaves.

When you get to Corniglia, you have to climb some 380 steps to get up to the village at the top of the cliff.

The second day, we took the train to Vernazza.

I thought Vernazza was maybe the nicest of the villages. It has a little beach (there's a (larger) beach at Monterosso too, but it's much more beach resort-y there). And we wandered steep, little streets with stairs, like this,

up to this castle (you could even climb to the top of the very narrow tower),

which had some nice views. I think I took this picture of the ferry from there.

From Vernazza, we took what is supposedly the most difficult trail to Monterosso (then took the ferry all the way back to Manarola where we had the best gelato ever). The trail was probably 2 hours and has a lot of steps at the beginning and the end. Here you can see the trail ahead of me along the mountainside:

And, as I mentioned, stairs:

The trail, while not super tough, was definitely more rustic. At places, it was very narrow and basically consisted of the top of the retaining wall for the mountainside terraces.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Italy - Cogne

As I alluded to before, getting to Cogne from Milan required a subway ride followed by two bus rides up into the mountains. Before I left Germany, I was very worried about the possibility of getting motion sick while riding a bus through mountain switchbacks. So I went to the pharmacy and, after some confusion on the difference between 'motion' and 'emotion,' the lady there gave me antiemetic gum. Her instructions were to start chewing up to 30 minutes between getting on the bus and to chew no more than 3 pieces at a time. Here's a picture I took out the window of the bus, but, believe me, the gum story gets better after the jump.

The first leg of the bus trip was from Milan to Aosta, the main city in the Valle d'Aosta. I popped in a piece of gum when the bus started moving. Within 4 minutes, my entire mouth from my lips to my throat was numb. That, understandably, totally freaked me out. I spit out the gum, then spent several long moments trying to decide whether my throat was swelling closed and whether it was overly silly to 1.) do nothing or 2.) to raise some sort of alarm. I did decide that my tongue wasn't swollen at least, then promptly passed out. 20 minutes later, I woke up, feeling totally normal and undrugged. I put the package of gum away. Here are a couple more pictures from the bus.

Cogne, itself, is a very small town. And I suppose that summer is the low season, as I saw lots of nearly empty, mostly shuttered vacation rentals. Here's the view out my hotel window.

And the view back to the hotel (the main part of town was more densely populated with buildings.

The conference excursion was to Forte di Bard -- a 19th century fortress.

An aside: did you notice that gorgeous field outside my hotel window? There were ones like it all over -- full of wildflowers -- but I noticed on the bus ride that many were watered by sprinkler (I guess to keep them tourist-ready!).

Here's the outside of Forte di Bard:

The tour of the fort was fairly underwhelming, but the view was nice:

And I got a photo of the stone roofs you see in this area:

Here's a random picture I took on the way to the dinner:

On the last full day, some of us went on a short hike to Lillaz (a nearby village) to see the waterfall there. On the way:

Look at all those gorgeous fields and wildflowers. Unfortunately, for all my worries about motion sickness, it never occurred to me that I might be allergic to the Alps. I sneezed constantly. The waterfall:

On the way back:

I like how the tree sprouts horizontally from the slope:
There's water running everywhere in the Alps. Here is a stream running down the mountain. Right next to where I took this photo was a small wall with a spout and water running out. The sign -- in Italian -- said it was okay to drink. I tried it: it was very cold.