Today was going to be a beautiful, clear day and a little cooler after the rain last night, so I went on another gondola adventure. Eric and Nate were arriving at 4:30, so I had time to go to Oberbozen and the Renon plateau to hike to the Earth pyramids, which are these interesting rock formations. They are rocks that have been weathered into spindly cones with a boulder on top. The way the weathering pattern works is that it erodes the sides and not the top. We saw something similar in Turkey in Cappadoccia. At any rate, it involved another gondola to the top of the mountain, a historic train, and then a 30-minute walk. Again, everything was stunning, and the haze burned off a bit for some clearer pictures. Eric and Nate made it just fine after a flight, a taxi, and a train–tired but glad to be here and ready for some time in the mountains. First order of business was some Italian pizza for Nate. Now, it is a matter of trying to keep them up until 10pm. I’m having more luck with Nate than Eric.
Today I ventured to figure out the bus system, which in Germany would be simple–just look at the published tables, and get on the one that arrives precisely when it was supposed to. I have to keep reminding myself I’m in Italy. I thought I was going to get on a bus and have to change, but luckily I asked, and there was a direct one, not on the published table. It left an hour later than the other, so that didn’t really save me any time, but I didn’t have to change. People-watching in a bus station is entertaining in any country. It’s Italy, so people were bringing their dogs hiking, so that was the best part. It was about an hour on a tour-type bus to Ortisei (or St. Ulrich or Urtijëi). Wait, what? Now things have 3 names? Yes, now we throw a 3rd language into the mix: Ladin, which is a mix of Latin from Roman conquerors and the language spoken in the valleys at the time. Given the remoteness of the valleys, the close-cousin of Latin survives. Right when I got to Ortisei, I headed straight for the cable car up the mountain. Yes, me. I don’t like heights. I’m okay with enclosed bubbles, which is what this one was, though–as long as they don’t stop and no one swings their feet! It was a bit cloudy in the mountains, as there was a storm brewing, so my pictures don’t quite capture the amazing structures these mountains are. They are these huge pieces of rock that just jut out and create these sheer cliffs. They are technically coral reefs from when this was all underwater. I had a nice lunch outdoors with an incredible view. I headed back down on the gondola. I did not bring shoes suitable for hiking, but many were hiking or riding mountain bikes down. The town was the cutest thing I have ever seen. If you have ever been to Switzerland and noted that it was all staged–this seemed exactly like the Italian version of that. But, I spoke to people, and I can attest they were real. Ortisei is a ski resort, but it is also known for its woodcarving craftsmen. There were stores all over with every iteration of the nativity you could imagine in any format. I, however, was on a mission impossible. Years ago, when I lived with a host family in Italy, we spent 2 weeks in the mountains near Bolzano, where my host father was born. They had this wine stopper that was a little wooden man in lederhosen sitting on top of a barrel of wine. When you pulled the lever on his back, he would tip his hat and nod to you. I loved that little man so much that when I left, he gave it to me as a present. I have it to this day, but one of my kids (who will not be named here, but you can probably guess) broke it 2 or so years ago, so no more hat-tipping. Since then I have done a little research, and the woodshop who used to make them stopped making them in the 60s. It was a very long shot. I looked in all of the woodshops but mainly found religious carvings. Finally, I stepped into one and asked in my best German, and he led me to a small basket of different figures. Apparently, there is one craftsman in that town that still makes them. I replaced my little hat tipper, and I bought 3 more–a violinist, one who drinks beer, and one who puts his glasses on to read the newspaper. I was ecstatic. During dinner back in Bolzano, the storm rolled through and is currently dumping a lot of rain and dropping the temperature by a full 35 degrees. Europe is in another record-setting heatwave if you’ve been paying attention. Currently, I’m sitting with my windows open just watching it roll over the mountains just like I would do in my apartment when I lived in Germany. I was lucky enough to live on the top floor (the 18th) of a building overlooking the Englisher Garten and in the distance, the Alps. I had a huge wall of windows (the nicest apartment I’ve ever had), and I would open them and watch the thunderstorms come over the mountains. Tomorrow Nate and Eric arrive. They are probably en route to Chicago now. I hope the cooler temperatures stay as our adventures continue.
I had the loveliest day today. I have a friend from high school who lives in Munich now, and between vacations and work, he arranged his schedule to “pop down to Italy for lunch” on his birthday with a 3-hour train ride each way. He has a favorite restaurant in the mountains over a charming town, Vipiteno/Sterzing. I had a lovely hour-long train ride north along the Dolomites, following a fast-flowing aquamarine river. I got on an earlier train than anticipated and wandered around the main street and piazza for a while, encountering plenty of alpine-wear shops and interestingly enough, a Pringles dispenser, which looked like a giant gumball machine with mini Pringles cans inside. Italians do take their Pringles seriously. They have a Paprika flavor, a Ham and Cheese flavor, and apparently an illusive Rosemary and Olive Oil flavor I haven’t encountered yet but remain committed to my journalistic duty to try them and report back. At any rate, I met David and after walking around a bit, we took a taxi up to the restaurant/farm. It was straight out of anything you picture when you think Austrian ski lodge–dark wooden benches, flowers on the table, antlers on the walls. And, oh, the view! They had no menu, the owner simply came up to us and described what they had on hand. I understood most of it, though some of the meat-related vocabulary was unfamiliar, such as the Wolleschwein, which is a long-haired wooly pig (cute, yes; delicious, yes!). I just went with whatever the owner spent the most time describing since he clearly was invested in it. I found it amusing when David asked if the animals that supplied the meat and the cheese were from his farm, and he said apologetically that they were from the next farm over. Oh, the shame! We started with a lovely antipasto of local meats and cheeses with dark bread and glorious German mustard. The second course consisted of knödel (dumplings) of spinach, cheese, and basil and a puff pastry filled with cheese and herbs. The third was a veal steak with roasted potatoes and 3 different varieties of gourmet salt. We paired with a glass of local wine, and needless to say, we didn’t make it to dessert. I’m still full and unsure what if anything I’ll eat for dinner. The food was wonderful, but the company was even better. I’m so glad we were able to get together for a few hours. I will definitely take him up on his invitation to come and stay in Munich. I just noticed a Tai Chi class happening in the park outside my window. I think it’s just what I need to work off some of the amazing lunch. Tomorrow I’m going to see if I can work out the bus schedule another town Ortesei. Eric and Nate arrive on Friday, so more adventures to come with them in tow.
In Gus news: he had a lesson with a different professor, and he said it went very well. He’s getting quite a bit done on college essays, though he thinks it will take some doing to get his Spanish back for his Spanish Literature class in the fall.
Today was another great day, but I am missing my travel sidekick. Gus would love this town–the blend of cultures and languages. This morning I walked to the main square to catch the free shuttle to Schloß Runkelstein. The castle is a well-preserved medieval castle (built in 1237 but restored later) with lots of intact frescoes on a hillside overlooking Bolzano. Apparently Maximillian I (founder of the Hapsburg dynasty) visited and got lots of ideas of heroes. The castle has the largest installation of secular frescoes in the world; they tell the legends of great heroes, like King Arthur and Tristan, etc. The vineyards and hillside around the castle were charming, and I had the place basically to myself. I came back down and took a leisurely walk around the University area of town. I’m thinking of how I can convince Gus to apply so I can visit and then had a lovely and leisurely lunch–a kebab with roasted vegetables and rosemary potatoes. It was very hot here today–high of 98, so I came back to the apartment for a little work and a nap to avoid the hottest part of the day. I ventured out for dinner once it had cooled off and found a handmade pasta with pfifferlingen (I’m not sure of the English equivalent; chanterelles are the closest). I remember when we stayed a few weeks in the mountains when I lived here with a host family, my host mother taught us how to collect edible mushrooms that are a local delicacy. They were delicious, as was the strudel and local wine. Tomorrow I’m catching a train to Vipiteno/Sterzing to meet a high school friend for lunch. He lives in Munich now, so it’s in the middle. It’s still in Italy, but barely.
Gus reports lessons are going well, and that food is very inexpensive where he is, so there is exactly 0 motivation to cook. At some point they get to take a field trip to San Marino. So far his lessons have been with his own teacher, but he gets to experience some other teachers starting tomorrow.
Today I walked around the main squares of Bolzano (or Bozen). Everything here has an Italian and a German name. I never know if a shopkeeper is going to greet me in German or Italian, so I try to have both at the ready. Either I’m making myself understood, or there isn’t as much English spoken here. Nobody starts with or replies in English, which is just as well. I can use the practice. This morning, I started out at the daily outdoor market, where I bought some fruit and baked goods. You’ve never tasted raspberries so amazing. I visited the cathedral and another famous church, both of which have frescoes dating from the 1300s. The churches here are more austere than the ones closer to Rome–their decorations are painted, with no gold or marble. Before lunch, I went to see Ötzi, who is the 5000-year-old preserved mummy that was discovered by hikers in the mountains nearby protruding from the ice. It’s fascinating what they have been able to establish about his dress, his tools, and his lifestyle based on forensic evidence. The whole museum was dedicated to the finding, recovery, and subsequent studies. It was very cool. After that, I decided on currywurst from a street cart in the main squares, and it was delicious. I wandered around for a few more hours until it got hot and my feet got tired. I got some provisions for dinner–after 3 weeks of eating out, I may have reached my limit. Actually, the sausage and cheese shops looked so good that I decided to make my own plate. Dinner featured wild boar sausage, local cheese, fresh-baked bread, grapes, and German mustard. With fresh raspberries and chocolate for dessert. I bought a local wine, but I couldn’t get my corkscrew to work, so that’s on the list of things to find tomorrow. Gus reports that he had a great practice session this morning of 3 hours, then a lesson, and a welcome dinner at a local restaurant. I know he’ll have a great time and get a lot out of the experience, but I miss my travel companion. Tomorrow I’m planning on catching the shuttle up to Castel Roncolo, or Schloss Runkelstein (which I think sounds more medieval).
Bolzano– few hours north, and a complete world away. Gus and I did some last laps around our favorite streets this morning, grabbed a chocolate croissant and headed off to the airport to meet his group that he will be spending the next 2 weeks with. As we waited at the meeting point for flights from all over the US to arrive, Gus and I noticed a girl who looked so familiar, but neither of us could figure it out. These are college (and a few from high school) kids from all over the US. Finally, Gus caught a glimpse of her violin case, and he realized she’s the student that gave us the music tour at Oberlin! Music is a small world. I left Gus in the capable hands of the directors and teachers and took a taxi back to the train station. I had a 1:30 train to Bolzano, which unfortunately was a regional train (all that was available on Sunday), so it made lots of stops and was un-airconditioned. Europe is experiencing its own heatwave too, and today was the beginning of the latest one. It was in the 90s today in Bologna. Luckily, as we approached the mountains, it started to cool off a bit. My apartment is an easy 6-minute walk to the train station, and I can see the main square out of my 5th-floor window. The town is the capital of the Alto-Adige/South Tirol region of Italy. This region has a fascinating history because it had been part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, and was promised to Italy as an incentive to abandon the Germany/Austria-Hungarian Alliance during WWI. Mussolini instituted a full-scale Italianization of the area in the 1920s, wherein people lost their language and their names. In the 1960s there was violence and a secessionist movement from the ethnic Germans, which resulted in an agreement that it is an autonomous region of Italy. Most provinces’ taxes go to Rome and then are distributed, but South Tirol money stays in South Tirol. It is an extremely prosperous region with lots of tourism, especially in winter with ski resorts such as Cortina d’Ampezzo, wineries, and agriculture. At any rate, I met my landlord and explained to him (in German) that it would take me a few days to switch to thinking in German because we’d been in Italy for 3 weeks–completely forgetting that I am still in Italy. It’s that hard to wrap your mind around. Bolzano is evenly split–you are just as likely to hear Italian as German being spoken, but in smaller mountain towns and closer to the Austrian border, that changes. In Italy, everyone takes one look at me and tries English first. I thought it was because I probably look like an American despite trying really hard to blend in. But now I think it’s because of the pale skin and light eyes. Everyone hear approaches me with German first. Even though there was plenty of pizza and pasta to choose from, I opted for the turkey schnitzel and roasted potatoes, followed by a strudel, of course. Tomorrow I will explore the outdoor produce market, stock up on some groceries and get started with the town’s sights.
Gus reports the town he’s staying in is beautiful and all is well so far.
Fittingly for our last day in Bologna, Gus and I were walking down the main street near our apartment, past the church that we have walked by for 12 days now, and the doors were opening. We decided to peek in, and we got a treat of an organist at rehearsal. As we walked around a bit, we noticed that between the hours of 2-4 (and it was just then 2 pm) you could climb the bell tower for views of the city and have a guided tour of the crypt. An offering was suggested. The church had 2 bell towers–the new one was constructed around the old one. The old one was built in 1028. The new one was in the 12th century. We hadn’t climbed the leaning tower in Bologna because it’s leaning, and I don’t do heights well, much less ones that defy physics. Anyway, this was the perfect compromise. We made our way to the top via narrow circular ramps and were rewarded with amazing views. I was even comfortable enough to approach the windows and take my own pictures. We made our way back down into the crypts and got a history lesson about the church which was built over Roman ruins in 1028, was destroyed by fire, and reconstructed several times into the 1800s. In the crypt, they had a cut-away of the various levels. The coolest thing by far, and I hope more historical sites will do this, is they had a virtual reality headset that showed you a reconstruction of the original church. Very cool. Tonight we’ll have our last dinner in Bologna and see Interstellar on the screen in the main square. Tomorrow Gus gets on a bus to Piobicco, where he’ll spend the next 2 weeks in piano lessons and masterclasses at a castle.
I will head north to Sud-Tirol, the German-speaking part of Italy for a few weeks in the mountains, where I will busy myself with wurst and strudel.
Today we relaxed around the apartment in the morning and then went out to see the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna or the local fine art museum. I need to brush up on my saints and iconography, but I could recall all of the lectures from Professor Rand on the different schools and techniques through the Renaissance. I can remember that and 80s lyrics but not why I walked into the kitchen. Anyway, it was a great collection and the museum was nearly empty. We have noticed an increase in tourists lately. I suppose more and more Europeans are on their holidays–lots of French, Germans, and Brits. We sought out the very first restaurant where we had lunch on our first day. I remember my gnocchi with shrimp and zucchini was amazing. We try not to go to the same restaurants, but we made an exception for dinner. Typically, the meal would be at least 3-4 courses–antipasto, a pasta dish, and then a meat dish, with possibly a dessert. I don’t see how anyone could make it through all of that, even if you are there for 3 hours. So, Gus and I worked out a plan to split a pasta and a main and still have room for dessert. I asked in Italian if that were possible, and the waiter was probably so happy someone tried in Italian, we got the best service. They divided the plates for us but retained all of the presentation. We had seafood risotto (in Italy, you’re never more than 2 hours from a coastline somewhere, and the Adriatic is about 30 minutes away). It was amazing. It had clams, mussels, shrimp and octopus. I’ve never had better octopus–not rubbery at all. Then we had a beef fillet which was stuffed with parmesan cheese and coated in broccoli rabe. Gus had the lemon cake, and I got the tiramisu. Both were amazing. Tomorrow is for packing, last sights, and to-dos, and finally Interstellar on the movie screen under the stars as we say good-bye to Bologna and are on to Phase III of the adventure.
Gus and I got up early for the 2 hour trip to Siena, and it was well worth it. One thing that we are enjoying discovering is that there is so much beyond Rome, Venice, and Florence. And while we love those cities too, there are hidden gems far away from the throngs of people and tourist menus. When we arrived, we were hungry, so we headed down a side street and into a hole in the wall. Either every restaurant in Italy is good, or we have really good luck doing so. Gus had Cacio e Pepe (which is pasta in a cheese and pepper sauce famous in Rome), and I had Malfatti di Casa, which are balls of spinach and ricotta with parmesan cheese melted on top and dressed truffle shavings. Oh wow were they both delicious. After lunch, we started with the Duomo, which, in my opinion, rivals the great Duomo of Florence and St. Peter’s. It is simply stunning with alternating green and white marble. With the combo ticket, which was only 12 Euro, we got to see the Duomo, the baptistry, the crypts, and the museum of all of the important art they don’t have room for in the church. After touring all of that, we walked to the central square and took in the place where they have the famous Palio horse race. Each district of Siena has a mascot, and they compete twice a year in a horse race. You can see the crests of each of the districts on street signs, and they take their loyalties very seriously. We wandered around and found some great shopping–ceramics and other items hand made on-site before heading back to catch the train home. Until today, I hadn’t been to Siena, but it is high on my list of favorites.
Today Gus and I toured the communal palace, which is a series of palaces put together and serving as municipal buildings now. But, they still have impressive chandeliers, tapestried halls, and an impressive art gallery. For lunch, we went to a place that serves variations of the local specialty: polpette, or meatballs. Gus had his in a tomato sauce with peas. Mine were fried, like croquettes. Both were excellent, but the highlight was the cheese board we ordered for an antipasto. The parmesan is fantastic, as Parma is about 30 minutes away. It was hot today–almost 90, so we had a respite in our apartment until time for a little grocery shopping to stock up on essentials. Gus was on a mission for gnocchi tonight, so we found a place with gnocchi in a parmesan sauce with a balsamic vinegar glaze. The home of balsamic vinegar, Modena, is also about 30 minutes away. The consistency here is more syrupy, and it is outstanding. This is the best food town in Italy that I’ve encountered. Tomorrow we are taking a day trip to Siena.