The Fortress City – Orvieto, Umbria, Italy

Life In Umbria, Italy

My shoulders drifted forward slightly then slammed back into the padded bus seat as our forward momentum temporarily slowed and the driver slipped the bus into gear.  We were crawling up a steep, winding road towards the fortress city of Orvieto.  The road snaked away behind us winding down toward the open valley and the green fields below.

Life In Umbria, Italy

The road was relatively new. For hundreds of years the city had remained largely impregnable and isolated. Aloof on a mostly flat butte, it was encircled entirely by  sheer cliffs. The city was a castle but in place of large stone walls that crawled towards the heavens, Orvieto’s were sheer stone and crumbling boulders which plunged down and into the region’s strong bedrock.  Craning my neck and pressing my face against the glass, I fought to look up at the city as we traced our way up and through the city’s gates.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

As a testament to the power, defensible nature, and storied history of Orvieto, the town’s residents hadn’t been content to simply let nature’s fortress stand as-it-was.  Instead a series of impressive walls were added to the tops of the cliffs further securing the city’s perimeter. This provides a stable series of walkways and viewing platforms for defenders, residents, and visitors alike to traverse in search of one of the many amazing views the city offers.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Orvieto with its battlements and wonderful winding streets has a vibrant history which dates back at least to Etruscan times. While the specifics of history are somewhat murky, it is likely that the city dates back to the 8th century BC and stood as a long-lasting thorn in the side of early Roman dreams of expansion and control. With its proximity to Rome and its position  on the road between Rome and Florence, it likely served as a cornerstone of Etruscan defense during the early Roman/Etruscan wars. Most modern evidence suggests that the city was the Etruscan town of Velzna which played a fundamental role in shaping, trading with, and threatening early Rome.  However, as with most things Roman, persistence and resilience eventually won out and what we know as Orvieto was incorporated into the growing Roman Empire around 250 BC when the city was conquered and razed to the ground.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Once incorporated into Rome the history books go relatively silent about Orvieto’s role, though the location was considered as an alternative to Rome during some of the early Republic’s more flavorful disasters.  Nearly 1,000 years later Orvieto would crash back into history when it was occupied by the Goths. By 600 AD however things started to look up once again for the city as it grew and began to attract wealth.  By the early 1100s the city-state had been heavily reinforced by the now wealthy nobles who quickly sought to curry favor with the Pope.   In the imperial/papal wars the city fell decidedly on the side of the Guelphs or papal faction and was involved in heavy fighting.   This close relationship eventually resulted in the construction of the main cathedral and papal palace. It eventually served as the papal seat in the late 1200s.   This continued in various forms until 1860 when the then Italian Kingdom annexed the city state into what would later become the Italian Republic.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

While this turbulent and violent history was no doubt horrible to live through, it did a lot to shape the city we get to enjoy today. One of Orvieto’s most fascinating and unusual features dates back to the papal rule of Popes Clement VII and Paul III between 1527 and 1537. While taking refuge in the city during the sack of Rome in 1527 Clement decided to build a massive well to ensure the security of the town’s water supply while under siege. The result? The Pozzi di San Patrizio, a 10-year project that dug a 175 foot deep well through the butte’s solid rock. At its bottom, the well’s diameter is 43 feet and it has 248 steps in addition to intertwined stairwells (one to go up, one to go down).

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

As I slowly made my way down the 248 steps which were worn by the passage of tens of thousands of feet over the years I found myself acutely aware that I’d have to re-trace each and every one of those steps on my ascent. Keep in mind that while 175 feet doesn’t sound like THAT large a distance, it’s actually the equivalent of a 17-story building. For perspective, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is only 186 feet tall. The well, with its two wrapped staircases and series of windows in many ways feels like an inverted tower except the walls are symmetrical and straight.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

 The entire experience, especially as I neared the bottom and looked back up towards the tiny pinhole of light at the surface, was fantastic and humbling.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

In addition to Pozzo di S. Patrizio, one of my favorite parts of Orvieto was, well, Oriveto.  The city is a warren of winding narrow streets and beautiful alleyways.  While the city walls and the sheer cliff faces that supported them were ample defense in most cases, the city’s rulers decided not to take any risks.  The result is a series of winding streets which while somewhat confusing also do a brilliant job of adding charm and character to the town.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Character which the city’s residents seem to accidenttly complement brilliantly. While I did observe some young people, the majority of the Orvietians I saw around the city were older folks. In typical Italian form they were dressed sharply despite the rain. Some were just out for a casual stroll, others running errands. The result, though, was a city full of people who seemed to reflect and embody the beauty, history, depth and charisma of their city.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

It’s hard to express why specifically but with each of these individuals I felt a slight sense of sadness at the lack of opportunity to pause and explore a piece of their story. To the slight vexation of our guide I found myself continually falling behind to pause and snap a furtive photo before lowering my camera to my side as I  paused and soaked in the personality of the city and its wonderful people.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

However, of all the streets and people I saw in my time in Orvieto, and perhaps Umbria as a whole, the one that truly stole my heart and made me smile most was this wonderful couple. As they slowly made their way up the street, the older gentleman with a cane in hand and his partner’s arm in the other, took slow but careful steps.  Showing the wear of age, it was obvious that each step took him some effort. As they walked slowly both would sway side to side mirroring his steps.  What caught me in particular was the rhythm they seemed to naturally fall into. With each step they would seamlessly and effortlessly sway one way and then the other.  I couldn’t help but muse that this must be a regular ritual, one that they had repeated for years.  They were in sync with each other.  Aligned. It was a wonderful moment to share, even as an outsider looking in, and one I wouldn’t mind finding myself living some 60 or so years from now.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

For me a special part of Italy’s charm is its age. I just adore the well-maintained, oft-repaired but still crumbling, nature of the cities. Perhaps it’s just because I’m from the American West and I have a novel draw to tangible representations of human history. Perhaps, and I should think far more likely, it is adoration based in the fundamental nature of who we are and how we relate to identity, humanity and society. Of the many doorways I passed as I made my way towards Orvieto’s central cathedral, this one caught my attention: reinforced by metal beams, doors ajar and poorly aligned, bricks showing signs of wear and abuse. This is the type of thing I travel for. A small, easily-overlooked piece of a far grander city but one that entices the passerby who pauses to dream; to embrace fanciful musings and to ponder the history of the door. Who were the men and women who built it, who used it, who abandoned it, and who will some day reclaim it. Doors like this one, perhaps more than others, show the vivid fingerprints of history.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Before long I found myself looking up from my camera viewfinder roused from delightful daydreams only to note that the rest of the group was vanishing down a far alley. It was time to leave Orvieto’s winding vibrant streets behind in favor of an intimate look at the city’s crown jewel: Oriveto Cathedral.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Those familiar with Italy may note that the Cathedral mirrors the feel of Siena’s famed Cathedral which was completed in 1263. In many ways the two are siblings. The Duomo di Orvieto was begun in 1290 but it wasn’t officially completed until 1591. Now, how’s that for extended construction delays?

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

As we slowly explored the fantastic detail of the front facade, I was taken by a wonderful series of carvings depicting the embrace of temptation in the garden of Eden. I am always amazed by the masterful control of fine detail and expansive complexity that marks these types of works. While this picture captures a roughly 1 foot by 1 foot section of the wall, the entire piece towered over our heads at least some 15-20 feet.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

The Cathedral features the banded travertine and basalt stripes that make the region’s cathedrals so unique. It always impresses me just how effective the alternating brickwork is in bringing simple, clean, and powerful decoration to what might otherwise be massive but somewhat sterile stone walls.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

The colors of the alternating horizontal stones combine with the Cathedral’s plentiful stained glass windows to cast a veritable rainbow of different colors and shapes on the walls of the building.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

…and then there is the size.  The Orvieto Cathedral is built in a cruciform shape and focuses on a wide open and spacious feel with high, graceful arches and long, narrow windows. The builders knew exactly what they were doing and the end result is you feel small.  Very small.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

An assortment of additions, add-ons, and refurbishments have been done over the years. Perhaps the most noteworthy of which was the Papal Palace which was built immediately next to, and attached to, the Cathedral. Today the Papal Palace has an equally important, if far less powerful role as home to a small museum.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

The highlight of the Cathedral’s interior is the beautifully preserved Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio. Added in the mid-1400s it features vividly colored depictions of doomsday scenes on the walls while Jesus and wise men look down in judgement from the room’s vaulted ceiling. The scenes are by the famous painter Luca Signorelli.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

This wall depicts “The Elect in Paradise” and shows Signorelli’s depiction of paradise with friendly angels relaxing and playing music for the assembled souls.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Another depicts the “Preaching of the Antichrist”. Apparently this was designed to highlight the execution of Savonarola, who was executed in Florence in 1498 for heresy. Of the figures depicted it is believed that Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch, Raphael and even Christopher Columbus are all present.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Signorelli’s mastery of the human figure (though at times somewhat awkward…some of the women look like they have breast implants) is fantastic. Particularly in the diverse nature of each individual’s features. I find that far too often art from this period and in this type of setting tends to take on a sameness. Not so with these. Each could easily be broken down into small sub-scenes and be hailed as a masterpiece in and of itself.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Then there are, of course, the brutal depictions of violence being meted out upon the damned. While I’ve always found these depictions fairly distasteful and morbid, they definitely do succeed in making their point. The vomited laser beams are definitely a nice touch.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Nothing says disaster like people trampling each other in fear, right? The depth of focus, varied body positions and musculature in this scene are fantastic and the seemingly 3D codpieces definitely elicited a slight chuckle from my inner five-year-old.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

My final stop in the Cathedral was the Chapel of the Corporal which serves as home to the blood-stained corporal from the miracle of Bolsena. In addition to the corporal it also boasts a number of beautiful frescoes from the mid-1300s.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

The partial afternoon I had to explore Orvieto was not nearly sufficient.  Of the many streets I saw and wandered there were many more I missed.  I also missed the opportunity to explore Orvieto’s expansive underground city.  The fortress city is the stuff of legends and a wonderful destination for a visit. The view from the fortress walls is engaging and I think you’ll find the city giving flight to your imagination, especially if you catch it on a day when it isn’t clogged with visiting tourists.

An Amazing Meal and Delightful Stroll in Baschi

Life In Umbria, Italy

During my time in Umbria I had the opportunity to enjoy a number of absolutely fantastic meals.  The local tourism board wined me and dined me until I was bursting and could barely move.   Needless to say it was a great chance to engage with Italian food in a way  I had not previously experienced.  As a lactose intolerant traveler with a light gluten allergy, Italy had always been a culinary destination I eyed with suspicion.  Granted, most of the food I enjoyed on this trip wasn’t the usual low-cost eats and street food that aligns with my budget, but it still managed to completely change my relationship with Italian food.  Of the places which treated us to a meal, the absolute best of the lot was Sala della Comitissa in the small picturesque town of Baschi.

Sala Della Comitissa Menu

The restaurant sits near the far point on a hill that looks out over the nearby valley. Access is gained through a long stairway off a small street that is just wide enough for a car to carefully navigate. The entrance is simple, clean, and cozy. With less than 15 tables, Sala della Comitissa makes no pretense about the experience they offer. Their aim is a cozy, elegant meal prepared and served with care and love. Some of the sparsely decorated stone walls are laden with old swords, candles and other distinctly medieval decorations. Others are painted in a natural beige plaster which helps highlight the beautifully set tables that fill the room.

Eating in Umbria

While relatively new, the restaurant was opened in 2010, the approach to tradition and culture is not.  Each table has three types of chairs at it.   Of these, one is gilded and ornate.  This chair is reserved for the guest of honor.  To further allow for guests to honor members of their group, two other chairs offer a second level of distinction in the form of arms, while the remainder of the chairs are comfortable and elegant but lack both the arms, ornate gilding, and rich upholstery of the seat of honor.

Eating in Umbria

Our meal started with a delightful toasted bread with a rich liver pate alla grappa and crushed hazel nuts. The pate was creamy, pungent and awash in flavor.

Eating in Umbria

Next up was a fresh and wonderfully healthy/velvety carrot and ginger puree with rosemary and olive oil-flavored croutons.  This dish was a universal hit around the table and it was fun to watch each of us eye our empty cups strategically, carefully analyzing if  (and hoping that) we’d missed a small spoonful that might be reclaimed.

Eating in Umbria

This was followed by a light and flavorful zucchini flan served with gently salted, perfectly ripened tomatoes, olive oil and crushed fennel. The small flan (though I’m likely misnaming it) was surprising in both its creaminess and lightness. Where I expected it to be dense its texture had more in common with whipped cream. Unfortunately, due to the high dairy content, all I was able to do was sample the dish. Luckily, in anticipation of my cursed lactose intolerant limitations they had a special surprise in store for me.

Eating in Umbria

In place of the dairy-heavy third dish, the chef prepared this special salad for me. What I initially thought was a purely vegetarian (and blissfully dairy free) plate ended up actually being a succulent mixture of shaved wild boar (what looks like cabbage), fresh oranges, olive oil and what I believe was fresh orange all topped with fennel. While I enjoyed all of the plates I had over the course of the meal this one was definitely the most surprising. The flavor was fresh, slightly zesty and simultaneously sweet and salty due to the wild boar. It lit my palate on fire and prepared it perfectly for the next course.

Life In Umbria, Italy

Before we dove into the next course, however, our host graciously invited us into the kitchen for a quick peak. The kitchen is small, cozy, and has just enough room for the three people who were hard at work on the meal. It was clean, orderly, and the focus on quality and freshness was obvious. Greeted with gracious smiles, the kitchen staff was in the midst of preparing a special type of traditional spelt pasta.

Life In Umbria, Italy

The spelt pasta dates back to ancient Roman times and was served with fave beans, little tomatoes, salted ricotta cheese, bacon and a fresh sprig of parsley.  The relatively neutral/subtle taste of the spelt highlighted the flavor of the fave beans, tomatoes and bacon creating a well balanced meal that was both delicious and felt slightly earthy and organic.

Eating in Umbria

This plate was followed by a more easily recognizable ragu.  The traditional ragu was based on the chef’s grandmother’s recipe and featured tagliatelle pasta accompanied by meat raised and butchered nearby.  It is worth noting that all of the ingredients used over the course of the meal were local and seasonal.  The plates we were served were designed to represent both Umbria and the area’s seasonally native foods. It showed in the freshness of the ingredients, their complex flavor, and the well rounded design of the meal as a whole.

Pork Neck in Baschi

Starting to feel more than a little stuffed, the final main course was served.  As a major fan of meat in general I was excited for the opportunity to try what the menu informed us would be pork neck-bones cooked and served in a light sauce with fresh pepper. The pork was so tender it virtually melted on my fork and as you might expect was jam-packed with flavor.  I traded my usual large fork-fulls for small delicate cuts to make each piece last as long as I could.  The neck meat was served with a mixture of local greens.  While they tasted a bit like well-buttered spinach, I believe it was a mixture of wild greens harvested and then steamed for the meal

Desert in Baschi

While the others were served what was by all accounts a wonderful local interpretation of the traditional zuppa inglese I dove into the house’s interpretation of traditional specialty pastries.  These were super sweet, light, and the perfect way to round out what had been a positively delightful meal.

Eating in Umbria

Now one thing I haven’t given nearly enough attention to – but which savvy observers may have noted on the menu – was the wine.  Each course was accompanied by a different local wine! Each of the wines was everything you would expect from a well-selected local Italian wine and went wonderfully with the meal.  The final wine, however, was the one that really caught my attention.  The Calcaia Dolce 2006 from Orvieto was, we were told, a mold wine. Yep, that’s right, mold.  An incredibly potent and sweet wine with an almost brandy or mead-like flavor and feel. The candy wine comes from grapes which are left to ripen on the vine to the point where a special type of grape mold called ‘noble rot’ sets in.  This helps with the fermentation process and results in a sweet desert wine that is the perfect way to round out a meal.

Life In Umbria, Italy

As we carefully stood to thank our hosts for their wonderful hospitality I think more than a few of us secretly loosened our belts a notch. The meal had lasted for three hours and we had delighted in every second.

Life In Umbria, Italy

As we made our way back to the bus we slowly meandered the streets of Baschi. The town embodies the picturesque nature that marks the region and despite a light rain was alive with people going about their daily business.

Life In Umbria, Italy

Situated on a hill, the views out over the nearby fields, forests and countryside quickly left me feeling like I was walking through a dream. Everywhere I looked I was greeted by fairy-tale images which seemed more like the fanciful oil paintings of blissful life in small-town Italy than reality.

Life In Umbria, Italy

With lungs full of fresh humid Italian air I found myself humming happily to myself as I snapped photos and walked the length of the town which took all of five minutes. Once back at the main road we climbed back on the bus and headed off to our next destination for the day: Orvieto…but that’s a story for tomorrow!

What is the best Italian meal you’ve had? Where was it?

Young Wines and Ancient Fields

Umbria - Italian Countryside

A trip to Umbria is incomplete without at least a few hours spent wandering the region’s maze of wonderful country roads. While the Romans may be well remembered for giving us the sterile albeit easy to navigate Roman grid, incredible aqueducts and grand highways it is no doubt that it was Italy’s winding network of country roads that spawned the oft repeated phrase, “all roads lead to Rome”.  Though the mixed clouds that had plagued my visit to Umbria continued to threaten light rain, they gave way fairly quickly to a (mostly) sunny day. Eager to soak up the sun and to see more of the Italian countryside several fellow travel bloggers and I hopped on board a coach and eagerly prepared for a two and a half day tour put on by the region and a number of local businesses.  They had extended an invitation to wine us, dine us, enlighten us, and to showcase and share a brief taste of their region.  A region they were incredibly proud of. A region so jam packed with rich experiences to see and and live that even with the two and a half jam-packed days we had, I feel as though we only just left a smudge on the surface of what’s out there to see.

Umbria - Italian Countryside

Our first stop was the Monte Vibiano Winery located in Mercatello, Italy. Our tour started with a brief introduction just outside the vineyard’s main building and tasting center, before we hopped into several hulking electronic golf carts and set out towards the vineyards.  Though only an 8 minute “drive” away, our path took us up through the small town’s winding streets and along an old country lane where we paused briefly to chat with several local townspeople who were out taking advantage of the sunny weather.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

With knee high boots and snake sticks in hand they were slowly working their way along the hill’s steep incline searching for the fresh asparagus which grows in the grasses around the roots of the ancient olive trees.  The sight brought back memories of my early childhood. Though we moved to Arizona when I was six, I have vague memories of walking the ditches with my Dad near our home in Cortez, Colorado.  The house sat at the end of a long dirt driveway near the end of an old gravel county road. We were off the grid and had to haul our own water.  It was worth it though as the trade-off was 10 acres sandwiched in the midst of another several hundred of wild southwestern land mixed in with a patch-work of fields.  In spring, when things were growing and the snow melt fed the local vegetation, it was often possible to find wild asparagus. We’d pick it and while some made it home for dinner – I remember happily nibbling away on most of it there, on the spot. Though I didn’t get to try any of the Italian asparagus that moment, it wouldn’t be long before I had the opportunity to sample  it as part of some of the local cuisine.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

One thing that caught me by surprise was their caution, and mention of vipers. Though they’ve played a somewhat prominent role in Italian history I have to admit that their concern and mention of the small snakes took me by surprise.  That surprise didn’t last long, however, and quickly gave way to fanciful thoughts of Cleopatra, grand stories of love, adventure, empire, and history.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

I was pulled out of my musings by a call to re-board the carts.  We hopped in, strapped in, and then resumed our climb up the hill before turning down a shrub lined gravel path which cut across the olive orchard towards an old vineyard.  Our host explained that some of the olive trees were hundreds of years old and a quick glance at their gnarled roots quickly confirmed it. It’s amazing to think what those trees have survived. Harsh winters, changing climates, world wars, recessions, the invention of the automobile, the airplane, the space race…and all the while they’ve sat there slowly churning the soil, soaking up the Italian sun, and gorging themselves on the region’s clean water.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

As we rolled to a gentle stop I hopped out of the back of the cart and quickly did a 360, nearly tripping over my own feet in the process.  As we paused, circled around our host in the shade of a large tree, we found ourselves on top of an old retaining wall.  On one side there was the olive orchard.  On the other a relatively young vineyard awash in color and surrounded by old, crumbling stone walls that bespoke great age, but also constant care and repair.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

As it turned out we were standing on an ancient road which dated back nearly 2,000 years and had been used to transport goods overland to the sea. The orchard we were looking at, and quickly set to exploring, had recently been replanted, some 4 years previous, but had been in operation off and on by different groups for several thousand years as well. The rock walls, though often repaired, were of a similar heritage.  We spent a good 20 minutes relaxing and enjoying.  It was gorgeous.  The view out over the vines offered a great panorama of rolling hills and blooming flowers.  The paths between the vines were covered in the vibrant yellow of blooming flowers periodically broken by the white blooms of wildflowers.  Back near the stone walls red poppies and other vibrantly colored wild flowers were also in bloom.  Everything felt fresh.  Alive.  Delightful!

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

Then, as is the way with these types of things it was time to return. We wound back down the gravel lane, past the asparagus pickers, past lazy cats lounging in the doorways of the small town, and then parked next to the vineyard’s main building. Before long we were standing surrounded by walls of large stainless steel vats full of wine in a temperature controlled room and learning about the region’s specialty – the Sangiovese grape, as well as Monte Vibianos wine making process.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

From there it was on to the good stuff….down a winding hallway, set of stairs, and through a magical set of doors to the wine cellar where the wine was eventually taken to age.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

For me, it was a first. While I’ve spent time around old bottles and like to think that I’ve waged a fairly successful lifetime war against full bottles of wine, it was my first time down in the cellar with the casks, which was a fun experience. The air was slightly cooler than I expected and even though it was spotless, the room carried the light scent of young casks accented by the soft twang of young wine.  We paused again briefly as our guide explained the process, some of the grapes used, how long the wine ages, how many times they re-use a cask, and other interesting insights into the wine making process, before heading up to the tasting room to sample each the vineyard’s wine selection.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

The tasting room was beautiful with a wonderful bar back made out of stained wood with inlaid recesses showcasing the vineyard’s wine.  After a quick walk through to visually soak in our surroundings we settled in to comfortable chairs and relaxed.  Before long our hosts served us fresh bred accompanied by their own line of delicious olive oil.  The oil was great, the bread was good, and it was the perfect mid-morning snack to ease us into wine sampling.  A few moments later we were introduced to the first wine, which was also their youngest.  As we slowly worked through samples of each of their other offerings, working our way up to their premier/flagship wine I enjoyed each sample thoroughly.  I found of the five I had a slight personal preference towards their rich reds, which aligns with my general preferences. The chance to taste the wine where it had been made, to walk the vines, and to connect with the history of the area made for a rich experience and one which was extremely enjoyable.

Eventually it was time to tear ourselves away from the olive oil, bread and our emptied glasses of wine. We said our goodbyes and prepared to resume our trip across Umbria’s rich countryside.  It was only a bit past 11:30AM…the day had just begun.

Yerebatan Sarayi – The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

Basilica Cistern (Recovered)

The echoing drip-drip-drip-drop of water falling into a shallow pool.  Voices, footsteps, and the kur-plunk of a fish randomly disturbing the water’s still surface.  This is the bombardment of sounds that greeted my ears as I carefully dodged a low hanging door lintel and stepped down the final steps into the Basilica Cistern.

Basilica Cistern (Recovered)

In preparing for my trip to Istanbul the Basilica Cistern was one of my absolute must-visit destinations.  I didn’t know much about it other than that it looked mystical.  A large underground “lake” buried deep beneath the streets of one of the world’s most influential and ancient major cities.  Cisterns in general have always fascinated me, at least the large ones that can be entered.  I anticipated that it would be interesting, but I didn’t know what to expect. I also had no clue how large the cistern was as most of the photos online are taken from one of two vantage points.  As a result, while I expected Yerebatan Sarayi to be large, the version of “large” I anticipated was small in comparison to the real deal.

Basilica Cistern (Recovered)

This particular cistern in its entirety is massive.  Ancient texts report that 7,000 slaves worked to build the cistern which dates back to the 6th century.  That manpower shows as the cistern covers a space of around 105,000 square feet  with a roof  that is supported by a whopping 336 marble columns.  The Basilica Cistern’s designers had a specific purpose in mind during construction, and the cistern fulfills that purpose beautifully with the capacity to store over 100,000 tons of water.  To put that into perspective a fully loaded 747 airplane typically weighs about 490 tons.  That puts the weight capacity of the cistern at around 204 fully loaded Boeing 747s!!!

Basilica Cistern (Recovered)

The cistern initially drew its water from an aqueduct constructed to connect the cistern with Belgrade Forest some 12 miles away. It was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.  Up until 1985 when the cistern was renovated and the raised walkway was added, visitors would tour the cistern by boat, which I can only imagine added to the ambiance of the experience.  In its current form the water level is kept relatively low (at about 1-3 feet in depth) and the cistern can be toured by use of a series of raised walkways.  While not quite as magical as a wooden row boat, the walkways and current lighting showcase the cistern, its many columns, and its ceiling made out of a system of vaulted arches.

Medusa Head - Basilica Cistern

The two Medusa head columns located at the very back of the cistern are some of the Basilica’s oddities.  These two large-column bases are beautifully carved and believed to date back to the late Roman period.  Beyond that, they are largely a mystery.  As an added curiosity, both have been set strangely, with one installed upside down and the other upon its side.  Experts theorize that this was done out of superstition as a way to defend against the snake-haired monster’s power.  However, more logical theories also suggest they were just used as scrap stone and setup to be as stable as possible with little consideration for the carving that decorated them.  Unfortunately, it is very likely that we’ll never know the true reason.  One thing is for certain – of all the mythical creatures out there, Medusa is definitely one fell beast and I would hate to run into her in a place like Yerebatan Sarayi!

Quick tip: make sure that you don’t miss the final view of the arches (which also happens to be one of the best).  I almost walked right by it as I made my way towards the exit.  It is accessed off the final fork on the raised walkways and is located just before you reach the raised stage area and dead end into the small food shop.  It winds back in towards the center of the cistern along the back wall and offers a more peaceful view of the columns and vaulted ceilings.   

*I apologize for the low quality of the photos in this post. Unfortunately my photos from the cistern were destroyed in a SD card mishap.  The shots I’ve used here are stills taken from video footage I shot.

A Possible Origin for the Scylla and Charybdis Myth

Greek Vista from Nafplio

There is an ancient Greek Myth that recounts the existence of two terrible sea monsters.  The ancient stories tell a tale which describes the narrow straight in which these two monsters dwelt. One was possessed of a great maw through which it would take great gulps of water, sucking in anything and everything nearby three times a day.  The other monster, who lived just across the straight and was also anchored in place possessed great heads that would quickly snatch at and kill any sailor who wandered within range.

Minoan Ruins of Knossos

Sound familiar?  They should! Scylla and Charybdis have become two of the great myths of Greco-Roman Mythology.  They were made famous by Homer in the Odyssey, mentioned in Jason and the Argonauts and vividly described in Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

Underwater Scene in Museum

For those who enjoy mythology, there’s typically a second – equally fascinating – element that being the often factual inspiration for the myth.  Though originally assumed to be uninspired fairy-tales pulled straight from the author’s mind – history has shown us that many of the great events outlined in ancient myths may actually have a factual origin.  A prime example is the re-discovery of Troy. Once thought to be nothing more than myth, archeologists were able to use Homer’s descriptions to not only prove Troy’s existence but re-discover it.

Another example is one of my personal favorites. Though still fairly contested the “Black Sea Deluge Theory” suggests that the Great Flood which appears in a number of religious creation myths may very well have been caused by the relatively sudden collapse of a land dam.  The flooding that ensued would have drastically altered the landscape, and may have claimed entire cities which in turn would have generated the myth that the entire world had been flooded as part of God’s wrath.

Greek Statue of Poseidon

The common opinion surrounding Scylla and Charybdis focuses mostly on the straight that these two sea monsters dwelt in, and does little to take into account what inspired the monsters themselves.  To this end, most believe that the straight mentioned in the myth is the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Calabria, in Italy. Frankly, I haven’t thought too much about the myth or its origins since I visited Greece in 2007.

Until, that is, earlier today when I stumbled onto a video clip of the Kavachi Volcano in the Solomon Islands.  Kavachi is one of the most active submarine volcanoes in the world and has been toying with the idea of breaking the surface and becoming a full fledged island for nearly 100 years.  As I watched the footage of eruption as it broke the surface in what appeared to be the middle of the ocean it hit me from somewhere deep in my subconscious.

If I was floating along in a boat thousands of years ago, didn’t know better, and suddenly found myself face to face with hissing, steaming, smelly water boiling up towards the surface with tons of dirt and mud in tow I’d have been more than willing to believe I was coming face to face with a sea monster.  Especially if the undersea eruption damaged the boat, or broke the surface long enough to launch molten lava bombs towards the ship.  I was quite possibly looking at a very probable inspiration for Scylla and Charybdis.

The Acropolis

As I toyed with the idea I quickly started to put two and two together.  Was there volcanic activity in the area and during the period of time leading up to the writing of the Odyssey? You better believe it.  One need only look to what’s left of the Island of Santorini for confirmation that Greece had a volcanic history. A volcanic history that had been fairly active in the period leading up to Homer’s writing.   Though less likely, there’s also a similar history of volcanism in the area around Napals and Sicily adding to the possibility of some sort of underwater eruption several thousand years ago.  No doubt most are familiar with the land based eruption of the volcano near Pompeii, and others may be familiar with the current eruptions of the Sicilian volcano Mt. Etna.

What’s your take?  Have information of your own to share?  Chime in and leave a comment!

Pisa, the Cinque Terre & Verona

Before I start up again I just want to make a side note that hostels really are odd places. Last night was the worst hostel experience I think I’ve had thus far. Though that sounds overly negative as the vast majority of my hostel-based experiences have been fantastic. Due to the ridiculous nature of the experience I feel it’s worth mentioning. It occurred here in Trento at the local hostel. The hostel itself is great, 14 Euro for a clean bed in a 7 bed room with an attached bathroom and shower. The catch was, that I was the youngest in the room by a good 15 years. Initially I figured that would mean it was going to be a quiet night. If only…About 2 hours after I got there and checked in I returned to the room to find two guys arguing over which bed was which. The bunks in the unit were poorly marked and the two spent a good 20 minutes at least passionately discussing who got the cot. One of the guys may have been drunk and was annoying and over the top. The other was from Albania and turned out to be the only sane guy in the room.

As the argument over the bed finally was grudgingly resolved peace temporarily returned. I went for a walk, wrote an update, then got back to the place and prepared to go to bed. I had a nice chat with the Albanian guy who was in Italy working as a hotel concierge. The conversation was constantly interrupted by the Italian guy who had also been involved in the previous bed debate. He tried to debate geo-political and religious issues with me…in Italian. Those conversations wound down and we prepared to go to sleep. Another older, portly fellow had showed up during the discussion and made a B-line for bed. Shortly after we finished our discussion two other men showed up. One was a thin older gentleman who was probably in his 60s, the other was a rather large, cartoonesque looking man that I would put in his late 40s. The larger guy smelled horribly and as luck would have it…ended up in the bunk underneath mine. Those of you who know me can guess how thrilled I was. Think it ends there? Oh, not even close.

We turned off the lights and went to bed…turns out the guy underneath me and the other gentleman on the other side of the room snored…that I could have dealt with but these two managed something closer to a bellow than a snore. The older gentleman’s apparent response was to randomly shout what sounded like a dog noise. That collectively made it difficult to sleep…as if one wasn’t keeping me up…the other was waking me up. An odd phenomenon which was made that much more interesting as the original drunk Italian guy had his phone volume way up and somehow received 3 calls during the course of the night. Why he was getting phone calls at 3 in the morning…I don’t want to know. Even THAT should have been enough, but the night got that much more spectacular around 3:30 when the larger individual underneath me went from snoring to yelping, shouting and muttering. He jumped out of bed, frantically ran over to the light switch and turned on every light in the room. He then rustled through his bag for something…presumably some sort of pills. Five or so minutes later the lights went back off and things returned to normal. Needless to say, tonight I paid an extra 6 Euro for a private room!

Now that I’ve shared/vented on to the stuff that really counts.

From Florence Emily and I caught a cheap train to Pisa. There we figured out that we had a 1 hour layover before we split up. She was headed back to Milan/school and I was off to the Cinque Terre. We got off the train, made our way to the local bus, figured it out and caught it out to the cathedral and tower. We had about 20 minutes to poke around the grounds, take in the sights, take funny pictures holding up the tower and do the general tourist thing before jumping back on the bus and making it back with about 10 minutes to spare. The leaning tower is an incredible thing. The degree to which it leans really is fascinating. One of the best parts was the lack of weights or other obstructions around the base of the tower. When I had been there in ’95, in an effort to save the tower, they had large blue weights and fencing all around the bottom. This time the only thing that marred the tower’s beauty was a small set of netting around one stage of the tower.

From Pisa my train took me to La Spezia which is one of the mid-sized towns just off of the Cinque Terre. I had initially planned on using La Spezia as my base of operations, from which I’d planned to take quick day trips out to the Cinque Terre and surrounding country side. However, to my dismay there were no hostels or one star hotels around that had availability. A bit frustrated and unsure what to do I finally found someone who suggested a hostel located in the 2nd City – Manarola – along the Cinque Terre. I paid the 2 euro for a quick train pass and made my way there.

The train station for the town is located in a different cove than the town itself and connected by a long foot tunnel that goes directly through the mountain. I inquired at the station and then made my way to the hostel. It was located at the top of the town, which also was towards the back of the cove and at a significantly higher elevation than the water/train station. Oblivious to the beauty, I was on a mission and in dire need of a place to stay. The sun was starting to set and it had been a long day. I got to the top, found the hostel and was relieved to find an affordable room. I booked two nights, threw my stuff down, and headed back into town to explore a bit. I picked up some water, something to nibble on and then made my way down to the docks.

The town itself is tiny and you can walk from one end to the other in about 8 minutes. It would take less time if not for the steep hill it was built on. There is one main street, which is a raised/paved section that appears to run over an old stream which still runs under the road. As a result, as you walk down it you can constantly hear the sound of falling water. The terraced hills on either side are covered by grape vines and the town itself is full of small gardens that are green with flowers, kiwi vines, grape vines and fruit trees.

The harbor itself is a small thing, with a small breakwater and a path that winds down through 15 vertical feet or so of black jagged rocks. The water was a crystal clear blue as the sun set. The sea was calm, as the rose light of the sunset cast everything in hues of reds and gold. All the while the sea sparkled richly as golden light lit a stretch of it up. When the sun finally set I finished my conversation with two older Australian travelers also staying in the hostel and made my way back up. I ate a plate of penne, then headed to my room to read my book for a bit. The hostel was very quiet and far from a party hostel, as a result I took it easy.

The next morning I was up and out the door by 10. The day was slightly overcast but still bright, inviting and friendly. It suggested a sunny afternoon. I picked up a 1.5 liter bottle of water and told myself that it needed to be done and gone by the time I finished the hike. The water was smooth, the air slightly crisp. The fresh scent of the ocean filled my nose as I gleefully made my way down to the harbor and began my walk along the path as it traces its way along the coast between the villages. The water was clear with what I would guess was about 15 feet of visibility. The rocks a beautiful dark color. The hillside itself was a beautiful mixture of colors. The area between each town slightly different. The path traces along usually between 15 and 50 feet above the water. Though at some points, usually as you get closer to the towns, it climbs up the mountainside to considerable heights.

The walk itself is far from easy, but is well worth the energy. It snakes its way up and down the hillside with no apparent consideration for a hiker’s weary feet. In some points you are surrounded by low bushes and cactus laden with ripe red fruit…at other points you wind your way through olive groves that shade the path and cover it in the dark stains of fallen/smashed olives. At other points the path meanders through the small towns themselves as they perch, sometimes precariously on the side of the hills and at other times you find yourself in the midst of rich gardens, vineyards, and fern-covered valleys cut by tiny creeks that cascade down the hills. The towns themselves are something else. All of them are tiny, sandwiched onto the mountainside and they barely have room for a train station. More often than not the stop stretches into the tunnel.

The buildings are beautiful, picturesque things painted different colors, with laundry hanging from the balcony wherever there are not flowers or other random objects present. Most of the towns also have several cats which keep a lazy watchful guard on the tourists as they wander through. Because the tourist season has wound down many of the smaller fishing and tour vessels are pulled up and have tarps over them. They litter the streets around the harbor and add to the ambiance. The vineyards are incredible as they dot the rugged sides of the hills. It’s hard to imagine walking along harvesting the grapes. It seems like country created for goats…not men.

As I was walking I began talking to a couple moving at a similar pace. The conversations started and we ended up walking to the train together. Their pace was a little slower than mine would have been had I continued on my own. I figured that was probably a good thing as it encouraged me to pause and look at things I might otherwise miss or breeze by. The conversation wandered about as much as the path, which was nice. Something that both distracted slightly from the walk and my surroundings and by doing so enhanced my appreciation. It’s always been one of those things that truly frustrates me…the balance between experiencing and seeing everything you want to…and should see…and the glaze-over effect that goes with it where you start to loose appreciation.

After making my way to the last village I poked around a bit, got something to munch on and then caught a train back to La Spezia where I walked around with hopes of finding a book store with English books. As tends to happen while on the road, I’d forgotten that it was Sunday. As a result most of the book stores etc. were all closed and those that were open were too small to have an English section with anything I was interested in reading. I snagged a second dinner and waited for the train. It got back right as the sun was setting which gave me a chance to wander down to the docks again where I took it in and sipped on my water. From there I headed back up to the hostel and settled in for a quick nap. An Australian fellow I’d met the day before and who I shared the room with was doing the same and we ended up chatting for what ended up being a few hours. Apparently we both loved to talk and managed to talk about the most peculiar things… from fishing stories to stupid traveling antics. I think both of us were just bored, eager to chat instead of read, and wishing there was something more to do at night in the town. He was quite the character, a rough Australian from the north country…he was missing a few teeth and had some crazy stories.

Ahh, one other point – this one’s for Dad. As I wandered through the olive groves I thought back and chuckled at the time when we were all walking it as a family back in ’95. Dad, I just want you to know that for old times sake I reached up, picked a raw olive and ate it. It tastes every bit as bad as it did then and the taste stayed with me for a good hour!.

From the Cinque Terre I made my way northeast to Verona arriving around 6 in the evening. During the trip however I stopped briefly at Sestri Levante where I took two hours to walk around and made my way down to the beach. There is an old picture of me and Nate taken there years ago on the previous trip. In the photo we are both sitting on a big rock looking out to the sea. I had hoped to re-locate the rock and snap an updated photo…though it would have been different without Nate there. Unfortunately, I could not locate the rock but snapped a few off on the beach anyhow.

Darkness was settling over Verona when I arrived. The air was cold and humid, it had rained slightly recently and was threatening to do so again. I duplicated my now well established ritual for rough landings. I gave myself a bit to get my bearings and prepared myself for the stress of trying to find a place with no clue where to start by grabbing a Big Mac…ironically enough one of the few meals in Italy that actually fills me up and leaves me satisfied. After finishing my meal I hiked up my pants and wandered out the front door. I saw a sign for a hotel that was nearby and started towards it…100 yards or so later I was at what turned out to be a 3 star hotel. Frustrated and starting to feel a bit stranded I headed inside to investigate their cheapest room. 70 Euro wasn’t going to work, but the concierge was incredibly helpful. She looked up a hostel for me (I wasn’t even aware there was one in Verona) and even called ahead for me. Then directed me to a cheap taxi which got me there for 6 Euro.

The hostel itself was an odd thing…an old manor house of sorts. The dorms were in a long room with low vaulted ceilings. The hostel had a lockout at 12:00PM and closed the doors between 9:30 and 5:00. The bathrooms were down in a weird basement and the showers were old, school, gym-style group showers. I wasn’t thrilled about the place, but I was really excited to have a bed. I dumped my stuff off and set into the city to find an internet cafe and explore a bit. The good news…Verona is an incredible city. The bad news…there are no internet cafes…at all.

I walked down the old cobblestone streets and made my way eventually to one of the main bridges into the old town. As I approached it I was greeted by an incredible sight. It was dark out, crisp, and slightly damp. The water was running smoothly which provided a glassy surface. That surface reflected both a beautifully lit bridge and an old romanesque building with a tower and large beautiful dome framed by spear-shaped trees. It was a stunning sight, one that caused me to pause, stand against the stone railing and watch the river run by below me.

The bridge itself, when I finally continued on, turned out to be a pedestrian bridge that led into the old city. There I wandered the city streets aimlessly. It was about 8 o’clock in the evening. I’m quickly growing to love late night walks through European cities… especially ancient Italian ones. There are usually very few people around, the buildings have a majestic look to them, especially those made out of marble. The yellow lights, and everything else that goes with them, creates magical walks. Parts of the city were alive, others were ghostly quiet. I enjoyed both equally. Eventually I found myself at the old colliseum. It was lit by neon rose lights which highlighted the ruins and served as a subtle reminder of the blood that must have been shed there so many years ago. As I wandered along I found my way back to the river and there walked past a cathedral built in the red brick Veronesque style. With it behind me, there were golden colored trees that lined the path along the river. It offered another beautiful view looking back the way I had initially come.

That night was an an annoying one. I shared the dorm with two other random travelers and a large group of what I assume was some sort of French school group…though I think they were also some sort of a religious group as most were dressed in very conservative full body outfits (men and women) and none of the girls were showing much skin. That didn’t stop them, however, from being incredibly loud and annoying. It cemented my dislike for the hostel. The next morning I rose early after trying to sleep through the racket they were raising. I made the decision to see as much of Verona as I could and then that I would head out and make my way to Venice. There I hoped I could find a room over Halloween. Initially, I had hoped to use Verona as a base from which I could explore the northern country (Bolzano, Trento etc.) but now turned my eye toward Venice.

I put my backpack in storage and set off to see Verona by daylight. It was gorgeous. The architecture is fantastic and you can see the power and wealth that must have radiated from the city several hundred years ago. I made my way to the castle which is a beautiful red bricked creation with tulip-leaved castle walls. The bridge that leads into it is beautiful and has been used in several movies. As I crossed over it and looked at the castle I had the scenes from the movies playing through my mind.

Unfortunately it was raining off and on throughout the day which hindered my exploration somewhat. Despite the rain I walked back through many of the areas I had covered the night before and eventually found the balcony that has been attributed to Juliet. There I paused and enjoyed the beauty of the small area and chuckled inwardly as young kids and adults alike posed for photos next to the bronze statue of Juliet that sits below the balcony. The bronze statue has had the right breast worn to a shiny hue as people slap/grab it for good look as they pose with it.

I’m not sure why but I remembered the balcony and square being a lot different from when I’d been in Verona when I was younger. Then i would swear it had been on the opposite side of the small yard and that it had only been 5 or so feet off the ground. This one was on the opposite side and a good 15 feet up. The walls of the tunnel leading into the courtyard are covered in graffiti…from names to lover’s pacts. Even if it’s not real it’s a fantastic spot.

I made my way back through town and got my bag, then caught the bus through the rain to the train station where I caught a regional train to Venice.

There I’ll leave you for now. I’m off to catch my train back to Florence. Because of the hostels there and since I missed the Uffizi the first time I’ve decided to try and use it as a central base to explore the region around it. I may change my mind, but hopefully it will work out well.

Ciao!

Florence, Italy

After an exhausting train and ferry ride I eventually arrived in Florence. I had pushed hard in order to ensure that I arrived in time to meet up with an old College/dance friend studying outside of Milan. I arrived Wednesday evening and had set up a meeting time & place the following day. Because I’d spent so much time traveling and the trip on the ferry had been somewhat last minute I had failed to book a hostel online. That meant that upon my arrival I had a bit of an adventure ahead of me. It was getting later and of course, raining. I made my way to the first computer cafe i could find and printed off the location of two hostels. After wandering around a bit, I eventually found them. Unfortunately, both were fully booked. So, with two one star hotels marked on a map the concierge had given me I set out into the cold rain again and eventually found one with a room for one night. I snatched it up, though a little more expensive, it was still reasonable. The hotel itself though was garbage…loud, cold, with a lockout, odd hours and minimal services. I thawed out a bit then struck out to find food, ate and called it a night.

The next morning I found an internet cafe, a kebab shop and set to checking to make sure there had been no changes to Emily and my rendezvous spot/time and to write a blog update. That took most of the morning and by three o’clock I made my way to the train station where with only a little difficulty, Emily and I found each other. It’s amazing how the internet, e-mail and cellphones have changed things. Traveling without a cell phone, or a phone of any sort for the matter, really has emphasized the differences in how we do things, plan things and how different it is when we get separated or have to meet someone.

After a funny adventure and inquiring at a few locations where we repeatedly got offered the marital suite, we found another one star hotel with two single beds and reasonable room prices in a great location. It served as our base for the two remaining nights we would stay in Florence. We dropped off our bags, then set out to explore the city and get some food. As we walked we quickly found the main Cathedral which was beautiful, the streets despite a light drizzle, were still energized and exciting. Eventually, we found our way to the main bridge where we paused and took in the sight for a long while. The river was beautiful, the bridge lit up as the sun set. The bridge, laden with shops, is full of windows and odd protrusions where rooms have been added or extend out over the water. To either side the buildings are a tight mixture of various colors, designs and levels. The windows have beautiful shutters and often plants or vines. The sun was such that it reflected serenely on the river below.

From there we returned to the hotel, found a small store, picked up some wine and relaxed after a long and event-filled day.

The next morning we woke up early eager to see all of the sights and make the most of our only full day in Florence. We set off by foot wandering through the city streets. As in so many other cities they are a fun/beautiful mixture of cobblestones, sidewalks, parks and old buildings full of character. First we made our way north toward the castle, which was extremely disappointing. The castle walls are made out of red brick, but lack any real definition or flair. Inside of the castle walls is a small mishmash of modern buildings and warehouse like museums. All in all a dud so we quickly moved on and headed south toward the Academia that houses the David. However, there the line was rather ridiculous and eager to be as efficient as possible with our time (and not stand in the rain) we decided to return later. Museums & major sights are typically best seen after 3 as that is when, in my experience, most tourists are starting to wind down, having started early and gone straight to the major sights.

From there we made our way south to the Cathedral which is an incredible sight. In addition to its sheer size, the colored marble is fantastic and adds life and flavor on a majestic scale. As we made our way around it we eventually headed inside. The inside is no where near as ornate or well decorated as many other European cathedrals, but in place of that ornateness the Cathedral offers sheer size. It is an incredibly large open space that leaves one feeling dwarfed. You could easily fit several small buildings inside of it and I won’t even bother trying to guess the height of the vaulted ceilings. With the large clock on the wall above the entrance it almost feels as though the inside of the Cathedral is a town square in a lesser town. In fact, as I reflect on it, it almost felt as though there was not a roof at all, but rather just a set of tall buildings enclosing the area.

As we exited the Cathedral we walked straight across to the beautiful bronze-gold colored doors that are famous for the sculpture work carved into them. The quality and brilliance of the artwork on them lived up to my memories and expectations. From there we headed back towards the river and the Ponte Veccio, but before we got there found a large square that houses part of the Uffizi. There there were a number of large marble reproductions of the David and other famous pieces. We looked at the pieces, snapped some photos, and took in the tower and architecture of one of the palacial buildings on the square before looking for the entrance to the Uffizi.

There we found something I never thought I’d see and which I didn’t think possible. I suppose it was one of those, only in Italy moments. The Uffizi was closed for the day, the reason? The Museum was on strike. Frustrated and dismayed we continued on to Ponte Vecchio and crossed it. The wooden shutters that they use on the shops there are really neat…dark aged wood with metal hinges…they look a bit like the sides of carriages built into each other.

With gellato in hand we continued to the large gardens north of the bridge located in the old palace. There we took in the sites, but decided to hold off on paying the outrageous entrance fee. Instead, we backtracked slightly and headed down along the river. From there we took a side street thinking it led to another set of gardens. While it did not, it wound up to the top of a larger hill which offered a beautiful look out over Florence. There we took in the city, the bridges, the duomo and other main sites before making our way back down toward the river. Once there we found a small market and picked up a snack which we ate in a small park besides the river. Tired but eager to finish the day out we headed back to see the David and walked in without a line.

There were 3 things that stood out in the museum above the rest. The first was of course the David itself. The way it is framed, lit, and its size truly is magnificent, especially when one considers that it is carved entirely from the same piece of stone. There is no denying the fantastic level of skill required to complete the task, or the beauty of the end result. The veins on his hands, the expression in the muscle and the pose. As you walk around him the entirety of the presence changes. Each new vantage point offers a different form and each is equally impressive.

The second element I found fascinating was a set of 6 sculptures he had also created. However, these initially appeared incomplete. The figures themselves were at best only halfway carved. The effect that the pose and composition had was fantastic as the figures appeared to be evolving out of the marble. The end result were figures every bit as powerful, if not more so than a completed sculpture.

The third thing I found really interesting came in the form of historical text attached to one of the frescoes. The text noted that the fresco had been designed as part of the introduction of religious dogma that described Jesus birth as an immaculate conception. It stated that the concept had been widely introduced in the 1500s and then adopted as official church doctrine in the 1850s by Pope Pius. A fascinating bit of information I had no idea about, and which I thought added to my understanding of religion in general and how it evolves.

There were also a number of religious paintings, molds done in the 1800s of major sculptures and a large musical instrument exhibit full of incredibly carved instruments. Some were covered in ivory and gem stones, others were covered completely in intricate carvings and designs. All were beautiful.

From there we returned for a quick nap, before heading back out to catch the bridge at night. The night time beauty of Ponte Vecchio is incredible. There, in a light drizzle, we walked along the water front as it was lit by street lamps done in the old style. Before long we were both humming singing in the rain and skipping along. All in all it was a beautiful day and a magical evening as we explored the city.

The next morning we woke up early eager to go and see the Uffizi before we left for Pisa and points beyond. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived the Uffizi had a line that would have taken hours to clear. Frustrated we explored the leather market and the city for a bit before catching our train to Pisa.

There I’m afraid I have to leave off.

Split, an Island, and a taste of Dubrovnik

Island of Broc - Croatia

The bus I caught from the waterfalls ended up being a regional slow-moving one. Its route took it down rural roads and through small villages. The up side of which was an exceptional view of the Croatian countryside. The downside of which was an added hour plus to the bus ride. After four hours on the thing my legs were cramped, I was tired, hungry, and anxious. The hostel I had reserved a spot closed their reception at 8PM unless you had e-mailed ahead, which I hadn’t as I fully expected to arrive closer to 5 than 9.

The city of Split itself is fairly large, much larger in fact than I expected. The old town however is tiny and ironically enough, much smaller than I expected. The good news was the bus station was located right by the ferry station/port and right next to the old town. I’ve hinted and flat out mentioned it before – but I suppose this is another prime example…I’m doing everything by the seat of the ol’ pants so of course I had no clue where the hostel was, lacked a map and only vaguely remembered the hostels name (it was easy after all…Split Hostel…I was in Split and it WAS a hostel…soo yeah go me).

Split - Croatia

I quickly found an over-priced internet cafe, paid for 10 minutes, printed a HORRIBLE map off their website and set off to find the place at a bisque pace (it was already 8:40). Split is a fascinating city, it’s also incredibly confusing – but more on that later. I wandered around, ended up completely overshooting where I was going and was thoroughly confused as to where exactly I was. I asked a local, who in the drop of a hat set to helping me find the place. He had recently started English lessons as was eager to gain a little experience talking to me. He wasn’t sure where the hostel was, but together we wandered around the heart of the old town for a few minutes. Eventually, he asked another local, who joined up and also set to helping locate the place. The newcomer split off after taking us to another square and seeing things were in hand. This left the original local and I to locate the small alley behind a magazine stand that led to the hostel. Relieved to be there and to have met such incredibly warm and friendly people, I said my thanks and wandered up the stairs to the hostel.

Roman Palace in Split, Croatia

Luckily the place was still open. I walked past the small courtyard in front which was full of hostel residents all gathered around drinking and getting to know each other. I then paid for my room, dropped off my stuff and set to introducing myself. I joined the others out on the patio and practically threw myself at the stool I was going to sit on. Collapsing in an exhausted, relieved heap, I introduced myself and as often occurs in a good hostel was immediately part of the group. We all socialized a bit, then all set off to a nearby bar. There we settled in and closed the place down, mixing, mingling and exchanging wild stories.

The next morning I’d dedicated to checking out one of the local islands. First though I started out by exploring Split a bit. Split (the old town) is an incredible city. Located beside the harbor it shows obvious signs of being a major tourist haven but has a more aged and historical feel to it as well. Home to arguably the last (or second to last) western Caesar it was once a beautiful palace. It has also served as a major fortification and general city. The old town itself is an odd mix of old buildings and marble-paved streets. The city is (IMHO) designed to be defended from military attack. The old city is tiny – a 5 minute walk will get you across it. However, it is a crazy mix of tiny streets, small squares, alleyways and stone structures.

Split - Croatia

The city is designed to both confuse and limit successful troop movement. Even if an invading force were 10 times that of the defenders they would easily become lost in the warren of small streets and alleyways. At some points only 1 person can walk down the street, while others allow for a spacious 3 or perhaps even 4. All the while invaders would be exposed to rooftop assault. Its often hard to tell if you are turning into a small walkway that will dead end, or a dead end that turns out to be the entrance to a large courtyard with 3 or 4 other exits and entrances. It took me quite a bit to figure out the lay of it and it was not until I started exploring every small, odd, tiny little crack in the walls that I truly got to explore the city. The streets themselves are made of a marble-like stone and washed every night creating a clean, uniform feeling to things.

Island of Broc - Croatia

Cats – Croatian cities have tons of cats. It’s fantastic and while the cats are arguably wild they are clean, well kept and well fed. I heard it rumored that they were partially there to keep the snake, rat, and pigeon populations under control. Many of the locals leave food out for them and the rest they catch and scavenge. As a cat lover, it was great having beautiful cats all over the place. In many ways cities like Split and Dubrovnik belong more to the cats than to the people.

Island of Broc - Croatia

After exploring Split and finding some food, I returned to the hostel where I bumped into 3 of the girls I’d talked to a bit the night before. They had missed their initial ferry and were preparing to catch a later one to a different (and closer island). I inquired about the island and their plans and they invited me along. It fit with my plans and seemed like a good idea so I grabbed my bag and out the door we raced. We caught the ferry and headed to the island of Brock. A windy and cold hour or so later we unloaded off the boat into a small town. I’d heard some of the other guys that had done the island the day before talk about renting a car or scooter. Eager to see the island and countryside the girls and I quickly decided to give it a try. For $20 each we got an automatic car for the day. One of the girls offered to drive and I took up the co-pilot’s seat map in hand. The island itself it turned out was…well an island and a small one at that, which, worked perfectly for us allowing us to see about half of it during the course of the day.

Island of Broc Coast Line

Our first stop was about 5 minutes outside of town along the coast. We raced down to the jagged stone beach and snapped a few photos before resuming our 7 km trip to the next town. There we parked the car and explored a picturesque little village with a quiet harbor. There were very few people around and no other tourists. The town itself was pristine. Surrounded by olive groves, vineyards, and orange trees it was nestled in a small valley. The harbor was framed by palm treas and the entire village was covered in pomegranate trees, kiwi trees and grape vines…all interlaced with beautiful red and sandy-colored blossoms on large bougainvillea type vines. Everything was in bloom and I was reminded of the old movies and sailors tales of island paradises where you could roam around picking fruit right off the vine while the waves gently rolled in. We walked about and I had the epiphany that kiwis actually grow on vine-like trees. Not really sure where else I thought they would grow, but…well…sometimes its the little details that get you.

We piled back into the car and started inland. The roads were narrow and wound through the countryside. The island itself is incredibly rocky and once you get away from the water only suitable for vineyards on terraced mountainsides and rugged olive groves. We wound up to a small village that the map said had a museum and an old castle. Upon arriving we found the old monastery locked and paid the admittance fee for the small museum. There a younger Croatian woman, who spoke incredible English, shared the island’s history with us…from its early greco-roman residents…to the Napoleonic wars when a Croatian commander sank several English war ships. Her eyes positively shone with love of country and history.

We left the old converted house and then realized that one of the buildings we had walked by – thinking it was another (though larger) house – was in fact the remains of the old castle. Most of it had fallen or been incorporated into other things but once you knew what you were looking at its original pedigree was unmistakable. As we took it in, an old Croatian lady that didn’t speak any English, came in and beckoned for us to join her. The castle as it turns out was her home and after walking us around it briefly (it was a tiny thing, no larger than a normal home in the states) she led us to a cellar-barn area full of large vats and with a small table set up. On the table there was an odd assortment of water bottles and old plastic coke bottles filled with two different substances. One of the substances was homemade olive oil. She poured us a spoonful to sample and the rich taste was fantastic. Then with a playful gleam in her eye she poured a sampling of the other – it was clear and in bottles with rosemary in it. Elegantly displayed despite being housed in an odd assortment of old water bottles. The first girl took a sip and immediately her eyes bulged and she began to cough. The bottles contained a local alcohol. I forget the exact name but its something like Rakleon. It tastes like rubbing alcohol (with a taste of rosemary) and definitely had a bit of a kick. We all tried both, then decided we could not/did not want to purchase the two. Only slightly disappointed she then asked if we wanted to try vino.

More manageable and eager to try a bit she walked over to a huge glass vase and poured a sample. The wine was a deep red. If you held it up to the light the sunlight would be hard pressed to make its way through. Deeply tasting of grapes but not overly bitter – or sweet it had a sound taste. The price for a 2 liter bottle was $4. As much because I wanted to repay her kindness (and salesmanship) as out of eagerness to try the homemade wine, the girls and I each picked up a two liter. The old lady was delighted, pouring from the huge vase into a funnel that filled the old plastic bottles. She then threw in a few ripe pomegranates for us to enjoy with the wine. Delighted we said thank you and left, piling back into the car and on a mission to find food. We wandered to the next village down which was the 2nd largest we had seen we parked the car again and found one of the only open food places we had seen. A small pizza place by the old harbor. We ate, then explored the town a bit. It was gorgeous and closely resembled the other, except that it had a soccer field and there were more people out and about.

Relaxing on Broc in Croatia

We made our way out and about once again winding up to a tiny town on a hillside with a small chapel. There we took a few quick photos, had a brief conversation with a mule, and then decided to head back towards town to eat our pomegranates and drink our wine. We found a spot, sheltered from the cold wind, on the protected side of the breakwater and dove into our pomegranates. Before long we were all sporting blood-red noses, hands, and stained mouths. The pomegranates and wine tasted great. With about an hour and a half left to kill we decided to explore the northern end of the island. Driving in a huge loop we wound up and toward the center of the island on tiny streets. Some were on the edge of small cliffs. At times it was a pretty exhilarating experience as the roads were tiny, the locals drove incredibly fast, there were no lines and the edge of the road ended with an immediate drop off the side of the cliff. In many places there were no guard rails and others lacked even so much as a 1 inch shoulder. The island was beautiful.

Roman Tower in Split, Croatia

Eventually we found our way back to the port safe and sound, put in a little gas and returned the car. We piled onto the ferry and headed back to Split. That night we all went out, watched the England-South Africa rugby cup then contented ourselves enjoying the evening.

The next day I spent relaxing, napping, hiding from the rain and exploring the city. My brunch was a rotisserie chicken and an apple purchased at the local outdoor market. The market itself was a fun mix of butcher shops, produce tables and florists. While most of the butcher shops were actually shops I did see one merchant with two halves of a sheep or goat laid out in the bisque morning air on a folding table. It’s definitely a wonderfully different world than back home. I hiked to the high point and overlooked the city, then meandered through the inner city a bit more. That night a good group of us got together and did the hostel thing.

As I talked to a few of the guys at the hostel we all discovered that we were heading to Dubrovnik at about the same time. We formed a small group (there were 4 of us) and made our way to the bus, then struggled through the 6 hour bus ride to Dubrovnik in the very south of Croatia.

I heard a lot of people compare Dubrovnik to Split but I found it to be very different. Surrounded by an intact old city wall, the old city itself was beautiful but more organized, cleaner, and I would say touristy. That said, time is up and my fingers are tired. I’ll tell Dubrovnik’s tale as soon as I get the chance to write another update.