Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Lots of Italian cities are a mix of the ancient and the modern. But visiting Verona, more than any of the other cities, is like taking a stroll though multiple centuries in succession. We visited Ancient Roman ruins, a thirteenth century castle, and a sixteenth/seventeenth century garden. And along the streets, interspersed with shops and boutiques, the likes of which you might see in New York or Chicago, were the centuries-old homes of Romeo and Juliet.

One of the first sites we stopped at was the Teatro Romano, where an early Christian monastery had been built on an around some ancient Roman ruins. The monastery now houses a museum full of Roman and Etruscan artifacts found in Verona and the surrounding areas from the first century BC through the seventh AD.

Next stop was my number one must-see for Verona: the Giusti Gardens. It was marvelous. This garden was designed to gently lead visitors on a seemingly random path that gradually leads higher and higher, to increasingly impressive views of the city, lending a sense of authority and influence to the family who lived in the villa you see in the background.
The path is sort of hidden so you can't see where it's going, and there are little alcoves and grottoes built into the landscape here and there. It's pretty cool. The stone dragon face you see looming over the stairway in the picture below used to spout fire from its mouth. These guys were all about wowing their guests.
There was also a labyrinth made of shrubbery in one part of the garden. Heidi and I decided to race to the center of the maze. Heidi won...
I came in second. One of the most delightful things about Verona is how everyone gets swept away with the idea of a Romeo and a Juliet having possibly lived there hundreds of years ago. As Heidi and I walked through the archway that leads from the modern shop-lined street into the courtyard of La Casa di Giulietta, we saw hundreds and hundreds of love messages (which apparently include "Bern + Aleta" a couple of times) graffiti-ed on the stone. Here's a view of the house with the famous balcony:

You can't tell from the picture, but there are mobs of people in the courtyard here, many of them waiting for their chance to have their picture taken next to a statue of Juliet. We managed to get a few snapped sans the many adolescent boys and girls surrounding it. As you can see from the highly polished areas, poor Juliet has been fondled to pieces. I think my favorite moment of the day was when a boy who looked about thirteen and sweet as can be took his turn next to the statue and hesitantly put his hand on Juliet's shoulder for about half a second before he decided he was too shy to do that and just clasped his hands in front of him for the picture.

Verona also boasts the final resting spot of Juliet. Here is the tomba di Giulietta:

So sad. Romeo's resting place is apparently somewhere else. Poor Juliet! (and poor Juliet's statue!) For the record, apparently Shakespeare based his play on a novel of sorts by a guy who reportedly used the Verona city chronicles as his source material.

Finally, we walked over to the colosseum on our way to the train station. Unfortunately, we couldn't go inside because there was a KISS concert happening there that night. That explained all the black t-shirts and funny face paint we had been seeing all day.

Two other adventures from the day deserve mention. The first was Heidi and I realizing that we had eaten our lunch of smooshed sandwiches not in a nice friendly park, but in the favorite spot of the Verona homeless. We realized this as a man who looked extremely drunk or otherwise impaired started following us and calling out unintelligible things (unintelligible both from the foreign language and from the slurred speech).

The second involves traveling home (getting from place to place in Italy seems always to be an adventure). We had been feeling pretty good about ourselves after successfully riding the bus and the train and navigating our way around town all day, but we had a little mishap in the train station on the way home. It involved mistakenly getting on a train that was shutting down for the night, nearly getting locked on it, getting off with the help of the conductor, running back down to look at the screen to see if we could still catch our train, and running like mad to the right platform just in time to see our train pulling away. Instead of waiting an hour and a half for the next regional train,
we hopped on a different train half an hour later that went where we needed to go, although it probably needed a different ticket because the fare was higher. Luckily we didn’t get kicked off. Whew!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad, and happy 29th birthday of the Hartvigsen family! Thanks for all you do - I love you!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Lago di Garda

On mother's day, after attending church with the little English-speaking branch, Uncle Bern, Aunt Aleta, and I drove up to Lago di Garda, a lake in the Dolomite Mountains. One of the great things about traveling within Italy is the countryside is so beautiful. This part of Italy is full of cyprus and olive trees, vineyards, fields, hills, castles, and churches, and poppies that grow wild everywhere along the roads. The drive up to Lago di Garda had all of that, but it was unique because we drove through a canyon to get there, and the mountains seemed super tall on either side, and in the places where there weren't terraced vineyards and farms on the mountainsides, there was lots of spongy-looking green stuff. Here's one of the first views you get of the lake as you drive up (minus the girl who looks like she smells something funny).

Sometime around the fourteenth or fifteenth century, the Venetians decided they wanted control over the lake and the surrounding area (I don't remember who was in control before them), so they transported a fleet of boats up a river and over land. They finally entered from the valley you can see behind me.

The town we spent most of the afternoon in is down toward the southern end (we're on the northern end here, I think). It's called Malcesine (sounds like mal-cheh-see-neh).
Walking through the town is like walking into another century. It's so weird. As I was wandering around with Aunt Aleta, I probably said about 20 times, "this is weird. It's so cool. This town is so weird and cool." Have a look:

I'm not joking. This is how the whole village is. People live on streets that look like this, and there are shops on these streets. It's so weird! Surrounded by the town and right on the edge of the water is a Scaligeri Castle. It's a very old castle - in fact, there is an Etruscan tomb in one of the courtyards, but the Scaligeri family added some fortifications in the 14th century (this family had a lot of castles throughout the region - they were very powerful. You can tell it's a Scaligeri Castle by the unique shape of the battlements - it's supposed to be a swallow tail or something).

You can walk through the whole castle and there are gorgeous views from all over inside it. It's a very picturesque place.

The bell tower inside the castle was built higher and higher over the centuries, but somewhere along the way, there was a brilliant architect who provided this lovely picture window so that the tourists hundreds of years in the future could take a break from climbing the many flights of stairs and enjoy the scenery.
After we had thoroughly enjoyed the castle and town, we headed back to the north end of the lake, which is a bit more modern (Uncle Bern says on one of their previous trips to the lake they drove up a slot canyon and found several rustic, pastoral towns - the kind where sheep-herding is the main economic activity). This little area, on the other hand, has sort of a resort feel. There are some lake-side cafes in the picture behind me.
And this is unrelated, but facing the other way quirky little building. You may not be able to tell from the picture but the little house is right on a pier.

Anyhow, I think Lago di Garda is great. A+.
And before I finish, I know it's several days past Mother's Day, but I love you mom! I think you're A+ too.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Marostica and Asiago

I'm a little behind in chronicling my adventures. All I can say is touring is hard work! It sounds silly, but I'm really wiped out by the time I get home each day. This post will cover Marostica and Asiago, two towns within an hour of where the Vetters live that we visited on Saturday. Before I jump into the story of the day's explorations, I should explain that in this part of Italy, there are castles with walled cities everywhere! Like Uncle Bern says, something made these people pretty anxious to defend themselves back in the 1200s and 1300s. Hilltop castles dot the countryside. Marostica is just one of these medieval fortress cities. Here are a couple of views of it as we drove into town (you'll have to look closely in the second picture to see the upper castle on the hill in the background):

Most or all of the wall remains, and today there are little cafes and residences and shops inside the city wall. One thing that's unique about Marostica is that on even years in September, there is a big festival in the courtyard that faces the lower castle that features people dressing up and acting out a chess game on a life-sized chess board. I don't know how far back in history the tradition goes - I get the feeling it's a fairly recent invention for the sake of the tourists - but the stones in the piazza do resemble a chessboard, and I guess the analogy of medieval combat is appropriate. So here is a photo of the lower castle and one of Aunt Aleta and me playing chess (I'm a pawn, and I think she's a rook) we gave up when we realized our team only had two people and our opponent had none. I guess that means we won?

Inside the lower castle there were some cool frescoes. One of the funnest (most fun?) things about visiting old castles and villas is trying to decipher the frescoes, or what's left of them. Usually, they're paintings of the crucifixion or of the evangelists or the Good Shepherd or Madonna and Child, and it's fun to use what I know of artistic conventions and early Christian symbols to figure out who and what the paintings are about. Also inside the lower castle was this mantlepiece statue. A winged lion is sort of the coat of arms for Venice, so it's common to see statues or paintings like this all over the Veneto district. I think the reason for the choice of the winged lion is that it is also the early Christian symbol for St. Mark, who is very important in Venice (St. Mark's Basilica is one of the main attractions there, and his body is supposedly buried there). Anyway, I thought this was a really cool sculpture. The expression on the lion's face is really neat.
The church behind me in the next picture is a few hundred yards directly below the upper castle. There are a lot of churches in Italy, too. In fact, there is another church just to the right of where this picture was taken. Both churches were really pretty inside.

This picture of Heidi, Maddy, and me was taken from the upper castle. The view up there was spectacular! This is a strategic place for a castle if you like enjoying beautiful scenery, and if you want to keep tabs on the peasants below and watch for enemies coming from the neighboring kingdom. Before we headed off to our next destination we paused for some gelato. This picture captures my first gelato experience, and it was a good one. I'm not sure what flavor it was because the name was in Italian, but it was some kind of white flavor with soft chunks of chocolate in it - yum! Heidi says that this gelato was nothing compared to what we'll get in other places (and admittedly, it didn't knock my socks off - Sweet Cream from Cold Stone ranks higher for me), but it was still pretty darn good.

Then we got on the road again and drove through a lovely and precarious mountain pass toward Asiago, of cheese fame (David, I was thinking of you, and wishing you could see the town). Aunt Aleta says that visiting Asiago is like visiting Austria, and the architecture and meadows did have an Alps-ish feel. We didn't spend a lot of time in the town, but we wandered up to the Church in time for Saturday evening mass, and we wanted to go in and see if there were any singers we could listen to. This stained glass window reminded me of Beauty and the Beast, and I really wanted a picture. Unfortunately, it was right above an altar and some kind of important relic, so as people were coming in for mass, they kept stopping here and crossing themselves, which made it very difficult to take the picture discreetly. My picture did not turn out, because I chickened out halfway through and pulled the camera away. Luckily, Heidi was able to snap this one, but not before she got some dirty looks from the locals. So now I'm sort of ashamed, but here's the picture anyway.
This is just a pretty little fountain just outside the church. It has lots of statues of woodland and mythical creatures decorating it. Picture the White Witch's castle in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where the witch showcases all the little Narnians she's turned into statues. The capstone piece is a satyr riding a stag, so if you look closely you should be able to count six hoofs, which I think is a bit excessive. The pic below the fountain is this cool triumphal-arch looking thing on the upper edge of town. We don't know what it is, but it was cool, so here it is.

For me, the best part about Asiago was the pretty meadows that make up the countryside outside the town. I caught these pictures by sticking the camera out the window as we were driving home. Ah, beautiful Italy!
I just have a few more things to say, if anyone out there is still reading. I think my favorite thing I saw today (maybe tied with the Alpine meadows) was a classic Italian scene on the way down from the upper castle at Marostica. It was just a typical pretty yellow Italian house with flowers spilling out of all the windows and an old married couple sitting on the front steps.
Two things I learned about Italians: 1) They know how to have a good time. In Marostica we passed by a couple of groups of people - one army reunion, and one wedding party - where the people were all just sitting at tables outside, singing and laughing together (and drinking a little too, I think). I get the feeling that they really like just getting together and enjoying each other. 2) They are crazy drivers. Well, they might not seem crazy if they were driving the exact same way in America, but the problem is that the roads here are so dang narrow and twisty. It does nothing for people who have a hard time managing stress.
One last thing: I'm grateful that I'm not lactose intolerant.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Posso videre la villa?

We've had some trouble with cars, and haven't gotten out to visit some of the towns we're planning on seeing, so Heidi, baby Maddy, and I took a little tour of the neighborhood last night. About a quarter mile up the road is Villa Tacchi, the 500-year-old center of Vilalta. Now it's used as a reception center/hotel, so we went inside and I said, "posso videre la villa?" (possible to see the villa?) The guy blinked a couple of times and looked a little confused, and then said "si, si." So maybe I used a weird grammatical construction, or maybe I had something in my teeth, but he got the gist of what we wanted and let us wander around. Here are a few pictures of the grounds:

Here's a little of Maddy, who's a city baby, enjoying the wide-open spaces and the smells and sounds of the Italian countryside.

And here are a few more pictures of the immediate neighborhood. The building to the right of the church in the last picture is the Vetter's house.

Friday, May 9, 2008

jogging in Italy - part 1

Well, I didn’t go for a run yesterday. I woke up around 9:30 after a refreshing 11 hours of sleep, and started to try to figure out how to leave the house without locking myself out. After a while I realized that the door from the bathroom (Aunt Aleta calls it the escape hatch) didn’t have lock, and that I could put the handle in a position where it wasn’t even latched.

So I got excited and got dressed and put my running shoes on. Then I opened the door and ducked under the blind and found myself standing on a three by four foot alcove in the middle of the roof! So then I just gave up and showered.

Aunt Aleta has since instructed me on how to get into the house with the spare key which sticks in the lock. On related note, I have repeatedly locked myself in the bathroom on accident, and we all know now that the "escape hatch" is no more than a red herring. And finally, I should report that I did not run this morning either. The reasons for that are the church bells and jet lag.

Italian Villa

I’m in my temporary place for the next two weeks. I just listened to the Church bells chime the hour. First they rang nine times, and then another set of bells chimed about 30 times. Five minutes later, I heard the bells chime nine times again. I love it. There is a Church right across the street from my open window. I don’t know who else is chiming. There’s a little chapel at the villa around the corner, so maybe that’s one of the culprits. Aunt Aleta and Uncle Bern live in a little town called Vilalta, which is near Vicenza, about an hour from Venice. This area especially is kind of an agricultural community. It’s beautiful. Here’re a couple of pictures I took on the way to the Vetter home:

So this is the neighborhood. I think I’m falling in love. I can’t imagine a more perfect place to stay in Italy. I want to go for a run in the morning. For now, it feels good to finally be clean, and I’m going to have a great sleep tonight, I’m sure. Jet lag - who, me?

Welcome to my blog!

As my life will very likely get boring in another couple of months, I thought I'd start this little blog (thanks also to Heidi's powers of persuasion) while something interesting is going on. Watch for posts coming soon about my current Italian adventure...