Link

Ascension to Paradise.

It is only fitting that my final blog post should detail my journey to the apex of Tuscany’s centre, Florence. Just as the summit point of the Santa Maria del Fiore Duomo has come to represent one of the zeniths of Florentine Renaissance history, it also has come to epitomize one of the pinnacles of my own Tuscan adventure.

florence1

“…And worth it it was as we beheld an edifice that was not merely a remarkable feat of structural engineering composed of brick, stone, and marble, but instead a miraculous apparition that must have had some sort of divine intervention in its construction as it now strikingly sits as the emblem of Florence…”

florence2

Interested? Feel free to continue reading my story here.

Advertisements

Able was I ere I saw Elba.

“Able was I ere I saw Elba…” the famous palindrome attributed to the pint-sized yet, fervent French leader, Napoléon Bonaparte who was once acquainted with the conditions of exile on the island of Elba.  This week’s relic is an expired boat ticket with departure from Piombino port and arrival in Rio Marina (the closest port to mainland Italy).  Of course my excursion to Elba was more of a voluntary as opposed to forcible exile that lasted for a mere afternoon.

elba marina

As I picked up the ticket, perhaps the most prominent memory that came to mind was a moment of sweet serendipity.  Resigned after an exasperated effort to find a place to settle on a beach with clusters of mainland Italian tourists so desperate to maintain their “belle figure” by catching the Tuscan sun’s rays, my friends and I took the risk of squandering time away to explore the island in order to locate the piece of paradise the Guida Turistica: Isola d’Elba assured we would encounter.

elba path

Traveling along the strait flaxen-coloured beaten dirt path elevated high above sea level, one feels as though they are teetering on the edge of a world where harsh beauties intersect to cumulate into a calm serenity.  As one of the seven jewels of the Tuscan Archipelago, Elba Island’s rugged beauty is a natural wonderland boasting undomesticated vegetation so plush that it inhibits the tourist from anticipating the direction they are travelling in.  The Mediterranean “macchia”, a spontaneous formation of primitive evergreen vegetation speckled with ilex, pinewoods, and cork oaks that are interspersed with an explosive blossoming of thorny and aromatic laurel, fauna, rosemary, and lavender provides Elba with an essence so wonderfully primal that one has no choice but to surrender to Mother Nature’s rugged magnificence.

elba stairs

As we pushed through the thick foliage of palm leaves, we stumbled upon a set of stairs that did not impose on the land, but rather, was ingrained within a precipitous tow-coloured sand hill that descended into what we would later discover to be a largely uninhabited beach.  The wooden planks of each stair that had been forced into the Earth to form the desirable structure of a staircase were ultimately triumphed by nature itself along with time; the further we descended, the less perceptible the artificial became and the more the staircase became submerged under sand and spouts of shrubbery alike.  The foliage was so dense and the stairs so indistinct that we had to crouch, knees bent and centre of gravity kept low to the ground in order to brace for a possible stumble at any moment.  By the time we had reached the foot of the hill, slabs of serrated stone replaced the wooden planks and led us to the enchanting blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

elba waters

The colours of these idyllic waters are best described as if an ink-bottle had spilled over and left trickling streaks of a soft, pastel blue ink on a darker piece of parchment paper. Sporadic blots of an aqua blue adorned the backdrop of the bold blue waters of the Tyrrhenian, creating a speckled contrast between the two shades.  The water was balmy; refreshing yet, not exceedingly icy that we would have had to spend a good five minutes in discomfort before feeling comfortable enough to move to a deeper point.  Perhaps the sole factor that inhibited us from instantly swimming towards the deepest point were the presence of the boulders so large, that they protruded from the depths of the sea, occasionally revealing their lopsided surfaces that provided refuge in the form of a seat for all those who did not think to bring along swim shoes for the gravelly surface that lay beneath the waters.

elba's beach

Once I had swam deep enough that my feet were no longer were subjected to the jagged rocks, I heard my friend from a distance shout, “You’re just a drop in the ocean now!”  Instantly, the quote “travel makes one modest; you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world” was brought to mind.  I was in the midst of a living museum and a showcase of evolution where the jellyfish reign, finches sing high above the cliffs, land iguanas dash between and around pebbles, and an assortment of fish species swarm around oblivious to us humans as we quietly integrated ourselves into their domain.

the beach 2

The beach was a sanctuary, an oasis where the wilderness is tempered with a culture of luxury.  It was an uninhabited yet, inhabited bush land where the vast villas of locals were spasmodically perched upon the summits of the cliffs, as if Mother Nature herself had determined where these dwellings would sit.  These lodges surrounded the semi-circular beach encapsulated by two large cliffs on either side of its waters.  To the eye, it was perceptible that the surrounding cliffs were once joined and then divided by a sudden lacuna carved into the Earth, parting the hill and forging a beach with pebbly remains to show for a once noble-standing, intact cliff.

wilderness

In Elba, where the trees sprout out from the peripheries of the most abrupt of cliffs and the branches and leaves from one tree cannot be distinguished from the next, nature is intertwined with civilization. Humanity does not prevail against nature, but rather meekly accepts the natural world’s reign.

Sarah’s blog post relating to Elba captures the beauty of the candy floss coloured skies, ink-blotted waters, and rolling cobblestoned streets lined with brilliant-coloured dwellings that I did not have the opportunity to touch on. Check out her blog here: http://blog.sarahlaurence.com/2011/07/exiled-like-napoleon-to-elba-island.html

Legend

 Belle figure = plural for Bella Figura or “beautiful figure”; an expression that emphasizes beauty, good image, aesthetics, and proper behavior

How to Eat in Italy Without Scaring the Italians.

Mangiamo bene stasera, eh ragazzi! Ci vediamo dopo!” And eat well, we would. Come to think of it, there was not a single meal in that two-month period that didn’t send my taste buds to the realm of unadulterated bliss (with the sole exception of the McDonalds I was compelled to purchase at brief stopovers in train stations while travelling for extended periods of time).  This week’s relic, although not a relic in the traditional sense, is a photograph of friends and I enjoying dinner at a traditional Senese restaurant that surfaced on Facebook after a friend “liked’ the post from July 2013.

fontegiusta

Following our July set of exams, three of our class’s professors resolved to celebrate the end of a successful month of school in the best way that Italians know how: food indulgence.

gnocchi

That evening, a party of 30 of us dined at a restaurant that was not necessarily frequented by tourists, but rather by the locals, which by my judgment is perhaps the most ideal way to assimilate oneself in a culture while travelling.  Eating at Fontegiusto enables one to feel as though they’re truly chanting the travel mantra, “live like a tourist and travel like a local” several times over.  The restaurant is a 15-minute walk to the famed Piazza del Campo, (the centre of the city), distancing it from the central hub where the tourist whose nose is permanently affixed to their Lonely Planet guidebook consumes a plate of pasta al ragù for no less than 35 euros.

bruschetta

During this particular dinner, I recall a couple of friends having to part early as they had other feste to attend while the rest of us were still in the midst of dessert.  I distinctively remember one of my professors proclaiming, “Ma qui, non si poù fare questo!”  In Italy, if your evening plans happen to conflict with one another, commit to one and follow through with it unreservedly.  Parting early is a lethal social sin and Italians inevitably will take offense in a country where consumption is an art form and that time dedicated to food is to be relished without any sensations of urgency.  As Johann Von Goethe would say about art: it requires patience and a considerable amount of time.  Dining out is much like art in this sense; patience is a virtue that you have no option but to possess while supping with Italians.

Recalling this piece of advice along with the idea of tapping into the local scene while travelling, inspired me to create a How to Eat in Italy Without Scaring the Italians video log that encompasses the basics of eating out (or in) while abroad in the country where the food has enslaved taste buds around the globe for centuries with its zesty tomato sauces, thick minestre, and succulent roasted meats and poultry dishes.


Given the brevity of the video, there is one fact that I’d like to place greater emphasis on: eating is certainly not a race nor does it imply the time you spend in front of a television screen with a cereal bowl.  There is a reason why waiters in Italian restaurants hardly ever ask people to leave upon finishing their meal for the purpose of serving lingering guests.  Dolce far niente is a mantra the Italians observe unreservedly and the notion of indulging in food in a convivial atmosphere in the absence of a ticking clock is intrinsic to the Italian identity; it is a custom that is woven into the very fabric of their being.

Legend

Mangiamo bene stasera, eh ragazzi! Ci vediamo dopo = We’ll eat tonight, eh guys? We’ll see each other later!

Pasta al ragù = Pasta with a tomato meat sauce

Feste = parties, events, or gatherings

Ma qui, non si poù fare questo = But here, one cannot do this!

Minestre = (plural for minestra) meaning “soups”

Dolce far niente = a beautiful nothingness

Side note: I am now realizing that stumbling upon these memories has moved beyond the traditional method of simply opening my desk drawer and unearthing small relics. Thanks to the space that social media affords, Facebook now serves as an expansion of my drawer space where I can sift through photographs with a click of the arrow button that inevitably conjures a network of memories.

Image

Where Terrains and Structures Converge.

“Now that I’ve seen the lionized Bramasole, what else is there to do?  I mean we still have an hour until dinner…” I hear myself saying.  “Aspetta un attimo, conosco un posto possiamo visitare…” This week’s relic includes one of my train tickets to Cortona (the renowned medieval-hilltop town celebrated in Frances Mayes’ novel, Under the Tuscan Sun), where the majority of my family in Italy resides.

mont1

One does not need to be a fervently religious person to recognize the appeal the Il Convento Frati Cappuccini has to the aesthetic senses (I know I certainly am not).  Encapsulated by the undulating hills characteristic of the Tuscan landscape, the sanctum sits serenely nestled between the slopes of Monte Sant Egidio overlooking the Vignone River just on the outskirts Cortona’s center.  The halls and pavilions of this monastery yield to the contours of the rock face, its buildings connected by bridges and walkways that do not impose on the craggy landscape but instead submissively adhere to the erratic fissures and abrupt inclines and declines the Italian terrain boasts.  The central bridge perched atop of a would-be vigorous stream of water, leads one to the entrance of the structure.  Herein lies the irony: the bridge appears so imposing precisely because the Earth swallows it into its own precipitously moving terrain.

Though mountainous, the adjacent areas of the monastery are well cultivated, sprawling in lush greenery.  Italian cypress trees, (so quintessential of the Tuscan landscape), linden, willow, and wild olive trees, to the eye of the visitor fuse with an abundance of other types of wild foliage including thick layers of ivy delicately cascading over the sides of bridges, fragrant acacia, and a series of potted red and pink flowers that adorn the edges of the viewer’s post overlooking the monastery.

mont3

While reflecting on the idea of where nature ends and the artificial begins, I couldn’t help but recall that many sites in Tuscany are of the same character as this monastery.  While reminiscing on the different sites that were much like this one, I came across the blog, http://www.tuscanychic.com/traveling-in-tuscany/top-abbeys-in-tuscany that covers a comprehensive range of landmarks and towns to see, recipes that hail from Tuscany, and general tourist information relevant to the region.  One particular article entitled, Tuscany’s Top Five Abbey’s in the Countryside, provides readers with an impression of how in tune medieval religious architecture was with the landscape, insomuch that the structures depicted on the blog almost appeared to erect out of the Earth itself.

The design of the Frati Cappuccini monastery is a curious network of long narrow structures that again, adhere to the dictates of the land’s surface.  The terrain compels the monastery’s structures near the back end to rise above the buildings in front of it, creating a landmark that does not intrude upon the land, but one that embraces nature so unreservedly that it assimilates within the landscape itself.  The structure is erected with solid masonry stones of a faded-brown color, adorned with sporadically situated punctuated windows of varying sizes, and sheltered by clay-tiled terracotta roofs worn down with age.  History informs the tourist that Saint Francis Assisi himself had the hermitage built in 1211 and this site marked the first of many houses for members of the Franciscan order to take up residency in.  Particularly worth noting was the image of the Madonna that sits with the child: St. Francis reputedly slept and prayed in front of this portrait, which was previously stored in his cell – a mere 1.8 by 2.5 meter area and a meager 1.9 meters in height.

mont2

Here, what is manmade does not clash with nature; the two forces are reconciled.  Nature does not mind the structure’s presence; the monastery’s age verifies this.  The structure too embraces nature as the flora discovers both conditions that are most favorable to its growth and a limitless number of ways to sprout around, upon, and within the sanctuary.  In a place where nature and human architecture are fused together, one cannot help but put life on hold, if only for a fleeting moment, and meditate on the sheer magnificence of such a humble edifice.

Legend

Aspetta un attimo, conosco un posto possiamo visitare = Wait a moment, I know a place we can visit

For the Sake of Spontaneity.

“We’re only in Italy for what, like two months? Might as well be spontaneous” I hear myself say.  “But we said we’d only travel on the weekends and besides, I have a composition due tomorrow”… “Lisa, didn’t you anticipate spontaneity at some point?”

Planning for spontaneity.  In any other circumstance that is an oxymoron, however, not on the terrain where spontaneity reigns supreme (and I suppose, where the Siena train station is fittingly located directly across from the university).  One of those flash revelations of travel is the realization that worlds you’d love vibrantly exist outside your unawareness of them.  The vitality of many lives and sites you hitherto knew nothing about are imbued with life upon impulsively yet, almost instinctively uttering, “Andiamo”.

It was this monotonous spontaneity, indispensable to the traveler that led me to rediscover an expired set of train tickets to Monteriggioni; a small commune located twenty minutes outside of Siena.  How true it has held that perhaps the most striking of memories are made in the most unlikely of places.

In brief, Monteriggioni is no Rome, Venice, or Naples; located in the province of Siena nearby the Chianti region, this quintessential walled medieval Tuscan village which once served as a Senese fortified outpost, is regarded for its nearly intact masonry ten-meter high walls and fourteen towers that encircle the village and have withstood the formerly recurrent and formidable Florentine attacks during the height of the Renaissance.  The town, once considered to be impregnable from attack because of the presence of its towers, boasts a superbly archetypal Tuscan panorama as it is nestled on a hill high enough to regard the sweeping vineyards below but low enough that one may recognize the utter vastness of the undulating landscape that encloses the commune in a lush greenery.

Since Monteriggioni was a mere 20-minute ride away, the regional train we were to take did not boast the most agreeable of conditions, and by an unfavorable setting I do mean to say that there was zero air circulation within its ill-equipped cabins.  It was not the heat that was bothersome for any temperature below 35 C on an unclouded day in early July would be inexplicable but rather, it was the mugginess in the air that was off-putting.  One quick motion to unlatch the windows beside our quad and the sudden pull forward that often signifies the train has begun to move, resolved the issue of the heat.

Upon arrival to the dilapidated-looking train station (better described as a hovel), Lisa, Fred, Frances and I faced a modern street lined with an assortment of small shops that did not in the slightest bit resemble the medieval fortress town we had all studied in our textbooks.  To our left were three construction workers: “Scusate puoi aiutarci? Dobbiamo andare a Monteriggioni ma non sappiamo come arrivarci da questo punto.” Their response was simple: one could walk 45 minutes until they reach the top of the hill that now came into view as they pointed towards the mountain that was to the left of our sightlines.  All four of us were synchronized in thought: Walk 45 minutes in this heat? That’s absurd.  We gave a hasty, “Grazie Signori” and took leave to the nearest TabaccheriaThe recommendation there was just as frank as the previous: we could either trek 45 minutes up the mountain and revel in the scenery of the “Bel Paese” while doing so, or we could call the local taxi and have him drive us to the gates and arrive in under 15 minutes.  Without hesitation, we agreed upon the latter option and within minutes we were in “Roberto Taxi” and on our way to the decaying yet imperishable Porta Franca arches.

monteriggioni

Monteriggioni is a town that one dedicates no more than a single afternoon to touring.  Even the narrowest crevices and remotest of churches, fountains, and shops within this commune can be observed within the span of four hours.  As we entered through the gates, we were immediately embraced, coddled, and lost in the soft, filtered light and gentle curves of the path that immediately led to Piazza Roma, the center of the town.  Standing map-less in the epicenter of this cobblestone-covered square, we were faced with four options that lay at each corner of the piazza.  Given that the economy of the town is premised on agriculture and wine, it was unsurprising to discover that to our left lay a wine cellar, behind an organic goods shop, directly in front a gelateria, and dominating the piazza was a church that lay to our right.  We endeavored to visit each site and walk the perimeter of the fortifying walls within four hours, as the trains back to Siena were quite infrequent putting us on somewhat of a schedule.

After sampling the most authentic wines of the neighboring Chianti region and observing the late Romanesque church of Santa Maria Assunta, consecrated in the 1200s and once the site where the peace treaty between Siena, Florence, and Poggibonsi was signed and enacted in 1235, we were positively famished.  We instantly settled for Ristorante Il Pozzo, a restaurant frequented by the locals and situated in the centro storico of Monteriggioni.

Before entering the restaurant that exuded the rustic charm and quaintness typical of rural Tuscan eateries, I could not help but pay heed to the exterior walls erected with solid masonry stones and adorned with punctuated windows and green shutters.  From the clay-tiled roof at the front, a series of intertwined grape vines cascaded unto the patio-lined umbrellas below.  The warm earth tone quality delivered through the use of natural wood timbers, stoned flooring, and stucco painted walls greeted us as we walked through the front archways of the restaurant.  We dined on the veranda, an area that had an outdoor appeal not unlike a finished greenhouse space that was separated from the main dining area through a series of wooden windows and glazed panels.  As we ate, we were enveloped by a giardino bursting with an array of colourful ivies, shrubberies and grape vines that ran the circumference of the veranda.

mr2

Beguiled by the elegance of the pastoral beauty that encircled us, we became ignorant to the weather conditions looming above.  By the time we had paid the check and stepped outside, prepared to climb the heights of the fortress walls, thunder began to strike.  One note on the weather in Tuscany – when it rains, it pours.  The weather itself is as erratic as the Tuscan landscape of endless undulating hills: temperatures will peak, drop, and peak again all within the span of a single hour and provide no forewarning to inhabitants.  As it began to pour, we followed the locals’ lead and took shelter under a patio umbrella of another gelateria.  “Quick get out Roberto Taxi’s number, I’m not sure when this rain will let up.”  Impulsively resolving to end our trip and head back to the train station, to catch the last train scheduled for that afternoon (as the next did not leave until 8 PM), we dialed “Roberto Taxi’s” number and (not) to our surprise, the phone line went dead.  I suppose that’s to be expected when you name the taxi company after yourself and operate out of your own Fiat.  Frustrated and now constrained by time (as the train to Siena was to leave in an hour’s time), we temporarily resolved to hike down the hill and prayed to the weather gods to have mercy on us or at least let us discover a driver along the roadway willing enough to bring us to the train station.  We had one hour and we had been told that it takes one at least 45 minutes to walk to the station, meaning if we couldn’t find a ride, we’d just make it.  What resulted from this trek down is further proof that spontaneity is more rewarding than a meticulously planned life.

We never did get a hold of Roberto Taxi (despite the 29 outbound calls made), nor did the weather feel merciful enough that day to relent, nor did the drivers commiserate with us as we walked along the edge of a strada towards the hovel of a train station that now seemed like a luxurious retreat.  Instead (after our resignation to the circumstances), we too resolved to take cue from the weather and be as spontaneous as spontaneous could be as we frolicked about in gated vineyards, dashed in and around fruit trees, and starred in our own low-budget (as in shot on an iPhone) short film, “Pursued by a Wild Boar”.

mr3

We did make it to that train station and in time, might I add.  Despite the drenched seats and the possibility of pneumonia, all was right again.  The Monteriggioni experience catalyzed a slew of after-class day excursions that were to come and evidenced that one does not need to travel to Venice or Naples to create the soundest of memories that vibrantly reverberate throughout the brain years later; simple spontaneity and an open mind will do.

mr4

Legend

Andiamo = Let’s go

Scusate puoi aiutarci? Dobbiamo andare a Monteriggioni ma non sappiamo come arrivarci da questo punto = Excuse me, could you help us? We have to get to Monteriggioni but we’re unsure of how to get there from this point.

Tabaccheria = Tobacco shop/Convenience Store

Il Bel Paese = The Beautiful Country

Centro Storico = City center/Downtown

Giardino = Garden

Strada = street