Sunday, September 18, 2016

Italy report

Our vacation in Italy was simply wonderful. In almost every detail it lived up to or exceeded my expectations; the itinerary worked out perfectly. Above all it was wonderful to spend eight days with Wendy, Jessie and Abby, then eight days with just the two of us. It's been a long time since we've done either of those.

I would love to have written a much longer report (you will probably find this one long enough!), but with the quarter starting soon and all the upcoming medical issues (details in a later blog), I've limited myself to a few highlights and miscellaneous amusing episodes. Plenty has been left out.

Some comments before I start the travelogue:

 1. I didn't take a single picture. Never do. That's just me; although in principle it would be great to have pictures to show, I find that stopping to take them interferes with the experience.

2. On most of our trips I'm the designated navigator, which makes Wendy the designated driver. She earned her European driving-stripes long ago in England, Wales, Spain, France and Italy, and is fearless! I drove mainly on sections where little navigation is required. We make a great team.

3. For me, one of the highlights was just talking in Italian with Italians. It's become very easy, it's fun, and besides, many Italians don't speak English. Even when they do, my Italian was usually much better than their English. For example, it was often better to get directions in Italian. I do still have an oddly skewed knowledge of the language, e.g. I'm better at discussing 19th century Italian literature than at translating menu items (gotta work on that). Anyway, all of the conversations I mention took place in Italian, but for obvious reasons are given below in English.

I. Stresa.

Wendy, Jessie and I arrived at Milan's Malpensa airport around 11am. Abby arrived from New York about an hour later. The four of us with luggage barely crammed into our little ``Smart Car'', but it would soon become clear we made the right decision not to upgrade to a larger one.

Our apartment was in the hills above the town of Stresa, overlooking the beautiful Lago Maggiore (the westernmost of Italy's three big northern lakes). The shortest route to it appeared to be coming down from above, rather than up from Stresa, but here I failed as navigator and we got a bit lost. (Incidentally, we were instructed NOT to use a gps, as it would take us onto impossibly narrow streets. Of course I would never use one anyway.) I had to call the housekeeper Elisabeth (German by birth, fluent in Italian), who came and found us. Elisabeth led us into ever more narrow streets bordered by stone houses, to the point that we had to fold in the side mirrors so they didn't get torn off. At one point, she stops, gets out, and sizes up the dimensions of our car. ``After this the street gets a bit narrow,'' she says. Ha! For Wendy, it is mere child's play.

The apartment was on the third floor, with two bedrooms, kitchen and a nice little living room. The bedrooms and kitchen each had a tiny balcony, all facing the same way with a beautiful view of the lake and surrounding hills and mountains. The mountains are pretty high, but not enough to have year-round snow.

Our first excursion was to two of the Borromean islands: L'isola dei pescatori (fisherman's island) and L'isola bella. These tiny islands---you can walk from one end to the other in fifteen minutes---were originally nothing but rock, then were developed by the Borromean family and others beginning in the early 17th century. L'isola dei pescatori today consists mainly of picturesque narrow streets with shops, restaurants, gelaterie etc. L'isola bella has a few shops too, but is mainly occupied by a 17th century summer palace and a beautiful terraced garden with plants and trees from all over the world. We needed Victoria here as botanical consultant! The palace has an amazing ballroom with a 50 (?) foot high ceiling and balconies looking down to the dance floor, but other than that is filled mainly with gloomy paintings of assorted saints being martyred in assorted gruesome ways. The garden was much more to my liking.

The second day we drove up the west side of the lake, toward Switzerland, stopping short of the border at the little town of Cannobio, or rather in the Val Cannobio above it. Did a nice walk along the river, then went swimming in it, at an unusual deep pool where the river doesn't seem to move at all. How deep, I don't know, although the strange bubbles coming to the surface turned out to be from scuba divers. From there you can swim upstream into a narrow, deep gorge with vertical rock walls. The girls and I went a short ways into it. I was hesitant to go far, as there is no way to get out as far upstream as one could see. It would be a boatload, ha ha, of fun to come back with inflatable kayaks. Another interesting feature of the swimming is that Italians don't so much as go behind a rock to change into a suit; everyone just does it right out in the open. When in Rome...

In retrospect, I wished we had stopped in the town of Verbania along the way. The main attraction is the Villa Taranto, a very elaborate garden built by a Scotsman in the 1930's. Maybe I was thinking that the Scottish component made it ``non-Italian'', but to judge from internet photos it's a pretty amazing place. And had I done my research, I would surely have visited the tiny islet of San Giovanni, where Toscanini lived for a couple of decades. Too much to see!

The third day we went west to the nearby and much smaller Lago di Orta and its picturesque town, Orta San Giulio. The Lago di Orta has its own little island of San Giulio, named after the saint who rid it of dragons and serpents in AD 390. By the way, although I suffer from a rare form of shopaphobia, I loved shopping with Wendy and the girls in Italy because I could act as interpreter. I don't think the little old lady on the island who showed us some tablecloths had even a word of English. At the end of the day, Jessie and I took a different route back to the parking lot, going up and over the Sacre Monte di San Francesco. On the Monte there are 21 chapels illustrating the life of St. Francis of Assisi (why in this particular location, I'm not sure): his first followers, his first miracles, his renouncement of material possessions. What would the saint himself think of all these expensive material monuments built in his honor? It's a glaring contradiction, just one example of the massive self-contradiction known as the Catholic Church.

II. Val di Rhemes.

For those unfamiliar with Italy, the ``regions'' of the country are analogous to our states. The most familiar examples include Toscana, Umbria, and Sicilia. In the extreme northwest, up against the Alps on the border with France, is the region ``Valle d'Aosta'' whose main city is ``Aosta''. Don't confuse the region with the city! There are many French place names in Valle d'Aosta, and in fact many citizens whose primary language is French. Our next apartment was in the Val di Rhemes, a mountain valley outside of Aosta.

Getting from Stresa to Aosta was easy, almost entirely on the autostrada. From there we set off up the Val di Rhemes, which is another story entirely. The hairpin turns begin! We did hundreds of them over the course of the vacation. I underestimated how far up the valley we had to go, but this was a good thing: wonderfully cool at 5000 feet, quiet, less populated, beautiful. In fact, apart from its Roman history, the city of Aosta has little to recommend it; our mountain retreat was by far the better choice.

Our cabin (for lack of a better word) was very small---no living room, just a kitchen and two bedrooms---but quite comfortable. It was in a small, isolated group of houses consisting of a few rental units (used as ski chalets in winter) and at least one home whose occupants apparently were mainly cow-herders. As anyone who has spent time in the European mountains knows, every grassy slope, no matter how steep and how high, has its contingent of cows. The hills are alive, with the sound of cowbells. Our bedroom windowsill was at the street level of a cobbled lane running behind the house, and one morning Wendy was startled to see a passing cow practically poke its head through the window. 

How wonderful though to just step out the door and be in this beautiful valley, with peaks rising thousands of feet above it and a river running down its center. The river was a gray, muddy color, but from natural causes: glacial silt and mud carried down from far above. Best of all there were hiking trails that started right from our doorstep. On our first full day, the girls and I went up a very steep trail that gained well over three thousand feet, maybe four, to a tiny lake. A classic alpine cascade from on high bisected the route, the early switchbacks were shaded by trees...lovely. Eventually, though, the altitude was really getting to me; only a sense of honor kept me from quitting before the lake. The upper slopes were completely exposed to the sun, too, but
what saved the day was a continuous cool breeze. Of course Jessie bounced on ahead and left me in the dust; Abby too beat me but not by as much.

I expected that I wouldn't even be able to walk the next day, but surprisingly wasn't that sore. So I think it really was the altitude and the lungs that slowed me down, not the legs. Jessie of course got up early and went for a run. Now while the three of us were hiking, Wendy had set out on a walk of her own up the river. It's a beautiful walk, and she discovered a lovely ``parc Pique-Nique'' up at the next little village. So around mid-day we all walked up to the Pique-Nique, where we had lunch, sat on benches to chat or read, or just lay down on the grass looking up at the beautiful blue sky above the high ridges. Later we drove up to the end of the road, at the head of the valley where trails take off into the highest of the high country. The girls and I went a short way up one of the trails, stopping on a rocky promontory with more views.

The original plan for this day was to drive down to Aosta and then up the road to Mt. Blanc, where a cable car takes you very high up the mountain. But given that (a) the drive was much longer than I thought, and (b) our little home in the Val di Rhemes
was such a nice place to be, we decided not to spend more time in the car and just enjoy our valley. Meno male! (It's a good thing!) The next day we found out that the cable car broke down and 100 people were stranded at the top, where they had to spend the night before being rescued by helicopter.

We would like to have done a longer version of the valley's-end hike the following day, but it turned out that in order to make their flight out of Milan the girls needed to leave a day early, by bus, and spend the night at an airport hotel. So we just enjoyed the morning along the river, then drove down to the bus station in Aosta. But it wasn't quite that simple. At one point on the winding steep road, a bridge that looks like it was built by Napolean crosses a deep gorge. Earlier I'd seen signs saying that the bridge would be closed for repair work all day on Friday, the day the girls needed to leave. Not believing that they would block in hundreds of valley residents, I had asked the kindly elderly proprietor of a hotel restaurant what he knew about it. No worries, says he, cars can get through on the old road. The old road?? How much older can it be than the one we came up? A lot older, it turns out. A worker directed us onto the detour, and we all burst into nervous laughter at the first turn: A very narrow road between rock walls makes such a sharp right into an equally narrow road that it seemed impossible even our little car could manage it. Fold back those side-mirrors, folks! With Wendy at the wheel, we ace the turn and then burst into even more hysterical laughter: next is a stone bridge that looks like it was built by Julius Caesar, and if anything is narrower yet, stretching precariously across a gorge hundreds of feet deep. Maybe we should have ferried one person across at a time, but somehow it held our weight.

After seeing off the girls at the bus station---it was sad to see them go---it was time to start some shopping of my own: Italian books. The first bookstore I found had a limited selection, and I came away with only two. Down the street was a tiny little used bookstore where I found three more for three euros each. Five books in Aosta, a good start.

III. Across the Alps and back, to Susa.
From Aosta to Susa is only about 120 miles. But the route crosses the alps into France, via the Col du St.Bernard, descends to Val d'Isere, up again to the Col de l'Iseran, down again, back up to the Col du Mont Cenis (where Hannibal is said to have crossed with his elephants, in the Second Punic War), and finally down into Italy and the town of Susa. I guessed that in this terrain it would take us four hours to do 120 miles. It took six.

Endless switchbacks climb about 4000 feet up to the Col du St. Bernard, or rather the Col du Petit St. Bernard (its ``Grand'' cousin is in Switzerland). The hairpin turns are marked with signs indicating the sharpness of the turn in degrees (mainly for trucks and buses, I suppose). The angle is measured from the negative x-axis, so to speak, e.g. zero degrees would be an impossible 180-degree turn. Thus successive turns might be marked as 8 degrees, 7, 6; I think there was even a 5. Our little car sure got a workout. At the Col there are various signs and monuments celebrating the St. Bernard dog-breed.
Now the road descends 4000 feet (Hannibal was wise not to have chosen this pass). It is white-knuckle time for whoever happens to be in the passenger seat---in this instance, me. There is no shoulder and there are no guard-rails whatsoever. If the car goes two feet off the pavement, it's going to roll down a steep slope for a thousand feet or more. Here the downhill slope is most often on the right, so it's much worse for the passenger. I offered to switch places with Wendy and drive, but she refused.

The Col de l'Iseran is at an altitude of over 9,000 feet, and is the highest paved road in the Alps. Both these Col's have been featured as stages in the Tour de France, which is pretty amazing. As one would expect for a pass once crossed by elephants, the Col du Mont Cenis is a bit tamer. At the top it flattens out and runs along a large lake, then descends into Italy.

Near Susa the road was blocked by police who were turning traffic away onto another road. What's going on? I asked an officer. ``Susa e` chiusa'' (``Susa is closed''; in Italian it rhymes). What do you mean, closed? It's the festival of the Alpini, she replies.
But we have a hotel reservation! What hotel? she asks. After some discussion I realized that what she meant was that the center of town was closed to traffic, and after a slight detour we had no problem getting to our hotel. 

The ``Alpini'' were an Italian military unit of mountain troops that (I thought) were associated with the two world wars. But in fact they are still active, and veterans of the Alpini have a special comraderie and annual festivals. This one was for the Alpini of the Valle d'Aosta, Piemonte and Liguria regions of northwest Italy. We had no inkling that the festival would be going on, so it
was a fun surprise. In the evening we walked into the center and watched the festivities while having dinner at an outdoor restaurant. There was a small parade of Alpini in their distinctive hats with a feather, accompanied by a band consisting of accordion, miscellaneous woodwinds and drums. People were singing in the streets, and of course there was much drinking---although almost exclusively beer. Still, it seemed like a rather small party.

Driving out the next morning (a Sunday), we realized that Saturday evening was just a warm-up. People were streaming into town by the busload, with many of the buses having to park a mile away. It might have been fun to stick around for the real party, but we had bigger and better things to do.

IV. The road to Pinerolo

Our next and final destination was Pinerolo, about 25 miles southwest of Torino (the main city of the Piemonte region), or more precisely an apartment in the hills a few miles outside the town. The route we chose was certainly not the fastest, as it loops south and west staying close to the French border before finally heading back east toward Torino. But it's certainly the most interesting. Not far from Susa we stopped at the massive fort of Exilles. Fortifications at this site date back to early medieval times, and changed hands numerous times between the French and the kingdom of Savoy. Napoleon destroyed it after his conquest of Italy. It was rebuilt in the mid-1800's in the form that exists today. It's a steep hike from the parking lot up to the highest level of the fort, with beautiful views. Surprisingly, there is also an elevator, whose shaft seems to have been cut directly into the rock of the outer walls. Throughout the trip I tried to strike up conversations with Italians whenever I could. The lady working the small cafe at the top of the fort was especially chatty and told me quite a bit about her family. I asked her about the third local language, Occitana, which is spoken in parts of the Valle d'Aosta and Piemonte regions, as well as in nearby France.
She said she can understand it but doesn't speak it, and that it's dying out. There was a poster on the wall written entirely in Occitana; it reminds me very much of Catalan (the lady agreed), as a sort of cross between French and Spanish.

Then we were back into hairpin-turn land, up and up and up to the ski resort town of Sestriere. Our cousin Barbara once stayed here for a while, and loved it.

Further down the road is the bizarre fort of Fenestrelle. We didn't have time to visit it, but from the road you can see it spread up and along the mountainside in a series of strange blocks, like a structure constructed by aliens from giant legos. In fact it was built by Savoy, over a long period of the 18th and 19th centuries. The elevation gain from the bottom of the fort to the top is around 2000 feet. A must-do for my next visit to the area! There are also many interesting rock formations and rock-climbing possibilities in the general area.

V. Pinerolo and Casa Aiva

Casa Aiva is the name of the house/apartment we stayed in near Pinerolo; Aiva is an acronym standing for ``aria, incanto, vacanza, agricoltura'' (air, enchantment, vacation, agriculture). I'd been corresponding for months with Barbara, the lady of the house, and had high hopes for lots of Italian conversation during our stay. It was a spectacular success in every way. But first, a little description of the house and property:

We had actually reserved the so-called ``romantic cottage'', adjacent to the main house. We knew it would be small, but it was really, really tiny, with minimal furnishings and no comfortable space to just hang out. Barbara no doubt could see from the look on our faces that we were disappointed. The big house is available too, she said, for just ten euros a night more. What a stroke of luck! The other house (or rather apartment, attached to the family home) was wonderful, with a spacious living room, nice kitchen, dining room table that seats eight, spacious bathroom etc.

Casa Aiva is situated up the hill from the little town of San Secondo, which is across the (mostly dried-up) river from the much larger town of Pinerolo. It is surrounded by vinyards, a beautiful swimming pool and a big lawn; the grapes were almost ready for harvest and looked perfect, like a picture you'd see in a magazine. They make wine just for themselves and friends, not for sale. The hills behind the house rise up several hundred feet higher than the property, and made for good early morning, steep walks, partly on the road and then on trails. The house also came equipped with a young, very friendly orange cat named Alfie, who would follow us around and get into mischief at every opportunity.

I was surprised and touched that on arrival, Barbara gave me a novel by a local author, with a little note from the family on the front page. (Book count is now 6!) Later I found out that she was about to finish the four-volume ``Napoli'' series by Elena Ferrante, that both Wendy and I had read and liked. By chance I had finished an earlier Ferrante novel that Barbara hadn't read on the plane, so it was nice to be able to pass it on to her.

Now, the family: Barbara's husband Gianmassimo works as a financial consultant, and is able to set his own hours to a large extent. So he spends a lot of time at home too. (They must have a lot of money, as they bought this place outright ten years ago). Their son Tommaso is 16 and in roughly the equivalent of our tenth grade. One disappointment was that Agnese, the 18-year old daughter, was off working at a hotel in Scotland for a month (a job that came up at the last minute) before starting at the University of Torino. They showed us a picture of Agnese, a petite Italian girl with wild curly hair, posing next to a gigantic bearded Scotsman in traditional dress (at some Scottish games event; this guy must have been the caber toss champion).

On the second day they had us over for a three-hour lunch, and got Agnese on Skype to talk with us a bit. It was by cellphone and a bad connection, but at least we got to meet her that way. Another day we were invited over for tea in late afternoon, and Gianmassimo's father showed up to take Tommaso to soccer practice. I've forgotten his name so I'll just call him the grandpa. He had the day mixed up: there was no soccer practice, but this too was lucky because I got a chance to chat with him as well. He's an interesting character, 84, who worked for Fiat in Italy, Chicago, and even a few months in Patagonia where they were testing performance under extreme cold. He and Gianmassimo are passionate fans of the Torino soccer club, which is not to be confused with the more well-known rival Torino team called Juventus. ``Juventus, no!'' he cautioned me, wagging a finger.

The grandpa and Gianmassimo speak the Piemontese dialect (as well as standard Italian), and I encouraged them to demonstrate. I could recognize just a few words. Interesting sound to it.

The topic of mathematics came up, of course. According to the family, high school math teachers in Italy, or at least those at the local liceo, are terrible. They can't explain anything, says Gianmassimo. They can't even talk! adds Tommaso. They don't even face the class, they just talk to the board while they write on it. All too common, I'm afraid. I mentioned my fantasy of getting a visiting position at an Italian university. Barbara said they knew two math professors at the University of Torino, and would look into it. I think she was serious, so I didn't want to spoil her enthusiasm by pointing out that universities don't just hand out visiting positions to random professors who want to visit the area. Reciprocally, I promised to look into athletic scholarships at the UW that could potentially be available to Tommaso (soccer) or Agnese (track and field). Such things are very competitive at the UW, and I have no influence on the matter whatsoever, but I'm certainly happy to help if I can.

At the risk of revealing my ignorance, I'll mention a surprising (to me) historical detail of the region. I'd noticed a number of signs indicating ``Chiesa cattolica'', ``Catholic church'' which seems a tad redundant in Italy. Then in the novel Barbara gave me (which takes place in the Pinerolo area) one of the major plot points is that the protagonist Eglantine wants to marry a certain Franco, but her mother is bitterly opposed because ``he's catholic''. Through Barbara I learned that this was the one part of Italy with a major Protestant population. They call themselves the ``Valdese'', and not surprisingly have a long history of persecution, exile and return. But it was only after coming home that I realized the Valdese are the same group known in English as the Waldensians. Maybe some of you already guessed that, but it was news to me.

 In the Casa Aiva guestbook one guest raved about the ``libreria Volare'' in Pinerolo (libreria=bookstore, Volare=to fly). Obviously a trip to the Volare was obligatory and I spent two hours there, buying seven books (raising my total count to 13). 

The author of ``Eglantine'', the late Laura Trossarelli, was a highschool teacher born in Torre Pellice, the local center of the Valdesian church. The whole valley of the Pellice, west of Pinerolo, is interesting to explore. We drove all the way to the end of the road---more narrow roads with no shoulder, no guardrails of any kind and vertical drops to the side. Wendy was once again the fearless driver! Terrrifying on the passenger side though. From road's end (very close to the French border) a number of trails take off into the higher mountains, including one highly recommended by Gianmassimo that I'll come back to do some day.

On the way back we had dinner in Torre Pellice (tagliolini al granchio for me, very good). Torre Pellice also had a nice little bookstore, and although I had sworn not to buy any more I had to go in. Came out with two; total count 15. I could not find, however, a Sicilian novel recommended by Barbara. In general I was buying a combination of novels by Italian authors and some French (Balzac, Maupassant, Zola). I'm also interested in the history of the Italian resistance in WWII, especially that of the women partisan fighters. One great find that I've never seen online was a collection of twelve autobiographical accounts by women partisans.

We did go into Torino one day, but this proved to be a mistake on my part. The fact is that I just don't like big cities, and in many respects Torino is just a big city like any other: crowded, noisy, hot, heavy traffic etc. I'm sure it has a lot to recommend it, but I hadn't done enough advance research. While resting in the shade on a bench surrounded by a carpet of cigarette butts, Wendy and I looked at each other and knew we were thinking the same thing. What the heck are we doing here, when we could be back in the beautiful vineyard country, swimming in the pool and enjoying the view? We cut our losses and went back to our wonderful vineyard home, where we should have stayed in the first place.

It was a good thing I didn't find that Sicilian novel, because when we got back Barbara gave me a copy. (Book count 16!)

We were very sad to leave, but promised to stay in touch with Barbara and family.  On the way back to the Milan airport we stopped in the town of Alba, which has an extensive, attractive pedestrian-only zone. In a 2-block stretch there were three bookstores, but I showed self-restraint and didn't go in. Okay, so two of them were closed for the afternoon siesta, but still... We didn't have much time, but since Alba had been highly recommended by Roberta (one of the teachers at Percorso Italiano) I wanted to at least be able to say we'd been there.

So what's next? We still want to go to Sardinia, but now we also want to go back to Casa Aiva.
Eight people could stay there, with two using the "romantic cottage" just as a bedroom, while sharing the house. There's so much more to explore!

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