Trip to Europe, 2009

I recently made a trip to Konstanz in Southwestern Germany, giving me the chance to do some traveling in Italy to address two important gaps in my background: real Italian cooking and art before 1850. 
I saw Leonardo's "The Last Supper," Michelangelo's "David," and a few thousand other works of art, had two train rides across the Alps, and picked up the Italian word farro. I walked for hours every day and will most remember the art I saw and the buildings–ancient and modern.

In July I was invited to Miriam Butt's workshop on Teaching Linguistics at Universitaet Konstanz in Germany. (That's Miriam on the right, with participant Lian Hee Wee in the foreground.) The workshop included people from all over–Hong Kong, Singapore, Norway, Spain, U.S..Thanks to Miriam we were busy all the time. When we weren't busy working, we were busy being taken to really scenic and interesting places.

The most memorable was a 7th century castle in Meersburg, reached by a ferry. Amazingly (remember, this is Germany, where rules are *not* made to be broken), we were free to prowl around the inside of the castle more or less on our own. Below are a few shots.

Castle 1Castle 2Castle 3

Castle 4Castle 5Castle 6Castle wall

If you've ever owned a castle, you know that it's normal to build additons over time, so much of what's here was actually added after the 7th century. The castle is still lived in, though I think that's mainly to qualify it for bragging rights as the oldest inhabited castle in Europe.
On the left is the town of Meersburg viewed from the castle. The photo doesn't show it, but the Alps are in the distance. 
On the right are more members of our group. The linguists are so famous I don't need to mention names. Thanks to  the workshop, these long-time colleagues now feel like long-time friends.
The workshop put us up at a boutique hotel about a ten-minute bus ride from the university. At left is a shot from my room of Lake Konstanz, Germany's largest, which provides water for about a third of the country. On the right are two shots of the Euro-modern-style university. It's one huge building with many levels and many exits. By the final day of the conference, I was able to figure out how to find the exit I wanted. Before that, I got so lost I missed a couple of buses.
Lake view from the hotelUni Konstanz 1Uni Konstanz 2

After the workshop, I headed to Italy. My first stop was Bolzano, where longtime friends Chris Culy and Linda McIntyre moved just about a year ago. They previously lived in Iowa City, Palo Alto, and Vancouver. Wherever they lived, they always took out time to visit me, and so here was my chance to return the favor. 
As the crow flies, Bolzano is less than 150 miles from Konstanz, but the Alps lie in between. So the train trip from Konstanz to Bolzano zigzagged from Germany to Switzerland to Austria to Italy (and passed very close to Liechtenstein)  and took about eight hours–eight incredibly scenic hours. 
In the first hour and a half, I was on four different trains, with stopovers ranging between three and seven minutes. The timing is so precise, even the 3-minute stopover was a breeze. One town where I had to change trains in Switzerland was Rorschach. Thanks to the Rorschach test, I expected it to be blotchy and ugly, but it was very pretty, at the foot of another huge lake with the Alps in the distance. Too bad that was the three-minute stopover.

Bolzano is in the foothills of the Tyrolean Alps. On the left is a picture of the Dolomites, which are not stone but coral–left over from the age when an ocean covered the area. 

On the right are my Bolzano hosts Linda and Chris. They both do computer programming and totally defy the stereotype, since they are really charming and fun, even when busy with their Macs, as they are here at breakfast. They met me at the train the evening I came in and put me up for the night. We had dinner at a Sardinian restaurant, where I was introduced to the chef and treated to a fabulous, exotic, and most palatable meal. The standout: hard ricotta–I'll never use squishy ricotta again.
The following morning Linda and Chris escorted me to the train station to put me on my train to Milan. I had to make a connection in Verona, and when Linda explained that I'd need to get my ticket punched in Verona before getting on the train to Milan, I must have looked confused, because next thing I knew she had bought herself a ticket to Verona so that she could make sure I did the ticket punch thing right. She also had some other errands there, and we had a great hour's chat on the train, interrupted by castle after castle along the countryside. 
You can read Linda's version of the story and see a few of her expert photos at

I chose to go to Milan in order to see Leonardo's "The Last Supper" and the flagship stores of Armani, Prada, etc. "The Last Supper" has been restored as well as could be, but it's not in great shape, retaining only about 10% of the color of the original. The best-preserved feature was the subjects' hair, which looked very Leonardoesque. Despite the poor condition, it's a hugely moving piece–because it's so famous and because despite the deterioration it has much more in it than we see in pictures of it–and it's also huge: nearly 30 feet across. 
To see it, you need an appointment (which can be purchased with a $75 tour). Twenty-five of you are ushered into a waiting chamber until the appointed time. At that precise moment a door opens and there you are with "The Last Supper." You have 15 minutes to check it out. Then you're ushered out of the room and the next group comes in. 
The Armani and Prada shops were a letdown by comparison. One other high point was  the huge Castello Sforesco, which dates back to the 14th century (thank you, Wikipedia) and is wide open to the public–joggers, cyclists, and baby strollers breezing through the gates over what used to be moats. The castle houses several museums and includes an unfinished "Pieta" attributed to Michelangelo.
Milan's cathedral, or Duomu, was begun in the 14th century and finished in 1805–and then only because emperor Napoleon put his foot down. The designers clearly went all-out,but simply didn't know when to stop. What a garish spectacle. But it's all marble, and the inside is quite something. The ceiling is 14 stories tall, held up by dozens of marble pillars, with incredible art along the walls and all kinds of relics, including (the tour guide said) a nail from Christ's cross. 
What impressed me most was that the church was built not by Rome but by local parishioners who taxed themselves year after year in order to build something they believed in. My, how times change.
In San Francisco we have old-time streetcars on the F line, including one from Milan. So it was nice to see that Milan actually has the streetcars that we're told they do.
My hotel (below on the right) looked like a Fascist-era structure from the outside, but it was lovely on the inside. Huge, modern room, a gym, and the best breakfast buffet I had on this trip. The huge billboard of guys in their underwear made it easy to find the hotel.

I was prepared to not like Venice because it was high tourist season, but no way.It's easily the most engaging and romantic place I visited–and the only place I kicked myself for traveling alone. They hit on a great gimmick with their canals–but how impractical. You need to get into a boat to go practically anywhere, and that can really slow you down. No automobiles, can you imagine? The gimmick has worked for 1500 years but that's no guarantee for the next 1500.
What was most charming about the canals was not their novelty. It's the view they afforded of the houses along the way. The mixture of colors and styles makes other photogenic cities (San Francisco?) almost drab by comparison:
Venice 1Venice 3Venice 4Venice 5

Venice  6Venice 11Venice 12

Venice 2Venice 8Venice 9Venice 10

Venice did its best to frustrate my intent to learn about pre-1850 art. The Biennale, the world's largest curated expo of contemporary art, was going on, and I set aside my second day for that. Also, the modernist collections at the Peggy Guggenheim and the Ca' Pesaro beckoned, and I squeezed them into my first afternoon along with visit's to St. Mark's Square and the Duke's Palace. Below on the left is Ca' Pesaro, which houses a good collection of moderns, including many fabulous Morandis–a favorite we don't see much of in the U.S.–and on the right is St. Mark's.
The Biennale was too big to do in a day, but in half a day I covered enough to satisfy me. This was cutting-edge contemporary art by people from around the world I had never heard of, so it was tough to fathom, let alone like. My first response, predictably, was what crap. But after about an hour I felt myself catching on and took a second look and started to engage with the stuff. 
The most striking piece at the Biennale is one I hope you'll forgive me for trying to describe. You walk into a dark room, seeing something like a nighttime sky with stars. But the stars come in different colors and some are square,others round. Some blink. As your eyes get accustomed to the dark, you begin to notice that the lights are coming from scanners, stereos, refrigerators. Absolutely amazing! As I wandered around the exhibit, a guard pulled me back.
The second most striking piece was much simpler: a movie of fireworks played in reverse–just as eye-pleasing as a regular fireworks display, but different.

I couldn't get pictures of those, but here are a few shots I did get.

The couple on the left were just about to photograph themselves kissing, reflected in the mirrors. I decided not to photograph that, allowing them privacy than they were allowing themselves.
The picture below is a shot of a moving film that appeared to be a silhouette of people humping, more or less. The figures moved around from place to place, only to do more humping. Part of the art was that after a while you could tell that the figures, lifelike as they seem here, were just made from cardboard cutouts of different body parts.
The reason I wanted to remember this piece is that while it was playing a mother and her 6-year-old son came into the room. The mother looked at the wall where it was projected, cast her eyes up to the heavens, and braved onward.The boy took it in, walked right up to it, looked at his mother, looked again at the projection, and held his mother's hand as they walked out of the room. I admired both for handling it so well, don't think I would have done as well either in her position or in his.

The view of an Arsenale arcade on the right shows a quarter or a fifth of the space that I covered that day. After that I dragged myself to the hotel (left) for a long bath.
Renewed but unable to walk very far, I jumped into a vaporetto for an hour's ride to a neighboring island, Burano. On my wall at home I have a Cibachrome taken in Burano, and I wanted to see if I could find the spot where it was taken.I couldn't but the island was a great escape from the crowds. 
I didn't go a lot of curiosity about gondolas but was surprised at how luxuriously and how uniquely each one was fitted out. Here are a few shots.
The agenda for Florence was simple: catch Michelangelo's "David" at the Accademia and spend a day at the Uffizi, the museum my tour book said would provide an education in the history of Italian art.
Looking at "David," one can easily see why it's the most loved piece of art in the world. It's perfect, and it's huge. Surprisingly, the traditional offerings of the Accademia were offset with an exhibition of modern Robert Mapplethorpe photos, again feasting on the contours of human anatomy. It was a daring thing to do, more so because displayed right up with David's statue were four large Mapplethorpe male nudes, their black skin contrasting with the pure white of David's Carrara marble. I can't say that the two ideas went hand in hand, but the gesture made one think.
The Uffizi was spectacular–room after enormous room of sumptuous Italian painting, from medieval to post-Renaissance, organized by period making it easy to see the traits that gave each century its character, helped along by helpful, no-B.S. explanations in both Italian and English. It's probably the best museum experience I've ever had, fusing enjoyment and learning.
Here are a few shots of the view across the River Arno from the Uffizi:
Below is Ponte Vecchio, which incidentally cross the Arno but more importantly serves as a shopping mall. There is no hint of lessened consumer spending on this chunk of bodegas and passionate buyers and sellers:

Across the river from the Uffizi is another huge gallery, the Palazzo Pitti, where the Medicis lived for centuries and kept their collection of thousands of works from (among other things) the same eras that the Uffizi specializes in. So the best way to deal with my lagging attention span was to use the Pitti as a test of the knowledge of Italian painting I had just acquired across the river. For each work, I guessed whether it was from the 14th, 15th, 16th, or 17th century. The differences are so great and so consistent, it was easy to do, and somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of my guesses were right: a solid grade of C or D. So I definitely learned something, yet I have every reason to remain humble.
Florence has its own magnificent cathedral, grossly overdone in its own way, and by that point I decided to skip it for a more interesting church experience at Chiesa di Santa Croce, which 19th century French author Stendhal had flipped over. I also flipped. Along with the standard world-class art that seems to adorn all Italian churches, here were monuments to science: Galileo (below left) and Marconi (below right).
That looks like Galileo's tomb on the right. Definitely a tomb is Michelangelo's, across the aisle in the same church:
The last surprise on display was a cloak of St. Francis of Assisi. I didn't take a picture, but it's there, drab as as can be, a reminder of the piety that impressed some folks more than the splendor.

First off, I had a go at the Borghese, another beyond-opulent palazzo serving as a museum of Italian painting and sculpture. But clearly I was reaching my limit. The few Raphaels and Rubenses weren't up to what I had already seen, and most of the statues were copies of ancient Roman ones (which in turn were copies of even older Greek ones) at best, and stodgy neo-Classicist adaptations at worst.The many frescoes couldn't have been more brilliant and alive, and they covered the ceilings and much of the wall space between paintings, but my interest was on the wane.
I needed to do something else. Back in my room I read that my hotel had been a favorite of Verdi's (and truly it was a grande dame and the plumbing definitely went back to Verdi's time) and of Nureyev. As it happened a block away, across the street from the McDonald's (which are everywhere in Rome), was a church where a local opera group was performing areas that evening. So I went, even though I don't really get opera. It was pleasant enough, and the church (Anglican) had spectacular gold mosaics behind the altar, but the temperature was in the 80's indoors, and I was sweating so badly I had to remove my hearing aids. Fortunately opera is quite loud, so I don't think my enjoyment suffered.
The next two days went to exploring ruins, large and small. I loved the Palatine, where several emperors lived and ruled in the first century A.D., and where you could more or less roam at will (after paying admission).
Among the ruins was a museum housing statues from the ancient residences and these magnificently preserved pieces from Nero's palace:
The view from the Palatine was 360 degrees. I believe St. Peter's is the biggest dome in the distance, on the left: 
Adjoining the Palatine was the ancient Roman forum and surrounding ruins, and just beyond that the Colosseum: 
What was in a way even more fun was finding little bits of ancient ruins incorporated into more modern (i.e. 16th century) buildings: maybe just a graceful Roman arch and an ancient marble bulge worked into a facade. Another highlight was the Chiesa del Gesu, founded along with the Jesuit religious order by St. Ignatius Loyola and containing his tomb. This place has special meaning to me because I was educated by Jesuits and my high school was named after him. My pictures didn't come out, but there are some good ones at the church's Web site:
Around the time I tired of painting and sculpture, I also stopped needing my daily gelato fix and got interested in new foods, so in Rome I wound up at an Ethiopian place and an Indian place. Now that I'm back at home, I'm trying to put to use little tidbits about Italian cooking I learned along the way. It could be I gained more knowledge from this two-week visit than in four years of high school. It certainly was a lot of fun.

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