Archive for October, 2005

Leaning Towers and Last Suppers

October 30th, 2005 10:45 pm by Dave

Feeling the pulse of a city is for idiots. The guidebooks are fond of telling you, at the rate of about once every 150 must-see sites, that travel isn’t about seeing must-see sites, it’s about feeling the rhythms of the people who live there. But, I don’t sit at an outside table at Buck’s every afternoon drinking coffee and talking politics in broken English when I’m in Woodside (does Buck’s even have outside tables?) and I’m certainly not extroverted enough to do it here. When we got into Venezia after a two hour bus ride from dropping the rented car off at the airport (there was some sort of obstruction involving two cars and a motorcycle. Italian drivers are not perfect.) the Campo Santa Margherita was filled with young adults for whom chatting with each other at midnight in Venice was as big and fat a checkbox in their life list as checking out San Marcos Square is in mine, and they were earnestly checking it. Three Italians called us Druids — Asterix. That was awesome. They touched Dave’s beard. Those of you who have read Lenny Bruce’s autobiography will remember that women used to come up to his wife and touch her long hair. Anyway, back to the guidebooks. Here is how you know they are lying, from Baedeker’s to Rick Steves to Lonely Planet: they all trash Olbia. Olbia is a boring town, etc., the only reason to go there is the Hotel Gallura, etc., well, you know, that’s pretty much true, nothing is there except an old basilica. The churches in Italy are interesting. Old women are found in them. Old women and a few old men who probably have health problems that nothing else is working on. I’ll let you know when I get there. There are middle-aged women, some, and of course on Sundays or at big entertainment value masses you get more of a cross section, but generally speaking if you see a guy under 30 in a church without a camera, he is praying that Jesus will free him of his Uncontrollable Desires.

But Olbia is not such a bad place to drink coffee outside for a two hour lunch whilst awaiting laundry (yes we paid somebody again, but half the price of Sidi Bou Said). The workers in the resorts up the coast live there, but the tourists are largely sequestered in their compounds (or if Olbia was where they could afford, they are out of town for the day) and, I don’t know, I suspected I was witnessing a fairly unvarnished piece of Italy. The pulse of Italy involves mostly watching soccer in bars, kind of like TGIF, but San Marcos Square is what isn’t in California.

And the pulse of Italy includes eating, which makes our 10-year-old food guide’s list of must-eat places more interesting at times than Fodor’s list of must-see places. The food guide had a description of eating at Ristorante Gallura in Olbia which is still true now. You walk in past some large crocks of soup, marvel at the 40 or so bowls of food on shelves in the middle of the room, and the waiters pretty much say what there is. We just asked ours, the one who spoke English, to bring us stuff. He brought us a perfect squid salad; bruschetta with mussels; tempura’d baby anchovies, baby octopuses, and baby mussels; clams called “sea truffles”, etc. The cutest part of the experience was the somewhat elderly chef, Rita d’Enza, who spent the entire time in the dining room talking to people eating and preparing the occasional dish on an unoccupied table. It was a completely different kind of experience from the almost Californian style presentation of Sardinia we’d gotten at S’Apposentu, and it probably wasn’t any more “typical”, but it was equally memorable and excellent. We were disappointed when it said “closed for renovation” on Thursday, but we were thrilled when we discovered it had reopened on Friday. She was not as insistent on having her photo taken as the guy in Lyon. In fact she was downright camera-shy. When we said that we were too full to have a glass of mirto after dinner, she gave us a bottle. Stop by the house and have some when we get unpacked.

Saturday we drove along the northern coast of Sardinia. We stopped at Capo Testa and walked around on the rocks, with views of the Corsican cliffs not far away. Continuing on there was a formation called Elephant Rock which really was shaped like an elephant, and had caves with neolithic carvings on the walls. They had a thing about horns, say the books; this unheralded roadside attraction had the most visible and recognizable horns of all the necropoli we were in. Most of the time you have to use your imagination.

Elephant Rock was near Castelsardo, known for its baskets so we hung around only long enough to get lost in it, not needing baskets. (A boy motioned us the right way to go but having returned recently from North Africa, we distrusted him and thought he was leading us only to a carpet basket shop. It could be true.) I called it Mont St. Sardo, since it’s on the top of a little rock on the coast. We had a late lunch in a trattoria “L’Assassino” in Sassari where we finally got the lamb entrails we’d missed elsewhere, and sea snails we had to pick out with toothpicks — the waitress showed us how to crush the soft center of the spiral to pick recalcitrant snails out from the other end. We returned to Alghero, called the B&B where we’d stayed a few days earlier, and were again told that someone missed their plane and led to yet another place a few blocks away.

Sunday was left to explore Alghero’s old town itself. It was fairly closed down, but it did have a nice restaurant where we had culungiones, giant gnocchi filled with potatoes and cheese, in an octopus ragout, and “amberjack puff pastry” which was basically a Napoleon where raw yellowtail performed the function of the puff pastry. We tried Anghelu Ruju, which was their version of port, with the two cute desserts. I just missed being able to buy some at the airport at the way out of town. We flew to Rome and immediately zoomed to Tarquinia, an hour away, where we checked in, walked around, found a perfect little pizza place for an evening snack (mozzarella, sausage, zucchini, and no tomato sauce — mmm! and soccer on the TV, and people from town watching it, some wearing blue and white team jackets and camo, and pictures of the proprietor’s new baby on all available spaces), and went to sleep.

We’d discovered that Tarquinia had a World Heritage site, an Etruscan necropolis. We stopped by and found it was closed on Mondays. Sigh. The next stop was Massa Maritima, a little town in the hills, which features a mural depicting a tree on which penises grow. Some people thought it was some kind of fertility scene, but another story was just that the muralist was trying to offend some group of people. We got a nice postcard of the tree, and the guy selling it to us told us how to find it, but that it was closed for renovation. Sigh again. So we headed for Pisa, via little twisty roads marked as “scenic” on the map. Part of what Michelin maps consider scenic turns out to be geothermal power plants; there were all these twisted little pipes running all over the place and a half dozen massive cooling towers. This in front of the beautiful fall colors of the rolling hillsides with occasional towns on top dominated by old churches with bell towers.

The place we stayed in Pisa was definitely one of the nicest of the trip. One distinct measure of its niceness was that there were frequent signs on the road telling you how to get there, so the fact we didn’t have a detailed map didn’t matter. The second measure was that they gave us a little slip entitling us to just leave the car directly in front of the hotel, located in a district notoriously lacking in parking. We checked in, and then walked up to the main monument area in Pisa, containing the cathedral, its baptistery, its museums, its cemetery, and its bell tower, which doesn’t stand up straight. It cost just over 10 euro each to visit all of the monuments, plus an additional 15 euro each to climb the tower. It sounded fun so we went for it. During the two hours before our tower ticket, we explored the cathedral, baptistery, and cemetery. The cathedral was quite decorated inside and out — they were particularly proud of the carved marble pulpits in it and in the baptistery. The cemetery was supposed to be famous for its frescoes, but they were mostly being renovated and weren’t available to see.

The tower was continuing to lean more and more until around 2000, when they finally figured out how to stop it and restore it to its original 17th century lean. They had closed it to tourists, but it was open now, and was our only exercise for the day, going up four stories of steps around the tower, and up two spiral staircases to get to the bell tower level and to the very top with panoramic though cloudy, and slanted, views of Pisa.

I’d been dreading Tuesday the whole trip, and indeed it was a hard day but it turned out OK. The plan was to drive from Pisa 300 km to San Marino, a small country (the world’s oldest republic, independent since 310 AD) surrounded by Italy near Rimini, so Ray could buy some stamps and send some postcards from there. Then, driving on for 400 more kilometers of freeway around Bologna, Padova, Venice, and Trieste to get to the Istrian peninsula. Crossing the Slovenian and Croatian borders was quite quick, but we did take a brief wrong turn in Slovenia. Things were much better the next day after we got a good map of the area.

It was easy to find a restaurant Ray had noticed on the Internet, which turned out to be a truffle specialty restaurant. Actually it seemed to be a side project, along with selling wine, of a company which mostly sells truffles. Virtually every item on the menu featured truffles, and you had a choice of black truffles or much more expensive white ones. We had mostly black truffles, but one of the dishes in the menu we ordered had white ones. The impression of eating large thin slices of fresh truffles, which taste like mushrooms, is quite different from the dried truffles you get in the US, which taste like burned rubber bands. They had won a Guinness World Record for the largest white truffle ever found, and there was a model of it in a display case, and a statue of it in the town’s traffic circle. The Hotel Kastel in Motovun was also very cute, literally occupying the old castle atop the hill. The most accurate postcard showed the hilltop emerging from a sea of fog beneath — the only inaccuracy was that the fog was encompassing the hilltop as well while we were there.

Wednesday was our day to explore the peninsula. Armed with our map and a little guidebook, we drove down to Pula, walked through their archaeological museum which illustrated the prehistoric and Roman ruins found various places on the peninsula, saw an incredibly well preserved mosaic of some woman being punished by being dragged by a bull (for having insulted some guys’ mother), and looked at their Roman amphitheater. After a perfectly acceptable but not exceptionally Istrian dinner, the guidebook directed us to a fjord which was pretty impressive, a sculpture garden which was kind of cute even though it was dark, and the town of Porec which had a World Heritage basilica. Unfortunately, there seemed to be some kind of celebrity guest Mass happening in the basilica (with a sign saying that it happened every morning and evening for 10 days). We waited it out (for over an hour), waited for people to leave, and dashed inside hoping to see the mosaics but they turned the lights off and we hardly saw anything. Sigh again. That UNESCO permits these sectarian peasants to have religious services in World Heritage churches is an affront to the world patrimony.

Thursday we found another town nearby with some frescoes in a little church. The church was locked, and the sign had a phone number to call to get someone with the key. This lady didn’t speak a word of English, but the situation was common enough that she rode with us a km or so to the church, opened it up, and stood around while we took lots of eight-second exposures of poorly lit frescoes. She was sweet. The frescoes were great, too, especially featuring a Saint Sebastian who must have had a hundred arrows in him, a personal best for our touring experience. We left Croatia, took Slovenia’s very modern (but incomplete) freeways back to Italy, and just across the border found a restaurant from our old food guide which still existed. There was no menu and the hostess didn’t speak English, but she conveyed goats with hopping hands and ducks with flapping arms, and we had a great lunch. Everything was brown, the color of flavor, but each thing was completely different: the mushroom soup, the flat town pasta with rooster sauce, the stewed goat, and the duck whose stuffing was encased in proscuitto. Even the apple pie for dessert was brown, and great. And it was all cheap, even including some local Tokay wine.

I used to think that you could make some kind of aircraft ID chart for pasta and be done with it, but it turns out that pasta is not just about Fusilli versus Ravioli, every one-campanile town in Italy and its possessions has got its own personal pasta, and the list would be endless.

We drove through horrible traffic to the Treviso airport (RyanAir flies there instead of Venice and Hertz has deals with them and you have to take your car back to there), returned the car, took a shuttle bus through horrible traffic to Venice, and a short walk to our budget accomodations (basically student housing, sharing a single bathroom with four other private rooms). Imagine, Venice for under $100 a night for housing! Good thing we can spend the rest on food.

They tell you Venice is more than just St. Mark’s Square. I guess they’re right — the pastries at DalMas near the train station (Cannaregio 150/A, on the Lista di Spagna) are incredible as is their chocolate milk, and there are churches and buildings wherever you walk. But there’s sure lots of stuff around St. Mark’s. Friday we spent a couple hours inside and outside the Basilica, seeing its Byzantine marble columns looted from Constantinople, its fairly completely mosaicked ceilings, its marble floors featuring geometric patterns (the Byzantines went through a severe iconoclastic phase even before the Muslims arrived, and got a lot of experience in non-figurative architectonics) , its 4 by 8 foot gold screen featuring about 2000 jewels and about 250 intricately decorated panels, and its museum demonstrating their expertise in mosaic restoration. We went to a Lucien Freud exhibition at Museo Correr. And we had coffee and orange juice on the piazza for 26 euro, including 10 for the bad live musicians. The day was gray and it was hard to get very good pictures, but we did our best. At dinnertime we went to the little restaurant that replaced a venerated old one in our food guide. It was quite nice, and we quickly discovered that its chef was Sardinian, as was the chef of another place we passed while walking home. Italian food is all over the world, and it seems that Sardinian food is all over Italy.

Saturday the sun came out after an hour or two! We returned to St. Mark’s (discovered a leaning tower on the way), went up the Campanile and took some pictures, walked through the Palazzo Ducal, and did some shopping. The Palazzo is where the Doge, the figurehead of the government of the Republic of Venice, lived, where much of the function of the government happened, and where the prisons for the most notorious criminals were located. The palace section is incredibly decorated, with room after room after room of huge oil paintings, including the largest single oil painting in the world, Il Paradiso. The last room on the tour before the prisons had a couple classic renditions of hell, including a Bosch and an “Enrico van Bles detto il Civetta”.

Today, Sunday, we’re in Trieste. It’s our last night on this vacation together — tomorrow I fly back to California, and Ray keeps traveling for a couple of weeks, staying with friends in Romania. Trieste is vastly closed on Sundays, and I suppose its citizens and tourists have very good taste, because all the nice restaurants we found that were open were booked solid, and all the other ones were empty. Next time we’ll come some other day of the week.

They Eat Horses, Don’t They?

October 21st, 2005 5:08 pm by Dave

We left Herculaneum ensuring plenty of time to get to our RyanAir flight from Rome’s secondary airport to Sardinia’s secondary airport. This time there was hardly any construction or delay on the autostrade, so we burned up some time by driving on pretty little mountain roads outside of Rome — the most incredible sight was a little hillside field with about 10 white longhorn bulls just hanging out. The 45-minute flight landed in Alghero, a town in northwestern Sardinia.

The Bed and Breakfast scene is getting to be a little too quaint I think. When we arrived at the Blue Dolphin, our infallibly-Internet-reserved B&B, we found nobody there to answer the door except a tourist from Germany, who told us in acceptable English that there wasn’t a room because the person who was there the night before had missed his flight and was staying another night. He thought that we should call Roberto, the owner. So we did that using our strange Global Riiing Leichtenstein-based cell phone, and Roberto said to call his sister, so we called her and she said she would be over in one minute (which is Italian for twenty), to direct us the 400 meters (Italian for one kilometer) from Blue Dolphin to Big Fish. She came and got us and led us through town — driving in Italy is already exciting, and following someone only makes it more so. Anyway, the Big Fish was fine. I got up at 7 AM to use the shared bathroom, and the guy next door asked me what time it was because something had happened to his watch and he was expecting a taxi. He had the best beard comment I’ve heard this trip — “you look like you’ve been in there for a long time”.

The restaurant recommended by two guidebooks was closed for restoration (Restaurants under restoration are the co-condition of carpet stores going out of business, which are also thick on the ground here), but we stumbled on another one, Al Tuguri, which had three different very nice five-course Sardinian tasting menus: “old”, vegetarian, and fish. We had the first two, and were very happy. The people at the next table were from London and they had just happened upon it as well. I suppose they were also very happy. The English won’t tell you, which is just as well.

That night was the occasion of one of the more dramatic instances of beard worship, although the flash mob that descended off the walls in the anfiteatro in Pompeii was notable too. On the way back from our serendipitous restaurant, a red car with I think four teenagers drove past and honked. We didn’t much respond on account of it takes a fair amount of concentration to put one foot before another after all that food and Cannonau. They circled the block and honked and shouted and when I looked up the guy riding shotgun had put on an artificial gray beard. Except for causality issues, this could be regarded as a remarkable cargo cult phenomenon: the young adults who drive around with artificial beards in their glove compartments in case there is anybody walking on the streets to make fun of with them.

Tuesday we drove through Sardinian back roads, stopping to look at a small site of ancient tombs dug into rock, going to Cabras and finding that its recommended restaurant was closed on Tuesdays, and at a different address than given in the Gourmet Guide which was written by a foodie and not a postal employee, and then going to Tharros, an archaeological site which was really more of an active dig than it was something that made sense to tourists. It was fun watching the workers sift dirt through a screen looking for shards. Italians have a kind of a reputation for being careless archaeologically. If it’s all you ever see, it must be hard to take seriously.

We headed to Pula, a beach town outside Cagliari at the south end of the island, where again our B&B wasn’t quite ready for us. After a long attempt by her parents, we got in touch with the owner, left our luggage, and got the key. We drove back to Cagliari for dinner at a somewhat stuffy but good restaurant, del Corsaro.

We were staying in Pula, about 35 km away, because with any luck at 6:20 AM we’d see Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, blink out for about five seconds as the asteroid Rhodope passed in front of it. As it turned out it was completely overcast, and no stars were to be seen anywhere. While Ray went out to check on the weather, the B&B’s kitties came in the room and started climbing on me.

Wednesday we drove around southern Sardinia, including Sant’ Antioco, an island with some small underground tombs which had been repurposed as workers’ houses in the 19th century and then as a museum, and a tophet, a children’s cemetery. The Bible says that the Phoenicians sacrificed their children in these places but the Bible is lying propaganda. A more modern reading, supported by inspection of the remains, is that the cemetery was for stillborn babies since most of the remains are fetal. Which reminds me, on everyone’s Life List of places to go should be the aborted fetus cemetery in the garden of Hase temple, Kamakura, Japan. I forget where I read about that but it seems like a really good thing to do with United Plus miles.

The Romans had built a causeway out to the island which ran parallel to the highway out to it today. The guidebook also pointed out a cave we could drive through — when we got there we discovered it had been closed to cars. It was still nice to walk through it and see the stalactites. I don’t know if a light in the middle had burned out or if they just had a short completely dark section for effect — after our eyes got used to the dark we could proceed OK. Then it was back to Cagliari to the national archeological museum. Approaching the museum was fun — we found a parking garage nearby, with a sign inside “Pedestrian exit to castle”. Going out that way led to a glass elevator with a great view of the city. We found our way to the museum, which was pretty great. As usual, it contained all the objects that we didn’t see at any of the other places, including most especially bronzetti, a bunch of little bronze statues that were buried in tombs. Dinner was at S’Apposentu, the nicest place we’ve eaten this trip. It had two six-course tasting menus, which we each had one of. From the soup with chunks of dried tuna roe, through the eel pasta and the sausage lasagnetta, through the beef fillet and white fish wrapped in eggplant, and ending up with the verbena ice cream in melon soup, it was amazing. And it cost less than one spends on Monday nights in Palo Alto at much more mundane places. Italy on $300 a day — it can be done.

Thursday we started at Nora, a Roman site near our B&B, which taught us about bad Italian archaeology. We noticed that the mosaic floors were all cracked along regular lines, and looking carefully, discovered that the reason they were cracked was that at some point they had been restored onto a slab of reinforced concrete. The concrete wasn’t very good and crumbled after not very many years, leaving the rusting rebar exposed and holding up the mosaics on linear ridges. The site wasn’t very well explained in English, but at least it was expensive.

From there we sped north to Su Nuraxi, an older site in much better shape. It was a nuraghi, a structure which apparently once looked similar to a medieval castle from the outside. It had a central tower, made of enormous chunks of basalt piled on each other, with four towers surrounding it. Next to the tower complex was a large village of round house bases — apparently there had been teepee-like structures on them forming roofs. The round houses were built with stones taken from the tower after the tower civilization crumbled, and they were made round as a copy of the tower. So they say. I want you all to go directly to Amazon and buy a copy of Motel of the Mysteries before you take any archaeologist seriously. The village looked like Burmese script. The guide only spoke Italian, but the guests provided enough translation into German and then to English to figure out what was happening. There were two other tourists there who live about five miles from us, spending a week in southern Sardinia on a “business trip”.

From Su Nuraxi we headed to Olbia, on the eastern coast at the north end of the Island. Ray had originally hoped to take the ferry for a day trip to Corsica to see some penile rocks called “menhirs”, but it appears to be closed for the winter. So we’re just sitting around sipping upon some strangely bitter bright orange fluid bought because the Italian tourists from the mainland at the next table are also. It’s best not to fight to be Germanic and uncivilized and in a hurry, in a civilized land. They don’t make it easy.

We’re doing laundry, we’re catching up on postcards and this trip log, and we’ll connect to the Internet to see if anything has been happening in the world in the last week or so. The only news we’ve heard was about an Air Italia strike which wouldn’t affect us — Ray assumes that would be buried at the bottom of page 37 because they happen so often. Tomorrow we return to Alghero, and then Monday it’s back to the mainland.

Last night we had a delicious horse steak, and a little fish translated as “guithead” baked in salt the same way the Chinese bake chicken. It tasted like halibut. The huge party of locals at the next table ordered every platter on the menu, including the lamb entrails platter, the Sardinian ham platter, the grilled vegetables platter, the seafood platter, and who knows how many other ones after we left. They picked at each one and an enormous amount of food was cleared from their table to be thrown away. We finished every shred of what we ordered, except the huge pile of Sardinian papadum called pane carasau, and bread we didn’t have to use to soak up sauce because there wasn’t any this time. The ristorante across the street from the hotel has donkey steak. But we probably won’t go there, because a miracle has occurred — a highly-recommended restaurant, Ristorante Gallura, that was “closed for renovation” yesterday is “open for business” tonight!

Last Days Of Pompeii

October 21st, 2005 5:03 pm by Ray

The ferry from Sicily to the mainland is quite businesslike. It was only 20 euros for us and our car. There seem to be about five boats on the water at any time — you pretty much just drive on a boat and cross. When we arrived in Reggio di Calabria, the town at the toe of Italy’s boot, we immediately headed for the Museo Nazionale where the Bronzi di Riace are exhibited. Among other themes, this is turning out to be a tour of shipwreck art, in particular art bought in Greece by wealthy Romans which got tossed into the sea in an unfortunate storm in one place or another. The Bronzi di Riace are a couple of naked larger-than-life-size Greek soldiers, with nice beards, who more or less match (although they appear to scholars not to have been made as a set or at the same time, based on unimaginably subtle distinctions in posture and the style of depicting chests and backs). We went to see them because there are copies of them at one of our favorite restaurants in Palo Alto, Caffe Riace. That’s why we go anywhere, isn’t it the same for you?

Then we got on the autostrade and zoomed up to Napoli. Mostly zoomed — there was lots of freeway construction and a lot of map optimism where freeways were marked but hadn’t been constructed yet and we’d often end up behind a truck for a few kilometers. Southern Italy is totally mountains — as mentioned in the notes for an earlier trip, the autostrade was just an imaginary smooth line, made real by a succession of bridges and tunnels. At no point did the road actually follow the land itself. Driving on the autostrade gives you almost an aerial view of the fractiousness of Italian history: before bridges and tunnels there is no way that all those people could have known what was civilized even in the next valley. I guess the ones with a slightly larger vision ended up in New York.

Napoli is a busy city, but we accumulated enough maps to figure out downtown OK. My impression of Napoli after spending a day in public there, is that I have been in New York City without translation, or perhaps that I have met New York City’s parent. The people move the same and my goodness, the pizza! You must remember that pizza is a form of bread, one of the highest forms. This reality gets lost under all the toppings. And when I say that the people move the same I am not talking about the operatic gregariousness of some Sophia Loren movie. Fact is I have seen very few people in this country with the tips of their fingers held together and their lips pursed saying words that end in “issimo”. Maybe it’s globalization of something.

A kid took our picture on the bus from the hotel to the restaurant district, with his cell phone. He slouched or moved in a classic Napoli/New York way, if a gesture can be termed classic when performed with a machine that was invented three years ago. As a performance art substitute for cigarettes, perhaps: there is no smoking allowed inside in Italy, since 2003. His body language was insolent and gregarious. It’s not a metaphor to say that Napoli is the Alma Mater of New York City. So many of America’s residents came from the Southern Italy Diaspora. (New York City’s other parent may not be visited on tours any longer; it was killed in a tragic human accident.)

I’ll give you gregariousness: on the bus returning to the hotel, about midnight on Saturday Night, there was a huge number of kids moving from their first parties to their second, and they were loud and they slouched like Marlon Brando would slouch and gestured like Roberto Benigni made fun of as he upstaged a talk show host on TV a couple of nights ago; and it was all good fun and they got louder and in the movie version they were about to burst into “Funiculi, Funicula” except they didn’t, they started chanting in unison something that started with “Fuori” and ended with “Fi-Fo-Fa”.

In case you were wondering what happened to New York’s other cultural ancestor. I think it well, to be all melancholic. (You need to know that nobody else on the bus joined in this chanting. Most of them seemed bemused by the fascists. Irony perhaps moves society in the direction that Democracy tried to before it was so undercut by advertising psychology.)

(And I need to know, in principle, before slagging young Napoli or any tendency thereof, who or what it is they were telling to get out of where; although, even if they were quoting an advertising campaign on children’s television to evict litter from UNESCO World Heritage Sites lest it offend elderly Colored tourists from Saskatchewan, the yob way of encouraging this leads to a repetition of historical thoughtlessness.)

Our 10-year-old “food lover’s guide to Italy” pointed out a nice place for dinner which they said is the best possible archetype of pizza, and a place for the next morning which made the best possible example of sfogliette, a delicious shell-like pastry which is crispy and leafy on the outside (some special pastry tube attachment must figure in here) with a soft and warm filling on the inside (sugar figures in there).

Sunday, after breakfast, we headed for Pompeii. Getting there turned out to be quite a chore. We failed to take the correct exit, which had huge amounts of traffic, and took the next one instead, which also had huge amounts of traffic. We drove away from the traffic toward some other part of the site, which we actually had no idea of the location of since there are not signs to Pompeii inside Pompeii, just as there are not nerves in your brain, and indeed ended up at some back gate we couldn’t get into. A worker indicated by waving the we must go back and turn right. We headed back into town and parked as soon as the traffic jammed up again on a street which turned out to be named Via Crapolla, which perfectly summed up how we felt.

When we went through the gate, we realized we’d gone to the secondary gate. There were four automatic toilets. Three were out of order — a line formed behind us. The one that was “working” would have been laughed out of Burning Man — to say nothing of Formule1 — it was autistic. It had an idiotic procedure it intended to go through at about five minutes per customer no matter what you did in there, and it could not be persuaded. “I would prefer not to.”

They didn’t have audio guides there, so we just walked through the site being careful not to look at anything and headed directly for the main gate. Once we got there, everything got better. We discovered that we didn’t need an audio guide — they had reasonably extensive printed information keyed to the audio guide locations, and we found that we could get into both the “suburban baths” and “house of Menander”, two places that accepted only 20 visitors each half-hour for a few hours each day.

Pompeii is an amazing place. It is much better preserved than any other Roman site, having been frozen in time since 79 AD by waterproof, airproof volcanic ash. You can walk into intact buildings with painted hallways and walls. You get a reasonably good feeling of what a small Roman city was like. There were statues and mosaics and paintings all over the place that were in wonderful shape, compared to other sites. Still, it wasn’t perfect by any means — most walls and art were just fragments, but enough was there to get a good idea.

The suburban baths were cute because their changing room had paintings of various sex acts, which were presumably an illustration of services offered beyond just bathing and massage. There was a necropolis that reminded us of Petra, with little facades of buildings for the wealthiest deceased. And in a few places, there were somewhat grotesque plaster casts of people dying from ash inhalation — their bodies had left a void in the ash.

When we left the site, it was back into the huge throng of people which included not only tourists, but since it was Sunday, there were also hundreds of Neapolitans who like visiting the sanctuary located there.

So if you go to Pompeii, remember these rules:

  • Don’t go on Sunday.
  • Don’t take a car, take the Circumvesuviana Train.
  • Enter by the Porte Marina entrance, not Piazza Anfiteatro.

Monday we went to Herculaneum, a smaller site near Pompeii located on what was then the beach — the eruption extended the shore about 400 meters towards the ocean. It was fairly similar to Pompeii in terms of how well things had been preserved, but it seemed like even more of the houses were closed for renovation. Sigh.

Last Days In Sicily

October 21st, 2005 4:57 pm by Dave

Generally, I suppose, visitors to Siracusa might take at least two days; first to explore the “old city” located on the island of Ortigia, and later to explore the Archeological Park, Archeological Museum, the Papyrus Museum, and the catacombs. Our visit to the “old city” Thursday was quickly cut off by the major art museum being closed for renovation although there was a gallery showing a madonna on a motorcycle and a light shining on two eggs hanging from the ceiling, one in the shadow of the other — how will this be regarded in 400 years? Of course not Caravaggio, but most of what you see of that era isn’t Caravaggio either, but it has worn itself a cultural groove and what groove will the think pieces of Y2K wear?

We ended up walking through the church, some underground passageways used as air raid shelters in WW II, and by the fountain. This didn’t take long, so we decided we could visit the Archeological Park as well in the afternoon. It had a Greek theater, some large manmade cave structures (one called the “ear of Dionysus” because its acoustics were such that he could eavesdrop on his whispering slaves), and a Roman amphitheater. There were a bunch of other quarries and ruins and a huge ficus tree that were no longer open — you could see them from outside the fence. This didn’t stop them from charging six euros admission for the whole thing. We blew off the idea of going to the museum. But we did decide to walk through the San Giovanni catacombs, second only in size to those underneath Rome. The Romans decided to appropriate a Greek water system to build catacombs, using the cisterns for chapels, and the main aqueduct for the main passageway through the area. This was a guided tour in English with an Italian accent heavier than Father Guido Sarducci. While we were waiting for the tour, we walked through the enormous Sanctuary of the Weeping Madonna which dominates the Siracusa skyline. I suppose someone saw a weeping Madonna in a piece of marble, or perhaps a piece of pizza, and they decided to build a huge pleated cone structure to commemorate it. It’s very modern compared to all the other churches we’ve seen in Italy.

Earlier, as we were walking through the “old city”, we noted a little trattoria which wasn’t a pizzeria also, and was incredibly cute in its decor and menu. So we went there for dinner, which was thoroughly enjoyable. We had: one of the five(!) flavors of soup, squash leaves (we had apparently the only serving for the evening but another lady beat us to the only cassata); pasta with mixed seafood; sardines stuffed with egg and bread crumbs; a delightful vegetable plate including roasted peppers, a delicious caponata, and various other steamed vegetables. We ended with another cheese plate — Sicily seems pretty serious about its cheese platters: the two we’ve ordered have had incredible variety and volume. The server was from Lancashire, and had been married to a local woman for the last two years. If you’re ever in Siracusa, definitely go to La Foglia.

Friday we tried to do too much: Noto, Etna, and Taormina. We’d driven past Noto on Wednesday, noted by our 1995 gourmet guidebook for its mulberry gelato and for its baroque buildings, all suddenly rebuilt after the 1693 eruption of Mt. Etna and its associated earthquake. So we backtracked a little and checked it out. The buildings were very cute, especially the gargoyles holding up the balconies. The churches had an interestingly consistent look — they were basically white inside, with paintings featuring clouds that didn’t “stay within the lines”. But the gelateria that was noted, while still in business, was closed for vacation, so we weren’t able to get any gelato, mulberry or otherwise. We did take great consolation in having the first perfectly ripe Hachiya-style persimmons of the season, little mouth-sized ones.

One always hopes for clear skies when visiting a large mountain, hoping for views of the perennially snow-covered peak from far away, and hoping for huge vistas from the top of the road. This didn’t happen on our visit to Mt. Etna. It was raining a little, and was quite foggy the whole way up. We hoped to go on a short hike on a trail, and it wasn’t easy to find the trailhead, though we eventually did. It was good exercise, but we didn’t get much in the way of vistas. We did see the grass which has grown through the lava since the 2002 eruption, and the forest which illustrated how far the lava flowed. The traffic through the towns along the freeway getting to and from the mountain was a little heavy and annoying.

Taormina proved to be very difficult to figure out. The guidebook called it a “mountaintop town”, though our atlas map showed that it was right next to the ocean. Apparently both were correct. It’s entirely a tourist town, like Mont St. Michel, and it’s impossible to park. We arrived late in the afternoon, and it was raining pretty steadily as we tried to figure everything out. Ultimately we arrived at its Greek theater, which has good views of the city through the parts of the back wall which have been worn away through the years. And we found a good restaurant, where the most unusual thing we had was colt carpaccio. The Nero D’Avola wine we had (a red Sicilian wine) reminded me of one of my favorite Zinfandels, D-cubed.

Tomorrow may also be difficult — we have to drive a few hundred kilometers to Napoli, including a ferry crossing with the car from Sicily to mainland Italy. But we only have one Thing To Do on the list, and the driving will be easy because it will all be on the autostrade.


Taormina is stupid and I don’t know why anybody comes here. Well, they come here because they have heard of Taormina but why do they stay? Does anyone ever come back? After you’ve figured out that the map you have in hand actually does purport to represent the territory you’re in, and found parking, and walked up the 245 steps and 43 meters of elevation that it takes to get from the main parking lot to the town (by count and by GPS), you are in the middle of the Old World’s Major Factory Outlet Mall For Disappointing Souvenirs. It makes Carmel look like Buy Nothing Day in Delta, Utah. Except, on a cliff. (“How do you get a liberal to support Blue Laws?” “Rename the Sabbath ‘Buy Nothing Day’.”) United Colors of Bennetton ranging down to everything ceramic you ever saw in your aunt’s parlor or trailer and up to a bunch of brand names that Bret Easton Ellis would use to sharply delineate the various personality types of Westwood Eurotrash cokeheads but I don’t know that territory so well so you will have to imagine it.

Every Italian hilltop town has the same stuff as Taormina, but I guess it’s good that the people are here because it means they aren’t crowding all the other places. Is that theory still under consideration, that tonsils exist to attract germs and allow them to be attacked before the rest of the body is infected? Or was that some 1950’s Darwinism/Intelligent design montage long discredited? Keeping track of what’s true is a full time occupation.

About a hundred years ago a famous German pederast named Von Gloeden persuaded many of Taormina’s impoverished boys to strip for money and took pictures of them. So far, so good. Their facial expressions record their enthusiasm for the transaction and it started a fad for visiting Taormina and a fad for schlock neoclassic poses among the cherubs on the walls of European aunt parlors. (The fad for pederasty was already well underway.) Italians have never shared the American apoplectic horror at the sight of boy penises, and after von Gloeden died, his work was ruled OK by Benito Mussolini’s courts — not notably libertine — in the souvenir shops I notice you can buy tiny plastic busts of Mussolini which was tempting but the presence of that many goods puts me off shopping — and there are still post cards of von Gloeden’s boys being cranked out but they are so inundated by t-shirts with the names of soccer stars and VHS tapes of Etna erupting that they are almost invisible. This is how censorship works now. The Americans don’t want to be seen wanting to see that, but I had to seek them out and it was interesting to me that the post card rack on which I first encountered von Gloeden’s gloomy naked boys, was a point-of-sale display in some Taormina version of Claire’s, the little-girl-junk store that you all know from your local shopping center. Back there behind Hello Kitty and My Little Pony Carpaccio were the sepia penises of old. I didn’t buy any of the racy ones: as I said before, products put me off shopping and they cost €1.60 each and why should I spend that and another buck on postage when horny postmen are going to rip them off before they get delivered to special persons on my list? All von Gloeden’s images are out of copyright and on the Internet — you can Google them. Turn Java off.

The Internet Is Closed For Lunch

October 21st, 2005 4:56 pm by Dave

It’s been over a week since we’ve connected to the Internet and posted anything, so there’s quite a bit to say. It doesn’t help that all the Internet cafes in Italy are expensive and that most of them are open during normal business hours which is to say that they are closed for a few hours during lunch and only open until 8 at night. So here’s what’s been happening to us, and as we post this perhaps we’ll find out what’s been happening in the rest of the world.

Maltese Food Like Grandma Used To Make, and other Antiks

October 13th, 2005 6:17 pm by Dave

Tuesday, our last day in Malta, consisted of visits to Rabat and Mdina, a pair of cities high up on a plateau in the center of the island. Rabat featured a small cathedral and some catacombs which had been used by many of the previous residents of the island, including Romans and Phoenicians. Mdina is an older city surrounded by a city wall, with lots of palaces and a large cathedral. There were some really ancient Norman-era walls and doors pointed out, and some fascinating door-knockers. After visiting these towns, we checked out the enormous dome church in Mosta, which is said to hold 12,000 people. It was bombed in World War II, causing minor damage and no injury to the 300 people in it at the time — a replica of the bomb is on display. The fact that the bomb failed to explode is regarded as a miracle, and was fully explained to us by a pious woman whose particular tapasya is to approach tourists and recite a Marianite poem to that effect, for free. It would be interesting to hear how that explanation plays to groups of tourists from Canterbury, Coventry, and even Dresden (tons of German tourists in this part of the world), on the behalf of whose cathedrals the saints were unable to intercede.

The place where we stayed had a business card of a very interesting-looking restaurant which we tried and failed to locate on Monday. We tried again Tuesday night, entering its suburb from a different direction, and we were lucky enough to find a local who knew about it and could give us simple yet correct directions there. It’s called Ir-Razzett L-Antik, and in a Slow Food way, is dedicated to preserving and presenting traditional Maltese cuisine. We ordered only three items, including a plate of assorted appetizers. The most interesting was a ftira, which is essentially a Maltese pizza. Instead of a cooked crust, it’s a thick slice of bread; instead of slathered tomato sauce, there’s a little tomato sauce; instead of a coat of melted mozzarella cheese, there are large chunks of herbed goat cheese (at least on the flavor we got). Our ftira also had Maltese sausage and fried potatoes on it. Altogether, it’s quite tall — it’d never fit in an American pizza box. The third thing we had was leg of pork which had been cooked for eight hours in wine and apples. Along with date tarts for dessert, we were stuffed, and all of it was insanely great. Maybe next time we’ll go back on Fridays when they have a Maltese Feast buffet.

[Ray continues…]

Our return to Sicily on Wednesday was pretty stupid until about 5 pm. We got up at 5 am, and had some coffee and orange juice that our wonderful hostess got up to serve us and some other guests who had an early plane. We went on the short downstairs walk to the ferry terminal an hour in advance, got right on and waited for it to leave, and had a pleasant 90-minute crossing once it got underway 15 minutes early. “Pleasant” if you ignored the Kevin Smith movie. I have decided that he is the anti-Clint Eastwood. Where Clint Eastwood is obsessed by showing how characters who appear to be as stolid and upstanding as he is are secretly a mess, Kevin Smith wants to show how his boring middle-class dopplegänger are secretly long suffering saints with secret disagreements with the Pope about the nature of God. It’s called Protestantism, Kevin. You didn’t invent it. What precisely is the drama in choosing not to be a publicist when you aren’t very good at it? Who invented the chase scene to get to your child’s school play and why isn’t he in prison or at least one of the torture museums that are the repository of broken mannequins throughout the world? Abu Ghraib will be one, you will live to see it.

The plans were to take a bus or train from the landing at Pozzallo to Ragusa, where we had a car reservation. Taxis into town were offered, but we got distracted by a Hertz outlet right at the ferry, and we decided to check it out. After helping two other customers into their cars, the agent told us it would be 400 euro instead of the 200 euro deal we’d already booked, so we rejected the idea. Meanwhile the taxis were all gone and a gate had closed making the walk into town a half hour instead of fifteen minutes. With all our luggage. We found the combination of buses to take to Ragusa, arriving there just before noon. It seemed strategic to delay our acceptance of the car an hour or so so that we’d avoid paying an extra day, so we ducked into a restaurant for a snack. This totally backfired, because when we got to the office we discovered that it was closed until 3:30 for lunch. There were a few drops from the sky, and we took shelter in front of the Europcar office. The guy in the bar wouldn’t let us use his bathroom. Finally the agents returned, we rented the car, and then the torrential rains began. Fortunately they didn’t last long, and we had a nice drive in a zippy new little Opel diesel to Siracusa, where we’re deciding where to have dinner.

[The next morning…]

Where we decided to have dinner, Don Camillo, is a highly rated restaurant that is resting just a bit on its laurels and on the backs of tourists. Just for example, the soundtrack from a neighboring table was a loud lady from L.A. One of the nicest things about traveling in Islam is that a big chunk of American tourists are afraid to go there. They have been replaced by Germans. Anyway, about Don Camillo. A couple of years ago we were with James Shaiman and I forget who else eating at one of the almost-good restaurants that cluster around B44 in the Fisherman’s-Wharf-For-Yuppies quarter of the Financial District, and when the time came to order wine, we asked for a suggestion and the waiter made a show of discussing and pondering and said we should get some Rioja and I forget if it was right after he turned around or when the wine arrived, that James said, “He was going to recommend that wine no matter what we said.”

Well, Don Camillo is definitely one of those. I have no clue about Sicilian white wines but I thought I ought to try one some time and before the words were even out of my mouth the sommelier said, “With your menu, I suggest the bla-bla-bla.” I am just not combative enough. If I had the personality to support it, I would say, “What did we order, smart-ass?” but I don’t know any Italian, I’m a stranger to the whole area, and I have a soupçon of Asperger’s so I just trust them. The wine came. It was pretty much Kendall Jackson Chardonnay made a touch more inaccessible by whatever means vintners use to make wine people raise their eyebrow. It was only €18 so no great loss. The shrimp in the shrimp and tomato ceviche was a little tacky, like it had been in the fridge too many hours, or maybe frozen, I’m no expert. The spaghetti with swordfish chunks and pignon nuts suspended in a kind of raisin in applesauce base was great. The fried albacore (is that what “alalunga” means? The waiter didn’t know) with onion marmalade was also very nice. After two weeks in the Canned Tuna Zone (why do Tunisians put canned tuna in everything? And who told the Maltese that was what to imitate in Tunisian culture?) we needed tuna. The fennel salad was a cut up fennel bulb. This is a bold stroke; I think it would work even better if the EU was not mandating that all fennel be the giant bulbs you get in California that are all crunch. These were better than California but drifting in that direction. Olive oil and vinegar on the side. Nero d’Avola vinegar. Nice to have something besides balsamic. The Italians seem to be descending toward putting balsamic vinegar in everything just like home. It’s the new catsup. Dessert was way better than California. Some kind of soaked chocolate cake, underneath a pistachio cream of some kind, underneath a couple of other jam and cream layers. I think all Italian desserts are secretly trying to be tiramisú but that is not the worst life goal.

A Gradual Transition Back to Europe

October 11th, 2005 4:25 pm by Dave

The cheap hotel in Kairouan where we stayed, which became much more pleasant by taking the bed off its saggy frame and putting it on the floor, was located next to the town’s main food marketplace. When we had driven up to the hotel, it was easy to drive around some empty stands. When we got up, the car was entirely blocked in by food carts and stands of plywood on milk crates and the accoutrements of souqs everywhere. After evaluating and rejecting a few other escape routes which almost-work except for at one crucial turn your rear wheel has to be up on a boulder, we realized that we’d have to drive directly through the market. It was easy enough for a few vendors with carts to move them a few feet, but there was one point where the car would fit between two tables of pomegranates only if it were pointed a slightly different direction and there was no room for it to maneuver to get there. So about five guys picked up the back end and moved it to the left about a foot. It was quite an exhilirating experience overall. Meeting the locals and all. What must they think of us and our planning capabilities?

We went to the tourist office and hired an Official Guide, who charged only $7 for a tour of the town’s main sites; the large Aghlabite Basins, which were constructed to hold water for the town of half a million Kairouan had been in the past; various mosques, some in use, some not; a little mausoleum; and ending up, of course, with a visit to an artisanat where we saw carpet being made and had several different types of carpets rolled out for us. It was pointed out how easy it was to have them shipped to the USA or how they weren’t too heavy to carry, but we weren’t biting at that bait, and they gave up quickly. All of the mosques had the usual wonderful Islamic decorative touches, with layers of tile, intricate designs in plaster, and ceilings made from cedar of Lebanon. It was interesting that the large mosque’s prayer room had a layer of wood in each of its many columns to serve as expansion joints.

We drove back to Tunis, stopping on the way to see a picturesque place where a hot spring empties into the sea — the normal road there was closed just like Devil’s Slide and we had to approach from the other direction. The roads back were filled with honking, flashing cars with huge Tunisian flags attached — obviously there was a soccer game somewhere. We returned the car and took a taxi to the ferry terminal — the taxi driver had the Tunisia vs. Morocco game on the radio and honked the taxi horn excitedly when Tunisia scored; we didn’t find out how it ultimately ended up. The ferry was a nice place to spend the night, with wonderful in-room showers and nice foam beds.

Around noon on Sunday (oops, one; it’s still daylight savings time here) we arrived in Malta. The short taxi ride to the hotel was pretty stupidly expensive, but the little guest house where we’re staying and the rental car seem like reasonable deals. There is some kind of a rule about the first taxi in a new country being a complete ripoff. How do they sense that? I didn’t know much about Malta before arriving — the GPS didn’t seem to know about it either (and it included Pitcairn, for goodness sake) Malta has had people on it for a very long time, since 5200 BC. Those people seem to have vanished. After that, just about everyone that owned Sicily spent time here, including Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Hospitallers, a bunch of other Christian franchises, Napoleon, British, and tourists. The Maltese people seem to have been imported by the Aghlabites and Malti is a Semitic language although written left to right in Roman script. The people seem to be largely Roman Catholic. The Insight Guide says that the people were instructed to believe in Christ by Roger the First (well, originally by St. Paul, who converted the Roman ruler of Malta after the usual Christian fashion, and let the ruler tell the rest of the island what’s what) and the ones who still believed in Mohammed were deported to Calabria or someplace. It is a characteristic of surviving populations that they can believe what they are told to believe. How many fingers, Winston?

The place we’re staying, the Asti Guest House on St. Ursula Street 18, is a delightful little B&B run by an old lady and her sister. The house has been in the family for generations. The lady’s husband, who died a few years ago, had been an electrician who liked collecting crystal from broken chandeliers; he assembled a massive beautiful chandelier out of them which hangs from the stone arches in the breakfast room.

We set out with the little that remained of Sunday afternoon to see some of the ancient temples nearby. We discovered that the roads in Malta have notoriously bad signs to tell you either where you are or how to get to where you want to go. Somehow we found the Tarxien Temple which dates to around 3000 BC. We went to a few other places which turned out to be either permanently closed, temporarily closed, or just closed after 4:30. The guidebook recommended a restaurant in Marsascala which turned out to have a stupid menu; the next one we stumbled on was a wonderful little place called Tal-Familja which basically made us a Maltese tasting menu with fish soup, pumpkin soup, octopus stew, fried cheese, and lampuki, their favorite fish which is in season only in September and October. The wine was also quite good, and they were very nice, popular with locals and tourists alike.

Monday we set out to explore Valletta, the capital city where we’re staying. We went to the Museum of Archaeology, where the best artifacts from the prehistoric sites around the island are collected. In addition to spiral designs on rocks much like at Bend of the Boyne in Ireland, there are many representations of animals and humans. There was even a tiny model of a temple. Then we went to St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a large church which, though rather plain on the outside, had every square inch of floor, wall, and ceiling decorated on the inside. It was also packed with people. The floor was essentially a mortuary in which the person buried beneath each 1 x 3 meter plot had an inlaid stone picture in which he was illustrated as a skeleton in some context. The walls and ceilings had typical gaudy Catholic cathedral decoration — paintings, sculptures, etc. There was also a museum featuring Caravaggio’s “Beheading of St. John the Baptist”.

In the afternoon we set back out to see some of the prehistoric places which had been closed late on Sunday. There was a cave called Ghar Dalam in which many, many bones from European hippopotami, elephants, deer, and other animals had been found: these were exhibited in the “old museum” sorted by bone type — all the molars here, all the toe bones there, etc. A “new museum” room was a little more explanatory, showing where everything fit in in the timeine of the Earth. The Hagar Qim and Mnadrja temple sites were similar to the Tarxien temple we saw on Sunday, but on closer inspection revealed even more in common with the Boyne site, including alignment with the sun (it would shine in particular places on equinoxes and solstices), and corbelled roofs (slabs gradually inset over each other).

Ray had hoped to get to Gozo, the other island, but with only two days here it seems wrong to spend half a day driving/ferrying there and back, so we’ll spend our second day looking at catacombs and churches on the main island. We’ll just have to come back some other time (and we’ll reserve a tour spot in the Hypogeum, an ancient underground tomb, before we leave — it was fully booked for the next 10 days when we arrived).

Kairouan and On

October 7th, 2005 9:55 pm by Dave

Ray mentioned that he read somewhere that Tunisia is the world’s largest exporter of olive oil. This is easy to believe because there are olive trees everywhere (though they are often spaced much further apart than one would believe necessary) and they have a long history — even the Berber hill towns have olive presses all over the place. Most of our dinners have begun with a plate of olives, before we even order.

We saw plenty of olive trees today on our drive from Tataouine to El Jem. We also saw an installation of whimsical public sculpture in Mahares, a beach town which looks like it wants to become a resort. There was a beautiful very detailed horse made out of lots of rebar, and a 30-ft-high man containing a deck with tables and chairs about halfway up. These and dozens of smaller entries were part of the International Festival of Plastic Arts, held there every summer.

El Jem is the home of the ruins of a very large Roman amphitheater — it was said to hold 35,000 people watching lions vs. shackled criminals, lions vs. unshackled Christians, and, of course, gladiators vs. gladiators. It’s much larger than any other building in El Jem, so it’s not too hard to find your way there. A museum nearby consists almost entirely of exceptionally well-preserved mosaics found in excavated wealthy Roman citizen’s houses located in the immediate neighborhood.

Now we’re in Kairouan, the holiest Islamic city in Tunisia, and the center of their carpet industry. We decided to come here after arriving in Tunisia, and hadn’t booked a hotel in advance. The most recommended two hotels in town both turned out to be full before sundown, so we have ended up in a nearby hotel which is pretty least-recommended but won’t kill us as long as we don’t touch anything. We didn’t need a hot shower anyway. Or breakfast — hopefully someone will serve tourists coffee after the sun rises during Ramadan. The Internet, in addition to making planning ahead easy, has in addition had the effect of making let’s-just-go travel a lot more tenuous, because so many places, e.g. those with phone lines and other public utilities, are booked in advance. Especially on a Friday Night in a Ramadan Party Town like Kairouan. There’s a lot of competition to mortify the flesh in all the best places in the holiest of Tunisian cities.

The muezzins are chanting the night time chants from the nearby mosque (the one most close outside the window; there are zillions in Kairouan.) I expect after a while one tunes it out like a commercial in the days before fast-forwarding. It’s certainly the most pervasive impression one gets from traveling in Islam, even more so than carpet salesman, who after all can be avoided for the most part by walking on the other side of the street, or perhaps in another state.

The Barbary Hillbillies

October 6th, 2005 9:55 pm by Dave

The drive from Tozeur to Tatouine was full of varied scenery. First we crossed a seasonal salt lake on a causeway about six feet up. You could see that the road used to go on the lake bed itself, but that they got tired of its being closed — they dug out enough earth to build the causeway. Tozeur had the second largest “palmeraie”, or oasis of irrigated palm trees, in Tunisia; the road led us to Douz which reportedly had the largest. Tozeur’s seemed much more green — Douz is much more at the edge of the Sahara and had a lot more sand. It even had a little dune.

From there, the road turned west toward Matmata, and was just plain desert for many miles. Eventually it became rolling hills, establishing the beginning of the Ksour country extending between Matmata and Tatouine. Ksour is the plural of ksar, which seems to have two meanings. A “Berber ksar” appears to be a fortified village on the top of a hill. An “Arabic ksar” seems to be kind of a multi-story storage space (like the kind you rent in America if you have too much stuff to fit in your house) for grain, olive oil, and dates. It’s also a little like a Certificate of Deposit; the village will have rules about how much you can take out because it has to get you through bad years. Both are architecturally similar, consisting of little rooms called “Ghorfa” with arched roofs, so they have shared the name. Along with the ksour, large numbers of people in the area live in houses dug into the ground.

The other thing the area has as a common thread is that it boasts several Star Wars filming locations. In fact, there’s a planet in Star Wars named after the largest town in the area, Tataouine. We saw the largest one today, Ksar Hadada, which portrayed a city in The Phantom Menace — it’s currently being converted into a hotel. The smallest one, in Matmata, is already a hotel — it had the cantina scenes from the first two films.

[Ray continues:]
Matmata is a real hole. The minute we pulled into town we got accosted by a batch of guides, who said they would give us a one hour tour for 15 Dinar per person. The rate we’ve been getting has been around 10 per hour for both; but it seemed important as we were going inside people’s houses (or so we thought) so we settled on 15 for both and took a guide who spoke some amount of English.

He had us drive to the Sidi Driss Hotel (the “Cantina” and something from some later film) and park and then spent the rest of the time on his cell phone chatting to his friends in Arabic. The “house” was just a model set up for the purpose; and everything we saw we would have seen without a guide at all. This is the experience you have doing business with all the dealers in the world, you contract for some piece of Work and as soon as you reach an agreement, the only thing you see of them is the back of their heads as they phone around for their next contract. The Art of the Deal.

After 45 minutes I was ready to leave. Having lived in Los Angeles, I am not going to be completely bowled over by an abandoned movie set. They have a charm. It was interesting that the set was made of some kind of dense foam rubber molded into treads and painted. The house also was interesting. Being surrounded by tour buses was not. Having been ripped off was also not. We drove out of town and headed for Techine, where we were also accosted by townspeople to show us the houses. The difference was, that we were the only people in town other than the residents; and the guy we were with asked for 3 dinars at the end. We also gave 2 dinar to the manager of the underground olive oil press. It was clearly was a working press, having mashed olives in vats and a put-upon looking donkey roped to a stone and kids’ toys on the ground. In the made-for-touring places, no matter what they purport to be, you see a rack of postcards and the same identical loom with about two inches of carpet started on it, so that you Get the Idea that the Natives are Weaving. I swear, if you went to a telecommunications software development facility, they would have one of these looms set up with the first ten lines of #include’s to make you feel they were doing something. And terra cotta tajines for sale in the lobby.

The kids in Techine were so untouristed they didn’t even want their photos taken. They had rabbits in an underground cage. Familiar territory for the rabbits. A beautiful sunset drive to Medenine. Then a stupid drive to Tataouine; a policeman stopped us and was seriously looking at everyone’s ID and taking it back to the office, I think something real must have happened. Maybe it’s just the latest al Qaeda sortie in Bali. When we got into town we got a little lost twice but ultimately made it to the hotel where the man wasn’t sure whether the paper we have is a voucher though that’s what it says.

We’ve spent two full days in Tataouine. Yesterday was spent mostly ksar-hopping east of town, from the meticulously preserved Arabic Ksar Ouled Soutane to the ruins of Ksar Jelidat. Today we toured ancient Berber villages west of town, including Ghermassa, Chenini, and Douiret. All of them have a corresponding “new town” close by, where most people moved when they got tired of living in mud and stone huts with no electricity or running water because running water is what makes the walls fall down. A few people still live in the ancient villages. The people we’ve encountered in this part of Tunisia don’t seem quite as nice as further north — the guides in Chenine also wanted $12 for 30 minutes of leading you 100 feet while talking on his cell phone (he got $7; you never know at the outset how hard it’s going to be to find your way and we’ve failed to connect with a couple of more obscure ksour), and kids haven’t been taught not to beg from tourists. Or they have been taught that it’s advantageous. It must be a little odd to live in a village that’s been there for 800 years and all of a sudden tour buses are running your goats off the road on the way to some wrecked grain storage facility that you wouldn’t use as a latrine, and make a movie in it. And, their shoes are worth more than the net assets of your family. Except for the royalties. Of course there were royalties, weren’t there Mr. Lucas?

Eclipse in Tozeur

October 3rd, 2005 10:28 pm by Dave

The sketchy Internet connections have resulted in new logistics for writing these memoirs. Now we write them on the computer, and put the file on a CD along with photos we’re backing up. Then, when we get to the Internet cafe, it’s just copy and paste. It’s easy even if they don’t have a US keyboard layout, though I’ve learned how to install that on Windows as well. Tunisia reportedly has “forbidden” sites — I have no idea what they are. Maybe the bad connections are because some central Tunisian ISP is keeping you from going to the bad sites. But there were large signs in an Internet cafe in Tunis which tell you not to go to them, and if they were blocked, why would they bother asking you to avoid them?

Friday we drove to Sbeitla. We took a small road, and a wrong turn onto a smaller road (we wondered why there wasn’t a sign), whose pavement ended and became an occasionally sandy occasionally bumpy dirt road. Miraculously we came out on the correct road after awhile and we didn’t have to turn around and do it all over. The guidebook told us that the ruins there were best viewed in the morning, so we just headed for the hotel. The one recommended, which we had tried and failed to call from Tunis, seemed not to exist — we never could find where it was or where it had been. We went to another one which was pretty minimal — we had to ask for pillows, toilet paper, and another blanket, which they raided from various other rooms.

The monuments in Sbeitla were pretty nice, but we got there too early to get a guide; we hadn’t realized that it had just become not daylight savings time. There were some nice temples, a restored bridge, a restored theater, and some baths which had collapsed so you could see where the heating went. It all looked pretty nice in the early morning light.

We left around noon Saturday, and drove thru the desert to Tozeur, stopping briefly in Gafsa to see the Roman pools which a kid dived into, twice, a dinar a dive. The second time he bounced off a wall just like Boris’s cat. The landscape looked much like Nevada, with the occasional olive orchard. We checked into our world-class $96/night hotel that looked pretty empty and whose rooms smelled bad. It does have a nice clean pool, though, and I guess we’ve gotten used to the smell. Tozeur is a pretty tourist-oriented town, and has Tunisia’s second-largest oasis of palm trees.

Sunday we took a long day trip. First we backtracked to Medlaoui and boarded the Lezard Rouge, a tourist train which goes up into the gorge of the Sedla river. It goes up to a phosphate mine and turns around and goes back. The cars were extremely cute, dating from the 1920s, and there were some nice views of a muddy green river cutting through a dry canyon. Then we drove west to Mides, Tamerza, and Chibika, three oases in the mountains where a 22-day rainstorm in 1969 washed all the residents out of their mud-based homes and they all had to start over. In Mides, a guide led us past souvenir stands, through the old village, and down into a gorge where scenes from English Patient and Star Wars were filmed. Tamerza was similar — it had a tiny waterfall which we found with some difficulty, since the guides were unpleasant to deal with. By the time we left, it was dark, and we returned to Tozeur.

Today, Monday, was Annular Eclipse Day, and it was beautifully cloudless all day until late in the afternoon just in time for a cute sunset. For the eclipse, which reached its peak around 10:15 am, we went downtown so that we could share our viewers with locals, and experience their experience. It didn’t get very dark at all — the tiny faraway moon took four minutes to cross the sun. There were lots of little plants and trash grates which cast nice projections of crescents and rings during the various phases of the eclipse. We ended up in front of a cafe, and probably 50 or 60 people came up at some point and looked through our carboard goggles left over from some previous eclipse. It was disturbing to see that someone else had gotten some goggles in town that had some cheap blue filter of some sort that didn’t protect at all.

This afternoon we took a break and didn’t go anywhere. We took a dip in the pool, I read my book, and Ray wrote lots of postcards. But the action will continue tomorrow as we drive through Douz and Matmata on our way to Tataouine.