Leaning Towers and Last Suppers

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.