Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Moment To Reflect

  The Abbey of Sant'Antimo in the hills below Montalcino in Tuscany is a wonder. I had it on my list of "must see" for a long time before finally making it happen this past year. I don't know why I waited so long.
  We had spent most of the day in Montalcino (see 'A Day in Montalcino') and decided it wasn't too late to go a little further. The day was kind of overcast and moody, perfect for the visit. The Abbey itself is a former Benedictine monastery and was commissioned by the Lombards to be built in 770. It was to be a stop over for pilgrims on the way to Rome. Now it is inhabited by Canons Regular. You can visit at certain times of the day to hear prayer and Gregorian chanting.
  We were too late for the chanting, but they do pipe in recorded sound, and it was so hauntingly beautiful, I can only imagine the real thing. Driving down into the valley from above, I loved the first views of the Abbey....

From the road leading down into the valley

  The large Italian Cypress tree did not disappoint. I had seen photos, and read about it, but it still kind of took my breathe away. Plus, the area around was full of tiny white daisy flowers in the ultra green grass. It was a lovely, soft contrast to the stark architecture. And the color combo of the stone against the green...well, beauty.

Walking up to the Abbey as the sun was getting low.

  On the inside, I really did think we were hearing the true chanting going on, not just a recording. The acoustics are divine. The light is unreal, too. The walls are mostly travertine and alabaster, so the sunlight is magical coming through. The feeling inside is meant for contemplation.

Getting all Holy, and that's just fine.
Amazing stone work. And light.

I really love this woodwork in the ceiling.

  There are lots of sweet details, with columns, friezes, and lots of carved stone flora and fauna. I really like the playfulness of the stone carvings, especially the small animals. The more we looked, the more we saw.  From what I've read, it's mostly alabaster and travertine. Golden glow throughout, that's for sure.
  I always feel funny taking pictures in these hallowed spaces, but everyone else seems to be going for it. We always obey the signs that say no photos, and I guess it's ok to take advantage when there are no restrictions.

Follow the leader on a Roman column....I'm gonna getcha...

I would love this in my garden.

Color that has seen centuries go by. I can only imagine. It's so beautiful, all that gorgeous patina.

  After we spent a good amount of time being awed on the inside of the Abbey, we took a little time to walk around outside. There is a small community of monks still living on the property, with gardens, olive trees, and lovely stone out buildings. It was nice just walking around. 
  We saw that there were more carvings all around the outside... 

Whaaaah! I like this very much. The stone is just so cool.

Beautiful shot of an outside wall, with all it's color and carvings.

This photo knocks me out. It really lets you know where you are. I would
love to see all that lavender blooming.....
  I'm so glad we bucked up and pushed ourselves further that day. It would have been a shame to be so close to this wonderful scene, and not visit. But honestly, I really want to go back at the crack of dawn to hear the chanting..... 

Just like that....   (only way better).

Thursday, March 1, 2012


  Lots of people know about Vernazza, one of five small fishing villages turned major tourist attractions. Located on the Ligurian Coast in Northern Italy, this is a wonderland of beauty. The five villages are known as the Cinque Terre. This entire area was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, and in 1999 became a National Park. 
  It's known for hiking, water activities, great food(best ever foccacia and troffi with pesto...) and some of the most spectacular views of the sea ever. Look it up, and you will find too much info on it. We, like thousands of other travelers, found out about it by watching all those Rick Steves PBS shows. He is a fan. It's a fantastic place to unwind and do nothing, while watching the tourists and locals do their thing.
  On October 25th, 2011, Vernazza and Monterossa al Mare were really hit hard by a torrential rainstorm. The other three towns have fared much better, from all I have read. Poor, lovely Vernazza was hit with twenty inches of rain in some four hours. Devastating. A raging river of water, mud, and anything else that was in the way, came rushing down the hills into the narrow main street, leaving in it's wake thirteen to fourteen feet of mud. This means all the first floor businesses were under mud. 
  From what I have been reading, much work has already been done, but the town still needs it's infrastructure done over, and loads more. Lives were lost, and the town was evacuated, save for the younger folks who stay to help with the clean up. 

  I'm writing about it because when these tragic things happen, there is an initial outpouring of help, but then it slows down. We waited until now to send in a donation, and hope to do much more, as time goes by. We have been to this town a couple of times, and have wonderful memories, like so many people do. We plan to go back, when they are ready to have guests again. In the meantime, I will enjoy sharing a little bit of Vernazza with you.

The main drag in town. Just down from the little train station.
Imagine water and mud up to the first level of balconies....

Locals and tourists hanging out on main street...
A lovely sight, hopefully to be seen again in the future.

  When I think about the amount of water and mud and just everything else filling these little local businesses, it's heartbreaking. If you are able to see the videos of all the cleanup, you will get an idea of what these folks have been through. Many of these shops have been in the family for generations...

Where we would get our scrumptious cheeses and fruits for the day....then down to the waterfront
for a picnic dinner at sunset.

The most awesome foccacia ever, and hot from the oven. Yum. We will be back, and so will Vernazza.

   As you head down the main street (Via Roma), you wind up in the little piazza, where you see the church, several trattorias, and local kids kicking around soccer balls. We loved watching the kids, and as always, the Grandmas.

Main piazza in Vernazza, with the church in the background..

Well known for it's seafood, these boats venture out all night for night fishing.
All the hills in the area are full of grape vines.

  Some of my fondest memories of the Cinque Terre, are the little things. Walking along the narrow cliff-hugging paths, village to village, and seeing sweet personal gardens, lovingly cared for. Like mountain goats, we would see grandpas traversing these tiered cliffs, tending to the watering and weeding of their veg gardens.

A gate to a garden on the hillside.

AND it lit up at night, with a little night light thingy!

  Back (seems like way back) in 2006, we planned a trip to Italy for a few weeks. I had been working at a new job, and was waiting an appropriate time before asking for some vacation time off. It meant waiting extra long in between trips for us. So we got it all figured out, Cinque Terre, Siena, Lucca, and wherever else we found interesting once we arrived. We knew we wanted our first few days to be in Vernazza. Good place to just slow down and de-stress.
  It was the flight from hell. The plane was overcrowded, and the seats seemed so much tighter...and the two tots right behind screamed the entire fifteen hours, while the other kicked the back of Johnny's seat nonstop. I felt so sorry for the poor, exhausted looking parents. It was hard to get mad, they looked so miserable and guilty (someday, god, let us fly business at least).
  I remember turning to Johnny at one point and saying "This just isn't worth it." I've never been so uncomfortable and stressed on a flight. Seriously.
  So, we get to Florence, hop a train to Pisa (don't ask me why I didn't have us in Pisa airport), then on to Vernazza. We arrive a full twenty four hours from the time we left home a little before dinner time, find our lodging and collapse. Drag ourselves into the shower, shake off the tension and jet lag as best we can, and head out to dinner. As we wander down Via Roma, towards the sea and main square, it starts to feel pretty damn good. We hike up the hill to see if there is any way we can get a table at the little cliffside place above town. And yes, the foodie gods are smiling our way. We sit, literally on the edge of the world, watching as the sun goes on down into the Ligurian Sea. We are eating the most delicious pesto lasagna in, yes, the world. It is a moment of exquisite bliss.
  I look at Johnny and there is only one thing to say. "This is so worth it."
  We had a great few days in Vernazza, and all over the Cinque Terre. It seemed like we truly decompressed while there, and we were sad to leave. We talk about spending a month some off season time in the future. Until then, and with all that has happened in the area, we will just try to help as much as we can, and let others who may not know, that they can help, too. Here's a good place to start:

The Golden Hour approaches....above town in Vernazza

Another shot from the cliffs above Vernazza

We sat under one of the white umbrellas for the best first night dinner, ever.

Watching the sun go down into the Ligurian Sea.......