Monday, March 21, 2016

Getting “High” In Italy

     When I first moved to Italy I did my best to see every famous cathedral, museum and castle within means, filling my weekends and sometimes weekdays fulfilling the needs of a tourist on a mission.  Unfortunately, the first few years of this gluttonous touristing caused what I call being  “museumed out”   This occurs when you have seen way too many museums, villas, castles, exhibitions, and far too many cathedrals.  Your eyes begin to tire and your tired brain slows and you begin to remember less of what have seen.   You enter a cathedral and you begin to hurry through and you take less notice of things.    Your foggy brain, eyes and soul need a change of pace.  This behavior is not akin only to foreigners, Italians also feel the need for change.  I have found a good answer to this. 

Rugged Exterior
After reading several books by Italian soldiers of WWI, I decided to set about looking for sites and battle areas of  “The Great War”.   I mentioned my reading about World War I to my neighbor, Luigi, and he suggested a short road trip up to Folgaria where in another 4 kilometers we we could visit an old World War I fort called Sommo Alto.  

Close To Verona, Padova
Viewing the map here you can see that Folgaria is north of Verona and east of Lago da Garda.  Look at the map and you will come to realize how close the battle lines were to Verona and the cities beyond.  This important area is all farming and Italy depends on it for agricultural products.  For this reason the lines of battle stretched from here all the way to Trieste.   This area has numerous forts similar to this one, which were occupied by both sides.  It was important for the Italian army to stop Austria and visa versa.

Beer Stop With A View
You have only two choices to reach the fort, hike up or take a chair lift which runs year round.   We chose the chair lift as it is quite a  walk to the top and  we were able to see a lot more perched in a chair above the trail.    The chair lift lets you off  very near a large house which has a beer garden atmosphere with stupendous view over the area.  Inside the  restaurant has a good menu and I recommend that after you visit the fort you walk back down for lunch.  

     After another ten minutes of walking up to the ruins (5,291 feet), the view, for me,  evoked a strong emotion, realizing that Austrian and Italian soldiers struggled to live here throughout the war.   What a hard life that must have been.  
Turret For Artillery
Sommo Alto, built and reinforced from 1911 to 1914 of reinforced cement, now shows signs of disrepair.  Occupied by Austrian soldiers through most of the war, and famous for the battle called Asiago it was bombarded constantly by artillery perched on other mountain tops.  Italian soldiers took it over in 1918 and years later the fort was given to the town of Folgaria.

      During the war the Italian government was very corrupt and sent the soldiers next to nothing to combat the cold, such as sending shoes that were made of cardboard and fell apart after one day.   The men did not eat well as food was scarce.   Everything was brought up by mules not by trucks.  During the war the  men staged a revolt and the officers reacted by using their weapons, shooting several men and forcing the men to realize they had no choice but to go back to the lines.  

    When the men were to climb out of their protective embattlements and charge the other side, the officers were ordered to shoot anyone refusing to go forward.   The men were forced to charge the three lines of barbed wire and multiple machine guns perched in high places with clear fields of fire all while being bombarded by artillery fire.   It was a life of multiple suicidal charges and the result was that thousands on both sides would needlessly perish.

There is no entrance fee to Sommo Alto or other forts in the area.  There are no guides, but you will find some information signs around  the fort.  You are allowed to go inside and also climb up on top.  The whole site is completely open.  There is also a lot of information on Sommo Alto written by Italians on the internet.
Hiking Trails In The Area

     If you are interested in World War I history, you might also look into visiting the Shrine of Redipuglia.  Built by Mussolini it is the largest shrine dedicated to the fallen military of the Great War.  It was inaugurated on September 18, 1938 after ten years of construction  and known as the Shrine "of hundred thousand", because it contains the remains of 100,187 soldiers who fell in the surrounding areas.    This memorial is easily found on the north side of the autostrada near Trieste. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Tracking Down da Vinci

The Duomo
   A whole lot of people visit Milano for the shopping and then spend a few hours wandering over to visit the Duomo, pictured here.   They can take a tour of La Scala and go shopping for fashionable clothes and shoes.   You might even take a tram and visit the Sforza Castle before you visit the painting The Last Supper (La Ultima Cena in Italian).

      I am not your normal tourist kind of guy.  My highest thing on my to do list in  Milano was not  the shopping, the food or even seeing the impressive cathedral called the Duomo.   Since I now live in Italy I have the luxury of electing to see those sights on another visit. I was driven on my first visit to this city to find connections to the life of Leonardo da Vinci and Milano when he  worked for the Sforza family in their big castle.  He was employed to create war machines and give advice on strategy to win  battles.   Da Vinci is famous for one in particular where his advice defeated the Venetians to take the city of Ferrara by boat.  

     Known at the time for more than being a great painter, Sforza used da Vinci’s creative mind to decorate the castle and in presenting theatrical plays.   History tells us that he took charge of creating the  decorations at the Sforzesco Castle for the wedding of Gian Galeazzo Maria Sforza (only an infant—one of those arranged marriages) and Isabella of Aragon.  When the Sforzas would have a famous visitor, da Vinci was used to create entertainment complete with Hollywood style lighting effects.  

                              Where did George Washington Sleep?
     I had read several books on Leonardo and I hoped that I could find the exact place where he lived.  The plot of land where he lived is not noted by by signage or on any tourist map.  I knew it was quite near where the Last Supper is painted.  Using the descriptions I found in several books I eventually found the very spot where Leonard owned his small plot of land, grew grapes and had a few animals.  It was from here that he would paint or write his plays and design presentations for the Sforzas. Standing where his home would have been, were apartments, built in the 70’s.  This place was surrounded by other apartment builldings, and clearly he wouldn’t be able to recognize it at all.  Even at that it felt good to be standing where his house would have been.  In America there would be a big sign and probably a souvenir stand and several fast food joints.   Somebody wouid figure out a way to sell tickets complete with headphones and a map.
                                            Ultima Cena
     I hurried back as I had a reservation to see his famous Last Supper.   You have to make a reservation weeks ahead.  Going inside one can see the years have been cruel to the painting, once being part of a barn, and open to rain, humidity, etc.  The monks, years ago, cut a hole for a door in part of it.  I was more awed by just being lucky enough to be there.   I always thought that this was the only Last Supper painting Italy but now I have seen at least 5 others in the same style.

                                             Don’t Miss This
      I want to mention the Duomo, the huge cathedral this sits right in the middle of Milano.  It is most impressive as you can see from my photos.   They started construction in 1385 and finished it in 1813.  You realize the  motivation they had to keep working, to keep building, and yet, know most of them  would never see the completed structure.  That’s vision!  We are the lucky ones.

You wonder who had the job of counting the  3,159 statues in and on the Duomo.  You can see some of them in the photo.  What is totally awesome is that you can take an elevator to the top and walk around on the roof and see the statues close up.  Many of the gargoyles look to me like Disney created them, those faces, tongues hanging out, those eyes, quite captivating.  Then you look out and see the view!  It is worth the price of the elevator ride and more!   (There are the stairs for those needing exercise or the aged.)

       The Duomo is huge, and the design inside is filled with beauty.  Like all cathedrals in Italy you walk in a circle taking it all in, the paintings, the statues, the windows.  Then suddenly you reach the place where lies the body of the revered Saint Charles Borromeo.  You can see other saints dressed in vestments clothing and looking as if they are sleeping.  You see a lot of this in Italy, these shriveled up and spooky looking cadavers lying in a church.   Mark Twain, after his visit to the Duomo, said that the old saint should be left in quiet peace.  Along with centuries old men the viewers can see the heart of Borromeo and other relics from the past.   This is not unique to Milano.  In Padova, for instance, you can see the jaw of St. Antonio on display.

     Tourists think of Rome, Florence and Venice and their impressive cathedrals, but in the north of Italy, Milano has its charm.  Clearly the Duomo is one of the most beautiful cathedrals in all Europe.  When you visit Italy, you don’t want to miss out on Milano.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Padova Homes
Buying A House In Italy

Some years ago in a movie, Under The Tuscan Sun, a divorced California teacher on a gay Italian tour bus suddenly had a thought to buy an old house in Tuscany.  She had a lightning moment, jumped off the bus and in one scene later signed the papers and to complete the deal.  What a romantic story that was!  (Ok, the music helped a lot)  How twisted the facts of obtaining a home in Italy!  I always wonder how many people, after viewing that movie, decided to act on their romantic dream to buy a house in Italy but were beaten down by the process.   I have read stories of more than a few.

Hollywood made it look so easy to buy, sign the papers and the very next day pick up the key.  What happened to all that  Italian bureaucracy!  Paperwork pushed around, titles rubber stamped with a bang, bank wirings, notarizings, lawyers, it goes on and on.  You just don’t immediately move in.  

Let’s say you get the bug, somehow obtain a visa to allow you to stay longer than three months and you decide to unload your bank account and buy a house.  What happens, how do you start? 

                                                The Big Sell
Before I begin to explain the reality, let me explain the comparison between America and Italy by telling you how my home in Northern California was sold a few years ago.  I have readers from many countries and I need to compare selling in America to how it is done in Italy. 

In order to sell our house in California our agent told us that we needed “stage” our home, and during two weekends  they would serve munchies and wine while attracting other agents and possible buyers.   He brought in a professional “stager” who also brought some special furnishing to spruce up the home.  We had to move some furnishings around or to the garage and the result made  our home look more like it came out of a magazine.  I have to admit it worked like a charm and our agent got a bigger chunk of our sale in the process.   It sold the first weekend.  Now let’s compare this to how Italy does it.

                                              Your Hunt Is On
You begin your fishing expedition to find the Italian house of your dreams by visiting a real estate office.  My village has one and once in awhile I see an old fellow,  resembling a short Rodney Dangerfield,  hunched over a desk.  He’s not there every day.   Luckily he is there sitting and dreaming of the last sale he made more than 6 months ago.  (Homes have not sold well here for the past 6 years.)  He sees you, a sheep to be sheared,  and hoping that your window shopping will bring him luck. 

                                               In The Window
The Real Photo
In Italy, when you visit a real estate office you will see only one or at the most two photos of the home offered.  There is no finesse in this. The photos show an empty room, a window view, or the front of the home.  You see one discouraging photo, no furnishings, nothing proudly displayed in Home and Gardens.   You realize you are going to be groping in the dark to have any idea of what is available.  It’s very difficult to  imagine yourself vicariously living in quiet comfort in that photo when you see that cold empty room.  You are going to have to drive to a lot of places to narrow down the possibilities find your ideal home.

Romantic View?
I have to admit I do not understand this approach.  Sellers are clearly not interested in attracting your interest with a extra photos of reality.  There is no bait to catch you, the big fish, no photo book showing each room, front and back of the house and yard.  This astounds me!  That old guy sitting behind that desk will make no effort to earn his commission.  Actually, I am not sure they work by commission as everyone in Italy is salaried.  For example, my car salesman never moved from his desk, and he admitted he was not on commission, hence he had no desire to move sales along.  (another story)
However, what is more difficult to comprehend is the condition in which the homes are sold.  
                                              The Showing
You park your car, and your agent is opening the front door.   You walk in and there is nothing but walls, a ceiling and a floor.  Total emptiness.  The wires hanging from the ceiling explain the lack of lighting.  There is nothing irresistibly charming.  What is striking is that you notice that Italian homes are built with fewer and smaller windows saving construction costs, which makes the house feel quite dark small.  (My neighbor, where I live below me, has only one window!)  

You want to see the kitchen, of course, and you walk in and there is nothing, no countertops, no stove, no oven, no heater, no shelves, no window, no sink, no cabinets!  The previous owner took them with him.   Your moving in costs just shot through the roof.  This is a reason that IKEA is very popular in Europe.  They sell all the things you will need, complete with delivery and you can also have them build the furnishings for you.  (Not an ad for IKEA but we used them for just about everything.)

Checking out the bedroom you find there are no built in closets, that Italians have to buy a wardrobe in which to place their clothes. IKEA again!. This wardrobe takes up some space in the bedroom, and must I tell you that Italian rooms are much smaller!   All rooms are smaller.  Bathrooms are smaller.  Closets are unheard of here.   Wires hang from the ceiling where light fixtures will be needed. You will see no carpet. This is not just an Italian thing, my friends who moved to Holland found that the previous owner had ripped the carpet from the floor and taken it with him.  This buying of a completely empty home is not just an Italian thing.  
                                           And Then The Paperwork
I like the Tuscan movie, it has real charm and I think that with the movies we are making nowadays we need more like this one.  I just wish they would come a little closer to the truth.  I experienced the truth, and now you have a glimpse of my life in Italy.             Ciao!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Losing Your Pants At The Amusement Park

Italian Newspaper Article Today
     I miss the newspaper.  I miss a cup of coffee and a bit of worldly catch-up.  There is no home delivery of newspapers in Italy.  They think this custom is a bit strange.  I could go to my local newspaper/magazine shop and purchase one, instead I will walk to my local bar for a coffee and try to read any of several editions free.  In the middle of loud Italian conversations and the deep smell of cappuccinos, with my computer set on google translate, I will attempt to make a perfunctory attempt in translating a few articles. Translating is made difficult because the writing in Italian newspapers is loaded with a indigenous vernacular that cannot be translated literally with a dictionary.

March 2, 2016
Front Page
Today there was only one article in my bar’s  Italian newspaper having something to do with United States.  Nothing about the election, only a bit of information as to the fight between Apple and Obama over the cracking into the cell phone of the terrorist.  It was a good three paragraphs long with a photo of a cell phone.  
     Usually it’s always good to see what Italians think.  Sometimes I find that they see us more clearly than we see ourselves.  Sometimes I am embarrassed.  Oftentimes I am angry.   Today, they know nothing of the election, they have no idea of the politics behind the scenes.  They, of course, have their own political problems.

     I am also glad that Italians do not see American news, such as the kind one finds in  There are many articles that I consider NOT newsworthy.  Who is wearing what, Who sang the National Anthem badly, A small plane lands safely in backyard after engine ices up, New fragrance inspired by Putin goes on sale in Russia, Best Marijuana Dispensaries in Colorado (according to Coloradans), and always the shootings:  today’s example is  about a  pastor’s brother shooting him during the choir singalong.
     Surely there are  more compelling issues such as, poverty, corruption, mass incarceration, pollution and downright greed.  It’s a lot easier to write about what dress was worn at the Oscar’s.  Let’s face it, a reporter can watch the event at home in her pajamas and bang it out on the keyboard a lot easier than digging and researching  important issues.   Walter Cronkite, where are you?

     Do we really need to know what Hollywood celebrity has just put their massive home on sale, or that a  Bucks County woman surprises husband with baby announcement on flight,  or how about A Woman Loses Pants On Carnival Ride?  I am sure the amusement park increased their ticket sales with that “woman loses pants article”.   
     One begins to consider, where did that article come from?  Who is it meant for?  Someone did a poll recently and the results revealed that one in 10 college graduates think that Judge Judy sits on the Supreme Court.  Makes one wonder, doesn’t it?  Is the percentage higher in South Carolina?


1.40 Euros
Right now, sitting here in my village bar,  the sun has finally conquered the clouds and the rain here and is shining brightly in the window of my bar.   One older lady, who comes every day for her social fix, and the barista owner discuss the issues of the day.  The wind has calmed and I see by the weather report that temperatures will rise this week and put an end to winter.  The lizard I saw last week will come out from his hole in the wall, and soon I will be able to have my coffee Americano outside in the sun.  Life will seem better.  Spring is a good time to be in Italy.