28 February, 2009

Cinque Terre, part II

The morning after our arrival, one of my friends and I got up at 5:00 am to see how things looked at about that time. We walked around in some rather icy wind for about 2 hours until the sun came up and the rest of our group was ready to head out for the day, but the area was gorgeous at that time: everything was quiet except for the sea and the wind, the moon was high over the bay, and the harbor with all its moored boats was lit only by two yellow lamps.

These pictures give a general idea of how things looked as the sun came up. I know the last one is crooked.

Anyway, early in the day we went shopping for food. There were three small grocery stores on the street which had their produce displayed out in front, and there was a fish truck on the side of the same street. We bought foccaccia and brie for lunch, and then for dinner ended up with two fresh fish (scales and everything still on them), several tomatoes, butter, a clove of garlic, pasta, zucchini, more bread and cheese, a bottle of wine, and a few other things perhaps. It was a bit tricky buying exactly enough food to use up in one night, which explains why we used butter instead of a huge jug of olive oil.

We left all that in the kitchen of the hostel, bought some tickets to get into the national park area, and went hiking. The hike was breathtaking. It still is, presumably, but our weather made it particularly nice. It basically consists of a walk (not much of a hike at all to be honest - it's too flat and easy) along the very edge of the cliffs of Cinque Terre, and connects all the towns. Unfortunately, only one part of the path was open at this time, because it was off-season, and rockslides had completely knocked the path off the cliff face in most of the rest of the park (which, to those who were wondering, is one of the reasons we couldn't have jumped the fence and walked back anyway, even had we been able to get unanimous assent to such an activity). We finished the walk and ate lunch on the way (recall the lovely bread and brie - a half kilo for only eight euro!). In the neighboring town we just strolled around the paths through the terraced areas and explored a bit before my foot began to get sore and we turned back. (Ah yes, that... for the record, I sprained my ankle playing capture the flag about a month ago: it's still sore, but I can walk on it no problem now. Then it was only a week after it happened, and my foot was still about 1 and a half times its normal size.)

We spent the rest of the afternoon reading the Oresteian trilogy and studying for a Theology test on the beach at Riomaggiore, and after watching the sunset (absolutely spectacular in itself; see below), we made dinner.

Ahhh, dinner. It was marvelous, despite the lack of basil or oregano for the sauce. We used garlic and some of the rosemary that we picked (it's used as groundcover here: it grows everywhere!) along with the tomatoes and zucchini to make a pasta sauce. The one guy who came with us (the brother of one of my roommates) scaled and cooked the fish, and other people watched the pasta. Then we roasted some garlic and mixed it with melted butter, spread it over the bread, and toasted it in the oven to get garlic bread. Incredibly simple and delicious.

19 February, 2009

Cinque Terre

So here's the promised but long denied scoop on Cinque Terre.

Hands down it's a great place to go. Especially if, like my group, you go when it's not the height of tourist season. Cinque Terre is a series of five tiny towns sandwiched among mountains on the shore of the Mediterranean. Or to be more accurate, the Tyrrhenian sea. It's pretty gorgeous naturally, which is one of the reasons the area is now a national park. And its national park status is in turn much of the reason that it's a huge tourist attraction. Despite that, the national park status has been very nice in the sense that the towns in the area are preserved in a remarkably traditional manner. They're tiny and crowded and brightly colored, with the surrounding hillsides covered from the summit to the place where the buildings stop climbing the hill completely terraced for olive trees and vineyards. Of course, the town itself is designed to be easily accessible to English-speaking tourists, but there wasn't a touristy feel to the place so early in the off-season, and everyone was very friendly.

My friends and I stayed in a tiny hostel tucked away in a narrow street near the harbor in the town of Riomaggiore. Actually, we had a rather amusing time getting there. We took a train from Rome to the north, and then switched trains with the help of an Italian lady whom we got to know rather well on the four hour ride, despite the fact that she knew no English whatsoever and we hardly any Italian (she had been in Rome to see the Pope and was delighted to hear that we were Catholic and wanted to see the Pope too). We successfully boarded the train to Riomaggiore, but when it stopped at that station, it stopped behind the platform for our car - we were still in the tunnel in the hillside and couldn't get out. We explained this to the next conductor, who let us off at the next stop, five towns up the coast. All well and good, but there were only three options for getting back: breaking into the national park area and hiking, swimming the whole way, or taking a returning train.

It's hard to buy return train tickets when the machine is out of order and the ticket booth worker has decided to skip out for the night.

Not knowing what to do, we made a dash for the next train which was pulling up at the opposite platform just then. It was probably quite a sight, all seven of us running madly towards the head of the train (not getting on the thing; we didn't want to be fined for not having tickets!) lugging backpacks and schoolbooks. However, there wasn't anyone there to see it but the conductor, who got out at that point to check the platform and sound his very official conductor's whistle.

We collared him, and tried to explain our situation, but he kept motioning us to get on the train; "We don't have tickets, no tickets" we kept explaining. He responded "Tre stop, Riomaggiore".

You should know at this point that rules in Italy are by no means hard and fast laws. Their implementation is almost always at the discretion of the worker you encounter that day. So this conductor, apparently, decided that tickets didn't really matter for seven desperate American students who needed a ride back on his nearly empty train.

However, we didn't hear him quite right, and some of us thought he said "one stop". So at the next stop, the wrong one, we all piled off, very quickly, to avoid being stuck on the train again like at Riomaggiore the first time. The conductor came rushing out of his car. "No NO! Due stops!!" TWO stops! He rather bellowed it, and we sheepishly climbed back on board.

When we finally got off at Riomaggiore, he came out of his compartment again, beaming at us and spreading his arms wide. "This is Riomaggiore!" he announced.

And so it was. Many more interesting things happened before the night was over. We got slightly lost looking for the office to our hostel, but as there are only two major streets in town, this was easily cleared up. At the office, we found a letter and a key waiting for us. The former gave us detailed and cryptic directions to our hostel, which was located in a totally different part of town. Rather like one of those kids' treasure hunts, you know.

Anyway, the hostel was very nice, though, as I said, very tiny. It "fit" 11 people into a space where US fire codes might have allowed three. But it was very clean, nicely decorated, had two bathrooms (one of which was accessed by going outside, down some steep stairs, and into a closet underneath the main doorstep), and had a kitchen. This last will figure prominently in the next installment of this tale.

For now I must sleep.

09 February, 2009


Aeschylus - what a name! Apparently, it's pronounced "ehss-kih-lus", so I've learned something new about the guy so far at any rate. In high school I recall, I didn't even bother trying to pronounce it.

His Oresteian Trilogy is, of course, world famous by now. It was world famous back in his day too, but at that time the "world" consisted of the Mediterranean shoreline, so I think we can say this is a bit of a step up for this particular Greek playwright.

All joshing aside, the plays are marvelous. And yes, I tend to have a similarly enthusiastic response to nearly all the literature I read (with the very definite exception of Hemingway and a few others). Nonetheless, I am not alone in this reaction, although perhaps the generally nerdy - in the best of senses - population of UD is no more reliable a gauge for some purposes than I am.

The plot draws heavily upon traditional Greek mythology, so I'll basically recount the story as it's told there. We open in the play with the return of the Mycenaean king, Agamemnon, to his home after the Trojan War. He's coming back to a house and family - the "House of Atreus", as its called - which has been cursed for several generations now. The family patriarchs have a habit of committing gross violations of the natural order of things: Agamemnon's own father, Atreus, is guilty of having killed his own brother's children and tricked the poor guy into eating them (for the record, this was meant to be just revenge for the "poor guy's" affair with Atreus' wife). Agamemnon himself has the grisly record of having sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia, in order to win fair winds so that he can sail to Troy, kill some Trojans, and return a conquering hero.

Anyway, as the play begins, we very soon learn that the cycle of violence and vengeance in Atreus' house is not about to disappear anytime soon. Agamemnon's wife, Clytaemestra, has been conspiring with her lover, Aegisthus (the only surviving son of Atreus' brother) to avenge the deaths of Iphegenia and Aegisthus' siblings. They succeed in their plot, but the integrity of their motives is called into question when they promptly seize power and exile Orestes, Clytaemestra's son, and begin to mistreat her daughter, Elektra.

Resenting her mother's bad behavior, Elektra, about ten years later, prays for a champion to come and avenge her father's death. The next thing we know, Orestes shows up, bearing a firm order from Apollo to kill his mother or die trying. He does, and what follows is a vastly fascinating trial which poses the Furies against the gods in a struggle to decide Orestes' fate.

There's a whole lot of complexity in the actual play itself, but the central question is "What is justice, and how do we achieve it?" The play vacillates until the final judgment (and, I would argue, offers no firm conclusion even then) between reading justice as a dark, retributive force meant to restore order to the deepest elements of the world, and seeing it as primarily obedience to the will of the gods.

There's a lot that comes from this question, but I have no space to examine any of that here, obviously. I'd be very much surprised if it doesn't come up again very soon, however. In the meantime, I must say - read this yourselves! It's pretty short, even with all three put together: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and Eumenides. Definitely worth your time.

08 February, 2009

Today was a perfectly charming day. A friend and I walked to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer residence, after a hour+ long wait for a bus that never came. It was a bit of a hike - about an hour uphill - especially considering that both of us had injured feet (I sprained my ankle Thursday night). But the town and the view at the top was definitely worth it. Castel Gandolfo itself is a lovely town, with a single small piazza surrounded by the Pope's residence on one end, a church on another side, and a bunch of small shops and a very nice cafe on the other. There are a couple of very small and very quiet streets (although they're probably swarmed during tourist season) running parallel to the rim of the lake crater. Oh yes, there's a lake here too. This has formed in the neighboring craters of two extinct volcanoes, in the middle of the Alban Hills - it's called Lake Albano - and thus the area just around the lake is ridge with a very steep grade leading down to the lake.

On the walk up

Castel Gondolfo

View of Lake Albano from the ridge

Today, after buying some delicious, hot chocolate (cioccolata calda), extremely thick, almost like melted chocolate bars, and only barely sweetened, we studied in the back of the cafe for several hours, talking about the Oresteian Trilogy, the nature and relationship of tragedy and comedy, and the . . . you guessed it . . . the meaning of life (ha!). It was great. Then we hiked down a steep, winding path nearly till we got to the lake itself, before having to get back up to the Church at the piazza for Mass.

The Cafe on the piazza

Oh, on another note, unrelated to all this Castel Gandolfo stuff, I have to mention something I learned yesterday. Early in the morning, a group of us got up to go to daily Mass at St. Peter's. Afterwards, Msgr. Fucianaro, our campus chaplain, showed us around a bit. Among other nifty things, he pointed out this enormous circular bit of porphyry inlaid in the floor. Porphyry is one of the hardest stones in existence, and you could see how the marble around it had worn down over the years while it remained unaffected. Also, there's no more porphyry left unused in the world, apparently. Anyway, this particular bit of porphyry is the very stone on which Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD! Can you believe it?

06 February, 2009


Having stayed the night in the “small” (by some standards) town of Stabiae, the place where the Roman Admiral Pliny the Elder died after inhaling poisonous fumes from the looming Vesuvius, we turned our attention to Pompeii on Saturday. There is, remarkably enough, a modern town of Pompei (the modern version drops the extra “i”) built practically on top of the ancient one. The volcano, and the fact that it's by now quite overdue for another eruption, doesn't seem to bother them.

The ancient version everyone knows about was incredible. It's much larger than I had anticipated – nearly all of it has been excavated by now, and so the area is about the size of a large but densely populated city. When I say large, I mean there were probably about 25,000-50,000 inhabitants, which isn't bad at all, especially if you're living in the ancient world, where a city of over a million would have been gargantuan. (Apparently, cities in the million+ population range are pretty common nowadays. Or so they tell me. They still seem anomalous.)

There are some cordoned off areas at the site, but one of the best aspects of it is the fact that for the most part you can wander through the streets and into houses and shops at will. Varying states of preservation can be found, as you might imagine. Some places look just like conventional ruins – you know, the type that to an untrained eye looks like a rather boring pile of rock. Others were magnificently preserved: their first floor-level roofs intact, their gardens flourishing with plants that would have been here in 79 AD, fountains bubbling, and wall paintings and mosaics very much intact.

It's remarkable to picture the ancient world in color, and Pompeii helps one do that. When you consider that these oh-so-aesthetically pleasing statues, now pristine and white, were once rather garishly painted, it rather alters your immensely high opinion of their taste. None of that is to say that the sculpture isn't great. And the murals on the walls and the mosaics on the floors would all have been even brighter than they currently are. But the paintings are very nice in themselves. To those of us retaining an image of a pure, clean, white ancient city, however, the reality would be rather startling, I should think.

Naples Museum

So by now, I'm long overdue in giving an account of our class trip this past weekend to the southern Italy region of Campania. We took buses down to the notorious city of Naples on Friday for a tour of the Naples Archaeological Museum led by our Art and Architecture teacher, Dr. Flusche. The museum was great - one of the best archaeological collections in the world, with hundreds of mosaics, statues and other artifacts from the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The museum itself is a palace that once belonged to the Spanish Bourbon family, who initiated excavations at Pompeii. Much of the collection was once theirs, while another significant portion was once the property of the Farnese family, who were responsible for digging up lots of interesting artifacts at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

In the olden days, archaeology was about the equivalent of the modern hobby which involves running a metal detector over a beach in hopes of finding a lost pirate stash. (The Bourbons and Farneses were more successful than your average modern treasure hunter.) Due to the unscientific attitudes of the searchers, a good many of the sites they found so fascinating are now in less perfect condition than many modern archaeologists might hope. Nonetheless, it was rather nice of them to leave us museums full of the stuff, and I rather wonder if the artifacts would have been nearly so well preserved if it had lain in the ground being buffeted by proximate building projects for another few hundred years.

Here are some photos from the Museum now. I'll have to ramble on about Pompeii a bit later, since I want to get up at 4:30 to go to Mass at St. Peter's tomorrow morning.

The Farnese Bull, a very famous sculpture

Farnese Hercules - This was supposed to be a rather humorous statue, since you've got a picture of Hercules, the strongest man to ever live, looking quite wiped out. Doubly humorous was the fact that it stood at the doorway of the workout room at the Baths of Caracalla.

A piece of the Alexander mosaic, found at Pompeii. The mosaic as a whole, which I didn't get a good picture of, depicts Alexander defeating the Persians.

Athena! Best goddess ever!

Now, this was my favorite.

03 February, 2009

Marino Schools

So, today was my first day on what is known as the "Marino Schools Volunteer Project". Essentially this program is set up to bring University of Dallas students into contact with fifth grade kids from the schools in a neighboring town. The idea is for us to try to teach them some English through total immersion...obviously this "total immersion" stipulation encourages enrollment, considering that perhaps 5 to 10 kids on campus speak Italian with any real aptitude.

The experience today was fantastic. A group of about 20 students (which is nearly a quarter of our campus population) went to Marino and the bus dropped us off in three different groups at three different schools. Before it was jolly well possible to take a deep breath, I was in charge of five Italian ten-year-olds. They were marvelous. A bit shy at first, but by the time we got onto the topic of jumping out of airplanes with parachutes and being buried in volcanoes and playing tic-tac-toe, they were shouting and laughing and talking volubly in Italian with a degree of loquacity only younger children possess.

By the time we were ready to leave, several of the boys were jumping up and down, asking us to come back soon and so forth. And that we will be within a week.