Sunday, June 22, 2008

Italian Adventure: Milan (Part 6)

Part 6: Milan

James: On Monday, 11/19 we took a six hour train ride back to Milan. The train was full, and a little late, but otherwise no problem. A long day though. We got a simple one star hotel room for $40 near the train station. We ate at Brek's and checked some e-mail, then went to bed. Milan turned out to be the city we had been dreading in Rome. It was characterless, congested, smoggy, and difficult to see on foot. In the 4th century, it was the capitol of the eastern Roman Empire, but nearly all traces of Roman buildings or life are gone, giving it a modern, industrial, and ugly feel. The next day we walked around town (it was sunny, but cold), and saw the huge gothic Duomo, the Galleria, and an excellent archeology museum (with great Greek painted ceramics), but is wasn't especially enjoyable. The food and gelato was good though. Milan wasn't that bad; it's just that after Rome, it was somewhat of a let down.

Everywhere we went in Milan (and much of Italy), people had pet dogs with them. They were mostly small and cute, but we also saw many German Shepards. They walk them on the city streets, and take them into cafes and bars, or leave them (often without a leash) outside a store or restaurant. We even saw one dog playing catch on the old cobbled streets with a ball. In Milan, they had a large park where many people were walking or playing with there dogs. They always made us smile.

The other thing we saw everywhere, even more than dogs, were couples kissing and making out in public. It would be hard to throw a rock in Italy and not hit some young (or older) couple in a passionate embrace. Many of them appeared to be attached at the mouth, or groping. And the Italian women are very sexy and dress so fashionably! WOW! What is it about Italy?

On Wednesday, 11/21, we took a shuttle bus to the airport for the final trip home. We were missing our home and Kitty by now, and were looking forward to returning. We got a kick out of watching the dogs at work at the airport. I wonder why bomb-sniffing dogs are so happy and friendly? We saw the dog at the airport standing on his hind legs drinking water from a large tub in a utility room. After 20 days together night and day, we were starting to get on each other's nerves. She even managed to lock herself in the bathroom in the airport and had to call for help (I could hear her in the men's room - "Yep, that's my wife"). I was trying to decide whether to get the jaws-of-life or send in the bomb-dog, when someone let her out. Why do these things only happen to Rachel?

Rachel: I should have been suspicious when the bathroom stall I entered had a large hole kicked into the bottom. Obviously, others had had trouble getting out.

After an 8 hr 45 min flight from Milan, we finally touched down in Newark. When we deplaned, the first Americans to greet us were these big beautiful black women in bright red jackets directing people to various customs and immigrations lines. I was so happy to see their beautiful faces, I could have just hugged them all! After being up nearly 24 hours straight, we were finally home!

Italian Adventure: Rome (Part 5)

Part 5: Rome

Rachel: While talking with other travelers, we kept hearing that Rome is a good place to go - some people even said it was their favorite place. We weren't even going to go, as we had heard so much about crowds, congestion, pollution, tourist-traps and pick-pockets, but we had a hunch that we may just like it (we also wanted a change from the small-town scene), so on Thursday 11/15, we took the train to Rome - and we were glad we did. In Arezzo, we were only a 1 hr 40 min train ride away from Rome and it would have been a shame not to go there. We ended up liking Rome immediately, and liked it more the longer we stayed. We found the traffic and tourism to be worse in Florence. Rome was a great city for wandering, maybe one of the best in the world. And it was warm, and after some scattered showers the first day, sunny with not a cloud in the sky. Who cares about visiting museums when the entire city of Rome is a sight unto itself? It's true, it's true, we loved Rome! What a pleasant surprise!

James: On the train to Rome we sat with a friendly lady from Poland who was living in Arezzo and was going to see the Pope on a day trip. She invited us to not only stay with her in Arezzo if we returned, but also with her parents back in Poland (we have their addresses just in case). In Rome we stayed in a perfect little hostel called "Casa Olmata" near the Colosseum. The hostel is seven long flights of stairs up to a roof top terrace with free Internet, communal dinners, and an unbeatable view of the city, especially at night. We ended up getting our own room on the 2nd floor for about $35 a night. The couple running the hostel were great. If you think it couldn't get any better, it also includes free breakfast (coupons for a hot drink of your choice and a croissant at a local cafe), free movies every night, and they cook and serve free full course dinners with wine twice a week Rick Steves discovered this place when it first opened, and includes it in his guidebook, so that most people staying there have Rick's book. Mirela, the owner, says that Rick is very handsome and funny (Che pasa, Signor Steves?) He stays there once a year he likes it so much.

Rachel: We walked all over Rome during the four days we were there, seeing the Colosseum, Palatine hill, the Roman Forum (superb ruins!), the Trevi fountain, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, Trastevere, the Capitoline Hill, St. Peter's Basilica, and many other old buildings and churches that you can't help but stumble upon as you wander around. Another great thing about Rome is the street cats. They live around town, especially in the ancient ruins. In the city center, there is a thriving colony of street cats that live in a large area of ruins that is closed to humans. It was a sight in itself, as you could view the whole area from the modern street level (about 20 feet above the ancient street level) from a piazza surrounding the ruins. All the sights we saw were free (we didn't do any museums). We ate each day at "Brek's," a self-service restaurant with very tasty food (you get tired of pizza stands after a while). Rome is also an excellent place to roam around in at night. The Colosseum and many ruins are lit at night.

James: The second morning we were in Rome, we got to see a huge political demonstration and protest right outside our hotel window. For about two hours, thousands of people of all ages marched by in the streets, with banners, flags, drums, songs, chants - you name it. It seemed to be a mix of many different groups: There were labor supporters, environmental groups, the Communist Party, anti-war protesters, anti-WTO protesters, social reformers, the Socialist Party, Northern Italian separatists, and many others. Italy has a very strong liberal political current, although the conservative parties have usually controlled national politics. There is a history of political struggle in Italy that has resulted in violence at times, and the government seems to dissolve and reform continuously. It was great to see so many young people here who care about making the world a better place. It was certainly a good photo opportunity.

Rachel: We got to know the young travelers at our hostel (we were the oldest by far) at the communal dinner at the spaghetti party on Friday night. They served a tasty vegetarian dinner and the company was excellent. There were Italians, Canadians, Australians, Japanese, two ladies from Iceland and Americans eating with us. I got a little disgusted with some of their young and cocky attitudes--we were never like that of course. On our floor, a group of young Italians were in Rome for a weekend of good times. One of their group (and I think there is always someone like this in any such group) was the loudmouth class clown type. He kept shouting "Lucca" at the top of his lungs. James had gone to download some photos on the internet and I stayed in the room and relaxed. It was dark and deserted and I heard one of the Italians yell long and slow, "Loooocca…" and then he repeated the name, yelling it louder and louder. It sounded pretty creepy and I watched the clock hoping James would bust a move back to the room. I am not sure whether Lucca is a real person, as he never responded. That night, it would be perfectly quiet, then we would hear "LUCCA . . . LOOOOCCA!" from down the hall and we'd bust up laughing. Soon we were doing it ourselves everywhere we went. If we get another cat, we're going to have to name him… you guessed it "Lucca!" Actually, we met the Italians at dinner that night, and they were very polite, just full of youthful zest and exuberance.

Our last day in Rome, we split up for the afternoon-James to take photos and I managed to wander around on my own without getting lost. I went to the Pantheon and sat down to people watch. I joined with others cracking up as a little black poodle humped the leg of the little boy who had him by the leash. That little dog was something else. If the little boy walked around, the dog bit at the leash, and if he stopped, the dog started humping his leg! The little boy seemed oblivious to it all.

During our entire trip, I could count the overweight people I saw on one hand. Based on my observations, the reasons for this appear to be that their portion sizes are about 1/2 of what we are used to; their food is not smothered in processed cheese like our versions of Italian (and Mexican) food; they rarely snack on junk food and pops; their bread and food is made with basic wholesome ingredients and lacks the long list of artificial colors, flavors, additives, preservatives, etc., the desserts and sweets are never sickeningly sweet or rich or covered with thick frosting like ours, and their fruits and vegetables are very fresh and taste crisp and sweet unlike the mass produced chemically ridden produce we settle for at our "supermarkets." In Italy, it is definitely quality over quantity.

Italian Adventure: Arezzo (Part 4)

Part 4: Arezzo

James: On Tuesday, 11/13, we took a bus to Arezzo. It rained on the way to the bus, stopped while on the bus, and of course started pouring as soon as we got off. We took a city bus to the youth hostel, which is an enormous villa with a huge garden just outside of town. We got a nice room to ourselves for $30. This was the only hostel we stayed in that wasn't full. Arezzo is a small medieval town in eastern Tuscany, and we liked it immensely. For some reason, we just were in a bad funk in Siena, and only by leaving town could we shake it. Arezzo was perfect: small, little traffic, very friendly people, excellent sights, no tourists, and great food and best of all it didn't rain (at least not much). Arezzo is a walled city with an enormous fortress from the days of warring city-states. The fort was free, and is still in a pristine condition. It was set in a lovely city park, and we walked nearly alone through the entire compound, the ramparts, buildings, caverns, towers, etc. It was right out of The Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons. We also toured a Roman amphitheater and aquaduct, and some of the best churches of our whole trip.

Rachel: We especially liked the church of San Francesco, which was simple and unpretentious, but with a quiet beauty that the gaudy over-decorated duomos can't come close to. Excellent art and frescos inside as well by the Piero della Francesca. Unlike Florence and Siena, Arezzo was a charming town that really grew on us the more we stayed.

James: We also found the best gelato of our whole trip here (gelato is the real reason we came back to Italy: Imagine the greatest home-made ice cream you've ever had, and it will pale compared to gelato. It seems to be a cross between custard and ice cream, but there's nothing like it. It's my favorite dessert of all, hands down). Meanwhile, my razor had gotten dull and unusable by this time, so we stopped into to a little tiny barbershop on a side street to get a shave. Eros, the curator, was a classic little old Italian man, but he was super friendly with us, and we had a good time hanging out with him. He was very curious about my digital camera, and I showed him my photos on the display. He wanted to know how much it costs to buy one. Getting a shave in an old-fashioned barbershop is always a treat for me. We also met a few people walking around, Alfiera, a poet, and a cantankerous old man who we couldn't keep quiet (his friend kept telling him to "Shut Up.")

Italian Adventure: Siena (Part 3)

Part 3: Siena

James: On Friday, 11/9, we caught a bus to Siena, where we splurged for a hotel room ($55 for a double, bath and shower down the hall) at Albergo Bernini, which is run by the very friendly accordion-wielding Mauro. We kind of got tired of hostels after a while, and it was great to have our own room. It even had heat (the hostels never do), which turned out to be a good thing, as Siena was bitterly cold. We made good friends with Chico, a black and white cat that lived at the hotel. Chico visited us each morning on his "rounds," sitting on the bed and playing with us (a great way to start the day). One day when we returned to our room, Chico was inside waiting to bolt out the door-he must've gotten in when the room was being cleaned that day.

Rachel: We just walked around town the first night. Siena is a small-to-medium sized town that has perfectly preserved medieval streets and buildings, including the beautiful Piazza il Campo, the public square that is the heart of the city. The winding cobblestone streets, tall stone and "burnt siena" colored brick buildings and archways make it a beautiful place. As a bonus, traffic is highly restricted in the city center, which made it perfect for leisurely strolls through the old city streets. We found our favorite pizza place on our whole trip almost next door to our hotel: "Mister Pizza," which might lack a good Italian name, but more than made up for it in heavenly pizza ($1.30 for a huge slice). We had tried one or two other places before finding it, but once we did, we ate there everyday. James's favorite was potato pizza, without red sauce, covered with thinly sliced potatoes and rosemary.

James: At one of the pizzerias, we ordered a stuffed spinach pizza, then asked for it "caldo" or heated (all food is made ahead of time, and when you order, they will heat it for you in ovens). The lady getting us our food ignored us, so we asked again, then she kept repeating the price, so finally I pointed to the oven and asked, "Caldo?" when she stormed off in a rage, screaming "Caldo" and getting into a huge argument/fight with a manager, who eventually took her in another room and closed the door. I don't know if I was being especially rude, or if I was the tenth person in a row who had insisted that she heat up some pizza, but I definitely didn't make her day. I almost thought she was going to come out front with a knife, her manager trying to drag her back, so we got out of there fast and ate on the go. As we were leaving, another lady came out, and the next customer ordered and asked for it "caldo," and they popped it in the oven with a smile.

Rachel: An Italian we met at an internet cafe recommended "Ciao," a self-service cafeteria, with delicious home-cooked meals for an unbeatable price. These cafeterias ended up being the best places to eat, with amazing and varied meals with wine for about $5 per person. Just take your tray, and pick out whatever you want--salad bar, dessert table and cooks behind counters cooking up 3 types of pasta or risotto dishes to choose from-all prepared in smaller quantities--very fast and very fresh.

James: The next day, and all other days in Siena, it was cold and rainy. Rachel caught a cold, which put her in a crabby mood for the first time (she had been doing very good so far, which is saying something. Rachel, at least when traveling, is kind of a cross between Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy and Gelsomina from the film La Strada). We walked around town and saw the Duomo, and had some good food, but the rain just wouldn't let us enjoy ourselves much. Unfortunately, our favorite activity is walking (we really don't see many "sights") and either rain or cold doesn't bother us much, but the two together were miserable. Rachel's journal for Siena has one word above all: Rain! Our first day was so windy that our little umbrella was nearly destroyed! From then until the end of our trip, when we were huddled under our pathetic twisted umbrella in the rain, we referred to ourselves as "Les Miserables."

A payphone was right outside our door at Albergo Bernini, and each night a couple from America would call home to talk to their kids and their grandfather about what they did that day. They had rented a car, and were having a much more exciting and enjoyable trip than we were, so we began to look forward to eavesdropping on them each night. The father had such a wonderfully pleasing and joyful way of speaking with his kids. I had wanted to go out a meet him, but I never did, not wanting to spoil a strange notion of mystical being that I had in my mind, who calls from exotic destinations around the world and lovingly describes the amazing things he has found. In better times, this guy would have been the storyteller of his tribe, and probably a memorable one.

Our last day in Siena, I got the great idea to take a road trip to the picturesque hill town of Montalcino, in southern Tuscany. It rained on the way to the station, where we missed the bus and had to wait for two hours. (Rachel: It was a three hour wait.) As soon as we got on the bus, the sun came out and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Our bus ride through the vineyards and villages of Tuscany was great. However, the second we got off the bus in Montalcino, guess what happened? It started to rain… After walking around the deserted town in the cold rain for five minutes with our pathetic umbrella, Rachel had HAD ENOUGH! She took the next bus back, but I stayed. It stopped raining soon, and I took a two hour hike through the country side, passing vineyards, old churches and farms. I finished my day with an excellent glass of local wine in a pub. It turned out to be a great day-trip after all. Rachel visited the Church of San Domenico, where Saint Catherine is buried (the first female saint) and her preserved head and finger are on display for pilgrims. More phrases from Rachel's journal for today: I want to go home! I miss Kitty! We checked our e-mail for reports on our cat (she was doing just fine, but a little lonely).

Italian Adventure: Florence (Part 2)

Part 2: Florence

James: On Monday, 11/5, we took the train to Milan, with the help of Anna from our hostel, then got train tickets to Florence. It was our first time negotiating the train system, but it really was very easy. The Milan train station is an amazing building, built in the 20s by Mussolini. It is a monumental and stunning building with marble walls, fresco paintings, and a glass roof. We found the train system to be a great way to get around. On our first trip, we drove a car, but we could hardly imagine now negotiating Italy and its crazy streets. We got the last two beds in the Florence youth hostel. We were surprised to find most of the hostels and backpacker hotels to be full on our trip. Italy, being warmer, is still popular in the off-season, and the independent travelers have not let the fear of terrorism stop them from coming, so it was always very lively. We could tell that the tour groups and busses were way down, and businesses that rely on them are suffering right now. At night, it was obvious that many restaurants were empty.

Rachel: Our first night in Florence we walked around, and I bought some roasted chestnuts from a street vendor. It was our first time eating them and they were good! Our first view of the duomo at night was stunning. Our first day in Florence was rainy off and on, so I bought a cheap umbrella for $5. We toured the Uffizi art gallery, which was good to see, although a bit overwhelming. After a couple hours, we found it hard to concentrate on the paintings. We liked the Botticelli, Raphael, Carravaggio and Rembrandt paintings especially. The rain stopped in the afternoon, and we walked around town and ate some pizza from a by-the-slice pizzeria, which usually have tasty and inexpensive food. At the hostel, we stayed in a four-bed room with various people, first a couple our age from Australia (nearing the end of their 7 months' long travel), then two young Japanese (Hiro and Takwaya (sp?)), who were very friendly, but didn't speak much English, and a young outgoing Canadian from Toronto, Rob. It was a very nice hostel, with movies every night and breakfast (granola and yogurt). They kept showing The Godfather each night for some reason. Except for the Australian couple, who were our age, the hostel was exclusively younger travelers in their 20s. Although we got to know our roommates, we had a harder time fitting in here. Most of the kids smoked, making the common rooms unbearable. We enjoyed walking around Florence by night also, and always found something good to eat, although our staples were pizza, foccacia, and pasta.

James: It would be rainy off and on throughout our stay in Florence, but it was warm and it didn't bother us much (not yet anyway). We toured the Duomo, one of the largest churches in Europe, with the greatest dome of them all, built by Brunelleschi in the 15th century. We climbed to the top of the dome, which had great (although cloudy) views of Florence. We spent a lot of time walking all over town, especially the Arno River and the famous Ponte Vechio (a multi-story pedestrian bridge from the 14th century). I also had the chance to meet our friends John and Mike from Minnesota for some good food and beer. By chance, we just happened to all be in Florence together at the same time.

Rachel: My idea of fine Florentine dining was getting great pizza slices to go and taking it back to Ponte Vechio to eat on the bridge at night. Our last day in Florence, we took a day trip to Fiesole, and small town overlooking the Arno valley. It rained a bit, but we had a good time walking around town, and we took a long hike through the forests and countryside outside of town. Back in Florence, I found some pretty scarves and a great outdoor market. James hates to hear this phrase, but in my opinion "the best shopping" was in Florence-not that I shopped all that much.

Italian Adventure: Menaggio (Part 1)


James: Our first trip to Europe was a huge success and tremendous fun. Our three week circle tour of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy was enjoyable from start to finish. For the past several years, I have wanted to return to Europe, especially to Italy. Rachel usually watches Rick Steve's Travels in Euorpe on PBS, and I had been growing increasingly frustrated at watching Rick travel, but not being able to go ourselves. We always had a trip planned six months away. In the spring, we talked about going in the fall, and in the fall, we talked about going next spring. I had been looking into traveling on my own in 2001, which I think finally caused Rachel to realize that I would be going, with or without her, and we finally began to get serious about planning a trip. I left the decision where to go up to her, but we both liked Italy so much on our first trip that it was an obvious choice.

Rachel: We chose November 1st was because the "off season" airfare to Italy starting November 1st drops dramatically from about $800 to $500, thus saving us about $600. Additionally, I did not want to leave Minnesota in the early fall because I wanted to enjoy Minnesota's lovely autumn and Halloween.

James: Rachel's packing began months ahead of time, with a detailed list and preparations. My packing begins the night before. We brought so little that it really didn't take very long to assemble everything. Eventually, Rachel could get me so mad by asking, "Do you think I should bring these pants?," which was a daily event for some time. But I suppose that my packing was made much smoother and easier by her careful planning ahead, so I will give her thanks despite the pulled hair.

Rachel: The night before when James began to pack, the first thing he asked for was my list and then he went through it item by item to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything! It takes careful planning and weighing every ounce-as it turned out each of our packs weighed only 15 lbs. And I had carefully planned and gotten ready many of the items he packed.

James: Our flight to Milan through Newark was very good. Both arriving and leaving Newark, we flew next to the Manhattan skyline, and even saw the powerful lights at the WTC evacuation sight on the way out. We also flew over Ireland, southern England, the English Channel and northern France at night, with all the city lights glowing, and a full moon reflecting on the ocean and lakes. It was perfectly clear and a truly amazing sight, probably the best I've ever had from an airplane. As if trying to top that, we flew over the Swiss Alps at sunrise, which was also spectacular. The only other memorable event was that a little girl sitting across the aisle from Rachel threw up all over the floor when landing in Milan. For some reason, these things always happen to Rachel.

Rachel: The only two little kids on the whole plane had to sit across the aisle from me-coughing nearly the whole trip. It wasn't my fault I sat in the aisle seat. What can I say?

Part 1: Menaggio

James: In Milan, we caught a bus that would take us directly to Menaggio. However, just north of Milan, traffic came to a full stop. Europeans treat a traffic jam as a kind of impromptu party. Every gets out of their cars, people break out food and drink, and wander around talking to other people. It was something to see. A group of college kids in front of us even planted a school or team flag of some sort by the side of the road, and broke out the champagne and set up a buffet. Eventually, many police cars, tow trucks, ambulances, and a crane passed us on the shoulder, and we heard that an accident was blocking the highway. Soon cars were turning around on the highway and heading back on the shoulder. Our bus couldn't turn around, so we waited about two hours before continuing. Three semi trucks had collided and rolled over, requiring the crane to remove them from the highway. I don't know if anyone was hurt, but the trucks didn't appear to be badly damaged, and I think we only saw one ambulance.

Rachel: After finally clearing the accident, we made our way around the beautiful Lake Como to Menaggio, talking with our driver Antonello, who was exceptionally friendly, and a good driver, considering the roads are about 20 feet wide with a nasty drop into the lake if we missed a turn. We had been to Menaggio on our last trip, and it was our favorite city in all of Europe, and it did not disappoint this trip either. The weather was perfect: warm and sunny, with some of the best scenery in Italy. It really is hard to beat. It is a small town in the foothills of the alps, between the steep mountains and the stunning lake. The people were friendly and had a pleasant, warm, and relaxed attitude. Although the town is great, we really came to stay at the La Primula youth hostel. Despite being an exceptional hostel in every conventional way, their real claim to fame is the communal dinners that they serve each night. Italian women work all afternoon to prepare a traditional multi-course meal with wine, bread, salad, soup, pasta, main course and dessert. They even served us vegetarian meals on request, although more often than not, vegetarian meals were served as a matter of course. And best of all were the large communal tables where we shared stories and get to know fellow travelers. We met an American biker, Josh, who is living in Switzerland, two French ladies (Isobel and Veronique), a group of American girls who were studying art and architecture in Florence, a web-designer from Amsterdam (Anna), and many others. It was a great mix of the more numerous younger crowd, and some older folks (like us). The hostel closes on November 5th, and the last night they had a Ska party, with friends from Menaggio and travelers filling the hostel to overflowing. Free (spiked) punch, an excellent buffet, and great (if loud - hey, we're getting old) music made for a great time.

James: During our three days there, we took hikes in the surrounding hills, visiting small towns, country lanes, old churches and spiritual sites, and medieval walls and buildings. It was definitely the best hiking that we would encounter on our whole trip. We were taking a short break in the small village of Camozzi, when the whole town came towards us with flowers and banners. We had sat on benches next to an old war memorial, and this must have been a kind of Memorial Day. All the veterans in the town had their uniforms on, and they read off the names of those who had died in various wars. A priest said a blessing, kids held banners and flags, and the mayor made a speech. After about 30 minutes, it dissolved about as quickly as it had started, and we continued on our way. We visited an ancient oak tree on a hill side called Rogolone, where people used to meet to make important decisions in medieval times, and also the church of San Giorgio with a crypt with rows of bleached skulls on the shelves, and frescoes from the 13th century. About a 5 1/2 hour hike - Rachel even made a new friend on the way. We also took the ferry around the lake to the town of Varenna, where we hiked around and visited the old fort that overlooks the lake (Castello di Vezio). We had to bring warm clothing everywhere, because as soon as the sun set behind the mountains, it turned instantly cold.

Rachel: Our first night in the hostel we slept in separate dorm rooms, but the second night we were told that we could have our own room. There were four bunks, but they said it wouldn't be a problem to have it to ourselves. It was a little surprising when at 11 o'clock that night, a young couple [he was Bavarian; she was from Spain] walked into our room and began unpacking. They had come in late and these were the last beds left. It wasn't too bad sharing, but they were making out together in the morning in the same bunk bed (it's kind of a romantic place). But we had the room to ourselves on the last night. The weekend was actually a long weekend in Europe, as most people have All Saints Day off, so many Europeans were traveling.

James: In the evenings, the Italians come out to stroll around the central piazza, and by the lakeside. It is a wonderful and very social scene (it sure beats everyone staying inside and watching television). I was taking a picture of a Smart Car, when an older Italian gentleman stopped us and talked to us about the little cars, his country, and the war in Afghanistan. Soon, his family and friends joined us and we had a lively little circle around us engaged in a big discussion. It was mostly in Italian, but the man that we first met translated for us. We really didn't get a chance to say much, as they all talked at once. We found friendly Italians all over, but we found that only in the smaller towns that people talked to us on the streets.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Poland: Following the Czestochowa (Black Madonna)

It was a breezy, March day when I left Radom to visit Czestochowa, the pilgrimage site in Poland where it is said that five million pilgrims travel to visit Jasna Gora (Bright Mountain). It is the site of the 14th Century Paulite monastery, a monstrous cathedral, and, its highlight is the chapel that houses the icon of the Black Madonna. Hoping for a spiritual experience similar to one I had had in Turkey, I was eager to visit the crowded Polish site. For eight months before, I took a trip with three Turkish friends to Seljuk, just east of Kusadasi. Rich in its historical importance, Seljuk is the city surrounded by the famous ruins of Efes, the Cathedral of St. Paul (also ruins), and Meryemana - the House of the Virgin Mary -- where it is said the Holy Mother was led by St. Luke to spend her last days. The Muslims also believe in the Virgin and she is the only woman mentioned in the Koran (some five or more times). Five million pilgrims also come to Meryemana to pay their respects, leave wishes and prayers, and tokens of gratitude for the miracles they claim she helped make happen.

Meryemana is unpretentious in every way. There is an old well and pool where believers are said to have been baptised and there is a small chapel-museum housing a variety of icons. The simplicity was most fitting and I was touched at how the surrounding natural environment was utilized to make the whole place feel more spiritual. Natural well-springs ran with water (it is a very strong belief among the Muslims that water always be available and for free to whomever is passing by); small stone edifices from the ruins were converted into places for leaving tokens and wishes; and, even the church services were held outdoors near a grove of dwarf trees. Inside the house-turned-chapel, I remember one small icon depicting the ascension of the Virgin. She is dressed for burial and Christ is standing over her. In His arms He is cradling a baby, also dressed in white. It took my breath away because I realized the significance of that child in his arms. In most icons, the Virgin is seen holding the Christ Child in her arms, and there - in that beautiful painting - it was Christ who was tenderly carrying The Virgin Mary to heaven. Overall, Meryemana was a worthwhile and beautiful journey for me.

So, I expected something similar in Czestochowa. The history of the monastery is that it was founded in 1382 and that same year, Prince Wladyslaw II of Opole gave the Paulite monks the icon that has become known as the Black Madonna. According to legend, it is said that St. Luke painted the icon in Nazareth, though historians have dated it to as recent as the 6th-7th century Byzantium. How it was acquired by the Polish prince, I am not certain. Most remarkable about the painting are the two scars on the Virgin’s right cheek. The story is that during its journey to Poland, the picture fell into the hands of thieves. Tired of carrying the heavy icon, they slashed at it in frustration with their knives, immediately causing the image to bleed pools of blood. The legend and power of the icon grew when, in 1655 and 1705, Swedish invasions failed to conquer the monastery while the rest of the country was overrun. Eager to see this with my own eyes, I took the train from Radom and arrived in Czestochowa about three and half hours later.

My first impressions were darkened by the sight of Nazi, fascist, and racist slogans splattered along every street leading to Jasna Gora. I even saw one for the Ku Klux Klan which had been painted over by the building’s owners several times, but the hooligans, who seem to run this country, managed to rewrite it each time. Do they even know what the Ku Klux Klan is all about? Isn’t it all a bit too ironic, then, in the city of this holy Christian site? I get enough of these wicked signs in Radom as it is, and to see it so much more in Czestochowa only drowned my hopes.

As I wandered down some back alleys, I heard music and singing from loudspeakers and coming from the direction of the hill and monastery. I was reminded of Turkey and how one can always hear the prayers that float over the air five times a day. I started to relax and, as if pulled by the service being conducted on the hill, made a straight beeline up the main road called the Avenue of Our Lady (but in Polish, of course). My spirits rose just a little. During my stay here, I have become extremely cautious in expecting too much from Poland.

Although the monastery is the site in Czestochowa, the walk up the hill is not at all strenuous. I stopped at the gift shop first, hoping to get more information about the sights I was about to encounter and that was when I first noticed the scars on the Virgin’s face as depicted in the numerous icons for sale. The shop was as kitschy as you can get, but I wasn’t there to shop. I was there for information and I asked a nun in Pidgin Polish about the scars. She replied sharply, “That’s the Virgin Mary! Don’t you know the Virgin Mary?” That’s not what I was asking. I again, patiently, pointed out the scars on the plastic icon and asked again. “Jesu Christi,” she cried, “What language do you need?” Quite stunned by her non-Christian manner, I told her I prefer English. She tossed me a guidebook in English, told me it would be $12.00 and that I could read about it in there. I thanked her quietly and left.

Feeling more than disheartened, I wandered in through the gates, encountering signs warning me that this was a holy place and begging for silence in six languages. However, the areas were all crowded and nobody was paying attention to the any of the warnings in any language. I saw the ugly radio tower of Radio Jasna Gora first. Trying to turn a blind eye to it, I followed signs and wandered from place to place, but nothing drew me until I reached the armory. My guidebook - a year-old, torn-up volume - had stated that there would be a lot of weapons from World War II there and I thought I could do a little research for my book. Although the armory was more than fascinating (and I’m not being facetious), I saw mostly 17th and 18th-century sabers and treasures acquired in the war against the Turks in Vienna (which Poland helped win). So, unless the Poles fought with these in World War II… well, that may explain some things… there was not a lot to see from the 1930s and 1940s. I will, however, add that having already been in Turkey, it was fascinating to see these treasures in Poland and how intricately woven the tapestry of history is.

Moving along, I finally decided to head into the main sites: the cathedral and the chapels. It was time to see what I had come to see, though I had only been on the hill for less than half an hour. I entered the packed chapel just toward the end of a service and was once again surprised to see how many young people were in church. It was Saturday afternoon, after all. Then, I wondered, how many of these same kids are the ones who are spray-painting graffiti in the streets of this country? Many. I can tell you that from my experiences in Radom.

As soon as the service ended, I joined the crowd that was pushing in for the next service, which happens every hour. Everyone was making their way to the front of the altar where, behind barred, iron gates, hung the large icon of the Virgin. It was at least six-feet tall and four-feet wide, so I could understand why the thieves got frustrated. It’s not exactly the kind of treasure you can just run off with without drawing a lot of attention. Around the altar and the surrounding sacristy were thousands of amber prayer beads, hung from every possible place along the walls and facades and creating a warm, autumn glow in the chamber. Except for the murmurs - often impatient at that - of people excusing themselves and the sound of pressed bodies shuffling forward, the chapel was quiet. I was trapped into the crowd before I could change my mind, and I started to pray fervently as soon as I saw the icon looming closer. I wasn’t praying for anything, however, except to survive the attack of claustrophobia that I was having at that moment. My head started to swim and I saw curtains of gray threatening to close off my line of vision. I thought if I collapse there, the crowd would just trample over me. About five rows before getting to the bars (and imagining myself smashed up against the iron with still no breathing room), the loud speakers suddenly started to blare Radio Jasna Gora. Now, mind you, there are still a million signs demanding Silence! and reminding us that this is a Holy Place! A little music wouldn’t have destroyed the atmosphere, had it been the right music. This was not the right music. It was some sort of enthusiastic advertisement for a CD compilation of what I could only fathom to be alternative Christian rock bands. The whole place had turned into a poor excuse for a circus and I frantically tried to get out.

Bruised and emotionally wounded, but finally able to breathe, I headed straight for the outer ring of the monastery and walked in the fresh air. My search for a spiritual uplifting lasted a whole hour. I was ready to go and wanted to leave fast. I headed, instead, for another 3-1/2 hour train ride to Krakow, the real sanctuary for me in this country. In a coffee shop, tucked away in a back alley, is an exhibition of photos from Turkey. I knew that I could reflect on the better pilgrimage I’d made eight months before.

(It is worth mentioning that Czestochowa, solely dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is the only pilgrimage site of its size where there has NEVER been a recorded sighting of the Holy Mother.)