Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Italy, Part Four -- Assissi

Click on photos to see them full size.

While we had the car, we visited the city of Assissi, which is built on top of what would be called a butte in the U.S.

This city was the home town of St. Francis of Assissi, the patron saint of animals, and we saw pets everywhere. The city is accessible only by a steep climb, and is very small because it can contain only what will fit atop the butte, so we did not see any farm animals. However, we did not see the hungry cats and dogs that wander other Italian cities--obviously here they are all cared for.

Assissi today is primarily a tourist destination. The entire city is a pedestrian area--the only motorized vehicles are for deliveries or maintenance. We stayed here one night, in a beautiful modern B&B built like all of Assissi, straight up and down. We left our car in the huge parking lot at the foot of the hill, and took only our backpacks. That turned out to be a good choice, for the only access to our rooms was a narrow spiral staircase. We might have gotten our wheeled suitcases to the door, but I don't think we could have carried them up those stairs.

Modern Assissi is built on Roman Assissi, and you can visit the ancient streets and forum--which are now under ground.

We enjoyed visiting the underground city, and wandering about the modern city above--much of the modern part is of course Renaissance. When you go to Italy, try to arrange to have a day in this unique city.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Italy, Part Three--The Appian Way

Getting Out in the Countryside

You may have noticed from my photos of Pompeii and Herculaneum that Italy is an exceptionally photogenic country. Wherever you point your camera, you get a beautifully composed picture. One other country I have visited is similarly camera-friendly: Japan. The difference is that in Japan most of that composition is man-made--every patch of greenery in the city becomes a garden, and even in the countryside agriculture is laid out in pleasing patterns.

In Italy, though, Mother Nature is the gardener. Flowers grow wild, sunshine is golden, and the intense blue of the sky is punctuated by strategically placed clouds. Some of the poplars are planted, of course, but most spike skyward in random places, perfect to punctuate a photo--or a painting. Even the chickens are worth chasing down for a portrait, and not even Ireland has more shades of green.

After visiting Naples, Pompeii, and Herculaneum, we rented a car and drove out to see the famous Appian Way, the tomb-lined ancient Roman road. This is the tomb of the great orator Cicero.

We stayed at a farm B&B, where the family cats climbed the roof and came into our rooms to visit, and simply explored the area within convenient driving range. We were well off the regular tourist path here, visiting the small towns and villages dotted here and there.

Hillside villages are old, their narrow streets not designed for modern traffic. At one point we could not get the car we had rented through, and had to back out of a street until we could turn around.

And the past is everywhere. On the edge of one village we found the ruins of a Roman village, just there, not labeled, an archaeological dig left for people to admire ... or ignore.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Italy, Part Two--Pompeii and Herculaneum

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From Naples, it's an easy commuter train ride to either Pompeii or Herculaneum. We spent a day in each ancient city.

The two cities that perished in 79AD sit in one direction in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. Modern Naples sits in its shadow in another direction. Vesuvius is an active volcano that last erupted in 1944. Eventually, inevitably, there will be another eruption as powerful as the one that buried the two Roman cities in the 1st century.

Pompeii had actually been a thriving city for centuries before it became part of the Roman Empire in the 4th century B.C. However, what both Pompeii and Herculaneum are known for today is the preservation of Roman cities under 60 feet of ash, where they remained until accidentally discovered in the 18th century.

Both cities were resort towns for visitors from Naples and Rome, and homes, shops, and tombs are preserved. The ash burned some bodies of animals and people away, but left perfect molds that in modern times have been filled with plaster to create eerie ghost sculptures.

Preserved streets and buildings show us exactly what the city of Pompeii was like just before its destruction.

Some are so complete that you almost feel you could move in. Murals, courtyards, and fountains show how elegantly and comfortably people lived here.

A lifestyle wiped out two thousand years ago, yet preserved for future generations to discover and appreciate.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Italy, Part One - Naples


A few years ago, Lois and Eric and I went to Italy. We had all been to Rome on previous trips, so we decided to see different parts of Italy on this trip. We had two weeks in early summer, before the worst heat set in. Nonetheless, we knew it would be hot, and that we would have to handle our own luggage. Here you see me with the gear I took: just a backpack and a small roll-on.

For summer travel, thin lightweight clothing allows the small suitcase that will fit in the overhead rack on a plane. You'll notice that I'm wearing a dress in the photo. That's because we planned to get outside the major cities on our trip. Many of the interesting things to see in Italy are inside churches (like the neon Madonna at the top of today's entry), and in some places women cannot enter wearing trousers.

Besides, dresses are cooler than jeans, and shorts are even more inappropriate than trousers in church. So I took a collection of comfortable dresses with light jackets, and was able to go everywhere we wanted to go.

We started our journey by flying into Naples, chosen because we wanted to see Pompeii and Herculaneum. Naples is just a brief commuter train ride from the once-buried cities.

Naples is an industrial city without much in the way of tourist attractions, but you cannot go anywhere in Italy without tripping over history. We stayed in a Pensione in the middle of the city. As is seen so often in European cities, it had once been a luxury apartment. The building was probably a century or two old (new by Italian standards), but the interior had been mostly modernized. However, lie down on the bed, and up above you see amazing plaster ceilings.

That's a great thing about Italy--there is beauty everywhere. But especially when you get outside the more modern cities.

Next week: Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Italy from the Inside

The saga of my journey to India and Nepal begins here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Impressions of Nepal

Once again, let me remind you that what I can give you are only the impressions of a tourist who has made a brief visit to each country. I am not a sociologist or a historian, nor have I lived for any length of time in these countries.

Click on the photos to see them in larger size.

The day we drove from India into Nepal, we saw the roads of India improve steadily as we approached the border. Then darkness fell with a rainy drizzle, so by the time we reached the actual border crossing we couldn't see much of anything. As I reported in an earlier blog post, the entry into Nepal was uneventful, but only because we were late, as the border had been closed for much of the day.

Nepal is a poor country, but unlike in India the people seem determined not to stay that way. It's not nearly as crowded. We saw only a very few beggars, and those only in tourist areas.

The roads, while certainly not up to European or American standards, are far better than those in India. There is less traffic, and the driving is not as reckless. Cities are much cleaner. India is famous for its bright colors, but in that country they are lost under dust and grime. Nepal's homes and businesses are brightly painted, as are their cars and trucks, sporting the psychedelic look that the western world copied in the 1970s. While Nepal doesn't have the air pollution of India, it certainly has the same dry-season dust. In Nepal the dust is swept away daily--we even saw people sweeping dust off dirt floors! Overall, there is a sense of pride and hope that we missed in India.

The odd thing is, life is not particularly good in Nepal, certainly not by western standards. There is a chronic power shortage, and travel and tourism are frequently disrupted by strikes. See my earlier posts about our tour for examples, then imagine what such disruptions do to the work and lives of people not vacationing.

Everybody in Nepal not only seems to have a job, but they are proud of their work and seek to be paid its full value--hence the strikes. The power shortage is a result of global warming, resulting in less snowfall in the Himalayas and therefore less water in the rivers and streams. As their power is hydroelectric, only during monsoon season do they have power 24/7. While we were there, the ration was eight hours per day, split between morning and evening.

Electricity--Make it, Don't Buy It

Obviously the power problem has been going on for a long time, for everyone has alternatives ranging from candles and flashlights to generators. Many of the shops are completely open in front, and operate during daylight hours only. Entrepreneurship is everywhere, from people like the owner of the resort we stayed at in Chitwan to old women selling a few fruits and vegetables from a bright clean blanket spread by the roadside.

Here's an excellent example, a square in Kathmandu. Note the well-paved street, the clean white buildings, the tourist map, the trash bin and the neatly bagged trash waiting to be picked up--and no litter in the street. Note the peddlers with their wares--everybody in Nepal seems to be selling something. Not begging--selling. Tourists stroll through a prime tourist area with no beggars trying to intercept them--an impossibility in India. And note the absence of children in the square at mid-morning. Where are they? In school.

In India we occasionally saw children in school uniforms. In Nepal we saw them every morning and evening in much larger numbers. In India, where English is one of the official languages, tuk-tuk and taxi drivers usually did not speak English. In Nepal, where English is not an official language, everyone interacting with tourists spoke passable English, even rickshaw drivers and mahouts.

Not long before we visited Nepal they voted in a communist government. It didn't stop the strikes, or interfere with capitalism in any way that we observed. Nepal is a very old country, but it feels young, eager, and hopeful. There, too, other countries are helping local people run businesses--but they are businesses like the Chitwan resort, which can grow, employ more people, and bring in more tourist trade. A Dutch company is investing there, and the owner is planning to install solar panels to eliminate the power problems.

The contrast between the two countries, India and Nepal, was completely unexpected. India is supposed to be more advanced, part of the industrial and technological world. Perhaps for some. But Nepal is clearly in the process of advancing, and as far as we could tell, the opportunities there are open to everyone.

Next week we leave India and Nepal for Italy, which may be the most photogenic country in the world.

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