Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gubbio - My New Italian Favorite

I am really not sure what made us pull out the map and say - GUBBIO! - That is where we ought to go next! But we did. And I fell head over heels for my new favorite Italian town. The sky was blue and the architecture "just right." From the moment we drove up and glimpsed the city built into the mountainside above I was charmed. There were hang gliders everywhere floating down from the mountaintop. W0w. If I knew how to hang glide, I would have done it here. There could be no better spot and no better day. But don't worry, I kept the ground under my feet - sort of! Gubbio was a collection of tunnels and paths with lovely Umbrian stone rounding out the way. The town is known for its pottery and trays. They hung outside shops lining the pedestrianized streets. I wish we had room to bring one back because they were very pretty. Any food would show off on these artistic platters!

Again the town was practically tourist-free to our great delight. I swelled up with the unexpected joy and carefree warmth of the day. The Italians doted on our fair-haired Connor. Nothing makes us feel more welcome in a new town than friendly locals pointing the way and guiding us with twinkly eyes and genuine care. At one point we asked an elderly man how to get to a specific restaurant. It was on the other side of town, left then right, in and out of windy alleys. And he spoke not a word of English - we not a word of Italian. We understood he mentioned a fountain we would pass but that is about all we retained. But wouldn't you know we were able to mime the path out moving arms left and right and the gleam he exuded gave me confidence we would find our way.

Connor stopped at these stairs and insisted on posing like a movie star. She is certainly learning how to work a camera!
We did navigate our Italian-instructed directions amidst the twists and turns to Taverna del Lupo - a recommended lunch spot.We walked in and saw the white tablecloths and immediately stiffened. Would this be the right place for our personality-plus two year old? We usually steer clear of strolling in with BOB when the crisp linens adorn the table. But we were starving and the town had already embraced us so. We decided to risk it.The Lupo tavern did not disappoint! The wait staff could not have been more adoring of Connor, anticipating every need she had and not even bristling too much when she insisted on PLAIN pasta. That must be some sort of criminal offense in Italy!The menu was so divine I had to snap photos to remember! I could have eaten one of absolutely everything on the menu. But I opted for the Boar meat with noodle strips and Kirk could not pass on the opportunity to try the "Chocolate Ravioli"
Everything, including the chocolate ravioli, was met with our rave reviews. It melted in our mouths. Even Connor's plain pasta. She insisted on me snapping a photo of her lunch after I took one of Kirk's entree. Back out on Gubbio's streets the sky seemed even bluer and the sun even warmer. And the town even more enchanting with full, happy tummies.

Connor frolicked on the Palace piazza while we took in the views.
More pottery called out to me, but I had to be satisfied leaving only with photo memories.

We climbed to the top of the city and found a beautiful Italian church.
And then we knew we had to peel ourselves away from our beloved Gubbio. Wish we had planned more time to linger. Kirk and I both commented that if we ever retired in a European town, this one would be a super spot. It was the kind of place you can imagine yourself living and loving for a long time.

Watching Kirk stroll hand in hand with Connor down the city streets....yep, this is heavenly. I promised myself then that we would one day return to eat again at the Lupo tavern and with room in my suitcase for one of these colorful trays!
Gubbio, I think I love you!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ravenna's Stunning Mosaics

Who has ever heard of Ravenna? Rome, yes. Venice, a must see. Florence, be still my heart. But my oh my the 1500-year-old churches decorated with Byzantine mosaics were some of the most spectacular Italian treasures. The charming bike-friendly town of Ravenna is only a 90 minute train ride from Venice. After seeing it I would certainly render it a must-see day trip on any Northern Italy itinerary. There are only so many gondola rides you can take through those Venetian canals!
We arrived at the Basilica di San Vitale first thing in the morning and in we went for our glimpse of the lavish mosaics of gold and glass chips the size of your fingernail. They gleamed beautiful and bright. I felt lucky because we were the only ones there, surrounded by these amazing mosaics.
The church's octagonal design - clearly Eastern - inspired the construction of the Hagia Sofia as well as the church in Aix-la-Chapelle.Even Connor couldn't stop staring up! We all left with cricks in our necks. Yet deeply touched by the marvelous work of art.I hesitate to even clutter these images with words. It is hard for me to believe, even now, that these mosaics remain so spiritual and in tact from the A.D. 540?!? How is that possible?
It would be hard not to feel close to God in this special sacred spot. It is not enormous like many European cathedrals, rather a quiet, intimate spot wrapping you in golden warmth.
Here is a closer look at the ceiling...
Hard to really do the mosaic detail justice through flat computer images, but this picture comes closest...You feel as if Jesus is looking down directly at you from the peak of this arch...
We stepped out into the sunlight from this church, took a deep breath marveling at what we just witnessed and walked into the nearby Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. There we re-gasped.Rick writes, "Just across the courtyard is this tiny, humble-looking mausoleum, with the oldest - and, to many, the best - mosaics in Ravenna. The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is reputed to be the burial place of this daughter, sister, and mother of emperors, who died in A.D. 450."
My favorite part was these deep blue stars along the ceiling. It would prove an enduring theme throughout northern Italian architecture in our travel days ahead; these honestly seemed to sparkle - even is a crypt. The light in the alabaster windows was just enough and just right. It was only one small room. And again we were all alone (I can imagine the allure would be lost crammed in with other tourists). I would never have dreamt so much could be contained in a place so small.
I did spy this roll of golden glass outside. Guess repairs are constant. What painstaking work! Anyway, it was the most dazzling, unusual roll ever.
Strolling the streets of Ravenna we saw marvelous fashion and flowers. Connor begged Kirk to buy this dress for me. Not sure where I would wear it, but it was a cute sentiment nonetheless!We came across Dante's tomb. That famous poet, you know. We were quite perplexed by this mound. Do you think they buried him standing up?!?
Finally it was on to the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. Truthfully - by this time I was dragging and in need of lunch and very skeptical that this second mosaic church could hold a candle to the first. I plodded along as we navigated listening to my stomach grumble. Let's just say my stomach was quiet as soon as we walked in...
Each of these enormous side panels depicts a beloved story: one a procession of haloed virgins, each bringing gifts to the Madonna and the Christ Child. Opposite, Christ is on his throne with five angels, awaiting a solemn procession of 26 martyrs.This photo with Connor looking up and the big tour group beside makes me smile. Kirk is hard at work studying the guidebook and me snapping photos. That pretty much sums it up.

Just look at the excruciating detail. It was a sight to behold.

Ravenna was a magical new part of Italy for me. And one I am so thankful we had the chance to see dazzle.