Friday, March 29, 2013

Procession of the Mysteries

Last April, we had a special Good Friday on the island of Procida. All over Italy, Good Friday is marked with special processionals, usually involving robes, hoods, and elaborate displays that are hand carried. Here in the south, most villages have their own, but one of the ones I most wanted to visit was on Procida, the Procession of the Mysteries walked by the Confraternity dei Turchini. Based on bits and pieces of articles I'd read over the last few years, I had an idea of what went on, and it included a processional beginning at dawn as the sun rose and involving some haunting chanting and/or music with men in blue robes carrying some religious floats...or so I thought. I convinced Nathan to take Friday off of work and take the ferry over to Procida on Thursday night so we could spend the night and be ready to watch the procession by sunrise. Unfortunately, my Procida processional experience was colored by the prior evening.

Our hotel was located in a dark and completely dead part of the island with no staff on-site. When we asked the hotel driver who dropped us off if there was an open restaurant nearby (and for a map), we got no map and were told a pizzeria was around the corner. This was not true. We walked for an hour and a half and found not a pizzeria, restaurant, veggie stand, even a coffee bar! In a land with a coffee bar and pizzeria on every single corner, we walked miles in circles and ovals and lines, with me becoming more and more desperate. I was five months pregnant and ravenous ALL the time. We saw a Procession of Mysteries alright, but it was our own. Thank goodness we found a bakery open about 10pm and preparing Easter bread, so we were able to buy a box of cookies - the bread was massive, about as big as my upper body, so we took a pass and just ate cookies for dinner. Then tried to sleep on the Murphy Bed in our hotel room.

The next morning, we woke at 5am in order to give us time to find a good location for watching the processional...or just find any spot along the route given our troubles the previous night. We found a great viewing spot, enjoyed the rising sun as it illuminated the beautiful island, and watched as men and boys walked past in their white robes and blue hoods, making their way to the processional's beginning. We'd picked a place closer to the start but also a piazza with a ledge upon which we could sit. Good thing since we were in place by 6:30am...and about 9:30, saw the beginnings at last.

The floats are indeed amazing. Some of them are massive, and all are hand carried. They are made by various neighborhood groups and tell stories from the Bible. My favorites were ones including food - The Fishes & Loaves, The Last Supper, Water into Wine. Floats involving food used real food and the displays were so elaborate, fitting in a country where pride in food reigns. And the Noah's Ark floats included some real animals as well, little bunnies primarily. We most enjoyed the pre-processional hours in which we watched all the men and young boys converging. Procida's Procession of the Mysteries is quite an attraction, so the the streets were packed, we had to fiercely guard our ledge perches when we'd just stand up for a moment to stretch. The procession was so long that we finally decided it was time to head to the port for the next boat off the island. And there, we found that all the floats end up at the port, where they are set down for display. Given our horrendous evening and hours of waiting that morning, I really wished we'd just taken a morning boat over to view the floats, but that was my hungry, bad mood speaking. For a more positive report, take a look at this Naploli Unplugged post - it's much more informative about the actual Procession and why it's such a neat event.
Procida really is a beautiful, little gem

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Way Back When

From the top of Notre Dame
I'm trying to do some blog clean up, and checked my "Draft Post" list...and to my great disappointment, realized that I never blogged about our Paris trip in November of 2011 (!) or the subsequent trip to the German Christmas Markets a month later. So for this post, we'll take a little respite in Paris. Or at least what I can remember, which means I'll basically just post a bunch of photos.
The Louvre - I'm in the camp that likes the modern, glass pyramid set in the elegant, Old World, courtyard
This was our first trip to Paris together, and we had one goal: food. Not romance, not the Eiffel Tower, not walking along Champs Elysees (which we never even got to), but food. Nathan envisioned fancy dinners filled with lovely dishes. I envisioned a croissant every morning and a baguette with brie as many times per day as I could fit one into my stomach. Both our goals were met.
Chapel Ceiling in the Cluny - the entire museum was filled with beauty
In our three days, we did fit in some classic sightseeing with the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, climbing to the roof of Notre Dame, walking in Jardin des Tuileries, the Eiffel Tower at night (see Nathan's fabulous photo that was in the linked post),  and a favorite of mine, a trip to Angelina's for the best hot chocolate in the world. Finally, we added in a few extras:
  • The Cluny to gaze upon the Girl and Unicorn tapestries (stunning! I sat in that room for half an hour, at least),
  • The Orangerie for Monet's Water Lily series (this was probably the favorite of us both),
  • A walk through the Rue Cler neighborhood (macaroons!),
  • Visiting the lesser known Pantheon (which apparently had a neat crypt since my very informative note on my blog draft from almost 2 years ago says "Pantheon: Crypt"; that same helpful list of notes also says: "military with guns everywhere"),
  • Another favorite for us both, a trip to Shakespeare & Company bookstore, where we scored a copy of Julia Child's cookbook. For those who have read her memoir, My Life in France, you may remember her friendship with the owner of Shakespeare & Company, so to be able to purchase Julia's cookbook there was a nice little bit of connection.
  • Oh, and I completely forgot that when we did a walk through the Les Halles galleries (beautiful, covered arcades filled with shops), then continued on around the neighborhood, we unintentionally stumbled onto the Valhalla of cookware shops in Paris:  Dehillerin, in business since 1820.
  • Walking along the Seine River on the Left Bank...and my favorite spot in all of Paris, Ile St. Louis, the tiny island in the Seine just south of Notre Dame. So quiet and gorgeous and elegant.
  • Oops, almost forgot Saint Chapelle, with it's walls of blue, stained glass...
  • ...And Galeries Lafayette, all decorated for Christmas (the most gorgeous mall I think I've ever seen).
Passage des Panoramas, one of the arcades in the Les Halles area
The breathtaking Saint Chapelle
I'm beginning to see now why one of my strongest memories of Paris is aching feet. What a fabulous trip we had! This is why I blog. Because otherwise, my memory is horrible. When I started typing up this post, I remembered about four things we did, and as I kept typing, remembered more and more, including witnessing a gypsy scam that ended up with a  young flight attendant having a wallet with all her cash and cards in it taken and us running after the thief along with the victim and another American who had a cell phone and was on the phone with the police directing them to our location. We stopped as the police screeched to a halt in front of us and the thief turned a corner up the nearest alley. They jumped out, raced over and looked at the photos I'd snapped of the thief with our camera, then told the young flight attendant, "Yes, we know this girl. Get in the car," and they barreled off in pursuit. Hearts pumping, we decided we were glad to be getting on a plane home later that evening.
"Let's Go To the Mall...Yeah!"

Monday, March 25, 2013

Going Home

I've alluded some to our upcoming move, but things are official. We are returning to the USA this summer in late June. And we are moving to yet another all new location - the Pacific Northwest. This was a hard fought battle for Nathan. He has longed to be stationed there, but I cannot handle the gray skies for months on end. I desperately wanted sunshine and warm weather. And yet, we have met countless people over the years who go on and on about how wonderful the PNW is, how beautiful, how stunning. While I've found that I rarely agree with the majority of people on just about anything, Nathan won the battle and requested the PNW as his first choice. I didn't put up that much of a fight. I have to admit to a bit of curiosity as to whether or not that region can stand up to its reputation. It's a weird life to be able to move somewhere out of curiosity.

The pot was sweetened when a friend emailed after seeing the job assignment list come out, alerting us to a summer availability in his adorable rental house in one of our top 2 town choices. I had some requirements for our next dwelling and location. When at the height of my frustration here, I like to say at the top of my lungs, "My next house is going to have...[fill in the blank, but usually something along the lines of "a dishwasher," "heat," "hot water that works," "walls that aren't falling down," etc.]. I do recognize that my next house also will not have a view of the island of Capri as well as a 2000 year old castle, be down the street from some of the best Roman ruins in Naples, or have a gelateria around the corner, but there are limits to the Good Life.

Our view from the main level of our house.
My main requirement for where we lived next was the ability to get out and walk somewhere NICE with the stroller. I emphasize "nice" because while we currently live in a great area in Naples, to get out with the stroller means pushing it in a street that is filled with speeding cars, or once I actually come to a sidewalk, having to arm wrestle it over potholes and cracks, or wheel around dog poop, or come to a dead stop because there are people walking four abreast and are absolutely, positively, never, ever, ever going to give way even the tiniest little bit, even if it means they themselves trip over the stroller while it is stopped. There are some areas I can drive to that aren't far, but key word there is "drive." Given the choice between driving somewhere just to walk a stroller around or stay home and catch up on things (like this blog), I'm usually going to pick home. Ironic that we will be living in the perfect location, just one block from a great village filled with shops, cafes, restaurants, parks, and a boardwalk along the water, yet rain will be falling 362.5 days out of the year.  (Just kidding, it's really 160. The average number of rainy days just beats out the average 155 sunny days. And the average high in July is 75. 75! That's how hot it has to get just for me to break out a pair of shorts. [insert big sigh]). Although I hear one gets used to the rain - just put on the rain gear and keep moving. To borrow from Nathan's cousin, "I'll see it when I believe it."
This is one of those places nearby to which I can drive. See how nice this is!
It has a ton of dog poop and is an absolute mob scene in the evenings.
Nathan is still very careful with the stroller and hates inconveniencing
strangers around us, which makes mob scenes a nightmare for all, and by all,
I mean me. I, however,  have become one of those annoying stroller moms
who will mow you down if you do not at least try to make the walkway
mutually accessible. And I will like it.
The title of this post is an odd one for me, though, because where is home? I think it is such an issue that I've already written at least one other post on the topic. Is home a country? A state? The city where I grew up, yet haven't lived in for two decades? The state where I've spent the most time in my adult life? Where most of my family lives? We meet lots of new people all the time, almost weekly. Both Americans and Italians. I dread the first question out of their mouths: "So where are you from?" Absolutely dread it. Nowhere. Everywhere. Pick one of about three answers. Generally, we just say we're from wherever it is we just moved from. Every now and then, we'll each say we're from the place where we grew up (a more difficult task for my Navy Brat husband). Sometimes I just shrug. I do have a "real" life, a life of permanence, but I live it only in my head. Because my actual life is one of complete and utter transience. Every 1-3 years, I live in a new house in a new city and have to find new friends, new grocery stores, a new church, new knowledge of where things are and how to get to them, new weekend entertainment options, new festivals, new, new, new. Which can get old, old, old. And yet, we meet each move with excitement about the new opportunities, the new travels, the fresh perspectives. And in some ways, it's nice to get to restart every few years.

I was about to upload this post when I read my email. My mom's boss does a Thought for the Week via email, which my mom sometimes forwards on to me, that includes a quote and then a nice commentary that he writes. Here was his quite apropos quote for this week:
"I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning."
by Joseph Priestley 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Plitvice Lakes

Our final stop on the Thanksgiving trip was a dip down into Croatia to see Plitvice Lakes. Not really on the way home, but instead, a destination of their own. I'd seen photos of this place in friends' Facebook albums and with a move back to the USA eminent in the coming year, I got concerned that a trip dedicated solely to Croatia may not happen. So a little detour off the Slovenian path made it into our planning. All we really knew about Plitvice was that there were a bunch of lakes with walkways along and over them. We were unprepared for just how amazing the place really is. An UNESCO World Heritage site for the last 30 years, water from the 16 lakes flows over natural dams, and paths cover almost 5 miles of the park - wooden walkways take you along, over, and in one case, behind the water and falls. Pictures of this place in the summer are phenomenal, with vibrant trees along the lake edges and sunny days turning the water brilliant colors. But even at the end of November, we found a peaceful beauty, and we shared the pathways only with one tour group who stuck together and stayed on the short route, so a place that by all accounts is mobbed in the summer, we had all to ourselves.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Gorgeous Lake Bled

Leaving Ljubljana, we made the 45 minute drive into the countryside to spend a couple of quiet nights in gorgeous, Lake Bled. I'd read that it looks like a fairytale, and that turned out to be a true story. A castle high on the hill looks down onto the lake, and on that lake sits a tiny island with a church. The village rests at one end of the oval shaped lake, the other end holds the rental canoes and traditional pletna boats (covered, wooden boats with benches that a "gondolier" poles across the water), and around the entire lake is a walking path. We arrived just before dusk and found our lodging to match the fairytale surroundings. We stayed in the two bedroom apartment in Villa Istra, with balconies overlooking the lake and castle, chandeliers dripping with crystals, silver walls, comfy beds, marble bathroom, elegant breakfast room...the place was immediately relaxing, and the only downside was that we had only two nights there.

With a beautiful, sunny day to start, we rented canoes to get out to the island. I'd planned to take a pletna boat with the baby, but with the off season, I was the only person at the landing, so the driver didn't want to go with only one passenger. We wandered around the tiny island, visited the gift shop to pick up a handmade doll for the bimba, and then took a very slow paddle back across. Our friends climbed the church's bell tower where you can make a wish and ring the bell.

For the afternoon, Nathan and I decided to visit the nearby Vintgar Gorge. When we arrived, we found a barrier across the path blocking access to the wooden walkways that go along and over the river. But we'd seen several cars and bikes in the parking lot and then watched as another couple didn't seem to slow down as they stepped over the barrier. We figured we'd just do as the Slovenes do, and thank goodness we did. This little walk, while terrifying in places, was one of my favorite things. The walkways just clung to the cliffsides only a few feet above the gorgeous water. We walked and walked for awhile, passing through the narrow gorge and then following the path along the now wide river before finally turning back, so I'm not sure where the hike ends up. We enjoyed a return hike through the stunning gorge before driving back to town and enjoying lunch on an outside patio (in November!) overlooking the lake.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Slovenia Bound

The day after my sister and niece left back in November, we departed on our Thanksgiving trip - a driving trip with friends to Slovenia with a little dip down into Croatia. Thank goodness we have a good, little traveling baby because in hindsight, I have no idea what we were thinking in planning a trip that included 10+ hours, twice, in a car with a three month old. The potential for disaster was high.

We drove straight through to Slovenia for a two night stay in the capital, Ljubljana, and really had no idea what to expect. A little brief Slovenian history...and location since I had no idea where it was until we decided to visit it...Slovenia borders Italy on the northeast corner, so it's an easy drive. The country was ruled by the Habsburgs  until the 1900s, then became part of Yugoslavia after WWI. Slovenia gained independence from Yugoslavia only in 1991. The country is gorgeous! And so clean!

Here in Naples, we are so used to seeing buildings that are falling down or have peeling paint or are only the shell of a building. Add to the fact that Naples alone has a population of about 1 million and another 3.5 million in the surrounding urban areas means urban problems. When we travel outside Naples, we almost always land in our destination city and immediately say, "Wow, it's so clean." Naples has made great strides in the trash filling the streets problem, but you can't have 4.5 million people, their houses, their cars, their trash, their stuff and not have run down neighborhoods, cracked roads, litter, and the like.

So in Ljubljana, we were delighted to see beautiful, fresh buildings that were still old (about 100 years or so), wide pedestrian streets with smooth stones, a river running through the town, and some of the friendliest people I've encountered in our European travels. Extremely friendly and welcoming. After dinner on our first night, I returned to our hotel to feed the baby and get her settled while the others continued to explore the town. I asked at our tiny hotel's front desk if I could have a glass of wine to take to my room. She informed me that she would bring it to me, and proceeded to show up to room with a tray of light snacks, wine, napkins, and a chocolate. We encountered this sense of welcome everywhere we went. At our top restaurant pick, we went in to make a reservation during the day. As the afternoon wore on, I got concerned about our very large stroller in this very small, six table restaurant, so we stopped in a couple of hours before our reservation to see if the stroller was going to be a problem. The man we talked to said, "I have your table already set up - four adults and a stroller, right?" We looked at the table and saw that the stroller would completely fill the one aisle in the restaurant, so we showed him our stroller - his reply:  "The stroller is big, but I am small. There is no problem." And Nora slumbered away that night while we ate a delicious dinner at Marley & Me.

Ljubljana has a few sights to see, but we mostly just enjoyed walking around the city center. There is a castle (there's always a castle) high up on the hill overlooking town, so we walked up to it. There is a museum we ignored, a flower market open in the dead of winter and selling the most beautiful blooms, a church with amazing bronze doors, and tons of shops that run the gamut from artsy and independent to a large, department store. In Ljubljana, I was also introduced to the work of the masked, French artist, Invader, who places small mosaics of Space Invader figures in cities around the world. Ljubljana has been "invaded."

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

This Time I Mean It

I've said it before, but this time, I'm really serious. I have officially found the best gelato in Italy. For reals.
Last week, a friend and I (plus Baby Nora) drove north for some ceramics shopping in the town of Nove, a brief pop in to Venice, then a meandering trip home through Umbria, with stops in Ravenna, Urbino, and Spoleto. In Urbino, we found Romana on the main piazza, a gelateria that sells little cups of organic heaven. The offerings looked so delicious that I even ventured off my norm of including at least one taste of a chocolate and got a cup of half pistaccio gelato and half yogurt with almonds and honey. Phenomenal. Every bite was better than the last. I can leave Italy secure in the knowledge that I really did find exactly what I was In Search Of...

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sunset Over Home

I took this photo of the sun setting while on our way home from a lovely apartment in Posillipo, where we'd met with some church friends for a Sunday afternoon.  In the foreground is the island of Nisida, home to a large prison and the NATO Yacht Club, an interest pairing. In the background is the island of Ischia, renowned for its thermal waters for thousands of years. And smack in the middle is Capo Miseno and the sweeping curve of Bacoli and Baia, playground of the rich and famous, naughty Romans way back when.

Earlier in the afternoon, a friend took a family shot of us with Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples looming in our background.