Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Visit Verona for Some Wonderflul Sights, but Skip Juliet

I Portoni della Brà

“Always check the calendar for places you are planning to visit.” This truism is something that should be emblazoned into the mind of every traveler. It helps to know when local holidays are. However, sometimes knowing about a holiday is not enough to avoid some major issues.

April 25th is Italy’s Liberation Day. It marks the defeat of the fascist government by the Allies during World War II, and it is one of the countries biggest holidays. It also came just three days after the Easter Monday holiday which meant that a lot of people took the whole week off, so my plans of traveling in April to avoid big crowds was dashed on the rocks. The best I could do was walk around the crowds during my visit to Verona.

Like many Italian cities, Verona can trace its history back over 2000 years, but its early history was not as part of an Italian Duchy. It was controlled by Goths and the Lombards, who were Germanic, until 774 ACE when Charlemagne destroyed the Lombardi kingdom. Verona gained its independence inn 1226, and by the early 14th century, it controlled the area today known as the Veneto, including the cities of Padua, Treviso and Vicenza. A series of wars with other city-states greatly reduced Verona’s power, and it eventually fell under the control of the Holy Roman Empire, then Napoleon and finally the Austro-Hungarian Empire. What Verona a trophy was its position along major trade routes. That importance carried into the 20th century, where its proximity to the southern corner of the Soviet bloc made it a great place for a NATO air base.

What Verona is probably best know for is being the setting for two of Shakespeare’s plays - the comedy Two Gentlemen from Verona and the tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Of course, it is the latter that brings the crowds of people to the city. The story of Romeo and Juliet is used, very loosely, on what may be the tale of real lovers from Verona’s history. And the city has done its best to take advantage of Shakespeare’s largess. You can visit Juliet’s house, near Piazza delle Erbe. Well, that is, if it not too crowded. The day that I visited, the mass of people trying to enter was large, that I could barely pass by. If you get in you will see Juliet’s balcony, well, not the actual balcony, as this building didn’t have one originally. During the 17th century, the balcony was added in order to meet the expectations of visitors who had read or seen Shakespeare’s play. You can also find Romeo’s house nearby, although ti does not draw same attention. All that being said, I would avoid Juliet’s house, unless seeing it holds deep meaning to you. It definitely makes my “over-rated” list.

Romeo and Juliet
The crowd trying to get in to Juliet's House
Romeo's House

Verona is also home to several Roman era structures. On of them, right in the center of town, is a coliseum. Today, this stadium is used for opera performances and concerts.

Roman Collesum

I spent my day walking the streets of the city, with no real destination in mind. They are filled with beautiful buildings, and frequently open onto small piazzas. Of course, I did make a few stops along the way. One was the Gallery of Modern Art. It is located in the Palazzo della Regione. Its collection covers from the early 1800’s through the middle of the 1900’s. The collection is mostly local artists, but it shows how the major themes in art traveled way beyond the expected centers in Paris and New York.
Entrance to the Gallery of Modern Art
Meditazione by Francisco Hayez

Un'Ombra (a Shadow) by Vincenzo deStefani

Piazza delle Erbe by Angelo Dall'Oca Bianca

Leaving the museum behind, I came to the Piazza dei Signori, where I had lunch at Trattorio Pizzeria Imperio. I had a great view of the square and wonderful pizza. From my table I was able to watch people come to take pictures in front of the statue of Dante that dominates the piazza. Dante lived in Verona from 1312 until 1318, during his exile from Florence. In fact, his reference to the “sadness of the Montacchi (Montegue) and Cappelletti (Capulet) families in his Purgutorio” is pointed to by many people one piece fo evidence that the story of Romeo and Juliet is based on real events.

Dante in the Piazza del Signori

After lunch, I walked to the Church of Saint Anastasia. Built during the 14th century, the church sits along the Adige River. To me, the most interesting art work were the hunchbacks that hold up the holy water fonts at the front of the church.
Chiesa di Sant Anastasia
Hunchback Font support

As I walked towards the Ponte Pietra, a bridge built by the Romans in 100 BCE, I stopped at a small riverside piazza. I spent some time watching a duck begging for some pizza. The Ponte Pietra is an arched stone bridge that provided access from the town to an amphitheater on the far side of the river. The bridge was destroyed by the German army as they retreated at the end of World War II, and it was rebuilt, using the original stones in 1957.

Ponte Pietra

Roman Amphitheater

I crossed the Ponte Pietra to the Veronetta neighborhood, and left the crowds behind. This residential area is home to a few smaller museums and churches, but on this holiday, it was mostly deserted. It was great to be able to walk along empty streets.

I walked along the Adige, and worked my way back to my car. Except for the crowds, I really enjoyed my visit to Verona. Maybe it is my penchant for smaller museums, and out of the way places, but I was able to avoid the worst of the lines and throngs of people. But next time, I will pay more attention the the local holidays.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Padua has wonderful art, history and culture

I don’t often have the chance to explore some of the smaller cities on my trips to Europe. So, knowing I had a car this time, I set for Padua. Have always wanted to see the cities that Shakespeare wrote about, and it would make a good base for other explorations in the Veneto area.

Since I was traveling by car, my first job was to find a hotel that offered parking, which meant outside of the center of town, but close enough that the bus ride would not be too long. My choice was the Hotel Giovanni, Northeast of the historic center of town. This hotel seemed to operated mostly for people on business, although it was packed for the national holiday. It offered reasonable prices, and an excellent breakfast buffet.

Padua, which claims to be the oldest city in northern Europe, is 40 Km (25 mi) west of Venice. It is home to second oldest university in Italy. Padua was able to maintain its independence during most of the Middle Ages, but it fell under Venetian rule in the early 15th century, and remained so until the Venetian Republic ended in 1797. Padua was taken by the Hapsburg Empire and was an Austro-Hungarian property until 1866, when it was captured by the Kingdom of Italy. Through all of this time, the Veneto region was on of the poorest in northern Italy, and it wasn’t until the end of World War II that is came into its own, as part of the industrial corridor that stretches from Milan to Venice.

Baccigione River
My exploration started with a walk from the train station, where my bus deposited me, into the center of the city. I crossed the Bacchigione River, and headed for the Musei Civici Eremitani (Eremitani Museum).  This museum has three sections, an archeological exhibition that explores Padua’s history 2800 year long history. There is an excellent collection of art from the 14th to 19th century. Finally, and most popularly, there is the Scrovegni Chapel. Built at the start of the 14th century, the chapel walls are filled with frescos designed and executed by the artist Giotto. The chapel is so popular that advance reservations ARE A MUST, something I had paid attention to when reading my guide books, so I did not get in to see it. What I did get to see, pretty much by myself, was an exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of Frederico Fellini’s birth. Fellini was born in Padua, and was one of Italy’s great film directors.

Archemede by Luca Giodano

Cross by Giotto

Eternity by Giotto

Minerva Armata by Pietro Liberi

Scrovegni Chapel

Walking through the streets of Padua, my next stop was at Galleria Cavour, a modern gallery sits underneath the rebuilt Piazza Cavour. On show at the time of my visit was An Idea of India, an exhibit of photographs by Padovan artist Massimo Saretta. The gallery is unique and his work was beautiful and took me to another place.

Entrance to the Galleria Cavour

By this time I had worked up and appetite, so I headed to the classic Pedrocchi Cafe. This historic restaurant opened in the 1780’s as coffee culture was growing throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1831 it moved to its current location, a gorgeous building in the heart of the city, near the University. The interior is decorated in grand style, with marble columns and mirrored walls. If all you want is coffee, or something stronger, sit our on the patio and watch the city walk by. If a meal is what you are after, come in to one of the dining rooms and enjoy some very good food. It is a little pricey, but worth it.

After lunch I continued my walk across the city, until I arrived at the Prato della Valle, the largest square in Italy. This ninety-thousand square-meter open space (roughly the size of eighteen football fields) is home to an open market, and two stops on the light rail, but at it is heart is a beautiful park that is surrounded by a moat. Four bridges cross the water bringing people onto paths that come together at the center of the island.

From the Prato, it was on to the Basilica di Sant Antonio di Padua. The basilica was completed in 1360, and is home to the tomb of Saint Anthony of Padua. It is a large church that draws great numbers of people. Inside it ranges from beautiful to over the top opulent. I would love to share photos of it, but this is the only church I have visited in Italy that bans all photography inside.

Basilica Sant Antonio

In the Basilica;s courtyard

If all of this sounds like a long day, it was. So, after returning to the hotel I decided to treat myself to a special dinner. A couple of blocks away was the Ristorante da Giovanni. All of the food was delicious, but the specialty of the house is roasted meat. The treat is the way it served. A hot table, filled with a plethora of choices, is wheeled to you seat and your dinner is carved right there, and handed to you steaming hot. The staff was really friendly and they made me feel like a regular.

Padua was an interesting place to visit. Like Bologna, it has a nice mix of history and culture. It is definitely a place that is worth a visit, either as a day trip from Venice or to stay over for a couple of nights.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Visit the Asia Society in NYC for an excellent exploration of art and culture

When you are looking for art in New York City you can spend your time fighting the crowds at the Metropolitan Museum, MOMA or The Whitney, me,  I prefer looking for the smaller museums and galleries. They offer excellent exhibits without having to push my way through throngs of humanity to see the art. One excellent choice is the Asia Society.

John D Rockfeller III photo by José Arturo Quarracino via Wikipedia
The Asia Society was founded in 1956 bu John D. Rockefeller III to promote greater knowledge of Asia in the United States. Its mission is to build awareness about Asian politics, business, education, arts, and culture, through education. It sponsors art exhibitions, film showings, performances, lectures, and educational programs. It covers the area from Iran to Japan and from Central Asia to the South Pacific.

Their main offices, in New York City, were renovated in 1999 and expanded to include two floors of galleries along with a cafe in the lobby and an auditorium. When I visited in May of 2019, there were four exhibitions being presented.
Photo via

On the third floor of the museum, there is Masterpieces of the Asia Society Museum Collection. The collection was founded by a donation from the Rockefeller family. The theme of this exhibit is Movement of Buddhism Across Asia. It includes ceramic and sculptures from countries spanning China to Southeast Asia to India, and presents many different versions of Buddha as visualized in the countries of Asia.

Bottle, China (11th Century)

Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Nepal (13th Century)

Dhumavati Shri Devi, Tibet (15th Century)

Ganesha India (11th Century)

Across the hall you will find Inspired by Modern Indian Art: Works by New York City Students. These are works by groups of students, inspired by art from India.

On the second floor you will find M.F. Husain: Art and the Nation.The heart of this exhibit is Lightning a 10 ft x 60 ft mural he created for a public rally held by Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party, in 1975. M. F. Husain was born in 1915, and started his career painting billboards for Bollywood films during the 1930’s. His use of bright colors and stylized figures harken back to those roots, but also show the influence of later cubist works. The horses in Lightning remind me of Picasso’s figures in his masterpiece Guernica.
Lightning by M.F. Husain
Lightning Detail

Lightning Detail

The final exhibit, also on the second floor, is Reza Aramesh: 12 noon, Monday 5 August 1963. Mr. Aramesh was born in Iran, and moved to London as a teenager during the 1990’s. This exhibit is inspired by the victims of government violence and torture and by the iconography of saints in the Catholic Church. The lime wood sculptures are both beautiful and horrifying, as they capture they bodies of victims in the throes of pain. Some critics have called it homoerotic, although I am not sure about that. I do believe that these figures are presented in a style similar to the ways that the deaths of the saints were in medieval times.

12 noon, Monday 5 August 1963

The Asia Society is wonderful resource. Whether you live in the city or are visiting, check out its website for fascinating exhibits, films, lectures and performances. Take in a piece of Asia in New York.

Getting There:
Take the Q train to 72nd street or the 6 train to 67th street. Walk to 70th street and Park Ave.

$12/ $10 seniors/ $7 Students with I.D.