Roaming Through Roman Aosta

Aosta is such a pretty town nestled into the valley surrounded by mountains, some with towering rocky peaks. It’s a town where tourists come to visit, but more importantly it seems like an authentic town where people live and go about their ordinary life. Laundry flaps in the breeze on clotheslines or from balconies and lazy cats bask in the sun. But there’s something else interesting about Aosta. It has a Roman past and Roman ruins can be seen throughout the town.

This morning we explored the historic part of the town through the pedestrian zone where surprisingly almost all of the shops were open. At the entrance to the town is a huge Roman arch. It is in perfect condition. Suspended from it is a crucifix which was placed there to stop some of the leaks from the top of the arch. It was an interesting contrast to a Roman arch. Nearby was an old Roman bridge. A sign explained that a devastating flood hundreds of years ago changed the direction of the river it once crossed. However, standing on the bridge, it was perfectly aligned with the Roman arch which was several blocks away.

On our tour we walked past various Roman ruins and the town did an excellent job preserving and landscaping them. The Roman amphitheater was baking in the hot sun so we tried to sneak a peak for free at it from around the block, but it didn’t work.

We visited two cathedrals today and what was most interesting about them was they each had beautiful Roman mosaics on the floor, all in mint condition. One showed an elephant which isn’t indigenous to here, but shows the vast expanse of the Roman Empire.

Usually we avoid cafes with signs that say “We speak English” and particularly those that post a picture board of all the food, but there is one in the town square that has seemed very popular and we weren’t sorry. They made us a fresh focaccia ham and cheese sandwich and it was only $5.

The shops here all seem independently owned and many sell locally made crafts rather than made overseas. We know this when the artist’s card is included. We found one that made exquisite music boxes. We sat near the shop the other night and heard them play the same song again and again. I knew I knew the song and even played it in flute orchestra, but could not place it. Yesterday it came to me: Pachelbel’s Canon. They do of course have shops selling kitschy items such as a Roman arch inside of a snow globe on top of a Vespa, but its fun to look at anyway. My favorite shop has all beautifully illustrated journals and books, most on a nature or dog theme. We have been in there twice and they have even given us adorable illustrated dog calendars as gifts.

We took a short 20 minute drive to see a Roman Aqueduct that is off the beaten tourist trail, but was remarkable. Pont d’Ael was built in 3 BCE by the Romans to bring in water from the mountains for agriculture. It crossed a deep gorge with crystal clear water roaring down from the mountains. Standing on top of the aqueduct which was once used as a road to cross with animals, we could see waterfalls tumbling down steep rocky cliffs. Hardly anyone was there and the government had built a glass walkway which was beautifully lit so you could walk through the aqueduct. We liked the experience of walking through it and over the top so much we did it twice. A man working at the site gave us an informative history lesson about the aqueduct.

Dinner tonight was at a pretty restaurant that served pizza and caprice salad. They had an outdoor garden where everyone sat with tiny lights on each table once it turned dark. What was even more charming was that dogs were allowed and slept happily under the tables. We’ll miss being in this alpine wonderland. Tomorrow we travel by train to Venezia.

Day Trip to the Top of Europe

Leaving Mont Blanc

The snowy peak of Mont Blanc rises high above the valley floor
beaconing us to visit
To stay or to go?
Italy awaits
Slowly our bus pulls away
The timeless mountain will wait for our return

This is a poem I wrote back in 2009 on my former explorerbear blog. We had come to Chamonix, France with high hopes of visiting the area via a series of cable cars, but the mountain was clouded over for three days.

On the morning of our departure it was a sunny day. We were taking a bus to the Cinque Terre in Italy and actually considered postponing that part of our holiday for a day to visit Mont Blanc, but instead we headed to Italy as planned. Ten years later we are back and today we finally got to make that journey to the top, this time from the Italian side.

Only 30 minutes from our accommodation is Skyway Monte Bianco. Newly opened, it has two mountain stations with cable cars that rotate 360 degrees as they ascend to give everyone a great view. The philosophy of the company is to draw man closer to the mountains and the sky, broadening horizons and overcoming boundaries. We could not have asked for a better day. It was warm with barely a cloud in the bright blue sky.

There was an air of excitement as everyone boarded the gondola with cries of whoa everytime we went over a pylon. Our first stop was called Pavillion. It had an indoor restaurant and boutique, wine cave, and an outdoor botanical garden with all sorts of wildflowers that grow at high altitude in bright purples and yellows. A sign explained how wildflowers are like eyes. A patch of them may look similar but look closer and you will see subtle differences. I loved it. They even had a miniature lake with a boat where kids could use a pulley to pull themselves across.

Feeling ready for our next stop, Punta Helbroner, we got in line for our next 360 degree gondola to take us up high in the mountains when something was not quite right. The door would not shut properly. No one dared get out of line and we waited and waited. Finally after one hour, an announcement was made in Italian to groans from the crowd and cards with numbers were passed out. We had no idea what the card was for. In English it said to enjoy Helbroner for two hours and then head back down to manage your time, yet the gondola to take us there needed repairs. Some people left and the crowd surged forward. Somehow we managed to make it in front ready for the next gondola. Grandpas and Grandmas got separated and after a lot of yelling, the gondola arrived repaired.

Helbroner is over 11,000 feet in altitude. The altitude can make you dizzy. People looked surprised. For a moment I worried I might black out so we decided to have lunch and that helped. For many, Helbroner is the final destination. It has an amazing view of Mont Blanc, the neighboring peaks, and the valley below, but for us there was one final adventure. Aiguille du Midi Mont Blanc is a trip where cable cars for four people travel for 40 minutes from Italy to the Chamonix mountain station in France. They travel in pairs of three and it’s quite unique because they start and stop leaving you dangling high above the icy world, but that was known to us so we weren’t worried.

On our trip to the French side, we traveled with a mother and daughter from the state of Washington. We passed high above hiking couples in the snow who needed to mind their step around icy crevices. We even spotted tents at the base camps. I learned my niece Jessica’s children were hiking Mont Blanc at that moment. How wonderful it is my sister could be in New York and send photos of the two hikers to me. As I scanned the icy peaks, I wondered if some distant hikers could be them. They are very brave. Mont Blanc is covered in ice and snow and is very steep.

The mountain station on the French side was very busy and freezing cold so David and I got back on the gondolas foe a 40 minutes journey back. It was wonderful. We had our own cable car and each rocky peak we passed seemed bolder, steeper and icier than the previous one. Some had hikers on top, and some stood alone.

Tonight we had dinner at an osteria that served local specialties. The menu was small and included fried frogs, steamed roe, and calf’s tongue. I ordered polenta with mushrooms, The osteria was very pretty inside with wooden beams and alpine cow and chicken decorations. The town was a beehive of activity, but we decided the best way to end the day would be to just sit out on our balcony, look up to the lights on the mountains, and reflect on our memorable day.

Tall Mountain Peaks and Castles

It was very hard leaving Torino this morning. It is such a magnificent city in terms of architecture. In my opinion it has some of the grandeur of Rome and Venice but seems more like an authentic city where people live.

We rented a car to drive to Aosta in the mountains. Usually we rent through local car rental places such as Enterprise or Sixt. We have been scammed big time from renting from Auto Europe and particularly Hertz, but none of our go to places were in Torino for a price we could afford so we rented from Avis. It was quite a funny experience. Usually we get a lot of instructions on how to use the car and here the guy just drove up our Mini Cooper and wished us a happy day. We ended up contacting them several times: where was the AC, how do you put it into drive, and where was the key to lock it later.

The weather today was perfect and we had a beautiful view of the mountains as we drove north. Some were bare rocky summits reaching for the sky while others were covered with forest with little villages dotted high above. In the distance, snow covered mountain peaks glistened in the sunlight.

We stopped at a castle on the way called Fenis Castle. It’s a large fortified castle built of stone back in the 12th century. Our tour was in Italian, but it did not matter. Each room had a board with information in English. There were frescoes on many of the walls in astounding condition considering their age and old original wood work. We stopped in a local grocery store and although we did not speak Italian and the girl did not speak English, she made us a fresh ham and cheese sandwich.

We are staying in a rustic Alpine hotel in the mountains in Aosta. Our room has vaulted ceilings and Alpine decorations, but outside is an ultra modern spa with 3 or 4 pools.

We decided to walk into town which was a pleasant walk down hill through a series of twists and turns with stunning views of the mountains. Arriving at the restaurant was a surprise. It was located on a very pretty pedestrian only street with small cafes and pretty shops. Ristorante Osteria da Nando is a family run restaurant with delicious food. We dined outside and had a traditional meal of crepes filled with cheese and ham, pork chops with mustard, and a coffee chocolate cream dessert.

Throughout the meal people watching was perfect. There were weary hikers, families with babies, and a lot of dogs. One family even had a dog in their stroller and no baby at all, Next door to the restaurant was a pretty shop. From our table all I could see were owl tote bags and a trolley of handmade soaps which many people stopped to sniff. The shop played the same song over and over again and again throughout the meal. I decided to check it out and it was coming from exquisitely handmade music boxes.

We took a short walk down the street and came to a huge Roman arch. I thought it was fake and part of a special exhibit but David said it dated back to Roman times and the town has many Roman ruins,

Back at the hotel we sat outside to enjoy the view. I love to look up into the mountains at night and wonder who lives in those distant rural places by themselves. Sometimes I can see a single headlight moving on a distant road to an unknown destination. I thought that Turin was wonderful but sometimes after spending time in the city, a room with a view of the countryside is just what you need.

The Mystery of Religion and History of Film

I have always known about the Shroud of Turin, but didn’t realize it was here in Torino (Turin) myself until my friend Alice asked if we had seen it in a Facebook comment. Located in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, it is considered a pilgrimage stop for believers. The size of the cloth is 14 ft. 5 in x 3 ft. 7 inches. It it is only on display certain times of the year and not this July or August. This morning we were able to see the display in the church that had the facsimile of the face of Christ enlarged so you could see the detail. Many knelt before it in prayer while others may have pondered the question, “Is the Shroud of Turin real.” Some scientists say it is a forgery made during the medieval period when reportedly someone even confessed to making it. Other scientists say that the people in medieval times did not have the technology to produce such an artifact. The Vatican has neither accepted nor rejected it. The current Pope wrote a beautiful statement upon seeing it about how we are fortunate to be in a beautiful place of prayer and peace.

Since it was so sunny out we spent some time walking from piazza to piazza past elegant stores, churches, and other old buildings. Some of the piazzas had fountains where children joyfully played in the water. This city has such a blend of old world and new. Right outside our hotel where sleek trolleys glide by, we discovered a retro one parked.

Lunch was at Baratti & Milano, an elegant cafe since 1858. Stepping inside is like stepping into a time warp. Servers wear black and white with bow ties, napkins are embossed, and toasted ham and cheese sandwiches are served on China plates. We also tried Bicerin which is the signature drink of the city. It’s hot coffee, melted chocolate, and real whipped cream.

Outside one the piazzas we passed a man with a pile of sand on a tarp. It looked like he was making a sand castle but later when we passed it again, we saw he had created a beautiful dog with glass eyes. I think it looks real.

Only 8 minutes from our hotel is the National Museum of Cinema. It’s housed in Mole Antonelliana. It is an amazing museum that winds from the ground floor to the dome following the history of cinema. We saw very early pictures drawn on frames that you can spin in a circle and look through slits in the sides to get the figures to move, and stereoscopes. One picture showed people going to a theater to take a trip around the world by moving from chair to chair to look at photos through a stereoscope. I liked this quote on an information board. “Photographic views were a way to discover the “un-seen” and to preserve a memory of the “already seen.”

There were old cameras dating back to the 1800s and all sorts of movie clips or sets you could visit.

What was truly amazing about the museum was just standing on the balcony that wound its way to the top. At times, the lights dimmed, dramatic music played, and a light show of images played on the ceiling. I was really astounded to discover that the glass elevator we rode on yesterday to the viewing platform, rose up on wires suspended out in the open from the dome as if in a circus. I have never seen anything like it. One of the last exhibits was an Orson Wells film projected on ceiling where people lie on their backs and watch it on the ceiling. I thought that was unusual.

Back at the hotel we decided to have refreshments on the upper terrace on the fourth floor where they have actually planted grass. It’s fun to look up at the Mole and see people in the tower.

Dinner tonight was at M**Bun. Its slow cooked fast food. We had grilled chicken sandwiches with salad, homemade potato chips, and tiramisu. I tried the Mole Cola, their local version of Coke and it was good.

We spent some time walking through different piazzas and, one of them, Piazza Reale, was full of families enjoying a young pianist. One young boy jumped right in the fountain that shoots out of the sidewalk, but his family didn’t care. Several vendors walked around with balloons covered with blinking lights. We concluded the evening having a glass of wine in their outdoor bar area right on the square. It’s a pleasant evening in the 60s. We will miss Torino. Tomorrow we travel to Aosta in the mountains.

Torino is Glorious

We awoke this morning to our favorite kind of weather in Italy. Forecast to be in the 70s all day with sun is our idea of perfect weather. We were able to enjoy the hotel’s buffet breakfast of fresh fruit and eggs out in the courtyard.

Torino has an Egyptian Museum with reputedly the most extensive collection of artifacts outside of Cairo. After seeing the extensive collection in the British Museum I couldn’t imagine anything more magnificent but this topped that museum. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s when collecting and protecting antiquities became important, a group of archaeologist from the museum was already at work in the archaeological digs in Egypt. I loved how the items were displayed with either journal entries, drawings, or photographs showing the discoveries. The items were beautifully lit and it was fun to hear the objects story of discovery on our audio guide. Artifacts included statues, funerary figurines engaged in every trade possible, a tomb, papyrus scrolls that were over 20 feet long, mummies, and jewelry.

Upstairs was an exhibit called Invisible Archaeology. It talked more about the science of learning about artifacts and how technology has assisted. For example, we saw the jewelry a mummy was wearing in an X-ray that was recreated with a 3D printer. A video with a light show on a white reconstruction of the mummy’s coffin showed how the coffin was painted in different layers. It was quite moving. I liked this quote at the end of the presentation. “Real objects and digital ones are not interchangeable.They compliment each other and act as a bridge that connects those who protect them with those today who observe and ask questions about them.”

Our second museum was The Museum Risorgimento which told the story of the unification of Italy. It was housed in Palazzo Carignano. Thirty rooms took you through the story of how surprisingly Italy has only been a unified country since 1870. Torino was a former capital. The displays were in Italian, but each room had English cards where you could either read an overview of the room or read about the highlights in more detail. There were videos too. In some a pleasant smiling woman spoke in Italian (with subtitles) about how France had unified and people there were happy. Those I watched. In other rooms a video played featuring an angry looking man in a mustache barking out about atrocities.

To be honest, I did not leave with the ability to retell the story of the unification of Italy, but the displays were interesting. There were early 19th century political cartoons and one showed a man kissing Napoleon’s butt. I only mention this because I did not know this idea dated back to the 1800s. In the building there was also the place where government meetings took place prior to the reunification. It looked like a mini congress frozen in time. Most fascinating was the art work on the ceiling. It was quite a contrast to some of the displays. For example, the paintings could show horrific battle scenes while angles floated high above. Just seeing the building made it worthwhile.

Our last stop for the day was Mole Antonelliana. In the 19th century the building was originally designed to be a synagogue, but it was never completed. The city eventually made it into the National Museum of Cinema which has a strong reputation and the mole has long been considered the city’s symbol. We wanted the buy tickets to both the museum and the tower, but the man at the counter said since the museum is closing, visit the tower today. From the outside it looks ancient, but thankfully a glassed in elevator whisks you to the top where you have 360 degree commanding views of the city all the way to the Alps.

Before heading back to our hotel for a picnic dinner on the upper outside terrace overlooking the city now under a full moon, we stopped at Caffe Fiorio which is famous for gelato. It has been a wonderful day and we look forward to tomorrow’s adventures.

From Brugge to Torino, Italy!

Today was a transition day. We had a lovely breakfast on the peaceful canal at our B&B Huis Konig which I will miss terribly. It has been like staying at a 5 star hotel but with more charm and personalized service. Our host, Lynn, only has four rooms.

There is a wonderful website skyline webcams which has live streaming webcams from around the world. I look at it every day of the year and have often thought that it would be magical to spend Christmas in Brugge. In their Market Square on the webcam I have noticed a little Christmas market and a skating rink. “Many people who come here for Christmas end up sad,” said Lynn who grew up in Brugge and loves it. “On Christmas Day nothing is open and the little Christmas Market has mostly hot dogs and beer,” she said.

We learned at breakfast there was a direct train from Brugge to the airport so we had to speed pack. Glancing back down at the canal out the B&B’s floor to ceiling window as we left, I felt envious of two young women enjoying breakfast down on the canal. They had just arrived from turkey and looked very happy.

In 2016 there was a terrorist attack in Brussels at the airport so security was tight. It was so tight my hands and inside of my bag were swiped with a soft tool with paper on it which was run through a scanner. Our flight on Alitalia to Milan left an hour late, but was very efficient and even included juice or a soft drink and crackers. The only surprise was the man behind me playing video games at full volume on his lap top with whistles beeps, zings, and bells, echoing around the plane. It was like being in an arcade. No one batted an eye.

At the train station, we had to wait to find out our platform number. A funny moment happened when a man appeared in front of us, pointed at me and announced “Denmark!” Our train from Milan to Torino took one hour. We bought tickets in advance and for $25, ended up in business class in a space age looking private room where we were offered wine and crackers. We had a tv monitor which showed the train traveled at speeds of 185 miles per hour, probably our fastest train ever.

We love our hotel NH Collection Piazza Carlina right in the historic square in Turin. We booked this hotel in February and got an amazing rate and a room with a view. We ate dinner in their outdoor candlelit restaurant and the food was amazing. We were served a beautiful humus and veggie dish with all the vegetables cut like a work of art. Our main course was prawn tacos and a special ravioli in sauce. I ended my meal with strawberry sorbet that tasted fresh picked moments ago. David had a Brandy Alexander. It was the perfect dessert drink. The service was impeccable. It was the type of place where crumbs are swept off your table with a silver spatula.

It was after midnight by the time dinner was over, but the city was wide awake. We walked down to Piazza San Carlo where there are twin churches and arcaded sidewalks to protect you from the sun and. It is like being in a movie set here. All of the buildings are big and beautiful. It was like being in San Marco in Venice with just as much grandeur. We passed the Egyptian Museum which is supposed to be second only to Cairo considering the number of antiquities. We will wake up early tomorrow for a full day of discovery and adventures.

Note: click here to see live streaming webcams of Torino.

Brugge is Magical on a Rainy Day

It was supposed to be a rainy day in Brugge today so we were pleasantly surprised to wake up to sunshine. We enjoyed our breakfast at the B&B on the outside terrace right on the canal and could hear a child who was a beginning piano student, practicing. Some of the songs were even familiar to us, such as “Old McDonald.”

We started our day just walking around the Market Square admiring the shops and buildings as the clip clop of horse hooves echoed on the square. I love the sound of the horses, but I do struggle with the idea of horses being used this way, particularly if it’s hot. Many cities including New York, I think, have banned horse and buggy rides. Thankfully it was cool all day.

This morning we had a very special experience. We went to the Basilica of the Holy Blood. In the upper chapel is a venerated relic. It’s a vile with cloth containing the blood of Christ brought to the church in the 12th century. We started in the lower chapel where candles were lit and climbed the stairs to the upper chapel where we learned that today we would be able to personally view the relic. It was in a glass box. Usually at places like this people are paraded past the relic, but this experience was different. Each person, couple, or family was invited to step up to the altar, place their hands on the case, and say a personal prayer. For believers this was an emotional experience. Some people bowed down, some knelt before it, others gave the sign of the cross, while others stood in contemplative prayer. I found it very moving and tears flowed thinking about members of our family no longer with us. We learned that this church is part of the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain where we visited several years ago.

After visiting the church we decided to stop for something to drink at a cafe with a beautiful view of the square and great people watching. I had iced coffee which is coffee with ice cream. Large tour groups paraded past us as if following a mother duck who was holding an unopened umbrella like a torch. One of the members of the group was imitating her to some quiet snickering and just like that, the heavens opened up and it poured. We ran for a new table under their awning and decided to stay for a lunch of mussels which are famous here.

Using our Brugge card, we visited the City Hall which was built in the 1400s when Brugge was a wealthy city. The paintings tell the story of different figures through time. They had a very detailed map from the 1500s which shows the city once had a ring of 26 windmills. Now there are four.

Renaissance Hall dates back to the 1700s. The highlight is an elaborately carved fireplace out of wood and marble. The carving of the most powerful man in Europe at the time, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Before heading back to our B&B, we stopped at a brewery, Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan. We did not need to go on the tour to experience their outdoor cafe which was very nice. A sweet moment occurred when a family with two dogs put down water and blankets for their dogs so they could relax too.

Dinner tonight was at a local restaurant just around the corner that served fresh salads and crispy pizzas. It will be hard to leave Brugge. Tomorrow we fly to northern Italy.