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Unexpected Ferrara

Gate through the old city wall, Ferrara, Italy

Gate through the old city wall, Ferrara, Italy

Travel is full of surprises, and the seasoned traveler is always open to a ‘Plan B’.

 

Even after the workout of wandering the streets of Padua all morning, the satisfying breakfast at the hotel in Venice still makes the case for a late lunch.

 

So it’s back to the autostrada and on toward Bologna in search of a lunchtime ‘Plan B’.

 

 

Fortunately, the city of Ferrara sits just off the autostrada between Padua and Bologna, and the impulse for an unscheduled stop proves irresistible.  Sometimes the best Plan B is the one that presents itself to you.

 

Facade of the Cathedral of Ferrara, Italy.

Facade of the Cathedral of Ferrara, Italy.

 

Another of Italy’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites, Ferrara is about half the size of Padua, and the feel of this place is decidedly more intimate and timeless.

 

This is not a town of ornate marble and Baroque as much as one of brick and Romanesque.

 

 

 

Moat around the Castello Estense, Ferrara, Italy

Moat around the Castello Estense, Ferrara, Italy

It’s still surrounded by more than 6 miles/9 kilometers of ancient walls which are among the best preserved in Italy.

 

Maybe that’s because Ferrara’s medieval and Renaissance history are considerably less turbulent than those of many neighboring towns.

 

Tower of the Castello Estense,  Ferrara, Italy

Tower of the Castello Estense, Ferrara, Italy

 

In fact, one of the most violent episodes in Ferrara’s history occurred in 1944, when  a synthetic rubber plant located here became the target of Allied bombing.

 

The city’s silhouette is dominated by its signature Castello Estense, a once-fortified castle.  It’s still surrounded by its original moat, which makes it a sort of urban island.

Gothic arch at the entry to one of the old city's streets, Ferrara, Italy

Gothic arch at the entry to one of the old city’s streets, Ferrara, Italy

 

The best way to see Ferrara is to park at the edge of town and walk or cycle in.

 

Not surprisingly, Ferrara is known as the ‘City Of Bicycles’…  no small achievement in a country where bicycles often outnumber motor vehicles on historic streets.

 

Hotels here are even known to furnish bicycles to their guests, and bikes can also be rented in many points within  the city.

 

Whether you walk or cycle Ferrara, it’s a place where you’ll not have to vie with motor traffic.

Bicycles really do outnumber cars in the old city, Ferrara, Italy

Bicycles really do outnumber cars in the old city, Ferrara, Italy

 

Ferrara’s Corpus Domini Monastery is the tomb not only of local notables, but also of Renaissance-era princess and femme fatale Lucrezia Borgia, whose third and last husband was the Duke of Ferrara.

 

The Ferrara Synagogue and Jewish Museum is located in the former Jewish Quarter, which was maintained as a ghetto for over 300 years, until the unification of Italy in 1859.

 

No Italian piazza is complete without its clock tower.  Ferrara, Italy.

No Italian piazza is complete without its clock tower. Ferrara, Italy.

Few Italian towns this size have so many palaces, but their more modest scale only adds to the city’s intimate ambiance.

 

Visitors with more time to spend here will want to see the Palazzo dei Diamanti, which is now home to the National Picture Gallery, and the Casa Romei.  The Palazzo Schifanoia is now home to an impressive collection of Renaissance artifacts.

 

Jewish synagogue and museum, Ferra, Italy.

Jewish synagogue and museum, Ferra, Italy.

 

Those with even more time and a cycling inclination will find the surrounding countryside laced with excellent bicycle routes over unchallenging terrain.

 

Ferrara is on the main rail line from Bologna to Padua and Venice.  It’s also connected by rail to Ravenna, the last Italian capital of the Roman Empire.  The trip one-way takes little more than an hour.

Afternoon sun casts a warm glow on brick walls, Ferrara, Italy.

Afternoon sun casts a warm glow on brick walls, Ferrara, Italy.

 

The point of this impromptu visit, though, is finding place to have lunch.   A perfect setting  presents itself as an outdoor table beneath the canopy of a trattoria facing the piazza.

 

There’s nothing quite as quintessentially Italian as people-watching while you savor a freshly pressed panini… or sip a cappuccino, Campari, or Cinzano.

 

 

Piazza in Ferrara, Italy.  A perfect place for lunch.

Piazza in Ferrara, Italy. A perfect place for lunch.

The piazza cafe is an experience that can be had in just about any town in Italy, but in Ferrara it’s particularly tranquil and unhurried.

Far less trafficked by tourists then larger or more well-known destinations, it’s arguably the most laid-back stop of these 10 Days In Italy.  It’s only half an hour’s drive further to Bologna, where a room in the old city and a ‘foodie’ heaven await.

See these earlier posts from “10 Days In Italy”

Padua walkabout

Street scene, Padua, Italy

Street scene, Padua, Italy

Padua (in Italian “Padova“) is less than half an hour’s drive from Venice, and even the time spent on a farewell breakfast at the hotel on Lido and a ferry ride back to the mainland to retrieve the car still allows for a mid-morning arrival.

 

In fact, the distance between each night’s stay for this trip rarely exceeds 100 miles, and the short travel legs make for plenty of time to wander off the beaten path.

 

Belltower, Basilica of Saint Anthony, Padua, Italy

Belltower, Basilica of Saint Anthony, Padua, Italy

 

Like stops earlier in this trip at Bergamo and Verona , Padua is a destination omitted from shorter Italian itineraries, despite the fact that autostradas place it within easy reach of Venice or Florence.

 

On this morning, the itinerary is very off-the-cuff, and Padua is a place which lends itself well to such spontaneity.

 

Basilica of Saint Anthony, Padua, Italy

Basilica of Saint Anthony, Padua, Italy

This city is perhaps most well-known as the final home of Saint Anthony of Padua, buried in his namesake basilica.

 

A Portuguese-born Catholic priest and Franciscan friar first renowned as an eloquent preacher, and later as the patron saint of finding lost people or property, he was a saintly superstar canonized within a few years of his untimely death around the age of 40.

 

Courtyard, Basilica of Saint Anthony, Padua, Italy

Courtyard, Basilica of Saint Anthony, Padua, Italy

 

As elsewhere in Medieval Europe, relics of the saints held a pre-eminent spot in Catholic practices, and among the grisly relics on display here are his skeletal remains and what is purported to be the great orator’s tongue!

 

This city is also home to the University of Padua, one of Europe’s earliest.  Older than any Italian university except the  one at Bologna, it once numbered Galileo among its lecturers.

Going to market, Padua, Italy

Going to market, Padua, Italy

Padua claims to be the oldest city in northern Italy, settled almost 1200 years B.C.E. by a Trojan prince who led his people there from Turkey’s Black Sea coast.  A sarcophagus reputed to hold the prince’s remains was unearthed there two-and-a-half millennia later.  By the time of Christ’s birth, Padua had become a Roman town with a population of nearly 40,000.  (Today it’s over 200,000.)

 

Like many cities in this part of Italy, Padua suffered barbarian invasions as the Roman Empire collapsed, and through the Middles Ages was dominated by – and frequently traded among – he region’s city-states and puppet kingdoms.  It nonetheless has a tradition of constitutional government dating back more than a millennium.

 

Wooden sculpture, Padua, Italy

Wooden sculpture, Padua, Italy

During the wave of revolutions that in 1848 swept Europe and Latin America,  Padua’s students and citizens staged an unsuccessful revolt against the Austrians that turned the University and the city’s famed Caffè Pedrocchi into battlegrounds.

 

The Italian Army made its headquarters here during World War I.

 

 

At the war’s low-water mark, the city was within range of Austrian artillery and was bombed several times, but it was also in Padua that the Austrians surrendered to the Italians when the armistice came.

 

Street musician, Padua, Italy

Street musician, Padua, Italy

During the Fascist era, Padua was the venue for one of Benito Mussolini’s largest rallies, where a crowd of more than 300,000 attended his speech.  During World War II, the city was bombed by Allied planes.

 

Notwithstanding its contentious history, Padua remains a picturesque town.

 

Bridge over the Bacchiglione River, Padua, Italy

Bridge over the Bacchiglione River, Padua, Italy

 

It sits on a bend of the Bacchiglione River, which once fed a moat surrounding the city walls, and make of it a city of bridges, among which several date back to the time of the Romans.

 

 

The old city is criss-crossed by a labyrinth of streets which open into large piazze that make it a great place to just wander about.

 

Pedrocchi Café, Padua, Italy

One of the most memorable sites is the city’s famed Caffè Pedrocchi .  The original part of this cafe dates from 1772, although it was expanded more than once in the century following.

 

Caffè Pedrocchi  follows in the tradition of European coffee houses where students, artists, and activists met to exchange ideas and plot revolution.

 

Pedrocchi Café, Padua, Italy

Pedrocchi Café, Padua, Italy

 

The owner’s heir willed the café to the City of Padua in 1891, charging the city fathers with “the solemn obligation to preserve the building as it exists today in perpetuity for public use “.

 

Today’s travel plan is to spend the afternoon and evening in Bologna, but just before the departure from Padua, a stroke of good luck carries this city walk past an open market in a piazza.

 

 

Piazza market, Padua, Italy

Piazza market, Padua, Italy

 

The fresh produce under the canopies is eye-popping, for the Italians take little as seriously as eating well, but this is  also a great spot to people-watch.

 

It’s been a morning delightfully spent, but it’s time to return to  the autostrada and the promise of Bologna well before nightfall.

 

See these earlier posts from “10 Days In Italy”

Venice’s Piazza San Marco

Piazetta, Venice, Italy

Piazetta, Venice, Italy

Anchored by its iconic Basilica and campanile, the Piazza San Marco – St. Mark’s Square – is  as an essential part of Venice’s identity as its canals.

 

Its main entrance is the Piazetta corridor adjacent to the Doge’s Palace that connects it to the Grand Canal.

 

 

Basilica San Marcos and campanile, Piazza San Marcos, Venie, Italy

Basilica San Marcos and campanile, Piazza San Marcos, Venie, Italy

 

 

 

The Basilica San Marco reflects the conviction held by Christians in the Middle Ages that physical remains of a holy site or person had healing powers, and that  possession bestowed honor and privileges upon their owners.

 

 

 

 

Basilica San Marcos, Venice, Italy

Basilica San Marcos, Venice, Italy

 

Tradition holds that St. Mark Christianized Venice in the first century before his martyrdom in Alexandria, Egypt, from which a body believed to be his was stolen by two Venetian merchants in 828.

The city quickly adopted St. Mark as its patron, and built the first church of San Marco as its sanctuary.  It also adopted the saint’s winged-lion symbol as its own.

 

Facade detail, Basilica San Marcos, Venice, Italy

Facade detail, Basilica San Marcos, Venice, Italy

 

 

 

When Constantinople was sacked during the 4th Crusade, plunder shipped back to Venice included the two pillars which still stand where the Piazzetta meets the canal, along with marbles and mosaics installed on the Basilica’s west facade.

 

 

 

Four Horses of St, Mark's

Four Horses of St, Mark’s

 

The booty also included the bronze Triumphal Quadriga - the “Four Horses of Saint Mark”.  Originally part of a larger Roman monument, they stand on the Basilica’s loggia above the porch.

 

It’s an interesting bit of trivia that the heads were detached in order to transport these bronzes, and collars were added to hide the cuts during reassembly.

 

Promenade, Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

Promenade, Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

 

In the late Renaissance, the original campanile was replaced to house a new astronomical clock, and the Piazza was enlarged to its present size.

 

Today, the only pre-Renaissance buildings and monuments still standing are the Basilica San Marco, the Palazzo Ducale – the Doge’s Palace – and the two great columns in the Piazzetta adjacent to it.

 

Caffè Florian (founded 1720), Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

Caffè Florian (founded 1720), Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

 

When the Venetian Republic ended with Napoleon’s conquest 1797, stonemasons were ordered to destroy images of the winged lion, which Revolutionary France saw as a symbol of aristocratic rule.

 

Wedding party, Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

Wedding party, Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

 

The Four Horses were sent to Paris along with the winged lion perched on one of the columns in the Piazzetta.

 

The headless statues were later replaced by copies, and both the winged lion and Four Horses were returned in 1815 following Napoleon’s abdication.

 

 

Doge's Palace and Grand Canal, Venice, Italy

Doge’s Palace and Grand Canal, Venice, Italy

 

The Palazzo Ducale – the Doge’s Palace – faces the canal adjoining the Basilica and the Piazzetta.  It was not just the Doge’s residence, but the center of government.

 

It was here that foreign delegations were received and from here that communications with ambassadors and regional governors were managed.

 

 

 

Basilco San Marco from the Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy

Basilco San Marco from the Doge’s Palace, Venice, Italy

 

It was here that the meetings of the Great Council and the Senate were held, and from here that justice was administered.

 

It was from here that recruitment of crews for Venice’s war galleys and the outfitting of its fleet were coordinated.

 

Senators' courtyard, Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy

Senators’ courtyard, Doge’s Palace, Venice, Italy

 

While the Doge served for life, the Republic maintained a strong system of checks and balances.

 

It is a testament to this ingenious system that the Council was compelled to remove only two of the 120 Doges who served continuously from 717 to 1797.

 

Campile from Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy

Campile from Doge’s Palace, Venice, Italy

 

The Great Council was made up of all male members of patrician families over the age of 25.  Smaller councils carved from it had responsibilities including assuring punishment of the guilty, redress for the innocent, and enforcement of regulations concerning the practice of law.

 

The Venetian Senate dates back to the 13th century.

 

Window in the Doge's palace, Venice, Italy

Window in the Doge’s palace, Venice, Italy

 

State Censors were charged with preventing electoral fraud and protecting public institutions.

 

State Advocates safeguarded the rule of law and verified marriages and births to preserve the legitimacy of the patrician ruling class.

 

Whistleblower mailbox, Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy

Whistleblower mailbox, Doge’s Palace, Venice, Italy: “For secret denunciations against those who conceal favors and services or conspire to conceal revenue.”

 

The Doge’s private apartments are well-appointed if not large.

 

The walls of the Palazzo’s rooms are covered in gilded wood, frescoes, and paintings by Renaissance masters.

 

Bridge of Sighs, Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy

Bridge of Sighs, Doge’s Palace, Venice, Italy

 

 

 

The Ponte dei Sospiri – the Bridge of Sighs – links magistrates’ chambers in the Palazzo Ducale to the New Prisons, from which Casanova is reputed to have escaped.

 

The bridge’s name refers to the last look at freedom it afforded to those on the way to prison.

 

Local legend holds that lovers kiss on a gondola at sunset under the bridge as the campanile’s bells toll will be granted eternal love and bliss.

 

Tomorrow it’s back to the Italian mainland, and on to Padua by autostrada.

 

 

Channeling Venice

Grand Canal, Venice

Grand Canal, Venice

There’s little that words can do to embellish the iconic images of Venice’s canals which have enchanted visitors for centuries.

 

Paintings of these waterways by English Romanticist J.M. Turner, French Impressionist Claude Monet, and American John Singer Sargent are widely published and well known.

 

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their unique charm helped to make Venice a must-see on “Grand Tours” by both European nobility and global celebrities.

 

San Giorgio Maggiore Church, Venice

San Giorgio Maggiore Church, Venice

 

 

Venice’s appeal is so powerful that its name has been borrowed – or its urban waterways mimicked – in American cities from Venice, California to Coral Gables, Florida.

 

Every year, almost half a million visitors wander the waterways and piazzas of Las Vegas’s Venetian Hotel.

 

 

San Giorgio Maggiore Church, Venice

San Giorgio Maggiore Church, Venice from the Doge’s Palazzo

But it’s easy to lose in Venice’s seductive images the role of its canals on the development of the city’s culture, or their influence on making Venice a maritime powerhouse and quite arguably the navel of the civilized world for half a millennium.

 

Rialto Bridge, Venice

Rialto Bridge, Venice

 

The roots of Venice’s future greatness, though, would have been hard to discern in its inauspicious beginnings.

 

As the Roman Empire faltered under successive waves of barbarian invasions, fishermen who lived on the islands of the  lagoon were joined by refugees from nearby Roman cities and farms, seeking refuge in the inaccessibility of its marshes.

Bride and groom on gondola, Venice

Bride and groom on gondola, Venice

 

The city’s founding is traditionally pegged to the dedication of the Church of San Giacomo in 421.

 

When the Lombards conquered most of Italy more than a century later, insulated Venice and the adjacent coast were all that remained of Byzantine Italy.

 

Classic wooden boats, Venice

Classic wooden boats, Venice

 

Despite a 726 AD rebellion in which the city’s inhabitants took the side of Pope Gregory II in the schism between the Roman and Orthodox Catholic churches, Venice maintained good close relations with Constantinople through most of its history.

 

 

 

Classic wooden boat, Venice

Classic wooden boat, Venice

A fortuitous consequence of the rebellion, though, was that Venetians elected their own leader – the doge – for the first time, paving the way to a Venetian Republic that would last for more than ten centuries.

 

When the Lombards conquered the last of the Italian mainland in 751, Venice remained tethered to the Byzantine Empire only by sea routes.

 

The city’s isolation bred autonomy, and over the next 300 years Venice developed into a self-governed city state.

Northern Italy 079 Venice canals gondolas

 

Venice’s protected geography made it virtually invulnerable to attack, and the city became a flourishing trade link between Western Europe and all points east.  At its peak, the Venetian fleet numbered more than 3,000 ships and nearly 40,000 sailors.

 

Tributary canal and boats, Venice

Tributary canal and boats, Venice

 

By 1200 AD, the Venetian Republic had seized land on the eastern shores of the Adriatic.  Its possessions on the Italian mainland eventually extended east beyond Lake Garda to Bergamo.

 

They served as a buffer against belligerent neighbors, guaranteed Venetian control of Alpine trade routes, and ensured the supply of wheat upon which the city depended.

 

Grand Canal palazzo, Venice

Grand Canal palazzo, Venice

 

 

When the Fourth Crusade went rogue and instead sacked Constantinople in 1204, much of the plunder was brought back to Venice.

 

Partitioning of the fallen empire gave  the Venetians control of Cyprus, Crete, and most of the Aegean.

 

 

 

By the late 13th century, Venice was the most prosperous city in all of Europe and a major power-broker in the Near East, but its decline began in the 15th century with a series of precipitous events.

 

Grand Canal palazzo, Venice

Grand Canal palazzo, Venice

Unable to prevent the Ottomans from occupying Greece or to defend Constantinople against siege, Venice suffered retribution at the hands of the victorious Turkish sultan, whose thirty year war against the Venetians cost them most of their possessions in the eastern Mediterranean.

 

Grand Canal palazzo, Venice

Grand Canal palazzo, Venice

 

When Columbus discovered the New World and Portugal found a sea route to India, Venice’s land monopoly was destroyed, and its oared galleys were unsuited to travel on the great oceans.

 

The Venetian fleet last appeared on the world stage in 1571, when it was instrumental in defeating the Turkish navy at the Battle of Lepanto, permanently blocking Ottoman expansion westward.

 

Today, the only legacy of this magnificent maritime tradition is the gondoliers and classic wooden boats that ply its storied canals.

 

Next, it’s on to Venice’s famous Piazza San Marco.

 

Venice’s backstreets

Villa and canal bridge, Venice, Italy

Villa and canal bridge, Venice, Italy

Acres of cars are stacked within parking garages and lines of pedestrian passengers are streaming onto the ferry as the departure time to Venice approaches.

 

The drive from Verona to Venice that began right after breakfast took less than two hours, which promises arrival in time for lunch at a Venetian trattoria.

 

Cul-de-sac, Venice, Italy

Cul-de-sac, Venice, Italy

 

 

The Alps are still clearly visible for the first part of the drive, but the highway soon becomes a beeline across a coastal plain.

 

It’s easy to see why Venetian forefathers fled this indefensible terrain and moved wholesale onto the islands of the lagoon.

 

 

Palazzo entryway, Venice, Italy

Palazzo entryway, Venice, Italy

 

 

It’s doubtful, though, that they could have imagined how their swampy islands would one day become one of the world’s first post-Roman republics, or that it would become the pre-eminent economic and maritime power of its era and a bastion of the Italian Renaissance.

 

Causeways connect Venice to the Italian mainland by rail and motor vehicle, but no cars, trucks, or busses are permitted beyond their city terminals.

 

 

Postered wall, Venice, Italy.

Postered wall, Venice, Italy.

 

 

Getting around in Venice is strictly by water taxi or on foot.

 

The ferry terminal not only connects Venice with the Italian mainland, but also to ports all up and down the Adriatic coast, and on to Greece.

 

 

Pedestrian crossroads,Venice,Italy

Pedestrian crossroads,Venice,Italy

 

The very mention of Venice recalls the iconic images of its canals and its Piazza San Marco, but since two days afford ample time to see them – and other postcard sights – I first wander instead off the beaten path.

 

Many of Venice’s most intimate and captivating spaces can be found along the pedestrian lanes that lace its islands.

 

Café, Venice, Italy

Café, Venice, Italy

 

Walkways broken only by the largest canals follow pedestrian bridges over the smaller canals, but their loosely organized grid sometimes twists to follow the route of the waterways.

 

 

 

Neighborhood piazza, Venice, Italy

Neighborhood piazza, Venice, Italy

Here, away from the friendly chaos of the canals, are quiet residential streets punctuated by family-owned shops and pocket piazzas.

 

The scent of the sea and swarms of tourists are never far away, but within Venice’s labyrinth of narrow, stone lanes and alleys there is sense of serenity and timelessness.

 

Wandering untethered to a parked car with no footsteps to retrace is a deliciously liberating experience.  On these small islands, it’s impossible to get lost for long.

 

Sidewalk  cafe, Venice, Italy

Sidewalk cafe, Venice, Italy

 

 

The lack of motorized vehicles necessarily slows the pace in Venice and allows the city to unfold before visitors in richly elegant slow motion.

 

There’s time to fully absorb the colors and aromas.

 

 

Restaurant, Venice, Italy.

Restaurant, Venice, Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

There’s time to linger for a longer look or to laze over a leisurely lunch or espresso.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pizza  dough sculptures, pizzeria, Venice, Italy

Pizza dough sculptures, pizzeria, Venice, Italy

 

There’s a chance to grasp, if only fleetingly, a sense of how people defined community before they were isolated from each other by freeways and shopping malls and suburbs.

 

City lane, Venice, Italy

City lane, Venice, Italy

 

At the end of this walkabout, I can think of no better place to emerge from the quiet alleyways than into the storied atmosphere of Harry’s Bar.

 

Harry’s is the home both of carpaccio and the Bellini, and is also famous for its very dry (10:1) martini.

 

The famous Harry's Bar, Venice, Italy.

The famous Harry’s Bar, Venice, Italy.

 

Harry’s is at least as well known, though, for the unending stream of celebrities who have paraded through its doors since it opened in 1931.

 

Its guest book bears the signatures of Toscanini, Marconi, Somerset Maughan, Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Hutton, Orson Welles, Truman Capote, Georges Braque and Peggy Guggenheim.

 

Harry’s was also a favorite of Ernest Hemingway’s and other fans have included Alfred Hitchcock, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Aristotle Onassis, and Woody Allen.

 

Still ahead to see in Venice:  The fabled canals and the Piazza San Marcos – St. Mark’s Square.  Then it’s on to Padua.

Milan to Verona by autostrada

E-64 autostrada, eastbound from Milano, Italy

E-64 autostrada, eastbound from Milano, Italy

My one earlier visit to Italy was on a cruise that left only cravings for more of what was still unseen in the heartland of Northern Italy.

 

The plan for this trip is to drive the countryside within a triangle loosely anchored by Milan, Venice, and Florence, that includes Verona, Padua, Venice, and Parma.

 

Milan has been left for the end of the itinerary, which turns out to be fortuitous.

 

Alps seen from near Bergamo, Italy

Alps obscured by clouds near Bergamo, Italy

 

 

Verona, the first night’s destination, should be a leisurely drive of under three hours, but that plan is derailed the moment the plane touches down.

 

A light rain soaking the runway becomes a deluge in the time it takes to clear Immigration and Customs and point the rental car east on the autostrada.

 

 

 

Street in the Citta' Alta, Bergamo, Italy

Street in the Citta’ Alta, Bergamo, Italy

Rain and fog have throttled visibility down to a few car lengths, but heavy traffic includes plenty of trucks.

In the no-speed-limit left lane, fast-approaching headlights loom in the rear view until they blow past, undeterred by the weather.

It takes nearly two hours to cover the first 60 miles.  By midday, though, there’s a break in the weather and the Italian Alps, ever-present on the right side of the autostrada, begin to appear out of the fog and clouds.

 

Entrance to the Citta' Alta, Bergamo, Italy

Entrance to the Citta’ Alta, Bergamo, Italy

 

With a room guaranteed for the evening in Verona, an unscheduled stop for lunch has become suddenly appealing, and an exit labeled “Bergamo” is well-placed.

 

 

It turns out that there are actually two Bergamos.  The old city, the Citta’ Alta, sits high on a bluff at the edge of the Alps, and the new city is spread out on the plain below.

 

View from above the Citta' Alta, Bergamo, Italy

View from above the Citta’ Alta, Bergamo, Italy

Even by European standards, this place is old, for the Celts were here before the Romans.

 

The daunting climb to the Citta’ Alta was not deterrent enough for Attila the Hun, who destroyed it the 5th century.

 

The city, though, rebounded to become the seat of a Lombard duchy, and after its conquest by Charlemagne, a county seat.

 

Bergamo-style polenta and sweets

Bergamo-style polenta and sweets

 

In the early Middle Ages it was an independent commune, but later became part of the Venetian Republic until both were conquered by Napoleon.

 

After Napoleon’s exile, it became part of the Austrian Empire until it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy in 1859 .

 

 

 

Bergamo 008

Footpath in the Citta Alta, Bergamo, Italy

 

 

 

This city has lent its name to a regional folk dance style known as bergamask. Shakespeare refers to it in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream as a “Bergomask dance”.

 

The music is characterized by dissonances and irregular intervals that later inspired Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque”.

 

 

 

Trattoria, Bergamo, Italy

Trattoria, Bergamo, Italy

 

The Città Alta is surrounded by 17th-century defensive walls.

 

It is connected to the lower city by a cable car.  With parking spaces very limited in the upper city, the funicular is the recommended approach.

 

 

 

 

More Alps seen from near Bergamo, Italy

Alps in cleared skies as seen near Bergamo, Italy

 

 

 

Lunch at a trattoria in the Citta’ Alta ends with cleared skies.

 

A hotel room awaits in Verona, but with weather delays and the stop in Bergamo, it’s dusk by arrival.

 

 

 

 

Night life on the streets of Verona, Italy

Night life on the streets of Verona, Italy

 

Verona’s strategic location between Milan and Venice, astride the route through the Alps to Innsbruck, has made it much contested for centuris.

 

Incredibly, though, it is one of a handful of Italian cities that did not suffer major destruction during World War II.

 

 

Castelvechio bridge,  Verona, Italy

Castelvecchio bridge, Verona, Italy

 

 

The city’s history is foggy before it became a Roman  town around 300 BC, but the value and importance of its many historical buildings have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

 

 

 

Night life on the streets of Verona, Italy

Night life on the streets of Verona, Italy

 

 

 

At the time of its the completion in 1356, Verona’s Ponte Scaligero boasted the world’s largest bridge arch.

 

 

 

Piazza Bra (Arena at left), Verona, Italy

Piazza Bra (Arena at left), Verona, Italy

 

 

 

A Roman amphitheater, The Arena, still survives in the Piazza Bra, and only the theaters in Rome and Capua seat more than it 25,000.

 

 

 

Piazza Bra (Arena at right), Verona, Italy

Piazza Bra (Arena at right), Verona, Italy

 

 

While little of the original perimeter wall remains, the interior is virtually intact, and it is still used today for theatre and summer opera, fairs, and other public events.

 

 

 

Castelvechio bridge,  Verona, Italy

Castelvechio bridge, Verona, Italy

 

As in Bergamo, there are enough sights to keep visitors occupied for a couple of days, but Venice calls, and with the weather now clear, tomorrow’s arrival should be well before lunch.

 

Château de Cheverny

Château de Cheverny front facade

Château de Cheverny front facade

The Loire Valley’s Château de Cheverny has stood as a testament to the conspicuous consumption of French royalty for nearly 400 years.

Ramparts, Château de Cheverny

Ramparts, Château de Cheverny

One of the first châteaux to open its doors to the public early in the 1900’s, it’s known for its magnificent interiors and remarkably well-preserved collection of furniture, tapestries, and objets d’art.

Because it was built and decorated in a relatively short period, its architecture is unusually harmonious.

Gardens, Château de Cheverny

Gardens, Château de Cheverny

 

Like most châteaux, Cheverny was the property of a family who represented royal authority locally.

 

While many were built or renovated as elaborate country houses, the earliest were fortified castles, and some – including Cheverny – still retain vestiges of fortifications.

 

 

Salon, Château de Cheverny

Salon, Château de Cheverny

 

The original château at Cheverny was purchased by Count Henri Hurault, Louis XIII’s military treasurer, around 1610.

 

Although the property has since passed through many hands, Hurault’s descendants have twice recovered it, and still own it today.

 

Ceiling detail, Château de Cheverny

Ceiling detail, Château de Cheverny

 

When it was forfeited to the Crown as a penalty for fraud, Henri II offered it to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.

 

Preferring the nearby Château de Chenonceau, she sold it back to the former owner’s son, who completed construction of the current structure in 1630.

 

 

Salon, Château de Cheverny

Salon, Château de Cheverny

 

The Hurault family was forced to forfeit much of its wealth during the French Revolution, and sold the property in 1802.

 

They bought it back for the second time during the Restoration in 1824, and today Hurault’s descendants live on its private third floor

 

 

 

Dining room, Château de Cheverny

Dining room, Château de Cheverny

 

My visit to Cheverny comes at the end of a long day in the Loire Valley.

 

The round trip by car runs around five hours, making it difficult for the visitor to do justice to more than two or three châteaux in a day.  Visitors should consider spending a night or two in Amboise or Blois to allow time to browse them at leisure.

 

 

Bedchamber, Château de Cheverny

Bedchamber, Château de Cheverny

As sunset approaches and the drive back begins, there’s time for no more than a drive-by of the storybook Château de Chambord.

On the ride back, I reflect upon how difficult it is to walk through the opulence of Cheverny and other magnificent châteaux without thinking of the peasants whose hard labor funded such largesse.

Salon, Château de Cheverny

Salon, Château de Cheverny

 

 

It was only the agricultural output of lands surrounding each château that enabled it to be self-sufficient.

 

French peasants tethered to the land they worked, and through it to the château which it supported, were for generations trapped in subsistence with little hope that their lives would change.

 

 

Nursery, Château de Cheverny

Nursery, Château de Cheverny

 

 

 

It’s no surprise, then, that while the story of the French Revolution is often  retold as the uprising of urban Paris, it was prosecuted with equal fervor in the countryside.

 

 

 

 

 

Hallway, Château de Cheverny

Hallway, Château de Cheverny

 

Rural unrest began with when a drought that threatened the harvest of 1788 was followed by storms and floods which destroyed much of what remained.  In the following winter, frosts and snow damaged vines and orchards.

 

The poor harvest sparked demands for cancellation of harvest payments to château owners and restoration of grazing rights.

 

Angelic sculpture, Château de Cheverny

Angelic sculpture, Château de Cheverny

In the face of massive bread shortages in the spring of 1789, many peasants and villagers armed themselves, attacking symbols of the regime, and reclaimed tithes and grain.

The unrest prompted the revolutionary National Assembly to formally abolished feudalism.

Château de Chambord

Château de Chambord

Château de Cheverny is the final post of from my 10 Days In Paris, and while the pace of the trip has been tireless, I still leave with a long list of sights yet unseen for my next visit.

See earlier posts from my 10 Days in Paris:

 

 

 

Châteaux du Clos Lucé & Chenonceau

Leonardo's helicopter model at Château du Clos Lucé

Leonardo’s helicopter model at Château du Clos Lucé

Château du Clos Lucé.   If you thought that Leonardo da Vinci is buried in his native Italy, or that his famous Mona Lisa arrived at the Louvre as a spoil of war, you’d be wrong on both counts.

 

It was the artist himself who, in 1516, brought his paintings Mona Lisa, Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, and St. John the Baptist with him to France.

 

 

Leonardo's mechanical models at Château du Clos Lucé

Leonardo’s mechanical models at Château du Clos Lucé

 

The Château du Clos Lucé, where he lived until his death three years later, is now  a museum that displays over forty models of his machines.

 

The king of France bought the now-famous paintings from Leonardo’s estate, and the Mona Lisa hung in the royal palaces at Fontainebleau and Versailles before it was moved to the Louvre after the French Revolution.

 

 

Leonardo bust at Château du Clos Lucé

Leonardo bust at Château du Clos Lucé

That these paintings today sit in The Louvre is remarkable, because Leonardo almost never made it toFrance.

While Da Vinci had long-standing invitations from French kings to move to France, he accepted only when his patron Giuliano de Medici died in 1516.

Model of Leonardo's airplane at Château du Clos Lucé

Model of Leonardo’s airplane at Château du Clos Lucé

Although paralysis in one arm had rendered da Vinci unable to paint, King Francis I welcomed him warmly and installed him in the Chateau Clos Lucé, adjacent to the king’s own Château d’Amboise.

 

Leonardo's grave at Château du Clos Lucé

Leonardo’s grave at Château du Clos Lucé

Their friendship was so close that Leonardo’s chateau was connected to the king’s by an underground passage.

Leonardo repaid Francis’s hospitality by designing and constructing grand engineering projects.

He also brought with him his mechanical lion, which was able to walk a few steps and open its chest to present the king with a cluster of lilies.

Legend has it that a 67-year-old Leonardo died in King Francis’s arms.

 

 

 

Gallery bridge at Château Chenonceau.

Gallery bridge at Château Chenonceau.

 

 

Château Chenonceau.  This Loire Valley château has an incredible history marked by historical notables, a long succession of owners, and ongoing threat of destruction by revolution and war.

 

The best -known of the Loire valley châteaux, the current version was completed in 1522, and is an architectural mix of Gothic and Renaissance.

 

 

Sculpture detail, Château Chenonceau

Sculpture detail, Château Chenonceau

 

 

Henry II gave it to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, after seizing the property for unpaid debts in 1535.

 

It was Diane who commissioned construction of the signature bridge which joins the château to the opposite river bank.

 

Bedchamber, Château Chenonceau.

Bedchamber, Château Chenonceau.

 

She also ordered the planting of gardens laid out in four triangles.

 

Henry II’s widow and regent Catherine de Medici appropriated the chateau as  her residence upon her husband’s death.

 

She added a new series of gardens, and enclosed and dedicated the river bridge as a gallery.

Staircase, Château Chenonceau.

Staircase, Château Chenonceau.

Upon Catherine’s death, the château, again encumbered by debt,  passed to her daughter-in-law Louise, wife of King Henry III.

Henri IV, France’s first Boubon king, paid off Catherine’s debts in order to acquire Chenonceau for his mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées.

Chapel, Château Chenonceau.

Chapel, Château Chenonceau.

The Bourbons, however, used Chenonceau only as a hunting lodge until the Duke of Bourbon sold the castle’s contents in 1720.  Much of its collection can still be seen today at Versailles.

Ballery bridge at Château Chenonceau

Gallery bridge at Château Chenonceau

 

In 1733, the estate was bought by a wealthy squire whose wife, Louise, hosted literary salons which attracted notables including Voltaire and Montesquieu.

 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for a time the owner’s secretary and his son’s tutor, wrote part of his book Émil at Chenonceau.

 

 

 

River view from gallery bridge, Château Chenonceau.

River view from gallery bridge, Château Chenonceau.

 

The widowed Louise saved the château from destruction by the French Revolutionary Guard that “it was essential to travel and commerce, being the only bridge across the river for many miles.”

 

In 1864, heiress Marguerite Pelouze acquired the château and commissioned its complete restoration.

 

The cost of the renovation drove her into debt, and the château was bought by a Cuban millionaire who sold it in 1913 to renowned chocolatier Henri Menier.

Kitchen, Château Chenonceau.

Kitchen, Château Chenonceau.

 

 

During World War I, the chateau’s bridge gallery was used as a hospital ward.

 

Bombed by the Germans in 1940, it later served as an escape route across the river from Nazi-occupied France to Vichy France.

 

The original windows in its chapel were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944.

 

The Menier family restored the chateau in 1951, and owns it to this day.

 

Next week’s post:  The Loire Valley’s Châteaux de Cheverny and Chambord.

See earlier posts from 10 Days in Paris:

 

Reims and champagne

Interior, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims

Interior, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims

A celebrated cathedral dating from the High Middle Ages… caves in which acres of champagne bottles ripen…  and miles of French countryside laced with vineyards make a day trip to Reims a great change of pace and a feast for the senses.

 

 

Ninety miles northeast of Paris, it’s readily accessible by train, and the scenery along the route is so bucolic that it’s hard to believe that by the end of World War I it had become a pockmarked no man’s land of trenches and shell craters.

Front facade, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims

Front facade, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims

 

 

The cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims dominates the city skyline.

The bells in its twin, 250-foot bell towers weigh up to eleven tons, and its weathered walls are covered in medieval sculptures and bas-reliefs.

While Gothic cathedrals like the one at Reims still deliver stunning impact more than eight centuries after they were built, they represented at the time of their construction the greatest advance in architecture since the Roman arch.

Bell tower, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims

Bell tower, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims

Through the early Middle Ages, tall buildings required the support of thick and windowless walls, and their interiors were predictably dark and dank.

Just after the end of the first millennium, French architects innovated the pointed arch, the flying buttress, and the ribbed vault to create cathedrals which captured vast, soaring spaces flooded with light streaming through towering stained glass windows.

Bas-reliefs, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims facade

Bas-reliefs, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims facade

Competition among Europe’s cities to outdo each other’s cathedrals followed, and most of the Gothic Cathedrals were built in the first 200 years of the second millennium.

The work often demanded a century or more of effort by hundreds of workers and artisans.

These structures remained feats of engineering largely unsurpassed until the arrival of structural cast iron and steel beam buildings nearly a millennium later.

 

 

Chagall windows, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims

Chagall windows, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims

Few if any of  these cathedrals, though, have borne witness to so much history as the one at Reims, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Clovis, first king of the Franks, was baptized in a church on this site in AD 496, and kings of France were crowned here for nearly 1500 years.

When the English army occupied the city during the Hundred Years’ War, the coronation of King Charles VII was delayed until the city could be retaken in 1429 by an army under Joan of Arc.

During World War I, German shellfire damaged or destroyed important parts of the cathedral, and restoration work was not fully completed until 1938.

In 1974, Marc Chagall completed a six-year collaboration on three stained glass windows for one of the cathedral’s chapels that replace windows dating from the nineteenth century.

No photographs can capture the sensation of standing in this ancient and awe-inspiring space.  It’s hard not to pause for a moment of quiet reflection before going on to more secular pursuits…

Chateau Pommery, Reims

Chateau Pommery, Reims

 

 

 

 

Reims sits in the heart of the champagne district, and the Chateau Pommery is arguably the most interesting of the many producers nearby.

 

 

 

 

Chateau Pommery, Reims

Chateau Pommery, Reims

 

 

 

Its buildings are an eclectic mix of fairytale architecture that reflects the highly original mind of Madame Louise Pommery, the widow of founder Alexandre Pommery.

 

 

 

 

Cellar entrance, Chateau Pommery, Reims

Cellar entrance, Chateau Pommery, Reims

 

 

 

It was Madame Pommery’s vision to purchase chalk and limestone pits that dated back to the Romans, and created from them cellars expansive enough to store and age over twenty million temperature-controlled bottles.

 

Bas-relief, Chateau Pommery cellar, Reims

Bas-relief, Chateau Pommery cellar, Reims

It was also Madame Pommery who commissioned artful bas-reliefs for the cave walls that are now a signature feature of this subterranean fantasy.

Bas-relief, Chateau Pommery cellar, Reims

Bas-relief, Chateau Pommery cellar, Reims

 

 

While there have been vineyards in this part of France since the time of the Romans, sparkling wines did not come of age until centuries later.

 

 

 

Bas-relief of Louise Pommery, Chateau Pommery cellar, Reims

Bas-relief of Louise Pommery, Chateau Pommery cellar, Reims

Winemakers in Champagne had long considered the bubbles in their wine to be a fault, but when sparkling wines became popular in British high society, the fashion jumped the channel to become the drink of choice for French royalty.

Champagne in the making, Chateau Pommery, Reims

Champagne in the making, Chateau Pommery, Reims

It was not until the 1800’s that winemakers finally learned to control the fermentation process, and technology allowed the production of bottles which could withstand the pressure of carbonation.

Chateau Pommery tasting room, Reims

Chateau Pommery tasting room, Reims

In the early part of the twentieth century, the champagne industry was threatened by setbacks including vineyard blight, rioting growers, and the loss of the Russian market to the revolution and the American market to Prohibition.  Production was also stifled by two World Wars.

The all of it, French champagne managed to survive, and the proof is, of course, in the tasting!

 

The cathedral is about six miles from the train station, and Chateau Pommery is less than two miles from the cathedral.

See earlier posts from my 10 Days in Paris:

Museum pieces

There are so many great museums in Paris that the challenge is to decide which are the must-see’s, and the larger museums are so expansive that a savvy tourist will have a game plan for each.

The Louvre, Paris

The Louvre, Paris

Between them, the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and Les Invalides are home to historic art dating from the ancient Greeks into the early twentieth century.

These monumental buildings and the artifacts that they contain also document nearly 500 years of French history.

 

The Louvre is a jaw-dropper even without its world-class art collection.

Built as a palace fortress late in the 12th century, it has since been extended many times.

Its life as an art museum began when Louis XIV moved his court from Paris to Versailles and left much of his collection at The Louvre, which was designated a national art museum as an outcome of the French Revolution.

Only a few hundred works – including the Mona Lisa – were on display for the  1793 opening.  The collection was subsequently expanded with pieces brought back from Northern Europe and the Vatican back by France’s revolutionary armies, including Veronese’s Wedding at Cana.

Additions made to the collection throughout the 1800’s by France’s emperors and kings included the Venus de Milo, Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, the Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and a department of Egyptian antiquities.

The Louvre, Paris

The Louvre, Paris

During World War II, most of the collection was hidden outside Paris, much of it at the Château de Chambord.  In 1983, architect I. M. Pei was commissioned to renovate the building.  He conceived the now-iconic glass pyramid and underground lobby on which work was completed in 1993.

The Mona Lisa and other works of the Italian Renaissance are the big draw here, but the crush of tourists makes the experience far from intimate.  Anyone who’s previously seen works by the Italian masters in Rome’s Vatican Museum should consider browsing them quickly before opting for less-congested galleries.  The collection of Dutch and Flemish masters is outstanding, and the apartments once occupied by Napoleon III are worth seeing.

Musée d'Orsay , Paris

Musée d’Orsay , Paris

 

 

 

 

 

The Musée d’Orsay houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world.

 

 

 

Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Musée d’Orsay, Paris

 

 

On exhibit here are works by Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Sisley, Gauguin and Van Gogh.

 

Constructed as the Gare d’Orsay rail station, it opened – along with the Eiffel Tower – at Paris’s 1900 Exposition, but by 1970 it had fallen into decline.

 

 

 

Degas ballerina, Musée d'Orsay , Paris

Degas ballerina, Musée d’Orsay , Paris

 

 

 

 

Slated for demolition, it was rescued by a proposal to convert it into an art museum that would bridge the gap between the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art – the Pompidou Centre.

 

Renovations began in 1978, and were completed in 1986.  The installation of more than 2,000 paintings, 600 sculptures and other works took more than six months.

 

 

 

 

 

Les Invalides is a complex of museums and monuments first conceived by Louis XIV as a hospital and retirement home for war veterans.

Les Invalides, Paris

Les Invalides, Paris

Dome of Les Invalides, Paris

Dome of Les Invalides, Paris

Amory at Les Invalides, Paris

Amory at Les Invalides, Paris

The armory of Les Invalides is where, on July 14, 1789, Parisian rioters on their way to the Bastille seized the cannons and muskets from its armory.

Statue of Napoleon, Les Invalides, Paris

Statue of Napoleon, Les Invalides, Paris

 

It now commemorates the military history of France, and although it’s most famously known as Napoleon’s tomb, other French war heroes are also buried within its walls.

 

 

 

Napoleon's tomb, Les Invalides, Paris

Napoleon’s tomb, Les Invalides, Paris

The body of Napoleon I was returned to France from Saint Helena and interred here in 1861.  His only son, dead of tuberculosis at age 21, and his brothers Joseph and Jérôme are also buried here.

Marshal Foch's tomb, Les Invalides, Paris

Marshal Foch’s tomb, Les Invalides, Paris

In the twentieth century World War I’s Allied Supreme Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch and World War II’s General Philippe Leclerc, commander of the celebrated 2nd Armored Division, were also buried here.

Statue of Napoleon, Les Invalides, Paris

Statue of Napoleon, Les Invalides, Paris

There’s also an extensive collection of medieval armor and weapons on display here.

Next up for 10 Days In Paris:  Reims and the Champagne country.

See earlier posts from 10 Days in Paris:

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