Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Arrivederci Italia !

We are back in Virginia. I suppose that the typical thing to say at this point would be that the months flew by, but the funny thing is that they didn’t. At least they didn't while we were there. Actually, most of the days seemed to stretch as though to accommodate all the new experiences we were having. Others seemed long because I was in bed with a cold or because the sun never came out. And yet, now that we’re home, it’s as though the entire three months have collapsed in the way one could, or so I imagine, squeeze tight an accordion. Since I ended up our stay with a cold of two-weeks’ duration, I barely kept up the blog. I really don’t want the “a-choo” post to be my final word on Italy,so I’ll write a few more. They’re things I’ve saved up in my congested head.

We ended our Italy adventure as we started, in Rome. I like Rome more each time I go there, and although I understand it when people tell me they find it overwhelming, I would just advise those people to focus on one small area of the city each day. After all, if Rome wasn’t built in a day I don’t see why we all feel compelled to see it in a day. Even if Rome did not have the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the treasures of the Vatican and all the great fountains and piazze, it would be tops in my book because it had sun. Something that had been missing in Bologna for two weeks. (So, it turned out that my hypothetic book title Where is the Bolognese Sun ?was right on the money).

When I think about Rome what really strikes me is how theatrical the architecture and sculpture is—at least the Baroque examples, of which there are many. This quality of pizzazz was all the more obvious after Bologna which hides all it’s Baroqueness inside the revamped medieval churches, and which, in any case, is much more medieval in appearance. In other words, Rome is more like the character Cassie in A Chorus Line. In case you have forgotten or—shocking to think of—don’t know who that is , let me describe. Cassie was the promising dancer who left Broadway to seek fortune and fame in Hollywood. Apparently Hollywood was not kind to her and she has come Crawling Back. Although previously a star on the Broadway stage she must now submit to an audition as a member of the chorus line, just one hoofer among hundreds of hopefuls. Oh, the humiliation ! And not only that-- the director conducting the audition is her Old Flame. The group dance numbers require that each auditionee dance exactly the same way like a line of funky robots. But of course, Cassie cannot do this. She simply cannot stop herself from putting a little more ooomph into the hip action or curving her arm with just that much more force than the dancers next to her. She must be she ! And that is My Roma—always more theatrical than the other cities, always calling attention to itself. Rome is a big show-off.

Most unforgettable was the hotel, or to be more accurate, our hotel room. It looked out onto the Spanish Steps. When I say, looked out, what I mean is that Boris and Bill were able to stand on the steps and talk to me through the window. I feel a little bad for the other tourists. They probably saw me in the open window, dramatically pushing open the shutters in that Cassie-like way I have. (I must be me !) Perhaps, they wondered if I was an Italian contessa looking out from the palazzo that has been in the family for centuries. How intriguing ! How picturesque ! And then they heard my dulcet tones: “Hey Bill, didja remember the camera ?” To those visitors on the Spanish Steps that evening: I am really sorry if I ruined the atmosphere for you.

The first afternoon we did a lot of walking, enjoying Villa Borghese, which is actually a park. We noticed with a shock that the graffiti problem in Rome is much less than in Bologna. (Bologna, if you are within the sound of this blog—please repair your beautiful city !) We took a circuitous route to the Villa Giulio, not for the Etruscan artifacts which are housed there, but to see the gardens. I was unimpressed by these--low-lying shrubs, symmetrically placed--but Bill seemed quite happy with them.

Walking back to the hotel, we routed our way through the Piazza del Popolo and up the Corso, a long, long avenue that is a main traffic artery. Usually. On this particular evening, It was Thursday night, around 6:00, it was entirely closed to traffic. I am not sure if the closure was a nightly event, but I suspect it is related to the Thursday practice throughout Italy of limiting conventionally fueled vehicles. So, try to imagine getting to walk down the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York, and that’s what it’s like to walk down the center of the Corso, a street lined with shops and bars. We ended up the very full day at a small, friendly restaurant near the hotel. Despite the lack of tacchino (turkey), we had a wonderful, unforgettable Thanksgiving. I hope you all did too.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Only A-a-a-chooo

Italy Through My Window

I’ve been sick for several days now. Nothing major, just the kind of cold that results in a general crumminess. I’ve mostly been in bed and with the weather remaining damp and the sky gray for possibly the seventh day in a row, I haven’t felt motivated to emerge from the house too often. It is very strange and frustrating to be bedridden in Italy. Italy is out there and I’m missing it ! It is some comfort to look out and see the stucco house across the courtyard and to hear occasional conversation of passersby. At least I have reminders that I’m drinking fluids and blowing my nose in another country.

When Bill sees our neighbors he’ll tell them that I am “malata.” They look at him with intensity (according to him) and ask “Influenza ?” He answers “No. A-a-a-choooo.” It is quite apparent that Bill is very happy about how easy it is to communicate without any of the tedium of actually learning a language. Boris is the same way. “All you really need to know is ‘vuoi giocare ?’” (Do you want to play ?) Meanwhile, I am sitting around with two dictionaries, two grammar books and an extra book devoted to Italian verbs. So clearly there are two contrasting attitudes about learning La Bella Lingua in Casa Impasta.

Last night Bill and Boris came back from our neighborhood gelateria with a big tub of three flavors. The place we like to go is called Tentazioni, on Via Toscana. In our collective opinion it rivals the best in the city although the number of flavors is limited. Anyway, I really did start to feel better afterwards , so now I’m thinking that gelato must have some of the same healing properties as chicken soup.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sometimes Travel is Boring

I have to say that travel is a lot easier when the weather is warm and the skies are blue. If it’s sunny and eighty degrees you can go to a caffe, have a glass of wine and basically do nothing but watch the people. I can do this for hours. When you do this in a foreign country you can say you’re soaking up the atmosphere or learning about the culture. If you do this in Charlottesville eventually a waiter will tell you to move along.

I bring this up because we have had awful, depressing weather for at least a week. We wake up and the sky is a yellowish gray, the kind of light that can set off migraines for me. And that’s on a good day. Other days it rains, or the sky is almost the color of charcoal. It’s hard to know what time it is. We were out yesterday afternoon, and it appeared to be dusk. It was actually 3:30. We enjoy the night better than the day, because that depressing low-lying cloudy sky becomes atmospheric after the sun goes down, and it really isn’t very cold out. There are lots of people out strolling in the central area, and with the Christmas lights it really has that festive bustling quality that a “real” city can have. I mean cities where people actually live and work.

We are leaving Bologna in a week, and are just trying to revisit parts of the city we have enjoyed. After visiting Ravenna we decided that we didn’t have it in us to scope out any more neighboring cities, rushing around to the sites and trying to make train connections. So, for the most part we are staying put. Except for my idea last week of visiting San Pietro in Casale, 20 minutes outside of Bologna. If you look for this town in a guide book you won’t find it. Here’s a link though. The reason we went there was that every time we took a train east we would pass it. From our vantage point through the train window it seemed like a pretty little town, and one afternoon I could see an outdoor market taking place. So I got it into my head that we were “meant” to see this town.

Getting there was easy and cost about $5 for all three of us. We arrived at about two in the afternoon and upon leaving the train station were greeted with an unpromising view of blocks of non-descript housing planted along a straight road that spread out in both directions, seemingly without end. Here’s a little bit of geography and history for you. With few exceptions, notably the Apennine Mountains, Emilia-Romagna is FLAT and as a former midwesterner I know flat. In addition the road that connects towns and cities along this terrain is perfectly straight and flat. The fact that it is superimposed on an ancient Roman road makes it a little more interesting. But only a little. So, San Pietro in Casale is adjacent to this road It is mostly residential, composed of two- and three-story apartment buildings. (Single family homes are the exception in Italy, even in the rural and suburban areas.) There are some factories and office buildings on the edge of the town and then the town gives way to orchards and small farms. Eventually you will run into one of the prosperous and interesting cities of the region--Mantova or Parma, for example. But you'll also come across a lot of towns you've never heard of.

There was nobody around as we walked through residential streets looking for the central area. The green and blue shutters of the cream- and peach- colored homes were closed tight. We felt like intruders, as though we had ridden into a town of the Old West on our horses. Bill expected that at any minute we’d hear a creaking door, flapping loose on a hinge. Perhaps the sound of a tinny piano would come from a town saloon. But no. At last we found the center of town which consisted of several banks, a movie theatre, a church , stationary store and a couple caffes. Except for the caffes everything was closed. There were a couple solitary people sitting outside, but the weather wasn’t really hospitable enough to do this with any enjoyment, and they didn’t look like they were especially happy to be huddled on the benches

So, within about fifteen minutes it became clear to us that San Pietro in Casale was undiscovered for a reason. It’s pretty boring. The funny thing is that when you go somewhere that has little to recommend it, you tend to search for interesting things about it. It’s kind of like when I go to my dentist and I try to figure out the pattern on the textured accoustical tile ceiling. It’s something I wouldn’t spend five seconds doing under normal circumstances, but when I'm getting my teeth drilled and filled, I suddenly find this activity quite absorbing. In a similar way, we looked for anything that might be a tiny bit interesting in San Pietro in Casale. Certainly, the church, Saints Pietro and Paolo (that’s one church, two saints) is very pretty in terracotta stucco and white. Unfortunately it was closed. We came across the town supermarket. It was in in a well-designed modern shopping center of sensible dimensions; it didn’t overwhelm the apartments around it. We admired the timbers that served as a portico and looked nice against the stucco walls.

I guess I can now see where that expression, “Nothing much to write home about” comes from. But this too is travel. Some places are just ordinary and probably most people the world over live in just such ordinary places. The good part is that the town's residents won’t have to worry about a travel writer buying a home and penning a witty travel-log called “My Year of the Bella Vita in San Pietro in Casale and Don’t You Wish You Were Me” which will subsequently bring in huge tour buses and ruin the town. To be honest, there isn’t much there to ruin.

We did what we generally do when we’re at a loss. We found a caffe. This one was quite comfortable, possessing chairs and tables. Perhaps you already know that at least half the caffes in Italy offer only stand-up bars, so to find one with furnishings was quite a welcome sight and served to give shape to the day. We had a light lunch and I took a look at jewelry the woman at the next table was selling. After lunch we had dessert. And then we had coffee. And we laughed thinking ahead to some day in the future, when back home in Virginia, we’ll say, “Remember that crazy day we went to that boring town ? What was it’s name again ? Who's idea was that ?” I don’t know that San Pietro in Casale will ever hold any magic for us, but it will always be worth a smile.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cioccoshow 2009 !

These tools and locks are molded chocolate, dusted with cocoa.

Concessions set up in front of the Duomo. That might be the Dave Clark Five on the right.

In the words of Rhoda Morgenstern (from the Mary Tyler Moore show), "Chocolate Solves Everything." Crummy gray weather (four days straight)? A Common Cold ? (Which I have) Uncooperative Homeschooler (ditto) ? Well, there's nothing like a five-day chocolate festival to cheer everyone up. Piazza Maggiore, Piazza Galvani and other streets in the center are now full of vendors selling all types of chocolate. They have come from all over Italy and I also spotted a Belgian chocolatier. So, we had a great time, trying various confections and enjoying the visual spectacle. Enjoy the photos and I'm sorry that multi-media doesn't include sending flavors over the internet.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Going to the Teatro

Such a small world. Earlier in the week we went to a performance by the Spaghetti Western Orchestra. Just think about all the connections for a minute. The band performed music by Enrico Morricone, an Italian composer of film scores that were set in the American West but filmed in Italy. The members of the Spaghetti Western Orchestra who sang the songs about the American West that were filmed in Italy and composed by an Italian are from… Australia. At certain points one of the performers spoke in a Clint Eastwood voice. This was especially humorous when he was speaking Italian. “Sto cercando un uomo. Il nome e’ Bob Robertson.”

Bologna is actually not a very large city. In fact it seems smaller the more we’ve lived here. I think one could cover the entire historical area in less than a day on foot, as long as you didn’t stop in the museums. And yet for a city of rather small size, it has a lot of performance venues. Just ten minutes from our house is the Villa Mazzacorati, a grand Palladian style home made only slightly less imposing by the crumbling stucco and faded paint. It is now owned by the comune of Bologna and serves as a social center, clinic and also houses a historic collection of toy soldiers.
A few weeks back I visited the Villa for a concert by a soprano who sang selections from Italian opera and some American favorites. The poster said she was going to sing songs from Liza Minelli’s repertoire, so Bill really wanted to go. I told him he couldn’t show up just for the express purpose of laughing at the singer. As it turned out he and Boris made other plans so I went by myself.

I did not have high hopes. The performance was held, not in the gorgeous theatre which I’ll discuss momentarily , but in a utilitarian multi-purpose room filled with folding chairs. Just about every seat was taken for this free event. By my estimate I was the youngest person in the room. And I’m not that young. It became clear that the Villa Mazacorati functions as a social center for the retirees of the neighborhood, and looking around the room, I found little to distinguish the people from those that would have frequented the “Ethel Merman Sing-a-long” at my grandmother’s condominium. I guess what I mean by that is they were well dressed in elaborately textured sweaters with shiny jewelry and there was lots of burgundy-dyed hair. Not a blue jeans crowd and not a "Gray is Beautiful" crowd either.

The singer was wonderful, I thought. She performed sections of various operas, prefacing each with a synopsis, and even talking a bit about the style of the composition. When she sang certain arias it was obvious that everyone in the room knew them and she encouraged them to sing along, which they did, although nobody took her up on her invitation to get up and dance. Since the weather was nice, the back door was open. A handsome old gentleman was watching from outside, holding a poodle in his arms. He had probably noticed the sign prohibiting dogs. The singer invited him to find a seat inside, but he demurred. Instead he stood out there holding his dog and dancing with it in time to the music. Sometimes I think the main reason for writing this blog is just so I will always remember moments like that.

The real stunner of the Villa Mazzacorati is the Teatro 1763, a theatre designed by the family for their personal use. There are very few such private theatres still in existence anywhere in the world and this one has been immaculately restored. It is highly, (perhaps frantically would be the better word), ornamented with landscapes, decorative motifs and 24 nude plaster figures arrayed around the room. Altough they look like supports for the two levels of balconies, the figures are actually decorative in function, giving this highly Baroque interior an Old West bordello look.
We had been trying to make it over to the theatre on a Thursday for the free weekly guided tour and I finally did. I was hoping to meet Bill and Boris there, but they were no-shows so I had the tour all to myself. The woman who spoke with me was a volunteer and quite expert; like her counterparts at Monticello and historical sites everywhere that depend on the unpaid worker, she appeared to be a mainstay of the Villa Mazzacorati organization. Although she had a book full of notes I don’t think she consulted it once. She explained that the home had been used only in the summer and that other wealthy families were invited to see and participate in theatrical productions. It sounded very Jane Austin-like to me as I imagined the family rummaging through table-cloths and bits of brocade to create costumes for their latest melodrama. How many romances began as the amateur actors emoted to one another, I wondered. “My Heart Was Racine.” Such a good Harlequin Romance title, don’t you think ?

My tour-guide was just hitting her stride, explaining that the classical figure/brackets were often decorated with flowers and garland, when a group of young people, well-dressed and earnest, entered the theatre. It seemed that they were preparing for that evening’s concert featuring a soprano opera singer from Japan. She was there as well, looking the space over, casing the joint, if that’s not too crude a way to describe the way this graceful woman practiced her scales in various locations in the room. Of course it’s very important for an opera singer to have sufficient time to prepare for a concert. I, however, couldn’t help but feel sympathy for my tour guide. After all, she had set aside an afternoon to enlighten visitors and now all this hustle and bustle was intruding. So, when a series of soprano trills broke into her description of the theatre’s restoration, no one was sorrier than I. Oh, my worthy guide valiantly tried to hide her irritation by saying, “Now you can see how perfect the accoustics are !” but I could tell she was not entirely pleased. And so it went. She would launch into a description of the family’s background and the singer would interrupt with an arpeggio. Soon people began running back and forth with lights, sheet music, stools and delicious-looking hors d’oeuvres. I suggested that maybe we should end our tour but she wouldn’t hear of it. Her Show Must Go On ! So, we went outside and looked at the columns and the gracefully curving wings of the building. When we went back inside the pianist had joined the singer and it became pretty tricky to insert little snippets of information between his bass notes and the singer’s high notes. “Well, if it’s too difficult, maybe we should stop now…”I offered. But no. The tour-guide was not to be turned back. A tour I wanted; a tour I would have. She took me through the side entrance and showed me how the family would have entered the stage, going directly from their private living quarters to the balcony. This was very interesting. Finally, the guide must have felt secure in the fact that she had given me a comprehensive tour and we wrapped things up.

Last night we went to the theatre for a concert of Emilian music by a quartet of accomplished musicians. I was disappointed that my tour guide wasn’t among the audience members. I think she would have liked to know I brought the whole family back to the theatre. The program was made up of folk songs celebrating the fall season. Not surprisingly there were several songs celebrating the grape harvest and the ensuing enjoyment of the product. It’s amazing how an accomplished musician can actually hiccup in perfect harmony. While we enjoyed the concert, it must be said that the surroundings were a bit formal for the music which would have been heard centuries ago in taverns or under a tree. The well-dressed audience was very quiet except for applauding at the end of each song. What was really needed for the raucous music was a lot of foot-stomping and hand-clapping. But maybe that would have caused the plaster figures to come tumbling down upon us.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Personal Shopping

Here is a sign from a clothing store in Bologna: “Aquistando 2 camicie, riceverai in omaggio una sciarpa.” This can be translated as “Buy 2 shirts, receive a free scarf as a gift,” but I prefer to translate the second part in a more literal way: “receive in homage a scarf.” I do love that. In fact, from now on when I get my free sandwich back in the United States, after purchasing ten as a select member of the Padow’s Sandwich Club, I am going to say, “I accept your homage. I'll have the tuna fish.”

The shopping experience in Italy is quite a bit different here than in the United States because normally you are patronizing very small, Mom and Pop stores (and restaurants for that matter). What this means is that you are never anonymous. You always say hello and goodbye. Also, no sooner is your toe across the threshold then somebody will approach you, asking if you need help. This can seem rather off-putting if you aren’t used to it. I normally say, "sto guardando” (I’m looking), which seems acceptable.

Sometimes the more personal nature of stores in Italy gets a little too personal. I am thinking of the farmacia (pharmacy). The first difference to notice is that there is very little self-service in pharmacies. For any purchase of any sort of medicine, even over-the-counter remedies, you need to stand in line and speak to somebody behind the counter. (I have even needed to approach the counter to get Kleenex !) There are no secrets here. Constipation ? Diarrhea ? Halitosis (I just threw that in for nostalgia’s sake even though I haven’t heard it mentioned in about thirty years). For all these garden variety annoyances as well as the filling of prescriptions you need to speak to the pharmacist or pharmacist’s assistant. Although I am not Catholic I cannot help but think that going to the pharmacist here is a bit like going to confession; in both cases one has to reveal failings of one kind or another. There have to be hundreds of pharmacies in the city. Seemingly they appear on every other block. I think the reason there are so many is so that you don’t have to patronize the same one too many times. I have nightmares about going into the pharmacy near our apartment and hearing one of the staff say in a loud voice, “So how’s your constipation ?” for all and sundry to hear.

I am kind of confused when I go into the pharmacy because everybody looks so official with their white labcoats, but they don’t wear nametags. What are their qualifications I wonder ? And why is the woman who just counselled me on acid reflux medicine now advising somebody about under-eye moisturizer ? Don’t you think that’s a little confusing ? It would be like your dentist all of a sudden helping you pick a lipstick color.

Brand-name medicines do not exist in Italy. I have had to buy heartburn medicine during our time here, and on each occasion I’ve been given a different product. The names of the medicines sound like somebody just grabbed chemical names at random from the periodic table and strung them together. It makes me nostalgic for Tums…so easy to spell. It has also been difficult for Bill to find a substitute for Excedrin. The combination of aspirin, caffeine and acetametophin just doesn’t exist. He has had to cobble together two or three medicines, paying double what we pay at home. So, my advice to travelers is to bring whatever medicines they think they are going to need for the duration of their stay—prescription and over the counter. Our mistake was figuring that we’d be able to find over-the-counter equivalents here, but that really hasn’t been the case.

Since we have been spending our time in the historical areas of the city we haven’t been encountering too many big box discount stores, although they do exist. Instead, we have been marvelling at the highly specific nature of the stores in the city proper. My favorite is the cartoleria. This would be analogous to an office supply store-- if you were shopping for office supplies in 1965. Here you will find a wonderful selection of pens, art supplies, notebooks and gift wrap. Speaking for myself, and possibly for most of us who dwell in the twenty-first century, I generally go to office supply stores for printer paper or printer cartridges—things I never find in a cartoleria. Bill and I joked that there’s probably a cartridgeria somewhere, and darn if I didn’t come across just such a store today. It was about the size of an elevator and simply full of printer cartridges and printer cables and the like. (Actually I don’t think it was called a cartridgeria, but that was pretty much what it was.) My guess is that if you need a pen though, you’ll have to stop off at the caroleria across the street. Or if you find yourself on Via Farini, you could always go to the Casa della Penna. I'll bet you've figured out the translation: House of the Pen. You'd better get there quickly though. Before they sell it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Trying to Find Ravenna

Grandma Ruth in Yellowstone...and Ravenna ?

Ravenna is only one hour and twenty minutes from Bologna by train. If it had its own license plate its motto would be “Great Mosaics, ” to borrow from Idaho’s “Great Potatoes.” And they are the best. The mosaics I mean. For most of us any hands-on mosaic experience took place at summer camp. As lame as most of our efforts were in this regard, at least it gave us a vague sense of the process involved. In fact, the first words out of my mouth upon seeing the mosaics at the Basilica San Vitale were, “Wow ! That’s got to be 100,000 ashtrays worth of tiles !” Seriously though, they are a sight to behold and everyone should see them at least once in their lives.

Upon alighting from the train I noticed how quiet the station was when compared to the bustle of activity at Bologna’s. The first thing we did was go in search of a tourist office and a map. The tourist office, it turns out, is about a ten-minute walk from the station. I don’t have a problem with walking per se, but Ravenna is a rather difficult city in which to get one’s bearings, with lots of curving streets and faded street signs. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the tourist office and the free maps at the station ? Or maybe we’re all supposed to earn those free maps by taking five or six wrong turns first.

At some point during the last ten years or so a law must have gone into effect decreeing that every town and city of a certain size have a Benetton, a Feltrinelli bookstore and a Max Mara upscale clothing boutique. Apparently the law requires that these shops be located in the historical pedestrian area. Oh, how I look forward to reflecting on our trip to Italy, paging through our photographs and reminiscing: “Oh there’s that orange cashmere sweater from the Benetton in Padova ! Remember? I think I liked it just a little bit better than the sage green turtleneck sweater we saw at the Benetton in Venice. Or maybe I’m confusing it with the olive green cowl-neck we almost bought at the Benetton in Ravenna.” Misty, water-color memories.
So, to get to the unique parts of these cities one is required to run the gauntlet of chain stores. Yes, it isn't only the United States that is replete with those. Finally, we reached the Piazza del Popolo which is easily the most welcoming, prettiest area of the city. There’s a civic building with a clock tower and charming medieval architecture. A few steps away is an indoor market housing all manner of grocers and butchers. Unlike markets in many places which have makeshift, utilitarian exteriors, Ravenna's is substantial with a late-nineteenth century appearance that seemed Parisian to me.

After a quick coffee we went in search of the Basilica San Vitale. It really should not be hard to find a Basilica. A building of that stature is generally conspicuous. And yet, we were continually confused by signs that would point us in one direction and then leave us marooned on the spot where they had directed us. From now on I am going to call this phenomenon Sign Betrayal. We were counting on you, sign with the dome graphic, and you just up and left us ! Of course, when exploring an unfamiliar place you eventually eliminate all the wrong turns and find your way. Basilica San Vitale was wonderful and it was empty, which is amazing to me. I think it is no exaggeration to say that it is the Sistine Chapel of mosaics. The stylized Byzantine figures were wonderful but I was even more fascinated by the decorative motifs, some of which were complicated enough to have stepped out of an Escher print.

For awhile, strange as it may seem when you visit this unassuming city now, Ravenna was the center of the world. It was the center of the Holy Roman Empire and later the heart of the Byzantine Empire. Viewing the mosaics one can well imagine that its inhabitants must have felt they were living in a golden, timeless city. And yet the Ravenna of today is strangely empty and not in a good way. There are streets where buildings of anemic yellow and vanilla just seem to go on forever, monotonous, narrow and vacant. These are streets that practically dare you to walk down them, so forbidding do they appear.

It says a lot about a city—and not good things-- if it takes a half-hour to find someplace decent for lunch. Finally, we found a pizza self-service restaurant. After the food was ready, we took it to a back room furnished with urban hip chairs and nice tables. And yet, everything was wrong. The calzone tasted like something from a high school cafeteria and the dining area was virtually a museum of failed aspirations. There was a raised area, presumably a stage for music. It was now occupied by a cabinet of some sort. There was a bank of three computers and above them a mural with the words Internet Center. The computers looked out-of-date, weren’t being used and weren’t turned on. The walls were blank except for two art prints the size of sheets of notebook paper, too small to see. They flanked a Vietato Fumare (do not smoke) sign. So much for creating an arty ambience.

After lunch we made our way to a couple more churches beginning with Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, It has an amazing sequence of figures on either side of a long wide nave. As I looked at the faces of the women I was interested to discover that each was unique; my preconception of Byzantine art has always been that the individuality of the figures was submerged, but the more I looked, the more it seemed that each of the figures could have been a portrait. And not only that. I kept coming back to one who looked strangely familiar and then realized that she bore a striking resemblence to my grandmother. I have placed her photo next to the one from of the mosaic, so you can be the judge. Just remember, she usually wasn’t so squinty.

Our last stop was the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe which is reachable by city bus. After passing supermarkets , car dealerships and housing developments we finally saw a church of impressive dimensions in the middle of a field. Since my last visit twenty years ago a hotel has been built on the grounds of the church. I don’t mean that the hotel is merely near the church; I mean that it practically shares an entrance. If you’re not careful you may wind up registering for a room instead of buying an entrance ticket for the mosaics.

The mosaics were, not surprisingly, beautiful with vividly rendered animals and trees of an individuality that was fascinating. Leaving the church, we faced a cold steady rain. We ran to a nearby bus stop located in a flat empty area where the outlying town of Classe just gives out. Luckily the bus arrived in minutes.

I was glad to leave Ravenna. There’s a worn out quality about it that has something to do with the depressing new buildings, the abundance of graffiti and the aggressiveness of the panhandlers and street vendors. There is so much beauty here if you look for it but not a lot of simple enjoyment. Maybe the grim, wet weather has colored my view of the place.

I guess if a visitor stayed long enough s/he would find the real Ravenna. It would include the historical sites and the dispirited modern zones. The visitor would also want to take into account the schools where the fabrication and restoration of mosaics are taught. In a way, we left too soon, but I couldn’t wait to go back to Bologna. I just kept thinking about the strange pizzeria where we'd eaten lunch. It stood as a sorry relic of the owner’s aspirations. Designed to celebrate culture and food, it now seemed more like a bus station diner. The restaurant seemed appropriate to Ravenna: once an Empire and now a half-day field trip.