Saturday, July 17, 2010


Beach at Myrland

Midnight sun

Lars at the mouth of the cave


Rorbuer at Å

Nusfjord (best preserved Norwegian fishing village)

Hanging fish

Viking longhouse/mead hall

Prow of Viking ship Lofotr

In late June we travelled to the North of Norway in search of midnight sun and adventure. We found a lot of midnight grey and North Atlantic cold. We were, however, also rewarded with a couple glorious days and nights of sun. We flew to Tromsø where we met our friend and had the initial intention of driving further North (Tromsø is at 70 degree N latitude). Instead, in the run up to our departure, it was decided that we should drive South, to Lofoten. This mountainous archipelago stretches over a 100km from the Norwegian mainland into North Atlantic. It is anchored in the West by a speck of an island called Røst which is famous for its rich seabird colonies. There are lots and lots of puffins there.

We rented a hytte (cabin) in the small town (read: cluster of 5 houses) of Myrland on the island of Flakstadøya. It was an idyllic place. We were 200m from the ocean with a white sand beach and a glorious view of mountains to the NE and an unimpeded westerly view for the midnight sun.

Although these islands are firmly situation in the Arctic Circle, the Gulf Stream keeps the temperatures at sea level above freezing for the entire year. The archipelago is, on average, 24 degrees centigrade warmer than places at comparable latitudes around the globe. This does not, however, alter the fact that it is in the Arctic Circle. There is no arable soil, very little in the way of trees, and thus, historically speaking, not particularly amenable to human settlement.

Through the first half of the twentieth century the people here fished. The fishing industry is still quite active, but its modern industrial organization has radically altered the shape of the lives of those who live here. Its scale has, in the space of a generation, eclipsed a way a life. This way of life has been, nevertheless, neatly rendered into a consumable object. Some of the small towns, Nusfjord for example, have been turned into museums allowing one to see how life was once fully organized around fishing; one can stay in fishing cabins (Rorbuer) and go fishing on tours and eat fish and so on. They still dry (cure) fish in the traditional way here. There are elaborate wooden scaffolds from which thousands of fish hang. Another interesting fact is that 80% of all Cod (Bacalao) eaten/served in Italy is caught in Lofoten waters.

The area is ideal for recreation, which is what the oil rich Norwegians with their $7000 mountain bikes, gor-tex anoraks, and fancy camping gear most like to do. We didn’t have bikes, but we did take advantage of the wonderful network of hiking trails whose tendrils lace the nooks and crannies of the mountainous landscape. If we return, I think we’ll rent or bring bikes. It’s an ideal way to take in the breathtaking scenery – mountains whose rock is as old as the earth itself (3 billion years old). It’s quite clear that when God created the earth, God started here.

Lofoton is a fantasyscape that is worthy of the most mythic of narratives. I wonder if the Vikings had one. One can imagine a battle scene with Thor and Odin. Thor tries to strike Odin, he misses and his hammer crashes into the earth – mountains rise and water rushes in around, Odin flees on Slepnir the 8 legged horse. Something like that. Maybe Snorre has written something.

Speaking of Vikings, we went to a Viking museum in the small town (cluster of 8 houses) of Borg. This was nowhere near as hokey as it sounds. The museum is a reconstruction of a Viking longhouse (mead hall) adjacent to the ruins of one the largest such structures found in Norway. It was much more living effort at historical recovery than a Disney-fied experience. There was, thankfully, no horned helmets (Vikings never wore horned helmets, just the Minnesota Vikings and German nationalists with fascist proclivities). The most exciting thing at the museum is a reconstructed Viking ship. It’s a reconstruction of the Gokstad ship, which was found in the Vestfold, dated to ca. 900, and measures 23m (78ft.). The ship is amazing. We, and a French filming crew, got the chance to row it. I’m sure we were only slightly less effective than 20 hardened Viking sailors would have been. When they first reconstructed the ship they entered it in a regatta with other sailing ships. The Viking ship (its name is Lofotr) won in imperious fashion setting a time record for the distance. This museum should be high on your list if you happening to be in this part of the world during this time of year at 1pm (don’t arrive later or you’ll have to watch the others having fun from shore).

We also went out to sea on a monstrously powerful speed boat (it had two 250 Evinrude outboards). The boat's captain -- Lars -- was very cool. He and a guide took us to see some of the old abandoned fish villages inaccessible by road. We also crossed the infamous maelstrom -- inspiration for Poe's "A Descent into the Maelstrom" and the scene of the climax of Vernes' 20,000 Leagues under the Sea." The tidal currents are incredibly strong there because there's a sea shelf of relatively shallow depth, 70meters or so, surrounded on both sides by depths that exceed 500meters. The water crossing the shelf moves quickly. As one might expect, the fishing in this most dangerous place is always great.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Leaving Assisi

Tomorrow we leave Assisi for a weekend in the Monti Sibillini national park. We'll be staying at a refugio at 1500m above sea level. Dinner, breakfast, and a bed comes to 35EUR/person/night. We are in dire need of a few cooler days. When my parents were here last weekend, we took advantage of their car to drive over to Gualdo Tadino and hike in the mountain above the town there. Up at 1200m, there's a run-down church built in the 16th century that used to serve as a church for the hermits who lived on the mountain. It's currently being restored, but it's a dramatic setting for a church. The heat in Assisi, while not oppressive, has been somewhat tiring. Our first hike up Mount Subasio (Assisi is a short way up the mountain) started with little promise: 20% incline for 2km. But when we reached the Eremo delle Carcieri (a hermitage where Francis spent some time), the steep gradient leveled out and we were able to climb to the top with more comfort.

By the time we reached a beautiful lookout point near the top of the mountain, the temperature had gotten much cooler and we were really starting to have a good time - at which point we realized that it was 12:30, and if we wanted to have lunch that day we needed to get ourselves ASAP to a restaurant. Umbria, far more than Tuscany, is still the sort of place where you eat between 12:30 and 2:30 or you don't eat at all. We studied the map (thanks to the local hiking association of Perugia for creating it!) and decided that our best bet was to run the length of Mount Subasio and then descend to a small town called Collepino, just above Spello. This wonderful hiking map even informed us of the name of the restaurant! (The picture below with me jogging was taken during this run.)

We got to Collepino, a delightful town built in stone (the whole town is smaller than a football field), just twenty minutes or so before the restaurant closed. It took us two and a half hours to get through lunch. That's just the pace at which country restaurants roll here! Afterward, we followed the course of the old Roman aqueduct into Spello (a town founded in the first century CE or AD, whichever you prefer). Spello is lovely, although somewhat fuller of tourists than I would have expected, perhaps because Assisi is so close (about 14K by road). We ducked into a church we passed at random. A bent-over Franciscan friar found us admiring the large cross hanging over the altar (school of Giotto) and directed us to the right transept which just happened to contain one of Pinturicchio's greatest works. (Remember, we're standing here in running clothes after covering about 17K on foot.) Finally, we took the train back to Assisi and walked up along the pilgrim route to our hotel. That was a great day.

After spending as much time in Tuscany as we've done, Umbria has come as a discovery in many ways (yeah, I know - we're like 20 years behind, but so what?!). Our experience has been that people are much friendlier and more welcoming here. B's work has involved trips to a number of towns in the region, and we were able to retrace some of his steps with my parents last weekend. Spoleto was fantastic, with an absolutely stunning Romanesque church that had the best-preserved 12th century cross I've ever seen. The frescoes in the apse, done by Fra Filippo Lippi (with some help from his son - don't worry, the father did not remain a Fra...), were spectacular. The coronation of the Virgin shows the absolutely most frightening and theologically problematic vision of the Father (for pictures, see In the small side chapel now serving as a bookstore, there was a lovely little piece of Elijah ascending into heaven in a chariot with his cloak at Elisha's feet - a seldom-seen story.

We then continued on to Montefalco, for one of the greatest treats I've ever had. The former Franciscan church, now a museum, contains a stunning cycle of the life of Francis by Benozzo Gozzoli. See for pictures. Scene 6 is especially delightful as Francis drives the demons from Arezzo. Scene 7, where Francis blesses Montefalco against a background of the Umbrian valley with Mount Subasio and Assisi in the background is a stunningly realistic portrayal of a landscape that has changed little to this day. (Montefalco is called the balcony of Umbria precisely because of this view.) Note, in scene 9, where Francis invents the idea of doing mangers at Christmas, the way the hoof of the cow is pulling on Francis' robe.

Now, you might think that a museum containing such a fresco cycle would be absolutely thronged with tourists, and in Florence or Rome, you'd be right. In Montefalco? We were alone. Not only that: the church-museum is simply stuffed with other delightful pictures - from the life of Jerome, the desert fathers, a Madonna della Misericordia (Mary protecting the faithful under her robes, a simultaneously delightful and disturbing image; the worst are the ones as in Nocera Umbra where she's protecting them against the spears hurled by an angry Christ), and more.

Another day we went to Orvieto, where the Duomo has perhaps the most beautiful facade of any church I've ever seen. Other cathedrals are as impressive (for instance, Strasbourg), but the Orvieto Duomo is gorgeous. (Picture at The guidebook calls the mosaics harshly colored, which is fair, but against the dusty gray-green of the Umbrian countryside and the stone of the town, the vivid colors are delightful and almost unbelievable. In the chapel of San Brizio you find one of Luca Signorelli's masterpieces (with a little help from Fra Angelico). (Pictures at The most famous image is of course the devil whispering in the ear of the Antichrist. We found the Resurrection of the Flesh, which is almost like time-lapse photography of resurrection, to be particularly impressive. In Orvieto are also the remains (just the transept) of the first Dominican church - in the monastery attached, Thomas Aquinas taught for a while, so for the first time ever I have set eyes on something that the great dumb ox himself would have seen.

I know we still owe posts about Rome, bike trip, and more, but perhaps this will do for now? Oh, and I do need to describe yesterday's feast at some point!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Detail from Ottaviano Nelli's fresco cycle of the life of Augustine -- 
a heretic tearing apart a book of his blasphemous work

                                   Augustine refuting the heretics, Ottaviano Nelli, Gubbio

   La basilica di San Francesco, Assisi


Sunday, July 26, 2009

View of the Spoleto Valley from Mount Subasio

Jogging on Mt. Subasio

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Palio Daze


The week of the July Palio is over and the city has calmed. Most of the tourists have left and the only reminders of the four-day ritualized horse race that ended Thursday evening are the drums Tartuca (the winning contrada) and the newspaper headlines about health of horses and the intrigue of the jockeys.


The Palio is the name of the horse race that is held twice a year (July 2 and August 16) by the Sienese in honor of the Virgin Mary (there are some years where a third “extraordinary” Palio is run to commemorate some important event, e.g. the first lunar landing – the Palio of the Moon was won by Oca [the Goose]) . The winner of the race receives the Palio – a painted silk banner. Both the name of the race and the piece of cloth bear the name Palio.


The competitors in the race are the various neighborhoods or precincts of the city that are called contrada (singular) and contrade (pl.). There are 17 contrade in the city, but only 10 run in any given Palio. During the middle ages the contrade were given their coherence by professional solidarity, e.g. the many of the members of the contrada of Onda (the Wave) were carpenters, the members of Oca were dyers, the members of Valdimontone (Ram) were smiths of fine metals, and so on. Today this is less the case, and so the Palio itself has taken over as the external fiction around which contrada life is explicitly oriented. Each contrada has its own social club, church, museum, kitchens, and designated feast days. The habits and rituals of contrada life effectively make the Palio a year round event – the community practices come to a crescendo in the race and the race is the event or the act that constitutes and makes possible the practices – the contrade and the Palio mutually define one another. This was less the case in the middle ages when greater internal coherence lessened the importance of the Palio.


The Palio is an elaborately orchestrated four-day event. Day 1 for us started on Monday with the Trata. This is when 30 or so horses are brought into the city for a set of trial races where they are on display to the captains of the contrade (the individuals chosen to direct the strategic energies of the contrada to win the Palio). The 30 horses run in groups of no more than eight. After they’ve all run the captains may decide to have a group of horses (likely horses that have never run in a Palio before) to have another go. Once all this is finished the captain deliberate for an hour or two and decide which ten horses will run. The best horses will not necessarily be picked. This is especially true if there are a number of enemy pairs in the race (most contrade have one enemy, e.g. Oca and Torre).  One way to lose the Palio is to have your enemy win. Thus if your contrada has recently won a Palio and your enemy has not, you would not want a fantastic horse to be in the race because you run the risk of your enemy getting that horse.  After the ten horses have been picked they are randomly assigned to the ten contrade that are participating in that particular Palio – this ceremony takes place in the Campo in front of 30,000 people. There is rejoicing and cursing based on the assignments. This year the contrade of Tartuca, Drago, and Istrice got the best horses (horses that had all previously won Palios). Once the horse is assigned it is taken by the members of the contrade back to the contrada to a stall where it will live, guarded under 24hr surveillance, during the days of the Palio.


Once the horses have been assigned the contrade go into contract with jockeys. The better the contrada’s horse, the more ambitiously the contrada will spend on a good jockey. Istrice (the porcupine) went after the best jockey – Trecciolino. He has won 11 Palios. A good jockey does not come cheap. The best are paid upwards of a half a million EUR.


The jockeys and horses first appear together on Monday night, the night of the first trial race – prova. This was, however, rained out. The trial races continue through the days of the Palio – 9:00 in the morning and 19:45 in the evening. The evening events draw enormous crowd (40,000ish). Tempers flare. On Tuesday night a fight broke out between Chiocciola and Tartuca. Many punches were thrown, but very few landed. Such outbreaks are typical and are much more postured and performed than anything else. The older men of the contrade are an internal policing mechanism for the contrade. They do not want the contrada to be penalized so they will work to control the hormones of the younger boys. However, in this case, S saw a man in his 50s being taken away with blood all over.


The penultimate trial race, called the Prova Generale, takes place 24hrs before the Palio. After the race all the running contrade will have huge feasts on the principal streets of their neighborhood. Onda’s feast was on the Via Giovanni Dupre. S and I went to their dinner along with the rest of the group. It was a 4-course meal punctuated by contrada songs and speeches. There was also a thunderstorm that passed through so our table (of about 100) held a long piece of plastic over our heads for about 15min.


One of the tragedies of this year’s Palio happened at the Prova Generale. During the Prova the horse of Civetta (the Owl) pulled up limping after the first big turn. We hadn’t noticed this because our eyes were on the front of the race.  The Civettini, however, had. Before the race was over they sprinted across the track to the street where their horse had exited. Their worst nightmares had been realize – the horse (Iesael) was injured and would not be able to run. This came as a particularly hard blow to Civetta, the contrada that bears the ignominious distiction “La Nonna” – Grandmother – because they have not won a Palio since 1979. They cancelled their dinner and cried themselves to sleep.  The headline in the newspaper the next morning read: “Civetta in lacrime.” It was sad.


The last prova on the morning of the day of the race is called the provaccia – the bad prova. No one wants to win.  After the provaccia there is a “Palio mass” at the church of the Provenzano. The Palio is present for the mass. It’s a great time to get a close up view of the banner.


In the mid-afternoon a long and intricate parade begins. The parade recounts the entirety of Sienese history in addition to showcasing the contrade that are running, those that aren’t, and representatives of the contrade that don’t exist anymore (the so-called “suppressed contrade”).  The parade eventually makes its way to the Campo where it reaches a crescendo – flag throwing, drumming, and even a cavalry charge from soldiers that I’m sure were once part of Garibaldi’s army that march on Rome.


Eventually, after much standing in a crowd of 60,000, the horses and jockeys emerge from the Palazzo Pubblico. The mass of people comes to a near complete silence as they wait to hear the order in which the horses will line up. It’s really a rather magical thing. Once the order has become clear the arduous process of getting everyone in place begins. This year it was particularly frustrating – Istrice and Chiocciola were very obstreperous. There were two false starts and lots of jockeying at the starting rope – the canape.


After a good half an hour of this there was clean(ish) start. Tartuca’s horse (Gia de Menhir ridden by Gingillo) got off to a great start and was followed closely by Lupa [she-wolf] around the first curve (San Martino). Soon after, however, the gap increased and continued to do so for the rest of the 73 second race. Gia de Menhir, as the paper later proclaim, was a “war machine”. It ran the second fastest Palio ever.  Both Istrice’s and Onda’s horses were injured in the race so they very quickly fell off the pace.


The Tartuchini spilled onto the track, kissed the horse, and carried the jockey on their shoulders as they ran to claim the Palio. They’ve been marching around the city with it ever since. 

Watch this year's July Palio:

Monday, June 29, 2009

Bike trip: Metz to Konstanz

We're catching up mentally to the point where we can write about the bike trip, now ten days in the past. On June 11, we met up in a hotel in Cologne (LATE at night for B!). On June 12, we went off to the Radstation at the Hauptbahnhof and picked up two bicycles for a week. These were pretty decent trekking bicycles - 24 gears, front suspension, etc. 52EUR for a week - not too bad! We put my large backpack (with the books I need for syllabus prep for the fall inside) in storage, paid for a week, and headed off to Metz in France. We'd deliberately chosen the slow, local trains, partly to save a few euros and partly because it's very easy to load the bicycles on and off those sorts of trains.

In Metz, we were very nervous about whether we would actually manage to connect with our friends J&J, who had been visiting friends in Paris for a few days before joining us for the weekend. Last year, my sister's train from Strasbourg was canceled, the train my friend and I took from Tuebingen was canceled, he left his brand-new weekend pack on the train, we missed connecting with our other friend who came from Heidelberg and became unwell in the course of the day, and in the end it was only by chance that the whole group connected first in Cologne and then in Holland - let's just say that our experience with meeting friends for a bike trip was not great.

However, this time, all was well. We ran into J&J first thing in the station and headed off for lunch. Naturally, by this time it was about 14:30, so there was no fresh, hot food to be had. It is always difficult when first arriving back in France/Italy to remember that outside of very touristy restaurants, you can only eat lunch and dinner at socially acceptable times, and 14:30 is too late most places. So baguette it was.

The Esterhazer Mosel Radweg book had warned us that the first section out of Metz would not be pretty. Thankfully, the book also mentioned the stupendous Chagall windows in the cathedral. But it was both frightening and funny to see that the first road the book directed us to was something that felt much like a highway rather than a calm country road. We all expected that the police would show up any minute to ask us what we thought we were doing. This feeling was only intensified once we got off that road only to find ourselves in the middle of the port (is that the right word when it's on a river? seems unlikely) of Metz next to the trucks. We rode at a leisurely pace toward Thionville. On the way, we had the sort of encounter that belongs in books: with an elderly Frenchman who wanted to tell us that he was all of 80 years old, and he remembered the war - of course, he thought we were German, as did everyone else.

Our way from Thionville was dominated by the four huge cooling towers for the local nuclear reactor. At first, they seemed very distant, but we soon realized that they were quite close, just so huge that the whole landscape had to shift to accommodate their size. We tried for a bed in Cattenom (thankfully, one of the J's was comfortable asking in French) but with no luck, so we crossed the river to Koenigsmacker where the book claimed that the Hotel Lorraine was a rather expensive retreat.

According to the prices posted on the window, however, the hotel was right in our price range. No one was around. There was a sign on the restaurant saying that it was closed on Fridays, but the hotel did not have an equivalent notice. After about half an hour of standing around, trying doors, and ringing doorbells, a kind but rather slow elderly woman appeared and rooms were secured. It was now around 20, and we knew that did we not sit down to dinner shortly, there would be no dinner. We headed back across the river to an outdoor place where all our dreams came true - at any rate, the dreams that involved a piece of roasted meat the size of a head topped with Roquefort cream sauce. (Just B, but still.)

When we returned to the hotel, we could not help noticing that the entire village had turned out for a cover band consisting of four-five old hippies playing American and English classic rock covers. At maximum volume. For hours. And hours.

Have you ever had the experience of walking in somewhere and have LITERALLY EVERY SINGLE PERSON turn to stare at you, despite being clad in ordinary clothing, fully dressed, and in no way unusual otherwise? This was our experience in Koenigsmacker. It was quite terrifying. We had to sit down in the bar for an hour just to kill some time, assuming that at 23 the concert would have to wind down, but no.... not until 2am did those old hippies stop rocking!

More to follow.