A travel discovery for us

After 5.5 years of continuous travel, we still marvel at the many discoveries of great destinations out there. Case in point: Bologna, Italy.  After our stay in Ravenna, we planned to fly back to the US, and the best nearby airport was Bologna.   We booked a hotel in Bologna for a three-day stay – long enough to look around and to relax before the long flights back.  We knew nothing about Bologna, and who knew what a marvelous place it would turn out to be!

We settled into our hotel, Il Canale, situated right on a canal.

Since we’d done no reading about Bologna before our arrival, we just plunged in with a few excellent recommendations from the hotel staff.

It seemed that everywhere we walked was under a portico.  We later read that in the city center there are over 45 km (28 mi) of portico-covered walkways.

We headed for the highly recommended Basilica of Santo Stefano, actually a complex of what was seven churches. The oldest church dates back to the 4th century.

One of the churches within the Basilica of Santo Stefano complex is the 5th century Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Many architectural features fascinated us – particularly the dome.

The churches in Bologna that we saw tended to be of simpler design but quite large. The woman in the lower right provided a human scale.

As we strolled through town one afternoon, we passed an open archway.  When we peeked in, we saw others inside looking around so we stepped inside as well.   We had just entered the oldest university in continuous operation in the world, founded in 1088.  This palace was constructed in 1562-1563 to become the single home of the University of Bologna.

Nearly 6,000 students’ coats of arms grace the galleries, the staircases, and walls of the rooms.

As if the coats of arms weren’t enough, monuments and sayings of the professors were added as wall decorations.

After a few days in Bologna, we weren’t surprised to read that Bologna might be considered the food capital of Italy. Certainly, every meal we had there led us to believe this might be true – from the late afternoon in a piazza where snacks were served with our drinks to the homemade pasta in a nearby trattoria to the very tasty sandwich we ordered at the central food court, served on a best-we-ever-tasted black crunchy sesame roll.

It was time to pull back from the table and get in a long walk.  We headed for Giardini Margherita, a large park just outside the historic walled city.

Turtles and fish gathered in the pond as children leaned over the bridge railing and threw them bits of food – providing the perfect photo opportunity for us.

As we walked back to our hotel, another photographer aimed his camera at us.

We hadn’t planned anything in Bologna except our departure from the airport.  What a delightful and unexpected travel surprise the city turned out to be!  Certainly we’re not alone in such a discovery.  What’s yours?


May 2018

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One thing leads to another

As we travel, we find one thing leads to another.  We discover some interesting historical reference, and that sends us on a search for more information.  It never ends there.  We follow the new leads, and pretty soon we’ve opened up many interesting avenues each leading in new directions. We’ve learned so much more than we expected and about topics we never knew existed.

We journeyed to Ravenna, Italy for the Mosaic Art School.  Only after we arrived did we discover that Ravenna is home to 8 buildings listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  All were from the 5thand 6th centuries.  This was when our interest was piqued, and we started to learn more about Ravenna when it was the seat of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and then seat of Byzantine Italy until the 8th century.  If you knew these facts – well done and BRAVO! Clearly, we had a lot to learn.

One of the two oldest buildings, dating back to about 430 AD, was the Baptistry of Neon.

The Catholic Bishop Neon finished the construction.  The building’s original floor was 3 meters lower than the current floor – which would have given the original building an even grander scale.  The octagonal shape symbolized significant numbers: 7 (days of the week) and 1 (Day of Resurrection).

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia also dates back to 430 AD.  “The UNESCO experts described it as ‘the earliest and best preserved of all mosaic monuments, and at the same time one of the most artistically perfect.’”  When we walked in on a sunny day, entering the fairly dark interior, the effect for us was literally breathtaking.

Galla Placidia was a patron of the arts in the 5th century and the daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I.  An interesting side note: the songwriter, Cole Porter, was said to have been inspired to write “Night and Day” after a visit in the 1920’s.

The Arian Baptistry was built in about 500 AD.

The question arose: why have two baptisteries, the Arian Baptistry and the Baptistry of Neon, so close together?

Christians at the time were split into two factions: Orthodox Chalcedonians (today’s Roman, Greek and Eastern Orthodox Catholics) and Arian Christians – thus, the need for two baptisteries.  Unlike the Chalcedonians, Arians did not believe in the Trinity.  In the 4th-7th centuries, several Roman Emperors, the Lombards, and the Visigoths in Spain were Arians.

We visited the Archiepiscopal Chapel (500 AD), but no photos were allowed.  The chapel is tiny, the mosaics original, the artwork is anti-Arian.

The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (500 AD) was an Arian church built by the Ostrogoth king, Theodoric the Great.

Within the span of sixty years after the church was built, Theodoric was dead, Arianism had been condemned as heretical, the church had been renamed, and the mosaics were altered to remove any hint of Arianism.

We had learned in school that the Ostrogoths were barbarians, and yet, that was hard to reconcile when we discovered that Roman citizens were allowed to continue to live under both Roman law and judicial system while Goths lived under their own Goth systems. Racial equality was the order of the day.  “When a mob had burned down the synagogues of Ravenna, Theoderic ordered the town to rebuild them at its own expense.”  Still, Theoderic was a warrior as we later learned.

Who was Theodoric the Great?  He was the son of an Ostrogoth king, born near what is now the Austrian-Hungarian border.  Trained in the court of the Byzantine Emperor while a hostage in Constantinople, Theodoric learned about Roman systems and military strategy.  When the Byzantine Emperor had a problem with Odoacer, the King of Italy, he dispatched Theodoric to take care of the problem.  In a banquet to celebrate a treaty with Odoacer, Theodoric struck Odoacer with his sword and killed him.

Theodoric built the Mausoleum of Theodoric (520 AD) to be his future tomb.  The most amazing feature of the mausoleum is the single piece of stone that is the roof.  The Istrian stone weighs 300-tons and is 10 meters in diameter.

Theodoric was buried in his mausoleum, but, 14 years later when the Byzantines regained power, his body was removed from its tomb and the building used for other purposes over the years. Theodoric’s final resting place is unknown.

The Church of San Vitale (548 AD) “is most famous for its wealth of Byzantine mosaics, the largest and best preserved outside of Constantinople. The church is of extreme importance in Byzantine art, as it is the only major church from the period of the Emperor Justinian I (527-565) to survive virtually intact to the present day.”

If you had told us we’d spend most of our days in Ravenna, Italy absorbed in seeing ancient mosaics in churches well over a thousand years old, we would have laughed at the notion.  Once we arrived, Ravenna inspired us.  One of the joys of travel is seeing new and unimaginable things – and then finding out more.  Ravenna opened a new world for us.


May 2018


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Where’s the body?

We could have sworn Dante was buried in Florence because we saw the tombs of Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli, and Galileo when we visited the Basilica of Santa Croce.

And yes, we also saw what we thought was the tomb of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), poet and author of “The Divine Comedy” in the same Basilica.

After our Florence visit, we took a train to Ravenna, Italy.  Our new tourist map noted the “Tomba Dante Alighieri”.  What?  Now we were confused.

So, where is the body?  Florence or Ravenna?

We turned to Google to settle the matter, and it was quite an amazing story.  Dante loved his hometown of Florence and became involved in politics. Unfortunately, he chose to support the losing side and made matters further worse for himself by proposing support for secular rule (a universal monarchy under the Holy Roman Emperor) rather than religious rule (under the Pope).  He was sentenced to death and exiled from Florence.  He left Florence.  What choice did he have?  He hoped Florence would relent and always expected to return.

His later years were spent in Ravenna and when he died there, he was buried at the Church of San Pier Maggiore (now called the Basilica of San Francesco) in Ravenna.

In death, Florence had a change of heart and wanted its native son’s body to be returned.  Ravenna declined and Dante was buried in Ravenna.

Two hundred years later, the pope ordered Dante’s remains to be returned to Florence.  Florence sent a delegation to get the body, but the Franciscan friars in Ravenna stole his remains and hid the body in a false wall.

Over the years it seemed the secret of where the body was located may have been forgotten.

Over 500 years after Dante’s death –  in 1865  – renovations were carried out and Dante’s bones were rediscovered.  They were placed in the small Ravenna tomb built in 1780.  Don’t think the story ends here.

In March 1944 Dante’s remains were moved yet again into the garden behind his tomb for safekeeping during the world war.  An ivy-covered mound marks where his remains were buried to protect them.  In December 1945 Dante’s remains were again moved back into the tomb.

Florence built its tomb for Dante in the Basilica of Santa Croce in 1829, but Dante’s remains never left Ravenna.  Florence’s tomb had become a cenotaph.  In 2008 Florence officially apologized for its exile of Dante.

The difference between the grand sculptural cenotaph in Florence at Santa Croce and the simple, understated tomb in Ravenna is stark.

A sign on the street by the tomb came as a surprise.  We were in a zone of silence.



May 2018

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It looked so easy

Before Beth started making her first mosaic piece at the Mosaic Art School, she had no idea there was more than one way to make a mosaic or how technically challenging making a mosaic could be. There were many steps using the Ravenna method and each required knowledge and finesse. It had all looked so easy, until she made her first mosaic.

The second mosaic used the modern method with a timeline of just over a day to complete the entire work. Most of the steps of the Ravenna method were eliminated (and Beth was happy for that!), but the drawback with this modern method was having to work quickly with no ability to make changes later.

We students selected or created our own design and selected the materials.  A quick drying cement was placed on half of the framed board at 9am. The work began quickly because by 12:30pm the cement would be too dry to hold the tesserae (tiles).  After lunch the other half of the framed board was covered in cement.  The mosaic in its entirety needed to be completed when the class ended at 4pm.

Charissa finished her bold mosaic and then Luciana Notturni, head of the school, came over and studied it, made a few suggestions, and Charissa went back to work. Both were happy with the finished product.

Beth studied the blue shades of Venetian glass and decided to incorporate many shades in her design, including a little piece of ceramic tile she had scooped out of a dumpster while traveling though Cordoba, Spain.

Catherine worked from her photo of a fresco.

Time was too short to do an entire face so Hilkka concentrated her work on the eyes of the subject she found in a book.

Beth decided to use a mixture of marble and Venetian glass for her modern method design. She bisected the marble and glass with gold tesserae (tiles).

It was interesting to discover that tessera that looks silver is actually white gold since silver tarnishes.

The last morning we students retrieved our 1st mosaics (made using the Ravenna method) for one last touch.

Suzanne painted her work lightly with an oxide stain which slightly darkened the work – making it look less “new”.

Beth was happy with her finished work using the Ravenna method…until she spotted a problem area.

It was only then she remembered a tessera had fallen out when the lime was removed. Did it not get put back in?  She also saw a few tesserae had moved slightly and were no longer in their correct place. That’s when she remembered that she once heard that all oriental rugs were created with a minor flaw – since their makers believed only God could make a perfect rug.

For Beth the week truly was a dream come true.  Well, actually 4 dreams: 1) Taking a week-long class, 2) at the Mosaic Art School 3) in Ravenna, Italy, and 4) Beth was satisfied – actually, delighted! – with both of her mosaic pieces. Life could not be better than that!


May 2018

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500 days to wait for her 1st day of school

Almost two years ago, Beth’s friend, Nan, highly recommended a mosaics class she had recently taken in Ravenna, Italy.  Beth started to dream about how wonderful it would be to take the class, too.  She wrote to the Mosaic Art School and registered; and then devoted the next 500 days to thinking about what kind of piece she would make, the colors, and the materials.  Every time we visited a site with mosaics, she took photos.  She even saw a beautiful blue piece of ceramic tile in a construction site dumpster while traveling though Cordoba, Spain that she scooped out and carried with her so she could use it in her own mosaic piece.

We took a train from Florence to Ravenna.  The first day of school finally arrived.  This was the moment Beth had been waiting for – creating her own mosaic artwork.

There were 6 students in the class and almost as many instructors throughout the week.

After some instruction and lots of practice using tools, Beth cut marble into little cubes. The first project was to create a mosaic using the Ravenna (double reverse) method using lime as a temporary binder.  Each student selected an ancient work to copy.  Beth chose a geometric design but slightly altered the colors. Students traced their design showing placement for each tessera (tile) onto glassine paper.  Papers in hand, the students gathered around Minna for the next step.

Minna spread a layer of lime on a board for each student.

The glassine paper was placed ink-side down on the wet lime and after a minute slowly peeled back to reveal the ink had transferred the design on to the moist surface of the lime.  Magic!

Now the real fun began. Beth cut her chunks of marble and carefully placed each tessera in the lime.  She discovered she did improve her cutting accuracy over time but also discovered that not all marbles are equal and some are harder to cut than others.

The wonderful instructors came around with constructive suggestions – all greatly helped the look of the finished work.

After Beth put in her last tessera, Luciana covered the finished piece with cheesecloth and then dabbed the cloth with glue.

The work was placed in the sun to dry.

Minna took the board with the mosaic work on it and, with a cake spatula, gently started to separate the bottom layer of lime from the board without disturbing the tesserae (tiles). After the mosaic was freed from the board, she gently placed the piece on a clean board, cheesecloth–side down.

All she needed to remove the soft lime mixture still sticking to the back of the tesserae was a putty knife using gentle, dabbing motions.

Students used dental tools to clear away any larger pieces still remaining.

Minna mixed a nice batch of cement with marble dust or sand, and spread a thin layer in the bottom of the wooden frame and a thicker layer on the backside of the mosaic piece.

The frame was placed on top of the mosaic, the boards were flipped over, and the two cement surfaces adhered to each other. The mosaic work was left to dry.

The next morning water removed the cheesecloth and a scrub brush removed all the remaining glue.

The process using the Ravenna method was much more complicated than Beth expected.  Still, with help, all the students had created their own mosaic.  How did Beth’s finished piece look?

To be continued with …. “It looked so easy”


May 2018

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Oltrarno orphans

Every day in Florence seemed like a special day.  Our last days in the Oltrarno (the Florence neighborhood south of the Arno River), we rambled through the neighborhood as if we were trying to walk every street and take in every sight.  Who knew if we would ever return?

We always have our cameras with us, snapping away at whatever treasured memento we see.  Somehow we usually overlook the “big picture” photos in favor of smaller, observed details.  That has its drawbacks, but our photos of a place definitely record our point of view.

Often those photos are stand-alone photos, not really belonging to any group.  We call them “orphans.”  We think that putting this little collection of “orphan” photos together gives a true impression of our daily Oltrarno walks

Of all the wonderful shops in Florence, Romanzeria won our award for the best signage, display and concept.  The translation is “books by weight for every taste”.  A smaller sign in the window clarified how many euros the used books cost per gram.

We’ve never been anywhere with so many wonderful specialty shops. However, photographing those shops proved almost impossible.  Lighting in the windows killed almost every photo we took and that was disappointing.

One of the few photos that worked was of Mannina, a store specializing in handmade shoes.  We were interested in the use of space to display the finished shoes, tools, old wooden bench, and mementos on the top shelf.

San Miniato al Monte presented a good example of the word “facade” – according to the dictionary: “an outward appearance that is maintained to conceal a less pleasant or creditable reality.”

Sometimes our walks lasted so long that we needed a little “snack” to tide us over.  We discovered the charming little wine bar, Le Volpi e L’uva, tucked away on a side street near the Pitti Palace.

Joe drank Dolimiti beer, and Beth had a ginger beer.  The little appetizer sandwiches were just enough to see us through till dinner.

Photographing the old and the new for an interesting composition.

Our AirBnB apartment was just a few doors down from Teatro Goldoni.  The theatre dates back to 1817.  When the theatre opened it had 1600 seats.

We loved our month-long stay in Florence – half in the Oltrarno area.  Our photos will be wonderful reminders not just of the big museums, the majestic churches and rich artwork.  We’ll remember fondly little shops, the out-of-the-way wine bar, and the theatre just down the street.


May 2018

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Forget sunny days on this trip!

We welcomed the sunny skies on this trip until we realized our photography suffered from the glare and shadows.  Bring on the clouds, the darkening skies, and even a little mist!  All would be welcome.

After too many days straight of sun, sun, sun, our luck came with a good forecast: RAIN.  We raced out the door.

We headed for Piazzale Michelangelo up Via dell Monte alli Croce.   Partway up the hill, we saw open gates to a Rose Garden with a note: free entrance.  We walked in. (By now you may have guessed that we look for opportunities on the way to anywhere we’re going.)

How had we not heard of this garden?  It’s nestled on a hillside with lovely views back over to the great monuments of Florence. Sculpture, like the resting cat,  was very nicely placed.

We especially loved the roses clinging to the high stone wall and the small water feature.

The flowers were easier to photograph without the sun’s glare, particularly those with lighter colors.

We were quite taken with this old little girl and the view behind her of the ancient city wall.

We did eventually make it up to Piazzale Michelangelo in a light rain.  We thought the overcast skies and the wet, shiny surfaces probably improved the photo.

We discovered the threat of rain or a little sprinkle often drives tourists inside.  When we walked back to the heart of Florence, the crowds had thinned out.

Finally, we were able to take some photos of the Baptistry, the Duomo (Cathedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore), and the Bell Tower.  No sun and fewer crowds.

The moral of the story is that rain is not good just for farmers.  Seize the opportunity to take some of your best photos in the mist. While many tourists in Florence that day were sure the rain had ruined their plans, we found it to be a most delightful and productive day.



May 2018

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