Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cremona Half Marathon

I was in Cremona this Sunday bright and early to run my first half marathon. It was really early in the morning, I didn't really have a clue how to get to Cremona, and I did not really know what to expect, so predictably it was an antsy morning. But once I got there, everything just fell into place. The event was highly organized, managing to corral almost 2,500 runners into tables, lines, the starting point, and changing rooms. The fact that Cremona is also not that big of a city helped a lot--the city center is very small, making navigation through its characteristically medieval streets a breeze.

Unlike marathons in the US, Italian marathons are definitely not ran by individuals or unaffiliated athletes. It was fun seeing the piazza in front of the duomo--the main meeting point and the finish line for the race--fill-up with groups of mostly men in their 30s in bright jerseys of the same color, representing running clubs from various cities across northern Italy. Of course the race also includes "libere" runners such as myself, but the race mainly catered to running clubs. (The rankings even ranked runners by clubs and groups, which I'm sure fuel some rivalries between clubs from neighboring towns.)

And we're off! The race started at 9:30AM. The day was cold and dreary throughout the race, which is actually my favorite weather during long-distance runs. Nevertheless, there was a very jovial atmosphere among the runners, with some running it with significant others, siblings in wheelchairs, or workout partners. Of course, I didn't have my camera until the end of the race, so here is a shot of the area just past the finish line after the race. This well-organized event had one weakness: a significant dearth of trash cans. As a result, the city center was littered with foil blankets handed out to the runners after the race. (The usefulness of the blankets really escape me. YWould your skimpy and wet running outfit underneath negate the warmth-producing effects of the blanket?)
After the run, the award ceremny, where the rilvaries between groups really becmae more apparent, with alternating parts of the room applauding when a certain color jersey went into the stage to retrieve an award or flower bouquet. It was nevertheless a great and exhilarating atmosphere.
After the race, I had the opportunity to tour a bit of the town before I headed back home. Although Cremona is roughly the size of Vicenza, it is for the most part a limited town in terms of sightseeing. The two places that I was interested in were both in the piazza del commune: the Palazzo Comunale and the duomo. (The tower and baptisery were both closed. Besides, the tower was very tall, and my legs were shaky from running 13 miles.)
The duomo is a marvel from the outside, with its beautifully ornamented Romanesque facade gleaming in white and pink marble. With the red buildings and the red tower next to it, the facade really stands out. Inside however is one of the most beautiful frescoed churches I have ever seen. The centerpiece is the nave, frescoed by numoerus artists depicting the life of Jesus. The best however is the large Crucifixion by Pordenone facing the altar right above the door. The cathedral inside is dark, but the moody light that comes through the rose windows make for a ver atmospheric interior.
Across the duomo is the Palazzo Comunale, the city's town hall and the location of the city's prized violin collection. Cremona starting from the 15th century became one of the centers of violin-making in the world, with the likes of Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari setting up shop in the city. Many argue that the violin as we know it today first took shape in Cremona with the workshop of the Amati family, and was perfected in the workshop of the Stradivari family. Some of these prized violins could be seen inside the palace in the Sala dei Violini. In all honesty, one really needs a deep interest in musical instruments to really appreciate the craftmaship that goes into these pieces. Otherwise, for people like me, it's just a collection of violins. The palace though is still interesting to visit, albeit incredibly modest compared to palaces in Venice or Florence.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Lost Michelangelo?

This news (b, c, d) has been making the rounds this week, but the original article I read did not have an image of the "lost" painting. Unhindered, I googled the image. Upon seeing it, was a bit dismayed. With a disclaimer that I am not an expert on Michaelangelo nor on Renaissance art in general, I have to say that the painting is not at all similar to any Michaelangelo works I have seen, either in person or online. Mary's face looks contorted (Forcellino calls it "crying," but the sad and serene face in Michelangelo's sketch was more affecting), her proportions are way off, the obtuse perspective on Christ's face flattens it, and the body's musculature is too delineated and unsubtle. Compared to the study of the pieta did for Michaelangelo did for Vittoria Colonia (who apparently is the distant relative of the owner of this lost piece), the amateurish nature of the painted piece is more apparent. It is far easier to argue that the piece is a copy of a slightly less able set of hands. One could argue too that this could have been an "early", immature work by the master...but at 1542, right when he was executing his frescoes in Rome? Would it not make sense that the power and techniques of those frescoes would translate to a smaller piece?

The most interesting side of this whole story is the motivations of the people involved in proclaiming this work an original. The owners I believe are more interested in knowing their heritage through an heirloom, but I don't think the cash and fame looms far in their heads. (The American media never failed to cover the $300 million the piece would fetch if confirmed as an original.) The Michelangelo expert I'm sure was only interested in knowing more about the artist through rediscovery of Michelangelo's lost works, but is it any surprise that the discovery is already causing a buzz for the expert's book due to come out next year? In addition, the pressure of finding a "new discovery" especially for such a renowned artist with such little surviving painted works may blind anyone into thinking a work is a masterpiece when it is everything but. Time could only tell; this piece may in fact be proven to be a Michelangelo piece. If this is so, I am sure the attribution will be as eternally controversial as Titian's authorship for "Pastoral Concert" in the Louvre.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Monte Corno Cesare Battisti (Vallarsa, Trentino/Alto-Adige)

Located near the Trentino/Alto-Adige and Veneto border and northwest of Pasubio, Monte Corno Cesare Battisti is named after one of the most well-known irredentist hero during WWI, Lt. Cesare Battisti. Having been one of the most outspoken leaders advocating for Trento's break with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and union with Italy, Battisti joined the Italian army during the outbreak of war and fought for and on his beloved homeland. During a particularly difficult and deadly offense by the Italian in 1916 to take control of the mountain, Battisti was captured by the Austro-Hungarians on the mountain, brought to his hometown of Trento, and later hanged for treason.

The Italians took control of the mountain after Battisti's death, but just like with any ground gained during the war, the Italians had great difficulty maintaining control of the mountain. Their difficulty did not just stem from the Austro-Hungarian's strength, but also because the mountain is characterized by very steep rock faces that make any sort of tactical maneuvering impossible. At this point, both sides start to dig: the mountain is gutted on the inside by the remnants of tunnels dug by both sides, trying to maneuver around the enemy by planting explosives under the enemy's position. It sounds like a tactic straight out of Spy vs. Spy, but it worked in one of the mountains, which to this day still bears the scars caused by what could only be tons of Austro-Hungarian explosives. Ironically, after a few back-and-forths, the Italians finally decisively took control of the mountain when a company of very brave young men climbed the steep rock faces of the mountain at night and ambush the small contingent protecting the mountain from above.

Nowadays, these paths and cave systems remain, and form the basis for the path going to the top of Monte Corno Cesare Battisti. These caves are great to explore, and new branches are still being found, but they are dangerous due to their relative instability and steep declines into the mountain. The steeper caves and paths along the rock faces are equipped with cable ropes, so use a via ferrata-designed harness if possible. To go up the mountain, it is not necessary to go inside the caves--but you do miss the majority of the fun. But if you do not walk inside the mountain, the paths outside are still worth it for the panoramic views around Vallarsa and Val di Pasubio it affords. As you can see from the pictures below, the hike is highly recommended during autumn.

Stairs up the mountain with steel cables, because falling would kinda suck on a beautiful day like this

Inside the caves

Tunnels lead up, down, and through the mountain

Snow on top of the Dolimiti up ahead

On top of the mountain

At the base of the mountain is Anghebeni, and next to it a former cemetery honoring the death from both sides. During the Fascist era, Mussolini ordered all WWI remains to be moved from small cemeteries like these to four ossuaries found across Vicenza: Passubio, Asiago, Monte Grappa, and Monte Cimone.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Arqua Petrarca and the Festa delle Giuggiole

Arqua Petrarca is usually a sleepy little town lodged in the middle of the Colli Euganei, a few minutes from the busy towns of Monselice to the south and Padova to the north. It boasts an absolutely beautiful and compact medieval center and panoramic views of the orchards, vineyards, and rolling green hills that surround it. It is usually known as the place where Petrarch decided to spend his final years, and the small and windy uphill roads keeps most of the tourists away (it is not connected to the train system and the bus from Monselice is fairly spotty), but during the first week of October it is packed with visitors from the nearby cities for the festival of giuggiole.

Just like the tomato and the potato, the giuggiole is a plant that is not native to Italy, but has become a staple to its local growers after its introduction by the Romans. Unlike the tomato and the potato however, giuggiole is a largely forgotten fruit in Italy, only celebrated by this small area that is literally infested with it. Walking up the town, one notices that the giuggiole tree grows everywhere, competing only with the equally feral pomegranate. It's a very pretty sight: trees laden with pomegranate and giuggiole fruits, the grounds red with fruits that fell from the tree. Both fruits are so widespread that they are hardly "crops," and i'm sure no one would have minded if I just reached out and picked some for myself.

The giuggiole fruit looks and feels like an olive, with its tough skin and hard pit. When eaten raw, it tastes much like apples that are a little bit on the green side. When made into jams, they taste like apple filling. The taste is so close that these little buggers are actually called "manzanilla," or little apples in the Philippines. Walking down the street and eating them by the handfuls brought back memories of my childhood in the Philippines, where apples were the exotic fruit and giuggiole was the cheaper alternative.

Although good enough as they are, the town produces a number of products from giuggiole, from jams to dried raisin-like giuggiole to a unique but overly sweet liqueur called broda di giuggiole. The stand above even had candles made of giuggiole. Although I think the fruit is delicious, I didn't really get any fragrance from it.

The festival was also a way for the town to show case its other products, such as cheeses, bread, olive oil, wine, pastries, figs (I'm kicking myself for not getting a bag of dried figs, which were better than any dried figs I've had from the supermarket), chestnuts, almonds, and of course, pomegranate. It's always great to see people so passionate about the food they make without the pretense of "quality," only good taste. The town, from the artisan baker to the grandmas selling their backyard giuggiole by the bagfuls, was brimming with such people.

There were also drummers and flag wavers from the nearby walled town of Montagnana, but it was really way too crowded to enjoy the shows. The same goes for the little town, which had a number of twisting little alleyways that would have been great to explore, but not with a few hundred others. I will definitely come back later on and see the town without the crowds, maybe in spring when the fruit trees will be in flower.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Grappa Distillery Open House

Last weekend I decided to take a drive around Colli Berici, the small hills that dominate the lower part of the Vicenza province. The area is primarily known for agriculture, and it produces a number of distinctive products such as wine, truffles, peas, and grana padano. My weekend however was dedicated to one particular product: grappa. Grappa is a type of very strong after-meal liqueur made out of grape must left over from the production of wine. Typically, northern Vicenza is the epicenter of grappa production, with the likes of such distilleries as Nardini and Poli based in and around the town of Bassano del Grappa. But the grappa distilleries in Colli Berici hold their own, especially the Distilleria di Fratelli Brunello in Montegalda, twenty minutes from Vicenza. Producing grappa under the watch of the distant Montegalda Castle, the distillery is fairly small, yet produces a number of different kinds of spirits. The bucolic atmosphere and the friendly workers eager to show everyone how they make grappa creates a perfet setting for an afternoon's descent into slow but sure intoxication (this was restricted to my companions; sadly, I was the designated driver)

The Farm behind the distillery, with the castle in the distance

Grape must being mashed for distillation

Mad science distillation process

Impressive selection for a relatively small distillery

Further south in Ponte di Barbarano is the Distillerie dal Toso Rino e Figlio. The sight that meets you upon entering the premises--a bulldozer scooping tons of must into the mashing machine--already suggests that this might be a little bit more on the industrial side of grappa production. This of course doesn't mean much, since the distillery is still ran by what seems like a large family headed by what looks like the grandpa who still insists on running the actual distillery. The distillery process by and large is the same, except grandpa's more hands-on technique of sticking his finger into the brewing concoction and sticking it in front of anyone around so they too can experience the wonderful aroma of cooking alcohol. Upon tasting, this distillery's grappa is a bit harsher and has less falvor than Brunello's, but it was still a worthy trip if for nothing else, smelly fingers and bulldozed must.

Scooping must into the giant masher

The "cuore" of the operation, where the actual distillation happens

Turning knobs since birth


Until the 10th of October, a number of distilleries around Vicenza are open for free tours and tasting. Participating distilleries are:

1. Distilleria F.lli Brunello (Montegalda)
2. Distillerie Dal Toso Rino e figlio (Ponte di Barbarano)
3. Distilleria Lidia (Villaga)
4. Poli Distillerie (Schiavon)
5. Distilleria Schiavo (Costabissara)

Visits are between 10AM to 6PM, but it would be better to call to make sure that they are open, especially on days other than Sunday. The event's website could be found here (in Italian).

Monday, October 4, 2010

Tuesdays in Art - Free Entrance to Major Museums

Starting September through December, Italy's major state museums will be open (free admission) from 7 PM-11 PM. The main reason is to promote the arts to underprivileged Italian citizens, but this is also a great opportunity to visit some of Italy's legendary art and archeological sites and museums without having to pay the steep fees in cities such as Rome, Naples, Milan, and Florence. Although it would have been nice if the Veneto extended the program to other sites outside of Venice in places such as Padova (the Scrovegni Chapel), Vicenza (the Teatro Olimpico or the Rotonda), or maybe even Petrarch's house in Arqua Petrarca, I am looking forward to visiting the Gallerie dell'Accademia or Ca d'Oro at night, hoping to experience something as fantastic as Florence's Palazzo Vecchio at night.

Participating sites in Venice include:
Galleria "Giorgio Franchetti" alla Ca' d'Oro, Cannaregio, 3932 - Venezia (VE)
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Dorsoduro Campo della Carità, 1050/a - Venezia (VE)
Museo Archeologico di Venezia, Piazza San Marco, 52 - Venezia (VE)
Museo d'Arte Orientale, Santa Croce, 2076 – Venezia (VE)

Here is the program's official site