Sunday, June 27, 2010

Verona, Italy

Verona, known as the City of Love, treasures the most famous love story in history: Romeo and Juliet. William Shakespeare has immortalized the town of Verona in his famous novel featuring the love tragedy of lovers Romeo Montecchi and Giulietta Capuleti. While in Verona, you will find that Casa de Giulietta (No. 27 Via Cappello), or Juliet's House, is an actual house, with an actual balcony, just as you imagined while reading the play. The background is perfect with ivy growing off of the neighboring walls and the balcony is the perfect height for any Romeo to try and romance a Juliet. Romeo's house is only a short walk down the road, but it's not as impressive as Juliet’s. Despite the debate as to whether the characters actually existed, tourists continue to flock to the famous balcony and to participate in the strange tradition of rubbing the right breast of the bronze statue of Juliet for good luck.

Piazza Erbe is named after the city's old herb market. The fountain in the middle of the piazza, erected in the 14th century, serves as a reminder that this piazza has been used as a marketplace for 2000 years. Today, market stalls abound selling everything from fresh-picked fruits to tourist wares. At the northern end of the piazza is the Baroque Palazzo Maffei (1668), surmounted by statues. In front rises a column supporting the Venetian lion marking Verona's absorption into the Venetian empire. 

The Arco della Costa (Arch of the Rib) connects Piazza Erbe with Piazza dei Signori. A whale rib (yes, an actual whale rib) hangs from an iron chain over the passageway. Legend prophesied that the rib will fall on the first who passes under never to have told a lie. The rib is still hanging there hundreds of years later despite that Kings and Popes alike have passed under. 

A 19th century statue of Dante stands in the center of Piazza dei Signori, with his gaze seemingly fixed on the forbidding Palazzo del Capitano, once home of Verona's military commanders. The 15th century Loggia del Consiglio sits just behind Dante's back and is topped with the statues of Roman worthies born in Verona: Pliny the Elder, the natural historian, and Vitruvius, the architectural theorist. The 84 meter Torre dei Lambert rises from the western side of the courtyard. Climb the 368 stairs for a panoramic view of Verona and the misty hillsides miles away. 

The Tombs of the Scaligeri lie beside the tiny church of Santa Maria Antica. Over the entrance to the church is the impressive tomb of Cangrande I, surmounted by an equestrian statue of the ruler. The other tombs are beside the church behind a wrought iron fence. Towering above the fence are the tombs of Mastino II and Cansignorio, decorated with tiny Gothic spires.

To view all my pictures of Verona, visit

Verona Opera Festival

Verona's Roman Arena, completed in AD 30, is the third largest in the world. The interior, still virtually intact, could hold almost the entire population of Roman Verona, and visitors came from across the Veneto to watch gladiatorial combat. Since then, the Arena has seen executions, fairs, bullfights, and opera productions.

I attended the 88th Annual Verona Opera Festival and had the experience of seeing my first Italian opera under the stars and a rising full moon. There is nothing quite like sitting inside a 3000 year old Roman amphitheater and taking in the impressive music of an Italian opera. The production was Madame Butterfly, an opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini, with an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. The opera is set in early 20th century Japan. On a flowering terrace above Nagasaki harbor, U.S. Navy Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton inspects the house he has leased from a marriage broker, Goro, who has just procured him three servants and a geisha wife, Cio-Cio-San, known as Madama Butterfly. To the American consul, Sharpless, who arrives breathless from climbing the hill, Pinkerton describes the carefree philosophy of a sailor roaming the world in search of pleasure. At the moment, he is enchanted with the fragile Cio-Cio-San, but his 999-year marriage contract contains a monthly renewal option. When Sharpless warns that the girl may not take her vows so lightly, Pinkerton brushes aside such scruples, saying he will one day marry a "real" American wife. Cio-Cio-San is heard in the distance joyously singing of her wedding.

Act II brings us forward three years later, Cio-Cio-San waits for her husband's return. As Suzuki prays to her gods for aid, her mistress stands by the doorway with her eyes fixed on the harbor. When the maid shows her how little money is left, Cio-Cio-San urges her to have faith: one fine day Pinkerton's ship will appear on the horizon. Sharpless brings a letter from the lieutenant and starts to read the letter and suggests Pinkerton may not return. Cio-Cio-San proudly carries forth her child, Dolore (Trouble), saying that as soon as Pinkerton knows he has a son he surely will come back; if he does not, she would rather die than return to her former life. Moved by her devotion, Sharpless leaves, without having revealed the full contents of the letter. Cio-Cio-San, on the point of despair, hears a cannon report; seizing a spyglass, she discovers Pinkerton's ship entering the harbor.

Act III brings us to dawn and before long, Sharpless enters with Pinkerton, followed by Kate, his new wife. When Suzuki realizes who the American woman is, she collapses in despair but agrees to aid in breaking the news to her mistress. Pinkerton, seized with remorse, bids an anguished farewell to the scene of his former happiness, then rushes away. When Cio-Cio-San comes forth expecting to find him, she finds Kate instead. Guessing the truth, the shattered Cio-Cio-San agrees to give up her child if his father will return for him. Then, sending even Suzuki away, she takes out the dagger with which her father committed suicide and bows before a statue of Buddha, choosing to die with honor rather than live in disgrace. As she raises the blade, Suzuki pushes the child into the room. Sobbing farewell, Cio-Cio-San sends him into the garden to play, then stabs herself. As she dies, Pinkerton is heard calling her name.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Piran, Slovenia

Piran is situated at the tip of the Piran peninsula on the Gulf of Piran. It borders Croatia to the south, and the municipalities of Izola and Koper to the east and faces Italy across the Gulf of Trieste and the Adriatic Sea. With Piran closed off to traffic except for the residents, the best way to see Piran is on foot. Start out by visiting the many beautiful buildings in Piran and then hike the many footpaths around the city.

The beautiful oval-shaped main square, Tartinijev Trg, has a statue of the famous violinist Giuseppe Tartini. The lovely 19th-century City Hall, the most impressive building on the square, stands behind the statue. This was once the marina, but after it silted up, it was paved over with white stone. The only church on Tartinijev Trg, the relatively diminutive Church of St. Peter has roots going all the way back to 1272, but took its present classical form in 1818. An exquisite relief above the main entrance depicts Christ bestowing the keys to the Heavenly Kingdom upon Peter.

Continuing up the steep, narrow streets past Tartinijev Trg, you will come to the lovely Minorite Convent and its early-14th-century Church of St. Francis of Assisi. In the convent courtyard, stop to admire the root of a 500 year old indigenous olive tree called the Piran Buga. You may also be in for a special treat if you visit in summer and be able to hear the monks chanting. 

Get bird's eye views of Tartinijev Trg and all of Piran by climbing up the hill to the impressive St. George's Church which overlooks the town. St. George's has a bell tower modeled on St. Mark's Campanile in Venice and Venetian School of Art paintings in a soothing white-and-silver interior. Parts of the alter look as though silvery stars are sparkling against a deep blue night sky.

Climbing the steep cobbled streets further still, follow ulica IX.Korpusa up the hill from Tartinijev trg, you can reach the city walls. They once ran from the sea all the way to the harbor, and seven crenelated towers are still intact along the 200 meter stretch. From atop the towers, there are magnificent views over Piran and the Adriatic. 

Climbing down the hill, one of the many footpaths in Piran will take you along a scenic hike of the coast to the town of Fiesa. While there are no beaches in Piran (you can swim off one of the many piers along the harbor), you can locate some rocky beaches along the hike from Piran to Fiesa. The water was crystal clear and much calmer on this side of the peninsula. Perfect for a swim to cool off after climbing the steep hills!

Be sure to stop by the Tourism Office on Tartinijev trg for a map of the footpaths around Piran. The Piran-Fiesa-Portoroz-Piran loop is a lovely hike.

To view all my pictures of Piran, visit

Monday, June 7, 2010

Shark Expo

The Shark Expo, on the Palazzo del Turismo, in Lido di Jesolo is a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the world of sharks. You can admire 60 examples of 24 different shark species, from the Zambezi or Leucas sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), the only exemplars on display in Europe (three in the world together with South Africa and Japan) to the impressive sand tiger sharks (Carcharias taurus).

At Shark Expo, rare hammerhead sharks can also be admired, very difficult to find in aquariums, an enormous exemplar of the lemon shark, the extraordinary elegance of the zebra shark (that enchants everyone with its beauty when it swims), two exemplars of nurse sharks, Oscar and Matilda, and the special carpet and bamboo sharks. The smallest shark measures 10 cm. The largest is Rocco the Bull Shark which measures 3 meters. Visitors are welcomed by the enormous jaw of a white shark; inside there are display cases with museum displays of sharks and historical finds. Along the way, original fossil jaws and teeth are seen, ancient and modern anti-shark devices, collectors’ pieces from the world over, comic strips, previously unseen film clips, and much more. There are also a room for informative videos and one on shark attacks of people.

To view all of my pictures from Shark Expo, visit:

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, has long been symbolized by a dragon, which symbolizes power, courage and greatness. The dragon is depicted on the top of the tower of the Ljubljana Castle, in the Ljubljana coat-of-arms and on the Dragon Bridge. There are several explanations on the origin of the Ljubljana Dragon. According to the celebrated Greek myth, the Argonauts on their return home after having taken the Golden Fleece found a large lake surrounded by a marsh between the present-day cities of Vrknika and Ljubljana. It is there that Jason struck down a monster. This monster has become the dragon that today is present on the city's coat of arms and flag.

Ljubljana's historic center remains intact and is a lovely mix of Baroque and Art Nouveau styles. After the 1511 earthquake, Ljubljana was rebuilt in a Baroque style and after the 1895 quake, which severely damaged the city, it was once again rebuilt, this time in an Art Nouveau style.Prešeren Square is the central square in Ljubljana. A statue of the Slovene national poet France Prešeren with a muse stands in the center of the square and faces the window where Prešeren's "muse" used to live. The Baroque style Franciscan Church of the Annunciation stands on the north end of the square and was built between 1646 and 1660. Next to the church there is a Franciscan Monastery dating from the 13th century. The monastery is famous for its library, containing more than 70,000 books, including many incunabulae and Medieval manuscripts. On the south side, the Ljubljanica River passes under and is traversed by the city's best-known bridge, Triple Bridge, designed in 1929 by Jože Plečnik. (A model of the Triple Bridge is displayed at Mini Europe.)

Continuing on, the Saint Nicholas' Cathedral, built between 1701 and 1706, on Cyril and Methodius Square is easily recognizable by its green dome and twin towers. n the 20th century, several of the doors were altered on the church. Tone Demšar painted a historical depiction of Slovene history to commemorate 1250th anniversary of Christianity in Slovenia, and Mirsad Begić redesigned the side doors with portraits of bishops at the church.
Dominating the hill over the Ljubljanica River, is the Ljubljana Castle. The castle can easily be reached by funicular railway; the entirely glass funicular car providing stunning panoramic views as you ascend to the castle. Built in the 12th century, the castle was a residence of the Margraves and later the Dukes of Carniola. The fortress was destroyed when the duchy became part of the Habsburg domains in 1335. Between 1485 and 1495, the present castle was built and furnished with towers for the purpose to defend the empire against Ottoman invasion as well as peasant revolt. The castle's Outlook Tower dates to 1848; this was inhabited by a guard whose duty was to fire cannons warning the city in case of fire or announcing important visitors or events. Be sure to climb the tower for marvelous views over the city; in fair weather over a third of Slovenia can be seen.

In 1895, when an earthquake destroyed much of an old monastery containing a girl's diocesan college and library, it had to be completely pulled down and Vodnik Square became an outdoor market now called the Ljubljana Central Market. The market quite literally has hundreds of stalls selling everything from fresh produce to clothing.

Vodnik Square is also the home to the famous Dragon Bridge. Originally named The Jubilee Bridge of the Emperor Franz Josef I, built to commemorate forty years of his rule from 1848–1888, it lost its official name after opening and was unofficially renamed to the Dragon Bridge because of the four dragon statues at its four corners. Dragon Bridge is often regarded as the most beautiful bridge produced by the Vienna Secession. There is a legend that Jason was the founder of Ljubljana, and he and his Argonauts killed a dragon. This is one of the four dragon statues on the bridge. According to local legends, when a virgin crosses the bridge, the dragons will wag their tails.

After crossing the Dragon Bridge, continue along the river back toward Prešeren Square. Be sure to stop at Cacao on Petkovškovo Nabrežje, famous for their desserts! The menu features no less than 50 ice-cream concoctions and ice-cream based cocktails.

On Town Hall Square, the Robba Fountain stands in front of the Town Hall. The fountain was designed between 1743 and 1751 by the Italian sculptor Francesco Robba who, inspired by Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers on Piazza Navona during a visit to Rome, designed the fountain to represent the three rivers of Carniola: Ljubljanica, Sava and Krka. Steps representing the Carniolan mountains lead up to the fountain with its characteristic obelisk in the middle.

To view all of my pictures from Ljubljana, visit: