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Italy, 2014

In May 2014, Keewi and I took a road trip from Montpellier, France, over to Venice, Italy, and back again. We visited a bunch of spots, I took a ridiculous number of photos, and here you have the results. Sorry for the length of this; it was a two-week trip, and we were seeing new things pretty much every day, so there's a lot to show you!

Keewi did a trip blog, with lots of touristy photos; you can find that on her blog, Since she has done that, I've focused here on the relatively artsy photos, and skipped most of the really touristy shots.

The "original" photos linked to in this set are reduced size, in fact, so contact me if you want a true original. Also, I would note that almost all of the photos posted here have been digitally manipulated, but mostly not in any major way. My camera underexposed almost all the photos I took this trip, and so I had to mess with their brightness and contrast; except for a few photos that I did alter more extensively, that's all I did.
Our first stop was Marseille. We had gone there once before, and had found it underwhelming, but on that previous trip I didn't have my camera with me, and there was one absolutely stunning spot in Marseille that I wanted to return to, in order to photograph it. This is the basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde. It's truly unique, and I love the nautical theme in its decor; there are strings of wooden boat models hanging from the ceiling, and boats painted on the walls, and even boat-shaped sconces for the lights. One of my favorite churches.
Our next stop, still in France, was the little seaside town of Cassis. Cassis is very scenic, with gorgeously clear water, high cliffs around the town, and hiking trails that overlook the ocean. Highly recommended.
The next stop, still in France, was Nice. Nice seemed fine, but not terribly thrilling. It did have nice multicolored tile roofs on many of its towers, though, which reminded me of Austria. The last photo in this group is a statue of Apollo that has a rather bizarre and amusing history.
The best thing about Nice was the Musée Marc Chagall, which had an extensive collection of Chagall's work, including several stained glass windows and quite a few very large paintings. It's easily the most Chagall I've ever seen in one place, and it was quite enjoyable. Here are just a few of my favorites.
Cinque Terre
After Nice, we drove to Cinque Terre, our first destination in Italy (the first photo here is en route). That was quite a drive, involving a great many very long tunnels and very long viaducts as we traversed the mountains and valleys of western Italy at high speed. Cinque Terre was simply stunning. Remote, beautiful, and peaceful, it's a perfect vacation spot for getting away from it all. It consists of five little villages strung along the western coast of Italy, just a few miles from each other. The villages are connected by boat, by train, and by hiking trails, so you can spend a day going from one to the next – which is exactly what we did. Some one these photos are from a boat, while others are from the hiking trails between the villages. Notice the cats; we saw lots of cats, and really I can't imagine a better place to be a cat than Cinque Terre.
We stopped in Lucca for just a couple of hours, on our way to Florence. It was quite pretty, but quite small; perfect for a brief stopover.
I've been to Florence once before; this time I enjoyed it less than the previous time, perhaps because it seemed rather overcrowded with tourists. Still, it's a gorgeous city, and the museums are exceptional; it's well worth the visit. The last six photos here are from the outdoor sculpture garden, next to the Uffizi if I recall correctly. The last one is a replica of David; the real David, indoors, is patrolled by seemingly dozens of plainclothes flunkies who militantly prevent you from photographing it.
Castello di Sammezzano
From Florence, we took a day from driving around outside the city. At the beginning of the day, we drove to Castello di Sammezzano, a castle to the east of Florence. That morning was the luckiest that I have ever been in my life; the sequence of events that led to these photographs are beyond belief. It's worth telling the tale here in full.

We learned about the Castello by chance, just a few days before we left Montpellier; it was on a list of "50 out-of-the-way places you should visit" or some such, and since it was on our planned route, we put its location into our iPad. This morning, we drove to the spot we had bookmarked, guided by the iPad's GPS. Soon, we were on a tiny road curving between vineyards, climbing up into the hills; there was never a sign for the Castello. We grew increasingly concerned that we were going the wrong way, but we soldiered on. Eventually we reached a locked gate, and so we stopped. There was no sign of the Castello, and we were about to give up and go back when a man drove up to the gate in a pickup truck. He spoke no English, and we speak no Italian, but we managed to convey to him that we wanted to visit the Castello. He encouraged us, with big Italian hand gestures, to walk along the road past the gate. Then he drove through the gate and zoomed away.

We walked along the road for perhaps fifteen minutes – far longer than we would have ventured had the man not encouraged us. He kept tabs on us a bit; he would sometimes drive ahead of us, sometimes behind, and he would stop and do things along the road, with shovels and rakes and implements of destruction. Eventually, we reached the Castello; shown in the first picture. By now, the man had driven off, so we were on our own. It was clearly closed, but it was beautiful from the outside, so we spent a little while walking around it and taking photos.

Then the man returned, in his pickup truck, and conveyed to us that it was closed. We expressed our disappointment. He drove off. We continued to hang out around the building. The man drove up again. After much hand-waving and failed communication, he produced a cell phone, dialed a number, talked briefly to someone, and then handed the phone to me. The voice on the other end (I never found out who it was) explained to us that the Castello had been closed for many years. It opened only one day a year to the public, and that day was not today. I told the man how interested we were in it, how beautiful the photographs we had seen of it were, and so forth. He said, well, sorry, it is closed. I handed the phone back to the man. They spoke a bit, He handed the phone back to me. The anonymous voice told me that the man was the caretaker of the Castello, and that as it happened, he was getting it ready for a film shoot that afternoon. He would be willing to open it up for us to see it, since we were there anyway, but we would have to wait about an hour and a half before he would be free to do so. We said we would be delighted to wait. After a few formalities, the phone call ended. The man waved to us and drove away.

So we were hanging around the building for perhaps five minutes, and then up drove the man again. We waved wildly from his truck for us to follow him around to the back of the building. When we got there, he opened it up immediately (perhaps the claimed hour-and-a-half delay was just a test, to see whether we were really worthy of his time), and he took us on a breakneck tour of the Castello.

So let's review the incredible coincidences that got us inside the Castello. The luck of reading about it online just before our trip. The luck of arriving just a minute or two before the man arrived; any other time, and we would have missed him. The luck that he happened to be there, because of the planned photo shoot; any other day, and we would have missed him. The luck that he happened to be willing to open the place up, and that the anonymous voice was also willing to humor us. Just incredible!

You can read about the Castello online in various spots, including Keewi's blog post about it. Suffice to say it has hundreds of rooms, each one is different, the whole thing is ostentatious beyond belief, but it is partway to ruins now, and has not had water or electricity in many years. The man led us from room to room at a very quick pace; these photos were taken very quickly, because if I stopped for more than a second or two the man would get impatient and wave us onward. The most famous room in the Castello is the Peacock Room; you can see four photos from it in the middle of the set.
Tuscany hills
After the Castello, we spent the rest of the day driving from town to town in the hills of Tuscany south of Florence. This region is just stunningly beautiful, and many of the little towns, such as Montepulciano, Montalcino, and Siena, are quite lovely too. The last three photos in this group are from Siena; we arrived there after dark, had a fantastic dinner, enjoyed drinks on the piazza, and then drove back to Florence. The nine previous photos are from the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, a rather nice monastery where we enjoyed an evening Gregorian chant service in their church (note the Illuminati eye!) and bought a bunch of bottles of different liqueurs made by the monks. Well worth the visit.
Florence, Part II
Back in Florence, we had a little more time before we moved on. The statue in the second photo is of Dante, who was born in Florence but was later exiled from it. The third photo shows an entomological detail on a crypt in a church; I'm not sure if they're bees, or winged ants, or what.
After Florence, we stopped for an afternoon in Ravenna. Ravenna has two big things going for it. One, it is the site of Dante's tomb, pictured below. The inscription on it translates as "The rights of Monarchy, the Heavens, the Stream of Fire, the Pit, / In vision seen, I sang as far as to the Fates seemed fit; / But since my soul, an alien here, hath flown to nobler wars, / And, happier now, hath gone to seek its Maker 'mid the stars, / Here am I Dante shut, exiled from the ancestral shore, / Whom Florence, the of all least-loving mother, bore", according to the internet. The other thing Ravenna has going for it is several historical sites with some of the most stunning mosaics I've ever seen. I'll name the bigger sites with their photos below, but there are also some smaller sites that I won't separate out.
This next group of twelve photos is from the Basilica of San Vitale. Staggering.
The next six are from the Mausoleum of Galla Placida, next to the basilica. Much smaller, but also pretty remarkable.
And now we're back walking around Ravenna, with more mosaics from a few other sites.
After Ravenna, we drove to Venice (a thoroughly unpleasant drive packed with big trucks that were impossible to pass). Venice was lovely. It seemed to have fewer tourists than Florence, and it was much quieter (no cars, no scooters, not even any bicycles!), and the water everywhere also made it feel very peaceful. We had a great time there doing the usual touristy things – a gondola ride, a motorboat ride, a Vivaldi concert – but it felt like there was a great deal more to Venice that we didn't have time to explore. High on the list of places we'd like to return to. Note the leaning tower in the fifth photo; don't bother going to Pisa, which is a skanky tourist trap, come to Venice instead!
The next six photos are from another simply amazing church, St. Mark's Basilica. Beat the line by signing up for a walking tour that gets you in the fast way.
Verona & Bergamo
I'm not sure which of these photos are from Verona and which are from Bergamo. We stopped in Verona for a little while, then drove to Bergamo and stayed the night. Bergamo was nicer; the old city is on top of a hill with great views, and there was a fantastic little microbrewery with great beer and food. Our time there was too brief. Verona, meh; touristy Romeo & Juliet kitsch.
Varenna (Lake Como)
Our next stop was Varenna, on Lake Como. The lake is really lovely, with tall mountains around it and little towns dotted along the shore. Varenna was a good place to stay; less touristy than some of the others, and full of fun little alleyways leading in different directions. Good food, too. We did a short boat ride on the lake; the last two photos in this group are from the boat, but unfortunately it was quite cloudy for most of that trip.
There's an old mansion on the lake in Varenna called Villa Monastero that is open to the public. It has a very nice garden around the villa, and the villa itself is also well worth visiting, with remarkable wallpapers and some very nice furniture. The next twelve photos are from the villa and its surrounding gardens.
Varenna also boasts the shortest river in Europe, the Fiumelatte ("River of Milk"). We hiked up to the top of it, where it plunges straight out of the mountainside, and we saw the other end of it, where it enters Lake Como, on our boat ride. It's only 250 meters from its source to its mouth, and it spends that 250 meters plunging almost straight downhill.
All good things must come to an end. After Varenna, we drove back to Montpellier. We took a scenic route home, through the mountains, which was well worth the extra driving time. In the last photo, we're getting back into the familiar terrain of Languedoc-Roussillon, with its high cliffs. Home!

These images copyright © 2014 Ben Haller. All rights reserved.