Italian Folktales ~ Day 13 (July 7, 2011), Venice

Morning broom

We woke to the sound of sweeping, and when we went out, we stepped into a sparkling city of alleyways, piazzas, and canals.

The first thing on our agenda was to grab a quick breakfast (fruit, water, and bread) at the shop around the corner from our hotel, and then proceed to the Palazzo Ducale (the Doge’s Palace), by way of the vaporetto down the Grand Canal.

Piazza San Marco - La Piazzeta and Palazzo Ducale

Palazzo Ducale - Arches

Palazzo Ducale

Palazzo Ducale

Palazzo Ducale

The Palazzo Ducale was the historical residence of the Doge, and the government seat of the Republic until Napoleon took charge of Venice in 1787. Today the Palazzo is a museum and a very popular tourist destination. Our plan was to arrive early, before it opened, to avoid the lines.

Palazzo Ducale - Waiting

Photography isn’t allowed inside the Palazzo, so I only have pictures of the exterior and the courtyard, and while they’re stunning enough, I wish I could show you the treasures inside: the grand staircase, the gilded detailing, the terrazzo floors, the tapestries, the walls and ceilings covered, edge to edge, with paintings and frescos by Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese.

Palazzo Ducale - Inside the courtyard

Palazzo Ducale

Palazzo Ducale

But most of all, I wish I could show you the Sala del Maggior Consiglio (the Hall of the Great Council). This is the room where the council met, in all its numbers, to decide the law of Venice. At the time the hall was built, it was the largest room in Europe (today it’s still among the largest in Western Europe).

Its size and opulence are stunning. Breathtaking. You can get some idea of it yourself by watching this panoramic video. First, let the video tour you 360º around the perimeter of the room, then click the ^ button at the bottom of the video window to tilt the view up to the ceiling.

Every inch is covered by massive, gilt frames, inset with paintings depicting the victories of the Venetian army against those of the mainland. How that heavy ceiling remains aloft, unsupported, is completely mystifying.

In a city of wonders, built on the sea, I suppose defying gravity is just no big deal.

Italian Folktales ~ Day 12 (July 6, 2011), Maniago and Venice

If you want a sharp souvenir from Italy, go to Maniago.

Metalworking has been an important industry in Maniago for much of the town’s history, and the small collection of artisan blacksmiths and knife makers busy at work since the 1400s blossomed into a cooperative of factories in the early 20th century.

Today, Maniago’s main piazza is studded with shops that carry everything from kitchen cutlery to swords. One of the former factory buildings houses the Maniago Knife Museum (Museo dell’Arte Fabbrile e delle Coltellerie).

Maniago Knife Museum

I took that picture of the museum while I sat outside, trying to recover from an unexplained queasy stomach that attacked me that morning. I sat on a bench in the Italian sunshine, while M and H explored the museum. I watched people briskly criss-cross the little square by the museum’s entrance: families with strings of skipping children; women pulling small carts filled with grocery bags; businesswomen clacking on the stones in impossibly high heels. I thought about Jany Kenyon’s poem, The Sick Wife, and I thought about my mother in her last days of illness, watching the world pass by. I began to worry a bit about being sick in a foreign land, but before I could get myself too worked up, my stomach started to quiet. I sat and watched, took a picture, rested my eyes, and slowly began to feel better.

In a little while, M and H came to collect me, and we all went in together to see the knives, the scissors, the axes, the corkscrews.

I got to watch M and H throw sharp things at each other (within the safe confines of a plexiglass box).

Knife fight

And I got to see H get cut in half by a large knife.


And we toured an immensely large exhibit of corkscrews. According to the museum, an astonishing percent of the world’s corkscrews are made today in Maniago. I don’t know if I believe the number we were told (somewhere in the realm of 80%), but I’m still willing to bet that it’s a very large number.

Pig tail

After you’ve seen a pig tail corkscrew, what’s left to do other than get in the car and drive to Venice?

I write, “drive to Venice,” but, as you know, there are no cars in Venice. You drive to the airport, drop the car, and then you take the water bus, Alilaguna, to Venice.


The water road

Approaching Venice

Had I been sick earlier in the day? I could hardly recall. Suddenly we were in Venice, the floating jewel of Italy, leaning against the railing of the Accademia bridge. The sky was blue, the canal rushing with traffic, and everything felt exactly right.

From Ponte Accademia to the southeast

Italian Folktales ~ Day 11 (July 5, 2011), Fanna, Maniago, Poffabro, and Frisanco

Visiting Fanna was like going home.

After ten days of traveling, and the last four in the mountains, it was awfully nice to find a comfortable place to settle in for a couple of days, wash our clothes, do a little grocery shopping, and reorganize our luggage to put away the hiking gear we no longer needed.

Fanna’s Al Giardino hotel welcomed us with its resident heron, a friendly cat named Bilba, and a garden full of singing frogs and swishing fish. It almost made me homesick for our own menagerie.


Bilba in the sun

Fanna also felt a bit like home because it was the one place in Italy that was familiar to us. Nearly twenty years ago, on our first trip to Europe together, M and I went to Fanna and Maniago (right next door). Although I didn’t remember much of Fanna from that first trip aside from visiting M’s great aunt in the most peaceful nursing home I’d ever seen, I’d never forget the main piazza and the Albergo Leon D’Oro, where we’d stayed.

Maniago Leon D'Oro

In a more literal sense, though, Fanna felt like home because it’s the town where M’s paternal ancestors are from.

On this visit, we were lucky enough to spend the afternoon with M’s cousin and his wife, Albert and Toni. Albert and Toni began our tour at the stunning nearby hill town of Poffabro.


Poffabro passageways

Poffabro stone

After a stop for coffee in Frisanco, they graciously toured us through Fanna and its cemetery (where many Mions and Maddalenas are buried).

At the end of the afternoon, before returning us to our hotel, they took us to their Fanna home and served us beers and juice on the patio beside their abundant, fruit-tree studded garden. We talked about family, shared stories, laughed, and even argued a bit (good-naturedly). Just like family.

Later that evening, the three of us, alone again, went out to dinner in Maniago. We talked about the day, ate too much (we never did get the hang of ordering the right number of dishes at an Italian restaurant), drank some delicious wine, and listened as the rain began to pour down on the roof tiles above us. Somewhere along the way, something got into us and we had a giggle fit in the restaurant. Everything felt carefree, funny, silly, simple.

We ate, drank, and laughed. Then we ran like mad through the pouring rain in a city that wasn’t home, but somehow was.

Italian Folktales ~ Day 10 (July 4, 2011), Fanes to Fiames to Fanna

Just above Fanes, the trail flattens, passes a turquoise blue lake, and then begins the long, sloping descent down the valley, back to Fiames.

Fanes - End of the "up"

Mountain lake

Homeward bound

Trail down through the pass

We left the bare, rocky summits behind us and, little by little, were enveloped by a forest of tall conifers, mysterious caves, and tumbling cascades.

Although at least one in our party was happy to see the end of this part of our trip, I was reluctant to leave. I spent much of the hike down looking up and looking back, thinking about those lucky ducks just arriving at their first rifugio that day. As excited I was for the rest of our trip, truth be told, I could have easily spent another week, two, three right there in those mountains.

But the Fiat Panda was waiting patiently for our return, and we had miles to go before our rest in Fanna that night. Miles that included (unbeknownst to us at that moment) a road that resembled a zipper on the map and, in real life, turned out to be a seemingly endless series of terrifying, single-lane switchbacks that ricocheted us up and over the mountains and down into the gentle plains of Fanna.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that I have not a single picture of that harrowing journey. I was too busy gripping the seat and wondering when we’d stop going UP to think about preserving the memories digitally. All sense of peace from the past few days was momentarily gone. It was a very quiet trip over those mountains. Now, of course, I wish I’d taken at least one picture so you’d have an idea of what that road was like. You’ll just have to trust me: you wouldn’t have enjoyed it.

And then, we were down, with the Tagliamento river on our right.


Gliding along the gentle, suburban roads that led us to Fanna.



The clear, blue-sky weather that we’d been blessed with for the past four days turned to grey and the rain started. But it didn’t matter at all. Our packs were dry, and we found the largest hotel room this side of Texas, with comfortable beds, air conditioning, and generous, hot showers.

As appealing as the mountains are, civilization also ain’t so bad.

Italian Folktales ~ Day 9 (July 3, 2011), Pederu to Fanes

On the morning of this third day of hiking, salvation came to Hyla in the form of a minivan.

Hyla's salvation

It’s not that she wasn’t willing to hike back up much of the elevation we had come down the day before; she just wasn’t happy about it.

After experiencing the pain of watching her misery during the hardest parts of the last two days, her wide smile and the joyful lilt in her voice when she told me that M had booked us a ride in that van was a balm to my heart.

Among the many things they don’t make clear in those “So You’re Going to Have a Baby” books (along with the fact that you will have to stitch together camps and events to fill a summer if you are a working parent, and the fact that yes, you will have to remember how to do 7th grade math) is how your heart will break and then heal and then break again in parallel with your child’s experience.

Well maybe they said that in the book, but I definitely missed that chapter.

Maybe it was my experience of Hyla’s relief, or maybe it was the intoxication of the mountain air, but by the time I got to Fanes, I felt high with happiness. A feeling that only intensified during the day when, after getting Hyla settled comfortably at the top of her three-level bunk in the dormitory, Michael and I set off on our hike from Fanes to the neighboring rifugio, Lavarella, then back to Fanes, then up the trail that took us far above Fanes for the spectacular view of the valley below.


"Parliament of the Marmots"

Friendly doe

Trail from Fanes to Lavarella

Fanes - View of the valley

Afterwards, we drank beers on the deck, watching hikers and bikers come and go.

Fanes - Deck

We talked. We sat silently. We laughed. We breathed. Some of us napped. Others wandered to visit the cows and ponies. We anticipated another wonderful dinner, wine, conversation.

I remember thinking then (and can still summon the feeling when I look back on those photos), that I may never have been more relaxed or “right-feeling” in my life. I felt centered and absolutely content. Not worried about the past or future. I was ready to put down stakes and stay.

I knew that part of that feeling was because I was in the middle of vacation, with no responsibilities other than repacking my belongings the next morning, hoisting my pack on my back, and following the trail. But it didn’t matter what the reason was. It only mattered that we were there, all together, in that moment, and we were all happy.

Italian Folktales ~ Day 8 (July 2, 2011), Sennes to Pederu


Peaceful morning at Sennes Hutte, and the sound of the cow bells. The sound we woke up to at each rifugio.

Packs lined up, ready for the day’s hike. Have I mentioned yet how much I love my backpack? Well I do. I love it. It’s the green one there. I love it.

Sennes - Backpacks ready for the day

On the walk to Fodara Vedla, where we’ll stop for lunch.

On our way to Fodara Vedla

Trail to Fodara Vedla

Looking at the pictures now, I still can’t believe how stunning the scenery was. What good thing did I do to deserve being there with my family and friends on a sparkling clear July day? It must have been something awfully good.

Trail, mountains, clouds

Stopping to rest

Stopping at an overlook to see where Pederu is.

View down to the valley floor

It is way. down. there.

But first, there is Fodara Vedla, and its bossy cows.

Mind the cows

Fodara Vedla - Cozy and serene

We sat on its front deck, ate a gloriously simple lunch, drank champagne in honor of a fellow hiker’s birthday, and watched the flags flap in the breeze. Rough life, eh?

Fodara Vedla - Flags

And then the last bit of gentle trail, across the meadow.

Fodara Vedla - In the distance

Before descending to the bottom of this valley.

Trail to Pederu - View into the valley

By way of a seemingly endless series of gravel-covered switchbacks (sorry, Hyla).

Going down

Switchbacks begin

Steep and curved

Even when Pederu, our lodging for the night, seemed tantalizingly close, the trail kept going and going, bending and twisting.

Pederu: our goal


Hike from Fodara Vedla to Pederu

That yellow line, from Fodara Vedla to Pederu, took us hours to hike, but on a mountain bike, you could do it in seven minutes.

If you were in a hurry, and a bit insane, that is.

Italian Folktales ~ Day 7 (July 1, 2011), Fiames to Sennes

Day 1 of the hike. Both wonderful and difficult. 13 kilometers of steady uphill hiking on crushed stone trails. Total gain of about 1000 meters in elevation.

Preparing at Fiames

Finally! Packs on our backs, boots on our feet, realizing the plan that we’d hatched all those years ago. Blue-sky day. Friends to keep us company. Some of us took a lot of pictures. Two of us hashed over the details of the Harry Potter books and movies for many kilometers. Two others were the map keepers. We laughed a lot, talked about Italy and food and lost luggage and all sorts of things, spent a lot of time looking up, pointing, exclaiming, “Look at that!”

Ra Stua bound

Setting out on the trail to Sennes

We stopped at Malga Ra Stua to eat our first picnic lunch of bread, cheese, salami, apples, and chocolate.

Malga Ra Stua - 6,890'

After lunch, we hiked through the loveliest, sheltered valley. Green, sloped pastures, dotted with grazing cows. Each one wore a bell, and the whole valley rang with the sound of the meandering bells.

More cowbell


See where the trail disappears in the trees? Just about there, at the trees, the trail begins to rise again, gently at first, then gradually more steeply until it twists itself into a series of switchbacks (a word that, by order of the resident 12-year-old, is now not to be uttered within her hearing). See those cliffs? By the end of the afternoon, we’d be above them.

Getting higher

It was hard hiking, and hardest on the youngest of our party, just shy of 12 years old and the least experienced hiker in the bunch. After a point, every step for her was a misery, and I felt like a hard-hearted parent forcing her up those trails. I wished with everything in me that there was a way I could magically transport her to the end, where rest, food, and a bed awaited.

But there was no magic. Only patient waiting, and kidding, and laughing, and sighing in exasperation, and grumbling, and snacking, and making mini milestones that we could achieve (“at the bend of the next switchback, we’ll stop and have some chocolate”).

In the end, no magic was needed. Just persistence. She did it. Under her own power.

She owned that mountain.

On the plateau

Sennes Hutte

And then we were there, at Sennes Hutte, drinking beer, wine, and hot cocoa, ruminating over the day’s hike, anticipating a warm shower, and basking in the sunset view we’d earned.

Italian Folktales ~ Day 6 (June 30, 2011), Cortina d’Ampezzo and Lagazuoi

On paper, Cortina d’Ampezzo has much to recommend it; the host of the 1956 Winter Olympics, it’s ringed by the Dolomites and is a popular jumping off point for hikers, climbers, and skiers wanting to explore the Dolomites.

Cortina d' Ampezzo

It has its charms—most especially the spectacular La Cooperative di Cortina, part department store, part bookstore, part climbing and hiking gear shop, and part luxury grocery store—but most of it is filled with large, aging hotels, charmless restaurants, and expensive boutiques. Maybe it has a different character in the winter, when it’s the home of the après-ski set.

Cortina d' Ampezzo

We spent the night of the 29th there, repacking our backpacks to prepare for our first night in the mountains, but were happy to leave our utilitarian hotel room behind the next morning for Rifugio Lagazuoi.

Lagazuoi cable car station

There are two ways up to Lagazuoi, 2752 meters up in the clouds: on foot, via the hiking trails, or by cable car.

Lagazuoi cable car - Our car arrives

We had a rainy day, and rode up through fog that obscured the breathtaking views until we arrived up top.

Lagazuoi cable car - Rock face in the rain

Lagazuoi cable car - View down the line

Lagazuoi cable car - Across the mist

There is so much to tell you about Lagazuoi: the expansive deck, Tony the dog, the cozy room for three, the friendly staff and the warming food, the bone-chilling wind, the high alpine hiking trails, the stunning views, the World War I relics, and the thunderhead that settled over the mountain across the way and flashed and glowed with lightning all night long.

Rifugio Lagazuoi - Thunderhead

I could probably write about this one place for days, but I’m afraid of boring you. You’ll just have to see it for yourself.

Go to Cortina, stop at the co-op for chocolate, cheese, bread, and beer, then head straight for Lagazuoi and spend two nights, not one.

Rifugio Lagazuoi - Tie-dyed H

H ~


Rifugio Lagazuoi

Welcome to the cozy mountain haven of Rifugio Lagazuoi, nestled 9000 feet up in the Italian mountains. Travelers rest there often, and the hosts and food are very nice. But is something more sinister living there as well? This reporter certainly thinks so! On a rocky ledge overlooking the treacherous slopes, mysterious items have been found. A cave stands there; a fun little hiding place from the ripping wind or a containment place for a terrible beast? Here in this column we will examine the evidence.

1. The location.

Rifugio Lagazuoi - Outlook

This small outlook hosts the cave (and whatever lives there!) . It is far away enough from the hut to be safe, but close enough that, given four or five minutes, a vicious bloodthirsty egg-eating demon-creature could get to the hut easily. However, the “Dark Fiend” (as we shall call it) can be corralled easily, given that it sits right on the edge of the cliff. And are those blood-stains near the top?

2. The cave.

Rifugio Lagazuoi - Scary cave

This is the cave in which the Dark Fiend presumably lives. It’s very dark and may be more spacious than we realize. From the pictures you will be seeing very soon, the feeding place for the Dark Fiend is right atop it.

3. The bones.

Rifugio Lagazuoi - Bones

The image above shows a pile of gray rocks which, upon closer inspection, reveal pearly-white bones. This suggests that the Dark Fiend is a carnivore.

4. The eggshells.

Rifugio Lagazuoi - Spoon & egg shells

This picture perhaps renders up the most information of all. It tells us that the Dark Fiend loves eggs. It tells us that it must have opposable thumbs, as it uses a spoon to eat the eggs.

Now, let’s go over the facts:

It lives a short distance away from the hut.
It lives inside a large, dark cave.
It eats some type of animal.
It eats eggs with a spoon, so…
It may have opposable thumbs.

Add a comment and tell us what you think THE DARK FIEND is!!!!!!

Italian Folktales ~ Day 5 (June 29, 2011), Bolzano and Cortina

We rented a tiny car at the Verona airport on a bright, hot morning and drove the A22 Autostrada through the Brenner Pass from Verona to Bolzano.

A22 Autostrada - Verona to Bolzano - Brenner Pass from Verona to Bolzano

Bolzano - Dietrich fighting Laurin

After Verona, Bolzano—which bills itself as “the gateway to the Dolomites” and is the capital city of the South Tyrol—was like a foreign country. Although everyone could speak Italian, we were just as likely to overhear German conversations, see Austrian-influenced architecture in the old city, and to see beautiful seeded pretzels and Austrian pastries in the bakeries.


Our final destination for the day was Cortina, but we had a reason to stop at Bolzano: a date with Ötzi (the Iceman). Ötzi, the mummified remains of a man who lived 5000 years ago, and whose body was discovered high in the Tyrolean Alps, is cared for by the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the discovery with a special exhibit until January 2013.

Bolzano - Otzi sign

Ötzi, himself, rests in a special, environmentally-controlled vault. He’s visible, as he lies on his ice-glazed table, through a small, thick window in the heart of the museum. Viewing him is an eerie experience. He is so utterly, obviously human—his fingers curled as if gripping his bow or a axe handle—but time and the elements have taken a once living person and turned him into what looks like a human-shaped piece of amber: slick, shiny, golden. An object.

This is your first glimpse of Ötzi in the museum and it leaves you feeling a bit torn: fascinated and yet slightly embarrassed to be seeing something so defenselessly private. Like overhearing a conversation about people you know, but not meant for your ears. Is Ötzi a person, or an object? If he’s a person, what gives us the right to line up in a museum to gaze on his naked body? If he’s an object, what connection do we feel to him?

But the body of Ötzi is a seed, or a core, around which an entire leafy life flourished, and the rest of the museum beautifully introduces that life to you, piece by piece. A coat and pair of leggings, made of small patches of goat hide, meticulously pieced together with straight, even, tiny stitches of sinew. Deer-skin shoes, insulated with hay bound by twisted grass “ropes”. A bearskin cap fitted with leather straps to tie under the wearer’s chin. A pouch containing a dried fungus that could be used as portable tinder, and two birch-bark containers in which Ötzi likely carried smoldering embers from camp site to camp site. An axe with a copper head, a dagger, a long bow (unfinished) made of yew, and a quiver full of arrows (only some ready for use, others notched but unfinished). A set of tools for repairing his clothing and equipment, and a kit of fungus and herbs for healing himself (or others?).

And a backpack with a hazel wood frame in which he carried many of the above items, and more. An entire floor of the museum was filled with his possessions.

After having agonized for weeks about what to put in our packs to carry on a four-day hike through the South Tyrolean mountains, the coincidence was not lost on us. Ötzi was as fully human as we are, and acquisitive to boot, although he was infinitely more self-sufficient and prepared than we would ever be. He had places to go, and a never-ending “to do” list (“finish making three arrows this week”). He had friends, and enemies, or perhaps someone who mistook him for game and shot him in the shoulder with a fatal arrow.

We can’t know his real name, or hear his voice. We don’t know his favorite color or food. Did he have family? Could he sing? What made him laugh? Even still, there’s no doubt at all that he was just like us, and that, somehow, is comforting beyond measure.

I was reluctant to leave Ötzi behind, but Cortina and the Dolomites beckoned. On we drove in our little Fiat Panda, loaded with backpacks, boots, pocket knives, food, protective clothing, and everything else we hoped would carry us safely through the mountains.