Travel logs
2014 Summer Adriatic Opera Festivals
August 2, 2014
On a glorious sunny day, we boarded our bus – at two different times – from Bari airport to Valle d’Itria, the heart of Puglia.  As we turned off the highway toward Martina Franca, we couldn’t but savor the landscape, dotted with cone-shaped trulli houses, dry-stone walls, vineyards and olive groves stretching as far as the eye can see. Those who arrived early in the day had a leisurely afternoon to discover Martina Franca on their own, from our hotel, just a few steps from the old city center; or, to enjoy the tranquility of the park setting of the hotel, perhaps ensconced with a good book, or, why not, taking a refreshing dip in the pool before supper. Tonight we gathered for a welcome dinner, al fresco, and toasted to a great tour ahead.
August 3, 2014
We started our explorations in the charming Old Town Martina Franca by visiting a few rooms of the imposing 17th-century Palazzo Ducale, built by the powerful Neapolitan Carraciolo family. Though some need restoration, the original 18th-century classical frescoes depicting biblical and mythological scenes were a delightful surprise, and so was the temporary exhibition of undulating paper installations. Then we zigzagged around our way amidst white-washed buildings, many with “duckbreast” balconies, narrow lanes and arched passageways, making our way to the Basilica of San Martino and the San Domenico Church, whose eye-dazzling white courtyard serves as the second venue of the annual Valley of Itria Festival.

A short drive took us to Alberobello, the epicenter of traditional dry-stone houses with conical roofs which abound in the Itria Valley. Our guide explained the rationale and the characteristics of these unusual drywall “casiedas” (small houses). The story goes that the local duke created the town for his workers, who were in charge of felling the oaks of the “beautiful forest,” or alberobello for shipbuilding. However, taxes on permanent habitations were so high that the owner forced the workers to build without mortar, so the houses could be dismantled very easily, simply by removing the keystones. Whatever the reason may be, the trulli are truly clever as they can capture the rain, provide a cool shelter in the heat of summer yet conserve heat in the wintertime. We visited a rare two-floor trullo built by a wealthy family, where we got a first-hand look at how this ingenious design works to this day.

We set the standards too high with our lunch today: a 3-hour meal with amazing local specialties at Locorotondo, including burratina, capocollo ham, and a very refreshing cucumber-melon-like vegetable called cocomero. Before returning to Martina Fanca for a little rest before tonight’s concert, celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Itria Valley Festival, w walked off at least the antipasti of our lunch strolling around the beautiful circular Old Town Locorotondo. Set on a hilltop, it is amaze of little lanes lined with whitewashed buildings, some rather humble, but others – the Palazzo Morelli for example – retaining grand baroque archways and architectural details.
August 4, 2014
The first destination today: Polignano a Mare, a lovely coastal town, which surprisingly was not overrun with tourists. Rising from limestone cliffs bordering the turquoise Adriatic, the town is very picturesque, not only from “special panoramic spots” but also from the interior: the small labyrinthine streets and charming whitewashed houses of Old Town delighted all of us. A visit to the rather quaint 13th-century church (formerly the cathedral) dedicated to the Assumption of Virgin Mary, acquainted us with the work of a famous local sculptor, Stefano di Putignano. The church is very unusual (if not unique) for its baroque two-story apse, with a second chapel above the high altar; the railing of the balcony is surmounted by two hands offering the communion host.

On our way to Ostuni, we stopped at an olive grove with centuries-old trees, and can now boast that we know so much more about olive trees, the harvesting techniques, and the types of olive oils to buy (and to avoid!). Ostuni is also known as the White Town, and it was of no surprise to us why: a concentration of gleaming whitewashed buildings perched atop a steep hill, set back from the sea. We walked around the ancient walls of the town, dating from Norman times, before we took the steps up a winding street to our restaurant, which was inside a very beautifully furnished limestone grotto. After feasting on fish delicacies accompanied by local wine, we strolled around the town, admiring the spotless little houses with laundry hung out to dry, the charming souvenir shops, and the wonderful exterior architecture of the Co-Cathedral of Ostuni-Brindisi, in the Venetian/Dalmatian style.
August 5, 2014
We visited Lecce today, renowned for its unique and spectacular “Leccese Baroque.” We entered the town through the Naples Gate, a city gate built for a visit by Charles V, and stopped for a coffee break to taste the famous Leccese coffee, Quarta. The town itself delights its visitors with limestone 17th and 18th-century architecture. Whether it’s piazzas, residential buildings, or churches, there is an abundance of intricately ornamented porticos, portals, facades and columns, dazzling to the eye of the beholder. Everywhere you look, there is something special, from the beautiful courtyard of the Celestini Palace to the concave-convex façade of the San Matthew Church, from the papier-mâché ceiling of Santa Chiara to the imposing interior of the Cathedral, from the bust reliquaries of San Irene to the splendid façade of Santa Croce Basilica. The latter is probably has the most richly decorated exterior: the façade, divided into two tiers, is separated by a balcony supported by Turkish-looking anthropomorphic and fantasy-world zoomorphic atlantes. There are angels, cherubs, saints and apostles, rose windows, and exuberantly carved columns. The whole composition is so detailed that it takes a long time to take it in! A traditional Leccese handicraft is the art of papier-mâché. A visit to a local workshop gave us a first-hand experience into the elaborate process of making (and restoring) papier-mâché statues, puppets, figurines, and a variety of religious objects.

Lunch made very creative use of local ingredients. The chef gave a special twist to the traditional ingredients of Puglia: eggplant soufflé with potato mousse, pasta with asparagus sauce, and veal involtini. We toasted to the birthday of one of our travelers with prosecco and delicious Chantilly cream with hazelnuts. After lunch, we managed to squeeze in another hour of sightseeing in the heat of the day, seeing the ruins of the Roman theater and amphitheater built under Hadrian in the 2nd century AD, and having the best pistachio ice cream in Puglia.
August 6, 2014
Today we traveled southwest to Matera in the Basilicata region, home to some 1,500 Paleolithic cave houses that were expanded through the centuries into residences. In the 1950s and 60s the entire population of the cave dwelling district, known as Sassi in Italian, was relocated into modern new apartment buildings in a government effort to eradicate extreme poverty, filth, and disease. Many of these cave houses were consequently abandoned but a growing number have been recently restored and transformed into cozy abodes, restaurants and even cave-hotels (one with a 5-star rating). The cavernous hillside of Sassi offers an unexpected treasure: priceless 8th to 13th century Byzantine frescoes in rupestrian (rock-hewn) churches, painted by Basilian monks who made their homes here, having fled persecution during the Byzantine era. We visited the biggest rupestrian church, San Pietro Barisano, and explored its underground chapels and crypts. The Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario gave us an insight into cave furnishings and the deplorable living conditions that existed into the 1950s and early 60s. After another copious lunch, we strolled around the Piano (Flat) district overlooking the sassi, admiring its impressive palaces (16th through 19th centuries), some desperate for conservation, and churches dating from the 13th through 18th centuries. Alas, the Romanesque cathedral has been closed for “restoration” for years, but nothing is being done, thanks to political inaction.
 August 7, 2014
We spent the first half of the day touring very interesting sights north and northwest of Martina Franca before a longer stretch to our destination tonight, Macerata, in the Marche region. First we visited a UNESCO World Heritage site, Castel del Monte, built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1240. There is a lot of speculation about the purpose of the building to this day, as it was built with absolute astronomical and mathematical precision, in “the middle of nowhere,” in the countryside northwest of Bari. The castle has an octagonal shape, with an octagonal tower at each corner, and looks quite stern from the exterior, with few windows and almost no ornamentation – its austerity is almost modern. The interior, however, blends Romanesque, Gothic, and elements of classical antiquity very harmoniously. The material used for the building is quite unusual: coral gravel, marble, and quartz-bearinglimestone. A delightful surprise was a temporary exhibition of bronze sculptures by Arnold Pomodoro, which “dressed up” the empty halls.  A short drive took us to picturesque Trani on the shore of the Adriatic, where we had an exquisite lunch of fish specialties at a very elegant restaurant. Following lunch, through the intercession of one of our travelers, we were granted a special visit to the oldest synagogue in the Jewish Quarter. The 13th-century building was re-established as a synagogue again in 2005, following centuries of use as a Christian church.  The man in charge of the synagogue greeted us and gave us a little history of the Trani Jews, which today number a total of 40 families.  Then we made our way, through winding little alleys, to the Romanesque cathedral, very striking due to its light pink, almost white color. The cathedral is unusual as it is three churches in one: it started out as a Roman catacomb in honor of Saint Leucius. In the 6th century the catacomb became a crypt under a new cathedral dedicated to the Holy Virgin. The town dwellers rebuilt the cathedral in honor of San Nicola Pellegrino, who died in Trani, and his relics are kept in the Byzantine crypt.
August 8, 2014
Our first day in Macerata was dedicated to the city itself: a charming hilltop town, boasting the architectural wealth of bygone eras. The center square, Piazza de la Liberta, has a beautiful Renaissance loggia, Loggia dei Mercanti, built by Papal Legate Alessandro Farnese, the future pope Paul III. Opposite, there’s the charming 18th-century Teatro Lauro Rossi, which had a temporary exhibition of costumes, on the anniversary of the 50th edition of the Macerata Opera Festival. The beautiful little church of Madonna della Misericordia enchanted us with exquisite marble and baroque adornments; the Buonaccorsi family residence, now a museum, delighted us with paintings by lesser known artists, displayed in an 18th-century palace with marble doors, wonderful coffered ceilings, and classical frescoes. A great discovery, for all of us, was the copy of a classical painting, now the property of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Salimeno’s Dido Welcoming Aeneas. The downstairs is a carriage museum, the amazing collection of Count Pieralberto Conti, who also founded and patronized the Macerata Opera Festival. We learned about Conti and his life as we perused the temporary exhibition on the first opera production of the festival – the 1921 Aida; in addition,we saw set elements from previous festival productions of Aida, Madame Butterfly, Turandot and others, exhibited in a “decommissioned” church! A delightful find was a 16th-century library, originally a Jesuit collection, which has been enriched with the legacy of the Mozzi brothers and the Dominican Borgetti. The collection, amounting to 350,000 volumes, is now the public library of Macerata.

Lunch was at a mom-and-pop trattoria: we enjoyed Macerata food at its best, everything made “in casa”: appetizers, pasta, vincisgrassi (Marche specialty), ossobuco, tiramisu, vino cotto, even grappa!

The evening was dedicated to one of the three productions at this year’s festival, Puccini’s Tosca. The festival takes place in a grand 19th-century sports arena. The theme this year is “le donne” (the women) and not only the title character of each opera but all three conductors as well are women. Eun Sun Kim handled the musical elements with great aplomb, despite the huge production, which often involved battalions of choristers spread over the entire 250-foot width of the arena stage. Alas, the male in the mix, director Franco Ripa de Meana, in his effort to fill the huge space, worked against the librettist and composer’s tight focus on individuals caught up in the machine of politics, dissipating much of the opera’s emotional impact.
August 9, 2014
A short bus ride took us to Recanati and Loreto today. Recanati is known for being the birthplace of both 19th-century Romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi and of Beniamino Gigli, one of the finest tenors of all times. The beautiful Colloredo Mels palazzo houses the local civic museum, containing three masterpieces by 16th-century Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto: the Annunciation, the Transfiguration, and the Altarpiece of San Domenico. The Annunciation is surprising for its domestic setting, in a room containing ordinary objects such as candles and books, into which the celestial world – represented by God the Father and an angel – bursts into the terrestrial world forcefully. Mary is clearly surprised and perhaps taken aback by what is to befall . . . only the frightened cat, who appears in the center of the painting, appears likely to make an escape. The Teatro Persiani was a delightful surprise, not so much for the 19th-century auditorium, but for the terrific little museum dedicated to Beniamino Gigli, displaying personal objects, photographs, memorabilia, and costumes worn by the tenor world-famous from the 1930s into the 50s. We strolled around the small Old Town, practically from one end to the other, admiring the house where Leopardi was born and the spots that inspired him to write Il Passero Solitario (The Lonely Sparrow) and several other well-known poems.

After lunch at an out-of-the-way restaurant, where we were the first-ever American group, we visited the impressive basilica of Loreto, a pilgrimage place for Catholics worldwide, containing, according to tradition, the house in which the Virgin Mary lived, borne thence by angels in the 13th century when the Saracens occupied the Holy Land. The walls of the house are enclosed by beautiful marble Renaissance sculpture; inside there is a much-venerated black Madonna statue, a copy of the original, which was destroyed in a fire in 1921. The massive basilica itself was built around the shrine, over a period 300 years (13th-15th centuries). The church impresses the visitors not only by the shrine, but by the beautiful sacristies: gem-stone colored frescoes in the Sacristy of St. Mark by Melozzo da Forli, Luca Signorelli's frescoes in the Sacristy of St. John, and the German Chapel done in the 19th century by German artists.

Tonight we saw Traviata, our second opera of the Macerata Opera Festival. The all-Italian, no-name cast proved, once again, that it doesn’t take stars to put on an effective, affecting performance. Unlike the Tosca production, mentioned in yesterday’s log, this one supported the emotions and intentions of the librettist and composer in a visually exciting and quite inventive set, of painted stage-cloths reflected from a mirrored backdrop. Unfortunately, tonight’s conductor, Speranza Cappucci, sometimes failed to keep pit and stage in sync.
August 10, 2014
We started out today still half asleep but ready to explore Ascoli Piceno: a truly exciting little town, not only for strolling around its gorgeous Renaissance main square and the narrow alleys of the medieval town, but for discovering splendid Renaissance loggias and porticos, Roman bridges and gates, medieval churches, and the remains of towers built during the reign of Frederick II (some “hidden,” having been cut down and incorporated into other structures over the centuries). The Cathedral boasts a true masterpiece: Carlo Crivelli’s Sant’Emidio polyptych (15th c.), in the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, placed on an exquisite silver altar. The crypt is another delight: recycled Roman columns supporting Gothic arches and vaults, a 4th-century Roman sarcophagus containing the remains of St. Emidio, and the 20th-century mosaics on the ceiling above the tomb and the surrounding walls. Everybody was on their own for lunch, and several tried the local specialty: olive e creme all’ascolana, which are olives stuffed with savory minced meat and then fried, accompanied by squares of sweet cream, also fried.
August 11, 2014
As we approached the seaside town of Pesaro, on the Adriatic coast just south of Rimini, traffic intensified – no wonder, as August is the month when Europeans go on vacation! We began our sightseeing at “la palla” or the ball, as locals would call Arnaldo Pomodoro’s bronze sculpture “La grande sfera.” We walked past several privately owned villas, built in the “Belle Epoque,” beautifully constructed and ornamented in Liberty style, as Italians call Art Nouveau. On the way into town, we stopped at the 13th-century Cathedral, rebuilt in neoclassical style by architect Carducci, to admire two mosaic floors: the superior floor from the 6th century, and the lower floor, about two feet below. What is fascinating is that the superior floor is a combination of Byzantine paleo-christianic mosaics (6th century) and symbolic images added in the Middle Ages, showing the evolution of religious and social history from the 6th to the 13th century. We learned about the life of Rossini as our guide led us through his birth house, now the Rossini Museum. The small two-story building contains photographs, scores, and various memorabilia related to “the swan of Pesaro,” as he called himself. The Palazzo Toschi Mosca houses the city art museum, which includes a masterpiece of the quattrocento: Bellini’s Coronation of the Virgin. The huge canvas, surrounded by a gilt frame and a lower part called predella, dazzles the onlooker with beauty not only in imagery but in the masterful use of light and natural scenery. The marble throne, like a mirror, opens onto a landscape, a Sforza castle not far from Pesaro, creating a “painting within a painting” effect with a series of perspective planes. Our knowledgeable guide pointed out to us how art has changed from Gothic to Renaissance to mannerism, illustrating these changes as seen in select paintings in the collection. 

After lunch at Pesaro’s oldest osteria, we checked into our hotel, situated on a hill overlooking Pesaro: a wonderful 17th century villa with beautiful gardens and a swimming pool. Tonight several of us saw The Barber of Seville at the Rossini Opera Festival, a creative, non-traditional production that some found exciting while others were less enthusiastic about. All agreed the singing was top notch.
August 12, 2014
Old Town Urbino, a UNESCO heritage site, was a delightful surprise: pure functional architecture of the Middle Ages, meant to protect and offer security to the town dwellers. The Renaissance brought “renewal” to the interior architecture of Urbino, but not to the exteriors. We walked along the walls of the fortified town and took a turn into a piola: a steep street with raised ridges in the inclined plane, designed to help a person going down to avoid losing his/her footing and sliding all the way to the bottom! The Oratory of St. John the Baptist contains magnificent frescoes of the Salimbeni brothers, masterpieces of the “international Gothic” style. The frescoes were painted at the end of the Middle Ages, and one can notice the budding elements of Renaissance art: lack of golden halos, instinctive perspective, and the humanistic characteristics of the figures.  As we walked into the main square, we learned about Federico Montefeltro, who practically created Urbino Renaissance with his own money. The Ducal Palace is a testimony to how ingeniously the Renaissance elements (for example, the marble friezes and portals) were integrated with the Gothic architecture (structure of the building and the windows). The interior courtyard is a gorgeous Renaissance loggia, harmonious not only in structure, but in color as well. The interior of the palace offered some exceptional art: paintings by Piero della Francesca, a forerunner of perspective painters, inlaid woodwork, and 17th-century gobelinos based on Raffaello’s drawings.  

Aureliano in Palmira was on our musical plate tonight: it was wonderfully sung, but the production and stage direction did nothing to enliven the essentially static nature that is part and parcel of 18th-century Italian opera seria. Still, there were ravishingly beautiful musical moments, especially the ensembles, which included two extended a capella trios that were especially well-sung.
August 13, 2014
Today we offered an optional day-trip to Ravenna, the modern capital of the Emilia Romagna region, as well as capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century (402 to 476 AD), and an important center of the Byzantine Empire (6th century). We visited several 5th and 6th century UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Arian Baptistery, St. Apollinaire Basilica, and the Basilica of San Vitale. Characterized by great architectural simplicity from the exterior, these early Christian monuments abound in richly decorated mosaics on their interiors, with scenes related to the Eucharist and the Old and New Testament. We learned about the pulvino, a characteristic feature of Ravenna early Christian architecture: a decorative element between the column capitals and the arch of the naves, which makes the columns look much more slender. The Arian Baptistery, built by Ostrogoth ruler King Theodoric (an Arian himself) at the end of the 5th century, impressed us all because Jesus is shown beardless and naked, as he is being baptized in the Jordan by St. John the Baptist.
Another remarkable sight was in San Francisco Church: the floor of an earlier church is visible through narrow windows under the main altar, completely covered by several inches of water – there are even goldfish swimming about! Close to the church, is the tomb of Dante Alighieri, who died in exile in Ravenna. Our guide told us a frankly unbelievable story of Dante’s persecution in life and long after his death, all of which turned out to be true!

Tonight we saw Armida at a sports arena, into which a real theater is built each summer for the Rossini Festival. One understands immediately why it is so rarely presented: there are roles for not one but 6 coloratura tenors! It was a spectacular production, especially in its costuming, but whose modernity (especially in the overly long ballet – but this is Pesaro, so not one note, or repeat for that matter, can be deleted!) offended some Rossini Festival regulars! As one can apparently expect here, the singing was top notch, even though there wasn’t a single “big name” artist in the cast.
August 14, 2014
Before leaving Pesaro this morning, several of the group explored the Jewish heritage of the town, visiting the synagogue and the cemetery. Those who opted to stay at the hotel had the opportunity to see the villa of the Cattagni noble family, which is beautifully ornamented with 17th-century frescoes by Nicolo Berettoni, some in need of restoration. Then we all converged for farewell lunch in a breathtaking setting: in a secluded hilltop village overlooking the sea. Getting there posed a real challenge to our bus driver, but it was well worth the time and effort!

After we said our goodbyes to the people going back to Houston, the remainder of the group marched on to Ancona. We had time for a quick visit of that port town rich in history, as it has been a trading centre for at least 3,000 years, linking both coasts of the Adriatic Sea, before boarding a ferry to Split. We visited the Cathedral of San Ciriaco, which combines Romanesque, Gothic, and Byzantine elements in a unique form. It stands on the site of the former acropolis of the Ancona founded by the Greeks, overlooking the modern city and its bay. It lies in an elbow-like shape in the promontory of Mount Conero, which descends steeply into the water from almost 2000 feet. Now a regional park, the mountainous area gives shelter to protected wildlife and vegetation, including strawberry trees (the name ‘conero’ is derived from it), species of weasel and badger, as well as of an evergreen oak (holm oak). The drive through this protected area offered us enchanting views of the dramatic slopes and the diverse flora.

Yet another surprise befell us upon boarding our ferry: luxurious and spacious accommodations, befitting a four-star hotel in a big city – king-sized bed, huge tiled bathroom, well-stocked mini-bar, sofa, TV, and enough floor space for a square-dance!