The Seven Churches of Santo Stefano

 Church of the Crucifix, Basilica of Santo Stefano, Bologna.

Church of the Crucifix, Basilica of Santo Stefano, Bologna.

I'm drawn to churches in Italy. There is something peaceful and spiritual about them. The coolness, the quiet, the dim light, the candles - all invoke a sense of calm and of one's place in the greater universe. I've probably lit 1,000 candles in churches big and small all across Italy - a nod to my Catholic upbringing - somehow those small flames seem to guide hopes and prayers on their way.

And then there is the art. I love the fading frescoes, the sculptures, the biblical stories told in paintings, the carved crucifixes, the Madonnas. And while I don't consider myself particularly religious, I find all of these tremendously meaningful.

 Intricate brickwork in the Pilate's Courtyard, between two of the churches in the Santo Stefano complex.

Intricate brickwork in the Pilate's Courtyard, between two of the churches in the Santo Stefano complex.

Perhaps the most amazing church I've visited in Italy isn't a single church at all but rather the Sette Chiese (Seven Churches) of the Basilica of Santo Stefano in Bologna. Parts of this series of interconnected chapels date to the 5th century and were likely built on the site of a fresh water spring and over a former temple to the Goddess Isis. Originally seven churches, changes throughout the centuries have resulted in the current four churches: Church of the Crucifix (the largest in the complex), Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Church of Saints Vitale & Agricola (local martyrs), and Church of the Trinity (or Martyrium).

Along with the four churches there are smaller chapels, the Pilate's courtyard with its intricate brickwork, a cloister with a central well and arcaded second story logia, and a small museum/gift shop.

 Cloister Courtyard, Santo Stefano, Bologna

Cloister Courtyard, Santo Stefano, Bologna

The whole series of churches is fascinating and each one is unique, but it was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the oldest part of the complex) that most intrigued me. It is a dark space, small and round yet quite tall with rising columns, arched windows high up in the cylindrical walls, and a domed brick ceiling. In the center is a carved stone structure that is part tomb (intended for the now absent Saint Petronio), part altar, part spiral staircase, all topped with a simple crucifix. There are beautiful stone carvings and a small opening into the tomb space itself (I actually watched a tourist climb into the tomb opening but I decided not to follow!). This space is mystical and somewhat eerie - the air just feels different in here, filled with a presence that is not quite visible. Perhaps it is the distant echos of those early worshipers. 

 Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The Basilica of Santo Stefano is about a 10-minute walk from Piazza Maggiore and sits on a lovely triangular piazza at the end of Via Santo Stefano. It offers a unique experience, different from some of the more famous churches in Italy which get considerably more visitors. Its a worthwhile stop on any visit to Bologna.                                                                                -post by JB

Natural History - Mount Etna

The volcano giveth and the volcano taketh away. That is an extremely abbreviated version of the story of Mount Etna, the extremely large, extremely active and extremely important volcano in eastern Sicily.

I spent eight days in Sicily last September, traveling from Palermo in the northwest to Catania in the east, and being awed by Monreale and Agrigento in between. I'll write more about Monreale and Agrigento in future posts. Today I'll focus on Etna, which looms over the city of Catania.

 Mount Etna, September 2016.

Mount Etna, September 2016.

Mount Etna is huge. It is an active volcano - one of the most active in the world, the experts say - and covers more than 450 square miles. It has been growing for about 500,000 years! In the photo above, you can see Etna blowing smoke from one of her mouths. In the foreground is lava rock from an eruption this century. A month before I was there, a new "active pit crater" was seen by one of the volcanologists who keep a very close eye on Etna every day.

During my recent visit (as part of a tour with the wonderful company Classic Journeys - I'll also blog in the future about whether to visit Italy independently or as part of a tour - I've done both), we hiked Mount Etna. Not to the top - the volcano has an elevation of almost 11,000 feet - but up one section. Along the way, we came across the remains of a hotel buried by lava during the eruption I mentioned earlier. You can see the hotel roof in the photo below. Fortunately, no one died in that eruption. Still, the volcano taketh.

 Mount Etna, September 2016.

Mount Etna, September 2016.

We also came across a local man in September who had been gathering porcini from the fertile land for his lunch. About 25 percent of Sicily's population lives on the slopes of Mount Etna. The volcano provides not only the benefit of fertile land to Sicilians but also the benefit of tourism (all we hikers need to eat, use the restroom, buy souvenirs, etc.). The volcano giveth.

 A Sicilian man shows off the porcini he gathered from Mount Etna for his lunch, protected on his walk home by a cover of ferns. September 2016.

A Sicilian man shows off the porcini he gathered from Mount Etna for his lunch, protected on his walk home by a cover of ferns. September 2016.

As we hiked up the volcano, it was hard to believe anything could grow on the black expanse we covered. It was even harder to believe that Etna is active nearly every day - not spewing-lava active but churning active (I think of it as a stomach growling).

About two months after walking on Etna, I read this on a website dedicated to volcanoes: "Etna volcano update: Signs of unrest increase." Etna, the site said, "is showing signs of becoming more active again: Over the past few weeks, emissions of gas, steam and sometimes perhaps some dilute ash from the main vent ... have increased. In addition, intermittent weak glow can be detected from the same vent at night."

Volcanologists say the first documented Eta explosion was in 1500 B.C. Its most powerful was in 1669. Its longest in the late 1970s (it lasted for more than a decade), and its latest began in 2007. I hope Etna does not erupt soon but I know it will again, changing forever the landscape that I and my fellow travelers were lucky enough to see and experience in September.       -post by JG


Italy is not just home to active volcanoes. As a documentary shared by an Italian acquaintance in Albuquerque notes, Italy "is a turbulent land, geologically." In the past year, a series of earthquakes has shaken the country. The Apennines region experienced half a dozen tremors from August to October. Hundreds of people died, thousands of others were left homeless and historic buildings were destroyed. Earlier this month, a luxury hotel in the region of Abruzzo was hit by a 120,000-ton avalanche. Twenty-nine people were killed. If you love Italy like I do, and want to help with relief efforts, you can donate to: the Italy Earthquake Relief Fund started by GlobalGiving, the Italian Red Cross, or a rebuilding fund started by the National Italian American Foundation.

Outside the Great Walls of Lucca

When I've been in Lucca before, I've only ventured outside the walls of the city to walk to the train station. So on my recent trip, I wanted to see what was beyond the imposing walls constructed in the 15th and 16th centuries - especially after I tasted a dessert from a pasticceria in the Borgo Giannotti neighborhood. (Pastry is a powerful motivator!)

 Outside the walls of Lucca, January 2017.

Outside the walls of Lucca, January 2017.

The historic center of Lucca is within the walls, which were built to defend the city and remain intact today. The walls are essentially a 4-kilometer-long (almost 2.5-mile) park for residents and visitors alike. Biking, walking, jogging, sitting and watching other people bike, walk and jog - it all takes place on the walls.

Heading out the northern Porta Santa Maria exit from the historic center, there is an underground passageway to Borgo Giannotti, a typical Italian neighborhood with tiny restaurants, bakeries, a flower shop, butcher and other small businesses lining the main street.

 Flowers brighten a winter day in Borgo Giannotti just outside the walls of Lucca, January 2017.

Flowers brighten a winter day in Borgo Giannotti just outside the walls of Lucca, January 2017.

It's an easy and interesting walk along a road that is heavily trafficked by cars - something that does not happen inside the walls of Lucca because cars are only allowed in certain areas and often only for certain reasons such as loading and unloading. 

The destination on the walk Joanne and I took near the end of our December 2016/January 2017 trip to Lucca was Pasticceria Sandra, L'Angolo Dolce. Friends had brought us a cream-and-raspberry torta from there earlier in the week (read all about it in Joanne's earlier post, Pranzo con Amici).

 Pasticceria Sandra, L'Angolo Dolce - culinary craftsmanship at its best.

Pasticceria Sandra, L'Angolo Dolce - culinary craftsmanship at its best.

The pasticceria is small. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in creativity and culinary craftsmanship. A glass display case in the center of the shop holds dozens of delectable delights, including cakes, cupcakes, miniature pastries, panini (sandwiches) and more. Each one has been created as a unique piece of edible art. At the back of the shop is a coffee bar. Joanne and I each ordered a mid-morning cornetto con crema and cappuccino. The cornetti (that's the plural of cornetto, which is like a croissant) were perfectly flaky and buttery and filled in the center with a soft cream that was not too rich but sufficiently sweet.

 The River Serchio, January 2017.

The River Serchio, January 2017.

Fortified by coffee and sugar, we hit the road again, following it through Borgo Giannotti to the River Serchio, which flows toward the Ligurian Sea. Walking/biking paths run alongside the river and on a clear day like we had, there is a nice view of the Tuscan hills in the distance. I love to explore, and this easy walk through Borgo Giannotti was a nice way to spend part of a day. I spied a church on a hill to the north of the river, and now I'm looking forward to exploring it on my next visit!

                                                                             

   -post by JG