Sunday, October 23, 2016

Beach Politics and Siesta Key

Siesta Key
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The ocean surf, the blue waves crashing onto the sugary white quartz sand, and the lush vegetation and marine life make this beach the most beautiful in the world. Silver streaks sparkle in the crystal clear water carrying crushed sea shells to the shore. A pod of dolphins are playing close to shore at sun rise, to the delight of walkers.

The water is teeming with life, from algae, to sand sharks, to jelly fish, stingrays, sharks, star fish, sea gulls, pelicans, and amazing sea urchins we call sand dollars.

A sudden wind gust picks up a few kites and speeds sail boats gliding on the surface. Fine white sand, skimming like a shimmering shallow river over the ground, covers everything. A brave girl is paddling a board past the sand bars.  The sea gulls are diving for fish in the surf, resurfacing with a squiggly silver morsel.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The wind just picked up my umbrella, resting momentarily at the edge of the ocean. I’ve never seen my hubby get up so fast to stop its rolling into the water.

An elderly man is pushing his wife through the shallow water in a wheelchair with large tires. The occasional wave crashes and splashes salty water onto her face; she giggles like a little girl. That sound is the sigh of sheer joy and devoted love.

An Indian family has already brought their mom to the edge of the beach. Her slow gait with the help of a cane is steadied by her daughter who settles her into a folding chair and rolls up her pant legs so she can feel the water lapping at her feet. The daughter brings out a large hat to shield her eyes from the sun.

Siesta Key beach
Photo: Ileana Johnson
I seldom see American families bringing their elderly and handicapped parents to the beach; they must be at home or in a nursing home. I feel ashamed and sad.

Clear water and white sand
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The beach seems more culturally alive this year. I hear many languages around me, Russian, Italian, Polish, German, Dutch, and French. For the first time in 37 years I see a woman clad in a full beige burka, accompanied by a man in cool and comfortable swim trunks.

Jose Jimenez
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
I pass every morning by a homeless man, nicely tanned, reading his paper on a picnic table, surrounded by gallons of water, his worldly possessions in a backpack and a couple of garbage bags; his blue beach bike is leaning nearby. He is always smiling from above his readers, makes eye contact, and says good morning to me.

People pass him by as if he is invisible and part of the landscape. A squirrel jumps on the table. There is a short wooden fence behind him, with heavy vegetation and shady trees between the walkway and the beach, and the squirrel runs along the top tier, within inches of his head, as if he is a familiar fixture of the environment, totally unafraid of him.

I make a point to talk to this man and to find out more about him. He is tanned and looks healthy. His name is Jose Jimenez and has been a resident of Florida for 36 years, 20 years in Siesta Key. His English is very good and speaks with a lovely Colombian accent. He greets me every morning with, “every day is a holiday.” This middle-aged man has touched my heart in so many ways; it is hard to put into words. I did not dare ask him if he was homeless by choice or by the vicissitudes of life. He posed for a picture and smiled with his eyes and happy heart.

Live urchins (sand dollars)
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
A few pelicans have flown further down the beach, closer to the rocky pier.  The large boulders flanking the pier have disappeared one day, moved by a construction company, eager to start building more private condos despite the local voters’ vociferous pleas to keep the road and the beach public. The issue will be voted on this November 8.

Siesta Key beach sunset
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Sarasota across the bay from Siesta Key
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Paradise on Siesta Key beach
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The beach is relaxing and soothing, problems and politics seem to fall by the wayside, but do they? There is always an emergency that needs saving humanity from its own demise, or saving nature from the destruction of all powerful humans. Thank God for the anointed few who know what is best for the rest of us and keep the crony government machine well-oiled and running.

Polar bear sculpture that took a man 3 1/2 hours to complete (Siesta Key beach)
Photo: Ileana Johnson
This sign appeared all over Siesta Key
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
I bumped into the “Save the Siesta Sand” project by chance and curiosity led me further.

A barrier island located on the west coast of Florida in Sarasota, Siesta Key was named the number one beach in 2011 and number one in the U.S. in 2016. “With 99 percent quartz as its sand, it truly is the finest, whitest sand in the world. It does not heat in the summer and it feels like talcum powder on your feet.”

The Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Sarasota have produced a dredge plan which “proposes to remove initially almost 1 million cubic yards of sands from the protective ebb shoal of Siesta Key located in Big Sarasota Pass.” The entire plan calls for “the removal of almost 5 million cubic yards of sand. It is so much sand that it could completely bury about four Empire State buildings laid on their sides. Alternatively, imagine 27 large dump trucks removing sand, running every day for 50 years.”

The sand will be used to re-nourish Lido Key beaches and to build a 5’ berm of sand along its shores, which are private beaches. According to Save our Siesta Sand, “A berm made of sand on a coastal beach and only one side of an island will be useless and will not protect St. Armand’s from flooding. In a little more than a year after the dredge, the North Lido beach has almost been lost and no mitigation is planned.”

“Consider the planned dredge of the protective ebb shoal off Siesta Key. No one can predict whether this same amount of erosion will occur on Siesta beach but it certainly seems likely. Observable facts speak louder than models.”

Following their modeling, the Army Corps is moving on with their plan, ignoring the “repeated requests by environmental organizations and the County Commission to generate an Environment Impact Statement before proceeding any further with their proposal to dredge Big Pass, New Pass, and Longboat Pass. Instead, they are issuing a FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact) by this massive project of navigation, the environment, and Siesta Key.”

To protect the Siesta Key beaches after this massive dredging of sand, the government is proposing the construction of “beach erosion groins,” but don’t worry, they will be tastefully decorated to disguise their ugliness.

In the meantime, as I enjoy the lovely Siesta Beach, I worry that in the future, our children and grandchildren will no longer be able to see the beauty of this island, a paradise on earth threatened by a 50-year government project of “unprecedented scale that has had no public hearings and where the proposer cannot show any similar projects that have met their goals. One independent review that was held stated that they were unable to verify the claims of the proposer.”

Politics at the beach are complicated in the best of times. For now the ordinary beach goer and modest business and home owner on Siesta Key are afraid that they may lose their white sand, spectacular beaches, perhaps the beach flora, and their paradise to the Army Corps of Engineers and City of Sarasota dredge plan.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

Survivors of Communism Speak at George Mason University

Speakers Nahm Lam, Slavko Martyniuk, and
Agustin Blazquez
“Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.”  - Winston Churchill

The Ronald Reagan lecture series introduced three distinguished speakers, two survivors of communism from Cuba and Ukraine, and the American child of a Vietnamese family who fled communism, to the student body at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, on October 3, 2016 with the idea to warn the audience about the dangers of socialism and communism. The event was hosted by the College Republicans of which less than five were present. Four more GMU students attended “out of curiosity” and the rest of the audience was composed of older adults from the local community.

I could guess the audience would be sparse as soon as I saw the statue of George Mason in front of the Johnson Center. He was bedecked in a carnival mask, green ribbons tied in bows around his ankles, green and yellow balloons in his hands, and various signs were attached to his body announcing a job fair. The center was full of students milling about, drinking coffee, having dinner, and chatting enthusiastically as any young person would.

The basement was quiet; a small sign in front of the theater announced the topic, “Is Socialism the Answer for America?” Apparently the students had better things to do that day or already know from their vast life experience that socialism is good for America because it sounds so socially just in theory. Not one professor, not even a history professor, showed up for the event which was advertised in advance and had to be approved by the administration.

The first at the microphone was Agustin Blazquez, born and raised in Cuba, having left Cuba in his twenties, coming to the U.S. in 1967. He produced over 200 films and documentaries. He had escaped with his family after the fall of Battista and the rise of Fidel Castro.

Agustin lived through the step by step “fundamental transformation” of Cuba from capitalism to socialism, eventually to a totalitarian communist government. After Castro took over Cuba in 1959, even though warnings were coming from China and the Soviet Union, Cubans chose to believe that nothing bad would happen because someone else was in the control and he was implementing socialism correctly. But the techniques of repression and population control were exactly the same everywhere – they used the same manual of coercion.

What emerged was a two-class system, the powerful elites and those supporting them. The equality they promised resulted in an equality of poverty and misery for which they paid a heavy price. Poor centralized planning, low salaries, low morale, no work ethic, and low production eventually cause the economy to collapse. The working class (proletariat) spent their days hoping to get food while the elites got everything they wanted and fattened their bank accounts. Rationing of food and confiscation of private property resulted in more poverty. The workers were crammed in low-income, hastily build apartments while the elites occupied the best houses. Regulations and executive orders left most of the people destitute, at the whims of the socialist government agitators. Rationing of everything was forced on the masses, electricity, water, heat, food, clothing, medicines, medical care, and everything else like toilet paper.

Agustin brought out a roll of toilet paper, a rare commodity under the central planning of socialism/communism. I still have a few strips of toilet paper I brought with me from Romania in 1985 as show and tell to my college students. The paper is pink and has splinters in it. Imagine having to use splinters on your behind! Yet we felt lucky to have it because we were so deprived!

“Progressives kept the people preoccupied with survival from one day to the next, keeping them busy, with no energy to protest against the government,” said Agustine. No freedom of association was allowed, no freedom of speech, guns were confiscated, thus making it impossible to remove Marxists from power.

A powerful military and secret police protected the elites from the people, but the people were told that they were there to protect the people from “evil” capitalism, the enemy of Marxism, a bold face lie.

Venezuela is a more recent example of the disastrous socialist policies of Hugo Chavez. An oil rich country, Venezuela has now devolved into such a poor country that people must stand hours in line each day in order to survive. The military and the police were brought in to distribute food and to keep violence at bay. The oil revenues continue to pour in but they line up the pockets of the elites in control. The bamboozled low information working class keeps voting for these lying socialists thus perpetuating their own poverty.

Venezuelans tried to revolt but, without guns to defend themselves, they were repressed back into submission by the powerful police and the military.

“Cubans always blamed their poverty on the U.S. embargo but there never was any embargo against Venezuela,” argued Agustin.

There are no human rights under communism. The government dictates where you can live, where you can work, where you can move, where you can study, what you can study, what you eat, and the meager salary you earn for the rest of your life. “Communists paint a rosy picture of free education, free college, and free medical care in order to gain votes.”

Nobody trusts anybody, not even your own family. Agustin was afraid to even say good bye to his family members for fear of being reported that he was planning to escape. “The people of today in Cuba are different from me, they have learned to lie and steal to survive, and they have no work ethic.” That is why, when they come to the U.S. now, they commit crimes because that is what they are used to doing in Cuba in order to survive, said Agustin.

Agustin was surprised how entrenched Marxism is now in our capitalist society, thanks to the openly Marxist main stream media, Hollywood, and academia. Colleges are no longer places to debate the free flow of ideas, they are places of brainwashing and indoctrination where snow-flakes Marxist students need their “safe spaces” to protect them from the “micro-aggression” of rational thoughts of non-Marxist students.

“Marxism is the enemy of America,” said Agustin. “These Marxists are subverting your American way of thinking, the very foundation of this country.” They will eventually erase all your freedoms, real or imagined, with the help of Hollywood, leading to an inescapable oppression.

The benign-sounding words, “white privilege, social justice, equality, environmental justice, racial justice,” are a ruse that will lead to the same disastrous result. Liberals no longer believe in freedom, they believe in government control usher in the same Marxist totalitarian rule. They are not progressives, they want to regress society to a failed and foreign ideology.

The gradual control of everyday life was incremental and slow. Long-standing problems could suddenly only be solved by government intervention; and the solution was always emotionally presented, preventing people from actually thinking clearly and rationally and realizing that the solution would never work. Those who resisted, were treated with scare tactics, disappearance, and jail time.

 “You don’t want these people to hack into your phone, why do you want to let these people hack into your life,” concluded Agustin. “Send them to the trash bin of history this November.”

Jaroslaw (Slavko) Martyniuk of Ukraine came to the U.S. when his family made a narrow escape from communism at the end of World War II, legally immigrating to Chicago. A retired energy economist and sociologist, Martyniuk has conducted “intelligence work and undercover public opinion polling with visitors from the Soviet Union on behalf of Radio Liberty.”
His extended family did not fare so well, they were sent to gulags, “the largest killing machine in history,” where most perished from torture, malnutrition, exposure, and overwork behind barbed wire. Martyniuk described the gulags in Siberia, the Soviet concentration camps for hard labor that were not really meant for re-education but for extermination.
The political dissidents sent there who worked underground in the gold mines had a survival rate of 2-4 weeks. He described the horrific and constant cold, the back-breaking labor on two rations of bread per day, the size of a person’s fist, and watery soup. The bitter cold, the unsafe working conditions, and the hard labor killed so many that the estimate of those buried in the permafrost is at least 3 million. Nobody could keep accurate count, he said, because records were constantly scrubbed. The gulags were the “the ultimate legacy of the communist experiment.” The worst of the re-education camps in the Arctic region was Kolyma, the place with two seasons, “12 months of winter and summer,” the Arctic death camps which served as a model for Hitler’s concentration camps.

Martyniuk expressed his disappointment that Americans know so very little about gulags and the mass killings that occurred during the Bolshevik and Soviet purges. How could 25,000 Bolsheviks control 25 million people? They confiscated their guns first.

Martyniuk explained that socialist ideas continue to live on in America because:

-          “institutions of higher learning promote socialist thinking”

-          “communism has never been fully discredited,”

-          “revisionist historians avoid black deeds of communism,”

-          Marxist professors continue to say that “the idea was noble”

Martyniuk identified disturbing trends in our society that are similar to those that led to communism and tyranny in the former Soviet Union:

-          Gradual loss of free speech

-          Restrictions on the right to bear arms

-          Expansion of the police state

-          Promotion of collectivist thinking

-          Disparaging individualism

-          Denigration of liberty and religion

-          Authoritarian method of governance through expansion of centralized bureaucracy, “governing wars,” inciting class warfare, denigrating free markets, i.e., “Free markets have never worked”

-          Centralization of government

-          Loss of faith in free-market capitalism due to crony capitalism

-          Redistribution of wealth and promotion of “class warfare” based on race and ethnicity

Martyniuk spoke of authoritarian regimes that first remove weapons from the hands of the people and how important it is to guard our Second Amendment. He gave examples of the 1932-1933 Ukrainian famine-genocide called Holomodor, and Germany and Austria’s gun confiscations in the 1930s.

He pointed out that the most egregious was the restriction of First Amendment free speech through the doctrine of political correctness, a type of Orwellian “1984 thought control.” PC guidelines are now everywhere in universities and colleges around the country. “European speech codes led to arrests and persecutions of high-profile individuals.” Noted were Leonid Plyushch (The Case of Leonid Plyushch) and Juan Williams in the U.S., both of whom were deemed as two men in “need of psychiatric help for speaking the truth.”

Nhan Lam’s parents fled Vietnam before he was born, surviving navigational errors and being robbed by pirates six times. When they made safe shore, they were sponsored by a Lutheran church in the U.S., and his family arrived in Buffalo in 1979 where his educated father worked part-time as a janitor. Even though his family was very poor at first, they eventually prospered through hard work.

Nhan Lam became an aerospace engineer and reached his American Dream through untiring effort and entrepreneurship. He now runs several real estate companies. He admits being a liberal in his teens but later becoming a conservative once reality hit him. He never forgot the lessons about Vietnam from his father. “Never settle with being good, when your potential is to be great. Never settle for another’s opinion, when you have the ability to think for yourself.”

One hundred million victims of communism, including my Dad, disagreed with the Communist Party Marxist ideology and protested the confiscation of their homes, land, guns, personal possessions, and the loss of their God-given freedom. They bitterly complained about the lack of food, heat, water, proper medical care, medications, and a decent treatment as human beings.

Will young Americans today who are turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to reality eventually repeat the fate of millions who fell for the “pie in the sky” promise of communist utopia?


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Verona, the Marmorina

Verona city gates
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
We continued our drive through Veneto and reached the romantic town of Verona. We had spent a lot of time in Verona years ago, and we got to know Palazzo Carli well and the train station, a leisurely walk away. We were revisiting an old friend that we held so dear in our hearts.
We found an underground parking by the Arena and walked downtown, wondering if we would ever find our way back to the car. The grey sky was ominous, the rain had stopped, but it was cold and damp even with a long sleeve shirt and a cashmere poncho. I took many pictures but everything looked forlorn.

The Arena appeared the same, white and partially weathered limestone against shades of dark grey and liquid wetness. We had lunch under heat lamps at Emilia’s across the Arena overlooking the cobbled stone plaza and the tiny park with the fountain in the middle. Cold as it was, too few tourists were interested in having their pictures taken with Italians clad in leather sandals and red gladiatorial costumes. It was still fun to people-watch even though the tourists were scarce and the locals were going about their daily lives.

Arena in Verona on a sunnier day
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
Traffic was heavy as usual, pedestrians were ping pong balls, but nothing compared to northern Virginia’s bumper to bumper clusters for miles. I would describe Italian city traffic as follow unspoken rules and organized chaos. If all else fails, there are animated inimitable gestures and verbal clues which can be used abundantly and with abandon.

Verona Roman Gavi Arch
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
Roman chariot tracks in the road
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
When we finished our lunch, we walked along Via Mazzini to Piazza Erbe, past Juliet’s alleged house, and found the Erbolario where I used to purchase a wonderful hand cream made with olive oil. I bought a couple to take home in my already bulging suitcase.

Piazza Bra  Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Piazza delle Erbe
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Piazza delle Erbe fountain
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Emilia's in Piazza Bra
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Of all the Italian cities I have fallen in love with along the way, Verona has a special place in my heart, a romantic place where Roman and modern history intertwine. From the cobblestoned piazza where the Arena presides like the perfect jewel of the crown, the best preserved Roman amphitheater, to the majestic medieval cathedrals and palaces, our walks took us to the most fascinating sights.

Entrance to Piazza Bra from the main road
Photo: Ileana Johnson
Piazza Bra is home to Arena di Verona. The magnificent Arena was turned into a lavish outdoor summer opera venue that can seat 22,000 people. The very same architectural wonder that had witnessed gruesome gladiatorial fights between freed men and beasts, men and enslaved men, its sand soaked from the blood of thousands, is now a center of music and art.

I remember one summer when we bought tickets to watch and hear Aida, the multi-million dollar performance that overwhelmed our senses with costumes, spectacular stage sets, fabulous operatic voices, and drama. We felt like the poor Romans of long time ago who were given tokens to enter the Arena, except that we paid 300 euros a piece for our tickets.

Verona's typical street
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
We were not dressed like the elegant Italians in long opera gowns, dripping with glittering diamonds, and sipping champagne, while seated in the best floor seats covered in red velvet. We wore blue jeans and rain jackets as the meteorological report predicted rain. Sure enough, in the middle of the first act came a heavy downpour. Everything got wet and it took a long time to dry the stage again after the rain had stopped. Aida lasted from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m. It was a memorable event and performance.

The original amphitheater, the third largest in Italy, was built of pink and white limestone during the first century A.D. and could seat 30,000 Romans. In 1117 an earthquake destroyed the outer ring.

I could hear in the echo of the vast inner corridors the ancient spectators’ screams of life and death, a gory form of crass entertainment, pane et circenses, bread and circuses, to keep the ordinary Romans lulled into a false sense of wellbeing.

Thousands of animals were killed each year in the Roman Empire to satisfy the lust for ghastly entertainment of the ancients. There were 93 Roman holidays dedicated to gladiatorial games during the reign of Claudius (41-54 A.D.). They grew to 175 days by the fourth century A.D. The Roman citizens, who were employed, worked short days in order to attend the games. Slaves were generally expected to do most of the work in the empire. The Romans demanded bloody entertainment as often as possible and considered it a right.

Whale bone to the side of Piazza delle Erbe
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
At the end of the narrow and boutique-adorned Via Mazzini, Piazza delle Erbe (plaza of herbs) opens unexpectedly on the left. To the right of via Mazzini, a very short walk takes the visitor to no. 19 Via Cappello, the alleged house of Juliet of the famous Capulets with its marble balcony restored by Antonio Avena in 1933.

Apparently in 1303, during the reign of Bartolomeo I della Scala, the ruling families were engaging in such infighting that the star-struck lovers, Romeo and Juliet, children of the Ghibellines and the Guelphs, paid the ultimate price for their forbidden love.

Reconstructed medieval bridge in Verona
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007

Juliet's alleged balcony in Verona Photo: Ileana Johnson
Shakespeare immortalized them as the children of the Montagues and Capulets. I have serious doubts that the house is actually Juliet’s and the theatrical balcony is the famous balcony, but it makes for an interesting tourist attraction for lovers from around the world who scribble their names and short messages onto the stone walls. A bronze statue of Juliet is touched by visitors for good luck, her shiny breast beaconing more to take photographs. The house was purchased by City Hall in 1905 at the insistence of wealthy Parisians who wanted to save it from complete decay and destruction.

Inter-family violence called for more revenge, murder, arson, and bloody vendettas. Even Dante recounted some of the feuds in his poems. Peace was restored in 1320 when the Montagues (Ghibellines) were exiled to Udine by Cangrande della Scala.

The heart of the city is Piazza delle Erbe, the life blood of Verona Romana where the Forum once stood. The Forum was the political, economic, legal, and religious life of the Romans. It was here that the ancient stock exchange stood. Palazzi, towers, houses, porticos, and a dangling whale bone from an arch encircle the 140 m long Piazza delle Erbe.

Castelvecchio inner walls
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The tumultuous relationship between the Jewish community and the Venetian Republic is expressed in the only surviving houses from the former Jewish ghetto (borghetto, loghetto, meaning suburb). They surround Piazza delle Erbe.

The Venetian Republic allowed Jews to settle in Verona in the 1500s in the San Tomio district if they paid a tax. Driven out in 978 for religious persecution, the Jews were invited back in 1408 and allowed to engage in pawn broking. Expelled again in 1499, they were not allowed to return until twenty years later when Venice was in financial trouble and in need of money. Sadly, most of the ghetto houses were demolished at the beginning of the 1900s, including the synagogue.

Surviving Jewish houses in Piazza delle Erbe
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
German Jews were the only pawn brokers allowed to lend money to Christians at 10 percent interest. Anybody else who tried to engage in lending was harshly punished and excommunicated. There were boxes all over the city which encouraged citizen to snitch on non-Jews who engaged in money lending. Some of the boxes survive today.

The pawn brokers (Monte di Pieta) were highly regulated by 25 administrators, a lucrative position because brokers and regulators would know all the dirty secrets and financial problems of the wealthy and the noble in Verona.

The Gonzaga family of Mantua is said to have deposited large amounts of jewelry with the Monte di Pieta. When a fire broke out in 1630 and burned many tapestries, period garments, and priceless pieces, the pawn brokers’ influence waned. Currently, Casa di Risparmio (The Savings Bank) runs the Monte di Pieta.

At the end of the Piazza delle Erbe, there is a typical Italian Ristorante that showcases a well-stocked wine cellar. But is it not just a wine cellar. Because I speak Italian, the owner proudly took us on a special tour of the basement. Part of the floor was made of heavy glass under which Roman ruins, pieces of columns, and partial mosaics were clearly visible.

Porta Borsari, built on the original Roman street level, was called Porta Iovis because of its proximity to the temple of Jupiter, and renamed Borsari, in honor of those who in medieval times taxed goods passing through. The top level had a watch tower. Below the frieze, I could still read the Latin name, Colonia Augusta Nova Galliena, designating Verona in 265 B.C. a defense portal for Rome.

River Adige with snow-capped mountains in the distance
Photo: Ileana Johnson
The river Adige flooded Verona many times. Markers on many old building bear witness to various flood heights. Mile stone markers from Roman times were perfectly preserved on a couple of streets. The remains of a Roman theatre built in the first century A.D. still adorn the bank of the river Adige. On the opposite bank, huge pavers were clearly marked by the deep ruts made by the passage of Roman chariots. Large portions of the Roman walls that protected Verona Romana are still standing.

Ponte Pietra (the Stone Bridge) is the oldest, most austere bridge built across the river Adige in 89 B.C. when Verona was a Roman colony. The five-arch bridge, resembling a Roman aqueduct, was destroyed by serious floods, destroyed three times, repaired, and finally demolished by retreating Germans in 1945. It was restored in 1957 with many original stones salvaged from the river, in the same ancient architectural style.

Roman mile marker in Verona
Photo: Ileana Johnson
Another famous Roman landmark is the Gavi Arch built in the center of Postumia Way in the first century A.D. by the architect Lucio Vitruvio Cerdone, an apprentice to the famous Vitruvius. This magnificent arch, demolished for military reasons in 1805, was rebuilt next to Castelvecchio in 1932, stone by stone, in painstaking detail, following the original positioning from Via Cavour.

Vitruvius, the author of De Architetura (known today as The Ten Books of Architecture), a famous treatise dedicated to Emperor Augustus, defined his Vitruvian Man, the human body as the greatest work of art, later drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in a circle and a square, the “fundamental geometric patterns of the cosmic order.”

San Zeno in his resting place
Photo: Ileana Johnson
The mysticism I sought and found in the many Romanesque churches and cathedrals was best described in San Zeno’s Basilica, an Italian Romanesque edifice built on an earlier church from 372 A.D. and containing Verona’s oldest bells, dating back to 1149. 

The only painting known to depict the crucified Christ horizontally
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
The famous Triptych (1457) of Mantegna stands behind the high altar. The lower part of the painting, the predella, was taken by Napoleon and never returned to Italy. The predella, composed of three pieces as well, depicted Jesus praying in the garden, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. The Crucifixion is now in the Louvre and the other two are in the Museum of Tours. Paolino Caliari painted reproductions to replace the stolen predella.

San Zeno crypt, the casket is lit in the background
Photo: Ileana Johnson
San Zeno exterior with photo bomb by hubby
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
San Zeno church, interior courtyard
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
The lugubrious crypt (dating from the 10th century) of the Basilica di San Zeno contains the body of St. Zeno in a glass and silver sarcophagus, his face covered by a silver mask. I had seen similar preservations of Popes in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome - those faces were covered by silver, gold, or wax masks. The legend says that the body of St. Zeno rested in the adjacent cloister’s St. Benedict chapel before it was transferred to the Basilica in 807 A.D.

The African San Zeno was born in 300 A.D. and ordained Bishop of Verona in 362 A.D. San Zeno was said to have performed many miracles, among them, most prominent was the saving of the Basilica from a serious flood and of the parishioners from eminent drowning by holding the waters of the furious Adige river in a vertical position until the waters quieted and retreated.

Castelvecchio from across the Adige River
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Castelvecchio entrance
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
My husband snapped this photo of me with the bridge in the background
Photo: David Paugh
On the site of a primitive Roman fort, the Castelvecchio fortress was built as a first defense against potential invaders and as a palace for the Cangrande della Scala in 1354-1356. Built almost entirely out of brick, it does contain some Veronese marble, with stones taken, in Italian fashion, from previously dismantled Roman buildings, most notably fifteen Corinthian capitals. The Castelvecchio fortress had easy access to the river Adige and to the Emperor’s help through the 120 meter long Scaligero Bridge built in 1354.

Palazzo Carli
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
Verona, nicknamed “little Rome” and “Marmorina,” (marble producing) a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was ruled by the Scaligeri dynasty from the 13th to the late 14th century. The church of Santa Maria Antica, a short distance from Piazza Dante, houses five of the most unusual Gothic sarcophagi of the Scaligeri family – some of the tombs are placed in the air, some in the street and one attached to the wall of the church (Arche Scaligere). The Scaligeri were successful governors who made Verona a famous city and a thriving trading economy after the 13th century.

Hanging tombs
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Tomb over the entrance
Photo: Ileana Johnson
The top tier tomb
Photo: Ileana Johnson
The oldest tomb dates back to the year 1329. One tomb is located above the side entrance to the church. The others are located to the left side of the façade, encircled by wrought iron fences. A baldachin covers the temple-shaped tomb of Guglielmo di Castelbarco.

No matter how many times I visit Italy, Verona is a magnet that I cannot resist. I feel transported in time and mesmerized by its strong ties to Roman history, and ultimately to my people, the Dacians, who were colonized by Emperor Trajan after two military campaigns (101-102, 105-106 A.D.) The Dacians, led by Decebalus, were a threat to the Roman province of Moesia. The Romans needed Dacia’s rich resources for the survival of the vast Roman Empire. The fierce battles were immortalized on Trajan’s column in the Forum in Rome.

After shopping in Piazza Erbe for t-shirts and a hat for our son Blane, we walked back to the garage. The temperatures had dropped to shivering levels and, before we reached our parked car, it started to rain again. The sun had peeked from the clouds when we were in Piazza Erbe, just long enough to take some livelier photographs.





Sunday, October 2, 2016

Venice, Lido Island, and Padova

Fondamente Nuove street
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
We lost our way through narrow and dark streets, barely big enough for a tall person to walk through. The streets were old, decayed with time, yet sturdy and lasting. I was worried that someone would decide to throw their bath water out the window into the narrow alleys. It was possible, given the patina and stench we encountered from time to time. Generally, Italians are very clean with their surroundings, fastidiously sweeping the street in front of their homes and shops, but the arrivals from third world countries are not so kind to their environment.

One of the narrow passageways in Venice
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016

We finally reached Rialto and had our slice of pizza at the foot of the bridge while people and boat watching, sitting on the cold steps. Dave bought an oil painting for 20 euros, a good size to pack in the suitcase, the same painting we could have bought further away for 15 euros. The painter said, it will rain tomorrow and he will not get customers at all, as he cannot display his canvasses in the rain. We bought one from him as well.

One of the Venetian churches, Chiesa di San Vidal, was advertising on the door a free lecture by Fausto Bertinotti, pushing the Pope's global warming platform with his encyclical, Laudato Si.

Poster on Church of San Vidal's door
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Shop window
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Narrow walkway to a church
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
My favorite jewelry store in Rialto
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
One of two oil paintings we bought in Venice
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
We went back to my favorite jewel shop and found two pairs of cuff links for Dave. A gorgeous turquoise ring in 18k gold was calling my name. I don’t know why the color of turquoise makes me happy, unlike any other stone, including diamonds. We walked alongside the Grand Canal, watching a portly sea gull come very close to us, begging for food, a German couple eating stuff out of a vending machine, probably traveling on a budget or just plain stingy.

Lido Island and hotel Panorama on the right
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Lido Island on a sunny day
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons
Water lines on buildings in Venice
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Gondolas were floating by; the dusk is a lovely and romantic time to take a ride in the black, seemingly flimsy but very sturdy boats. To my surprise, three Muslim women I saw earlier dining alone on the left bank in an outdoor restaurant we happened to walk by, their colorful burkas were hard to miss, boarded a gondola for a ride. There was no Muslim male in sight to accompany them.

Very narrow canal near Ponte Rialto
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Grand Canal near water bus stop
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The famous Ponte dei Sospiri
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
We took the water bus the long way back to our hotel on Lido Island, a total of 13 stops. It was a marvelous opportunity to see more palazzos on the Grand Canal and take more pictures. We made it by 8 p.m., dropped off the paintings, and headed for the last cozy dinner at Gran Viale. The table for two was outside, but it was covered by plastic, a typical way to keep the cold Mediterranean night winds at bay. My favorite dish was the appetizer comprised of polenta mixed with pureed fish – it was divine, tiny, and expensive, 16 euros.

One last image on the Grand Canal on the way back to Lido
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
We woke up on Lido Island the following morning to the sound of rain drumming on the tiled roof and to foggy air, just like the street painter had told us. We had our leisurely breakfast in a comfortable but tiny solarium overlooking the lagoon. The Panorama Hotel had its pluses but I still thought it was three stars, pretending to be four. We were too exhausted every night to care about the number of stars as long as the bed was comfortable, with clean and pressed sheets.

Lido Island of Venice is a 7-mile long sandbar which is home to 20,000 residents. It is where the Venice Film Festival takes place every September in the northern part of the island.  There is a public airport, Venezia Lido, on the north east end of the island that brings in wealthy foreigners who own small planes that can land on the 1,000 mile grass runaway.

There are three settlements: the Lido in the north where the film festival takes place and the Venice Casino and the Grand Hotel Excelsior are located; the center part called Malamocco is where the Doge of Venice used to have a home; the southern end is called Alberoni and has a golf course. Rich people must have their golf no matter where they are. Buses run alongside the island on Main Street.

On the Adriatic side of Lido there are sandy beaches belonging to various hotels and they are private. There are large public beaches too on the northern and the southern ends of the island. The famous Excelsior and the Des Bains hotels are located here. Thomas Mann’s classic novel, Death in Venice, took place here. The water is clean save for the occasional jelly fish that disturb the swimmers. The water is still pretty cold in April-May.

The clock tower from the lagoon
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
But the heart of the island is Gran Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta, a wide street 700 m long that runs from the lagoon and vaporetto stop on one side across to the sea on the other. There are many hotels, small shops, a modern grocery store, the first I have seen in Venice, and touristy restaurants that also cater to locals in a much more caring and special way as I observed on many occasions.

We packed our suitcases again and lined up the car at 11 a.m. for our 11:40 ferry ride back to terra firma. The ferry pass for the car was 21 euros but our passes were still valid until 8:30 p.m. The ferry ride was quite different from four nights ago. I took some spectacular photos of San Marco square, the Campanile, the Bridge of Sighs, and other Venetian landmarks.

We saw Lido Island and our Panorama hotel one last time before we crossed the bridge to the main highway heading west. It made leaving Venice a lot easier as the lagoon was encased into a foggy mist and it was cold and damp.

Last view of the Port of Venice
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Dave drove west in the pouring rain for 49 km. We took the exit to Padova after we stopped at an Autogrill to refuel. Padova was, in many ways, a decision we quickly regretted. The city appeared very much industrial and modern, peppered with several old churches, villas, and the oldest square in Italy.

Almost too dark for photos in the rainy Venice
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
A young motorcyclist who drove fast like a maniac wiped out in the driving rain, his motorcycle skidded sideways and he laid it down scraping the ground in a sickening metal screech. He was unhurt, thank God. We decided right away that we did not want to stay very long in Padova. Our decision was confirmed by the extended wait at a rail road crossing where three freight trains were struggling to chug along.

Padova’s most important claim to fame is the University of Padova, founded in 1222, where Galileo Galilei was a lecturer. The dense arcaded streets opening into “piazze” and the bridges crossing various branches of the river Bacchiglione made the city picturesque in sunny weather, but it is hard to appreciate beauty in driving rain. Bacchiglione River used to circle the ancient walls like a moat.

The Euganaean hills in the south west were praised by poets like Lucan, Martial, Petrarch, and Shelley. Even Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is set in Padova.

Historians date the founding of the city by the Trojan prince Antenor around 1183 B.C. Padovani believe that their city is the oldest in northern Italy.  In 1274 bones were found in a large excavated ancient sarcophagus and officials declared them to be the bones of Antenor. The scholar Lovato dei Lovati wrote:

“This sepulcher excavated from marble contains the body of the noble Antenor who left his country, guided the Eneti and Trojans, banished the Euganeans and founded Padua.”

More recent tests reveal the date of the tomb to be 4th-3rd centuries B.C. Other archeological finds confirm the date of the town’s founding to be 11th-10th centuries B.C.

Saint Prosdocimus, the first Bishop of the city, introduced Christianity to Padova and to the region of Veneto. His deacon, Daniel, a Jewish convert, was another patron saint of the city.

Padova has been ruled by the Venetian Republic, by Austrians, and finally by Italians. During WWI Padova was central command for the Italian army and the king and the commander in chief lived here for the duration of the war.

During WWII, Padova was bombed repeatedly by Allied planes. The worst hits were the railway station and the Church of the Eremitani that was decorated with priceless frescoes by Andrea Mantegna. The destruction of this church is considered to be “Italy’s biggest wartime cultural loss.”

There is a Commonwealth War Cemetery in the western part of the city that commemorates the sacrifice of the troops. Since its liberation on April 28, 1945 by the British Eighth Army, Padova grew and became a successful part of one of the richest regions of modern Italy, Veneto.

There are more than twelve churches, dating from 10th-16th centuries, and seven villas of renown in Padova. The Scrovegni Chapel is the most interesting, with frescoes completed in 1305 by Giotto, frescoes detailing the life of the Virgin Mary and commissioned by a banker, Enrico degli Scrovegni. It stands on a former Roman arena, hence its nickname, “Arena Chapel.” Entering the sanctuary means spending 15 minutes in an air lock in order to control climate inside the church and preserve the frescoes.

Basilica di Sant’Antonio da Padova contains the bones of the saint in a chapel carved in marble by many sculptors and architects, including Sansovino. There is a Donatello equestrian statue of the Venetian general Gattamelata in front of the basilica.

Prato della Valle
Photo: Wikipedia Commons
The most famous landmark of Padova is Prato della Valle, an elliptical piazza of 90,000 square meters with a center garden surrounded by 78 statues of famous citizens of Padova.

The Abbey of Santa Giustina houses the tombs of many saints, Justine, Prosdocimus, Maximus, Urius, Felicita, Julianus, and relics of the Apostle St. Matthias and the Evangelist St. Luke.

Café Pedrocchi
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons
The city’s downtown is encircled by 7-mile long city walls built in the 16th century. What is left are the ruins and two gates. Coffee lovers can indulge their tastes in Café Pedrocchi, built in 1831, and still fashionable today with a flare from faraway lands.

French novelist Stendhal and Lord Byron were some of the more famous patrons of this coffee shop located near the University, town hall, markets, and the post office.

In the heavy rain, we set out to drive to Verona, our beloved city where Dave and I spent a lot of time years ago.