Sunday, June 26, 2016

Liguria, Rapallo, and Portofino Bay

Rapallo Castle Wikipedia photo
I was not too terribly sad to leave Turin after a good breakfast in the artsy Holiday Inn restaurant. I was excited to begin our journey to Portofino Bay, Liguria. I was not prepared for the ride, entering and emerging briefly out of endless tunnels which I failed to count accurately.

The narrow strip of land called Liguria is bordered by the sea, the Alps, and the Apennine mountains. It is home to one national reserve, six large parks, two smaller parks, and three nature reserves.  It is comprised of 65 percent mountains and 35 percent hills, extending to the highest summit of 2,201 m called Monte Saccarello.

There are very small beaches but no deep bays and natural harbors except for Genoa. The water plunges deeply along the 350-km coastline. The hills and the sea provide a mild climate with abundant rainfall.

What fascinated me was the fact that Neanderthals lived in the area and were discovered in Loano. Evidence of Cro Magnon habitation was found in the grotto of Balzi Rossi. My husband joked that he felt right at home surrounded by the land of his ancestors, the Neanderthals.

Ancient Ligurians once occupied larger territories as evidenced in the Greek colony of Massalia, the modern day Marseille. During Augustus’ reign, Liguria was a region of Italy (Regio IX Liguria). The Roman ruins of Albenga, Ventimiglia, and Luni prove that Roman roads such as Aurelia and Julia Augusta helped Liguria develop towns on the coast.

Boticelli's The Birth of Venus Wikipedia photo
One Ligurian, Simonetta Vespucci, is said to have been the beautiful model for Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus, a masterpiece located in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Ships from Genoa ferried for hire knights and troops to the Middle East during the first crusade against the invading Muslims. One of the most famous citizens of Genoa is Christopher Columbus, who, on his quest to reach the East Indies for spice trade, managed to sail west and landed in 1492 in the Bahamas archipelago.

The ride from Piedmont to Liguria was one of the most interesting I’ve experienced and not for the faint of heart. From the Piedmont line into the state of Liguria, we passed through one tunnel after another, the shortest one, 150 meters long, to the longest, over two miles. I stopped counting them at thirty; there were way too many and my husband was driving fast. I was distracted by the gorgeous landscapes that emerged in-between the tunnels.
Some of the tunnels in Genoa were simply steel and plastic over sloped terrain; I could not understand their function; perhaps it prevented small rock slides onto the road. The rest were actually carved into the mountain.  One tunnel would end and, for fifty feet or more, light would blind us momentarily with a brief sight of metallic green olive groves, dizzying drops to the azure sea, and then another tunnel would start. Before these tunnels were carved, we wondered how people traveled across this treacherous and seemingly inaccessible terrain to the Italian Riviera which hugs the Ligurian Sea.
Eventually Rapallo, our destination for the day, came into view. Its first settlement dates back to 8th century B.C. The streets were so narrow in some places, it was almost claustrophobic because the buildings seemed disproportionately tall when compared to the narrow streets and sidewalks. Yet there was enough room to drive small cars and to even park or conduct business.

Cinque Terre, Liguria
Wikipedia photo
Many beautiful villas are built in the hills behind the city, offering them protection from the strong northern winds. The town itself has only a 10 ft. elevation from the sea.

As we made our way up the hill on the winding road, we reached our destination, the five-star Excelsior Palace Hotel, one of the top fifty best hotels in the world, perched on the hill overlooking both Portofino Bay and Rapallo Bay.

We settled in after the porter brought our luggage up to the room. The balcony opened to a spectacular view of the Portofino Bay, the infinity pools, the gym, the large indoor pool, and the lower gardens. The hotel stretched over four levels down the mountain through mysterious passageways, gardens, walkways, and stairways with beautiful potted plants and shrubs. Ornate turn of the century antique furniture in brocaded yellows, burgundy, and blue, and a large museum-quality collection of paintings were inviting and comfortable. Marbled floors and amenities that anybody can possibly want, completed the dreamy atmosphere. Dating back to 1901, the hotel hosted many famous people.

Domingo Ghirardelli, founder of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, was born in Rapallo in 1817 and died there during a visit in 1894. Ezra Pound, the famous poet, lived in Rapallo between 1924 and 1945 and wrote most of his Cantos there. Max Beerbohm, famous essayist and caricaturist, lived in Rapallo from 1910 until his death in 1956. Friedrich Nietzsche is said to have created the mental idea of Thus Spoke Zarathustra while walking on two roads surrounding Rapallo. Rapallo was even the setting of a crime novel, Elmore Leonard’s Pronto.

I could feel with intensity how the mild climate and the beautiful vistas were conducive to creative writing, painting, and music.

The luxurious vegetation and majestic palm trees shaded the spiral driveway and the stairs leading down the mountain to the Rapallo Marina, the beach, the castle ruins, and the boulevard facing the sea. Splendid yachts were docked in the Bay of Rapallo. Every morning charter boats took tourists on a day-tour of Cinque Terre.

House in Rapallo Photo: Ileana 2016
The bright sun warmed the pink, the white, and the ochre-painted villas, architectural jewels that only an artist with an eye for flair and beauty could create, the lush-green vegetation, and the white marble statues. It was a symphony of color unmatched by the previous slate grey and dark burgundy of castles and churches in areas where fog and rain dominated. We explored the beautiful surroundings and the breathtaking vistas.

We walked to the port down the rocky stairwell and to the Centro of Rapallo instead of taking the car down the winding road and to a possible parking headache. Locals were busy docking boats and yachts. A few girls were sunning themselves on the yellow sand and uncomfortable-looking rocky beach by the old Castello. Parallel to the sea promenade, a few streets behind the Castello was the train station dating back to 1868 and the pedestrian area downtown, with narrow streets reminiscent of Venice. All the gelaterias and pizzerias were clustered in the front of the Bay of Rapallo by the boulevard al Mare. Nettuno Ristorante offered us delicious pizza and pasta with a view.

To counter frequent pirate attacks, the Castello sul Mare (Castle-on-the-Sea) was built in 1551. It contains a small chapel built in 1688 and dedicated to St. Cajetan, a priest and religious reformer born in Vicenza, Italy.

Another famous castle, Castello di Punta Pagana, the seat of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, was completed in 1631. The order of Malta, established in 1099, has 13,500 Knights, Dames, and auxiliary members, and employs doctors, nurses, and paramedics in 120 countries, providing medical care to lepers, natural disaster victims, children, homeless, handicapped, refugees, elders, and terminally ill.

Basilica of Saints Gervasius and Protasius, which was consecrated in 1118 and restored in the 17th century, had a leaning bell tower. We prayed and lit a few candles there in memory of my father, who died several months after the communists beat him severely.

Other historical points of interest included the Tower of the Fieschi, Torre Civica (1473), and Porta delle Saline, the remaining gate from the Roman fortification walls.

We slept like babies in the luxurious bed, with the balcony door open, the sound of the crashing waves and the occasional sea gull lulling us to sleep.

The hills of Rapallo Photo: Ileana 2016
After a wonderful breakfast fit for a king, we descended the steep hills, via cobbled roads with hairpin turns and stairs cut into the rock, to the port and to downtown. I was on a quest to take more pictures for my book and to visit more churches. We stopped at Porto Napoleone, a tiny costume jewelry shop with beautiful designs created locally. My 20 year-old earrings had broken that morning (how convenient, said my husband) and I had to replace them for the duration of the trip. The proprietor, Gabriella, was happy to see us, she liked talking to me in Italian and, we were, for the time being, the only American tourists in the tiny city of 30,700.

Shopping in Rapallo
After returning to the hotel, we mapped our next two stops in Pisa and Florence. My husband attempted to purchase tickets for the Leaning Tower of Pisa on line. Like everything else in Italy, technology works intermittently and people take long hours for lunch. Everything takes time to happen unless they are extracting money from credit cards – that happens with the speed of lightning. Italians give a new meaning to the phrase, “Hurry slowly.” But then everything they do create, lasts a long time, and it is always a work of art.

A luxurious spa massage later and a dip in three different pools made the 82 degrees F water feel divine. The infinity pool was 9 ft. deep around the edges, with a spectacular view of the Bay of Portofino. Supper was at Vesuvio, by far the best meal we’ve had in Italy on this trip. The lights were enchanting, casting sparkles on the dark water.

We climbed back to the hotel, careful to avoid the fast driving Italians who could appear out of nowhere. The many lounge areas in the hotel welcomed us back with comfortable chairs and couches; the antique furnishings were bathed in a glowing light, and the music was soothing. We sat on the balcony listening to the sounds of the bay and watching the lights on the few yachts anchored far out in the bay.

We were falling asleep in the comfortable balcony lounge chairs, no mosquitoes to worry about. The full moon cast a white glow on all surroundings.





Thursday, June 23, 2016

Dr. BobbyThompson, Mentor and Teacher of Teachers

Today I remember with fondness my friend, mentor, and professor, Dr. Bobby Thompson. Although I have a very poor opinion in general of the College of Education, Dr. Thompson was a rare individual who really cared about his students and mentored them in research and teaching, offering gentle suggestions and criticism. He is the reason why I became a teacher. He helped with my dissertation research at a time when floppy disks were just appearing and I had to actually go to the library to do searches for $25 a pop and, many times, I would find very little supporting literature but I would come home with boxes of punched cards that contained so very little information yet occupied so much space. A few times I spilled boxes on the sidewalk, having to go back to redo the whole process as it was impossible to put all the cards back in the proper order. 

At the time, when I first started school in the U.S., I was guilty of being just poor enough not to qualify for a Pell grant. Dr. Thompson sponsored, out of his own pocket, the tuition for my first courses. When I had a child and my mom as dependents, I was finally poor enough to receive a Pell grant. Apparently, making a minimum wage of $3.10 was not poor enough. 

I have repaid Dr. Thompson's kindness many times over through the years, mentoring and helping other people pro bono. He would not have accepted any money back, he often sponsored promising teachers. I did not find out until years later, when he passed away, that his generosity paid for my first semester of school. I always wondered who paid my fee. I received a notice in the mail that my tuition was paid in full that semester.

He was kind even when my toddler overfed his fish at the office and the tank became a large mass of goo, killing all his beautiful fish. He cleaned the tank, restocked it and taught my daughter with patience how much food fish actually need and how important oxygen was for their survival.

He and his wife Rebecca babysat my small daughter so I can attend a class or a conference that made me a better student and future teacher. I even cried on their shoulders when things got rough.

There are fewer and fewer professors like Dr. Thompson and they are certainly not found in the vaunted corridors of academia or the College of Education.

May his memory be eternal! His ideas and teachings live through me and hundreds of other teachers who were lucky enough to have met him in college.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Teaching is an Art, Teachers Are Not Made

“To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.”                   – Friedrich Hayek, The Pretence of Knowledge

The week of June 11, 2016 issue of The Economist published a one page editorial on “How to make a good teacher.” It makes a very weak case that teachers can be trained. There is obviously no stated government mold for such a teacher. There is teacher licensing set by the Department of Education which requires teachers to be graduates of the College of Education and mandates that teaching methodology courses and student teaching are part of the College of Education curriculum for future teachers.

Unfortunately, the requirements for subject matter study are very weak and, generally, because teacher pay is low compared to the private sector, the College of Education tends to accept the weaker students who have a hard time passing core requirements classes such as mathematics and science.

Here is why teachers cannot be trained. Good teachers are born, not made. You cannot use a cookie cutter and presto, you have good teachers. What you do get are drones following a set curriculum such as the collectivist Common Core from which they cannot diverge.

You can learn to emulate a famous and successful teacher, but you cannot copy their temperament, disposition, knowledge, rich vocabulary, linguistic articulation, voice, unique delivery, creativity, talent, and love of what they do.

Teaching is an art. You cannot teach art. You are either talented or you are not. Secondly, in order to teach, you must have a strong knowledge of your subject matter. Thirdly, you must like children and love what you do for less remuneration.

You must be patient and able to handle criticism from administrators with an agenda who think they are the solution to everybody’s problem; you must be able to handle criticism from lazy students who complain in order to excuse their lack of effort; you must smile upon hearing criticism from parents who expect teachers to become de facto parents, in absentia parents, and do not care if Johnny learns; they want Johnny to have straight As, a diploma, and many awards he didn’t deserve or has not earned; and you must overlook criticism from the general public who sees the teaching profession not worthy of respect and as a walk in the park. How could you not handle the darling brats guilty parents raise in the 21st century? Last but not least, teaching involves mandated standardized tests that do nothing to reflect what a student has actually learned or knows. Standardized tests just regurgitate memorized facts and dates that are soon forgotten.

Mass government education is just mass indoctrination into a program mandated by the federal government across all fifty states. More recently that was called Common Core, an attempt to raise busy little technical support workers who believe in global warming, communism, and worship Islam, not Christianity.

Government has dumbed down education through the Educational Leadership and Teacher Education curriculum in order to socially promote every student as painlessly as possible through twelfth grade and possibly through a worthless but expensive social studies education.

Insane school discipline procedures or lack thereof for children coming from broken homes, irresponsible parents who don’t read to their children, don’t care if they do their homework or study, dealing with less than mediocre teachers who cannot get employment elsewhere but cannot be easily fired, dealing with teachers who don’t try to teach well because the pay is low, neglected children in households where both parents work and have no time to devote to being involved in their children’s education, high income households who can afford and often do hire nannies and delegate parenting to them, are some of the problems.

Then there is the problem of inveterate socialist teachers who continue the tradition by indoctrinating their own students. It becomes easier as most teaching materials are written and published by die-hard progressives with an agenda to sell books and propagandize as many generations of students into their Marxist philosophical beliefs, turning students against their parents, against Christianity, against their own country, against patriotism, and shaping them into atheistic anti-Americans who are taught revisionist history using Howard Zinn’s progressive interpretation of American history, rewriting historical facts.

Teachers control students’ minds on the average of 6 hours per day. Some students go home to dysfunctional, broken homes, to parents who are unengaged, have their own issues to deal with, and who may or may not care about their children’s education or education in general. No schooling in world and no teacher training can fix that.

More money, computers, books, supplies, will ever improve a child’s education until their parents are involved in their child’s education, and until they stress to their progeny how important, useful, and fun learning for a lifetime can be.

No “eco-pedagogy” or “conscientization” or whatever the newest educational fads the progressive indoctrinators have adopted will actually help students learn. They are just means of brainwashing children into the Gaia environmental movement which promotes non-existent global warming in order to redistribute the middle class wealth around the world in the “social justice” vision of progressivism.

Some poor countries teach children in a dirt hut with no technology, just a blackboard and chalk, relying on an old encyclopedia and a good math book.  No brainwashing, just common sense, and correct history, and their students are exceptional. Many poor schools don’t have laboratories yet students outperform western students in both science and math, even though they don’t have calculators. And the school day is four hours.

Finland successfully tried the no-technology-allowed in the classroom approach as well while the U.S. is now relying heavily on technology. The more technology we develop and provide to students, the less and less they actually know.

No matter how well trained a teacher may be, a child coming from a broken home with drugs, alcohol, and other issues, has a severely affected ability to learn. It helps when teacher to student ratio is manageable. Class size is important in interacting with each and every student as often as possible. Students will share their problems if the teachers really care and take time to listen.

Many schools are run by administrators and superintendents who are marginal or poor administrators, pathetic leaders who lack the skills, philosophy, and temperament to develop a strong learning atmosphere in their schools.

Selection committees who are tasked with hiring principals and superintendents do not have the necessary knowledge to select the proper school leaders or are hampered by their own political correctness, misconceived ideas, and socialist agendas.

Often exceptional teachers get in trouble with dictatorial administrators who impose their curricular ideas that may or may not work in a specific classroom or a specific group of students. Such excellent teachers are sometimes at odds with their lazier and non-creative colleagues who are licensed and unionized, secure in their jobs, but expend the minimum effort necessary to keep their jobs; they cover their walls with “I love myself plaques” given to them by peers at conferences sponsored by various teacher associations.

Thomas Sowell, exceptional teacher and economist, said, “The great promise of socialism is something for nothing. It is one of the signs of today's dumbed-down education that so many college students seem to think that the cost of their education should -- and will -- be paid by raising taxes on ‘the rich.’"
Apparently, the ‘rich’ have rigged the system so much that nobody can succeed, they were told. But the rich create jobs and lose money and wealth every day. If they have rigged the system and continue to do so, they sure did a lousy job of rigging it.

“None of this is rocket science. But you do have to stop and think -- and that is what too many of our schools and colleges are failing to teach their students to do.”





Sunday, June 19, 2016

Next Stop, Turin

We left Milan, the capital of Lombardy, one of the richest areas in Italy and in Europe, quite excited to reach our next destination. One sixth of Italy’s population calls Lombardy home where 10 million people produce one fifth of Italy’s GDP. We were headed west to Turin, the capital of Piedmont. On this beautiful sunny day, during the three-hour drive on the autostrada, we passed by snow-capped mountains in the distance and luscious green vineyards reaching almost to the road.  Dave flew on the Autostrada in excess of 100 mph, testing his fun BMW rental. We stopped for pictures at the foot of the snow-capped Alps by a fenceless vineyard.

Italians do not build fences to surround their larger agricultural fields. olive orchards, and vineyards but they love tall fences to shelter their country homes and heavy gates with passo carrabile signs and outside speakerphones to protect their apartments and condos in the city. It is always a good idea to look before you walk on any sidewalk as cars are likely to dash out of these inner courtyards when a gate could open electronically at any moment.  Italians know two speeds, fast and faster, pedestrians are expendable. I learned this the hard way in Milan, on our last evening there. A Mac truck decided to turn using our sidewalk since roads are narrower in the city. The driver did not see me nor did I see him, but my eagle-eyed, ever-vigilant husband saw his intentions and shoved me out of the way, into the street.

Furry inhabitants of an old castle
Photo: Ileana 2016
We drove straight to our three-star hotel we had booked on the outskirts of Turin. We were shocked to find a fleabag multi-storied hotel with beds as hard as the rock of Gibraltar and legs of iron. I could smell the mice and the cockroaches. We lost our prepaid $176 and drove to another hotel, a four-star one. When we asked to see the room, we were shocked at the dirty grey walls and stained elevators, but the worst was the bed, a cross between a battle field cot and a summer camp bed. We could not exit fast enough.  The proprietor followed us outside and we thanked him but no, we have back problems, ciao.

The third try should have been a charm but the GPS led us to a village outside of Turin, to the parking lot of a liquor store. I asked the owner if there was a Blue Hotel nearby and he said, he had lived there his entire life and had never heard of such place. On this disappointing note, we lost our way back to the city by Via Tunisia where a scantily-clad beautiful African woman was seated in a beach chair literally at the crossroads in the middle of a grass field, waiting for customers. Further down this road, for about a mile, three gypsy shanty towns were hidden in the woods below.

Once in Turin, we decided to stop at the first American hotel chain we could find; it turned out to be an elegant Holiday Inn for 169 euros per night. It was steep but we wanted a good bed and a large room with a view of the Alps to rest our weary bodies. We got a great bed, a spectacular view, robes, and a roomy bathroom with a large shower and slippers. In the same fashion, instead of shower curtains, we got a moveable glass enclosure straddling the tub that sometimes would leak copiously onto the marble floors.

Superga Hill

Turin, the first capital of the Kingdom of Italy (1861), is located in the shadow of the Alps, on the left bank of the River Po in front of the Susa Valley, and surrounded by the western Alpine arch and the Superga Hill. The Basilica di Superga, a mausoleum perched on the top of the hill, painted yellow and white, built to commemorate the liberation from the French, contains the tombs of more than 50 members of the Savoy family. The cable ride to the top of the hill reveals a large plaque that memorializes the tragic loss of the Grande Torino football team whose plane crashed into the hill in 1949.

Italians are really eco-conscious, much more than Americans are, collecting every last scrap of materials that can be possibly recycled.  Yet their local roads still look grimy no matter how much rain they get. Italians don’t worry much about mowing grass or killing weeds. They grow quite tall on all sides of the road everywhere, including underneath the occasional patches where solar panels were installed.

Italian recycling philosophy reminded me of my behavior when I first arrived in the States in the late seventies when, as a teenager, I would want to wash the Styrofoam containers from McDonalds and the plastic utensils. Why waste a perfectly good container and so much plastic?


After we unloaded our luggage, we drove downtown to see the Centro. We learned how to find closer parking places to our intended destination and, whenever possible, free parking. Parco del Valentino by the River Po had an empty spot. We walked down Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and Piazza Castello in our quest to find a pizzeria. Who would have thought that it would be so hard to find pizza in Turin, Italy? But there were few tourists and most places only offered pasta.

Photo: Ileana 2016
Turin is famous for its elegant colonnaded walkways that stretch for miles and for its cinema museum.  This is where the Italian film industry was born, shining as the film production capital of the world for ten years. The symbol of the city is a 550 ft. spire on top of Mole Antonelliana.

The Chapel of the Holy Shroud (Capella della Sacra Sindone), located outside the Turin Cathedral and connected to the Royal Palace of Turin, houses a replica of the Shroud of Turin (Sindone di Torino), the white cloth that ostensibly wrapped the body of Christ. The linen fibers show the image of a crucified man who is believed to be Jesus of Nazareth. To this day, people still wonder if it is real or it’s just a clever forgery, part of a Medieval hoax. The chapel was built at the end of the 17th century (1668-1694) specifically to hold this religious relic.

In a linen shop along Via Roma I bought a bib for my grandson with his name embroidered in Venetian blue, wrapped in a white sack also with his monogram. It was so beautiful, reminiscent of my high school days when we had to sew and embroider pillow cases in order to pass home economics.  I was so excited about my find and so overwhelmed by memories.

Under the elegant green and white colonnaded walkway by via Roma, local women were having a flea market with various hand-made table cloths, wooden boxes, carved alabaster statues, chess boards, handkerchiefs, and other local souvenirs.

Photo: Ileana Johnson Turin Café 2016

We finally found an establishment by the college of San Giuseppe where they were having he famous Italian happy hour appetizer bar with drinks for 10 euros. We were really hungry and we gave up finding pizza anywhere. A miniature Heineken and a Cola Light later, made the bite size delicious appetizers taste even better. We sat outdoors, in the famous colonnaded walkways.  The sour waitress did not spoil our excitement. She was unhappy about having to exchange our large euro denomination but did not take credit cards. The tiny 6 oz. beers and drinks were 5 euros for happy hour. I cannot imagine what they must have cost at other times.

River Po, Turin Photo: Ileana 2016

People-watching is a wonderful pastime for Italians. We were hard-pressed to watch many people in Turin other than the locals because tourism was down significantly and especially American tourism. It was getting dark and we had to contend with a 12-block return to our metered parking which we overstayed for sure. Luckily, the ticket police was even lazier than we were or perhaps they stopped giving tickets after five.

I don’t know why, the entire time we were in Turin, the name of the movie and the car model, Gran Torino, stuck in my head.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Breakfast Fit for a Queen

Having breakfast in a five star Italian hotel was a unique artistic experience – they left nothing to chance. Tables were decorated with crisp embroidered linens, pressed and starched to perfection, with small arrangements of fresh flowers on every table. Artsy clear vases filled with oranges or lemons added a touch of classy color to the marbled floors.   

Breakfast area fit for a queen
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The antique chairs were decorated with cotton brocade, not a wrinkle or stain in sight; the covers were removed after breakfast. The large bay windows overlooked layered terraces with exotic potted plants, orange and lemon trees, lounge chairs with umbrellas, and verdant gardens. Blooming plants and bushes I’ve never seen before were overwhelming my senses.

Lemons Photo: Ileana Johnson
The food was an assortment of breakfast items fit for a queen, artfully displayed by a chef – from yogurt, compote, Italian prunes, peeled fruits, real scrambled eggs, crepes, boiled eggs, panna cotta, chopped vegetables, cereals, rice milk, soy milk, cow’s milk, to an espresso machine that made every type of coffee sophisticated palates might desire; fresh squeezed juices, cheeses, rolls, croissants, and miniature coffee desserts completed the elegant tables. And the hot chocolate was so thick that it looked like molten chocolate lava. I had to add lots of milk to make it more palatable to me. A basket of exotic teas and a silver pitcher filled with hot water invited us to a steaming porcelain cup of tea.

Galleria Photo: Ileana 2016
It was cold outside, in the low fifties, damp and drizzly Milanese weather.  I had a cashmere sweater on layered with a cotton t-shirt but it was not warm enough. It was a good day for museum hopping and window shopping.

I picked a tie in a silk boutique for my hubby.  Another boutique that was moving from the Galleria to another location was offering umbrellas, costume jewelry, richly decorated canes, theater binoculars, ballroom masks, silver and gold pieces with ornate turquoise, and coral beads. Intricate cameos displayed the fine artistry of Sorrento’s shell carvers. I have watched one such carver on a previous trip to Sorrento; he had a deep blister in his palm where he was holding a short stick with the cameo on one end. He was carving it with so much focus that the raw skin in his palm did not seem to matter.

Duomo front door Photo: Ileana
We entered the Duomo because I wanted to pray for my family and to light a candle in memory of my Dad. It was even colder inside; the majestic stained glass windows did nothing to increase the warmth of the cold marble floors and walls. There was a service in progress already and signs of Silenzio were posted here and there. Tourists were still quietly milling about, taking photographs.  This time I couldn’t climb the stairs to the roof to admire the flying buttresses and the gargoyles up close. The spectacular panorama of the city that we saw eight years ago would have to wait on this cold and dreary day.

Getting lost was a daily occurrence in Italy; it was part of the exploratory fun. We never knew what we might find along the way. A little old lady walking in high heels but with a cane, asked us if we needed help. You had to admire the Italian ladies’ fashion sense that could not be compromised even when handicapped. Who wants to wear comfortable shoes when they are so unsightly?  We must have looked utterly lost, chattering in English. I explained to her in Italian that we were looking for the metro station. She smiled and told us with a friendly wink that, on May Day every year, all public transportation stops at 7 p.m.  Of course, tourists like us, even though I speak Italian, did not get the memo that on the International Socialist Labor Day, public transportation will grind to a halt and tourists will be stranded miles away from their suburban hotels where prices are more reasonable.

Milan's largest public park Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
We backtracked through the public park, passing ponds with geese, ducks, turtles, and large fish coming to the edge to be hand-fed. A few local kids were playing soccer in the muddy grass even though a sign said clearly, “Stay off the grass.” Italians are obsessed with their city grass, no humans are allowed to pass through, rest, or play on it.

We finally hailed a spotless cab and, for nine euros, it dropped us off by the Duomo again. We were still far away from our hotel. We decided to eat dinner. For 81 euros we had very bland and non-descript pasta at Savini, a great disappointment.  The only thing I enjoyed was the complimentary grissini (bread sticks) that came with the meal and the bottled mineral water. When it came time for gelato, the gelateria had already closed for the night. The town had rolled the streets up. The metal gate entrances to the metro were locked with heavy chains and it resembled a dungeon.

Milan's Duomo at night Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
While in the Piazza del Duomo, bathed in the copious light illuminating the Milanese cathedral, we joined a huge taxi line of at least 100 people, shivering in the damp evening. A few non-taxi Arab drivers, eager to make a profit, approached several people in line and offered to take us to our hotel for 100 euros, about $120. Such an outrageous fee yet there were takers. A few Japanese tourists climbed into unmarked cars, probably so anxious to get out of the cold that they did not care whether it was safe, reasonably priced, or a good idea. We stood in line behind two girls from Boston who were studying in Nice and had taken a weekend trip to Milan. When our turn came, the taxi fare was only 25 euros, four times less than the scalpers had asked. The crabby taxi driver told us very gruffly to get out of the cab, we were too slow for her; she was in a hurry to go back and pick up more stranded tourists.
Part of the taxi line in Milan
Photo: Ileana 2016


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Is Brexit Good for Britain?

Forum Panel Photo: Ileana 2016
The American Conservative Union (ACU) and its foundation held a panel discussion on the topic of Brexit: The Collapse of the EU and Its Impact on America in the Cannon Caucus Room on June 13, 2016. The panelists were Nile Gardiner, Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation, Steve Hilton, former senior advisor to U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, and KT McFarland, ACU Foundation Senior Fellow.

The British people will vote in a referendum on June 23, 2016 whether the U.K.  will stay in the European Union or exit, hence the abbreviation Brexit. President Obama visited the U.K. to support the “Remain” in the EU movement and attacked the “Leave” campaign.

Nile Gardiner criticized President Obama for his involvement in trying to influence the referendum of another nation. After President Obama’s speech, Gardiner added, the polls increased by 3 to 4 percent in favor of Brexit.

At the center of the debate are U.K.’s economic freedom, economic development, secure borders, massive immigration, and self-determination as a sovereign nation. According to Nile Gardiner, “Britain is no longer a sovereign nation.”

As a pan-European behemoth, EU is not really interested in peace and prosperity for all, even though originally, following the two world wars, that was probably a noble goal. As Paul Watson said “EU is about obliterating nation-states and replacing them with its own Byzantine United States of Europe and seizing raw power.” EU has become a “sprawling empire, it is not a free trade zone.”

How is the European Union an empire and not a free trade zone? The EU has a central bank, a president, one currency, criminal justice system, passport, flag, anthem, all “characteristics of a nation-state, a pan-European nationality, while they are criticizing us [U.K.} for our nationalist views.”

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are paid to inundate the waves with messages that EU must have more control; EU grabs more power and pretends that it did so in response to popular demand even though the voting public was never fully aware of EU’s true intentions. It is a classical modus operandi which has been employed at the state and local levels around the world in order to implement Sustainable Development, the lynchpin of United Nation’s Agenda 21/2030 without any real public input or voting.

“The American people would never accept the loss of self-determination,” added Nile Gardiner. Fearmongering to force the British people to stay in the EU is not working anymore. “The British people are clamoring for their freedom; they are clamoring to decide their own future. … And I hope that the American people will support them,” he concluded.

Responsible for the implementation of all domestic policies under Prime Minister David Cameron, and a personal friend, Steve Hilton found himself on the opposite side of his former boss in regards to Brexit. He fully supports U.K.’s exit from the EU as a way to bolster economic development and increase safety and prosperity for all British citizens. “EU has three presidents, none of whom are elected.”

“EU is seen as a version of NAFTA. It is not NAFTA,” Hilton said. It is a question of domestic policy, he explained. “Much more than half of what the British government was doing on a weekly basis, was implementing the EU’s decisions which we did not vote for and most of which we actually disagreed with. There was nothing we could do about it because we were not in control.” Unelected bureaucrats in Brussels made those decisions for domestic policy, environmental policy, everything is determined this way. Philosophically, he argued, British citizens believe in the freedom from administrative powers that constrain their ability to run their own lives.

When the EU Commission has its own government as well as the legislative body, with no separation of powers, then that is classic definition of tyranny, not democracy. Many believe that the EU Parliament is a “ceremonial position” with no real power.

The NGOs and the MEPs are the real power brokers, representing the powerful elites behind the scenes. It is generally believed that the MEPs earning up to 740% more than the average citizen, free shopping sprees, gasoline, haircuts, 12,000 euros per month staff budget and other perks, buys their allegiance to the EU. “MEPs make laws which they exempt themselves from.”

Every time referendums were held to make decisions that affected certain countries, if the results did not meet the stated goals of the EU, the vote was ignored and they were forced to vote again until they returned with the results the EU desired.

For example, Paul Watson explained, “Denmark, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, and Greece have voted to reject the Maastricht Treaty, the Niece Treaty, the Lisbon Treaty, the EU Constitution, the euro bailout, which was illegal under their own “democratic” laws, the votes were ignored.” As Jean-Claude Juncker, the current President of the European Commission, said, “There can be no democratic choice against the European Treaties.”

The root of the EU problem, KT McFarland said, was failed multiculturalism. The premise of this policy was that no nation wanted to sit in judgment of another nation, they were all equals, and it was perfectly fine to allow ethnic groups to set up enclaves, their countries within a western nation, in which to live off of the generous host welfare system, while making no effort to adapt to the new country or even have any allegiance to it. Countries, where multiculturalism is entrenched, will never be the same. McFarland cites Germany and Sweden as classical examples.

Another serious problem is national security which cannot be guaranteed with open borders. “In terms of security, Europe is committing assisted suicide,” said McFarland.

When EU judges say that “immigrants convicted of violent crimes cannot be deported from the U.K. unless their safety can be guaranteed in their home countries,” they are putting the safety of British citizens at further risk.

Most nations do not have adequate means, militarily or otherwise, to stop the flood of refugees.  Putting up barbed wire to stop the flood is ludicrous. What drives those refugees, McFarland said, is the conflict in the Middle which is not going to stop any time soon. Once negotiations allow five more states to join the EU, including Turkey, Serbia, and Albania, there is a potential of 80 million Turks migrating westward to countries with the most generous welfare systems.

There is already a shortage of housing in the U.K., “ten buyers for every home for sale.” According to Paul Watson, there are stories coming out of Sweden and Germany which describe “the government as making their own citizens homeless in order to accommodate Muslim migrants that have nothing but contempt for our culture, people from a regressive culture and belief system.”

The strain on the economies of those countries that are taking in so many refugees under the multiculturalist policy will be enormous – feeding them, housing them, educating them, and medically treating them. “The most wanted man in the world, whose poster was at every train station, at every bus stop, was hiding in plain sight,” added McFarland.

Economic pressure, culture pressure, and a national security pressure through open borders are issues that British citizens must address on June 23. Additionally, wealth confiscation through U.K.’s 350 million pounds a week sent to EU, money that they cannot control how it is going to be spent, rigid EU regulations that destroy small businesses that cannot comply with, unemployment caused by massive exodus of cheap labor destroy the middle class. As Hilton said, we cannot accept millions of waiters from Eastern Europe, without our own British waiters becoming unemployed.

British fishermen have lost fishing grounds due to EU rules and the fishing industry has been devastated in waters where they’ve been fishing for centuries. “The EU has been paying fishermen to destroy their boats,” said Paul Watson.

Trade should improve once Brexit happens because EU does not allow Britain to negotiate its own trade deals. “EU needs the U.K., “we are their biggest export market.” To say that Britain will have to go to the “back of the queue” is ridiculous and irresponsible, said Nile Gardiner. Switzerland is not in the EU and still trades with them but is flourishing economically precisely because it is not in the EU.

Paul Watson made the best description why Brexit is good for Britain: “A vote to leave is a vote for the people, for small business, for lower taxes, for cheaper household bills, for lower fuel costs, for cheaper food prices, and against the obnoxious elites in Brussels.”

It really is a vote for personal freedom and self-determination.







Sunday, June 12, 2016

Ileana's Fly-by-the-Seat-of-Your-Pants Italian Trip - First Stop, Milan

The preparation for a trip that requires an airplane ride is a mixture of excitement and dread.  The longer the trip is, the more intense the frustration and the more stressful.  It’s not about the fabulous destination that awaits me at the other end or about the reunion with beloved relatives or people I have not seen in a long time, or the discovery of new, beautiful, and exciting places I have never seen before or perhaps enchanted places to be revisited, it is the dread of selecting and compacting days of living into one suitcase. It is freedom to be able to choose enough to suffice for the duration of the trip and, at the same time, a reality check of how much we really need to survive.

What things can I do without and what things are necessities that cannot be ignored or discounted? What do I pick for sixteen days when I am only allowed so much weight, I am taking one suitcase and a carry-on, and only so much can be fit inside? How do I choose? And will I have drugs for any potential minor emergencies that would shorten my distress and misery and prevent a trip to a foreign hospital which, no matter how modern, will fall short of the best hospitals in the U.S.?  Can I trust people who drive and park on sidewalks and consider safe driving rules a mere suggestion? Can I put up with people who balk at making change for a certain banknote or so impatient and “overwhelmed” that they frown when asked more than one question?

Will my legs carry me far and wide before they start failing in searing pain? Will our money and possessions be safe from pickpockets? Will we find suitable hotels? How many times we will get lost even with the GPS, maps, and stopping to ask locals for directions? How soaked by the rain will we be? How many tolls will we have to pay to drive 1,000 miles on the autostrada?

This trip promises to be an extraordinary adventure. We are flying by the seat of our pants, with hotel accommodations for the first three nights, after that, we are on our own. The thought had crossed my mind that we might have to sleep in our rental car except for the nagging fact that we are both tall and not exactly slender; we would have a hard time fitting into a mid-size BMW.

The late afternoon flight from Dulles to Amsterdam was relatively uneventful if you consider that we flew in Sardine Class, at the back of the plane, close to the bathroom. Even though the KLM flight attendants were smiling and accommodating, watching three movies back to back with the knees practically at our chins is not exactly our idea of comfort. And the narrow seats were very uncomfortable for my broad-shouldered hubby.  

Flying has changed so much! From the comfort of the 1980s when the seats were wider, the napkins were linen, the silverware was real, food was delicious, people dressed up to fly, there was no TSA molesting passengers and radiating them for their “own good” after making them wait in endless lines, luggage was not weighed, it did not cost an arm and a leg to buy a larger seat in business class, service was always with a smile, passengers were special people, and not the cattle of today herded into inches of space like shiny sardines, just enough room to keep them from having a cardiac incident or blood clots.

I never understood why we have to eat sauces-drenched cardboard-tasting food twice during the seven-hour flight but then flying does strange things to our brains and taste buds. And we have nothing better to do but eat, sleep, or watch movies.

Amsterdam is one interesting airport to visit, it does a very profitable and brisk business in marijuana-motif pots and other knick-knacks, tulip bulbs, wooden clogs, cheese cutters and knives, huge chunks of chocolate, and enormous chocolate bars, I am not sure what’s inside because I did not purchase one, and other dust-gathering souvenirs that everybody buys to prove that they have passed through. Strangely enough, airports make more money from concessions and souvenirs than they do from flying and airplane landings and parking fees.

I was grateful that my hubby made good on his promise four years ago to take me back to Italy on an itinerary of my own choosing. I was celebrating an anniversary of sorts, my 22nd visit to the city of art, Venice, the Serenissima. Who knows if I will ever be able to go back and wonder again the cobbled streets of my Roman ancestors! Constant pain and wobbliness are terrible things to overcome but I am willing to give it a try. I have a portable pharmacy in my carry-on and I pray every day that God will give me the strength and endurance to overcome my many physical challenges.

After Amsterdam we landed in Milan, Linate airport, not exactly the international hub of travel, a run of the mill airport, grey, dull, but easy to pass through customs. While waiting to get our two suitcases from the conveyor belt, one eager employee was yelling at me for standing in line to use the handicapped bathroom in which they usually have an actual rail to hang on to. He was pointing at the sign quite agitated. Not looking handicapped and, unless you are in my body, you would never know how much pain I am in, I yelled back at him in perfect Italian that I am in need of the rails. He must have felt badly because he came and guided me to another available bathroom that was too close for comfort to the men’s bathroom and he stood guard nearby – an old-fashioned Italian.

After waiting in line a good 30 minutes to get our rental car, even though there were only three families waiting and four Avis clerks, we trekked to the actual garage after crossing several narrow streets with cracked pavement and barely avoiding crazy “motorini” drivers intent on mowing us down for a grand prize. The garage was dark and the parking spots very narrow. Dave had to literally climb onto the driver’s seat of a black mid-size BMW that had barely enough concealed trunk space to accommodate two suitcases and two carry-ons for the duration of our trip. On account of the narrow parking spaces, the doors could not open enough to allow normal entry if all spaces were occupied. He pulled the car out in order for me to get in.

The GPS kept sending us in circles in the roundabouts beside the Linate airport to the point that we felt like we would never get out of this circle of madness. We arrived in the suburbia called Milanofiori where conferences were usually held. The hotel, the NH group, was an elegant four-star establishment a short walk from the metro. The GPS, with an annoying British female voice, must have had old maps because we could not find the hotel immediately. I changed it to a more interesting and clear male voice.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016 Milanofiori
Unable to find the hotel immediately, we stopped at an ultra-modern McDonald’s to ask for directions since I speak Italian fluently. A most unusual fast food restaurant, this McDonald’s offered a coffee bar with donuts, Danishes, croissants, and other delicious pastries. Three large electronic screens recorded orders, the chosen seating area, and took payment in cash or credit card. A runner would bring the food once it was cooked. I can see this McDonald’s as the model for all the areas where minimum wage job holders have protested and demanded $15 per hour, “a living wage” for unskilled labor.

Once we settled into the hotel, we took the metro into Milan, Linea Verde, the green line to the Duomo. We exited below the imposing flying buttresses of the Duomo, stark white in the sunlight. We walked around in the crowded piazza filled mostly with Italian tourists, Muslim immigrants, and a few German, British, and French tourists.  I was surprised to see a few Muslim couples take pictures of the majestic gothic cathedral, a place of Christian worship and of western civilization.

Il Duomo Photo: Wikpedia
Dedicated to Santa Maria Nascente, St. Mary of the Nativity, the Duomo di Milano is the second largest church in Italy after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome; it is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan, currently Cardinal Angelo Scola. The Italian gothic cathedral took six centuries to complete, a perfect example of beauty that cannot be rushed.

The focal point of Milan, the first Duomo called the Basilica Nuova, was dedicated to St. Thecla and was completed in 355 A.D. The construction of the current Roman Catholic basilica, built in Italian Gothic architectural style, began in 1386 and was completed in 1965. The construction group was called “Fabbrica del Duomo” and had 300 employees.  The enterprise had exclusive rights to use the marble from the Candoglia quarry and was exempt from taxes.

Even though half of the basilica was completed by 1402, work stalled until 1480, lacking money and ideas.  During this period the tombs of Marco Carelli and Pope Martin V (1424) were completed. The octagonal cupola was built during 1500-1510 under Ludovico Sforza and four series of 15 statues with characters from the Bible such as prophets, saints, sibyls were added to the interior. Amadeo’s Little Spire, a Renaissance piece that harmonized well with the gothic exterior, was added in 1507-1510. In 1552 a large organ was built by Giacomo Antegnati for the north side of the choir. Giuseppe Meda and Federico Borromeo decorated the altar with the sixteen pales. St. Bartholomew and the Trivulzio candelabrum were added.

Carlo Borromeo removed all lay monuments from the Duomo, tombs of Giovanni, Barnabo and Filippo Maria Visconti, Francesco I and his wife Bianca, Galeazzo Maria and Lodovico Sforza. I can only imagine what it must have smelled like worshipping in churches with so many dead and decaying entombed within.

As the exterior remained largely unfinished, the interior decoration continued during 1575-1585 – the presbytery, new altars and a baptistery. Wooden choir stalls were built by 1614. Borromeo consecrated the entire building in 1577 as a new church, distinct from Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Tecla.

During the 17th century, most efforts were dedicated to the façade of the church. The Madonnina’s spire was added in 1762, erected to a height of 108.5 meters. Milan has a very damp and foggy climate which often obscures the Madonnina statue at the top of the spire.  The Milanese will tell you that it is a fine weather day when the Madonnina is visible from far away and not covered by mist.

The cathedral had about 81 architects and engineers who contributed their work to its construction over the centuries. But the façade was still a long way from completion. Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the façade finished on May 20, 1805 because he was about to be crowned King of Italy. Pellicani finished the façade in seven years even though Napoleon never delivered on his promise that the French Treasury would reimburse the Fabbrica del Duomo for the expenses. To thank Napoleon, his statue was placed on one of the spires. As expected, he was crowned King of Italy in the Duomo.

The last gate was inaugurated on January 6, 1965. However, if you look around the huge cathedral, you will find unfinished blocks, waiting to be carved.

As is the case with all historical monuments, the façade had to undergo renovations from 2003-2009 in order to clean the Candoglia marble. Every time I visited, the familiar scaffolds with draped curtains were covering the amazing façade. This time, it was open in full and brilliant-white splendor.

Modern day pollution takes a heavy toll on the old edifice and it must be maintained constantly. Funds were cut recently due to austerity measures which prompted the Duomo management to offer 135 gargoyles for “adoption.” In 2012, for contributions of 100,000 or more, sponsors could have their names engraved under the grotesque gargoyles that hide the drainage pipes.

A group of vegan protesters with gory banners of animal slaughter houses were speaking against meat consumption and the abuse of animals, urging people to become vegetarians. A few carabinieri were watching lazily from a safe distance, heavily armed.

The Milanese Galleria Photo: Ileana 2016
We had our first pizza and gelato in Savini, inside the beautiful Vittorio Emanuele II Galleria. Connecting Piazza del Duomo to Piazza della Scala, the walking mall, designed by Giuseppe Mengoni and completed in 1877, is covered by two glass-vaulted arcades which meet in an octagon.

Nicknamed “il salotto di Milano” because of its many restaurants and shops where strolling locals meet, the Milanese Galleria, which inspired the use of the term for our modern shopping malls, displays four mosaics in the octagon, representing the coat of arms of the three capitals of the Kingdom of Italy, Turin, Florence, and Rome, and the coat of arms of Milan.

The bull from the Turin coat of arms is a bit worn and damaged due to the superstition that if one spins around three times with the heel on the testicles of the bull, good fortune will follow.

The Milanese Galleria connects two other famous landmarks, the Duomo and Teatro alla Scala. At the end towards the famous La Scala theater, a most interesting museum, Leonardo3, displays the famous machines that Leonardo’s fertile scientific mind had envisioned and drawn.

Milanese Galleria Coat of Arms Photo: Ileana 2016
On our last trip, in addition to luxury retailers selling paintings, books, leather goods, haute couture, and jewelry, there was a McDonald’s appearing at odds with the famous restaurants, cafes, and bars such as Biffi Café, founded in 1867 by Paolo Biffi, the pastry chef to the monarch, the Savini restaurant, and the Camparino with its Art Nouveau style.

McDonald’s lost its lease in 2012 after 20 years of occupancy.  A lawsuit followed in which McDonald’s was asking for 24 million in damages from the city of Milan, their landlord, €6 million per year in sales lost due to the non-renewal of the lease. A second Prada store occupied McDonald’s location. The suit was eventually dropped after McDonald’s was offered the chance to open a restaurant in a nearby location. McDonald’s offered free food and drinks during the last few hours of operation in the posh location.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Leonardo3 Museum is located at the entrance to the Milanese Galleria from Piazza della Scala. Touted as “one of the most important events of the year,” The World of Leonardo Exhibition (March 1, 2013-December 31, 2016) displays working models of Leonardo’s machines, his inventions and artistry brought to life, and the digitized restorations of his paintings.

Among more than 200 interactive 3D reconstructions, some of Leonardo’s machines are hanging from the ceiling such as the submarine, the time machine, the mechanical dragonfly, the rapid-fire crossbow, and the mechanical eagle. Additionally, there is a digital restoration of the Last Supper, of La Gioconda, and reconstructions of his musical instruments. Leonardo da Vinci’s codices are also displayed in virtual format.

Parco Sempione Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
On a rainy day, we walked not far from the Duomo, across the damp and slightly foggy Parco Sempione, one of the city’s largest parks, where the Sforza Castle (Castello Sforzesco) was visible in the background, dark and foreboding brick and grey stone weathered by time. Built in 1360-1499 by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, on the ruins of a 14th century fortification, the castle was in use until 1862. Renovated in the 16th and 17th centuries, it became one of the largest citadels in Europe. Sforza Castle was extensively restored by Luca Beltrami in 1891-1905 and it now houses several city museums and art collections fanned across the inner courtyard.

The castle has a square plan with 200 m-long sides, four towers in the corners and 7 meter-thick walls. The Visconti lords used it as city residence until they were ousted in 1447 and the castle was destroyed by the Golden Ambrosian Republic. Francesco Sforza defeated them and turned the Castello into his private residence three years later.  Torre del Filarete (Filaret’s Tower) bears the name of the architect and sculptor Filarete who was hired to design and decorate it.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Ludovico Sforza hired artists to decorate the castle, among them Leonardo da Vinci, whose frescoes decorate several rooms. Bramante painted frescoes in the Sala del Tesoro and the Sala della Balla. Leonardo painted the ceiling of the Sala delle Asse with vegetable motifs.


The castle was damaged by assaults from various French, Italian, and German troops. In 1521 the Torre del Filarete exploded, following placements of mines around its foundation and having been used as a weapons depot.

Francesco II Sforza restored and enlarged the fortress when he returned briefly to power and adapted part of it as residence for his wife, Christina of Denmark.

The Spanish dominated the castle next and it became a citadel with a garrison of 1,000-3,000 men ran by a castellan. The external fortifications were 3 km long, covering an area of 25.9 hectares. When the Austrians of Lombardy replaced the Spanish rule, the castle remained a fort with trenches dug around the castle during Napoleon’s rule. Most of the outer fortifications were demolished during the Cisalpine Republic.

Napoleon's Forum Photo: Ileana 2016
On the city side of the castle there is a semi-circular Piazza Castello with radial streets bound by the Foro Buonaparte. On the wooded side of the castle there is a parade ground known as Piazza d’Armi.

Torre del Filarete
Photo: Wikipedia
After Italy was unified in the 19th century, the castle became the property of the city of Milan. That is when the former parade grounds were transformed into Parco Sempione, the largest parks in the city.

Heavily damaged in 1943 by the allies’ bombardment of Milan, the castle was reconstructed after the war by the BBPR architects for the purpose of housing museums. Currently, the Sforza Castle has exhibits antique art, arms, sculptures and furniture, decorative arts, musical instruments, prehistoric and Egyptian archeology, the quarters of the Spanish hospital, and the Leonardo hall.

Photo: Gaston de Foix
Ileana Johnson 2016
The Museum of ancient art houses 2,000 pieces of Late-Antiquity, Medieval and Renaissance sculpture in Lombardy. Containing Sforza and Spanish era decorations, the museum displays an armory, the funerary monument of Gaston the Foix, the funerary monument of Barnabo Visconti, and the famous Rondanini Pieta by Michelangelo, his last and unfinished work.

The picture gallery contains about 1,500 works by famous painters like the Venetian Canaletto, Giambattista Tiepolo, and Francesco Guardi.  Among them are wooden bas-reliefs and sculptures in terracotta and marble. Canaletto’s famous “A view of the wharf of Venice” graces the halls of the Pinacoteca.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The Vinciana Collection holds 5,000 volumes, including manuscripts, and over 2,000 photographs on Leonardo da Vinci. It is the most important place for research on Leonardo.

Milanese tapestry
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The Art Library contains 91,000 volumes with some rare and antique editions. The library catalogue is available on-line.

The history of personal archives of famous archeologists and numismatists is found in the Archeological and Numismatic Library. Founded in 1808, it contains 33,000 modern volumes, 1,125 antique volumes, 700 titles of periodicals, audiovisual materials, and historical archives.

Bernabo Visconti Tomb
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The Trivulziana Library and City Historical Archive is a historical preservation library that owns 180,000 volumes, including manuscripts dating back to the 8th century and the most famous Notebook by Leonardo da Vinci.

Works of engravers, ceramists, sculptors, gold and silver smiths, armourers, and tapestry weavers made from glass, brass, gold, silver, porcelain, and silk brocade are displayed in the Museum of Decorative Arts.

Walking a few blocks from the park, there is a famous but simple church, Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie (Holy Mary of Grace) which houses in the refectory of the convent the mural of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper. Its official name under UNESCO’s World Heritage Site is Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with "The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci.

Santa Maria delle Grazie is a Roman Catholic Church designed by architects Guiniforte Solari and possibly Donato Bramante. Bramante was in the service of the duchy at the time, but there is scant evidence of his connection to the project which was finished in 1497, fourteen years after the groundbreaking ceremony.


Santa Maria delle Grazie Sacristy, the Last Supper location

Santa Maria delle Grazie

Santa Maria delle Grazie main entrance
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Francesco I Sforza, Duke of Milan, ordered its construction and the church became a burial site for the Sforza family. Ludovico Sforza’s wife, Beatrice, was buried there in 1497.

An altarpiece by Titian, with Christ receiving the crown of thorn, was installed in 1543 in the Chapel of Holy Crown. In 1797 French troops looted the painting which is now housed in the Louvre.

Interior of Santa Maria delle Grazie
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Most of the refectory was destroyed in the night of August 15, 1943 by an allied bombing raid which hit the church directly and the convent. The walls that hold the Last Supper survived because they were sandbagged. Appointments must be made months in advance in order to view the mural.

The Old Sacristy (Sacrestia Vecchia) designed and built by Donato Bramante, is the residence of the Dominican Cultural Center (Centro Culturale Alle Grazie). Conferences are organized and hosted by clerics on issues of spirituality, philosophy, art, literature, and sociology, concerts and exhibitions. Past themes of speeches held by professors include “The Church as a Reconciled World,” “Unity and the Trinity of God,” “The Mystery of Christ,” and “The Theological Faith and the Essence of Christianity.”

Bramante’s Sacristy is a rectangular room with a chapel space at one end even though the sacristy is where religious vestments are kept. The 15th century cabinets where such vestments were stored are no longer there. The vaulted ceiling was painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the same blue with golden stars as the wall of the refectory.

Parts of Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus with sketches and notes are kept in the sacristy and displayed since 2009.

A beautiful fountain, potted flowers along the walls, and small trees decorate the center of the cloister. The cloister connects the main church with the sacristy.

Cloister inner courtyard   Photo: Ileana Johnson
Because I did not make arrangements months in advance to view Leonardo’s Last Supper, I was not able to see it. I was so close! I traveled so many thousands of miles, walked slowly through Milan and in searing pain, like a penitent. I just leaned against the non-descript and simple outside wall, closed my eyes and imagined what it must have looked like on the other side. No amount of cajoling was going to earn me an entrance ticket or a peek on my pilgrimage quest. So, I cannot describe first-hand what it would have felt like and looked like to me. The Last Supper is still a mystery.

La Scala on a rainy day Photo: Ileana 2016
Teatro alla Scala (La Scala) is one of the most famous opera houses in the world. Inaugurated on August 3, 1778, the premiere performance was Antonio Salieri’s Europa riconosciuta (Europe recognized). In the past 200 years, the best operatic voices in the world have appeared on the stage of La Scala. I must admit that I’ve always imagined my beautiful daughter Mimi, with her inimitable mezzo-soprano voice, performing at La Scala.

La Scala in 1900 Photo: Wikpedia
The venerable building is home to La Scala Theater Chorus, La Scala Theater Ballet, and La Scala Theater Orchestra. An associate school, La Scala Theater Academy, professionally trains in music, dance, and stage management.

On Saint Ambrose Day, the feast of Milan’s patron saint, the season opens at La Scala on December 7. Tradition dictates that all performances must end before midnight, including long operas which start earlier in the evening.

A museum accessed through the theater’s foyer, exhibits collections of paintings, drafts, statues, costumes, and papers documenting La Scala’s history.

On February 25, 1776, after a carnival gala, Teatro Regio Ducale was destroyed by a fire. Wealthy Milanese who owned private boxes (palchi) in the theater petitioned Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Este for a new theater. The first plan was rejected but the second plan was accepted by Empress Maria Theresa. Because it was built on the deconsecrated grounds of the demolished church Santa Maria alla Scala, the theater received its name from this church. The theater had about 3,000 seats and the stage was one of the largest in Italy.

To offset building expenses, private boxes (palchi) were offered for sale. Noble and wealthy Milanese used La Scala as a place to see their friends and relatives, be seen, and listen to music. The main floor (platea) had no chairs – spectators watched the shows standing up. There was no orchestra pit, the instrumentalists were in plain view.

Above boxes was the gallery (loggione) where the middle class could watch the performance. The gallery was always highly critical of opera stars. Tenor Roberto Alagna was booed off the stage in 2006 and his understudy had to replace him mid-scene, even out of costume.

La Scala also hosted a casino with gamblers sitting in the foyer.

The fear of fire was ever-present. The theater was illuminated by 84 oil lamps and a thousand throughout the theater. Several rooms had hundreds of water buckets to put out fires in an emergency. Oil lamps were replaced by gas lamps and then, in 1883, by electric lights.

La Scala underwent major renovations in 1907 and a controversial one in 2002-2004 that improved the sound system and allowed opera-goers to follow the libretto in the original language, in English, or in Italian. The 1907 renovation established the current 1,987 seats.

The 1943 bombing severely damaged La Scala, but it was rebuilt and reopened in 1946 with a concert conducted by Arturo Toscanini, composers Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, and soprano Renata Tebaldi.

Many famous operas had their first productions (prima) hosted at La Scala. Verdi did not allow his work to be played there for several years because, as he said, his work had been “corrupted” (modified) by the orchestra.