Monday, November 7, 2016

Brescia, the Last Stop on a 17-Day Adventure

View of Brescia from castle armory museum
Last one day and half in Italy finally came. After we packed and had a leisurely early breakfast in the well-appointed restaurant in Olivia Thermae, overlooking the beautiful gardens, azure blue pools, and the wavy Lake Garda, we reluctantly started the gauntlet through the narrow streets of the fortress on our way to Milan. We paid our bill and, after a failed start into a dead end street, we found the right way through the labyrinth of narrow streets, endless left and right turns, and dodging the pedestrians in the area surrounding Scaligeri castle.  Even though it was a drizzly day, people were walking by with umbrellas, taking photographs and shopping.

Dave dodged them artfully, paid attention to the GPS directions, and made sure he did not run into buildings.  The streets were so narrow; I could stretch out my arm through the open window, and touch the walls. We finally came to the 11th century Scaligeri castle and exited through the even narrower moat gate.  I videotaped the entire gauntlet through the windshield wipers, just in in case our children would not believe us.  We drove by the police sentry gate where two days earlier we had to be checked off a police registry as hotel guests in the fortress.

The fortress moat entrance in Sirmione (Wikipedia photo)
With the beautiful Sirmione in the rear view mirror, we made it to the autostrada, on our way to Brescia, the former Roman castrum called Brixia. I had mixed feelings and memories of Brescia when, years earlier, our plane from Paris to Venice had to make an emergency landing in Brescia where the passengers were deplaned and transported the rest of the way to Venice by buses. My husband, who was expecting me at the airport in Venice, was very confused when he finally found me getting off a bus and without luggage.

We passed by Mantua, the 2016 Capital of Culture, 45 km out of our way. We had spent an entire day on a previous trip, visiting the centro storico, the Gonzaga family castles (Palazzo Te, Palazzo Ducale, and Palazzo Valenti Gonzaga), House of Mantegna, hanging gardens, and grottoes.

Photo credit:
Mantua is surrounded on three sides by artificial lakes created during the 12th century to defend the city. Water comes from the Minicio River. Mantova, deriving its name possibly from the Etruscan god Mantus or from Manto, daughter of Tiresias, was an island settlement established about 2000 B.C. on the banks of the River Mincio, a tributary to the River Po, which flows from Lake Garda to the Adriatic Sea.

The medieval and Renaissance flavor give Mantua an important place in the cultural history of western civilization. In addition to architectural treasures and works of art, Mantua is known for its role in the history of opera.

Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo premiered here and Shakespeare’s Romeo was banished to Mantua. Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto is set in Mantua. The medieval house that Verdi chose as residence for his character is said to be “Rigoletto’s house.” It was a building that belonged to the cathedral.

Mantua’s most famous inhabitant was Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro), born in 70 B.C. in a village nearby now called Virgilio.

Brescia was a truly fascinating experience. After we parked in an underground garage called Piazzale Aranaldo (pretty much most parking in Italy is underground for lack of space and esthetics), we walked towards the 15 century castle perched on top of a hill overlooking Brescia.

The painful road to Castello
The hike up the road gave me particular agony as it was formed with small oblong river rocks embedded upright into the soil as a form of paving. With every step, the rocks dug through my shoes and I felt the pain in the soles of my feet. I suffered in silence like a penitent, while walking up to a sanctuary church, completely deserted, open, and eerie.

View of Brescia from our trail hike
Walking past round stones inlaid into the pavement with names of deceased Brescians, we ran into a group of Italian school kids having bagged lunches in a room on the premises of the church. Their presence was explained by the city’s museum of history, located nearby.

Mossy woods
The province of Brescia, located in Lombardy, is one of the largest in Italy, the industrial capital of Italy, with 1.2 million inhabitants. It is an area where utility companies, a steel producer, the firearms manufacturer Beretta, the shotgun manufacturer Perazzi, and machine tools manufacturer Camozzi have their headquarters. Brescia, nicknamed Leonessa d’Italia (The Lioness of Italy), is also home to Italian caviar, sparkling wine, and the Mille Miglia classic car race.

The actual town of Brescia, located at the foot of the Alps is rather small, 196,480 inhabitants. It was founded 3,200 years ago and it holds the best preserved Roman public buildings in northern Italy, specifically a Roman Forum. The medieval castle, to which we were hiking in a slow but steady rain, is a fascinating place to visit despite the long and arduous trek that we took. Coming down, we realized that we could have driven and parked the car not far from the entrance. But, why do things simply when the hike was so much more fascinating and the photo ops were amazing.

Misionari Saveriani in Brescia
Chiesa di Corpo di Cristo in Brescia
Cloister inner courtyard in Brescia
Corridor to Chiesa San Cristo
Cloister in Brescia
All photos: Ileana Johnson 2016
The monastic complex San Salvatore-Santa Giulia has a beautiful basilica from the 9th century, dedicated to San Salvatore.  It was built on a previous church which was also built on a Roman edifice from the first century B. C. A church was dedicated to Santa Giulia after it was finished in 1599. There is a museum on the premises with artifacts from the Bronze Age to Roman times and excavated Roman houses.
Charlemagne’s wife, Desiderata, and daughter of the Lombard King Desiderius, is said to have spent her exile years in this monastery after the annulment of their marriage in 771.

The Church of the Most Holy Body of Christ (Chiesa del Santissimo Corpo di Cristo) is also part of the convent complex built in the late 15th century by Jesuits on previous religious buildings towering above the Roman theater. There are 16th century frescoes by Friar Benedetto Marone, planned on the Sistine Chapel model. There is also a Romanino fresco with the Last Supper, reproduced on canvas. Near the church is the convent surrounding three cloisters. One of the cloister’s loggias opens up into a breathtaking panoramic view of Brescia.

View of the Castello from our hiking trail
We took the wrong turn to the castle, which led us on a steep uneven pebbled stone climb on the back side to the castle, with a dizzying drop to the city and to a vineyard below. We could see the turret to the castle but we were unable to reach it this way. We walked to the left, circling the hill on the lower levels, past trees so old and shady that they were completely covered by moss. This time we started climbing again on the side facing the castle.

Almost there - Castello's entrance
We reached the parking lot, climbed four more levels and entrances before we were actually able to see the moat of the castle with a drawbridge with creaking, rusty chains, and old mechanisms that raised and lowered the huge gate. We watched with amusement as a medium sized truck attempted to make a delivery to the museum inside but could not clear the height of the entrance to the castle, past the stony drawbridge. It was built in the first half of the 14th century, activated by ropes and chains and operated by winches. The mechanism “was faithfully recreated in the 20th century copy that can be seen today."

Entrance through the gate with the drawbridge
This main gate, between the rampart of St. Mark to the east and St. Faustino to the west, was built during the Venetian rule at the end of the 16th century. The portal is built from local calcareous stone, the famous Botticino marble. The sides display the Venetian rulers' coats of arms and the center displayed the coat of arms of the Doge, unfortunately destroyed by Napoleon’s soldiers. The whole structure shows the emblem of the Republic of Venice.

Governor's seat in Castello
A two-story yellow painted building, overlooking the Locomotive Square, is the former Governor’s seat built by Venetians in the 16th century.

Mirabella Tower
Upon entering the castle, the tower where they kept prisoners came into view. The prisoner’s tower, called the Burned Tower, was part of the defense system during the rule of the Visconti family of Milan. The four-story tower can be visited through a small door located below the porch leaning against the parapet.

The light came from my camera flash otherwise it was pitch dark
Downward spiraling tunnels
We went into the dungeons that offered an escape route as well as a delivery of supplies route. It was dank, dark, and scary.

Drawbridge with its rusted mechanism
Prisoner cell
Castello's inner courtyard
Drawbridge mechanism
Inner courtyard with Roman sarcophagus
More above ground tunnels
The 22-meters tall Mirabella Tower was one of the bell towers that flanked the Romanesque church of St. Stefano in Arce, whose foundation is below the lawn level. Climbing the spiral staircase, we could admire traces of the 13th century frescoes inside the tower.

Armory Museum
Horse armor
Fanning sword
View of Brescia from inside armory
Walking towards the underground escape and supply tunnels
Modern Brescia seen from the castle's tower
At the very top of the castle, we found the arms museum. The visit was most interesting as the museum contained medieval  weaponry such as arquebuses, swords, chain mails, body armor for humans, armor for horses, some complete, some incomplete, and evil swords that fanned out upon hitting flesh and bone, tearing it to pieces if the person would attempt to pull the sword out. There were very long barreled flint lock and match lock muskets as well.

Roman Temple ruins inside the armory museum
The castle had been built on the foundation of a Roman temple and the steps and ruins were still visible in the large opening in the floor. It is not unusual in northern Italy to find buildings such as restaurants and public places that have heavy glass floors exhibiting foundations with Roman ruins and mosaics. There is one restaurant in Piazza Erbe in Verona with such a large floor, and glass-covered escape tunnels in the old town of Assisi.

Brescia Castello side view
Tiled roof seen from armory museum interior
The staff of the arms museum in the Brescia Castello was not very friendly at all even though we were the only visitors on that rainy day and have paid 4 euros each entrance fee. I asked one of the attendants if he knew what the roofs looked like five centuries ago. It was plenty obvious that the tiled roof was relatively new. He gave me a snide remark in Italian as an answer, “how could I be so stupid to ask about the shape of roofs back then? Did I not know that none were preserved?” Actually there is archeological preserved evidence as I found out later.  

Locomotive built in 1901
Locomotive Square
There was a room on the castle grounds dedicated to an Italian club of engine modelers. A steam engine stood on the grounds in the Locomotive Square which survived WWI and WWII. It was built in 1901 and had over 2.5 million km on board before it was decommissioned and eventually placed in this park.

We made our way down on the front side of the castle this time and it seemed so much easier than the back side we had made earlier.

We found an interesting shop, a cobbler who actually made shoes to order, fitting a person’s foot, taste in leather, style, and comfort or fashion style. Mr. Alba reminded me of Dad’s cousin who was a cobbler by trade. He made many elegant and comfortable shoes for Dad and my husband Bill to the tune of 500 lei a pair. At that time, during the communist regime, 500 lei was more than half of most workers’ monthly salary determined by the Communist Party. The cheap shoes made by the communist regime for the masses were ugly, uncomfortable, and hard to find.

My first real purchase that I made in the States once I came in 1978 was a very soft leather pair of Clarks taupe sandals. I will never forget the joy of walking in something so heavenly comfortable and beautiful!

A few years later, on my first trip to Assisi, I discovered the Mephisto brand, “holy shoes,” as my husband called them. I bought my first pair in a tiny shop in Assisi, so narrow that two people could barely squeeze by. The building had been a prison prior to being bought by this lovely Italian couple who made a tiny shoe shop on the first floor and their apartment on the second. The windows still had the heavy bars from the prison period of the 13th century.

In Italy, no matter how old a person may be, pain and suffering must yield to fashion, style, and inimitable Italian flair. I’ve seen old ladies with canes, wearing impractical high heels.  But no self-respecting Italian woman, even a handicapped one, would find herself wearing orthopedic shoes meant for comfort and ease of walking. Tennis shoes are gauche unless they are bowling style in strange colors.

Roman forum ruins of the former Brixia castrum
As we were trying to find the parking garage to retrieve the car, we walked past the ruins of the former Roman castrum called Brixia. We took pictures of the imposing columns of the forum, the arena, or what was left of it with the tunnels, and the aqueducts. A few blocks further, we found a house that had remains of a Roman fresco embedded into the exterior wall.

Chiesa di Santa Maria della Carita during mass
A beautiful Baroque Roman Catholic church, St. Mary of Charity, was holding mass. This church and the monastery were erected by a wealthy patron, Laura Gambara, from 1481 to 1531. The current church was replaced in 1640 and consecrated in 1655. The convent sheltered fallen women or prostitutes. The portal had two columns of Egyptian marble and spoli, repurposed building stones from a Roman temple.

I entered, prayed, and listened for a bit while the priest was praying for the wisdom and health of Father Francesco, the sitting Argentinian Pope.

Last view of the town before we climbed down to town
We found our car in the public garage, paid for parking, and left for Milan. We had another 45 km to go our NH hotel by the airport. It was a four star but in a heavy industrial area, 2 km from the airport, with grey, dirty, and dingy exterior from traffic pollution. We filled the car with Diesel at the nearby Agip station.  Diesel was about 1.44 euros per liter.

We had supper at an interesting restaurant across the street called U-56, alluding to the German submarine U-56. In April 1945, a U.S. raid air raid badly damaged the submarine in Kiel and was decommissioned. Her crew scuttled it on May 3, 1945. The wreck was raised shortly after the war ended, but the boat was broken up.

The restaurant was painted solid black inside and outside, had a moat full of green water with tropical fish and mosquitoes, and the seating was bright red, with chairs arranged in a bizarre military style. Dandelion like pollen was flying from the surrounding trees and landing everywhere, including our clothes and the surface of the water, turning it into a gooey mess.

I expected the food to be terrible but, to my surprise, it was delicious. We sat across from a young couple on their first date and we enjoyed people watching, as more and more Italians started to show up. Nobody eats before 8 p.m.

We turned in for an early night as we were planning on getting up really early for our 11 a.m. flight to Paris and then to Dulles.

After packing and a very early breakfast, we took a few wrong turns, of course, necessitating help from a policewoman who directed us to the rental car return. The agent motioned for Dave to park the car in a very, very narrow space that only the petite Italians could fit and squeeze through with ease. Dave was angry and mumbling under his breath as he had to exit through the passenger side. It was no easy fit as a massage the day earlier had reinjured his rotator cuff wound. The agent looked over the car with a fine toothcomb, a flash light to be exact, but he found nothing. He was probably drooling at the prospect of charging the hapless Americans extra fees for some imaginary, non-existent damage. There are few people who can drive a car and maneuver it into tight spaces like Dave, without causing any damage. He is an exceptional and calm driver. The agent kept mumbling with huge disappointment in his voice, “perfetto, perfetto.”

The flight to Paris was uneventful, seated in very narrow seats that did not recline. The bare bone amenities and the smaller airport in Milan explained somewhat our reasonable tickets and car rental. The guy seated on my left was a retired Marine One crew chief who had served under Clinton and said, he really liked Bill but hated Hillary who was cussing people all the time. He told me, he would never vote for her, or Donald Trump. But he would have gladly voted Joe Biden for President because he liked the guy. I pretended that I was not into politics because I did not want to get into a political discussion with this gentleman.

The flight lasted one hour and thirty minutes and we looked around during our four hour layover in Paris, bought some chocolate, and boarded the eight-hour flight, hoping it would be more comfortable. The Air France, Airbus 777 had even narrower seats, the food was bad, but the entertainment was great.

After almost two hours through customs and luggage retrieval, our magnificent journey through central and northern Italy seemed like a world away and came sadly to an end. We were ready to go home and sleep in our own beds. It is also very hard to live out of two suitcases for 17 days. I was sad to leave so much beauty and history behind but glad to be home.



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