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Mexico and New Mexico

This winter was different. Instead of our usual travels we decided to go closer to home in consideration of a possible move from upstate New York. The Mexican portion of the trip was the only "abroad" section and was really a chance to have a couple of weeks of warm weather before driving across country to Santa Fe. We had visited both of these places many years ago.

In Mexico we spent all of our time either in Oaxaca or along the Oaxacan coast in the small town of Zipolite. We went on this trip with our friends Debbie and Bill, and stayed in what had been an ancient monastery close to the center of town. Our room, on the second story, faced an inner courtyard where we had breakfast everyday. Oaxaca did not disappoint. Although there are obviously tourists it is not overrun by them, and manages to retain its distinctly Mexican and indigenous feel. The Zocolo is remains the center of life in this mid sized city, and many of the colonial buildings are still standing. It is quite lively during the day as well as the evening, with Mexican families taking a paseo or young people just hanging out. There are shops and restaurants lining the nearby streets.

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The pace of life is relatively slow, and though the province of Oaxaca is one of the poorest in Mexico, it doesn't feel that way in the center of town. The poor live on the outskirts and in the rural areas. The city spreads out in a wide valley between two mountain ranges, with the Pacific on one side and the Atlantic on the other.

Most days we spent wandering around the streets, and exploring.

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We went to the nearby market, although we were told there was an even larger one about a mile away.

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We checked out the main catedral, and on one day they were filming a quinceanera.

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Oaxaca is said to have the best food in Mexico, and with four different kinds of moles, great seafood and beer, and inexpensive prices, I would have to concur. So when we weren't walking, we were eating.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:34 Archived in Mexico Tagged churches people food air_travel buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (1)

Modica and Surrounds

The next day, somewhat reluctantly, we left Siracusa, and made our way to Modica Alta. Once again our GPS failed us, and what should have taken about 1& 1/2 hours took at least twice that long. We ended up driving in circles on some tiny mountain roads, with totally conflicting navigational directions. Go straight, turn right, make a U turn, etc. At one point we stopped a group of men on a country road to ask for directions. They seemed to be shouting at one another and arguing, but there was no one else around and we were lost. In our poor Italian, we asked the way to Modica. They stopped arguing long enough to tell us the way, or rather two different ways we could go, and then resumed the argument as soon as we drove away. Asking directions is always an interesting process, as folks seem compelled to tell you multiple directions, which of course, makes things even more confusing.

We finally managed to get to the Piazza Giovanni, through the impossibly narrow streets of the old town. There we called our host, Giuseppe, and then followed him in our car through more narrow alleys, until we arrived in his street and pulled into his garage. Also not an easy task, because the street was barely wide enough for one small car. Our apartment, upstairs from his place, is quite large, but unfortunately at this time of year, also very chilly. There are air conditions in most of the rooms, which work inefficiently as heaters, but you have to keep all of the doors to each room closed to keep in the heat, and like most places in southern Italy, all the floors are tile, hence cold.

Although I was tired from the difficult drive in yet another cloudy, drizzly day, Giuseppe was quick to take me on a short driving tour. A maze of criss-crossing alleys, I instantly forgot where and what he showed me. He then brought me to the only supermarket that was open in the middle of the afternoon, as everything closes between 2 and 5 PM. This makes sense during the Summer, but when it is cold and chilly, it seems like a waste of time. Sense, however, is not something that seems to be in abundant supply down here.

One of the main streets of Modica Alta
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One of hundreds of alleys, it's even narrower than it looks
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Much of Modica was rebuilt following an earthquake in 1693 in what is called Sicilian Baroque style, although the city is much older then that, having been settled by the Greeks as early as 1360 BC. It was later occupied by the Romans, and then the Arabs in 860, and did not become a part of Italy until 1860. Because of the architecture, the city and several others in the Val di Noto are now World Heritage Sites. As with many of the old towns in southern Italy, it seemingly owes it's largely in tact survival to benign neglect.

Modica Alta is built on top of a hillside with old stone and cement houses, narrow alleys, baroque churches, and a few small shops, etc.

Looking up at Modica Alta, San Giorgio Cathedral on right
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Though highly atmospheric, as the Lonely Planet might say, much of it is dilapidated, and seems well off the tourist circuit, at least at this time of year. When we first arrived in the chilly, damp, weather, it felt rather depressing, and we wondered if we had made a mistake renting a place here for a week. The next day was also overcast, but we walked around a bit, and saw some of the sights.

Many ornate building details
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San Giorgio Cathedral
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Later that afternoon, our friends from Germany, Joachim and Antonette, met us as planned, in Piazza Giovanni. It was great to see them, though as luck would have it, they are staying in Modica Bassa, which is about a half hour walk straight down from where we are. On seeing them, we forgot all about the depressing weather, and they came over to our apartment where we drank wine, made a pasta dinner, and caught up on each other's lives, as it had been a few years since our last visit.

Next day we saw the sun, finally, and though not exactly warm, it cheered us immensely. This time we walked down to see them, and although not as old as Modica Alta, the lower town is much more lively with many more shops and restaurants. We explored for a few hours as it was a very nice day to be outside, more like what we expected in Sicily. Then we spent the latter part of the afternoon in true Italian fashion, having an enormous lunch, drinking wine, etc.

Looking down on Modica Bassa and surrounding area
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Centro of Modica Bassa with clock tower above
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Looking up from another angle at Modica Alta and clock tower
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Today is also fair, and our friends are coming back up to our apartment. I will attempt, with some trepidation, to take the car out, so that the four of us can do a little sight seeing in another nearby baroque town, Scicli. Vamos a ver, (we shall see) how this goes, but in the end, we had no problems getting there. And it was a charming old town. Though much smaller, Scicli seems to be doing relatively well, and the houses look better cared for, at least compared to Modica Alta. Following a stop for ice-cream which Joachim and Antonette enjoyed very much......

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We hiked the alleys up the steep hills surrounding the Centro.

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In many places we came to dead ends, and the way was blocked intentionally. It seems that the authorities were concerned about rockfall. We stopped at one point, after being practically pulled inside by the proprietor, in a small private cave museum that purported to show what life was like in Sicily around 1900. The owner had collected old objects and pictures, as well as some furniture. It was somewhat interesting at first, but then, he saw some other Italians outside and lured them in as well. He upped the speed of his Italian, for their benefit I suppose, and went on in great detail about various objects, and since we couldn't understand much, we quickly got bored. He was also rather bossy, insisting we stay with the other folks to get the tour. After a time, we managed to escape, and left him with the 2 euros a piece, no doubt the only way he can make ends meet.

The view outside the cave museum
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Eventually, we found the right path and made our way up to one of the old churches, no longer in use, high on top of one of the ravines. It's visible from the picture of the Centro. From there we could see most of the town below, and all the way to the sea, about 10K distant.

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We walked back to the car and headed for Marina de Modica, which we found in spite of the once again crazy directions of the GPS. We spent an hour or so walking on the beach in the now delightfully warm sun, and somehow drove back to town without getting too lost. The last 15 minutes or so, in the narrow alleys of Modica Alta, were a bit harrowing, as it was hard to know which way to turn, and there were often cars right behind us looking for a way to get past these impossibly slow foreigners. Luckily, we were able to ask directions to Piazza San Giovanni, and I remembered the way to our apartment from there. Trying very hard not to scratch our new rental car, I made the turns carefully through the tiny streets.

On arrival, we polished off the schnapps and cidre that our German friends had made, which provided a much needed respite from the crazy drive (and drivers) through Modica Alta. An hour or two later, we went to the local Taverna Nicastro, which had been recommended for a hearty, yup,you guessed it, pasta dinner. At 7 PM they made a point of opening early just for us, and more wine helped to dispel the cold inside the restaurant. When we left at 8:30 or 9, they didn't seem to have much business, especially for a Saturday night, and it is hard to imagine that they have stayed in business since 1948, as their sign indicated.

The next evening, after a rainy excursion to Ragusa Ibla, including a mad dash through town to catch the last bus out,

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found us back in our apartment, once again drinking wine to dispel the damp cold, but unfortunately we soon ran out. Joachim and I went out into the gloomy mist to see if any place was open. The only store with lights on was a small chocolate shop-cum bakery, which was not likely to sell alcohol, but hey, this is Italy so you never know.

"Vino, per favore?"

"Mi dispiace non abbiamo alcun vino."

We didn't exactly know what this meant, but when he shook his head we figured it meant no. As we were speaking there was another man picking up some cookies and pastry.

He said to us, "Se si desidera che il vino mi segua."

We didn't know what that meant either, but when he motioned with his hand, we figured it meant follow me, and so we headed off down the street to his old beat up car. Even before I had both feet inside, necessitating a mad scramble to climb in and close the door, he started driving incredibly fast through Modica Alta's narrow streets, to a point about 2/3rds of the way down the hill toward the lower town. There he abruptly stopped in front of his house, and motioned for us to wait in front while he went inside. He reappeared a few moments later with two bottles of red wine.

"Ce l'ho fatta. Spero ti piaccia."

Well as you have guessed, we still had no idea what he said, but when he handed us the bottles we assumed they were home-made because they didn't have labels.

"Quanto?" How much, one of the few words we did know.

"Gratuito," Another word we knew.

"Grazi, grazi, molto grazi," we said, and started the 20 minute hike back up to the apartment.

Only in Italy.

And it wasn't too shabby for home-made wine.

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Posted by jonshapiro 05:41 Archived in Italy Tagged people photography living_abroad buildings_postcards Comments (2)

Scilla

We are now in this small seaside town south of Tropea, and are staying in a B&B in the old fishing village of Chinelea. Finding our place while driving in the tiny streets of Scilla was not easy, and it took several phone calls to the owner before we could locate it.

There are three parts to Scilla: Chinelea, and its ancient stone houses practically sitting in the tempestuous sea, with its partially submerged and sharp rocks.

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Marina Grande, a separate beach area with a couple of streets of houses set 20M or so from the sea,

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and finally, there is Scilla Alta, which is the largest.

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To get there, you ascend several steep sets of stairs and narrow cobblestone streets that reach partially up the mountain that descends all the way to Chinelea.

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This part of town consists of a number of streets and narrow alleys, and though most of the houses are old, there are a few newer ones scattered about. Jutting out over one of the lower levels of the upper town, on a high rocky promontory, is the old stone fort, which has commanding view over the ocean and to the port of Reggio Calabria, some 20K distant. Freighters ply the waters in between.

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Actually, there is a 4th part of town between here and Marina Grande, the port of Scilla, where larger boats are moored behind a protected area framed by a long rock jetty.

Here in Chinelea, fisherman cast their rods and work on their small wooden boats, most of whom now have motors. In the past, they would go hunting, as they call it, for spada, or swordfish, in boats without motors. They used a kind of harpoon to try and stab the fish, much like the old whaling boats. Sword fishing is still a way of life here, as is fishing in general, though I suspect that it is greatly supplanted by tourism, during the summer and fall.

Scilla, as described in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, is a type of sea monster that would lure sailors to the rocks just offshore, where they would drown. So this place has a long history dating back to the Greeks, and, as I have learned from our proprietor, Francesco, so does much of Calabria, where old people still speak a kind of Greek dialect.

It has been enjoyable wandering the alleys of various parts of town, though unfortunately the weather has remained cloudy and chilly, with intermittent rain. During a morning walk today, we found a small, out of the way place in the upper town to purchase fresh pasta, ravioli, and eggplant parm, but we spent much of the day, reading in our room. Later we went down to the tiny bar attached to our guesthouse, and chatted with the bartender, also named Francesco, and his girlfriend, in a mix of Italian and Spanish. We taught him a few words of Spanish, and he gave us the Italian equivalent, while we sipped on a glass of the local vino. It was a nice way to while away an otherwise dreary afternoon. At one point, a woman came in with her daughter. She was born in Poland and started chatting away with Francesco about the importance of learning English, because when she was recently hospitalized for a month in Reggio, the staff only spoke in English. Of course, she knew almost no English, though her daughter knew a little.

Coast road just south of town
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We have been in touch with our neighbor, Guy Gamello, via email. He is keeping an eye on our house while we travel. It turns out that his relatives are from Messina, in Sicily, where we will go by ferry. Francesco's girlfriend lives in Messina, and she told us that Gamello is a very common name. It seems that Guy probably has a number of his relations still living there. Perhaps we will run into one.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:25 Archived in Italy Tagged beaches people buildings_postcards Comments (2)

Tropea

It was with some reluctance that we left Matera, and drove to this small seaside town on the Tyrrhenian coast in Calabria. Bustling in the summer, it is largely dead at this time of year, and many of the restaurants and shops are closed. It has a very attractive old part of town, with narrow lanes and pretty piazzas. Unfortunately there is a lot of ugly development that surrounds it, and much of the old town could use repair, some of which is going on during this slow time of year.

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When we went to the tourist office to get a map,

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there was a young woman from New Hampshire who was staffing the place. She has lived in Tropea for 16 years. After her parents divorced, she came to Italy with her Italian mother. She told us about an interesting pizza joint for dinner, not far from our little apartment, and later we decided to try it out.

Ali Baba is run by a very friendly Egyptian man, who spoke relatively good English after spending three years in London. Trained as an archeologist,he says he is content making pizza because he gets to meet people from all over the world. It is a tiny place, mostly take-out, but the pizza, with kabobs, was quite good, and he seemed to be doing a good business even during this slow time of year. While we were there a young woman, who looked to be in her mid 20's showed up with her father, Roberto. She had some English, and so we started talking to her. She has worked as a journalist for a regional Calabrian paper for nine years. Although she really likes the job, often several years go by before she gets paid for each article she writes. She is still studying in university, but feels she knows far more about journalism than any of her professors, none of whom have any journalism training or experience.

We asked if she was angry about not getting paid, and the answer,not surprisingly, was, "Yes."

"Why don't you get another job?"

"There are no other jobs."

"What if you went into something other than journalism"

"Well, I love my job, but it wouldn't make any difference. There are no other jobs."

"Even in other fields?"

"Yes. It wouldn't matter."

"Do you think it is the fault of the government?"

"No,not really. The Italians are lazy. It's in their DNA."

" So you mean they are really laid back,and easy going?"

"Yes, you could say that. They like the sun and the sea, and they don't want to work hard."

"Do you think anything can be done?"

"No, not really. I have my family, but I would like to get married and have children, and maybe buy a car, but there is no way I can afford that. There is nothing I can do."

She seemed resigned to a vicious cycle of barely being able to make ends meet, and living a very restricted life. This seems to be the fate of many young people here in southern Italy. The desk person at the Alpi Hotel in Rome, more or less told me the same thing. She was urging her daughter to learn English so that she could move somewhere else in the EU where there might be more job opportunities.

Soon after that, "The King of Ice Cream" walked into Ali Baba, or that is what the Egyptian proprietor said to us. Then this gentleman said, "No, not me, my father is the King." His father runs a successful gelato business, and has invented all kinds of different flavors, including sweet onion, cipolla, which is a local specialty here in Tropea. Not the ice-cream, but the onions. The following day we went to a trattoria for lunch, and although we did not have this dish, the man next to us insisted we try his frittata cipolla. Similar to a Spanish tortilla, it was delicious. At any rate, the son of the King of Ice-cream, or the Prince, as he called himself, makes a good enough living to be able to travel to the States, and has done so twice. However, he agreed with the twenty-something journalist that it is very hard for young people in today's economy, and also agreed that in southern Italy many people don't want to work hard.

On the surface, the roads seem good, the bathrooms are generally clean, though often minus toilet seats, there is not a lot of garbage everywhere, but at the same time, the cycle of poverty seems to take on a life of its own here. It seems quite difficult to escape what appears to be the southern Italian culture. It was disheartening to hear to the resignation, and to some extent the hopelessness, in our young journalists' words.

Stromboli Island
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Posted by jonshapiro 09:59 Archived in Italy Tagged beaches people buildings_postcards Comments (1)

Matera

Arrived here after roughly a three hour drive from Sorrento. We were met as scheduled by Mario, the son of the apartment owner, who then showed us where to park our car and brought us to our apartment in the Caveosa Sassi. There are two main sections of Sassi, or stone houses, and luckily, we are staying in the center of Caveoso on a main, but still narrow street. Opposite us, is a very recognizable church carved out of a high piece of rock overlooking the ravine. This makes our place relatively easy to find.

Main street near our apartment
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Rock church, top right, in front of our apartment with ravine in background
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Looking back over Caveoso Sassi from top of rock church
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Matera, at least the old parts, which date back some 7000 years, is built out of the stones and caves that surround a deep ravine which is literally just opposite our apartment. These cave and stone dwellings ascend to the top of the hill where there is a square towered church, the Duomo, now closed for renovation. The city of about 50,000 feels like medieval fantasy, as many of the stone buildings date from that period of time. No matter which way you look there are incredible vistas of the multi-textured stone, narrow, serpentine lanes with ascending cobblestone steps, ancient churches with ornate stone carvings, and longer views over the deep ravine with cave dwellings on the opposite side as well. Many of the nicest houses have been renovated, although there are still an equal number that have not.

Looking up at the Duomo
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Basilica at the edge of ravine
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Cobblestone alley at edge of ravine with cave dwellings on opposite side
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Alley's about town. Nanette on right
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There are workman everywhere, getting the town ready for 2019, when it will be the site of a European-wide cultural festival. To add to the fantasy, it has been used as the set for a number of movies, including Pasolini's Gospel According to Matthew, and more recently Mel Gibson's version of The Passion of Christ. Right now, practically just outside our glass front door, they are filming a new version of Ben Hur with Morgan Freeman. We have yet to see him, but we have seen many film extras standing around in Roman peasant garb, and a number of the film crew. Obviously Hollywood has discovered Matera, although there are few tourists here at this time of year. Temps are cool, upper 40's to around 50, and although we had some sun yesterday, today is drizzly and overcast.

Rock church opposite our apartment lit up at night for movie set
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Okay, it's not Morgan Freeman
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A number of the restaurants and trattorias are closed, though not all, and we had a great lunch in a renovated and beautiful cave restaurant located on a tiny alley, somewhere in Sassi Balsano. Not at all sure we could find it again.

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Yesterday, we wandered into a church San Angelino de Baptisti, and viewed the old frescoes, further inside the stone building. A kind of church within a church, as it were.

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We asked when or if there was any music being played on the organ, but when we returned at the appointed time, 8 PM, the place was shut tight. A woman in a pizzeria across the street told us to come back at 8 AM, which we did, but once again the placed was locked. Perhaps no one goes to church any more. We did find a small osteria/cum beer hall nearby, where we stopped for expresso and cake, and noticed that they had a jazz group performing there tonight. So we will try and make our way back here once again. There was also an asian looking,though Italian, young man there,who spoke relatively good English, a seeming rarity in these parts, where even our Spanish doesn't work very well. He told us that he was an opera singer, and apparently will be giving some kind of recital in a church near to our apartment in a few days. We will try to make it there was well.

At night, with the houses and cave dwellings lit up, the place has an eerie, other worldly feel, especially in the mist and fog.

A bit blurry, but you get the idea
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Matera is as unique a place, as I have seen. From the little I have read, its history is also quite unique, as it is possilby one of the oldest settlements in Europe. However in the 40's and 50's it was very poor, and overpopulated,and Malaria and sanitation problems were widespread. Sometime in the late 50's, early 60's, the government finally noticed, and new housing was constructed in nearby villages, and the worse sanitation issues were addressed. On the other hand, just as in Cuba, the poverty and neglect may be partly responsible for the magnificence that we see today. Otherwise, probably most of the sassi would simply have been torn down. Ironically, though it still feels somewhat off the beaten track, Matera is now the leading tourist destination in the province of Basilicata, in the boot of Italy.

Though I fondly remember my time wandering around the back alleys of Venice, this place is even more unusual, and unlike Venice, it is still a working city, and not solely a tourist destination. This could certainly change, especially after the cultural fiesta of 2019.

We have continued to dodge the raindrops as we discovered more parts of this mysterious and unique city.

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Though on a few days we had sun.

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We found a small lane immediately behind the church in front of us, that runs directly adjacent to the ravine. Along this path there were vegetable gardens and even a very local outdoor shop selling figs and dates and other veggies. We walked along and stepped into a few abandoned cave dwellings. Some of the others were still in use as storage places, or had been renovated for cave dwelling B and B's. Eventually we found ourselves in the newer part of town and stopped in a local place for cappuccino and croissants. It seemed like an Italian version of Stewart's, a coffee and convenience store near our house, where old retired guys hang out to chat, but it was also a bar, as are many of the coffee places in Italy. Walking further down the street we discovered a couple of excellent fruit and veggie shops with very fresh produce. We purchased stuff for a lunch time salad.

Another day we hiked down into the ravine on a steep, albeit short trail not far from the rock church. It was a wild place, but the river was too deep and too fast for us to cross over to the other side. We did get some great views looking back towards town.

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We decided to try our luck driving to the other side of the ravine to check out other caves and the very large park on that side of the river. However, moving the car and finding the route to the other side was an adventure unto itself. No doubt we would never have found the way, were it not for a nice young man, who happened to be standing around in a restaurant when I went in to ask for directions. At first he tried to explain how to get there,but given the number of turns, as well as his halting English, he realized that we would never make it. Instead, he got into his car, and told us to follow him, and took us to a point where we could get there on our own.

The far side of the ravine had a network of dirt roads that led up to the edge of the ravine, but we stopped before that point and walked. There were many caves here, and it had a wild and windswept feeling. It also offered views of the Sassi on the other side.

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Selfie from across the ravine
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After a nice walk, the rain moved in once again, and incredibly, we managed to find our way back to town, with some help from Google Maps, to a point very near our old parking spot. This was taken, but we did manage to park nearby, and then it was about a ten minute walk back to the Sassi Caveosa ,and our apartment. We are now safely ensconced in our little duplex of stone and wood.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:49 Archived in Italy Tagged churches photography tourist_sites living_abroad buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (4)

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