Thursday, May 28, 2009

From the Dolomites to the Pine Barrens

Our last view of Italy from the window of our plane was the jagged peaks of the Dolomite Mountains rising 10,000 feet into the sky.

Our first good view of the United States was the vast forests of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, whose rare pygmy pitch pine trees are only about 10 feet high.  A letdown? Not at all. As different as they are from the Dolomites, the Pine Barrens are an equally impressive natural wonder.

The Pine Barrens are also the complete opposite of most people's image of New Jersey - the industrial traffic-filled New Jersey with the greatest population density of any state in the Union, nearly 1,200 people per square mile.  And yet just south of this industrial corridor - taking up 22 percent of the land mass of New Jersey - are the 1.1 million virtually uninhabited acres of the Pine Barrens. In the heart of the Pinelands, there are only about 15 people per square mile. The Pineys as the residents are called in New Jersey, live in small towns like Batsto, Chatsworth and Hog Wallow or on isolated homesteads off one of the hundreds of miles of unpaved roads that crisscross the Pines.

For kids in Trenton, where I grew up, the Pines as we called them,  were just a vast, uninteresting area that you had to pass through to get to the real attraction - the Jersey Shore. Sometimes, though, our father was too tired to tackle the bumper to bumper traffic that on a summer Sunday began miles before the old wooden bridge that crossed the inlet to Seaside Heights with its wide, white sand beaches and amusement-filled boardwalk.  On those days, we would go to Pakim Pond, a small cedar-colored lake in the heart of the Pines. 

The pond - whose name comes from the Lenni Lenape word for cranberry -  and the dwarf forests that surrounded it were as dark and mysterious as the ocean beaches were open and sun-filled.  Large dragonflies that we called sewing bugs - because as my older brother explained, they would sew your lips together if you got too close - buzzed languidly over the lake and the adjoining creeks.  

What we didn't know then was that our small pond was part of a natural area that was anything but barren. It's home to more than 850 plants, some of which grow almost nowhere else on earth; has 84 nesting bird species; and sits atop one of the world's great underground aquifers, containing approximately 17 trillion gallons of soft, pure water. 

The Pines are filled with cranberry bogs, making New Jersey the number three producer in the United States. The blueberry, the State Fruit of New Jersey, was first cultivated there in Whitesbog in the early 1900s. The state is the number two producer of blueberries in the country. (Michigan is number one.) 

The cedar-lined rivers in the Pines are fast-moving and unpolluted since they arise in the Pines themselves. Development has eaten away at the edges of the Pines, but it's still possible to take a two-day canoe trip and not see a single house. 

If you want to visit the Pinelands, they are likely to be there for a long time to come since in 1978 the area was designated the nation's first National Reserve and in 1983 it was named a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve.  

To see photos of the Pines, click here.
Recommended Reading: The Pine Barrens by John McPhee, 
                                  Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 1981 


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Trieste - Last Stop In Italy

The English travel writer Jan Morris wrote  that Trieste is the city where she learned to be "usefully indolent" as every travel writer needs to be. "...if ever you hear them saying, 'What's become of Morris?' tell them to come to Trieste and look for me loitering with my adjectives along the waterfront."  

During this, our last week in Italy, in this beautiful most un-Italian of Italian towns, I've tried to follow Morris'  advice although I've done most of my loitering in the city's historic Belle Epoque cafes or in one of the its many excellent seafood restaurants.

If you don't know where Trieste is, you are not alone. (Click here for a map.) In an interview in 2004, Morris cited a 1999 poll which said that 70 percent of Italians didn't know Trieste was part of Italy.  Morris' book about Trieste, which she calls her favorite city in the world, is entitled "Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere."

A beautiful hilly city on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, Trieste had its heyday in the 1800s when it was an important part  of Austria and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was the Empire's only deep-water seaport. The city's prominence began to wane at the end of the First World War when it became part of Italy, which had other important seaports. After the Second World War, the city was invaded by Yugoslavia.  It was not until 1954 that Trieste was officially returned to Italy. 

Trieste remains Italy's main coffe port, a hub for the coffee industry and home to Italy's famous Illy coffee.  Not surprisingly, the city  is brimming with cafes.  It also has a long literary tradition.  James Joyce lived in Trieste for many years and wrote  most of "Dubliners" and "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and part of "Ulysses," there. The Italian writer Italo Svevo is a native son.  

Joyce and Svevo were friends and often frequented the Antico Caffé San Marco, which supposedly is still a haunt for artists and litterati.  When I was there, the artists and litterati must have been somewhere else so the existential, intellectual conversation I hoped to have with one of them will have to wait for another time.

One has a lot of time for possible conversation in Trieste because there are no real big must-see tourist attractions. The biggest draw is Miramare, the 1856 castle built on the Adriatic by Archduke Maximilian of Habsburg.  After only a few years at Miramare,  Maximilian unwisely went off to become Emperor of Mexico.  He was executed there three years later and the castle has become a monument to his past glories.  

That could be a description of Trieste itself where the past is very much alive and where you have the impression that everyone is waiting for the return of Trieste's former glory. It's all very gracious though and it gives one the feeling that there's no need to rush about seeing this and that.  It's enough to walk along the waterfront and then to sit in one of the beautiful cafes -- reading, writing, watching and waiting, along with everyone else, for something to happen.

To see my photos of cafes and cafe clients in Trieste, click here.
For other photos of Trieste, click here.


                                                                                                                                                                             with James Joyce

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

May Day in Milan

Milan, Italy's second largest city, is not the first destination that comes to mind when a trip to Italy is planned. It can be cold and damp in winter and hot and humid in summer.  

We went for three days in May when the air was warm  and the newly-cleaned cathedral sparkled pure white against a clear blue sky. Milan is a vibrant, bustling city of business, banks, fashion and design, but on this holiday weekend, the pace was slower and the mood more festive than usual.  

Friends, who were born and grew up in Milan, invited us to spend the May Day weekend there with them. Even though they have lived in Pisa for eight years, Milan is still their town. They have an apartment there and most important of all, family. Driving with them through the beautiful mountain scenery and down into the Po Valley toward Milan lessened our sadness at leaving Pisa.

We saw most of the major sites, including the famous cathedral; the Sforzesco Castle and museum; the Vittorio Emanuele II Shopping Gallery; the Basilica of San Ambrogio, the patron saint of Milan; the Design Museum and the Brera Art Gallery with its many Italian masterpieces. We walked in the Public Gardens and in the streets of Montenapoleone, where the rich and famous shop. We had lunch at an outdoor cafe and dinner at a wonderful local restaurant. We couldn't get reservations to see daVinci's Last Supper nor were there any good tickets to be had for the opera at LaScala.   

We did see our friends' grade schools, high schools and the restaurant where they had their wedding dinner. We visited with their mothers and had dinner with their friends. At one of the dinners, I talked about how open and friendly Italians are and how easy it is to make friends in Italy. I was surprised when all of the Italians at the table disagreed. "Italians are very attached to their own towns and especially to their families," one of them explained. "When you move to a new town, the people there are always courteous, but it's difficult to make friends." Our experience was different, they thought, just because we were real outsiders who are in Italy for only two months a year. "People are curious and so they want to get to know you. In the process, they become your friends." It's an interesting perspective and seems to be a case where being a foreigner in a foreign land is an advantage.

Seeing Milan through the eyes of people who love the city may have unduly influenced me, but I thought it was great city.  If you want to see Milan through my eyes, click here to see more photos.


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor