Posted by: kimberlysullivan | March 14, 2017

A skier’s paradise: Selva di Val Gardena, Italy

Selva di Val Gardena, ItalyI already wrote about skiing in the spectacular Dolomite Mountains (Dolomiti) in last week’s post.

This week, I’d like to concentrate on the little town of Selva di Val Gardena, which we used as our home base during our week-long skiing holiday. Selva – or its German name of Wolkenstein or the slightly tweaked Sëlva in Ladino – is one of three towns in the Val Gardena, the Gardena Valley.

Selva di Val Gardena, Italy

Views over Selva and the entire Val Gardena from the ski slopes

The other Val Gardena towns include Santa Cristina and perhaps the more famous Ortisei (Sankt Ulrich in German and Urtijëi in Ladino). The latter began as a summer and winter mountain resoort in the 19th century.

Although the whole valley is beautiful, Selva offers the most impressive connections to the 42-kilometer Sella Ronda ski tour trail (that I’ll write about more next week) that will connect you to many of the surrounding valleys and their beckoning trails.

Selva di Val Gardena, ItalyThis tiny town in the Alto Adige (Süd Tirol) segment of Italy’s region Trentino Alto Adige is perched at just over 1500 meters from sea level and swells far beyond its mere 2600 residents during its busy winter months.

It’s a pleasant town to wander and there are plenty of restaurants and bars offering après ski drinks. We never made it to the former, because our hotel fed us too well, nor to the latter because, well, we were pretty knackered after full days of skiing.

Selva di Val Gardena, ItalyHowever, we did get to the ice skating stadium (open in the afternoons/evenings for skating for those of you who can still feel your legs after skiing and didn’t get enough exercise during the day) one evening to watch ice hockey. Yes, Selva sports its very own professional ice hockey team and we watched them play – and sadly lose to – neighboring Cortina.

Okay, this may not seem like such a big deal to you, but I grew up loving hockey, watching it and occasionally playing for fun with friends back in college – but I never, ever see ice hockey in Rome, where it almost doesn’t exist.

Selva di Val Gardena, ItalyThis was a first for my kids and my husband, too, who had never seen the sport live and got a kick out of the speed of the sport and the fights that break out consistently. I also got a kick out of seeing so many paesani – in this case, Americans – on the teams. So don’t miss out on cheering for the home team – Val Gardena – of you are in Selva.

If you’re looking for a great place to stay, we loved our time in the Hotel Fanes: a friendly, family-run environment, excellent food, a lovely location overlooking the town and excellent après ski activities more along the lines of what I’m looking for: an outdoor Jacuzzi, Scandinavian sauna and various indoor saunas … just what I needed each day for my sore muscles.

Selva di Gardena was a wonderful find for my family and me, and as avid hikers, we’ll definitely be finding our way back here in the summertime, too, to enjoy some of these trails and spectacular mountain views framed by green grass and mountain flowers. Already looking forward to next time!

Selva di Val Gardena, Italy

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | March 10, 2017

Book review: Cold Comfort Farm

Cold Comfort FarmI can’t believe I didn’t discover this brilliant comic novel by Stella Gibbons, first published in 1932, a bit earlier. A friend of mine was reading this and telling me about it, and I recalled the film version I’d seen and enjoyed quite a years ago – without having realized the film had been based on a book.

Luckily, I immediately asked to borrow the book and am pleased to have had the chance to read it – better late than never.

This novel is a fun read – the story of Flora Poste, recently orphaned after receiving a broad education that provides her with culture and wit in abundance, but no tangible skills that will help her to land a job.

Flora puts off any plans for a job search by deciding instead to reach out to distant relatives, with whom she will live, and – according to her plans – meddle in their lives with an aim to improving their situation. The most intriguing offer arrives from the Starkadder Family of the brilliantly-named Cold Comfort Farm. And so, she takes off to set up her new abode in their ‘doomed house’ in which ‘there have always been Starkadders’.

The rural idyll is the staple of British literature, but the family seat of Howling, Sussex bears no resemblance to country life depicted in the Brontës or Hardy. Flora quickly sets out to improve the situation for her distant cousins, thereby placing them at odds with their controlling grandmother, the aptly-named Ada Doom, who keeps her downtrodden brethren on a tight leash because once, long ago, she ‘saw something nasty in the woodshed’.

The writing style and sly wit, including starring key passages to ‘assist book reviewers’, add to the enjoyment of this novel. One odd note, the book was written in 1932, but, according to the author, is set ‘in the future’. Judging from passages, I assumed it would have been taking place in the 1950s. Through no fault of the author’s own, slang stays decidedly set in the 1920s/30s, alongside fashion. Jazz is still all the rage and the young men are scarred by the horrors of war – anyone ever heard of that devastating 20th century War to End All Wars: the English-Nicaraguan War?

So, while her powers of prediction may be questionable, Gibbons’ writing skills are decidedly strong. I truly enjoyed this book – now I’m off to see the film again.

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | March 7, 2017

Skiing in a winter wonderland: Italy’s Dolomites

Dolomites, ItalyMy week skiing in northern Italy last month was a hard thing to leave.

After all, we enjoyed seven days of sunshine and snow on the 1200 kilometers of trails that took us all over Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, exploring new valleys and slopes each day.

The Dolomiti, the Dolomites, are a mountain range of the Italian Alps located in northern Italy, in the region of Trentino-Alto Adige.

Dolomites, ItalyThe Alto Adige segment is the northern part of the region and is also known by its German name of Süd Tirol. This section of Italy has gone back and forth between Italy and the former Hapsburg Empire.

Today, it is an autonomous region of Italy and officially bilingual – Italian and German.

Some valleys in the region – including the valley where we were staying, Val Gardena – add a  third language to the mix, Ladino, an ancient Romance language spoken in some areas of northern Italy. Ladino is also one of the four official languages of Switzerland.

Dolomites, ItalyThrow into this exotic mix absolutely stunning mountains and to-die-for slopes and you have the makings for a perfect ski vacation.

After all, in 2009 the Dolomites were  recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. This section of the northern Italian Alps includes 18 peaks, which rise to over 3,000 metres and were recognized for their “highly distinctive mountain landscapes that are of exceptional natural beauty. Their dramatic vertical and pale coloured peaks in a variety of distinctive sculptural forms is extraordinary in a global context.”

Dolomites, ItalyNeedless to say, a visitor can’t be helped but be struck with the shear beauty of these peaks, and the way they transform dramatically throughout the day, from the bright golden light of the morning to the late afternoon pink glow they assume as the day winds down to an end.

The whole area is wonderfully organized and the valleys throughout the region are mostly connected by ski slopes and lifts.  The Dolomiti Super Ski pass is expensive, but it provides you with access to all the trails of the region – all 1,200 km of them! You can ski around the wonderfully arranged 42-kilometer sella ronda – in clockwise and counterclockwise directions (I’ll write more about this in a future post), which gets you to many of the valley ski areas. This means every day of your ski holiday you can explore different trails and different valleys.

Dolomites, ItalyAnd there are plenty of picturesque baita/hütte where you can stop and recharge with great food, beer, wine … or my beloved Glühwein – mulled wine. I also took advantage of this Italian-Austrian combination to enjoy cappuccino and fresh Apfelstrudel. The best of both worlds. : )

We skied until we dropped on this holiday, and I could barely feel my legs at the end of our week. But the sun and slopes were perfect, and I enjoyed all that fresh mountain air and gorgeous views onto the dramatic Dolomites.

Since – as my kids always complain – I’ve become a slower skier with age (although, in my defense, they seem to take every run as if they are competing in an Olympic Grand Slalom competition), I also enjoyed stopping to contemplate the wonder of the nature all around as I rested my tired muscles.

Dolomites, ItalyFor a few days on this holiday, we dropped the kids off at ski clubs, where they met lots of nice kids and raced down the mountains as a group to their hearts’ content while we explored the mountains at a much more reasonable pace.

You’ll find all the ski schools well organized and multi-lingual. Italian, German and English are all widely spoken. We also heard lots of instructors speaking Russian with their students.

It was definitely sad to pack up our bags and head home to hectic city life… and the responsibilities of ‘real life’. But our week in winter wonderland in the Dolomites was truly spectacular – and I can’t wait to get back.

Alla prossima. Bis bald, Dolomites.

Dolomites, Italy

Dolomites, Italy

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | March 3, 2017

Book Review: Germinal, Émile Zola

Germinal, ZolaI don’t know how I’ve managed to wait so long to read one of Zola’s most famous works – and the thirteenth novel in his Rougon-Macquart series.

Published in 1885 and set in 1866, this is the story of Etienne Lantier, whose inability to find a job as a mechanic leads him to take on horrendous, physically-grueling work as a miner at Le Voreux mines in northern France.

I enjoyed similar works about the meat-packing plants in Chicago (The Jungle), the cotton industry in northern England (North and South), and the agricultural laborers in Italy’s poor Abruzzo region (Fontamara),  but this description of the inhuman work below-ground in the French mines and the abject poverty and sense of despair in the miner’s village was the most powerful depiction of human misery during the Industrial Revolution I’ve read.

Zola depicts a wide range of characters, with varying levels of focus – the miners and their families living in abject poverty in the mining community, the merchants around the area, and the overseers and managers and the wealthier families whose lives are financed by investments in the mines.

The scenes illustrating the disconnect between the miners and the lives of the local managers and investors are especially powerful, and I would have liked to see more of them. One moving scene has the wife of a mine manager providing Parisians a tour of the squalid homes of the miners. She explains the mining families’ lives in the village and all the benefits they derive from this supposedly generous  relationship, while the mining families themselves sit silently and with empty stomachs as the perverted performance plays out before them.

The scenes down at work in the mine, and all the horror and danger such work entails are powerful segments in the book, as are following the days of the poor families attempting the impossible: getting bread on the table for their large families. As a reader, my heart broke as the mothers eyed their toddlers while counting down the years until they could go to work in the mines in order to bring money back for the families. In the absence of any hope, promiscuity appears to be the only past time for the miners, and young boys and girls quickly begin the cycle of bearing more children whose mouths will be impossible to feed.

Before this backdrop, Etienne longs for a workers’ revolution and orchestrates a general strike. The strike quickly grows out of control and the plight of the miners and their families declines. The miners quickly discover that the International movement upon which – through their faith in Etienne – they placed all their hopes, is not much more interested in them as individuals than the mining management. Following the strike, the survivors return to the pits more battered than ever.

This is an extremely powerful novel. Although it would have been revolutionary at the time and shone a light on the poverty and desperation of mining workers, which was  Zola’s intent, it remains an extraordinary book to modern audiences. Germinal  quickly draws readers in to village life and the wide cast of characters as they struggle each day to survive.

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 28, 2017

Reason #5385 to love Rome: The Turtle Fountain

Turtle Fountain, RomeRome’s Fontana delle tartarughe – the Turtle Fountain – is a beloved landmark in central Rome.

Located on Piazza Mattei, in the neighborhood known as the Ghetto (for those of you wondering, this is where the name came from), it was built 1580-1588, during the Renaissance, by the architect/sculptor team of Giacomo della Porta and Taddeo Landini.

Turtle Fountain, RomeThe turtles that are what give the fountain its name and the element that invariably causes tourists to stop and smile when they see the fountain, were not an original element of the fountain, but added later during a restoration project, probably in 1658 or 1659.

Interestingly, the original design would have had porpoises on top, which apparently led to problems of water pressure and were subsequently removed. Hence, the later addition of these turtles so beloved by both Romans and tourists today.

Turtle Fountain, RomeAs my sons study in their art classes (sorry if I digress, but is there anything better than studying art in Rome? I’m quite envious of my own children who get to go out an observe live the art and architecture they read about in their textbooks), these beautiful Renaissance fountains we admire today were not built only for their aesthetic contribution to the city. Their primary reason for existence was as a source of drinking water for the Roman population.

The Turtle Fountain was no different.

2017_february_rometurtles4It was financed by the Muzio Mattei, from a prominent banking family, who agreed to construct and maintain the fountain – in exchange for the flow of water supplied by a new aqueduct to be moved close to his family residence (thus supplying the Turtle Fountain with its source of water).

The fountain has always been extremely popular with Romans – and its unveiling was met with success. It often appears in lithographs of Rome and – not surprisingly – often serves as a backdrop for films.

Don’t miss out on visiting this picturesque corner of Rome when you are next in the Eternal City.

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 24, 2017

Drink too much coffee when you write? Don’t feel bad…

CoffeeFor those writers who may guzzle a bit more coffee than they should during the writing process – don’t be too hard on yourself.

After all, writers often seem to be a strange bunch and this excellent post in the Writers write blog entitled 58 Famous Writers and their addictions is required reading.

From Byron’s obsession with sex to the authors who required alcohol and drug-filled binges in which to harness their creative muse, those extra cups of java that keep you going are looking better and better.

Happy (addiction-free) writing to all!




Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 21, 2017

An evening stroll in Caserta vecchia

Caserta Vecchia, ItalyI recently traveled down to visit the spectacular Reggia di Caserta, just outside of Naples in Italy’s Campagna region. You can see my earlier post about the splendid gardens that surround the former Bourbon family palace.

Following that visit and before the drive back, we decided to stop off for an evening stroll in Caserta vecchia – Caserta’s old town.

In most of Italy’s towns, the old and new towns are attached, but this isn’t the case in Caserta and Caserta Vecchia.

Caserta Vecchia, ItalyIn this case, the ‘new’ town was moved to the plain instead of the strategic location perched on the Tifatini Mountain where the old, medieval center was built.

It should be an easy 10 km drive from Caserta to Caserta Vecchia on a good road (a superstrada).

We managed to get lost and take the curving, windy and potholed donkey route in the dark up to this medieval fortress.

Caserta Vecchia, ItalyStill, it was well worth the trip to visit this perfect little medieval town. The first mentions of this town come from 861 A.D., at the time called Casam Irtam in Latin (meaning village located up high), back when it originally belonged to the Longobards.

This mountain perch grew at the time of the Saracen invasions in the plains below, when many would flee to this mountain outpost for safety.

Caserta Vecchia, ItalyIt was during this period that the beautiful cathedral was built – the splendid, medieval Duomo di San Michele Arcangelo. Work on this cathedral began in 1129.

The city’s importance would diminish in later years when the Bourbon family decided to develop ‘modern’ Caserta, where the Reggia was constructed.

Still, this medieval gem is worth a visit during your time in Campagna.

Just be sure to avoid the donkey path on your way up – unless you’re looking to replicate the authentic medieval travel experience…

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 17, 2017

Take pride in what you wrote – because you wrote it

2012_August_words“The stories weren’t brilliant. But I wrote them, I began and ended them.”

-Joy Williams

Love this sentiment from Joy Williams, an American novelist and short story writer I admit I didn’t know when I read this quote.

I like this idea of taking pride in your work – not just your best work, but the whole range of what you write. After all, lots of people say they would like to write, and I have spoken to many who say they always ‘mean to write eventually’  but first they must master the craft, understand the industry, speak to other writers, etc etc.

I’m not discounting this, it is certainly true. But if you want to learn to swim, you can watch as many swim meets as you want, you can talk to those who dominate the sport and their coaches, you can read about the theory and the technique of the sport, but eventually you’ll need to jump in the water, get wet and start kicking and stroking yourself in order to learn.

As a former swim instructor, I can guarantee you’ll be pretty awful and clumsy at first, but there is no other way to learn.

It’s the same with writing. You will never learn, you will never get better if you don’t start writing. And by that, I mean what Joy Williams does: write your stories, begin them, and end them. By doing this once, twice … a gazillion times, you’ll learn and improve.

Maybe they won’t all be brilliant. But you wrote them. They’re yours.

And in my mind, that’s something to be proud of.

Happy writing to all!

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 14, 2017

Save time for Orvieto’s Etruscan Museum

Orvieto Etruscan Museum, ItalyThere’s so much to see when you’re visiting the medieval Umbrian town of Orvieto, that you may forget to stop by the Fondazione Museo Claudio Faina, but that would be  a mistake.

This museum, which houses both the collection of the Faina Counts and Orvieto’s civic collection, is most impressive for its Etruscan objects – this is after all, one of the regions most associated with Etruscan civilization. But there are also impressive items from Ancient Greece and Rome.

Orvieto Etruscan Museum, ItalyAnd the noble home with its frescoed rooms in which the collection is held – just across the piazza from Orvieto’s impressive Duomo, and boasting spectacular views onto the Duomo’s 14th century mosaic facade – is worth the price of admission alone.

Conte Claudio Faina (1875-1954) seems to have been an obsessive collector of Etruscan artifacts.

Orvieto Etruscan Museum, ItalyMany are from nearby Etruscan tombs, but it seems he also had close ties to noble families around Chiusi, Tuscany (I’ve already written about the excellent Chiusi Museum of Etruscan Art in an earlier post), and his collection includes some objects from that region, including their distinctive funerary urns – the so-called canopic urns.

In reading some of the Count’s letters and diaries on display, it was interesting how he acknowledges that his passion for acquiring Etruscan art puts a financial pressure on him and his family, but he can’t control himself when faced with yet another treasure from the past.

Orvieto Etruscan Museum, ItalyI always enjoy visiting Etruscan collections around Italy, and if you have time when you are in Orvieto, this museum is definitely worth a visit.

But as impressive as the collection is, I must admit I was most spellbound by the golden light of that perfect January afternoon setting aflame the golden mosaics of the 13th-14th century Duomo.

Orvieto Etruscan Museum, ItalyThe windows look out at the cathedral’s facade and you get a view you couldn’t hope to enjoy as you stand in front of the cathedral craning your neck upwards.

The lucky Faina family gazing out on that architectural masterpiece each day, and you can feel almost as privileged as you admire the details of that beautiful, medieval craftsmanship while exploring the wonders of the Ancient Etruscans.

When in Orvieto, after having climbed its medieval tower for impressive views over the city, be sure to save time for its Etruscan Museum.

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 10, 2017

The art and joy of creation

Mario Vargas Llosa“It’s the most exciting moment when you discover life in what you’ve created.”

Mario Vargas Llosa

Thoughtful words from Peruvian/Spanish author Mario Vargas Llosa, whose works I’ve long admired. I believe most authors would agree with this sage observation.

After all, many of us spend an inordinate amount of time living ‘in our own heads’ with the stories we have created, and I think most of us would understand that sense of excitement when your story truly does come to life for you, when your characters talk to you and seem to breathe and think and move on their own, acting out in ways you may not have imagined earlier.

What about you, writers? Can you relate to Vargas Llosa’s observation? Can you remember a time when you felt your creation had really come to life and was taking on a shape all its own?

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