Packing up this morning, we both decided it would be nice to take a rest day and see the sights of Cremona. Crawling out of our fantastically shady and well hidden free-camp, Tyler announced that he would pack up if I made breakfast. I set up a small kitchen at the nearest picnic table and got to work making pancakes. Well fed, we set off for a day of being tourists.
In the dappled sunlit piazza we wandered around, wheeling our bikes through the busy marketplace. Under the shadow of the great duomo cathedral, sellers hawked cheap clothing, cookware, and enough jewelry to keep fashionable Italian women well-accessorized for life. Then there was the food section of the market! Huge wheels of parmeggiano reggiano and provolone, mountains of sausages—the place was a throng of buying and selling, tasting, feeling and examining of quality. Around the corner from there, a man sold perfect purple plums by the pound, and a little further down a man sat against a fresco-ed wall giving the whole bustling scene a soundtrack with his accordion music.
As we navigated the cobblestone streets and swarms of shoppers, we were stopped by a friendly man in a cute argyle sweater, also wheeling his bicycle around. We stopped to talk for quite some time (using French as our best common language) as he was very curious about our trip. He thanked us for the card we gave him from the bottom of his heart and declared that we were now dear friends. Waving goodbye, it seemed everywhere we turned people were smiling at us and giving us the thumbs up. Italians are so great!
After exploring the market for awhile, we found our first tourist stop for the day: a private collection of very ancient, very valuable violins. At the ticket office, we bought combined tickets so we could also go see the Stradivari museum. The man gave us student prices without asking for ID and we ended up spending just 5 euros apiece, gaining access to four Cremona museums!
Very excited, we now had our day's itinerary planned: inexpensive museum hopping! Leaving the ticket office we walked under the brick archway and into the first exhibit. In a small, beautifully decorated room, several violins and other stringed instruments were on display. From a distance, one could see they were beautifully crafted, but the real surprise came upon closer observation. The first violin—in pristine condition, was hand-made by Antonio Stradivari over three hundred years ago. The second violin—also in pristine condition, was hand crafted by yet another famous artisan in the 1600s! In spite of our total lack of knowledge about violins, we were thoroughly impressed.
Our next stop was the The Natural History Museum of Cremona. It left much to be desired, especially given that we'd been spoiled by Oxford's Museum of Natural History. Nevertheless, we went through the whole thing (it was very small) to get our money's worth. Half of the exhibits were depressing displays of glass eyed, chloroformed birds. We quickly made our way through the other exhibits, commenting that they looked as though school children had made them in the 80s.
Happy to leave we continued on to the combined Stradivari and Civico Art Museum. This was a world class experience; almost as beautiful as the art was the museum itself with its central sunlit atrium, marble stairways, and grand pillared halls. We wandered through the exhibits, marveling at the skill and attention to detail that went into creating centuries old works of art.
When our camera battery died before we made it to the Stradivari exhibits, Tyler went to get the charger. We fell asleep in a dimly lit room, sitting in comfortable chairs looking at a giant painting of the resurrected Jesus visiting his mother while the camera battery charged. After waiting a bit, we roused ourselves and continued our exploration of art and music.
The Stradivari museum was fantastic. We saw how a violin is made by hand, from the curved carving of the body to the delicate etching of the spiraled headstock. Stradivari's own templates and tracings graced the glass showcases, and his violin forms and tools evidenced the quality craftsmanship he practiced 400 years ago.
Museums make us sleepy, and when we were done ogling at all of the beauty, we left in search of a nice coffee shop where we could settle down for the afternoon as Tyler needed to get some programming done. We found the perfect hangout just off the Piazza Roma. Next to old men sitting on park benches and children playing in the fountain, was the cozy and friendly Chocolat Cafe. As we whiled away the hours over perfectly foamy cappuccinos, we watched the regulars come and go for their espresso fixes, leaving their bikes propped up outside. Soon we felt like regulars ourselves, joking with the baristas and making ourselves at home.
Later in the afternoon, my parents called to chat and I walked across the cobble stoned street busy with bicyclists. Finding a shady bench in the park, I settled in to talk. A few minutes later, a very old Italian man came on his bike and asked if the seat next to me was taken (in Italian). I said no, and he propped his bike up and had a seat. No sooner had he sat down than he started talking to me (even though I was clearly speaking on the phone very loudly and in English). Unable to handle two conversations at the same time when they are both in English, I was soon lost, not listening to my parents, and incapable of understanding the old man's Italian!
I told my parents to call me back in a few minutes and proceeded to have a very amusing, stunted chat in horrible Italian. From what I gathered, he was a retired veterinarian who often frequented the Piazza Roma. I told him about our trip (sort of) and answered his questions about our two cats back at home. As quickly as he had arrived, he shook my hand and left. It was simultaneously charming and incredibly surreal. To my delight, my parents called back shortly after and we continued our conversation right where we'd left off.
As the hours passed and we listened to Massive Attack blaring on the speakers, our cozy little coffee shop became the neighborhood's favorite after-work hangout. All of the regulars who had been stopping in for espresso during the day now returned for aperitivos. Following their lead, we moved on to prosecco, a delicious and refreshing sparkling white wine. The baristas (now bartenders) set out bowls of antipasti—free sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil (which I usually don't like, but these were delicious), olives, cheese, chips, crispy bread with pesto dip and other sauces, pistachios, peanuts, and popcorn decorated a small table. Everyone gathered around for delicate Italian grazing. When we finally bid the coffee shop farewell, we were treated with huge friendly waves and loads of "ciao!"s.
Hopping on our bikes we zipped through town in the cool dusk air on cobbled streets back the way we'd come. Returning to our familiar, homey free-camp we set up under an even better tree, and I settled in while Tyler went for a nighttime swim in the Po. Our spot is so well hidden he couldn't even find me with his headlamp! He finally had to call out my name to crawl into camp and settle in our sleepingbag for another night in Italy.
Gelato flavors of the day:
Tara: Nutella, Tiramisu, and Yogurt with strawberries and honey.
Tyler: Chocolate, Coffee, and Vanilla with crispy chocolate candies.