Travelogue for Italy, 2008

Travelogue for Italy, 2008

“It is fate that I am here, persisted George, “but you can call it Italy if it makes you less unhappy.”

— E.M. Forster, A Room with a View

Welcome! This is an online travel journal for my Summer 2008 trip to Italy, which covers the following destinations:

  • Rome
  • Florence
  • Lucca
  • Pisa
  • Siena
  • Venice
  • Murano
  • Burano
  • Torcello

Also, you should know that while I’ve embedded some photographs into the entries, many more from my trip are available on Flickr, and travelogues for all of my previous trips to Europe are also available from the navigation menu, including those from Italy in 2010 and 2013.

Enjoy!
DLG

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

London, Paris, Rome. Three consecutive years, three fantastic cities. That was the original game plan, and here I am again suited up and ready to play.

As usual, my plans for this year’s trip have grown in cost and complexity over the last few months, with no help from a plummeting U.S. dollar. It’s no longer just Rome, but also Florence and Venice, with a few Tuscan hill towns and lagoon islands thrown into the itinerary for good measure. I’ve read and dog-eared the requisite guidebooks, scoured Trip Advisor for hotel rankings and reviews, loaded my iPod Nano with an array of Italy inspired songs, and crammed my brain with a collection of fiction and non-fiction books, from E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, to Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling.

Despite a near obsessive level of preparation, I’m still struggling with my Italian phrasebook as I sit on the runway, not quite sure which syllable to accent when saying mi dispiace. It means “I’m sorry” and in these last moments I’ve somehow convinced myself that I’ll need to use it often to cover a variety of offenses, both of language and culture. But the plane is ready for departure and ready or not, I am about the find out that all roads in life really do lead to Rome.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

I blink at my wristwatch and can’t quite believe it. Against all odds, my flight is going to arrive into Fiumicino on time at 8:45 AM. This is a surprise given (in my experience) the general and combined incompetence of Philadelphia International Airport and U.S. Airways.

Gratified, but tired nevertheless, I stumble with the rest of the passengers through passport control and then baggage claim before meeting a driver from Rome Cabs, which I pre-booked online some weeks ago. He’s holding a sign with my surname, but it’s preceded by the title “Mr.” instead of “Ms.” My brain is still wakening, so that’s close enough for me. The driver, however, seems genuinely pleased by the slight misunderstanding. He introduces himself as Maurizio and he is a credit to the reputation of Italian men everywhere, charming and flirtatious.

Our immediate departure is complicated by my desire to do two things before I leave the airport: buy a Roma Pass and extract Euros from an ATM machine. The first is a matter of convenience, the second of necessity. After all, Maurizio has to be paid. He is, however, remarkably unconcerned about this as he carries my suitcase happily through the international arrivals hall in Terminal C.

We discover that the kiosk that sells the Roma Pass is not yet open for the day, and that the Bancomat across the aisle is likewise out of service. So far, we’re batting zero for two, but Maurizio assures me that I’ll be able to buy a Roma Pass along the Via del Corso easily enough and that there are plenty of cash machines in the city. Not to worry.

He talks and tells me stories all the way from the airport to my hotel near Piazza Venezia. The journey takes longer than I expected and, in fact, becomes something of a private guided tour. I have never been to Rome before and he tells me that she is two different cities—one by day, the other by night. I ask him to explain, and when he does, I see his eyes brighten, framed in the rear view mirror. “Rome by night,” he says, “is magic.”

Somewhere between our stops at cash machines two and three (two simply spit my card out without explanation), Maurizio and a swerving Vespa nearly collide. The guy on the Vespa has some anger management issues and pounds on the hood of the car. Heated words are exchanged, as are gestures that transcend any language barrier. Maurizio assures me that everything is fine and continues to talk pleasantly to me in English as if this kind of thing happens all the time.

When at last he carries my bag into the lobby of the Hotel Hosianum Palace on Via dei Polacchi, he slips me his card. He wonders if I might meet him for dinner the following night. I am flattered, perhaps because I know how frightful I look after an overnight flight, or maybe it’s because I am going to mark a milestone birthday later this summer and Maurizio thinks I look young. Nevertheless, I decline and hope afterwards that I have done it gracefully. My time in Rome will be short and there is so much to see.

I recognize two passengers from my flight, waiting to check in. They introduce themselves as Ann and Mel from Denver and we chat pleasantly for a few minutes while our rooms are assigned. Our itineraries sound much the same, so I wonder if I’ll stumble into them again somewhere in the tourist crowds.

When I open the door to my room on the third floor, what I find is small and irregularly shaped, but beautifully appointed and utterly cozy. There is a twin size bed covered in a gold damask spread, a nightstand with minibar, a desk on which rests a flat-panel TV, and a wardrobe for hanging clothes with an electronic safe below. The ceiling is high, framed by an ornate crown molding. A single shuttered window opens onto a view of the narrow street below. Bellissimo!

By now, it’s lunch time and the gray sky outside is spitting rain. I buy a Roma Pass at the tourist information booth on Via del Corso, but given the weather opt for a change of plans and head not to the Colosseum and Roman Forum, but to the shelter of the Capitoline Museum instead. Getting there proves to be a battle of epic proportions. In zig zagging across the streets that merge into Piazza Venezia, I suddenly feel like I’m in a real life version of the old arcade game, “Frogger.” No one brakes for pedestrians, and the traffic signals seem little more than advisory. I stand there stupidly for a while, but when an Italian woman in business attire approaches the curb next to me and steps off without a moment’s hesitation, I leap forward to her right, using her as a shield between my own body and the steel of oncoming traffic. She is Moses parting the Red Sea. The traffic does not come to a complete standstill, but it folds itself neatly around us as we walk. It’s a brilliant move, but one that should come with a disclaimer that reads: “Warning! Tourists crossing street must be accompanied by a citizen of Rome.”

Once I am safely delivered to the steps of the Victor Emmanuel II monument, I circle around it and climb Michelangelo’s long, sloping steps to the Piazza del Campidoglio. I devour a tomato and mozzarella panini at the museum café under a canopy on the terrace, and enjoy my first sustained view of the city. Afterwards, the museum itself is an unexpected delight. I pop in the earbuds to my iPod Nano and use the audioguide I downloaded in advance from the museum’s website to navigate from one room to the next. I see Romulus, Remus and the She-Wolf, the famous bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, and various disassembled parts from the colossal statue of the Emperor Constantine that once stood by the Colosseum—a disembodied head, a foot, and a hand with the index finger pointing up, like one of those giant foam mitts you see at football games. I can just imagine ancient spectators chanting “We will, we will, rock you…” while watching gladiators and beasts engage in mortal combat.

It’s still raining when I leave the museum, but it does nothing to dampen my mood. I am falling in love with Rome already. I walk past the Colosseum, trying to visualize where Constantine once stood in narcissistic glory, then down Via San Giovanni in Laterano to the Basilica of San Clemente. It’s a perfectly lovely 12th century church, with a beautiful apse mosaic, but the layers of history underneath are even better—a 4th century Christian church with remnants of its original frescoes, and deeper still, the remains of a 1st century Pagan temple.

From there I wander slowly uphill to San Pietro in Vincoli. Here in a reliquary under the altar are the iron chains that bound St. Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. To the right is a monument to Julius II, the warrior pope who diverted Michelangelo from work on a more grandiose tomb to paint the Sistine Chapel. Due to declining funds and the pope’s own faltering reputation, the original plans were never fulfilled following his death in 1513, but Michelangelo’s statue of “Moses,” seated at the center, survives.

By now it’s late afternoon and the sky has cleared. On my way back to the hotel to rest up and change for dinner, I pause to watch a group of firemen rappel down the face of the Colosseum. It seems like a daring move. Someone in the crowd says that they are practicing for the big “Republic Day” parade, where they’ll unfurl a giant Italian flag. I wish I could be there to see it, but I have a reserved seat on a train to Florence first thing Monday morning.

For my first night in Rome, I settle on “La Polarolla” for dinner, near Campo de’ Fiori. It’s 8:00 PM when I arrive and with the time change and the local custom of eating late, I’m starved. But in my inaugural attempt at Italian dining I find myself drowning in food after just two courses. Antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti, contorno, dolci, caffé. How do they do it? The cannelloni is very good, as is the pollo porchettato (chicken with bacon and herbs), but I’m left with no room for gelato, which seems like a grave miscalculation.

After strolling around Campo de’ Fiori to walk off my dinner, I linger in Piazza Navona. Bernini’s “Fountain of the Four Rivers” is still under scaffolding, but in the darkness it hardly matters. With half flood lit, it’s still an impressive sight. I look around and see artists selling their wares and street vendors tossing glow stick rings high into the sky. Three tenors with guitars are singing a rousing rendition of “Funiculì, Funiculà” to the delight of diners at the “Caffé Dolce Vita.” The sweet life. That’s what la dolce vita means, and being here in Rome on this night, with the pulse of human existence all around me, I understand more than its literal translation into English.

Maurizio was right. Rome by night is magic.

Friday, May 30, 2008

This morning, I wake from a deep sleep to the persistent honk of my alarm clock. My muscles are stiff when I roll out of bed, but when I open the shutters overlooking Via dei Polacchi and crane my neck out the window, I see a promising blue sky, which renews my energy. On a morning such as this, it seems a shame to waste Euros on a taxi ride to Vatican City, and I’ve heard horror stories about the pickpockets on Bus 64. I have a 10:30 AM reservation for an official guided tour of the museums, but even after eating breakfast there is plenty of time to spare, so I decide to walk instead.

I turn left down Via delle Botteghe Oscure, stroll past a few ancient and incongruous pillars on the right, and run smack into a major Roman ruin. It’s Largo di Torre Argentina and it’s fascinating. The sunken square reminds me that the modern city of Rome has been elevated by layers of debris.

As I turn up Corso Vittorio Emanuele, I watch impatient Italians on motor bikes push through the streets as fast as the morning rush hour will allow. Shopkeepers are rolling up their doors. The sight of two little old ladies walking arm and arm makes me smile. Rome is a different city by day, but it’s wonderful just the same.

When eventually I reach St. Peter’s Square, turn right, and wind my away around the Vatican walls in search of the museum entrance, I begin to wonder where the infamous line is, the one people stand in for hours when they don’t have a timed reservation. I want to appear smug and self-satisfied with my computer printout in hand.

When I find the doors I realize that the line is no more than 40 or 50 people long. It barely wraps around the first bend in the wall. Nonconformist that I am, I’m tempted to join the queue and avoid the extra fee for the tour, but I don’t. I look for the line reserved for guided Vatican tours and show the guard my printed confirmation.

Once inside, I still have to go through security and pay for my ticket. But afterwards I am directed to a roped off reception area to wait with other visitors. We’re handed Whisper headsets so that we can hear the guide and a group of us are amused when she holds the microphone to her mouth and asks anyone who can’t hear to come up to the desk for assistance. After all, if you can’t hear her voice through the earphones, how are you supposed to follow her instructions?

In the end, it’s a good tour and lasts about two hours. We see courtyards, tapestries, and domes, even a room devoted exclusively to sculptures of animals. Our guide is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but it’s easy to lose sight of her once we reach the more crowded rooms. I notice that the other tour guides around me are all holding silly objects in the air for their clients to follow: an umbrella, a paddle that looks like it came from a Sotheby’s auction, a large felt flower. We have nothing.

When we reach the map gallery, I think it’s so incredible, so captivating, that I linger a little too long taking pictures. At first, her voice cuts in and out as the signal fades. Then it disappears altogether. I have no choice but to follow the masses forward down what feels like a one way street. I know I’m getting close when I start to pick up bits of static and snatches of speech. It feels like I’m in a crowded swimming pool playing “Marco Polo.” Once inside the Raphael Rooms, I spot her at last, just as she starts to collect the headsets. She explains that we will visit the last room on our own. It’s time for the grand finale.

As everyone knows, there is a no photography rule in the Sistine Chapel. The reasons for this are muddled since photos are allowed everywhere else in the Vatican Museums. The explanations range from the perfectly understandable to the downright silly. On the understandable side, it is a place of worship and should be respected as such. Granted, a reasonable person might recall the story of Jesus and the money changers and decide that the souvenir shops scattered every ten feet throughout the museum threaten the sanctity of the place about as much as tourists snapping pictures, but I digress.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is a desire to protect the frescoes from the damage caused by a million or more flash bulbs a year, and yet no one seems to be particularly concerned about that in the map gallery or the Raphael Rooms.

Then there is the stuff of urban legend — tales of the Japanese firm that paid to restore Michelangelo’s work in the 80s and 90s and how they cleverly acquired the copyright to the images along the way. As I follow the crowd toward the room, I overhear some tourists grumbling about how it’s all a conspiracy to get people to buy overpriced postcards and guidebooks in the gift shop afterwards.

Whatever the truth in that rumor, the sign over the entrance door is clear. Camera + red X = No pictures. I cannot in good conscience plead innocence to “The Rule” and so I slide the power switch on my Nikon D40 into the off position with a gentle click.

As soon as I enter the chapel, I find myself overwhelmed by two things: the crushing weight of the crowd and the breathtaking beauty of the ceiling. Actually, the first can’t even compare to the second in importance because everyone is looking up anyway. I feel the unnatural closeness of the strangers around me, but I do not see them. My eyes see nothing but Michelangelo’s narrative: Noah and the flood, the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, God’s creation of Adam in the touch of two outstretched hands. Outside this place, in the pages of books, on coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets and computer mouse pads, the image is so familiar that it’s lost the power to impress. Here, I can feel the room pulse with energy.

After the initial sense of awe has subsided in my brain, I take in my surroundings and begin to realize that “The Rule” about photography is unenforced in the most spectacular fashion. I squeeze onto a bench along the wall and observe human nature as it takes its natural course.

There seem to be three main strategies employed. The first is a simple version of grab and run. One guy looks furtively around, snaps a quick picture under his arm, and moves nonchalantly away as if nothing happened. An old woman gets caught by a guard after taking her turn and tries to explain that she doesn’t speak Italian, and therefore didn’t know better. A teenager confidently points and shoots in utter disregard for the consequences. Sneak it, feign ignorance, or do as you darn well please. It’s simple, really.

Put it all together and the whole system works rather like a “Whack a Mole” game. The guards step in to stop one person from taking pictures, and three others use it as cover for taking their own.

The problem is that the penalty doesn’t seem too bad. There is no real disincentive. The guard who approached the old woman did not confiscate her camera, nor did he escort her to the door. He merely wagged his index finger back and forth saying “no, no, no” in the tone of voice you use to chastise a child who has done something that is in equal parts wrong and amusing.

This presents both a moral dilemma and a physical challenge. I feel swept away. Is this what people mean when they talk about the psychology of crowds? I can just see myself saying to the guard: “But you see, sir, everyone else in the room was doing it.” And he says: “What if everyone else in the room jumped off of the dome of St. Peter’s, would you do that, too”? At this particular moment, I think that I might.

I try to distract myself by listening to Rick Steves’ commentary on my iPod, but a sequence of thoughts begins to run through my head… My camera is still slung around my neck, but it’s getting heavy. It would feel good to rest it on my lap for a while as I sit. I wouldn’t want to rest it facing down, of course, because that might scratch the lens. Up would be better. But then it would be easy to bump the power switch with my hand, and if that happened I would be able to press the shutter, too. Accidentally, of course. These things happen. And how would I know, with the digital screen on the back of the camera hidden so completely from view?

Who am I kidding?

I do what needs to be done. As I leave, I look back over my shoulder at the “Last Judgment,” at Michelangelo’s depiction of the tormented, writhing bodies of the damned, and my moral compass kicks in at last. I am going to H-e-l-l. But at least I’ll have lots of company…

Mi dispiace.

After a quick lunch in the museum’s cafeteria, I head back around the walls to St. Peter’s Basilica, stopping only to look for “Pope-eners” in one of the souvenir shops along the way. When I see one, it’s actually a bit of a letdown. It’s a gold and silver bottle opener with Pope John Paul II’s likeness on one side and St. Peter’s on the other. It’s not as kitschy as I had hoped. It’s got a great name, though.

By now, it’s mid-afternoon and the security line at the basilica is short and efficient. I wonder at first if the sleeves on my blouse will be long enough to pass muster with the guards, but in comparing my own sartorial choices with those of my fellow travelers, I start to relax. Shorts, halter tops… don’t these people read the guidebooks? There is a strictly enforced dress code at St. Peter’s.

Yeah, and there’s a ban on photography in the Sistine Chapel.

Perhaps they both work the same way because a guy in front of me just got through with shorts on. His knobby white knees are totally exposed. I can’t decide whether he really doesn’t know about the dress code, or if he’s just playing it cool and hoping no one will notice. Eventually, they do. A guard comes scurrying up from behind, taps him on the shoulder, he shrugs and away they go.

Inside, St. Peter’s basilica is meant to be an impressive site, and it is. It’s dimensions are mammoth, self-consciously so as it turns out, because as I listen to another Rick Steves podcast he points out the Latin inscriptions on the floor that mark where other churches would fall if they were placed inside of St. Peter’s: St. Paul’s in London, the Duomo in Florence, St. Mark’s in Venice. It’s an amusing image, to think of the great cathedrals of the world as a giant set of Russian nesting dolls.

I enjoy seeing art in museums, well lit and perfectly placed at the optimal viewing angle. But it’s so much better to see it in situ, where it belongs, its context intact. Here, there is Michelangelo’s first Pietà and Bernini’s Gloria window made of transparent sheets of alabaster, not to mention a stunning array of mosaics so detailed they appear from the floor to be painted in oil.

I visit the crypt next to see the tomb of Pope John Paul II, then make my way back outside to join the line to the dome. I have a choice to make… Climb the whole thing, or pay two Euros more to take an elevator half way. I can’t get the extra coin out of my wallet fast enough!

Even with the elevator, it’s a challenging climb. As the dome slants in, so too does the head room available on the stairs. It’s a tight and awkward squeeze, but the view from the top is fantastic. My eyes fix on St. Peter’s Square and then trace Via della Conciliazione all the way to Castel Sant’Angelo, across the bridge with the angels all the way east to the Victor Emmanuel monument at Piazza Venezia, which looks like an oversized wedding cake. To the right of that, I spy the Colesseum.

After my descent, I limp into a shop nearby and reward myself on a job well done with a heaping dish of gelato: pistacchio and crema.

By now it’s 5:00 PM, but there is still plenty of time before dinner, and with the gelato holding my hunger at bay, I decide to visit the interior of Castel Sant’Angelo. It’s a long, slow climb up a dark interior ramp, but when I reach the terrace on top I can see the full length of the bridge, a bend in the river Tiber, and to the west, the dome of St. Peter’s. When I rest my hands on the windowsill to lean out, my fingers fall into the deep grooves of graffiti carved into stone. I wonder who BOTTESINIE was and what he thought about as he stood here. How long ago? One hundred years? Two hundred?

By the time I realize I left my beautiful tri-fold, laminated map of Rome somewhere in the castle, I’m already back on the bridge. The logic centers of my brain know that it might be possible to retrace my steps, to find and reclaim my map, but my legs plead for mercy. There is, after all, the long steady incline both up to and back from the terrace to consider. I decide to wing it instead. Tomorrow, I can always pick up one of the free paper maps they offer at hotels, but for now there is the immediate problem of dinner.

Weeks ago, it had seemed like a pleasant task to pick out restaurants from guidebooks and online discussion boards. Someone on Trip Advisor recommended “La Pollarolla” and that worked out well the first night. For this particular evening, I had highlighted a pizzeria called “San Marco.” I had even circled its location on my map with a marker. Now that I’m here, there is no map, no circle, no way of knowing where Via Tacito is.

I wander for a bit around Piazza Adriana and then stroll back over the Ponte Sant’Angelo as I formulate a game plan. It is only my second day in Rome, but already my determination to eat consistently good, authentic Roman fare is giving way to the reality of hunger and exhaustion. I decide to go for something — anything — close by.

Desperation brings me to “Antico Caffé di Marte” on Via Banco di San Spirito. When I see the large poster by the door showing pictures of the various dishes they serve, I know I’m in trouble. It’s a tourist trap with a capital “T.” I figure that as long as I’m here I might as well go all the way and order a Coca Cola Lite… with ice. I remind myself that I’m going to hell for taking that picture in the Sistine Chapel, anyway. How much further can I slide?

Ultimately, the pizza margherita isn’t very good. In fact, it’s dry as a bone, but the insalata caprese is fine, made with nice, fresh ingredients. By the time I finish, it’s approaching nine o’clock and I feel energized again and ready to position myself for some night shots.

An hour later, I’m satisfied that the pictures I’ve taken of Castel Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s Basilica have turned out well. Both buildings are beautifully floodlit and after the sun set the sky had deepened into a rich cobalt blue. I decide to head back to the hotel, but because of the descending darkness and the fact that I still don’t have a map, I opt for the safety of a taxi instead. Although, as it turns out, safety is a relative thing.

I walk to the taxi stand in front of St. Peter’s. The driver at the front of the line doesn’t speak any English, and Via dei Polacchi is a tiny little street, so it takes some time for us to reach a mutual understanding of my destination. Once we do, the car is off like a dart down Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The guy is like Mario Andretti at the Indy 500. I peer over the front seat and see that we’re going 100 kilometers per hour. I figure that’s about 60 miles per hour. Pretty fast for the center of town. The best part comes when Mario beeps his horn preemptively at all of the intersections, just in case someone is foolhardy enough to try to cross in front of him. When we arrive outside my hotel minutes later, he gestures triumphantly up at the sign and says “Via dei Polacchi!”

Indeed.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

It’s another glorious morning in Rome and this one begins with a sumptuous breakfast on the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Hosianum Palace, included in my room rate. With the dollar as weak as it is, I feast long and well on eggs and bacon, cornetto and cappuccino.

It’s 9:30 AM by the time I reach the Roman Forum, a site I deferred on Thursday due to rain. Rick Steves is my companion again as I enter from Via dei Fori Imperiali with my Roma Pass and iPod in hand. At this hour, the air is cool and breezy and my walk through the ruins of ancient Rome, from the Arch of Titus to the Temple of Saturn, up the Palantine Hill and back, is as pleasant as pleasant can be. As I stand staring at the spot on which Julius Caesar’s body was cremated following his assassination, something deep in the corner of my brain stirs. “Friends, Roman, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Eleventh grade English, ingrained after all these years. The bard and Mr. Yerger would be proud.

I have to navigate through a pressing crowd and a persistent band of Gladiators next to reach the Colosseum. Do I want a bella foto with them, they ask? No, not really. Not for what they charge.

The line for pass holders is comparatively short and within ten minutes time I’m standing on the upper level of the arena looking down. It’s mammoth in size, but familiar in shape and structure. It’s like any modern sports complex, but without the product placement. When I see Ann and Mel there, too, we’re surprised yet again by the chance encounter and use the occasion to snap pictures for one another.

From here, I take a long, slow walk north through the historic center of Rome. I have a 3:00 PM reservation at the Borghese Gallery, but figure I have plenty of time to get there. I stop to wonder at the Pantheon and its giant oculus, break for gelato in Piazza Colonna, then move on to the Spanish Steps, where I’m disappointed to see that scaffolding still surrounds the obelisk at the top. It’s a stark column of gray steel, like a miniature skyscraper, obscuring the façade of the church of Trinità dei Monti.

It’s from the top of the Spanish Steps that I first notice a problem. On many levels, the free paper map in my hand is a poor substitute for the laminated, tri-fold, beauty I lost at Castel Sant’Angelo. In particular, I see now that it fails to mark the location of the Borghese Gallery. Either the museum is beyond the northern border of the map, or it’s hidden behind an ill-placed advertisement for the Castel Romano designer outlet mall!  I don’t know which. Remembering that the gallery is located in the Villa Borghese, I follow the first sign for that I see, which leads me left. As it turns out, this is a mistake. A big, honking mistake.

Once in the lush surroundings of the park, I ask a couple sitting on a park bench for directions. They point me down a long gravel path, past a playground and a carousel. From there, I spot a sign pointing towards the Galleria Borghese, which I follow in premature elation. I spy another sign that takes me in another direction, then another, and another. By the time I reach my destination at last, I’m cranky, exhausted, and very nearly late. By brain tells me that I’ve walked about three miles from the Colosseum, but to my aching body it feels more like twenty.

Walk there. What a dumb idea.

The staff at the Borghese Gallery understand human nature well. They must be determined to avoid the scene at the Sistine Chapel, because they make visitors check their bags and cameras at the door. What’s left of my belongings—my wallet and the storage card from my Nikon D40 for safe keeping—are placed in a clear plastic bag for all to see. They also insist on a reserved time slot that lasts no more than two hours. No crushing crowds here.

I rent an audioguide and join the queue outside, along with a boisterous group of young nuns. As we filter through the rooms, I have a hard time shaking them and their behavior is becoming more and more distracting. I’m trying to appreciate Canova’s neoclassical masterpiece of Paolina Borghese as Venus Victrix, but one of the nuns decides to jump up on an empty pedestal, sit there, and swing her feet. When our eyes make contact, she quickly hops down and looks away, but laughs just the same. A few minutes later, I see a baseball cap hanging from the outstretched hand of another sculpture. And, of course, there are the nuns, giggling harder than ever. I’m tempted to report them to security, but when I enter the room with Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne,” I’m struck dumb. It’s stunning, more delicate and expressive than anything I saw at the Louvre last year. It looks like it was molded out of wax instead of marble, as if it would be soft and hot to the touch. I wouldn’t dare, of course, but I bet I could get one of the nuns to do it for me!

About halfway through the Correggio exhibit, my energy gives out at last and I decide to call it a day. I’m relieved to find a taxi nearby and ride it all the way back to my hotel, where I take a nice, long nap in my air conditioned room.

By dinner time, I feel somewhat revived. Determined to stay close to home, I turn right out of the hotel lobby instead of left. Left is the direction that brings me within yards of Piazza Venezia; right takes me to a whole other world. These are the charming streets and alleyways that border and then sink slowly into the heart of the Jewish Ghetto. There, just around the corner from my hotel, I stop to eat at “La Taverna degli Amici.” I order a house specialty, fiori di zucca (fried zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta), followed by bombolotti with cheese and bacon. I feel a long way away from that tourist trap near the Ponte Sant’Angelo. This is how I imagine Roman food should taste, with fresh, seasonal ingredients, simply prepared.

Afterwards, still enjoying the night, I follow a steady stream of people towards the Trevi Fountain, which in reality is a massive wall of marble fronted by a pool of aqua blue. I stand with my back to the water, facing the masses, and toss a coin over my shoulder, then several more. Whether it be the stuff of legend or Hollywood movies, I’m not taking any chances. I want to ensure a return visit to Rome someday. Soon.

As I head back to the hotel, I take a slow and circuitous route that allows me to pause in front of the Pantheon one last time. There is a young man performing in front of an appreciative crowd. He trades off between violin and voice, moving from what sounds like the “Flight of the Bumblebee” to a stirring rendition of “O Sole Mio,” and finally “Che Sera.” With deliberate disregard for the exchange rate, I reward him gladly and well.

This is magic, after all.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

When I wake up this morning, I’m conscious of the fact that it’s my final day in Rome. I’ve planned a side trip out along the Appian Way and getting there requires a ride on the Archeobus, which departs from Termini Station. There is no way I’m walking this time, so I buck up my courage and plunge into the Rome metro system instead. Until now, I haven’t used the transportation portion of my Roma Pass. I’ve heard too many horror stories about scam artists, pickpockets, roving gypsies, and graffiti. The London tube? Perfectly delightful. The metro in Paris? Piece of cake. But Rome? Perhaps it’s all in my head, but it seems unsafe and intimidating.

I walk to the Colosseo stop, validate my pass, and wait for a Line B train to Termini Station. When it arrives I almost laugh aloud. It’s so encrusted with graffiti that the passengers can barely see out the windows. I can honestly say that Rome has exceeded my expectations in so many ways! It’s not just graffiti, but graffiti on steroids, some of it quite interesting and nearly beautiful.

The journey itself is uneventful, over in minutes.

Outside the station in Piazza dei Cinquecento, I exchange my computer confirmation for a boarding pass and begin to wait. When it comes, the Archeobus is a strange lime green creation, like a bus with the roof gently scooped off, open-top but single deck. On board, it’s the usual stuff — a pair of low quality, brightly colored ear phones, monotonous commentary in the language of your choice, and a connection so marred by static that you can only hear every other word anyway. Convenience is what this is all about. I want to see the Catacombs of San Callisto and the official directions are daunting, involving the metro and two bus lines. The Archeobus delivers me directly to the door.

I’m able to catch a tour in English as soon as I arrive, and soon I’m enthralled by the guide, who happens to be a Catholic priest and a control freak. Father Rocco likes to position people just so, and is prone to giving elaborate instructions on who should move where to maximize space and visibility. We are both teachers, he and I, and I like this about him.

As we move from an outdoor pavilion into the tunnels underground, I see that he’s donning a heavy, quilted jacket — a parka, really. This seems to worry others, too. How cold is it in there? As it turns out, not cold at all. At least to me. I think it’s hot outside. It’s cool and refreshing down under, but then again I’m from Vermont, where much of the year I aspire to any temperature above freezing.

In the end, it’s an exceptional tour, the best I’ve been on since verger Ian’s at Westminster Abbey in the summer of ‘06. Father Rocco makes it so. He’s brilliant and I’m disappointed when he cites a study that shows that people only remember 10% of what they learn from guides. I’d like to absorb it all. History and religion is a fascinating mix.

When I leave San Callisto, I pick up the first Archeobus I see along the Appian Way. It’s only after I board that I realize it’s heading in the wrong direction, back to Rome instead of further along the route towards the aqueducts. Que sera, sera. I decide to stay put and use the extra time to see some other sites on my list.

I hop off at Santa Maria in Cosmedin, near the Circus Maximus, and snap a quick picture of “La Bocca della Verità,” or Mouth of Truth. It’s a carved stone face that was featured in the 1953 movie Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Legend has it that it bites off the hands of liars. Still in willful denial about that picture in the Sistine Chapel, I decide not to press my luck by inserting my own.

From there, my free paper map shows me that I’m not far from Piazza Cavalieri di Malta, where my guidebook says there is a “secret keyhole” in a door that reveals a charming view of St. Peter’s. This is off-the-beaten path stuff and I decide to make it my mission to find it. When I do, I realize with some amusement that it’s darn near the center of the beaten path! There’s a small crowd queuing in front of a worn green door. The line never seems to shorten because everyone presses their camera lens to the keyhole, and everyone frowns at the screen afterwards in disappointment before making their way to the back of the line to try again. I decide to call it good enough on my second attempt. It’s a tough shot that requires manual focus, a steady hand, and a strong zoom. I think I managed two out of the three.

So far, it’s been an interesting and eclectic day, so I decide to continue on the same theme. I sit for a while in a charming park on the Aventine Hill at Viale Nino Manfredi. Then I walk back to Piazza Venezia and on a lark decide to take the elevator to the top of the Victor Emmanuel monument to enjoy the view. I stop for a late lunch of gnocchi pomodoro at “Vecchia Roma,” and head back to the hotel for what has become my traditional afternoon siesta.

By early evening I’m back out on the street again, this time walking across the Ponte Garibaldi. At a souvenir stand just over the Tiber, I spot a row of boxer shorts sporting vertical stripes of red, white, and green to match the Italian flag. In the center, portions (um) of Michelangelo’s “David” have been cleverly inserted. It’s funnier even than the Pope-ener.

I’ve arrived in Trastevere. Several years ago I heard a “soundseeing” tour of this largely residential neighborhood, recorded on a vibrant Sunday morning by a Dutch priest, Father Roderick Vonhögen. From the sound of church bells ringing at Santa Maria in Trastevere to his description of the smell of fresh baked bread, I was transfixed. Now, I am here to see it with my own eyes.

It is… well, underwhelming. The architecture is impressive, but for the first time I am appalled by the amount of graffiti that I see.

The basilica, however, is lovely. It is one of the oldest parish churches in Rome, and some believe it is the first church in the world where Catholic mass was celebrated openly. I stop on the portico to stare at fragments of carved marble embedded into the walls, taken from various tombs in ancient Rome. On the inside, there is another stunning mosaic in the apse, but my favorite is a statue in the rear of the church of St. Anthony of Padua, shown holding the child Jesus. Into his arms and at his feet, parishioners have tucked hundreds of prayers, written on folded scraps of paper. If St. Peter’s is a testament to the wealth and prestige of the Catholic Church, this is proof of its relevance in the everyday lives of the faithful.

For dinner, I head back over the Tiber to a pizzeria called “Gino ai Funari.” The waiter is an elderly man with boundless energy and a personality to match. When, halfway through, I add an insalada mista to my order, he curtseys and winks. When I decline dessert he gives me a wave of his pinky finger, paired with a hearty laugh. The place is slowly filling with Americans. I know this because I can hear them ordering their cans of Coca Cola Lite. I’m beginning to think that Gino is nipping our collective share of the vino.

My final task in Rome is to take the perfect picture of the Colosseum, illuminated at night. I’m later than I’d like and trying to move quickly down the sidewalks that line the Via dei Fori Imperiali is not easy. The grandstands placed there for Monday’s parade have created a huge bottleneck. As I listen to one couple talk, strolling two abreast, hand-in-hand, I come to the realization that while Italians drive fast, they walk very, v-e-r-y slowly. I’d like to ponder that contradiction, but for now I’m chasing the light.

In the end, all is well. I snap away happily until the last trace of blue leaves the sky. I have done all that I had hoped to do in Rome, and enjoyed it immensely. Veni, vidi, vici. I came, I saw, I conquered.

And now it is time to sleep.

Monday, June 2, 2008

I’m up early for one last breakfast on the rooftop terrace. Of my hotel’s many fine qualities, I think I like this private garden best of all. Good food, beautiful flowers, and a glorious view. What better way to start the day? But on this morning, the gray sky and light drizzle overhead seem to match my mood. I’m excited to get to Florence, but sad to be leaving Rome behind.

With luggage in hand, I take another wild taxi ride, this time to Termini station where I have a reserved seat on a 9:00 AM Eurostar train. It’s Republic Day in Italy and the streets at this hour are largely devoid of their normal rush hour traffic. It gives my driver all the more room to careen around corners at breakneck speed, as he navigates a detour away from the day’s parade route. By the time I arrive, well before departure, I feel dizzy and a little seasick.

I keep a vise-like grip on my bags until the train has left the station, then I sink back into the seat and allow the gentle rocking of the cars to soothe my head until we arrive at Santa Maria Novella on time an hour and forty minutes later.

After another short taxi ride, I’m standing on the curb at the foot of a flight of stairs that leads to a small elevator which spills out into the lobby of the Hotel Davanzati — a necessity that is far less troublesome than it sounds. In my best faltering Italian, I ask the man at the front desk if he speaks English. “No, no,” he says, shaking his head impatiently. I panic. Then his face breaks into a wide and generous grin. “Just kidding!”

This is Fabrizio and this is the moment I know beyond all doubt that I am going to love this place.

Fabrizio shows me to my room, a charming single with a view overlooking Via Porta Rossa. Afterwards, he hands me my reservations for the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia, walks me through a map highlighting all of the major attractions, circles the location of the best gelateria in town — bless his heart — and invites me to a complimentary happy hour, complete with candlelight and prosecco. Now that’s what I call service!

It’s raining steadily by now and I don’t feel much like trudging out into the wet. For an hour or so I curl up in my room and use the laptop provided to post some pictures on Flickr for friends and family back home. I’m feeling nostalgic already.

Since the Capitoline Museum had been my refuge from the weather in Rome, I decide to use the Museo dell’Opera for the same purpose here in Florence. I see some very cool wooden models for the façade of the Duomo, an unfinished Michelangelo Pietà, nearly swallowed up by an inconvenient crowd of French tourists, and finally, Ghiberti’s original bronze panels for the baptistery doors.

Having seen the genuine article, I next walk out to admire the copies that stand in their place in Piazza del Duomo. Michelangelo once called them the “Gates of Paradise,” so impressed was he in their use of linear perspective. However, when I enter the interior of the octagonal structure and my eyes feast on the lush mosaic ceiling, I don’t at first notice a benevolent Jesus with arms outstretched, or the choir of angels overhead. Instead, I fixate on a disturbing image of Satan munching on the naked torso of an unrepentant sinner. Others are meeting an equally unpleasant fate in the jaws of snakes, lizards, and giant beetles. This is, unmistakably, another variation on the punishment of the damned at “The Last Judgment.” It’s a surreal and frightening image, one that might look at home next to a painting by Salvador Dalí or Max Ernst. Remembering that ill-gotten picture of the Sistine Chapel, I cringe.

Satan and his minions notwithstanding, this is an incredible space. By now, it’s mid afternoon. The clouds are starting to break and rays of slanted sunshine are streaming through the room’s narrow windows. When the glass tiles on the ceiling capture the transient light, they shimmer and glow as if lit internally by the flames of a hundred candles.

Back in the piazza, the exterior of the adjacent cathedral dwarfs the baptistery in size and splendor, crowned as it is by Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome. But unlike its neighbor, the interior here is largely a disappointment. I find it sober and bare, as if so much money was spent on its striped veneer of white, green and pink marble that nothing was left for interior decoration. Even the 16th century frescoes that circle the dome seem like an uninspired and redundant choice. I see nude men pushed by horned creatures into the fiery pit of Hell and know that the subject is — once again — “The Last Judgment,” only this time, through repetition, it has lost the power to shock. I sigh in exasperation, convinced that this scene must have been the obsession of every Renaissance artist.

It’s four o’clock and the steadily improving weather is an encouraging sign. I do a quick comparison of the lines to climb the dome and Giotto’s belltower, and decide to go for the latter. Compared to St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, where the spiral stairs were narrow and confining, this is a relatively easy climb of 414 steps. The view from the top is a full 360 degrees overlooking a sea of red tiled roofs. Based on what I’ve seen in guidebooks, I spot San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapel to the north, the Palazzo Vecchio to the south, Santa Croce to the east, and the church of San Miniato al Monte in the far distance on a hill across the Arno.

Back on the street below, I decide, as in Vatican City, that the Herculean effort involved in such a climb is worthy of reward. I pull out Fabrizio’s map with its ink circle around the intersection of Via de Calzaiuoli and Via dei Tavolini and make a beeline for “Perché No!” Why not? That’s the literal translation of the name, but it seems a reasonable attitude to take with several hours left before dinner. The combination of peach and pear gelati I order is perfection itself, the best I have ever had.

I head back to the hotel for a rest, then to the happy hour underway in the dining room. By now I have decided to trust Fabrizio’s recommendations on all things implicitly. I would gladly eat at the local McDonald’s if he felt it worthy of culinary attention, but he directs me to Trattoria al Trebbio for dinner instead. It’s a small place, tucked into the intersection of three narrow streets near the church of Santa Maria Novella. As an antipasti, I enjoy a tasty, if somewhat monochromatic, salad of pear and pecorino cheese, and for my main course, a plate of tagliatelle with portabello mushrooms. With Fabrizio’s help in making the reservation, I have snagged the last seat on the patio and for this I am grateful.

After dinner, I stroll down to the River Arno and watch the sunset from Ponte Santa Trinità. The midday rain has given way to a glorious sky that deepens into a rich azure blue just as the sun recedes behind the horizon. At 9 PM, the street lamps lining Lungarno Acciaiuoli spring to life and I turn to see the Ponte Vecchio and its twin below reflecting into the still water. It’s a more beautiful bridge than I imagined, one that has probably changed little since the days of Vasari and the Medici, or the fictional lovers in Forster’s A Room with a View. In the book, after returning to England, George Emerson falls into a disagreement with the dreary Mr. Beebe on the subject of coincidence. “It is Fate that I am here,” persists George. “But you can call it Italy if it makes you less unhappy.” For me these past five days, fate and Italy have seemed very much entwined.

I walk along the river until I reach the bridge itself. The butchers and fishmongers of the medieval city are long gone, replaced by jewelers whose wooden doors and wrought iron hardware at the close of day resemble a row of pirates’ treasure chests. When I turn to glance up Via Porto Santa Maria I can see the top of Brunelleschi’s dome peeking out above a sea of neon signs. The sound of music, however, pulls my attention back to the bridge and to the man who stands under the center arch, guitar in hand, serenading the crowd. His name his Claudio Spadi and he is, without doubt, the most gifted street musician I have ever heard. As he transitions easily between unfamiliar Italian songs and popular American ballads, each more pleasant than the last, I can’t believe that people with far less talent win recording contracts on reality TV, while this guy sings for his supper on the Ponte Vecchio behind a sign that reads: “Be generous. Every coin is blessed… this is my job.”

Come to think of it, given the view, he may have the better deal.

As I wind my way back to the hotel, I am distracted by the roar of a very different kind of music. I follow the sound to Piazza della Signoria where I find neat rows of seated spectators and a military band playing under the loggia. It’s still Republic Day, after all, and this must be part of the local celebration. A copy of Michelangelo’s “David” stands to the left in a position that makes it seem like he is listening in rapt attention, his work of slaying giants done for the day.

As the strains of the last march leave the air, the conductor turns to the audience and his right arm snaps into an impressive salute. He gestures to the musicians, who stand in unison, red and white plumes projecting from their bicorne hats. Like the minstrel on the bridge, finding them here has been an unexpected delight.

I wonder if Maurizio has ever been to Florence?