Tuesday, June 3, 2008

This morning when I open the heavy wood shutters in my room and look down on Via Porta Rossa, I can see scattered drops of rain making puddles in the street. I decide that this matters little since I plan to spend the bulk of the day in museums anyway.

After a hearty continental breakfast, I head off past the colorful leather belts and bags of the Mercato Nuovo to the Uffizi Gallery. The line at this hour is short, but I’m relieved nevertheless to have a reserved entry at 9:00 AM. I barely have time to distinguish the living statues on the street from the real ones in the niches along the square when I’m ushered into the museum.

There are four long flights of stairs to be conquered before reaching the U-shaped gallery, and as I climb, I fish my iPod out of my pocket to queue up another of Rick Steves’ Italy audio tours. By now, his corny sense of humor and persistent puns are wearing thin. After all, this is a man who in jest refers to Botticelli’s masterpiece, “The Birth of Venus,” as Venus on the half shell. But the quality of the actual commentary is quite good and as I see it, every Euro I save on official guides can be put to better use buying gelato.

When, halfway through, he quotes a poem by Michelangelo that says “souls will never ascend to heaven until the sight of beauty lifts them there,” all is forgiven. From now on, Rick can crack as many clichéd jokes as he likes. That line alone is inspiration enough. Here in the Uffizi on a Tuesday morning in June, surrounded by some of the world’s finest art, I feel about as close to heaven as I have ever been.

After buying a variety of souvenirs from the museum gift shop, I decide to drop the bag off at my hotel and stop for a quick lunch at “Caffé le Logge” along the way. From an array of freshly prepared sandwiches in the glass case, I select one with prosciutto and porcini mushrooms on focaccia bread and throw in an apple tart for good measure. As I sit inside at a small round table and eat, I watch a pair of elderly (and apparently very frugal) American ladies share a panini and cappuccino between them. When it comes time to pay the bill — which amounts to little more than five Euros — they raise their voices in protest. The price, they say, is not as advertised. In their minds, they have been cheated and they are determined to let everyone in this small shop know it.

I understand what they do not, that meals eaten sitting down, as opposed to standing at the bar, come with a small service charge, or coperto, attached. But given the vehemence of their complaint, I would rather not intervene to explain this. Coward that I am, I hang my head and pretend not to hear.

When I walk to the cashier minutes later to settle my own bill, it’s less than I expected. The manager, I think, is trying to avoid another scene. I’d like to tell him that it’s OK, that I enjoyed my meal and would like to pay for the seat I used, but he doesn’t speak English and I am at a loss in Italian. I drop a few extra coins on the table instead before I leave.

Outside it’s still spitting rain. I have a 4:00 PM reservation at the Accademia, but with several hours to spare and the Bargello museum already closed for the day, I hoist my umbrella over my head and walk to the Basilica of Santa Croce instead.

I know that much of the church’s interior is under restoration, but even so I’m unprepared for the sight of so much scaffolding. It covers nearly the entire East end of the church, including the altar and apse. At least the most notable tombs lining the nave are unobstructed by construction. I pause in front of monuments to Galileo Galilei, the mathematician and astronomer, and Niccolò Machiavelli, author of a famously shrewd treatise on power known as The Prince. But my real interest in visiting Santa Croce is to pay homage to the bones of Michelangelo Buonarroti — sculptor, painter, architect, and poet. His tomb is a beautiful fusion of all these disciplines, with a fresco above and allegorical figures below.

From here, I explore the small side chapels that flank each side of the apse, stopping first in the Bardi to admire a 13th century altarpiece depicting scenes from the life St. Francis, but longest in the Cappella Castellani to marvel at its detailed frescoes. By the time I reach the sacristy with its ancient ceiling of exposed wood beams, I’ve long forgotten about the scaffolding around the corner.

One my way out, I remember to visit the attached “Scuola del Cuoio.” It’s a famous leather school created by the Franciscan friars of Santa Croce. Their products are meticulous and handcrafted out of lambskin and other more unusual pelts, including, deer, ostrich, python and alligator. I can’t afford their handbags (or much of anything else), but I do come away with a miniature version that doubles as a keychain and change purse.

The Accademia is my last major stop of the day. As at the Uffizi, my reservation allows me to skip the queue outside, which despite the lateness of the hour runs halfway down the street. It’s an unassuming building, covered in graffiti and surrounded by tacky souvenir shops. Without the trademark crowd in front I might have unwittingly walked right by.

The star attraction here is not the picture gallery or the museum of musical instruments, but the original and unequalled masterpiece that is Michelangelo’s “David.” To get there, I walk down a long corridor, where unfinished “Prisoners” stand as stone sentries. It is a path that leads to the most recognizable sculpture in western art. The plaster cast I saw several years ago at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London cannot compare, nor can the replica I stood next to last night in Piazza della Signoria.

There are the usual signs posted in the gallery and a vigilant guard on hand, but I see several tourists seek pictures on their cell phones just the same, with David’s posterior being a particularly popular shot. As for me, I have had enough time to reconsider my rule breaking in the Sistine Chapel. My camera stays put in my bag. Although, when I buy an uninspired postcard in the lobby on the way out, the photographer in me knows I could have done better.

Back at the hotel, the sporadic rain that has fallen throughout the day has turned into a downpour. Determined to stay close by, I follow Fabrizio’s advice and have dinner at “La Bussola,” a cozy restaurant just down the street. Hungry without my usual afternoon gelato, I devour a plate of bruschetta pomodoro and a pizza made from local ingredients, including fresh pecorino cheese from Chianti and Tuscan wild boar salami.

When I have to resort to my umbrella for the short walk back, I know beyond doubt that Claudio won’t be singing on the bridge tonight, not in this weather.  Without that as an incentive to press on, I head to bed early.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The sky outside is feigning blue this morning. I want to be optimistic, I really do, but the weather report is ominous, and for that reason I mistrust my eyes. Nervous about the order of my itinerary, which today was to include a day trip to Pisa and Lucca, I decide after breakfast that it’s time to appeal to a higher power. I must ask Fabrizio.

Behind the elegant painted desk in the lobby of the Hotel Davanzati lies command central. While Fabrizio multitasks by checking a series of Italian websites on one computer screen, I wait and amuse myself by staring at the other. It’s displaying a picture of this very room. I can see the same striped drapes and Oriental rug. There is only one difference between this virtual world and the real one (aside from the perpetual threat of rain in the latter). On screen, Scooby Doo is dancing!

Chuckling, I look up in time to see Fabrizio’s face as he scans the other monitor, and it betrays a slight grimace. “Ahhh… let’s not look at that,” he says. It must be bad. Although the forecast shows no sign of improvement, my day trip can wait until tomorrow. With plenty of museums to explore here in Florence, it might as well.

The first stop on my amended route is the San Marco monastery. It is here in the 15th century that a Dominican friar known as Fra Angelico created small devotional frescoes on the otherwise stark dormitory walls, depicting scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. His most famous work, “The Annunciation,” shows a seated and demure Mary greeted by the angel Gabriel, revealing to her that she will give birth to the Son of God. This is the image at the top of the stairs, and I am able to capture it at a distance before I see the now familiar “No Photography” signs on the landing. Back goes the camera into the bag…

Up close, the scene is even more charming. Gabriel’s wings are bold in color and look as though they were constructed from the plucked feathers of a peacock. Mary’s hands are crossed at the waist as if to feel for signs of life within.

For the next hour, I follow a serpentine pattern into and out of each cell, leaving only when the rowdy passengers from a tour bus disturb the silence.

I follow Via Cavour down to San Lorenzo and roam the street market, looking for bargains on leather goods, and then drift through the Mercato Centrale to admire the produce. The Medici Chapels are here in the square, too, and I am eager to see the interior of the octagonal dome I spotted from the top of Giotto’s belltower on my first day in Florence. Alas, with a jungle of scaffolding reaching from floor to ceiling, the “Chapel of the Princes” is reminiscent of Santa Croce, but far worse since it’s stuffed into a much smaller space. The “New Sacristy,” with its sculptures by Michelangelo, is the only saving grace, enough at least to defend the cost of admission.

As the lunch hour passes, I again take stock of the weather. The sky is blue and seems determined to remain so, but I’m still not convinced. I make a return visit to “Caffé le Logge” for a sandwich and chocolate tart and eat both while walking across the Ponte Vecchio to the south bank of the Arno. I desperately want to see the city skyline from Piazzale Michelangelo and hiking there in the rain just won’t do. I decide to seize the opportunity now, before the next storm hits.

It never does. Against all odds, the day stays clear and bright, with a pleasing canopy of cumulous clouds.

I enjoy the walk along the river, but as I turn to the right and head uphill, my legs begin to burn. By the time I reach the long, steep steps that lead to square, I have to stop more than once to catch my breath.

Still, the view from the top is stunning. From a distance, the architectural details of the city melt into harmonious shades red and yellow. Like the brush strokes in an impressionist painting, the impact from afar is greater than the sum of its parts.

With the storage card on my camera much fuller than when I arrived, I lumber back down the hill in the direction of the Palazzo Pitti. Along the way, here is what I ponder:

Itineraries can be a wonderful thing, as long as they are flexible enough to allow for spontaneity. Deciding to spend the day in Florence was spontaneous, born perhaps of a perceived necessity, but it was spontaneous nevertheless. Of course, the trouble with spontaneity is that it can lead someone to do silly things.

Take this afternoon, for instance. I made a decision to visit Piazzale Michelangelo in the early afternoon to avoid rain that never came. But now I want to attend vespers at San Miniato al Monte, where the local monks sing in Gregorian chant. That has created an awkward a space of time between 2:30 and 5:30 PM. A quick look at the map suggests that my best option for filling that time is the Palazzo Pitti and the adjoining Boboli Gardens. The map, however, represents a flat, two-dimensional space. I am standing on a hill — a very large hill — and marching down it now will necessitate another climb back to the same place later. Quite dumb when you think about it, but apparently I have neither patience nor foresight.

By the time I reach the grounds of the Palazzo Pitti, I am understandably tired. I decide to see the royal apartments and then lounge in the garden for a nice, long while. But as it turns out, I can’t buy a ticket for the royal apartments alone, or for the garden alone, or for that matter, for the two of them in combination. The powers that be have decided to bundle the admission of each with a distinct array of small museums that I have no interest in or time to see. This seems to be a different, and less advantageous, arrangement than the one described in my guidebook, but there is nothing much to be done. I opt to pay ten Euros for a ticket that gives me admission to the Boboli and Bardini Gardens, as well as a costume gallery and porcelain museum.

Once I am past the ticket booth, the security desk, and a second ticket taker, I am let loose onto the grounds at last. I don’t, however, know where to go. As in most museums in Italy, the price of admission does not include a map or floor plan. And as it turns out, the garden is nestled into the same hilly landscape I just finished climbing to the east. This makes it impossible to see what’s at the top of a hill without actually going there. Random wandering seems to be the only option.

For the next hour, I give this my best shot on tired legs. I am hoping to find a beautiful flower bed or a lovely fountain with a bench nearby. But the use of the word “garden” in this context seems ill-applied. From what I can see, it appears to be a forest on a hill, much of it in a natural (read: unkempt) state. The Medici may have been great patrons of the arts. It seems they were not, however, patrons of flowers. I recall seeing a postcard for sale in the gift shop by the entrance showing a single pink rose. Now I feel like demanding its location.

There are three things of value to a tourist – time, energy, and money. To me on this particular afternoon, the Boboli Gardens offend all three. My frustration ebbs away only when I stop for a pair of pastries at the Open Bar Café on Via de’ Bardi. Oh, why is it that food is such solace for the soul?

At least after today’s marathon, I don’t have to worry about the calories.

I arrive at San Miniato al Monte with enough time to tour the church thoroughly before vespers. It’s a beautiful space, well lit by the afternoon light streaming in through the small elliptical windows set high into the walls of the nave. The service, however, is being readied in a more austere crypt below.

By the time I note the placement, most of the seats are already filled by teenagers, chatting loudly amongst themselves. Several are bent over on the floor collating sheet music. For a moment, I am puzzled, but then as I watch an adult gesticulate to one of the Benedictine monks, I decide that they must be an impromptu choir, intent on singing, but uninvited all the same.

The monk seems to have agreed to something, but seeing their bags cast widely across the benches, he directs them to move their things into the corner. They do, and then file into line in front of the altar. They sing one song, which isn’t terrible, but then push their luck by reforming for another. At this point they are cut off by a tremendous baritone from behind, soon joined by others in the collective intonation of Gregorian Chant. Looking rather peeved, the teenagers gather their bags and stomp off, not bothering to stay for the actual service.

Many people don’t, actually. Aside from a handful of Florentines for whom this is the local parish church, tourists seem to come and go, treating it with less respect than a typical concert or theater event. By the time we make the sign of peace, I am the only stranger left and those around me greet me warmly in Italian and shake my hand.

The tourists who left early, including those impertinent teenagers, have been rude and disrespectful, which is crime enough. But in their haste they have also missed out on something special. In the gentle texture and rhythm of the chant, in the community of neighbors, and the deep connection to the traditions of the past, there is serenity. Fleeting, perhaps, but easy to miss in the rush of modern life, even for those on holiday who spend too much time obsessing about how much money it costs to wander through a garden.

For me, it lasts long through the sunset I watch from the terrace of Piazzale Michelangelo, back down the hill, along the river, and across the bridge where Claudio is singing tonight. All the way back to the hotel in the dark.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

As I lay tucked in bed this morning with the shutters drawn, I consider my situation. I have two days left at the Hotel Davanzati and I had hoped to make two day trips, one to Pisa and Lucca by train, and other to Siena by bus. I have deferred as long as I could based on the unseasonable and increasingly unpredictable weather, but this truly is the end of the road. Whatever happens, I will have to make the best of it.

With a sense of resolve and the anticipation of disappointment, I flip the latch on the shutters and pull them back away from the window. As I lean out to get a better look, the cobblestones on Via Porta Rossa appear little more than damp, and the sky overhead is showing patches of blue. Hallelujah, hallelujah.

I don’t exactly know why it’s so important to me that I see these places bathed in sunlight. Like any traveler, I’ve experienced my fair share of rain. I do have an innate and nonsensical tendency to worry about the weather, but it rarely disrupts my plans in the end. Heck, I survived the torrential downpours that fell across England last summer, and had a mighty good time in spite of it all.

But Italy is somehow different. Anyone with any common sense expects dreary weather in Britain. It’s all part of the mystique. Is it even possible to imagine Brontë’s Wuthering Heights without the windswept moors and the dark, foreboding sky? Yet when it comes to Italy, and Tuscany in particular, the image in my mind’s eye is quite the opposite, constructed from picture postcards and pieces of Hollywood film. That book by Frances Mayes that they turned into a movie was called Under the Tuscan Sun, after all, not Under the Tuscan Rainclouds. I’ve been sold a bill of goods and I am here to collect!

I am confident all the way through my bowl of cereal and two breakfast pastries, optimistic on the walk to Santa Maria Novella train station where I buy a ticket to Pisa Centrale, and hopeful as the train pulls away and heads west, shortly after nine. Halfway there, sitting behind a young Italian woman who talks fast, loud, and incessantly on her cell phone, I notice dark clouds creeping in across the sky.

By the time we arrive, every trace of blue has been swallowed up by the storm. It’s raining so hard and the wind is so fierce that on the long walk to Piazza dei Miracoli, my umbrella is wrenched inside out. I take refuge first in a doorway and then, along with a host of other wet and weary tourists, in a gift shop facing the square.

When it becomes clear that the situation is unlikely to change any time soon, I run across to the ticket counter and buy a pass that allows me to enter five major sites: the cathedral and baptistery, two small museums, and the Camposanto. I pass on climbing the famous “Leaning Tower,” not only because it’s expensive, but because I just might slide off the side to an untimely death in this weather.

I enter the Museo dell’Opera first, and after looking out of the window to observe two things—first, that the tower really is smaller than one would expect, and second, that it really does lean—I pass the time pleasantly, surrounded by beautiful works of art, including a case of illuminated manuscripts written in square notation for Gregorian chant.

Heading clockwise around the square I stop next at the Museo delle Sinopie, which displays the preparatory drawings that were used to create the frescoes on the walls of the Camposanto. These were discovered underneath only after much of the structure was destroyed during an Allied bombing raid in World War II. Then come the baptistery and the cathedral itself, or “Duomo.”

It’s a lovely Romanesque church begun in 1093, but the central pair of bronze doors in front has been removed for restoration and the space covered with unattractive sheets of unpainted fiberboard. When a woman steps in front of me to take a picture, I reposition myself so that I can use the span of her multicolored umbrella to block it from mine. When life gives you lemons… make lemonade!

I enter the Camposanto last, eager to see the restored frescoes that were once damaged in the war. It’s a cemetery made up largely of stone sarcophagi. There is a large rectangular cloister with delicate stone tracery on the windows, and a grassy central courtyard, planted on the periphery with roses of pink, red, and yellow.

The frescoes that stand in relief against the brick wall are fragments to be sure. They are snatches of scenes that once depicted “The Ascension” and “The Crucifixion,” along with other Bible stories. But they are beautiful just the same, with attention paid to the small details of life that I find so appealing. In one, two carpenters use a cross-cut saw to slice boards from from a larger beam. In another, a woman in a brocade gown of pink and blue holds a squirming dog on her lap, as it gently bites her finger. And finally, there is St. Michael the Archangel, who stands with sword in hand at the center of what can only be described as “The Last Judgment.”

I should have seen that coming! How many does that make this week?

Still, my penance may be over at last because as I wind my way back out to the cloister and across the courtyard, I spot a feeble ray of sunshine coming from the sky overhead. The storm has passed, the clouds are breaking.

It’s 2:00 PM by the time I arrive in Lucca on a direct train from Pisa San Rossore station. I haven’t eaten lunch yet, so I’m starved. For me, the first order of business isn’t to admire the city’s fine medieval walls, which I pass under at Porta San Pietro. Instead, it’s to find my way to a restaurant called “Buca di Sant’Antonio,” which I had read about online. The problem is, the only map I have is one produced on my inkjet printer at home and the morning’s rain has reduced it to a smeared and sodden mess. As it is, I have no hope of finding Via della Cervia. I would ask someone for directions, but the streets at this hour are eerily quiet.

Opting for the safety of numbers, I decide to head towards Piazza dell’Anfiteatro instead. It’s the main public square, a discernable blob on the map, and there are bound to be dozens of restaurants nearby. When at last I reach a curved section of wall, I know that I’ve arrived. I follow it to the left and enter through a deep gate lined with bicycles.

Inside, the piazza follows the oval imprint of an ancient Roman amphitheater. I stand and admire the jigsaw architecture and the uniform colors of the space — red tiled roofs above, shades of yellow stucco with green shutters below — before sitting down to eat under the awning at “Roma Bar.” I’m told that the pasta with sage butter is gone for the day, so I settle for tortellini and a mozzarella and tomato salad instead.

Once my stomach is comfortably full, I head off to find the Torre Guinigi, which as it turns out, doesn’t require a map at all. As I head south, away from the piazza, I can see the brick tower, with its famed oak trees on top, looming high above the surrounding neighborhood.

The climb up is an easy one, on wide stone stairs. From here, under a canopy of green, the city of Lucca lies at my feet, surrounded by the Tuscan hills. I can see the oval pattern of the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, and behind it a striking mosaic on the façade of the Basilica of San Frediano. When my eyes drift down to the jumble of rooftops below, I discover a message scrawled in chalk that reads: WHERE IS THE HAPPYNESS?

Perhaps it’s an existential question, a plea for understanding. Maybe it’s nothing at all. In the here and now, however, I know my answer and it’s Italy.

Back on the street, it’s late afternoon and Lucca has awakened from its official midday slumber. The shops have reopened and tourists are beginning to file into Via Fillungo. I stop at Moka Bar for two scoops of gelato — lemon and pineapple — which I eat while window shopping.

I make my way back to Porta San Pietro and climb the steps there to reach the top of the wall. I decide to walk as far as my legs will take me, past the Cathedral of St. Martin and the botanical gardens. As I go, I hear the persistent “ching, ching” of bicycle bells. This comes not just from children who seem to delight in ordering others out of the way, but from everyone, despite the ample width of the gravel path.

Cyclists clearly take priority over pedestrians, and they are more ubiquitous here, and more dangerous, than Vespas in Rome. An extended family whizzes past and no sooner does the father ask the grandmother how she’s faring, then she topples over onto the grass, striking her head on the ground. I stop and offer the use of my cell phone to call for help, but thankfully she seems fine, just a little dazed.

About half way around, I climb down from the wall and meander through the center of town, back to where I began, past boutiques and bookshops and store windows filled with pastries, past the church of San Michele in Foro. By now, the sky has turned a brilliant shade of blue, made deep by the setting sun.

When I reach Piazza Napoleone, I stumble into a raucous celebration in honor of the local Carabinieri, Italy’s military police. Flags of red, white, and green are flying from every window, but oddly enough the song the band is playing is none other than “Stars and Stripes Forever.” It is an odd juxtaposition of the foreign and the familiar.

I’m tempted to linger and to watch. But it’s getting late and I have a train to catch.

On the journey back, in a nearly empty car, I lean my head against the window and watch the world go by. My iPod is in my lap and a track from Il Postino is playing in my ear. The morning’s rain seems a long way away.

It’s been a good day, after all.

Friday, June 6, 2008

It’s a glorious morning, cool and bright, and here I am heading south to Siena on a SITA bus at ten past nine. Tomorrow I leave for Venice, so I’m determined to make the most of my final day by spending it in this quintessential Tuscan town.

The ride is short and uneventful and when we disembark at Piazza Antonio Gramsci, I follow the wisdom of the crowd through the narrow streets of the city, assuming the destination for most is “Il Campo,” the main public square.

It is, and I enter through a bottleneck at its northwest corner. From here, everyone is pausing to take pictures and the pedestrian traffic has come to a standstill. From my position, sandwiched between two buildings, looking in, I’m struck not by the harmony of the architecture, or the grandeur of the Palazzo Pubblico with its sharply cut battlements and soaring bell tower, but on a more elemental level by geography itself.

Maps, even those with well-intentioned contour lines, can do little more than suggest elevation in a two-dimensional space. There is no substitute for seeing a place in person, and for feeling the swell of land beneath your feet. I’ve seen photographs of this square, of course, mainly aerial views that highlight its unique fan shape, with spokes of grey stone contrasted against brick, converging at a single point in front of the town hall. But while the view from above is remarkable, it’s also deceptive. In person, the square slants dramatically forward, like a flattened funnel, and I imagine that water in a rainstorm must converge at the bottom as it would in a giant drain. Not that I’m hoping for rain, of course!

This is the site of the famous Palio, a horse race held twice every summer in which riders on bareback careen around the piazza, its pavement softened by dirt for the occasion. The slope lends the whole affair an even more treacherous air.

I follow the route along the perimeter of the square and stop at the base of the Palazzo Pubblico. According to my guidebook, the building is best known for its 14th century frescoes depicting “The Allegories of Good and Bad Government.” That’s a subject I know something about, so I decide to take a peek, stopping first to capture a vertical view of the bell tower framed by the walls of the courtyard.

When I find the room at last, I think, ironically, that looks much like a secular version of “The Last Judgment.” On one wall a ruler presides over an orderly society, flanked by female figures representing virtues such as temperance, prudence, and peace. On another, a horned figure with pointed teeth embodies Tyranny. He is surrounded by counterparts in vice, including cruelty, treason, and war. A bound figure lies helpless at his feet, while the scales of justice hang cut above his head. It’s surely effective, but not exactly subtle.

Fond as I am of panoramic views, I climb the Torre del Mangia next. From the top, I look down upon a lively crowd, some seated in neat rows at café tables, others lounging in the square. I gaze at curving brown streets that remind me of the Burnt Siena crayons I knew as a girl, all the way out to a sea of rolling hills dotted by small churches and convents.

By the time I reach the ground again it’s time to break for lunch. In a stroke of genius, I settle on “Ristorante La Campane,” where my seat on the patio allows me to enjoy the passing scene of shoppers below. I order a chicken and avocado terrine to start, which I later decide has more shape than flavor, and then a plate of ravioli stuffed with pear and cheese, topped with melted pecorino and cracked black pepper. In every mouthful, this is perfection itself. I rake my memory trying to remember if I’ve ever had a better pasta, and come up empty. This is it.

Unfortunately, I reach my epiphany just as a street musician approaches with a violin in tow. Her efforts are clumsy and cruel to the ear. While I dine on such a dish, it is interesting that I should be subjected to such noise. It is an assault on the senses, from both extremes on the continuum.

Later, she comes onto the terrace and moves from table to table, begging for tips. Normally sympathetic to such gestures, I turn away and notice that she has been refused by all. Slyly, I wonder if the real intent was for us to pay her to stop.

I spend the rest of the afternoon wandering aimlessly through hilly streets, up to the Duomo and down to the convent of San Francesco.  Along the way, I enjoy slow scenes of Italian life — the color of laundry hanging out of windows, of flower boxes perched on windowsills, and of bicycles leaning against archways and alleys. For a snack, I forgo the typical gelato in favor of local delicacies, including a variation on fruitcake known as panforte, and a chewy almond cookie called ricciarelli.

When I claim a spot in the Campo to rest my feet and eat the pastries in my bag, I’m startled by the feel of something wet on back of my head. I look to the birds circling above, certain I’ve been their victim. But a woman nearby points to an old man instead and makes a gesture to suggest that he is crazy. He has a water pistol in hand and he is laughing as he uses it to chase pigeons around the square. Perhaps she’s right, but on a lazy summer day such as this, I envy the idea and its execution.

By early evening, my time in Siena has come to an end. I take the SITA bus back to Florence and the Hotel Davanzati, where I find that a light rain has once again descended. Not to be undone, I revisit “La Bussola” for another round of pizza, and then make one final turn through the streets on foot, stopping by Piazza del Duomo, where the baptistery is beautifully lit from within. From there I head south towards the Ponte Vecchio, which is lonely and silent, and finally to the Mercato Nuovo to place a coin in the mouth of Il Porcellino, and to rub his well-worn snout. As in Rome at the Trevi Fountain, tradition holds that this will ensure my return to the city someday.

I wonder when that will be.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

This morning, as I enjoy one last breakfast at the Hotel Davanzati, I’m taking stock of things. I do a quick count in my head and realize that my adventure in Italy now has reached its tenth day. I have seen the ruins of ancient Rome, the art of the Renaissance in Florence, and now it is time to head to the sea.

Fabrizio is kind to call me a taxi, and soon enough I’m stowed comfortably aboard the 10:38 AM Eurostar train to Venice. With “The Minstrels on the Bridge” singing sweetly in my ear, I watch the shifting terrain out the window, waiting for the causeway that connects the mainland to the island. I purchased Claudio’s CD that night on the Ponte Vecchio, from a stack propped against the lid of his guitar case. Copying the tracks to my iPod using the laptop in my room was the morning’s last minute inspiration, and it makes the time in transit pass quickly.

At a quarter past one, we arrive at Santa Lucia Railway Station, which is flat, industrial, and nondescript — an exercise in mid-20th century mediocrity. Walking out the door, however, is something else entirely. It’s like entering a wardrobe and finding the world of Narnia on the other side. This is the Venice of my imagination, and the Grand Canal is bustling with motor boats, water buses, and gondolas.

As I roll my suitcase down the steps in front of the station, I breathe deeply and allow the salt air to fill my nostrils and lungs. There is much to take in, but there is also business to be done.

At a kiosk to the right, I buy a 72-hour travelcard and learn through observation how to scan it on the machine before entering the Vaporetto. I count the stops carefully and disembark at the third, San Stae, and follow the directions printed on my itinerary to the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo.

It’s a lovely place, small and intimate, and my single room just around the corner from the lobby desk is exactly the same. There is much to admire here — elegant furniture painted in shades of green and gold, and a Venetian oil painting in an antique frame hanging on the wall — but my stomach is growling and I’m eager to explore. With little pause, I make my way back to the Vaporetto and head in the direction of St. Mark’s Square.

Riding a water bus down the Grand Canal is an interesting experience, to say the least. Despite the risk of collision, I’m surprised to see the boat zigzag from one stop to the next, docking first on the right, then the left. At midday, it’s also heaving with passengers and their mountains of luggage. These two things in combination are bound to lead to chaos and confusion. Halfway down the route, past the Rialto Bridge, a pretentious and overdressed couple waiting for their stop on one side suddenly realizes that it’s about to come on the other. They push their way through in a panic, dragging a quartet of suitcases the size of small ponies and weighing nearly as much. There is something of the ridiculous about them.

The Vaporetto begins to slide back from the pier just as they reach the gate. They lock eyes on the attendant, pleading for help, but he shrugs and shakes his head with more than a hint of amusement. With the energy born of frustration, they push their bags over the side and tumble out after them onto the dock. As I watch the woman’s stiletto heel slip predictably into the gap between the boards, I smile just a little, too.

It doesn’t last long. When the Vaporetto makes its final turn under the Accademia bridge, I can see the scaffolding on the dome of the Salute church looming ahead. There is a crane poised overhead and a monstrous wall of white that extends all the way to the tip of the peninsula. I was prepared for the sight of this in advance, and yet somehow not.

Renovation projects are a reminder of the effort required to hold nature at bay. After all, the city of Venice, perched precariously on its ancient pilings, is in constant battle with the elements. I know this, but I’m disappointed all the same when the Salute scaffolding is followed shortly after by the sight of Roger Federer’s face on a giant Rolex ad in St. Mark’s Square. Then there’s the work being done to the east of the Moors’ Clock Tower, and to the façade of the basilica.  There is netting on the spires to the left, and scaffolding above the center door, near the famous bronze horses. Finally, and worst of all, construction on the base of the campanile has fenced off a large corner of the piazza itself. I rotate miserably for a few minutes, taking it all in, before deciding that, like in Pisa, I’ll just have to get creative with my camera angles.

I walk north of the square, along the Merceria, and grab a late lunch at a small café. I spend the rest of the day wandering aimlessly through tiny alleyways in a deliberate attempt to get lost. Within two or three turns I have succeeded beyond all expectations! Occasionally, I see comforting signs that read “Per Rialto” and “Per San Marco,” but for now I’m content to let fate and fortune be my guide. I follow canals, climb over bridges, and window shop for Murano glass. The charm of the city is proving irresistible.

By 8:00 PM I’ve somehow come full circle, arriving back in St. Mark’s Square, and this time my eyes look beyond the construction and I see the beauty for what it is.

In what will prove to be both blessing and curse, I decide to have dinner nearby at “Ristorante All’Angelo.” I’m tired and it’s convenient. There is one small table left in front, and when the waiter directs me there I find myself sandwiched between a chain-smoking, Middle Eastern couple on my left, and a pair from Holland on my right. It’s a warm night and the quarters are close. It’s impossible not to overhear, and then join, entire conversations. On one side, the Dutch are trying to engage me a conversation about politics. On the other, there is a show of good natured bickering about love and obligation. It’s all so entertaining that I’m distracted from the menu. For sake of simplicity, I wind up ordering a prix fixe translated into English: a tasteless bowl of pasta pomodoro and a Greek salad.

Before long, those on the left introduce themselves. She’s from Syria, he’s from Egypt. They have a long distance relationship and agree to meet in exotic locations three times a year. But she complains to me that he’s not romantic enough, a pronouncement that has him rolling his eyes in mock exasperation. As a woman, she wants me to intervene on her behalf. I say he should take her on a gondola ride. He looks skeptical. Turning to her with a sly smile, I say that if it doesn’t work out, maybe she could go home with the handsome gondolier instead. She likes this idea. He doesn’t, but it seems to have the desired effect.

By the end of the night I’ve learned two things: One, that I should never order food from a Menu Turistico again, unless I’m in the mood for overpriced, uninspired fare; and two, when pressed, I’m perfectly capable of discussing international affairs while simultaneously giving advice to lovelorn couples. Who knew? Of course, maybe those skills are much the same.

Afterwards, I walk back to St. Mark’s Square, where the orchestras are in full tilt under a crescent moon. I watch as an audience of uncertain loyalty claps and cheers and moves in unison between “Caffé Florian,” “Ristorante Gran Caffé Quadri,” and “Café Lavena.” Each group of musicians takes its turn, conscious of the others. The arrangement is simple — two violins, an accordion, a clarinet, string bass, and piano — but the sound they produce here under the stars is lovely, a combination of sentimental waltzes and lively folk dances. In this duel of orchestras, where bows cut the air in place of swords, “Caffé Lavena” surely wins the night with its rendition of Andrea Bocelli’s Con te Partiro. I’m familiar with the lyrics and it means “Time to Say Goodbye.” That will come soon enough. For now, I’m enjoying the moment.

It’s late when I begin to wind my way back to the hotel on foot. The lights from shop windows are fading fast, and soon it will be difficult to find my way through the unfamiliar streets. Still, I linger on the bridge outside of “Trattoria Sempione” to enjoy the scene. Gondolas are departing just below, and for a moment I wonder if I might see my Middle Eastern friends again, locked in a romantic embrace, or at least sitting grimly side by side. This thought is interrupted by a squeal of delight. In an open window of the restaurant, facing the canal, I spy two children, a boy and a girl. As each gondola passes by, they lean out between the ivy and the flower boxes and yell “Ciao!” to its passengers, then fall back into their seats and giggle. I watch them repeat this over and over, and every time it is the same greeting, the same fit of laughter.

It seems to me that we are in agreement, the three of us. Venice is enchanting and it is irresistible.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

This morning, I’m eating a relaxed breakfast in the courtyard of the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo. I have a map of Venice spread out before me on the table, alongside a cappuccino and a warm croissant filled with apricot jam. This is the only day on which I’ve imposed any kind of structure. I have a 9:55 AM reservation for a “Secret Itineraries” tour of the Doge’s Palace, a 3:00 PM tour of the Moors’ Clock Tower, and an 8:30 PM ticket to see La Traviata at “Musica a Palazzo.”

Instead of walking, I take the Vaporetto the length of the Grand Canal, and step off at San Marco. A line has already formed at the palace door, but my printed confirmation allows me entrance past the guards, where I’m given a red sticker to wear and a bench on which to sit and wait. It’s a small group in the end, and we all seem to enjoy the privilege of slipping past the normal crowds into more private chambers and passageways behind locked doors.

Our guide is surprisingly young, but well informed. She has a knack for telling stories with the right mix of historical accuracy and narrative suspense. She tells us all about the civic and political history of the city and its “Council of Ten,” and she takes us to where the most delicate administrative tasks were performed, in an attic space far removed from prying eyes. We walk through the Chancellery, where walls of cabinets once contained secret documents, to the Torture Chamber in which prisoners were hung by their arms from ropes, across the infamous “Bridge of Sighs,” and into the prison itself to see the cell once occupied by Casanova, and from which he made his daring escape.

Afterwards, I have plenty of time to spare. The sky is clear and bright, so I decide to seize a prime photo opportunity. I buy a ticket for the campanile and ride its elevator all the way to the top. By now, my legs are used to climbing hundreds of tight, spiral steps. The dome of St. Peter’s, Giotto’s bell tower in Florence, the Torre Guinigi in Lucca, and Torre del Mangia in Siena — these were athletic challenges, worthy of the view and the reward of gelato afterwards. In comparison, this is such a painless journey I almost feel like I’ve not earned the right to enjoy it. Almost, but not quite.

From here, I can see the full length of the piazza, from the Correr Museum at one end, to St. Mark’s Basilica on the other, with its cluster of Byzantine domes. There are neat rows of café tables below, scattered souvenir stands, and flocks of pigeons that menace tourists in search of crumbs. In every direction, there is a visible coastline in the distance beyond a maze of red tiled roofs. It’s there that cruise ships lie in wait for the day trippers to return.

Once back in the square, I decide that tradition is more important than reward. I buy a dish of a gelato from the window at “Gran Caffé Chioggia,” and in the shade of the terrace consume a scoop each of chocolate and hazelnut. Then, in the sudden urge to shop, I make a turn around the square, where I buy a colorful strand of beads and a matching bracelet from Antica Murrina.

At three o’clock, the ticket to the clock tower I reserved online turns into an unexpected private tour. No one else has booked the slot. I enter with the guide through a narrow green door just below the arch and can’t believe my good fortune. We have free reign of the place for the next hour and she allows me to create my own “secret itinerary” on the spot, pausing wherever I like to ask questions and take pictures.

I’m able to look out through a porthole just below the dial that displays the signs of the Zodiac. I can see past the basilica, where the lines are long, towards the lagoon and its twin granite columns, the winged lion of St. Mark on the left, St. Theodore and his crocodile on the right. Further on we pass the clock mechanism and the two rotating wheels that display the hours and minutes of the day, one in Roman numerals, the other in Arabic. Climbing higher, we stop to appreciate the original three Kings that once bowed and tipped their hats to Mary and the baby Jesus, but now perform only on Ascension. Finally, when we reach the top, I’m able to stand next to the two bronze giants — known as “Moors” — who take turns striking the bell with their mallets. At a cost of twelve Euros, this must be the great unsung bargain of my entire trip to Italy!

The remainder of the afternoon passes quietly, with no particular agenda. For dinner, I stop at a restaurant on the Dorsoduro side of the Accademia Bridge and linger to enjoy an improbably grand view of the Grand Canal. A brazen sparrow is watching me intently. As soon as I finish with my vegetable pizza, he lands on my plate and takes off with a bit of crust in his beak.

Although I’m reluctant to head indoors on such a lovely night, I’ve reserved a seat at a performance of La Traviata at “Musica a Palazzo.” It’s a just a short stroll away, back over the Accademia Bridge and beyond Campo Santo Stefano, where I’m delayed by watching a troupe of singers and dancers performing in folk dress. The entrance to the place is unmarked and difficult to find. I make the required turn at the church of Santa Maria Zobenigo, go over the bridge, and along a small canal past the awning of “Agenzia Ippica,” which offers off-tracking betting on horse races. Still, I have to walk by twice to locate the proper door, and meet a confused couple doing the same.

Inside, the theater is as intimate as the location is obscure, lit entirely by candles. It is indeed an old palazzo, and as the scenes of the opera shift, so too do the performers and the audience. We begin on folded chairs in the hallway, move to a drawing room, and then finally for the death scene, to a bed chamber.

The quality of the production is impressive, given its size. There are three characters supported by musicians on violin, cello, and piano. It is true that, at first, both the casting and the costuming seem odd. Alfredo’s blue oxford shirt and tweed jacket make him look more like a college professor than a young nobleman, and the baritone who plays his father appears young enough to be his son. But there are also clever touches, apparent only because the performance is taking place feet away, rather than far removed on stage. When Alfredo throws money at Violetta at the end of Act II, in an outburst of spite that recalls her days as a courtesan, I’m surprised to see it’s U.S. dollars, which given the exchange rate these days, seems like even more of an insult. The bastard!

By the end of the night, talent and atmosphere have combined to draw me into a unique experience. On my way back to the hotel on the Vaporetto, I find myself humming the chorus of Verdi’s “drinking song.”

Be happy, the wine and the singing
And laughter beautify the night
Let the new day find us in this paradise

For two more days, at least, it will.

Monday, July 9, 2008

This morning, I am slowly making my way through the streets of San Polo, across the Rialto Bridge, heading north to a long expanse of shore known as Fondamenta Nuove. For the past two days, I have traveled mainly along narrow canals and alleyways. Even at its widest point, the Grand Canal is no more than the length of a football field, and in most places along the Vaporetto’s route, it is far less. It feels good to be out in the open air.

From here I can easily see the island of San Michele and its walled cemetery, but today’s destinations are the three lagoon islands that lie further out to sea — Murano, Burano, and Torcello. The first is best known for glass-making, the second for lace, and (I suspect) the third and furthest away for being seldom visited by tourists.

I board a No. 41 ferry to Murano and fall into conversation with an elderly Brit on the way out. It’s a short ride, less than fifteen minutes, and on his helpful advice I disembark at the Museo stop, the fourth of seven in the boat’s loop around the island before returning to the city.

I take a quick stock of my surroundings and come to the conclusion that Murano looks much like a smaller and simplified version of Venice, with its own arched bridges and Grand Canal.

I walk along the quay past the glass museum, intending my first stop to be the Basilica of Santi Maria e Donato, but stop to admire a mammoth sculpture in the adjacent square, an abacus with hollow beads of marbleized glass. It’s mid-morning on a Monday, and when I enter the church itself, the space is dark, quiet, and cool. Built between the 7th and 12th centuries AD, the architecture is part Byzantine, part Romanesque. The apse shows the “Madonna at Prayer,” surrounded by gold, but for me the highlight is the finely cut floor, a mosaic of richly colored marble tiles that form interlocking geometric patterns, winged beasts, and other fantastical creatures.

I cross the bridge to the far side of the canal and browse the shops along Fondamenta Andrea Navagero. No trip to Murano is complete without a visit to a glass factory, so I pick one at random and drop by for a free tour. In the heat of the furnace, the craftsmen work quickly and deftly with molten glass that is roughly the texture of salt water taffy, shaping it eventually into an opaque pink sconce. I’ve enjoyed watching and I’m careful to leave a tip in the basket before I go, but I’m less pleased by the unrelenting salesman who follows me afterwards into the showroom. He turns the subtle art of browsing into an uncomfortable, high stakes game of cat-and-mouse. I manage to shake him off only by stepping back outside.

For a while longer I wander the streets, down to the lighthouse, then up Fondamente Venier where I pick a small bar for lunch and eat a panini among the locals.

I need to pace the day well, so by 1:30 I’m on a Laguna Nord (LN) ferry en route to Burano. It’s a beautiful day, clear and warm. I don’t feel much like spending the afternoon indoors, so once there I bypass the “Museum and School of Lacemaking” in favor of a long, slow turn through the island’s fishing village. The main shopping district is overflowing with cheap quality imports, with Venetian masks and machine made lace that defy that island’s history and traditions. And when I see the canal that runs down the center, perfectly framed by flagstone sidewalks on either side, the entire setting reminds me of a well-tended theme park.

The streets that lay beyond are a riot of color, lined with simple houses painted in improbable shades of blue, orange, green, purple, and red. Flower pots rest on window ledges, laundry hangs to dry, and nearly every front door stands ajar, covered only with a striped curtain that catches the breeze, as a sail might on a boat.

Still, as I roam, I can’t help but notice that there are no people at work, or children at play. Those I meet on the streets look as I do because they carry the same cameras, the same maps. At midday, hundreds of boats are unemployed, moored along canals and covered by tarps. An overturned tricycle and kicked-off shoes give indications of life, but it’s no where to be seen.

I’ve been told that Monday is wash day in Burano. But then again, everyday seems to be wash day in Italy. I’m beginning to think that it’s all a bit of a scam — that the Italians are fluffing their clothes in big electric dryers, and that they hang a few well worn and color-coordinated items outside on clotheslines to satisfy the tourist trade. If there is one thing a tourist can’t resist, it’s a picture of an Italian street with a bicycle leaning against a doorway, or laundry hanging out the window. For entertainment on Burano, I have a sneaking suspicion that they watch us descend upon their village with cameras slung around our necks and they roll their eyes and laugh, hoping we’ll eat and buy some trinket in town when we’re done admiring their underwear.

In the end, I wonder if authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. Here on Burano every bend in the road follows a canal that leads to the sea. Every turn introduces an artistic composition of light, color, and texture. It exists, but is it real? How much is genuine, how much manufactured? Does it even matter when the end result is so captivating?

I consider this as I make my way back to the pier, and as I go I start to notice the quiet noise of a TV set through an open window, and the muffled sound of voices within. I think the real Burano is hidden, lying in wait for the day trippers and their prying eyes to go home for the night.

It’s late afternoon by the time I arrive on Torcello, and the short jump to get here on the “Linea T” ferry belies a striking difference in landscape. There is a brick walkway that leads away from the dock, but much of the island seems to consist of open fields and undisturbed wetlands. I follow the path to a cluster of old buildings that includes two magnificent churches side-by-side — Santa Fosca, which is low and round, and the more conventional Santa Maria Assunta, with its solitary bell tower. Both are primitive, peaceful and calm, far removed from the opulence of Venice and its madding crowd.

I’m back in the city in time for dinner. I had planned on stopping at “Osteria da Alberto,” a favorite with fishermen and foodies alike. My map tells me that it’s close to Fondamenta Nuove, but even with the address at hand it costs me thirty minutes of frustration to find the place, and when I do I’m not eager to try dried cod or squid boiled in its own ink. This, I suppose, is the downside of authenticity. I decide to press on, feeling tired and a bit desperate.

In the ancient world, it was said that all roads would lead to Rome. Here in Venice, all roads lead to St. Mark’s Square, eventually. And so it goes.

At this point in my travels, I am reluctant to admit the truth, which is that while I’m not ready to embrace the unusual, I am growing tired of the monotony of Italian cuisine. I would gladly give the remaining Euros in my wallet for a decent meal of Chinese food, or Thai, or Indian. But go anywhere in the vicinity of St. Mark’s Square and the choices are slim.

I do some comparison shopping and weigh my options. I can pay either 20 Euros for a plate of spaghetti alla carbonara, or 11 Euros. But it’s still spaghetti alla carbonara. Figuring that I may as well pay less, and gain a view, I settle for dinner at “Pizzeria Ristorante ai Falciani,” next to the basilica. The food is on par with Angelo’s — which is to say, mediocre — yet instead of arbitrating a romantic dispute, I’ve somehow ended up as a captive audience to darker drama. There is a seagull intent on murdering a pigeon. I do my best not to look, but a mother and daughter dining nearby are keeping up a loud and running commentary.

Two nights ago, I watched a small band of protestors fight for the rights of pigeons in St. Mark’s Square. Their banners are tied still to the railing at the base of the winged lion. In Italian, German, French and English it says: “The pigeons in Venice do not have to starve.” Apparently, the same is true for seagulls.

Determined to end the night on a happier note, I walk to the Rialto Bridge and set up my tripod on a dock downstream, one that extends out into the canal for an unobstructed view. It is a quintessential scene. From here, I watch a steady stream of gondolas pass, each bathed in the inky blue of night.

Many believe that Venice will disappear someday, that it will sink into the sea or succumb to rising waters. Others believe that the threat is more immediate. After all, expanding tourism is both a blessing and a curse. It creates a vibrant local economy, but one that is difficult for ordinary Venetians to afford. The exorbitant cost of housing and the necessity of constant repair are driving people away, back to the mainland. Without its residents, what would Venice become — a ghost town, or even worse, a theme park?

As I’ve done all day, I ponder the meaning of authenticity. Surely it’s constructed of language, culture, and skill, of glass-making and of lace.  But what about smaller pieces of history and tradition? I think about the gondoliers in their striped shirts and straw boaters, and about the pigeons that roam St. Mark’s Square in defiance of their enemies, both natural and man-made.

In the Venice of the future, can’t there be room for us all?