Travelogue for Italy, 2010

No sooner had we arrived in Italy than the loveliness of the earth and the serenity of the sky made the greatest difference in my sensations. I depend on these things for life; for in the smoke of cities, and the tumult of human kind and the chilling fogs and rains in our own country I can hardly be said to live.

— Percy Bysshe Shelley

Vernazza, Italy

Welcome! This is an online travel journal for my Summer 2010 trip to Italy, which covers the following destinations:

  • Rome
  • Arezzo
  • Assisi
  • Cortona
  • Orvieto
  • Florence
  • San Gimignano
  • Cinque Terre
  • Portovenere
  • Milan
  • Lake Como
  • Verona
  • Padua
  • Venice

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 2008 and 2013.

Enjoy!
DLG

Monday, May 31, 2010

It makes me smile to think that I can close my eyes and remember the moment exactly.

I made the decision to go back to Italy almost one year ago on a rainy afternoon in Paris, on a day that was—like so many others on that trip—unseasonably cold and damp. I was at the Musée d’Orsay, a stunning space on the banks of the Seine where 19th century art is displayed in an old railway station under a soaring ceiling of paned glass. I had been to the museum before, on a pilgrimage to see the Monets and Manets, the Van Goghs, Renoirs, and Cézannes. This time, I was drawn to a special exhibit called Voir l’Italie et Mourir, which in English means “See Italy and Die.”

At the time, that struck me as a strange motto for a country best known for its zest for life, but I was assured that the sentiment, with its “lofty hyperboles” intact, could be traced back to the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and a journal entry about the city of Naples he wrote in 1787. As I stood contemplating the round robin translation from von Goethe’s original German, to Italian, to French, and finally to English, I knew only that I understood its meaning, deeply and instinctively. I had been to Rome, Florence, and Venice the previous year and I could no more quarrel with the old adage “See Italy and Die” than the generations of other travelers who had been to the Colosseum, the Ponte Vecchio, and Piazza San Marco before me. As melodramatic as it might sound, once I had witnessed the beauty of Italy with my own eyes, and felt myself transformed by it, I knew that was possible for someone to breathe their last, happy and content in the memory of such a place.

As I wandered that day through rooms full of Italian photographs, prints, and paintings from the golden age of The Grand Tour—that venerable trek that aristocrats used to make across the European continent—I felt strangely distant from my surroundings. Here I was in Paris, one of the most wonderful cities in the world, but all the while I yearned for the sea and the sunshine of Italy. Standing before a Friedrich Nerly painting of Venice in the moonlight, the sky breaking just above the column of St. Mark, I resolved, right then and there, to return.

After a few sodden weeks in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, I came home to Vermont and settled back into the quiet routines of life. I watched the months slip by, as autumn leaves fell and were buried by blankets of soft, white snow. And in the darkest days of winter, I bought a fresh Italian guidebook, sent away for maps, finalized airline and hotel reservations, shopped for a new camera, and prayed that an Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name Eyjafjallajökull, wouldn’t ground my best laid plans with its plumes of drifting ash.

Thankfully, it did not.

So now, with the arrival of lilacs and spring irises, it is time to pick up where I once left off, to fulfill a promise, to have an adventure.

It’s a Monday night and I’m at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting for a U.S. Airways flight to Rome. I bide the time by recounting the plan for the next seventeen days in my head. Itineraries are complicated affairs, the endpoint of a tug of war between reality and desire. I had a long “wish list” for my return to Italy—one that included Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in Milan and Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi and Padua, as well as a hike along the cliffs in the Cinque Terre, and a stroll through the villas and gardens that line the shores of Lake Como. Through a herculean effort at planning, I’ve managed to fit nearly everything in, including the timing of several key events—the Republic Day festivities in Rome on June 2nd, a major exhibit of paintings by Caravaggio at the Scuderie del Quirinale, a weekend antiques show in Arezzo, and the procession of the Holy Blood in Orvieto on Corpus Domini.

For all of that to happen in an order that works using public trains and buses, this particular Monday night happens to be Memorial Day. While others are grilling hamburgers at backyard picnics, I’m playing musical chairs at the airport, until flight 718 finally settles on Gate A20 and we begin to board.

I’m in seat 14A, a window seat next to a globe-trotting Sicilian grandmother named Josephine. She’s a charming woman whose conversation lives up to all that description implies. I find myself enjoying her company, and before long dinner is served and stowed, the cabin lights are dimmed, and passengers are queuing at the restrooms in preparation for bed.

I close my eyes in satisfaction, knowing that in the morning I’ll be a world away.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Our plane touches down at Rome’s Fuimicino airport at 8:45 AM—right on time—and by 9:30 I’ve cleared passport control and baggage claim with surprising efficiency. Next, I meet up with a driver from Rome Cabs and embark on a brief and uneventful journey into the city, where I check into a small, single room at the Hotel Hosianum Palace, on a quaint side street near Piazza Venezia, shower and change clothes, and call home. All the while, my mind has been occupied by these mundane tasks, by the small necessities that come with long distance travel, and by a series of familiar associations. It is comforting to remember the airport terminal and the location of the ATM machine, and I grin when see the hotel lobby again, looking much as it did when I left two years ago.

I have been in a transitional state—somewhere between coming and going—but now, as I make my way out onto the street and down Via delle Botteghe Oscure, the stress of logistics begins to loosen, and for the first time I start to absorb my surroundings. It’s a Tuesday in late Spring, and I’m standing under a brilliant blue sky in the centro storico of Rome. As I walk in search of a cappuccino, my ears catch the strains of two musicians who are playing for loose change under a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Enticing aromas are wafting out from small cafés opening for lunch. For a moment I lean against the metal railing that surrounds Largo di Argentina and peer down to see a half dozen stray cats, each stretched lazily upon ancient steps and foundation stones, warmed by the midday sun.

It is here that the sights and sounds and smells of Rome remind me of something I read about the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In a letter to a friend in April 1818, after an arduous trek across the Alps, he said: “No sooner had we arrived in Italy than the loveliness of the earth and the serenity of the sky made the greatest difference in my sensations. I depend on these things for life; for in the smoke of cities, and the tumult of human kind and the chilling fogs and rains in our own country I can hardly be said to live.”

For a fleeting moment, I think of Vermont and its long, grey winters, but the comparison quickly disappears. For the next 17 days, my life will be here and the very thought of it is intoxicating.

I zig zag past Piazza Colonna and its massive column of Marcus Aurelius to Via dei Condotti, where I settle comfortably into a table at Antico Caffè Greco, one of the oldest coffee houses in all of Italy. The rooms are small and charming, with plush velvet benches and walls lined to the ceiling with works of art in old, mismatched frames. Keats and Byron and Shelley—that trio of English romantic poets—were all patrons here, and it is, perhaps, for that reason, that I feel very much at home.

I wander next up to the Spanish Steps, which look grand and inviting to me, and apparently, to hoards of other tourists as well, because they are congregating here en masse. When I last visited Rome in 2008, the obelisk at the top was covered in scaffolding, like a tall metal skyscraper, blocking the view of the church of Santissima Trinità dei Monti. Today, all is well and the view is glorious. Crowded, but glorious.

At the base of the Spanish Steps is a small museum dedicated to Keats and Shelley, and for a temporary escape from the noise outside, I duck in to browse its rooms full of books, manuscripts, and artifacts, and to see the place where Keats died of consumption in 1821 at the age of 25.

I make a brief detour to the Trevi Fountain and to San Crispiano for a dish of pear and grapefruit gelato, before heading up the Quirinale hill, the highest of Rome’s seven hills. So far I’ve been merely stretching my legs and my jet lagged body for the main event of the day—a major Caravaggio exhibit at the Scuderie del Quirinale, a renovated space across from the presidential palace that was once used by the Vatican as a stable for the pope’s horses.

The year 2010 marks the 400th anniversary of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s death at the age of 39. To mark the occasion, the curators in Rome have gone to great lengths to borrow the artist’s finest works from museums around the world: “The Supper at Emmaus” from the National Gallery in London, “The Cardsharps” from Fort Worth, Texas, an amorous cupid from Berlin, and “The Taking of Christ” from Dublin, among others. As a result, newspapers have reported outrageously long lines. Ordinary timed tickets have sold out, as I found when I tried to buy one online weeks ago, so I opt for a Caravaggio Card instead. For a slightly higher cost, I gain priority admission, as well as a free pass for a sightseeing bus that travels to various churches around town where other Caravaggio paintings are on display.

The rooms inside are dimly lit, but noisy with the chatter of local school groups, who sit in crowds on the floor before one painting, then the next, listening in half attention to the commentary of their teachers. For a few Euros, I rent an English audio guide for the exhibit, but soon find myself falling into the same distracted state. The descriptions are dense and academic, as if drawn from an art history lecture, which would normally appeal to me, but here it feels entirely at odds with the drama and raw emotion captured on canvas. Halfway through the chronology, I abandon the headset entirely with no regrets.

Before coming, I read Jonathan Harr’s book, The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, so I know something already about the artist’s violent life and the allure of his work. It has made me particularly keen to see “The Taking of Christ,” a painting long thought lost, but finally rediscovered on the wall of a Jesuit dining room in Ireland in the early 1990s. From the exquisite lighting, to the realism of the soldiers’ armor, to Caravaggio’s self-portrait holding a lantern at far right, it does not disappoint.

With my energy flagging, I leave the museum and wind my way back to the hotel for a welcome rest, and when I head out again later for dinner, the adrenaline of Rome is once again pulsing in my veins. I revisit Piazza Mattei—one of my favorite little squares—and find the sound of water in the tortoise fountain mingling with the lively tune of a nearby accordion. I continue on to Campo de’ Fiori and then Piazza Navona, where this time Bernini’s “Fountain of the Four Rivers” is blessedly free of its scaffold prison.

By the time I reach Piazza Campo Marzio, the sun has nearly set and my legs have given out at last. I crumble into an outdoor table and chair at Ristorante Boccondivino and dine well on a caprese salad and Veal Saltimbocca. Afterwards, craving sleep but not wanting the night to end, I walk to Hadrian’s Temple in Piazza di Pietra, up to the Spanish Steps, and back past the Pantheon to my hotel.

It’s well past eleven when I crawl into bed. Exhaustion will come, and soon. But as someone once told me: “Rome by night is magic.” Who wouldn’t want to prolong that?

Tuesday, June 2, 2010

“Madame, it is too cold.”

This is what the man at the front desk tells me. Standing there comfortably in a short sleeve shirt, I beg to disagree, grumpy from lack of sleep, but he is unmoved by my protestations.

I’ve made a point of returning to the Hotel Hosianum Palace in Rome, not only because of its location, but because it has a lovely rooftop terrace on which a buffet breakfast is served. This morning, however, a sign posted in the elevator has directed me to a room in the basement that is utterly devoid of natural light. I find this puzzling. When I awoke in my little room and opened the window I was greeted by a warm breeze and a bright, blue sky. And yet here I am, eating my bacon and eggs sequestered underground.

Inasmuch as I love Italy and her people, it is very clear that we each have a different notion of what constitutes inclement weather, and I have been overruled.

I don’t linger over breakfast, and it is not just because of the basement. Today is Festa della Repubblica, or Republic Day, Italy’s equivalent of the 4th of July, and a parade is about to begin just around the corner in Piazza Venezia. By the time I arrive it’s just after 9, and every man, woman, and child in the city of Rome has beat me to it. The crowd is thick and heavy, so I decide to watch and wait from Piazza di San Marco, in a copse of trees just opposite the massive white marble wedding cake known as the Vittorio Emanuele II monument.

When I stand on tip toes I can see precise lines of military men in plumed hats ascending the steps. I lift my camera and through the zoom lens catch a glimpse of Silvio Berlusconi and Giorgio Napolitano laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier. An Italian flag furls in the breeze high overhead. When I visited Rome in 2008, I had to catch a train to Florence on the morning of June 2nd, so the festivities were nothing more than an obstacle on the way to Termini Station. This time around, I am determined to experience it all.

There is a momentary lull that follows. I try to navigate up and around the barricades to Via dei Fori Imperiali, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Colosseum, but the weight of the crowd is making me uncomfortable, as are the lit cigarettes that people feel compelled to hold low at their sides despite close quarters.

I retreat back to Piazza di San Marco and remain there for the duration of the parade. As regiments and brigades stream past in vivid hues, I find myself among some equally colorful people. At 5’5” tall I’m struggling to see past the heads in front of me, yet to my left is a woman who is far shorter. While I’m straining forward on the balls of my feet, she jumping—literally jumping—up and down, talking incessantly all the while on her cell phone. The phone rings. “Pronto,” she says. Again, it rings. Again, “Pronto.” Over and over again.

Directly in front of me is a young couple who are doing three things that annoy me greatly. First, the man is holding an umbrella above his girlfriend’s head as if it were a parasol and she was a Southern belle with a delicate complexion in need of protection from the midday sun. Second, even though this Romeo has the manner of an Ashley Wilkes, he has the roving hands of Rhett Butler, which is, shall we say, distracting. And finally, Scarlett has the unforgiving habit of thrusting her camera out at arm’s length in every direction, blocking and very nearly whacking everyone around her, as if the parasol wasn’t bad enough. When her storage card gives out midway through, I smile in silent revenge. That is, until her free hand allows her to light a cigarette.

And finally, there is the man behind me. He taps me on the shoulder and when I turn he makes a motion with his hands like a musician playing the trombone and says, in broken English, “zoom, zoom.” I have a telephoto lens on my camera and at first I think he is irritated with me for using it. And what about Scarlett O’Hara, I think. Surely she’s blocking your view with her flailing camera arm more than I am in lifting mine up to my eye? But no. He isn’t angry with me. Not at all. He’s trying to tell me something, although neither of us have the language skills to communicate properly. When he taps my shoulder again and points toward the sky, I am just in time to catch a fly over by Italy’s Frecce Tricolori—nine jets in tight formation, releasing streams of red, white, and green smoke behind them. I follow them to the horizon with my camera and in seconds they are gone. Grinning broadly, I turn to my new friend and say “Grazie, grazie, grazie!” He nods and smiles back.

As the crowd disperses, I make my way past the Pantheon to Piazza Navona. I grab a mortadella sandwich from a small shop nearby and eat it in the square. Afterwards, I start to search for the nearest 110 Open bus stop, which is only vaguely suggested on the map I received with my Caravaggio card. The red double-decker busses are easy to spot in traffic, but following them is a chore. When I snag one at last, I climb up to the top deck, lean back, and ride for the duration, past St. Peter’s and the Vatican, and Piazza del Popolo, all the way to Termini Station.

I duck in to the station briefly to get a train ticket for tomorrow’s trip to Arezzo, which will save time in the morning, then I head to a trio of churches to finish out the afternoon: the papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore; Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the only Gothic church in Rome; and San Luigi dei Francesi, home to Caravaggio’s paintings depicting the life of St. Matthew. Somewhere I read that there are more 900 churches in Rome. I visited four on my first trip, so that even with another three under my belt, I have at least 893 to go. It’s such a shame, I suppose I’ll just have to come back.

For a celebratory end to the day, I decide to walk through the Jewish Ghetto for dinner at Da Giggetto, next to the ancient ruins of Portico d’Ottavia. I order the house specialty—a Carciofo alla Guidia, or fried artichoke “the Jewish way”—as well as a rice, mozzarella, and tomato ball to start, along with a veal roulade as my secondi piatti. There is a young man from Korea dining solo nearby and he comes over to ask for help with the menu when he sees I have a book of food translations. I chat, too, for a bit with an American family of four and enjoy overhearing snatches of their conversation. Their son and daughter are excited to be here, exploring a new culture in a foreign land, and their enthusiasm for new things is contagious. At the same time, their pleasure in each other’s company leaves me feeling a bit homesick for those I love. After dinner, I walk to the Ponte Garibaldi to call my nephew to wish him a happy 19th birthday, and to gaze one last time at the dome of St. Peter’s.

On the way back to my hotel, my eye is drawn to some stenciled graffiti on the side of a building. Graffiti is hardly a novelty in Rome. It’s everywhere, on walls, subway cars, and trash cans.

But this is reminiscent of Banksy somehow, a cut above the rest, and it captures my attention because it reads “Bella La Vita.”

Life is beautiful.

At home—back in the real world—I collect antiques and in my collection I have a set of letters written by a Harvard grad named Roger Swaim who travelled abroad on a “Grand Tour” of Europe in the mid-19th century. Memorably, in writing to a friend, he called Rome an “awful task” and said that he should appreciate it only after getting away from its “filth & discomforts.”

I am reminded of my gentle disagreement with the hotel desk clerk over this morning’s temperature, and once again I beg to disagree. Time and circumstance change, of course. When Swaim was here in 1870, the citizens of Rome had just voted to become part of a unified Italy—an historical event best remembered on Republic Day, of all days. But as with the weather, things such as “filth” and “discomfort” are largely a matter of perception.

I look again at the graffiti on the wall.

Life is beautiful.

Yes. To me, it is indeed.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

It’s early and my bags are packed. Over breakfast, I pull out my iPod and use its Kindle reader to flip through an essay the novelist Henry James once published in the Atlantic Monthly titled “A Chain of Italian Cities,” in which he recounts his journey through the hill towns of Assisi, Perugia, Cortona, and Arezzo. I am loath to leave Rome so soon, but I have spent time here before, and for now I am excited to retrace James’ steps, more than a century later, to some of the lesser known sites in Tuscany and Umbria.

It’s a gray morning in Rome as I head by taxi to Termini station to catch the 10:36 AM train to Arezzo, my home base for the next four days. It’s an easy ride, but by early afternoon the dreary sky has opened into a steady rain and I’m relieved that the walk to Piazza Guido Monaco and the Hotel Continentale is short.

At just 75 Euros a night, the hotel is a bargain, even if my room does resemble a 1980s college dorm room with its white furniture and floral bedspread. I open the doors to the balcony and look down the street to the right, towards the train station, which serves as a major railway hub, and then left past the piazza towards the historic center of town. Arezzo is a real city, with real Italians passing by on the sidewalks below. For the first time, I have wandered outside of the tourist corridor that connects the venerable triumvirate of Rome, Florence, and Venice. To be fair, Arezzo is hardly undiscovered—it was featured in the 1997 movie “Life is Beautiful,” which won an Academy Award for best foreign language film—but the city isn’t even mentioned in Rick Steves’ guidebook and that fact alone confers a certain air of adventure. I am striking out on my own, and as usual my stomach leads the way.

Just as I arrive at Piazza San Francesco I stumble into Gastronomia Il Cervo and walk through the door to the delight of a jovial man behind the counter. His English is poor and my Italian is worse, but the essentials of communication are achieved with a smile. He recommends a spicy pasta made from stale bread, a warm and hearty choice on a chilly day, and I enjoy a bowl of it immensely in the dining room upstairs, ending the meal with a cappuccino.

Feeling fortified, with umbrella in hand I venture back out onto the quiet streets and spend the afternoon lazily wandering from church to church. My first stop, resting on the edge of a lush green park near the ruins of a Medici fortress, is the city’s cathedral, or duomo. There is a beautiful vaulted ceiling lined with frescoes, some stunning medieval stained glass by the famed Frenchman, Guglielmo de Marcillat, and a charming, if unassuming, portrait of Mary Magdalene by Piero della Francesca.

I make my way back down the hill to the Romanesque church of Santa Maria della Pieve to see its Lorenzetti altarpiece, a luminous polyptych of the “Madonna and Child with Saints” painted in 1320. I pop a coin into the light box and stand back to appreciate the effect, watching the figures glow on a ground of gold paint high over the crypt at the end of a long spare nave, under a ceiling of thick wooden beams.

At 4:00 PM, I arrive back at Piazza San Francesco and enter the basilica there to see the Bacci chapel, famous for Piero della Francesca’s cycle of frescoes known as the “Legend of the True Cross.” The reservation I made online weeks ago hardly seems necessary, for as in the other churches in town, I am quite alone, save for a pair of young women taking tickets by the door. They direct me past a velvet rope and I savor the space, turning round and round to follow the visual story of the wood that was ultimately used to create the cross on which Christ was crucified.

My eyes search for a place to begin. By now, after several summers spent tramping across Europe, I am familiar with the form. Frescoes like this are made up of distinct scenes that can be read much like a medieval comic strip. With some help from a small book I bought in the gift shop, I follow along: In the beginning, seeds given by Michael the Archangel are planted in Adam’s mouth at the moment of his death, becoming a tree that grows upon his grave. It is later felled by King Solomon and its wood used to bridge a stream. When the Queen of Sheba attempts to traverse the bridge, she has a vision in which she sees Christ killed on a cross made from its beams. The wood is buried, but later found and it fulfills its fate. Centuries later, on orders from the Emperor Constantine, the relic is discovered among the three crosses of Cavalry and its identity restored.

It’s been a wonderful afternoon, but my mind is crammed to overflowing and I am eager to feel the cool air upon my face. As I open the door to leave the basilica, I reach for my umbrella expecting rain, but I am greeted instead by a bright blue sky. The storm has passed, and all of Arezzo is reflecting in the puddles it left behind.

When Henry James was here in the 1870s, he spent much of the day in an “uninvestigating fashion,” taking in the “general impression” of things. In walking down Corso Italia and its side streets, I now find myself doing much the same. Along the way, I stop at Cremi for a dish of artisanal gelato—a scoop of orange with lime and one of coconut. Its bright, refreshing taste suits both the change of weather and my buoyant mood. I walk further down to San Agostino in time to hear the church bells toll the top of the hour, and then I turn back to the hotel to rest before dinner.

When I head out again, I’ve already decided to end the day with a meal at La Lancia d’Oro, a restaurant that spills out under the Vasari loggia, facing Piazza Grande, Arezzo’s most famous public square. Come Saturday, the sloping pavement will be covered by rows of antiques stands for the monthly Fiera Antiquaria, but for now the view is peaceful and serene, a jigsaw of stone and stucco buildings, each decorated with colorful coats of arms.

Believing that the quality of restaurant food is usually in inverse proportion to its location, I truly don’t expect much from dinner, not here in such grand surroundings. I expect tourist fare, so I am stunned when a chain of delectable dishes make their way out of the kitchen, all delivered with warmth and grace by wait staff that treat me like family. I order a bowl of Ribollita to start. It is a Tuscan specialty I have longed to try, a soup made with bread and vegetables. But a small plate of appetizers arrives first, unbidden. For a moment, I worry that there has been some costly confusion, but the night is so warm and pleasant and my glass of the restaurant’s private label wine so enjoyable, that I throw caution to the wind and decide the experience is worth whatever the price. I order a fresh plate of asparagus ravioli, but later decline dessert, only to find a trio of pastries brought to my table anyway, followed by a cream pudding.

When the check arrives at last, I thank the waiter for what has been my best meal in Italy, ever. It is a prize hard won, given the fine lunch I had in Siena two years ago, and the beautiful plate of gnocchi I once ate in Rome. I peer at it cautiously and then wrinkle my brow. I have been charged for the Ribollita, the ravioli, and the wine, but for nothing more. The rest, it seems, was kindness.

I grab my tripod and snap a few pictures of Piazza Grande, floodlit beneath a cobalt sky, and on the walk back to the hotel, I think again about Henry James. He, too, had been seduced by “adorable Italy,” and by the charm of Tuscany in particular. By the end of his day in Arezzo, he had “seen Santa Maria della Pieve and its campanile of quaint colannades,” as well as “the stately, dusky cathedral” and a museum filled with “Etruscan vases and majolica platters.” It had been, he said, a day of “soft saturation,” spent among beautiful hills and cypresses that cast long, straight shadows in the sun. And when he travelled on, he took with him “[m]emories and images, anything and everything.”

In years to come, he would look back and write fondly of the things that populated his Italian Hours. Exhausted, I lean back into bed and close my eyes, knowing that someday I will, too.

Friday, June 4, 2010

This morning, I’ve made a mess of things. I’m having breakfast at the Hotel Continentale, in a lovely dining room decorated in vibrant shades of blue and gold. There is a fine selection of pastries, breads, cereals, and fruit laid out on long buffet tables, and for coffee there is an imposing automated machine. Ideally, I would like a cappuccino, but I am not sure how best to achieve this. I press a button and I am comforted by a whirring sound that spits espresso into my cup, but when the steamed milk is dispensed, it comes from an entirely different spout, far to the left. By the time I realize this and shift my position, much of the milk has drained away, and the rest has slopped over the side into the saucer below. Feeling embarrassed, I decide to make the best of it and carry it back to my table.

The waitress minding the buffet has noticed my plight and she takes pity on me. She’s a cheerful, middle aged woman and she says something comforting in Italian before trotting off. A moment later she emerges from the bar holding an absolutely perfect cup of cappuccino. As she watches me, I take long sip, allowing the aroma of the coffee to fill my nostrils. When at last I pronounce it “molto bene,” and with great enthusiasm, she seems genuinely pleased. The people in Arezzo are nice. There is no other way of saying it, although it hardly seems sufficient. They are nice, and I like it here. I like it very much.

From my hotel facing Piazza Guido Monaco, it’s just a short walk to the railway station, and after a brief detour to the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre in town, I catch the 9:14 AM train to Assisi. It’s a milk run train that makes countless stops along the way, but the scenery out the window is distractingly beautiful, and for a moment I catch a glimpse of a castle high on the hill, which I later learn is Montecchio Vesponi, near Castiglion Fiorentino. The hour and a half goes by in the blink of an eye.

At the station in Assisi, I buy a ticket for a bus that will take me to the old town at the top of the hill and ride it all the way up to Piazza Matteotti. From there it’s a pleasant walk through ancient streets and along sweeping vistas, past the cathedral of San Rufino to Piazza del Comune, under the soaring tower of the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, all the way down to the papal basilica of St. Francis.

The day is young and the town has a sleepy quality, with shopkeepers relaxing by open doorways crammed with religious souvenirs—laminated prayer cards, rosary beads, crucifixes, and rows upon rows of St. Francis statuettes dressed in identical brown tunics, cinched at the waist. Some are portly, others tall, but nearly all depict the saint’s famed attachment to animals—occasionally dogs, but more often than not birds, a menagerie of birds.

I approach the basilica from the east, along Via San Francesco, where it sits at the end of a long green lawn on which hedges form the letters PAX, the Latin word for peace. Outside the entrance to the upper church, I rent an audio guide and then walk into a bright space that is, through the conscientious efforts of the guards, surprisingly quiet, despite a steady stream of pilgrims. I can see an apse and transcept at the far end, but I am struck most by the frescoes that line the nave, long attributed to Giotto. The paintings reconstruct major events in the life of St. Francis (1181-1226)— a crucifix in the church of San Damiano speaks to Francis and summons him to God’s work, the future saint renounces his wordly goods, he preaches to the birds, and later on Mount La Verna he receives the stigmata. It is painful to recall how close all of this was to destruction after an earthquake struck in 1997, killing four people and sending chunks of the vaulted ceiling to the floor.

After circling the nave thoroughly, I make my way down to the cavernous lower church and to the tomb where St. Francis is buried. In “A Chain of Italian Cities,” Henry James wrote that “it would be hard to breathe anywhere an air more heavy with holiness,” for the basilica pushes the visitor “into the very heart of Catholicism.” As usual, I find his powers of observation to be uncanny.

After a quick sandwich at a nearby café, I spend the rest of the afternoon testing my stamina on the narrow and undulating streets of Assisi. I shop for ceramics, stop by an ancient Roman temple long ago converted to the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and visit Santa Chiara, a basilica devoted to St. Clare (1194-1253), who like Francis, founded her own monastic religious order.

At 4:00 PM, I catch the bus in Piazza Matteotti and from the train station below walk across the tracks for one last stop at the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which inside houses the tiny Porziuncola, the 9th century chapel that Francis believed he was commanded to repair. It is crowded with tourists, most snapping flash photos despite the admonition posted outside, and I have to breathe deep to remember Francis’ words: PAX ET BONUM. Peace and goodwill. It strikes me as a sentiment that is easier to maintain when preaching to the birds.

On the train on the way back to Arezzo, a friendly Australian named Serena takes the seat next to mine. She is a lawyer on a fourteen month break who has chosen to travel the world and we chat amiably until we reach her stop at Passignano. By now, I’ve grown used to travelling solo, but I look forward to such passing acquaintances.

Back in town, on a side street near Piazza Grande, I decide to grab dinner at Trattoria Il Portale where the owner, a balding man with a surly disposition, seems not to understand my request for a table. “Un tavolo per una, per favore,” I say, and then repeat the phrase. Exasperated, he turns and loudly calls “Ma-a-a-a-r-r-r-r-r-ia!”

Maria is a sweet young girl, and she recommends the bruschetta and a tubular pasta with cheese and fresh cracked pepper called Cacio e Pepe, both worthy of Arezzo’s growing reputation for culinary excellence, at least in my eyes. I sit for a while and read from a book on Giotto I bought in Assisi. Afterwards, I revisit Cremi for a cup of nutella mousse and yogurt gelato and savor it—and the day—all the way back to the hotel in the dark.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

It’s a bright and beautiful morning in Arezzo and I’m standing on the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Continentale surveying the city streets. Directly below me is Piazza Guido Monaco, a small octagonal park named for the Benedictine monk who invented musical notation. Beyond, an assortment of stone towers dot the landscape, including that of Santa Maria della Pieve, but the overall effect is a mixture old and new, owing to the fact that much of Arezzo was bombed heavily in the war, especially here near the railway station.

In a newspaper account published by The Times on July 16, 1944, it was said that the “main street through the town… was a melancholy line of battered shop fronts and doorways.” And yet, “at the end of this sombre route one came to the Piazza del Duomo and it was a refreshing sight. There stood Arezzo’s fine cathedral, serene on its height above the streets of the town and remote from the damage and havoc that war had wrought below.”

Today, the city has risen from the rubble and rebuilt itself around its surviving landmarks, and when I see the cathedral perched high on the hill in the distance, the miracle of its survival makes me smile.

It’s a Saturday morning and the streets are already teeming with people, and I can see a row of white canopy tents that have appeared overnight for the Fiera Antiquaria, Arezzo’s monthly antiques fair. I’ve been told that it’s the oldest and the largest of its kind in Italy, with over five hundred booths that wind up the hill past Piazza San Francesco to the duomo, then back by the Palazzo Comunale, and under the Vasari Loggia, before spilling out into Piazza Grande. Aside from the convenience of the city’s railway hub, this is the main reason for my visit, so I rush to the elevator, eager to descend and join the crowd.

In truth, there isn’t much I can afford, or for that matter, fit into my suitcase, but I thoroughly enjoy wandering the hilly streets nevertheless. There are chairs and tables and wrought iron beds, stacks of books and prints and gilded picture frames, porcelain figurines and ceramic bowls. I fall in love with a pair of 19th century paintings of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and a beautiful landscape by Pier-Antonio Gariazzo, but in the end seize upon a small and far more affordable pair of modern paintings, each depicting people browsing an Italian antiques market, just as I have done all morning. Whether art imitates life, or life imitates art, I head back to the hotel thrilled with the purchase.

It’s nearly 1:00 PM and while I had originally thought I might head to Florence for the afternoon, I’m feeling as lazy as Henry James and want nothing more than a pretty place to explore in a thoroughly “uninvestigating fashion.” I decide to catch the bus to Cortona instead, a tiny hill town made famous by Frances Mayes in her memoir Under the Tuscan Sun, and when I arrive there at Piazza Garibaldi an hour later, and gaze out across the hills, lakes, and valleys of neighboring Umbria, I’m glad I came.

I begin to follow the narrow straight line that is Via Nazionale towards what my map tells me is the center of town—Piazza della Repubblica and the Palazzo Comunale—but I stop off along the way for a late lunch at Tuscher Caffé. I sit back and relax at a small table by the side of the street with a gorgeous plate of cured meats, bruschetta, and pecorino cheese before me, as well as a glass of chilled prosecco. Truly, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Half of the Palazzo Comunale is wrapped in scaffolding, which is a bit of a disappointment, but the town itself is not. It has a romantic, easy charm and the hours slip by gently on the mind, if not the body, for Cortona is a hill town indeed, and on either side of Via Nazionale, there are alleys and stairways that branch off into breath-robbing inclines. I shop for ceramics, eat some gelato, and peer down Etruscan wells, walk down to the church of Santa Maria Assunta, the town’s duomo, and stop into the adjacent Diocesan Museum to see works by Luca Signorelli and Fra Angelico. But mainly, I just walk, as far as my legs will take me, out along the walls for another sweeping view of Lake Trasimene and the Val di Chiana, all the way back to the shade of the Parterre gardens. Somewhere along the way, I fill the last space on the first of my camera’s 8 GB storage cards and reach into my bag for another, wondering if I will make it through the rest of my trip at this pace.

It’s just after 7:00 PM when I finally catch the bus back to Arezzo. I sink back into the seat and enjoy chatting with a young Korean student living in Florence, whose name is Yun-Mi, but who asks that I call her Stella, which she says is her English name. She is as amiable a traveling companion as I could hope for, and her facility with languages impresses me deeply, and not only because she is far more capable than I in confirming our route with the driver.

Back in Arezzo, a deep fatigue has started to set in. My legs are aching, and yet my stomach is growling like mad. From the bus stop in the piazza, I head up Via Guido Monaco to a kabob shop and order a sandwich and a can of Coca-Cola to go. I slump back to the hotel feeling guilty. After all, I should be dining on classic Tuscan fare—a steaming bowl of Acquacotta, or a juicy Chianina steak—but alas, what I crave most is sleep. Exhaustion is, perhaps, something Henry James would have understood when he wrote of “the familiar tax on the luxury of loving Italy.”

Sunday, June 6, 2010

This is one of those days that I’ve looked forward to for a very long time. It’s the Sunday after Corpus Domini and I’m up early to catch an 8:14 AM regionale train to Orvieto for an annual event known as the “Procession of the Holy Corporale.”

The day itself, which honors the Eucharist, is an important one in predominantly Catholic countries such as Italy, but the celebrations here extend far beyond church services. Over the weekend, many towns hold an infiorata in which flower petals are arranged into art, creating stunning street mosaics that last mere hours. Spello, a tiny town near Assisi, has one of the most famous of these festivals, and I had wanted to go, but it conflicts with the parade in Orvieto, and in the end, I decided to attend the latter instead. And so here I am, waiting for the funicular to take me to the town at the top of the hill.

According to tradition, a religious miracle occurred here in 1264. When a priest on a pilgrimage to Rome stopped at a church in nearby Bolsena to celebrate mass, he is said to have witnessed the Host bleeding. A piece of the habit he wore that day—known as a corporale—was stained by the blood, and to this day it is kept in Orvieto’s cathedral. Once each year, the relic is taken through the streets of the city in a lengthy procession that includes hundreds of men, women, and children in medieval costume.

It’s just after 10 when I reach the top and rather than wait for a bus, I decide to hurry as best I can down Corso Cavour, navigating from a flimsy map I printed out from home, and the low rumble of drums in the distance. The parade is already under way.

I approach the cathedral from behind and slip along the barricades into a doorway along Via del Duomo, near the piazza. I barely have time to glance up at its glorious façade—which guidebooks hail as a masterpiece of the Late Middle Ages—when the first heralds arrive with their trumpets. They are followed by a swirl of sights and sounds that set my camera’s shutter into high speed. There are waves of flags, banners, and shields with various coats of arms, knights and squires dressed in richly embroidered cloth, priests releasing incense from brass thuribles, and soldiers in plumed helmets and chainmail, armed with spears, crossbows and halberds. From their breastplates to their buckles, the attention to detail is a marvel, like a legend come to life off the pages of a book, and I think of Robin Hood or the Knights of the Round Table.

When the corporale makes its appearance at last, it’s under a white canopy trimmed in gold, seated upright in an ornate reliquary, richly decorated in enamel. The people lining the streets grow quiet and bow their heads in respect, many making the Sign of the Cross. An old woman leaning out of a window overhead applauds.

Round and round they go, from Piazza del Popolo through the streets to the duomo and back. It’s a grand spectacle and one in which the citizens of Orvieto clearly take pride. In fact, I don’t think I’ve never been so grateful for the zoom lens on my camera. The experience aside—and it has been a memorable one—if I don’t walk away from this with some truly excellent pictures, it will be no one’s fault but my own.

Once the service inside of the cathedral begins, the audio is conveyed on loud speakers to the crowd outside. The Italian that is spoken is lost to me, but the music—a mixture of sung hymns and traditional organ—most definitely is not.

As the crowds disperse through the narrow streets, I settle in for a light lunch at L’Antica Pizzetta, where I order a plate of polenta with mushrooms, drizzled in olive oil, and a glass of the local white wine, known as Orvieto Classico.

Afterwards, I drop by the tourist information office in the Piazza del Duomo to purchase a carta unica, which covers admission to nearly all of the city’s monuments. The Torre del Moro is my first stop of the afternoon, for its panoramic view, that blessedly comes with an elevator.

I spend the rest of the afternoon pleasantly, again shopping for ceramics, visiting the market in Piazza della Repubblica and the rustic church of Sant’Andrea which faces it. By the time I make my way back to the duomo to examine its façade in detail—an astonishing mix of gold leaf, mosaic tile, and bas-relief sculptures—it’s open once again for visitors, and after a day of bright sunshine, I welcome the cool air and the dim light of the interior. The stone walls and massive columns that support the nave are constructed in green and white horizontal stripes and they are nearly as vibrant as the cathedral’s famous façade. Yet the highlight for me is the Chapel of St. Brizio, which features Luca Signorelli’s frescoes of the Apocalypse (1499-1502). I’ve seen imagery of this, and of the Last Judgment, before, countless times—on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, on the ceiling of the baptistery in Florence, on the St. John Altarpiece in Bruges, on a portal of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and so on—so the writhing, naked bodies come as no surprise. But there is something fantastical here, something animated, that appeals to me and creates beauty out of misery and torment.

At 4:00 PM, I arrange to meet a guide named Anita for a group tour of the Orvieto underground. The city was built on a massive mound of soft limestone rock known as tufa, through which the Etruscans dug miles of caves, the rounded edges of which remind me of the Flintstone’s. In some rooms there are rows of small recessed holes in the walls. When Anita asks us to speculate on their use and purpose, we offer a variety of guesses. Some think the niches were used to store olive oil, others as a kiln for ceramics, and even a World War II bomb shelter. They were, she said, carved to create nests for breeding pigeons.

As we make our way back up towards daylight, I have a decision to make. I’ve seen posters around town for a cavalcade at 6:30, where riders on horseback will parade in Piazza del Duomo, and there is bleacher seating being set up now. Should I stay? I would like to, but it’s been a busy day and energy is starting to flag. I decide against it, and head back towards the funicular for one last stop at St. Patrick’s Well.

The well was built in the early 16th century and it’s famous for its clever, double helix design, which allowed people and livestock to descend down one set of stairs to the water at the bottom, while directing traffic up an entirely different staircase for the ascent back to the top. When my legs make it only part way down, and I am forced to retrace my original route, apologizing to the young woman at the ticket counter when I emerge from the wrong path, I know I’ve made the right decision to head back to Arezzo now, rather than staying late for the cavalcade.

On the way back, I realize that I forgot to validate my ticket before boarding the train. I panic, remembering the stories I had read about the fines that are imposed. An old Brit onboard says, “I wouldn’t fuss about it, my dear.” And he’s right. The conductor never comes through the car to collect tickets anyway.

Tired when I arrive, but grateful for my good fortune, I return to the same kebob shop along Via Guido Monaco and order a falafel to go.

Just before I fall into bed, I remember the uncharacteristically harsh words Henry James wrote about Orvieto when he visited in the 1870s. He found it “meanly arranged and, as Italian cities go, not [a] particularly impressive little town.” It was, he thought, quite “inferior to its fame.” As I scroll through the pictures on my camera, I think that perhaps if he had visited during Corpus Domini, he would have changed his mind.

Monday, June 7, 2010

It’s time to move on again, and in packing my bags this morning I feel a rush of excitement.

When I approach the front desk to pay my bill, I tell the clerk how much I’ve enjoyed my visit to Arezzo and the Hotel Continentale. And I mean it truly. In planning my itinerary months ago, I saw my time here as a convenient and inexpensive home base—a way of squeezing a few extra days out of the budget—but it has far exceeded my expectations.

The clerk pauses in his paperwork, looks up, and furrows his brow. “Quiet, quiet, quiet,” he says. “We get in a car and drive to Florence.”

And so it is.

I catch the 8:55 AM train to Florence and arrive at Santa Maria Novella station less than an hour later. After a short cab ride, I find myself back in the welcome arms of the Hotel Davanzati. I first visited Florence in the summer of 2008 and have the warmest possible memories of the place and of family that manages it. This morning, it’s the handsome Tommaso who greets me, and like his father Fabrizio, he is a kind and gracious host. Before long, my things are stowed away in the same charming room, and I have been briefed on the latest trends in local gelato. Grom, it seems, is very much in favor.

As I head out onto the streets and through Piazza della Signoria under a morning sun that already feels scorching hot, I am reminded of all that I love about Florence—the beautiful art and architecture, the enticing aromas wafting out from local cafés, the magnetic pull of museums, the sound of street music around every corner. There is an urban metabolism that pulses with possibility. I feel energized and find myself walking quickly, remembering that I have but a short time here.

I am devoting the day to loose ends, to a list of things I had wanted to do two years ago. There is, it seems, never enough time in Florence.

Because it closes early, my first stop is the Bargello museum, housed in the imposing Palazzo del Popolo, a former barracks and prison. The fortress is impressive in itself. There is an inner courtyard and covered staircase, and the walls are lined with heraldic shields from the 13th and 14th centuries that represent the coats of arms of various city magistrates, known as podestà. Inside, there is furniture and tapestries and some Majolica ware, but the real specialty is sculpture. The Bargello houses Donatello’s bronze statue of David. Completed in the 1440s, it was the first freestanding male nude to be cast since antiquity.

Florence, of course, is better known for a very different David—a more mature and heroic one, carved in marble by Michelangelo. Tourists line up in droves to see it at the Accademia across town, and they stand proudly by a copy of it for pictures in Piazza della Signoria. Here at the Bargello, Donatello’s David seems overlooked, in part because the museum itself is off the beaten path for weary crowds en route to other staples of Florentine history and culture. Even on a busy weekday at the height of tourist season, the museum is nearly empty.

As Mark Twain once wrote in the Innocents Abroad, I like Michelangelo very much, but I do not want him “for breakfast—for luncheon—for dinner—for tea—for supper—for between meals. I like a change occasionally.” As Twain went on to observe, in Florence, Michelangelo “painted everything, designed everything, nearly, and what he did not design he used to site on a favourite stone and look at, and they showed us the stone… Enough, enough! Say no more… I never felt so fervently thankful, so soothed, so tranquil, so filled with a blessed peace, as I did yesterday when I learnt that Michael Angelo was dead.”

Well, if that’s the case, Donatello’s David certainly is a change. He depicts David as a youth, more accurate to the biblical tale, but the pose is jarringly effeminate, with one hand resting on a hip that bends at the knee. The addition of a jaunty hat and Goliath’s winged helmet at his feet, one wing splayed seductively up the back of David’s leg, gives the entire composition a homoerotism that reminds me of the Caravaggios I saw in Rome. I wonder what Twain would have to say about that?

Nearby, I stop in for a bite to eat at Antico Noè, a tiny sandwich shop in an arcaded alley off Piazza San Pier Maggiore. I order the numero otto—pork with pecorino cheese—and watch as a steady stream of college students crowd the doorway. Next, I take Tommaso at his word and pay homage to Grom near Piazza del Duomo, where I get a dish of raspberry and lemon gelato for dessert, and eat it on the steps of the cathedral.

I walk back to Piazza della Signoria and join the security queue to enter the Palazzo Vecchio. This is the local town hall, and its soaring bell tower is nearly as prominent a part of the city skyline as Brunelleschi’s red-tiled dome.

It’s a self-guided tour, but an excellent one given the opulent surroundings. I visit the Salone dei Cinquecento (or, Hall of Five Hundred), where some believe that a long-lost scene of “The Battle of Anghiari” by Da Vinci lies hidden beneath a later fresco by Vasari.  I wander next through a series of connected public rooms, where every square inch of the walls and ceilings are covered by Renaissance art, some of which depict scenes of Florence that are wholly recognizable today.

I have a 3:45 PM reservation to see a cycle of frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel at the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, but with some time to spare I decide to cross the Ponte Vecchio and do a little shopping along the Oltrarno, stopping at Roberta’s to buy a leather belt for my Dad. Then, I walk up along the river to the Ponte Santa Trinita to admire the statues at each end representing the Four Seasons, which were added in 1680 to celebrate the wedding of Cosimo II de’ Medici. The bridge was a beautiful one, with three graceful elliptic arches, but in the closing days of World War II, it was spitefully bombed by the Germans, along with every other bridge in Florence, save the Ponte Vecchio. The statues collapsed into the Arno, and while the remains were put back on the newly reconstructed bridge after the war, the head of Primavera was missing and long thought stolen by soldiers during the liberation. It wasn’t until 1961 that it was finally found downstream.

I am right on time for my appointment. In the end, despite the restrictions—the need for advance reservations, and a limit of just 15 minutes to view the art—my visit in the Brancacci chapel is well worth the effort, especially given the quality of the multimedia presentation beforehand. Begun by Masolino in the late 14th century, and later finished by Masaccio and Lippi, the frescoes tell the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, as well as other stories from the Bible, including “The Payment of the Tribute Money” from the Gospel according to Matthew.

In the only sour note of the afternoon, a French tour group joins my time slot, and despite the usual admonitions for silence and respect, the guide talks loudly the entire time, instructing those with her to stand in the center of the small space, where they remain for the duration, crowding everyone else out. Afterwards, several of us try to talk to the guard to protest. We’ve had little chance to see the frescoes up close because of the guide’s boorish behavior, but it seems there is nothing he can do.

I decide to duck back to the hotel to change out of my sweaty clothes before dinner and to post a few pictures to Flickr for friends and family back home. When I arrive, Happy Hour is underway at the Davanzati, so I have a glass of prosecco beside me as I connect to the internet on my netbook. This is, apparently, an act of heresy in Italy and it draws a good-natured rebuke from Fabrizio, who reminds me that I am on vacation and that I shouldn’t work so hard. I’m truly not working, but it doesn’t seem worth the explanation. I simply agree and close the lid.

For dinner, I’ve reserved at table at Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco on Borgo San Japoco, where a cute Italian busboy asks if he can introduce himself. I nod and he flirts endlessly, insisting on taking my picture. Eventually, the waiter comes by, frowns, and sends him packing back to the kitchen, to my grave disappointment.

I dine well on some hearty Tuscan fare—white beans with sage, and a plate of Pappardelle al Cinghiale, or wide ribbon noodles with wild boar sauce. Sitting nearby is a couple from Florida, celebrating their 13th wedding anniversary. In eating early, and snapping pictures, and in brimming over with enthusiasm for Italy as we talk, we are—the three of us—the spitting image of the American tourist, although hopefully not as hapless and uncouth as those Twain depicted in his narrative.

The night is still young when I leave my Florida friends. The air is cooling at last, and the change in temperature makes for a pleasant stroll. A classical guitarist from Poland, named Piotr Tomaszewski, is playing on the Ponte Vecchio to an appreciative crowd. After a while, I head up Via Porta Santa Maria, past the duomo, to Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. Designed by Brunelleschi himself, this used to be an orphanage known as the “Hospital of the Innocents.” It’s a low structure with an arched colonnade and above each column is a round terracotta sculpture, or tondo, added by Andrea della Robbia around 1487. The tondi depict infants in swaddling clothes lying on a blue wheel—a wheel which actually existed until the late-19th century, allowing mothers to leave their unwanted children anonymously by rotating them into the hospital interior on the equivalent of a Lazy Susan.

By the time I make my way back to Piazza della Signoria for the third and final time, night has fallen. Floodlights have kicked on and the tower and stonework of the Palazzo Vecchio stand stark against the sapphire sky.

In the Innocents Abroad, Twain wrote that “Florence had pleased us for a while,” before becoming tedious in the effort required to appreciate it. I suppose that it’s possible to come to Florence to relax, to embrace what the Italians call l’arte di non fare niente—the sweetness of doing nothing. Fabrizio, at least, says that it is.

This is a city that wears its past proudly on its sleeve, but I’m sure there are times when the looming presence of the Renaissance imposes a burden on locals and tourists alike, for who among us will ever reach the heights of a Donatello or a Masolino, a Brunelleschi or a Michelangelo? And so we exhaust ourselves in stifling heat, trying to see it all in the time that we have.

What can I say? Florence inspires me—not to do nothing, or even something, but to do everything. If not this time, then the next. And that can be rather sweet, too.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Blame it on Netflix.

Originally, I had planned to spend two full days in Florence—not nearly enough, of course, even for a return trip—but two nevertheless. Yet here I am making a hasty visit to the basilica of Santa Maria Novella before heading out of the city by bus to the tiny hill town of San Gimignano.

I’m always in pursuit of “Italy porn”—films of varying and largely irrelevant quality that feature beautiful Italian landscapes. Il Postino, A Room with a View, Cinema Paradiso, Life is Beautiful, My House in Umbria, and even the mediocre Under the Tuscan Sun and Letters to Juliet, have all made it to the top of my queue.

The movie that inspired this particular side trip was Tea with Mussolini. Released in 1999, it tells the story of a group of elderly English ladies living in Florence who help raise a young boy named Luca, whose experiences are based loosely on the life of director Franco Zeffirelli. After Mussolini declares war on Great Britain, the group is interned in San Gimignano for the duration, where they remain feisty in their protection of orphan children, dogs, and local art, even in the face of the menacing Nazis. It’s quite a sweet movie, and it has me yearning to see the famous towers of San Gimignano for myself.

The bus ride from Florence is cheap and easy, but it does require a change of line with a 35 minute wait in Poggibonsi, where the station is dull and nondescript. The entire journey takes nearly two hours, so by the time I disembark with a crowd of other tourists at 12:30 PM, I’m ready to stretch my legs.

I’m standing just outside of the old city walls, in front of a massive stone gate, charting my position on the map, when I realize how unnecessary it is. Like in Cortona, there seems to be just one major route in San Gimignano—down Via San Giovanni, through Piazza della Cisterna, and then along Via San Matteo to another gate at the north end of town. From here, I can see two of the city’s towers, rising high at the end of the long, narrow street in front of me, but it takes me ages to reach them given the magnetic pull of quaint little shops that line the way, and an enticing lane to the right that leads me out to a cluster of Tuscan farmhouses.

When I walk under the Arco dei Becci at last and into the triangular Piazza della Cisterna, past the Collegiata and the down to the church of San Agostino and back, I find that my neck is growing stiff from the constant looking up. My guidebook says that there were once 72 densely clustered towers in San Gimignano, built by wealthy families for protection during sieges. Given the city’s small size, its skyline must have resembled a medieval Manhattan.

When the town later fell under Florentine rule, most were ordered down. Just 14 towers survive in their original, uncropped state today. Even so, San Gimignano is widely known as La Cittá delle Belle Torri—the City of the Beautiful Towers—and it’s easy to see why. They are rustic, heavy and substantial, and admittedly less elegant and refined than the Torre del Mangia in nearby Siena, but they are undoubtedly beautiful.

In 1875, Gino Capponi, an Italian historian, wrote that: “No other town or castle in Tuscany retains more of the Middle Ages and was less invaded by the ages that followed; in those towers, and in the churches and in the houses of massive stone, is still something that cannot be covered up by the thin plastering of modern times; ancient memories keep their possession of it, the new life has hardly entered in.”

Today, given the complex realities of tourism, I doubt Capponi would still agree, but on a hot summer’s day such as this, it seems as though the pull of “ancient memories” and the push of “new life” from the daily influx of daytrippers has found a peaceful equilibrium.

I stop for lunch on the terrace of La Griglia Ristorante, where the views are as scrumptious as my warm plate of wild mushroom crostini, and my glass of Vernaccia, the local white wine. Afterwards, I tour the Civic Museum in the Palazzo del Popolo and then head up to the top of the attached Torre Grossa, which dates from 1298. At 177 feet, it is the tallest tower in San Gimignano and in every direction there are breathtaking views. I look down upon a sea of red tiled rooftops, and out across the lush green Val d’Elsa to the mountains of the Pistoia and the Apuan Alps.

Intent on capturing the moment, I snap away on my Nikon D5000, pausing only when the second of my 8 GB storage cards runs out of space. As I slip a third into the slot on the side of the camera, I think about the marvels of digital photography. The tiny plastic rectangle in my hand stores nearly a thousand pictures and video clips from Cortona, Arezzo, Orvieto, Florence, and San Gimignano. Later, at the click of a mouse, the things I did and places I saw will be magically reconstructed out of millions of brightly colored pixels. It’s a curious thing—the juxtaposition of ancient and modern. I cast my eyes over the medieval city of San Gimignano and hope that technology will help me to fix it in my memory.

Earlier, when wandering the streets, I overhead a woman talking to her companion about the Collegiata church in Piazza del Duomo—the one, she said, with the “bad frescoes.” Determined to judge for myself, I descend from my lofty perch and head next door. I pay the entrance fee and head for the chapel of Santa Fina, the one featured in the film Tea with Mussolini. Ghirlandaio’s work here is lovely, especially since it seems to soften the saint’s life story. The young Fina fell gravely ill at the age of 10 and spent the next 5 years slowly dying on an oak table, a purposeful choice to increase her suffering in the eyes of God. A brutal historical fact, yes, but it certainly isn’t bad art.

The next candidate is along the back wall—a cycle of frescoes by Taddeo di Bartolo that depict the Last Judgment in gruesome detail. Naturally. This time, instead of academically drawn nudes, many of the writhing bodies are ugly and bloated, held at knife point by an army of winged monsters. It is terrifying indeed, but once again, not exactly bad art.

Still curious, but not at all sure of what she meant, I move finally to Bartolo di Fredi’s frescoes from the Old Testament. Here, the scenes are rather misshapen and out of proportion. These, I am sure, are what she intended when she spoke of “bad frescoes.” But I do think she’s been a bit unfair. The work before me represents the mid-14th century. If she were here, I would say: Have a little patience, their world is on the verge of the Italian Renaissance. Linear perspective is coming soon.

I stroll down to the Rocca di Montestaffoli, a small park made from the ruins of a fortress overlooking the town, and then wander back up through the streets, past a row of modern paintings on display against an old stone wall. Next to a charming Tuscan landscape, there is an eye widened in fear, seen through a dark keyhole. A British woman in a lavender print dress and wide brimmed hat stares at it for moment, then turns to her friend and says: “That one makes me want to avert my eyes, it does.” I can’t help but laugh, because it’s true.

I’ve enjoyed my visit to this tiny town immensely, but when menacing clouds start to gather overhead, I know it’s time to leave. I queue for the 5:40 PM bus back to Florence, with the same connection through Poggibonsi, and am grateful for shelter from the storm, for just as I board the sky erupts into thunder and lightening and sheets of rain.

By the time I arrive back in Florence at the Hotel Davanzati, the storm has passed, but the lingering effect is a welcome one. The heat of the afternoon has given way to a cool night air.

I walk to Piazza della Signoria in search of music, and find people lazing about on the steps of the Loggia dei Lanzi listening to a British singer/songwriter named Ken Mercer. He’s good and I join the crowd for a while. I’m enjoying the moment, but truth be told I had hoped that in revisiting Florence I would see Claudio Spadi again, the street musician I met on the Ponte Vecchio during my first visit in the summer of 2008.

Disappointed, I head north toward Piazza della Repubblica, yet even at a distance the sound I hear is familiar. It seems like serendipity to find him here on my last night in Florence, guitar in hand, singing by the light of the carousal, and I can’t suppress a grin. On a break, he introduces himself and I take a picture, staying long into the night until he ends a set with a rousing version of Buona Notte, into which he inserts the names of the people he has met, including my own.

Sitting here under the stars, crossed legged on the pavement, I am experiencing what can only be described as l’arte di non fare niente. I must remember to tell Fabrizio in the morning. He will be proud.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

This morning, it is time to leave the rolling hills of Tuscany and Umbria and head for the sun of Liguria and the almighty sea.

It’s just after 10 in the morning and I’m on a train to Monterosso al Mare, the largest of five small fishing villages that make up a region known as the Cinque Terre, or “five lands.” It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a national park, but it’s also a major destination for U.S. travelers. Arezzo isn’t even mentioned in Rick Steves’ guidebook, but the Cinque Terre has an entire chapter all its own, which has me a bit apprehensive about the crowds.

As I change trains at Pisa Centrale, the weather also has me worried. The villages of the Cinque Terre are connected by hiking trails that wind up and down along the cliffs, but according to some online message boards, recent downpours have forced the closure of many of the paths for sake of safety. Still, the air has been unseasonably warm these past few days, so as we speed by La Spezia and I crane my neck toward the window to catch brief glimpses of the ocean between tunnels, I am hopeful that things have dried out.

It’s nearly 1:00 PM by the time we pull into the station in Monterosso al Mare and I drag my luggage from the train along with scores of other passengers wearing shorts, sundresses, and flip flops. I stop briefly at the tourist information window to buy a three-day Cinque Terre treno card, to cover entrance to the trails and to the local trains that connect Monterosso al Mare to the towns of Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.

Emerging from the station, I turn left toward my hotel in the Old Town, but feel compelled to stop and stare at the scene before me. I’ve never spent much time at seaside resorts. I’ve never been to California or the Caribbean, and I’ve seen Florida only once, so this is new and exotic to me. There is a long stretch of sandy beach, decorated with rows of colorful umbrellas and chairs, set in a perfect arch along the shore. Palm trees strung with streamers of yellow and green line the street, and there are shops selling racks of postcards, sunglasses, tote bags, and beach balls.

I have not travelled far on this trip. The distance from Rome to Florence is just 182 miles—roughly equivalent to the drive I might take between my house in northwestern Vermont and Brattleboro, the city at its southeastern corner, near the border of Massachusetts. From Florence to the Cinque Terre, it is just 116 miles, which at home would get me only as far as White River Junction. And yet from the urban intensity of Rome, to the rustic charm of Tuscany and Umbria, and now the brilliant seas of the Cinque Terre, I am finding that the geography of Italy is astonishingly diverse.

I make my way through the pedestrian tunnel and up Via Roma until I reach the front door of the Hotel Margherita, a friendly place painted in shades of tangerine with green shutters. I check into room 101 and begin to unpack as a warm breeze through the louvered windows draws in the scent of lemon and basil from the garden below.

I feel energized when I make my way back down Via Roma toward the beach, and more so after grabbing a sandwich and a bottle of water. I climb a set of stairs by the Obertenghi Castle to the Aurora Tower, and continue up to the statue of St. Francis of Assisi. My legs are still feeling fresh on the descent, so much so that when I reach the sign at the end of the beach reading Per Vernazza, I decide, with little hesitation, to walk there for dinner, despite having just half my water left.

I had not planned on hiking any trails until tomorrow morning, especially the first leg to Vernazza, which is said to be the toughest climb, so this is either a moment of divine inspiration, or one of supreme lunacy under the heat of the afternoon sun. According to Rick Steves in his infamous guidebook, he often gets e-mails from readers “who say the trail was tougher than they expected,” but he assures us that while “it’s a bit of a challenge, it’s perfectly doable for any fit hiker… and worth the sweat.”

I spent months on a treadmill preparing for this, with the incline set to its highest point, so to believe that I am anything short of a “fit hiker” would amount to personal failure. Besides, I have already taken Assisi, Cortona, Orvieto, and San Gimignano in stride—hill towns all. Surely, this can be no worse.

Except that it is. That much is clear early on.

As the trail starts to climb, I can feel the burn in my legs. Before long, I’m stopping to catch my breath. Soon, it’s not so much a hiking trail as it is a never ending staircase.

The countryside is beautiful, to be sure. The path leads me along terraces of grapevines and olive groves, by crumbling stone walls overgrown with wildflowers, through the woods and over streams, but always uphill. Ceaselessly uphill. It’s late afternoon, the sun is scorching hot, and I don’t have nearly enough water. I start to ration it into the smallest of sips.

As a father and son approach from behind, I can overhear snatches of their conversation. They’re carrying fully inflated inner tubes. This seems like a bad idea on so many levels, although it occurs to me that if they happen to slip off the edge of the cliff—the footpath is narrow and there are, in most places, no guardrails—that it might actually break the fall.

The son is bounding forward, while the father lags behind and grumbles about wanting to turn back. I can’t say that I blame him, although as we meet others coming from the opposite direction, some wearing flip flops and others ballet flats, I am forced to question whether I am indeed a “fit hiker,” or merely a middle-aged woman in sensible shoes. As I march on, I begin to formulate a letter to Rick Steves in my head about how the trail was “tougher than I expected.”

When I cross paths with a group of friendly Australians heading from Vernazza, I dare to ask them about what lies ahead. Am I almost there, or almost to the ridgeline, at least? “Oh, dear,” the woman says. “Oh my, no.”

I’ve been on the trail for nearly two hours when, at long last, I reach a clearing high on the hill. The view from the summit takes my breadth away, although this time not from exertion, but out of sheer euphoria.

I am looking down upon the tiny village of Vernazza. I’ve arrived at the top of the hour and the bells of the lemon yellow church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia are just beginning to chime. I can see rows of pastel houses that fold back from a snug harbor, watched over by the ancient Doria Castle, and a fleet of small boats bobbing in the teal green sea. It is a picture postcard, perfect in every way.

Perhaps I won’t send that letter to Rick Steves, after all. It was worth the sweat, just as he said.

I make the descent into town and walk for a bit through the lively streets, but decide that it would best to head back to Monterosso al Mare, after all. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished—the hike is one I will long remember—but for now I’d like nothing more than a long, cold shower and a nice lie down before dinner. I head back on the train.

It’s 7:30 when I venture back out and, mercifully, the heat of the day is beginning to lift. I stop for dinner at Ristorante al Pozzo and relax on the outdoor patio, studying the menu and chatting with folks nearby. There is a couple from Australia on my left, and a young woman from San Francisco named Amber on my right. She’s quit her job and has been travelling solo around Europe for the past five months. She reminds me of Serena, who I met on the train from Assisi, and I find myself envying them both.

Italian cuisine is regional cuisine, and like Tuscany with its ribollita and wild boar, Liguria has specialties of its own—namely, anchovies, lemons, focaccia bread, and pesto. I’ve seen a dish called trofie al pesto on restaurant chalkboards all over town, and rows of basil are growing right outside my hotel window, so trofie al pesto it is.

Trofie is a variety of pasta made with flour and water, and not with egg. It’s rolled into thin strips, cut into pieces, and then twisted like a screw, with channels into which a sauce can cling. Famished from the day’s exertion, I gobble it down in astonishing speed.

Afterwards, I take a short walk around town before crashing into bed.  And in a conscious effort to reward to myself, I don’t set the alarm clock on the nightstand.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

When I wake up at last, it’s 9:30 in the morning. By the time I laze around and dress and take care of a few small chores—including a batch of laundry—it’s after 11 and I’ve missed breakfast at the hotel entirely.

I drop into Ristorante da Ely for a take-away slice of foccacia bread and a della de casa walnut torte, and this time—just to be safe—two extra bottles of water, and then sit on a bench in the shade overlooking the Old Town, eating and listening to the waves and the market below.

To start the day, I head up the long sloped stairs to the Capuchin church of San Francesco, to appreciate its quiet interior and the stunning views out along Fegina beach, all the way north to the Giant statue, and then make my way to the train station for the quick hop down to Riomaggiore, the southernmost village in the Cinque Terre. Today, the plan is to start at the bottom and hike north, as far as my legs will carry me. And if I am forced to stop for the sustenance of gelato in each and every town along the way, so be it.

There is an elevator in Riomaggiore, and it takes me to highest elevation in town, which allows the luxury of exploring downhill. I visit the church of San Giovanni Battista and the tiny oratory of Santa Maria Assunta, and gaze up at the castle and clock tower, but really the attraction here—and throughout the Cinque Terre—is the town itself and its easy charm.

The stucco houses are densely packed and painted in alternate pastel colors, regulated (I am told) by a commissioner of good taste. There are shades of lemon and peach, strawberry and lime, and together they remind me of a scoop of rainbow sherbet. There are open windows with green wood shutters, and laundry hangs in the sun to dry. The whole effect might be characterized as a kind of Mediterranean “shabby chic.”

From here I follow signs to the Via dell’Amore, or Avenue of Love, which connects Riomaggiore with Manarola, its neighbor to the north. It’s a beautiful path, wide and well paved, and it clings to the edge of the cliff in reckless abandon. After World War II, it became a romantic rendezvous where couples would meet and commemorate their love in amorous graffiti, a tradition which continues today. Layers of graffiti—some of it quite skilled—are caked onto the walls of the tunnel, and in a spurt of creativity, carved deep into the leaves of cactuses. And then there are padlocks. There are padlocks everywhere, locked onto signposts and fences and marked with initials.

I wonder if Nat and Lewis are still together? Or, Ludo and Giuppi, who wrote: Sei il mio primo pensiero al mattino, e l’ultimo alla sera. Grazie di esistere. Ti amo. “You are my first thought in the morning, and my last before bed. Thanks for being there. I love you.” At least I know that Aldo and Jnge are, since they wrote their names above a heart in 2007, 2008, and again just two months ago. There are hundreds of stories here, left dangling and unfinished, and I find myself wondering about them on the path to Manarola.

The next few hours slip by pleasantly, almost unnoticed. There are more tiny Gothic churches, more pastel colored homes, more stunning views out to sea and along the cliffs, and gradually my early prediction about gelato is fulfilled.

At about 4:00, I weigh the next step of my journey, from Corniglia to Vernazza, and decide against it. My body is weary and the hike would be the longest of the day, about 90 minutes. Perhaps, I think, I’ll tackle one that tomorrow. But I know I won’t.

Corniglia rests high on a promontory of rock, the only town in the Cinque Terre without a natural harbor. To get there, I had been lucky enough to snag a free bus to the top, but when I retrace my steps to where I got off, there is a sign warning that bus service has been discontinued for the day. And so I head down the “Lardarina” to the train station, a long set of switchback stairs—377 in all—my knees groaning in protest on every one.

Back at the Hotel Margherita in Monterosso al Mare, I rest up and head out to dinner a few hours later. At l’Altamarea, I dine well on some bruschetta, followed by pansotti in a walnut cream sauce, and a plate of grilled vegetables.

By now I’ve gotten a second wind, and so rather than heading to bed, I take the train to Manarola to watch the sunset, and then set up my tripod for some night shots. I follow the footpath north to the next jut of land

and look back on the village—my favorite of the day, second only to Vernazza. The sky is falling into a deep and brilliant blue, and there is a warm breeze on my skin. I slow the camera’s shutter, and the effect creates a dreamy mist on the waves as they crash towards the shore, and turns the pulsing of the street lights into a constellation of finely pointed stars.

Veramente questa è la vita.

This truly is living.

Friday, June 11, 2010

It’s my last day in the Cinque Terre and I’m determined to make the most of it, if not wholly by land than by sea. I think it’s time to buy a ferry ticket.

The first boat doesn’t depart Monterosso al Mare until 10:30 AM, so I bide my time in the Old Town. I do a little shopping and visit the church of San Giovanni Battista and the oratory of the Confraternita dei Bianchi.

It’s a beautiful morning, but the sea is rolling hard and when the ferry arrives the passengers need help to board, since the wheels of the gangplank are sliding forward and backward on the dock.

The journey to Vernazza takes all of 10 minutes, and the contrast and ease of transportation makes me laugh when I think of the 2 hours I spent hiking there on Wednesday afternoon. The experience was well worth it, but now I can’t help feeling like a kid playing hooky from school.

I hop off to explore the town on fresh legs. I duck into the church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, and then decide to follow the footpath towards Corniglia—not all the way—but far enough to catch a scenic view of Vernazza from the south. I also climb to the top of the Doria Castle for another stunning view of the harbor and the surrounding rooftops. And then, before I go, I grab a slice of foccacia bread from Batti Batti’ for lunch, and the green of the pesto, layered on a thin coating of red tomato sauce, with a white slice of melted mozzarella cheese reminds me vaguely of the flag. Viva Italia!

I reach the harbor just in time to catch the 12:20 ferry south and for the next hour ride it pleasantly past Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, all the way down to Portovenere. We see the ancient church of San Pietro first, and then swing around the bend toward the town and its famous “Palazzata”—a fortress of narrow houses crowned by a castle on the hill.

Portovenere faces the “Gulf of Poets,” named for those eternal friends, Byron and Shelley. Byron’s history here is rather dashing, recorded on an archway above a cave. The inscription reads: “This grotto was the inspiration of Lord Byron. It records the immortal poet who as a daring swimmer defied the waves of the sea from Portovenere to Lerici.”

As for Shelley, he penned the lines I recalled on my first day in Rome, the ones that spoke of his leaving England and of the “loveliness of the earth and the serenity of the sky” in Italy as making “the greatest difference” in his sensations. Yet in spite of that, his years here were filled with unspeakable tragedy—the deaths of three children, and the demise of his friend and fellow poet John Keats. Shelley himself perished nearby in 1822 when his boat, the Don Juan, was hit by a storm on the way from Livorno to Lerici.

On a glorious day in June such things seem unimaginable, and so as I amble out past the yachts in the harbor toward the spit of land on which the church of San Pietro rises organically from the rock, and lower myself down onto the steps, I think of the words Shelley penned about this place more than his fate, and find them fitting:

I sat and saw the vessels glide
Over the ocean bright and wide

I walk slowly back through the town with a dish of lemon and strawberry gelato, and then along a back street toward the Porto del Borgo. At the foot of the stone gate, under a 15th century fresco of the Madonna and Child with Saints Peter and Lorenzo, an old woman sits, leaning on her cane. She’s holding a handwritten sign on a square of cardboard that reads: Sono una nonna malata e povera bisogno di vostro aiuto. Grazie. It says she is a sick grandmother, and poor, and in need of help. She has a kind face and I drop a few coins into her basket, knowing I can do little but wanting to do something.

In the late afternoon, I board the ferry for the hour long journey back to Monterosso al Mare, where I retreat to my air conditioned room at the Hotel Margherita to rest before dinner and to post some of the day’s pictures online.

Since it’s my last night along the coast, I decide to take the train to Vernazza for dinner. It’s my favorite of the Cinque Terre towns, and the one I keep returning to time and again. I’m in search of a view tonight, so at 7:00 PM I ascend the long narrow steps leading up to Ristorante Al Castello, perched high above the water near the Doria Castle, under a protective row of red and black striped umbrellas. I order a green salad, some pesto lasagna, and a slice of lemon cake for dessert, and smile when a woman at the table next to mine asks the waiter if he knows they are in the Rick Steves book. He does, and says they are featured in the TV show, too!

After dinner, I walk down through the town and follow the footpath north, to the elevation from which I first saw Vernazza and its snug harbor. I set up my tripod and wait for the light to fade, all the while keeping an anxious eye on the train schedule. Lingering here is a risky move. Trains between La Spezia and Levanto run infrequently in the evenings and many skip Vernazza entirely. If I delay too long, I may miss the 9:44 and have a long wait on my hands—a not unpleasant proposition, but one that would rob me of the sleep I crave.

I lean over and look through the viewfinder. The street lights have come on, the day’s laundry has dried, and most of the swimsuits and beach towels have been pulled in by their owners. The church bells may toll at the top of the hour, but by then I’ll be well on my way, back to Monterosso al Mare, where I leave for Milan in the morning.

I must hurry and press the shutter. Night is descending, and I want nothing more than to steal the moment and take it with me.

Click.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

This morning I’m traveling by train to Milan. It’s a three hour journey, so there is ample time to sit back, read, and reflect. I pull out my iPod and tap on the Kindle reader. Soon, I’m back with my old friend Henry James, immersed in his Italian Hours.

When it comes to Milan, he says, “in its general aspect still lingers a northern reserve which makes the place rather perhaps the last of the prose capitals than the first of the poetic.” After spending yesterday afternoon staring across the Gulf of Poets, and finding all of the Ligurian coast perfectly disposed to lyrical verse, this has me worried. I’m reading between the lines, and Milan doesn’t sound very interesting.

I know just four things about Milan—it’s a large city, long considered the financial capital of Italy; with names such as Ferragamo, Versace, and Valentino, it has a major influence in the world of fashion; it is home to Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”; and it has a famous cathedral. Altogether these seem like promising ingredients, worth a three night stay.

My entrance into Milan through the massive Centrale train station is not auspicious, however. It’s early afternoon and the weather has turned. The crystal blue skies I enjoyed in the Cinque Terre have been replaced by a suffocating blanket of grey.

I’m staying nearby at the Hotel Berna. It’s a nice place—quite luxurious on the inside, actually—but as in most cities the area surrounding the station feels a bit seedy. There is a Thai massage parlor next door and, according to the sign, a “Sexy Shop” across the street.

After checking in and unpacking my bag, I buy a day pass for the Metro and ride the yellow line four stops down to the Duomo. When I emerge from the subway below, the massive cathedral stands before me and at first all I can think to compare it to is a wedding cake. It is, perhaps, an overused comparison when it comes to ornate architecture. Londoners refer to the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace as the “wedding cake,” just as Romans call the Vittorio Emanuele II monument in Piazza Venezia the “wedding cake.” There is even a private home in Kennebunk, Maine that locals dub the “wedding cake.” But here I’ll allow myself some latitude. After all, Twain suggested it more than a century ago in the Innocents Abroad. He thought it was “a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!” and I find myself hard pressed to improve upon the metaphor.

Reaction to the cathedral has always been mixed. It took workmen nearly 600 years to complete it, using a jumble of architectural styles, and even then it required a direct order from Napoleon Bonaparte to finish it off in 1805. John Ruskin, that cranky arbiter of good taste, hated it. Henry James was more circumspect, declaring it a “structure not supremely interesting, not logical, not… commandingly beautiful, but grandly curious and superbly rich… If it had no other distinction it would still have that of impressive, immeasurable achievement… a supreme embodiment of vigorous effort.” It’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but as for me, I like it well enough.

The interior is a massive cavern, supported by fluted columns of grey stone that rise from the floor like giant sequoias, between which oil paintings are suspended. There is some impressive stained glass, a graphic sculpture of a flayed St. Bartholomew carrying his skin slung over his shoulder, and an interesting treasury below with jeweled goblets and reliquaries. But the real highlight lies above, way above. I make my way back outside and around the corner where I purchase a ticket for the elevator that speeds me to the roof. From here, visitors can walk among the flying buttresses, admiring the thousands of statues that stand like sentries at the top of lacy spires. A little girl nearby says in amazement to her mother: “But why did they put them all the way up here where no one can see them?”

Back on the piazza, I walk next door to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a 19th century shopping arcade named for the first king of a unified Italy. The soaring space inside is covered by a vaulted glass ceiling and it reminds me of a cathedral, although clearly it is the god of commerce that is worshipped here.

I scan the mosaic tile on the floor, looking for the coat of arms of the city of Torino. There is a bull in the center, and in my guidebook it says that if you place your right heel on the animal’s testicles and spin around, it will bring good luck. I’m not in the least superstitious, but I give it a whirl anyway, figuring it can’t hurt. It can’t hurt me, in any event. Unfortunately, a century or more of this clearly has hurt the bull, because the poor beast’s underbelly has worn away into a deep crater.

I walk around the Galleria a bit, but I’m too timid to actually enter any of the shops, which include Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. There is, however, a McDonalds, and I find the juxtaposition so intriguing that I’m tempted to grab an early dinner there. Unfortunately, I settle on the nearby Caffè Letterario instead.

Every region of Italy has its own signature dishes. In Rome it’s saltimbocca and in Milan it’s ossobuco—a classic braised veal shank, usually served with saffron risotto. This is what I have my heart set on, although in retrospect a Big Mac would have been the better culinary choice. Yes, I am eating in the stylish Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which has its own rewards, but the food is horrible, and to add insult to injury, wildly overpriced.

Later, I stumble across a blog called The Simplistic Aphrodisiac. The author visited the same restaurant just two days before me and he says that the experience was “memorable,” but for all the wrong reasons. “After having had so many delightful meals throughout the trip, I finally hit a brick wall with this deceitfully established restaurant in downtown Milan.” And boy, does that ever hit the proverbial nail on the head!

As I walk down Via Dante toward the Castello Sforzesco, I find myself falling into a sour mood. The street itself fails to impress and just as I reach the grounds of the castle, they are pulling the gates closed for the day. On the way back to the metro and the Hotel Berna, with its “Sexy Shop” across the street, I give in and finally admit that I don’t like Milan.

I wonder if I somehow overslept on the train and slipped quietly over the border into, say, Switzerland. Henry James was right. Milan, indeed, symbolizes the “supreme embodiment of vigorous effort.” Its solid streets, banks, and shops represent “difficulties mastered, resources combined, labour, courage and patience”—all admirable qualities, to be sure, but as travelers we seldom want to visit such joyless places.

My Italy exists in poetry. When Milan speaks, I hear only prose.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I wake up this morning determined to do one thing. Leave Milan. Yes, I’m holding a grudge, and it is an admittedly hasty and irrational one, but nonetheless I’ve scratched the remaining items off my to-do list. The Brera Art Gallery and the La Scala theatre museum? Nixed. I’m fleeing town to spend the afternoon on the shores of Lake Como instead.

First, though, I need to speed through breakfast, which is shame since the Hotel Berna lays out a mighty fine spread. I have a 9:30 AM reservation to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and given how hard those slots are to obtain, I don’t want to take any chance of being late. I had tried to book online months ago, but every slot on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday appeared to be full. It was a tip on the TripAdvisor forums that led me to call directly, and I have to be there thirty minutes early to pick up my ticket.

I take the metro’s green line down to Cadorna and walk from there, first along Via Giosue Carducci, and then Corso Magenta. There’s some ongoing construction in the piazza in front of the church and in navigating around it, I happen by a bus stop with two large posters advertising Almo Nature, alimenti per cani e gatti, dal loro punto di vista—“food for cats and dogs, from their point of view.” The ads depict humans wearing Venetian-style animal masks, posed amorously under the tagline l’amore… love. In each, there is a woman who is topless. I know that Europeans have a more relaxed view of these things and that they consider Americans to be rather prudish when it comes to nudity—and perhaps we are—but I still think it’s strange, and not just because of its proximity to a major religious site. It’s just such an odd way to sell pet food.

I collect my ticket at the front desk and read some displays on the history of the church as I wait for my time to be called. Leonardo painted “The Last Supper” over a span of two years beginning in 1496. It’s on a wall at the far end of the refectory, which was used as the convent’s dining hall. I hadn’t known this, and it makes the subject matter surprisingly appropriate, for it is, after all, the depiction of a meal.

Rather than traditional fresco, Leonardo used an experimental technique, painting tempura directly on dry plaster, and the application caused problems from the start. By the late-19th century when Henry James visited Milan, the work was in a state of serious deterioration. He wrote that it was “an illustrious invalid whom people visit to see how he lasts, with leave-taking sighs and almost death-bed or tiptoe precautions.” For my tour group, that includes standing in a dehumidification chamber before entering the room. And photography is, of course, strictly off limits.

When we enter at last, it takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the dim lighting. It’s a short visit, limited to just 15 minutes, and like with the Mona Lisa in Paris and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, it feels surreal to be standing here looking at something I’ve seen a thousand times before, on T-shirts, magnets, and computer mouse pads, to say nothing of the countless parodies, including an Annie Leibowitz version starring the cast of The Sopranos.

I’m standing with an English-speaking guide and she tells us that Leonardo has captured the moment when Christ says to his disciples: “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The movement around the table is dramatic and it tells of their reaction. All of this would be easier to appreciate if our well-meaning narrator would just stop talking. She quizzes us incessantly, and valuable minutes slip by as she prods us to play what amounts to a hidden object game. Who can spot the salt on the table? How about a knife? An orange? When no one answers, she is clearly annoyed. With so little of the original paint left, and so many different hands at work in so many restorations, it’s simply hard to tell.

The miracle, however, is that it has survived at all, and not just because of Leonardo’s poor technique. The work was once considered so inconsequential that Christ’s feet were actually cut off to make room for a doorway. During the Napoleonic war, French troops used the space as a stable. And it only survived an Allied bomb during the Second World War because of some carefully placed sandbags.

I’m glad I came, and for this, at least, I may reconsider my harsh views on Milan, but for now Lake Como beckons.

My visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie has been so short that for a moment I think I might actually make the 10:20 AM train to Varenna, and I would have had the lines for the self-service ticket machines been shorter at Centrale station. The next train is at 12:20 PM, so I use the time to grab a panino and to pre-buy some train tickets for tomorrow.

The journey to Varenna is a memorable one, with increasingly beautiful scenery out the window. In just over an hour, I’ve left the traffic and noise of Milan far behind. I walk from the train station down to the docks, and stare out across one of the oldest, deepest, and loveliest glacial lakes in Italy. There are lumpy mountains all around, made of bald rock and half covered by a carpet of vegetation. As I look north towards the Alps, I can see remnants of winter at the highest elevations, although the white of the snow is melting into low lying clouds.

Just across the lake, I spy an impossibly tiny church—the Shrine of San Martino—hugging the cliffs above the town of Griante. Twain called Lake Como a “paradise of tranquil repose” in the Innocents Abroad, and waxed poetically about the “music of the vesper bells… stealing over the water.” It may be too early in the day for that, but surely he’s captured the spirit of the place.

At a small ticket counter on the waterfront, I buy a ferry pass to Bellagio. The lake is shaped like an upside-down Y and Bellagio rests at the fork, on a peninsula of land known as the “Larian Triangle.” The area has always been a magnet for celebrities and aristocrats, and when seen from the water, their lakefront villas—like something out of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”—stir my envy.

Clouds are starting to gather overhead, so in the event of rain, I decide to stroll through the Villa Melzi Gardens first before heading into town. The estate was built in the early 19th century for Francesco Melzi d’Eril, a politician who served as Vice President of the Italian Republic during the years of Napoleonic rule.

It’s a beautiful space, built in a neo-classical style that feels more English than Italian. There are lily ponds and rock gardens, a shaded path along the lake, and an octagonal gazebo with a sky blue roof. And everywhere, it seems, there are elegant marble statues and flowers at the peak of their color. I once complained about the Boboli Gardens in Florence, and my grumbling seems even more justified now that I have a point of comparison.

When I leave I’ve already filled the third of my camera’s 8 GB storage cards. I reach into my pocket. It’s on to the fourth!

I walk back into Bellagio proper and wander its hilly lanes. I visit the 12th century Romanesque church of San Giacomo, which has an ornate golden altar and a superb apse mosaic with medieval knights in shining armor, but as in the Cinque Terre there really aren’t any major historical or cultural sites here. It’s simply a charming place to wile away the afternoon. I buy a lavender scarf made locally of raw silk, and before I go, I break for a late lunch under the awnings of Ristorante Suisse. It seems an appropriate choice being this close to the border with Switzerland, and I feast on what would seem to be a culinary compromise—a plate of fettuccine with sundried tomatoes, capers, caramelized onions, and goat cheese.

I reboard the ferry, and once back at the dock in Varenna—the self-proclaimed “jewel” of Lake Como—I walk along the lakeside promenade and into the town, which is smaller and quieter than Bellagio, more fishing village than resort. There is a small harbor where a collection of park benches face out toward the lake, and I sit there for a while, relaxing and eating a dish of chocolate and hazelnut gelato from a shop nearby.

It’s just after 6:00 PM when I head back to Milan on the train. The rain has held off and there is still light left in the sky when I arrive back at the Hotel Berna to tuck in early for the night.

Monday, June 14, 2010

This morning I’m heading to “fair Verona, where we lay our scene.”

William Shakespeare is the world’s most famous poet, and “Romeo and Juliet” arguably his most celebrated play, so I’m about to see if the city lives up to its vaulted description.

It’s 11 AM when I arrive at Porta Nuova station on a train from Milan. I pause at the tabacchi shop inside to buy a Verona Card that will cover my admission fees for the day, as well as local transport, and then grab a bus to Piazza Bra.

It’s a great expanse of space, centered around a circular park, a fountain, and a statue of the ever popular Vittorio Emanuele II. Across the street, a row of elegant buildings follows a graceful arc, most with green awnings for restaurants below, and at the far end, the city’s most notable attraction—a 1st century A.D. Roman arena—stands in proud contrast.

Outside the arena, costumed actors pose for pictures. A man dressed as a Roman soldier attracts attention by thrusting his arms high in the air, pointing an index finger on each hand. A tourist in a straw hat and polo shirt grins sheepishly as a fierce looking female warrior with bleach blond hair and low cut armor holds a dagger to his chest for dramatic effect.

I enter through an archway and climb the stairs to the top row for a better view. An elaborate stage is set and there is a work crew preparing for an upcoming performance of Puccini’s Turandot. It would be wonderful, I think, to see an opera under the stars, but when I cast my eyes across the rows of stone steps—there are very few actual seats—memories of an uncomfortable three hour play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London come rushing back and I have second thoughts.

I walk down Via Mazzini, a lively street lined with shops, to Piazza delle Erbe, the city’s handsome market square. To get my bearings, I take an elevator, and then spiral stairs, to the top of the adjacent Torre dei Lamberti, which offers a gorgeous view across an ocean of red tiled roofs, from which church steeples rise like lighthouse beacons. I look down at my map and then out again at the city and spot the remains of a Roman theatre across the river on the hill. It seems my itinerary for the day is settled.

But first, there is a bit of tourist nonsense in which to partake. Shakespeare’s characters are fictional, but that doesn’t stop visitors from flocking to what is purported to be Juliet’s house, the Casa di Giulietta. There is a balcony, of course, and people pay to stand there for the thrill of reenacting the play’s most memorable scene:

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!

There is also a statue of Juliet in the courtyard and the lovelorn stand in line for an opportunity to take pictures and to rub Juliet’s breast for luck. Indeed, so many have done so that the bronze has been burnished to a blinding gold. And finally, there are the love notes left behind, affixed to the walls of an archway. There are layers of them, one on top the other, with graffiti underneath. Hannah & Richard. Ira & Kim. Renée & Greg. Where are they now? One note, written on red paper and cut into the shape of a heart, reads: “Wifey, Sorry 4 cheating on you. I love u way more than everyone. Happy to meet you and get married. Love of my life 4 ever and ever. Can’t wait to see u again.” I laugh out loud when I see it. There’s just got to be an interesting story there!

I retrace my steps to Piazza Bra and slip down a narrow alley to Cangrande Osteria and Enoteca for lunch, a spot recommended in my guidebook. The manager is friendly and he helps me select a glass of wine to pair with my antipasto of marinated vegetables and my plate of ravioli.

Feeling refreshed, I set off for the trio of churches I saw earlier from the top of the Lamberti tower. At Sant’ Anastasia I admire the vaulted ceiling, which is richly painted, an unusual pair of 15th century holy water stoups supported by carved hunchbacks, and Pisanello’s well-loved fresco “St. George and the Princess” above the Pellegrini Chapel.

Moving on, the city’s cathedral is a bright, airy space dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. I especially like the whimsical details in trompe l’oeil. Above the Cartolari-Nichesola chapel, a pair of chubby cupids play music—one a flute, the other a triangle—and still higher on the wall, two pairs of soldiers with spears relax on a cornice, one with a leg slung over the ledge, bare toes pointing out. The effect is so real that it’s hard to distinguish the painted surfaces from the carved.

I cross Ponte Garabaldi to the far side of the river and follow its path past Ponte Pietra, the ancient arch bridge that was nearly destroyed by bombs during World War II, but eventually repaired. From here I climb to the ruins of the Teatro Romano high on the hill. The site is interesting in and of itself—an attractive jumble of exposed stone, topped by a row of cypress trees—but as a bonus it comes with a spectacular view of the city, framed through the remains of an ancient colonnade.

I climb down and wander further along the river under I reach Ponte Navi. The afternoon is starting to wane, so I end my serious exploration of Verona at the church of San Fermo. In the apse there is a fresco that represents each of the gospels—the lion of St. Mark, the calf of Luke, the man of Matthew, and the eagle of John. But the real highlight is the coffered ceiling, which looks like the wooden hull of a boat turned upside down, and on each side of the supports there are tiny Gothic arches that frame medieval paintings of the saints. I haven’t enjoyed such an interesting array of small churches this much since Arezzo.

As I make by way back to Piazza delle Erbe, I stop for gelato, of course—this time ordering scoops of mango and lemon. As I’m eating, I watch an artist on the street. He’s showing off for the crowd, stepping back from his work thoughtfully and then touching up details here and there. I’m marginally impressed until I notice that he’s not really painting at all. The canvas is already dry and his duplicity has me wondering if it was crafted not in Verona but in some Asian sweatshop instead.

I circle back towards Piazza Bra, but this time along Corso Porta Borsari to catch a glimpse of the 1st century AD remains of the city’s original entrance gate. I arrived here by bus in the morning, but now I’m not quite sure where to board for the return trip. In the end, I decide that it would be easier to walk there, down Corso Porta Nuova, through the arches of the “new gate,” and past the city walls to the station, where there’s train at 7:32 PM heading back to Milan.

Along the way, I mull over the ancient Roman sights, and the elegant architecture, and the relaxed pace of the day, and come to the conclusion that with or without its Shakespearean fame, “fair Verona” has been fair indeed.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I wish I hadn’t said anything.

When I turned in last night I noticed a hole in my bed sheet. OK, so it was worse than that. There was a small and deliberate hole cut out of the middle, about one inch square, but also a huge chunk hacked out of the side. It’s worn and frayed at the edges, so it must have been laundered that way at least several times and still reused.

This morning I decide to take it downstairs to bring it to the attention of the front desk, where I know they speak English well. The clerk is appalled and he immediately calls for the head of housekeeping who, when she sees it, slaps a hand to her mouth and cries “Mamma Mia!” Soon, I’m told that the maid who serviced my room has been summoned to account for her mistake and she’s in tears.

I feel just terrible. I’m not in the least angry about the situation. I just want to make sure that the offending sheet is taken out of circulation, but the hotel insists on taking 50% off the bill for my last night’s stay, apologizing profusely. It’s a kind gesture and I leave feeling warm toward the staff at the Hotel Berna. I just hope the maid is all right.

I walk the short distance to Centrale station in Milan and wait for the 9:35 AM Eurostar train to Venice. This is the last leg of my journey; from there I’ll fly home. In truth, I’m growing weary at this point in my travels, but I’m also loath to see it end.

When I arrive at Santa Lucia station at noon, it’s pouring down rain—which after so many days of fine weather was bound to happen sooner or later. To save a few Euros for arriving mid-week, I booked a 72-hour Venice Connected transport pass online and now I have to pick it up. With my printed confirmation in hand, the instructions say to look for “the ferry embarkation point to the left of the station.” Unfortunately, I take that to mean to the left of the station as I depart down the steps. By the time I correct the error and walk back and to the right, I’m soaking wet and so is my luggage.

As I wait for the vaporetto that will take me to San Stae, I think about the contrast between this arrival in Venice and my last. On my first visit in 2008, I likened the experience to a C.S. Lewis novel. It was as if I had walked through a wardrobe and found the world of Narnia on the other side, and it made my heart leap with excitement. Today, I can’t help feeling a bit disappointed. There’s no time to stand in awe at the Grand Canal. It’s all I can do to manage my luggage and camera case and umbrella in the rain.

Still, the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo is as welcoming as I remembered, and like in Florence I’m ushered to the very same room I inhabited two years before. It’s comforting to mingle the fond memories I have of that trip with those I’m currently making. I change shoes and do the best I can to prepare for the weather by sliding a plastic sleeve over my camera, and then head out into the torrent.

I decide to walk toward St. Mark’s Square, and along the way stop at Cicchetteria Da Jorghe for lunch. They serve what the waiter calls a “special toast” and it’s delicious—an open faced sandwich with tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, and basil, along with a variety of less identifiable but equally savory ingredients. I feel better having something warm in my stomach.

When I reach the square, it too is a different kind of experience this time around. On my first trip, the weather was glorious for four days straight, so to see Venice in the rain is to embrace a different Venice, and it has a casual charm of its own. After all, this is a city for which flooding is not an annoyance, or even an inconvenience, but a mere fact of life, and because of that it seems more real and less like a theme park for tourists.

I take shelter under the long arcade in St. Mark’s Square and circle around window shopping. At Pauly & Co. the art glass is a thing of absolute wonder. There is large fish, a centipede, and a series of balloon animals that would surely pass for the real thing. I’d be tempted to take one home if the price tags didn’t run into thousands of Euros, but they do. And that’s just that beginning. There’s a green fedora for €7,500, and a folded shirt, complete with buttons, for €8,100. They’ve even made what would appear to be Cinderella’s glass slipper, and at nearly €11,000 I would need to marry Prince Charming to be able to afford it.

When the rain slows, I venture west toward the Accademia bridge and the art museum on the far side. It’s a steaming mass of humanity on a day like this, and I should have known better. Crowds are seeking shelter from the storm, and the air inside is thick and humid. I follow behind a woman with a blue guidebook in her hand. She has three children in tow—one a surly teenager, the other two much younger. We are standing in a room filled with Renaissance art and she spins them around searching only for the pieces Rick Steves recommends. There are so many Madonnas and Bambinos to choose from, and she insists on finding the one by Giovanni Bellini. It’s like playing a game of Where’s Waldo, only more challenging and less fun. I glance over at the kids and feel sure they’d agree. I could use a Bellini myself right about now, but the one I have in mind is more liquid in form.

Wanting fresh air, I take a short walk toward the church of Santa Maria della Salute, whose dome is, at long last, free of scaffolding. It’s nearly 6:00 PM and the rain seems to have come to a reluctant end. There is a classical guitarist playing nearby and I catch snatches of music as I wander in and out of shops in search of Murano glass jewelry.

For dinner, I already have plans in mind. A colleague from work recently returned from Venice and he’s recommended a pizzeria called Al Nono. I looked up the restaurant before leaving home and have a computer printout from Google Maps to guide me, but this is Venice, after all. There is nothing as precise as a street address because there aren’t any real streets. Instead, there is a number associated with a particular neighborhood, or sestiere. The one I’m looking for is Santa Croce 2338. Google Maps places it just to the west of Ca’ Foscari, and if I can find Campo Santa Margherita, it’s not far from there.

Finding the campo is easy enough because it’s unusually large, but Al Nono is no where to be found. A young couple sees me squinting at a map and stops to ask for help. They’ve checked into a hostel for the night, but went out exploring and now they can’t find it again. The best that I can do is to show them where we’re standing, but that basic logistical fact is of little help because they don’t know where they’re going, and quite frankly neither do I. I wish them well, they shrug with a cheerful resignation, and I continue my hunt for number 2338.

Eventually, I can feel myself getting warmer. I’m into the 2000s and then the 2300s, but that exact number simply doesn’t exist. Frustrated, I decide to give up and zigzag back to the hotel.

At the front desk of the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo, I ask the clerk if he’s ever, by chance, heard of a pizzeria called Al Nono. “Of course,” he says, “it’s just around the corner.” Incredulous, I ask him if he’s kidding and he says no, it’s literally three turns away. He pulls out a map and a pen and shows me. One. Two. Three.

So much for Google Maps. Go figure.

Perhaps it’s because of the damp weather, or perhaps it because of the epic quest that brought me here, but Al Nono fails to live up to expectations. It’s a cozy place with a lively clientele made up mostly of locals, but the food is middling. I order a pizza with prosciutto, pepperoni, and mushrooms, but find that the tomato sauce is bland and the mushrooms rather soggy.

When I leave the restaurant I look overhead and see that the sky is continuing to improve. The night is still young, so I wind my way back to St. Mark’s Square to hear the orchestras play. Lavena’s is midway through “Skoda Lasky” when I arrive. It’s a Polish tune that we’re more likely to recognize as the “Beer Barrel Polka,” and before long all that I have ever known and loved about Venice has come rushing back, and I find myself tapping my toe in time to the music.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

It’s half past 9:00 in the morning and I’m at Santa Lucia station waiting for a train to Padua. It’s been a strange start to the day. I had a wonderful breakfast outside in the courtyard of the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo—a steaming cup of cappuccino with a dusting of cocoa powder on top, a bowl of cereal, and a warm apricot croissant. The sky was bright as I waited for the vaporetto at San Stae, but now clouds have rushed in with astonishing speed, swallowing up the blue.

I’ve passed through a dozen or more train stations on this trip, and in most of them there are TV monitors in the waiting rooms or by the tracks. There is one commercial in particular that keeps looping over and over, and I think it’s for a car insurance company. I haven’t paid much attention to the visuals, but the force of repetition has made the music stick deep in my brain. It’s an Ingrid Michaelson song and she’s singing: “I just want to be OK, be OK, be OK. I just want to be OK today.” It’s been driving me crazy for the past two weeks, but all of the sudden it seems like a reasonable request. By the time I board the train leaving Venice, there are raindrops sliding down the windows.

I’m making the trip to Padua primarily to see the Scrovegni Chapel. Built around 1300 by a wealthy family on the grounds of a sprawling estate, the walls have frescoes by Giotto—the same artist who painted the life of St. Francis in the basilica in Assisi.

I’m early for my 11:00 AM reservation and so I spend the time wisely in an adjacent room, exploring a multimedia presentation. Reginaldo Scrovegni was a nobleman of some disrepute. He was, in medieval parlance, a usurer, which is to say he loaned money and charged interest. Living as we do today in a capitalist society, it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without such grease for the economic gears, but at the time this was considered a serious moral and religious offense, so much so that when Dante described “The Inferno” in his Divine Comedy, he placed Reginaldo in the Seventh Circle of Hell. He didn’t do it by name, exactly, but he referred to “one who had an azure, pregnant sow”—a reference to the coat of arms of the Scrovegni family. Everyone knew who he meant.

Reginaldo’s son Enrico was worried about his father’s mortal soul, and probably his own, since the wealth he inherited by tainted by usury. To atone for the family’s sins, a chapel was commissioned and Giotto was hired to paint its walls.

When my time is called, I move slowly with a handful of other visitors into the tiny space. I am allowed just 15 minutes here, so my eyes work quickly. There is a barrel vaulted ceiling decorated with gold stars on a field of blue that resembles the nighttime sky, and the walls are covered with scenes that tell of the “Life of the Virgin” and the “Life of Christ.”

At one end, there is the ubiquitous depiction of “The Last Judgment.” At first glance, the iconography doesn’t seem very creative. There’s an army of blue horned devils mutilating a mass of terrified and naked sinners, but of course there is. That’s to be expected. It’s the ring of fire encircling the scene that brings my mind back to the story of the chapel’s creation, and I imagine how intensely personal Enrico’s fear must have been. It is Dante’s vision come to life.

In a prominent and telling scene, Giotto shows Enrico, on bended knee, presenting the chapel to the Virgin—a likeness of this very chapel, precisely matching the details of its windows, doors, and roofline.

As I’m ushered out of the door, I think about how all of this was intended as an offering and a plea for absolution. Yet in the early and often sordid history of the Catholic Church, I suspect that the granting of indulgences was at least as wicked as usury itself.

If Antico Caffè Greco is a historical landmark in Rome, and the equivalent in Venice is the venerable Caffè Florian, in Padua it is Caffè Pedrocchi. Built in the early 19th century, it has long been frequented by professors and students in this university town, and it was the focal point of the riots of 1848. Thankfully, its grand salons are quiet today when I stop in for a sandwich and a cup of caffè alla menta—their signature mint coffee

I’m hiding out, really, biding my time to see if the rain will let up. When it doesn’t, I make the best of things, hopping from one arcade to the next, and when necessary, hovering beneath my umbrella.

I’ve hit an awkward time of the afternoon. I’d like to see the duomo and baptistery, but both are closed between noon and 3:30 for that most august of Italian institutions, the siesta. I consider my options and opt to take a turn through the markets in Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza della Frutta before visiting the adjacent Palazzo della Ragione, the city’s medieval town hall. It’s a mammoth space, unsupported by columns, with a ceiling that stands through sheer force of will. The walls are covered with allegorical frescoes and there is an ancient sculpture of a horse, carved of wood, at one end.

The midday break is shorter at the Basilica of St. Anthony, so by the time I walk across town, its doors are open and I duck inside. I’m soaking wet and the zipper on my bag, already worn by years of hard use, has frayed and broken. There will be no way for me to keep my camera dry. I do my best to enjoy the church, but my energy is flagging and I think—at long last—that I have visited one church too many. I wrap my arms around my bag, pinching it closed, and slog as quickly as I can back to the train station, humming along the way: “I just want to be OK, be OK, be OK.”

When I reemerge from my hotel in Venice in the early evening, I find—much to my amazement—that the morning’s sky has returned, quite unannounced. As Henry James once wrote: “The charm was, as always in Italy, in the tone and the air and the happy hazard of things…”

Feeling renewed in every way, I roam through the city, across the Rialto Bridge, and through St. Mark’s Square to the Zattere, a wide waterfront promenade facing La Giudecca and the Venetian lagoon. I have a light dinner at Ristorante Terrazza del Casin dei Nobili, and find it amusing when a tiny and very brazen bird lands on my table and helps himself to a slice of bread.

I move on to the Accademia bridge and set up for some night shots of the Grand Canal, looking down toward the majestic dome of the Salute church, and then as ever—because it would be unimaginable to do otherwise—I linger in St. Mark’s Square, under a quarter moon, listening to the orchestras play.

I am OK.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

This morning over breakfast, I make an unusual resolution. Today in Venice, I will do nothing. I will read no guidebooks, and pursue no history or culture. I will visit no churches and enter no museums. I aspire only to gaze about, shop, and eat.

I say this is unusual, but I am self-aware enough to know this is what most people would rightly describe as a “vacation”—I’ve just never been one of them. My life at home is routine, bordering on dull most of the time, which has its own comfort and good fortune to be sure. But if vacations are about stepping outside of ourselves, at least momentarily, my wish when I travel is to do more, not less. By choice, I plan itineraries packed with places to go and things to do, and once there I get up early and stay out late. It’s not for everyone, and my pace is certainly not for the faint of heart, but it is for me. Even if 17 straight days of it have left me feeling a bit road weary, it makes me happy.

As the Italians would say: “A ciascuno il suo.” To each his own.

And so here I am, on my last day, venturing out with only the vaguest idea of where to go. The sky is blue and the air is cool and as I lose myself among the canals, it’s hard to imagine that there is more pleasant place on the face of the earth than Italy.

My buoyant mood leads me to open my wallet again and again. I pick out a picture frame for my nephew and a green velvet scarf for my Mom from R.S. Trevisan in St. Mark’s Square. I will add these to my luggage alongside my father’s leather belt from Florence, so that perhaps they will know that I thought of them, that I missed them, and that I wished they were here.

For myself, I also have a souvenir mind. For days, I’ve been scouring Venice for the perfect Murano glass necklace, and I’ve finally settled on something from Le Perle. The shopkeeper and artisan is a woman named Michela, and she is patient and kind in response to my dithering. I settle finally on a long chain of beads set in silver, with a matching bracelet and drop earrings, all in shades of aqua that remind me of the Mediterranean Sea.

I decide to pay in cash, to avoid the hassle of applying for a VAT refund at the airport, so I need to find a bancomat. This particular Le Perle—and there are several scattered about Venice—is just around the corner from St. Mark’s Square. There is, of course, a machine nearby and she directs me to it. But this being Venice, I get lost both in searching and in returning. I’m gone so long that Michela has nearly given up hope on making the sale.

I walk back to the hotel to drop off my bags and then hop on the vaporetto at San Stae for one last trip down the Grand Canal. By the time I arrive back in St. Mark’s Square, a sudden storm has rolled in and it’s pelting rain. I duck beneath the arcade and then into the plush salons of Caffè Florian for a late lunch. It’s said that when Casanova escaped from prison in 1756, he came here first for a cup of coffee before fleeing to Paris. It’s an intriguing historical detail, but to investigate it further would violate my ground rules for the day.

I order a traditional English tea, which seems well-suited to the weather and to my leisurely pursuits. As I sit and listen to the orchestra play, a massive silver tray is delivered to my comically small table, and it draws the attention of the older man sitting next to me. We begin to chat and I learn that he is traveling with his grandson, who is glum and disinterested in holding a conversation with either one of us. The weather has been bad luck, he explains. They bought some inflatable kayaks on Amazon.com for just $99 and checked them in with their luggage on the plane. They’ve been waiting to use them on the Grand Canal.

Honestly, I don’t claim to know anything about kayaks, inflatable or otherwise, but this seems like a supremely bad idea—even if it is legal, and it probably isn’t. “Aren’t you worried about capsizing,” I ask? “Not particularly,” he says, but the mere mention of the word finally stirs some excitement in his grandson. The man notices and raises an eyebrow. “Let’s just hope for the best.”

By the time I finish my tea, the storm has passed and the white marble columns of St. Mark’s Square are reflecting in the puddles on the pavement below. I wander farther afield and stumble across the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, which has a marvelous spiral staircase, guarded (it would seem) by a particularly friendly cat. Nearby, I hear the sound of singing and turn just in time to catch the fin of a gondola gliding past a brick archway, the sound echoing against ancient walls. And further on, as I head toward Rialto, I stand on a bridge overlooking the Rio di San Salvador canal and observe a gondolier at work. He stands with his hands on his hips, and his straw boater is tipped low, shadowing his face.

All of these are fleeting moments—quiet, ordinary, and beautiful. If I can be forgiven a quote by the great Henry James on a day devoted to hedonic pursuits, I would say: “The mere use of one’s eyes in Venice is happiness enough.”

As the day begins to wane, I return to La Zucca for dinner, just around the corner from the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo and the charming Campo San Giacomo Dell’Orio. This was the site of my single culinary triumph in 2008 and the food is as good as I remember, even though the service is as bad as I recall, bitter and unfriendly toward tourists. Still, the miracle they perform on a simple plate of carrots will long be remembered, and in it I find ample room for forgiveness.

I end the night as I have ended every night in Venice, listening to the orchestras in St. Mark’s Square. I take a seat at Lavena’s and order a sparkling glass of prosecco, which comes gently chilled.

I have reached the end of my second trip to Italy. The first had been so fine, so perfect, that I worried about returning again so soon. I worried that the magic I felt then could never be recaptured.

I was wrong.

I think of Republic Day in Rome, antiquing in Arezzo, a parade of color on Corpus Domini, and a lazy afternoon in the hill town of Cortona. I have walked beneath medieval towers and on top of ancient ruins, along streets, rooftops, promenades, and footpaths, from the shores of Lake Como to the ragged cliffs of the Cinque Terre. The memories are fresh, but they have already grown deep.

Henry James—my travel companion from across the ages—writes in Italian Hours: “We can do a thing for the first time but once; it is but once for all that we can have a pleasure in its freshness.” And yet, he says, it is likewise true that “a visitor who has worked off the immediate ferment for this inexhaustibly interesting country has by no means entirely drained the cup.”

I raise my glass, as if in a private toast, and think: “Here’s to many more sips.”