Travelogue for Italy, 2010

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

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.”