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.