Travelogue for Italy, 2013

IMG_4920You may have the universe
if I may have Italy.

— Giuseppe Verdi

Welcome! This is an online travel journal for my June 2013 trip to Italy, which covers the following destinations:

  • Venice
  • Bassano del Grappa
  • Florence
  • Bologna
  • Siena
  • Lucca
  • Pisa
  • Rome

Also, you should know that while I’ve embedded some photographs into the entries, many more are posted on Flickr, and travelogues for all of my previous trips to Europe are still available from the navigation menu, including those from Italy in 2008 and 2010.

Enjoy!
DLG

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

I’m not a superstitious person by nature. I don’t read tea leaves, play with tarot cards, or knock on wood. I don’t balk at the sight of a black cat, or avoid walking under ladders, and I only rarely cross my fingers for luck, and yet I’ve come to believe in the Odd Year Curse.

Perhaps an explanation is in order.

Whenever I travel to Europe in years divisible by two—say, in 2006, 2008, 2010, or 2012—I have a jolly good time wherever I go, be it London or Paris or Rome. And yet in those years in between, things have a way of going horribly awry. It rains in torrents, day after day, for instance. Or there’s a global outbreak of swine flu. Or my camera lens breaks. Or I catch a mysterious illness and have to come home.

I’m a social scientist by trade, so of course I know that the correlation is weak at best—it rained every bloody day last year in England, but I still enjoyed myself, and that ridiculous volcano in Iceland that scattered airplanes for weeks on end with its plumes of drifting ash happened in 2010, the year of a very safe integer. The curse is also based on a limited number of data points from which little of the future can be extrapolated, but this isn’t about knowing something, this is about believing. And I believe in the Odd Year Curse. Granted, in its folklore and longevity, it doesn’t rank up there with the Curse of the Bambino or the curse of King Tut’s tomb, but it’s real nevertheless, and in 2013 it has struck with a vengeance. I’m starting to take it personally.

Let’s weigh the evidence, shall we?

First—Six weeks before I’m set to leave for Italy, I develop what’s called a posterior vitreous detachment (PVD) in my right eye, followed by a more serious one in my left eye a few days later. I tell my optometrist about my plans to fly and he sends me immediately to a specialist because he’s worried that the change in air pressure on the flight might cause a tear in my retina, which would be very bad indeed. “This almost never happens in both eyes at once,” he says, but somehow I’m not surprised. I am cursed.

Second—Just four days before my scheduled departure, I pick up a bad sinus infection and I’m so congested the doctor thinks it’s prudent to warn me about the risk of a burst ear drum were I to fly in such a condition. This has me imagining life as Helen Keller, both blind and deaf after an ill-advised adventure. She gives me an antibiotic and—fingers crossed, just in case—we hope for the best.

Third—The day before my flight, I discover a number of fraudulent purchases on my credit card. Someone has been downloading computer software and pornography and it’s not me. I call Capital One in a morose state of mind and they immediately close my account, effectively stranding me in Pennsylvania until a new card can be delivered.

It’s at this point that a friend of mine from work suggests that I read the Book of Job. It gets me thinking about biblical pestilence and whether I might be smited with dreadful boils next.

I stop packing and start making phones calls and typing e-mails. The effort of dismantling a year’s worth of planning makes it feel like 2011 all over again, the year in which I got sick and was forced to leave half of my itinerary and the entire country of Austria behind. I was supposed to fly U.S. Airways to Italy on May 29. I had booked a hotel with a rooftop terrace facing the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore so that I could see the new Pope’s candlelight procession on Corpus Domini from high above the streets of Rome. Then, I was to head to Umbria for the annual infiorata festival in Spello and the start of the Giostra della Quintana in Foligno. None of that is going to happen now.

I need to delay things and to simplify. I decide to fly to Venice instead on June 4 and from there skip the trek over to Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure in favor of five easy nights in Florence. I’ll keep my reservations in Lucca and Pisa for now, and end up, as planned, in Rome. If I can manage that much, it will still be a good trip, but the disappointment of what I can’t do stings.

By now the Odd Year Curse has burrowed so deeply inside my head that all the way down to the airport I’m convinced that the other shoe is about to drop, or rather the fourth shoe, or the fiftha virtual hurricane of shoes. I keep waiting for something bad to happen. Will a traffic jam on I-476 cause me to miss my flight? Will security pull me aside as a suspected terrorist? Will I trip on the escalator and break an ankle?

I’m holding my breath as the wheels on the airplane leave the tarmac and we ascend into a dusky sky dotted with the first stars of night. Only then do I believe that I’ve left my troubles behind.

It seems I am going back to Italy after all.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

It’s a glorious morning in Venice. I know it is because I can see sunlight out the window of the plane as we approach Marco Polo Airport. I catch my breath when I spot the campanile in Piazza San Marco rising high above the skyline and the dome of the Salute church at the far end of the Grand Canal. The island is beautiful from a distance, but also small, like a tilt-shift photograph that renders the cityscape in miniature.

My flight lands on time and before long I’m stretching my weary legs on the long walk out to Pier 14 where there’s a water taxi waiting for me. This is a great indulgence of mine—I’ve always taken the bus before—but after all that’s happened in the last few weeks, I figure I deserve a break.

As the boat pulls away from the dock, I sink back into the seat and exhale deeply. At the touch of a button, the driver retracts the tinted roof and I close my eyes as rays of morning sun warm my face.

We gather speed as we make our way across the lagoon, and as the boat begins to skip across the choppy waves I can feel a fine salt mist on my skin. I had left my luggage upright on the floor of the cabin and now it’s starting to slide slowly on its wheels, back and forth.

We enter Venice proper through a square of open water in the sestiere of Cannaregio, near Fondamenta Nuove and the 14th century church of Madonna dell’Orto, and from there head south towards the Grand Canal. It’s just a short distance to San Stae and there the driver makes one final turn and pulls up to the water entrance of the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo. I’ve stayed here before—twice, in fact—but I’ve never arrived in such grand style.

Walter greets me warmly at the door and hoists my luggage out of the boat. It’s still early in the day, just 10:30 AM, so my room isn’t ready, but he invites me to sit for a while in the hotel’s courtyard and kindly offers to bring me a cappuccino. I feel exhausted from the flight and more than a little seasick from the bobbing of the water taxi. At the same time, though, I’m exhilarated to be here and comforted by the sight of familiar surroundings.

I leave my luggage behind and walk out the gate, following the signs that point to Alla Ferrovia and Piazzale Roma. It’s a pleasant walk through tiny alleyways and along quiet canals. I’m heading to the train station to buy an ACTV pass for the vaporetto and a Venice Card to cover my admission fees to a wide range of museums and churches. I’m trying to be optimistic about what I’m able to do.

It’s noon by the time I return to the hotel and my room in the Annex is waiting. It’s a lush space, with an open beam ceiling, dark silk walls, a carved headboard, and damask bedspread. High overhead there’s a Murano glass chandelier and I stare at it as I lay back and rest for the next two hours. I’m still not feeling well and I need to pace myself.

It’s 2:00 PM by the time I venture out again in search of a late lunch. I stop at Ostaria al Garanghelo and order a plate of ravioli with a sage butter sauce that tastes good, but settles hard in my stomach. There are two young women sitting at the table next to mine and I amuse myself by listening in to their conversation. One hands her phone to the other and says: “Look, you got a picture of that famous house and whatever.” Sophisticated travelers they are not.

Soon, however, their inane commentary is drowned out by two street musicians who settle in across the street. With a guitar and violin they smile widely as they play “Cheek to Cheek,” an Irving Berlin tune from the 1930s that has me envisioning Fred Astaire in white tie and tails with the lovely Ginger Rogers in his arms.

Heaven, I’m in Heaven,
And my heart beats so that I can barely speak;
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek.
And the cares that hang around me thro’ the week
Seem to vanish like a gambler’s lucky streak
When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek.

With no particular destination in mind, save one minor errand, I wander down across the Rialto Bridge to a Vodaphone shop, where I wait in line to buy a SIM card with a data plan for my iPhone. I press on, all the way to Piazza San Marco, where at long last, restoration work on the base of the campanile has been completed, freeing the square of five years worth of fences and construction debris. It’s been a nice afternoon, but my legs are tired and I’m ready to head back on the vaporetto.

I’ve been to Venice twice before, and as the water bus passes the colorful and crumbling palazzos that line the Grand Canal all the way back to San Stae, I think about how this releases me from the burden of expectations. I’ve seen nearly all of the major sights and tourist attractions in town—St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, the Accademia museum, and the Bridge of Sighs. I’ve been out to the islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello, and to San Giorgo Maggiore with its majestic views of the city proper. With so few boxes left to tick, my time is my own, to wander and explore, and I’m quite looking forward to it.

By the time I leave the hotel at seven in search of dinner, the deep blue of the afternoon sky has given way to a brooding canopy of gray. A light rain is starting to fall as I slide into a comfortable seat at Trattoria al Ponte, just around the corner. I sit and relax through a bowl of bean soup and a fine plate of tagliatelle with tomato, eggplant, and smoked ricotta cheese. I had hoped to go back to Piazza San Marco tonight to listen to the orchestras play, but the gentle patter of raindrops on the awning overhead tells me it would be best to tuck in early for the night.

Venice may be sinking, but it will still be here in the morning.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

This morning, when I sit down to breakfast in the shaded courtyard of my hotel, I am greeted by a woman with a friendly smile, and she brings me a frothy cup of cappuccino sprinkled with cocoa and a basket of fresh croissants. With apologies to Gérard Mulot in Paris, these are my very favorite croissants in the whole, wide world.

I smile with recollection and then bite through the flaky exterior of the pastry into a warm center, filled with apricot preserves. The memory of it sends a shiver of delight down my spine and I am reminded of Proust and his tea-soaked madeleine. It’s been five years since my first visit to the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo and I’ve returned twice since. It’s nice to know that some things never change.

With the taste still lingering on my tongue, I set off on a leisurely walk toward Piazza San Marco. Breakfast has reminded me that Venice is a feast for the senses. I stop at the Rialto Market to savor the smell of fresh produce and the pungent odor of local seafood. I wander in and out of shops to admire the rich colors of Murano glass sculptures and vases and jewelry. And I pause to listen to the sweet sounds of street musicians, and the whir of motor boats down the Grand Canal.

It’s only when I reach the square that I realize just how crowded Venice is in the high season. It was Henry James who once said: “Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” They’re everywhere, with their cameras and baseball caps and flip flops—day trippers from Hell. But this year they’re not alone. Within the last week, an international art exhibition known as La Biennale di Venezia has opened at the Giardini and the Arsenale, and so the city is congested with celebrities and art critics, too.

Eager to escape, I duck into the campanile and ride the elevator to the top for the sheer pleasure of the view. From here, I look toward the island of San Giorgio Maggiore where there is a gigantic and rather incongruous inflatable figure of a naked, pregnant woman, created by the British artist Marc Quinn. I recognize it immediately as one I saw years ago—in smaller form—on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in London. I don’t much like it here, either.

I take pictures of the church of Santa Maria della Salute at the mouth of the Grand Canal, which was covered in scaffolding the last time I was here, and then scan the city with my telephoto lens, until it rests upon the elegant spiral staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. It’s breathtaking, really, this sea of red tiled roofs.

Back in the square, I’m directly across from the Doge’s Palace on which hangs a banner advertising a major exhibition of paintings by Éduoard Manet, titled “Manet: Ritorno a Venezia.” I’ve been looking forward to it for months. I check my watch and see that it’s nearly noon. The line at the entrance is short and the sun overhead is bright and warm. The dim light of a cool museum sounds appealing.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is the contrast of two famous works of art—Manet’s own “Olympia,” unveiled to great controversy at the Paris Salon of 1865, and its inspiration, Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” painted by the Old Master in 1538. I’ve seen both before, the former at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the latter at the Uffizi in Florence. But here they stand side-by-side, and the influence is striking and the interpretation modern. I like Manet very much, and many of my favorite paintings are here, including “The Balcony” and “The Fifer” as well as a view of “The Grand Canal” painted by the artist on a visit to Venice in 1875.

Hungry for more, I decide to head straight for the Biennale, although just outside the Doge’s Palace I get my first glimpse with an unofficial exhibit titled “This is Not A Czech Pavilion.” Intrigued, I peek inside and see a ring of shoes on the floor, each covered with the kind of disposable, blue booties that cable TV repairmen wear when they visit your house, so as not to soil the carpets with their muddy boots. It’s odd, especially when I notice a handwritten message scrawled on the wall. It reads: “This is the best piece at Venice Biennale.”

God, I hope not.

I take the vaporetto down to the Giardini and stand in line to buy a ticket. It’s a beautiful area of the city that I’ve never explored before, leafy and lushly green. The man at the ticket counter asks where I’m from and he is genuinely pleased that it’s Vermont. It seems he combats the boredom of his job by counting places and I’ve just added a rare specimen to his collection.

My first order of business is to find a place for lunch, but along the way I can’t help but stare at the entrance to the Spanish Pavilion. Inside there is a pile of rubble. There’s really no other way of saying it. It’s just rubble. A sign on the wall explains that the artist is Lara Almarcegui and her work “is not just formal or ontological, but also social, in that it points to the historical nature of the construction materials she uses, and addresses the complex interactions between materials, economy, and space. It is also political, insofar as she understands and places architecture and urbanism, their developments and historical dimensions, within the framework of the complex ecology of our social and political fabric.”

There’s a man standing next to me and we exchange a significant look. He doesn’t speak English and he doesn’t have to. We’re both thinking the exact same thing—

Bullshit.

There. I’ve said it, and I mean it. Give me a Manet any day over an “installation” of rock. Still, I have to admit, I’m having a rollicking good time already. Bad art really is kind of fun.

I walk toward the Central Pavilion, past a row of people lounging on porch chairs, all the way around to the back to a outdoor café, where I break for lunch. It’s just a simple Caprese salad, but the tomatoes are sweet and the buffalo mozzarella tangy. It rejuvenates me, and before long I’m ready to explore again.

It’s time to brave the United States pavilion. I must say I was warned about this one in advance, but it still didn’t prepare me for the horror of it all. A review in The Guardian put it this way: “America has an irritatingly complex ‘ecosystem’ composed of millions of fribbling bits of paper, string and gum by Sarah Sze for which there is simply not world enough and time.”

And there it is. “Fribbling bits” of this and that—balls of string, plastic water bottles, rulers and clamps—crawling up the front of the building like a tinker toy skyscraper on steroids. There’s a brochure that attempts to explain it all and it says something about inscribing a “fragile personal order upon a disordered universe,” but really The Guardian had it about right when they said there wasn’t enough time in the world to care.

Feeling apologetic and unpatriotic about the U.S. entry, I enter the Russian Pavilion next. There’s a hole in the ceiling from which a bucket hangs, and in the room next door I can see a large pile of gold coins on the floor. Before entering to investigate, a woman hands me a clear umbrella and I grin. It’s always a good sign when you’re handed a prop. It means interesting things are about to happen!

It becomes immediately apparent that the umbrella serves as a shield to protect me from being struck by the coins that are falling continuously from the roof. I’ve been instructed to bend down and interact with the coins, and to place a handful of them in the bucket next door. They’re stamped TRUST, UNITY, FREEDOM, LOVE. And, “The artist guarantees the value with his honor, 2013.”

And that’s just the start… There is also a man upstairs who is dressed in a business suit, riding a saddle astride a beam that he has reached with the help of a tall, wooden ladder. Every now and then he reaches out with his left hand and sprinkles sawdust on the floor below. On the wall, there is a motto that reads: “Gentleman, time has come to confess our Rudeness, Lust, Narcissism, Demagoguery, Falsehood, Banality and…”

There’s a brochure explaining all of this—of course there is—and it says something about a “cave womb” and the “anatomical construction of a myth,” but really who cares? This may peg me as one of those day trippers from Hell that I maligned earlier this morning, but the whole thing strikes me as perfectly ridiculous, but also pretty neat.

I spend the rest of the afternoon lazily walking through Ai Weiwei’s forest of stools and inside of what looks like a huge Fabergé egg. There are tables of artfully composed law directories, walls covered with plastic Mickey Mouse toys, and wire coat hangers twisted into the shape of turtles. There is a painting of a hairy man’s ass crack aptly titled “The Butt (2007),” which amuses me, and the clothed mannequin of an armless child wearing a sun bonnet that seems like a creepy version of Little House on the Prairie, which does not.

I’m still chuckling over the Biennale later when I sit down for dinner at La Porta d’Acqua. I laugh harder still when the waiter greets me by singing “Buona Sera” by Dean Martin. He’s quite a character.

I order some fried zucchini blossoms and stuffed shells with Bolognese sauce, but no wine. When I got sick in Germany two years ago, I developed a neurological condition called dysautonomia. Alcohol makes the dizziness and the nausea worse. It’s a hard enough thing to explain in English let alone a foreign language, so I just decline politely. The waiter sniffs at me suspiciously and says: “What kind of woman are you who no drink wine?” I shrug.

As I wait for my dinner to arrive, I pull out my iPhone and check for e-mail. Last night, I reserved a seat on a bus tour leaving tomorrow for the Veneto hill towns of Bassano del Grappa, Asolo, and Marostica. The Avventure Bellissime website says it’s one of their “most popular day trips from Venice!” Alas, it’s not. They’ve just cancelled.

Undeterred, I decide to go on my own, and so I pull up the Trenitalia website to check on train departure times. When the waiter comes by with the food, he looks over my shoulder and asks where I’m going. Bassano del Grappa, I say. I ask if he’s been there and does he recommend it? “Yeah, yeah,” he says, “the grappa.”

It’s the alcohol he likes. Of course it is. He’s Italian.

Come to think of it, though, quite a lot of art is inspired by booze. Quite possibly a lot of what I saw today. How else to explain the hairy ass crack? And a potent green liquor known as absinthe was equally famous in Manet’s day as the seductive muse of poets and painters alike.

I look down at my solitary glass of water, and I feel suddenly left out of an entire history of creative thought. Perhaps I should try some grappa in the morning. I’m already an academic with a tendency toward verbosity. I can certainly write a convincing brochure. All I really need for a change in career is a decent sense of irony and some “fribbling bits.”

Friday, June 7, 2013

It’s probably a bad idea to base a day trip around a single photo op, but there you have it.

I once saw a picture of Bassano del Grappa that showed a covered bridge called the Ponte degli Alpini. I’m not sure why it appealed to me so. I think it was because the buildings on either side of the Brenta River were clearly Italian. To me, the warm colors, balconies, window boxes, and towers were reminiscent of Verona, another city I had liked in the Veneto. And yet the wooden bridge itself seemed so very un-Italian. With some minor alteration in the trusses, that bridge would have looked very much at home spanning a babbling brook in a forest of autumn leaves back in Vermont. I became determined to see a place at once so exotic and familiar for myself.

I had hoped to visit Bassano del Grappa and two other small hill towns on a minibus tour offered by Avventure Bellissime, but they cancelled my booking last night due to a “lack of participants,” offering instead a tour of the Dolomites at the same price. I am two years removed from my disastrous trip to Germany and I still recoil at the thought of an alpine landscape. I suppose it’s a Pavlovian response, but I’d rather see the bridge.

While on previous trips to Europe I’ve gotten up early and stayed out late, this morning I slept in and barely made the 10:27 AM train from Santa Lucia station, which means I won’t arrive in Bassano del Grappa until nearly noon. On the journey out, it didn’t occur to me that this was a problem, but it is. By the time I arrive and pick up a map from the local tourist information office, the city has fallen into a deep slumber. It’s the afternoon siesta, a tradition rarely observed in larger tourist destinations, but here, nearly everything—churches, museums, shops—will be closed for the next several hours. I’m just going to have to make do.

I walk past the towering Torre Civica in Piazza Garibaldi, struck by the silence in the streets, and then continue on past the Loggia dei Podestà, with its sun dials and astronomical clock, to Piazza Libertà, from where I veer off to the right, down toward the river.

Known alternately as the Ponte degli Alpini, or the Ponte Vecchio, there has been a bridge in this spot since least 1209, but over the centuries it’s been destroyed several times through acts of war, as well as the forces of nature. Each time, it has been faithfully rebuilt according to Palladio’s design of 1569.

The bridge is open and airy inside, and it reminds me of a picnic pavilion somewhere in the Adirondacks. Standing here is pleasant, a cool retreat from the midday sun, and the view north of the Valsugana valley is nothing short of spectacular. To see it properly, though, I need to cross to the other side and walk along the banks of the Brenta. When I do, I look back and see the frame of the photograph I fell in love with so many months ago.

Today, there are white clouds of cotton candy high overhead, floating in a pale blue sky. There is a wall of mountains in the distance and a cluster of pastel buildings in shades of lemon yellow and salmon pink spilling down over the hill toward the river. In the contrast between the elegant architecture of the town and the rustic red bridge with its large wooden feet, there is also balance. They marry well, or as the Italians might say, si sposano bene.

I’m glad I came.

For lunch, I buy a sandwich at Taverna al Ponte, which has a tiny balcony overlooking the bridge, and then wander back up through the town, past the ceramics museum in Palazzo Sturm, which is closed, and the church of Pieve di Santa Maria, which is closed as well. I should have known.

The walk and the ascent up the hill tires me more than I expect, and by the time I reach the civic museum in the former convent of San Francesco—which is blessedly open for business—I need to sit and rest. Even so, I feel spent. Residual illness and jet lag are catching up with me. I rove through the impressive picture gallery upstairs, and marvel at a painting by Roberto Roberti titled “Il Ponte di Bassano” (1807) that shows the city looking much the same in the early 19th century as it does today. But the truth is, I’m ready to head back to Venice. It’s nearly 3:30 in the afternoon and the shops will be reopening any moment now. Even so, I don’t have the energy or the enthusiasm left to stay. I did what I came to do.

After relaxing on the train and laying for a while in the my air conditioned room at the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo, I feel surprisingly hungry later. Not wanting to go far, I have dinner at Il Refolo, in a small piazza facing the Ponte Ruga Vechia. I order the “Pizza del Doge,” with fresh mozzarella cheese, ham, tomatoes, and radicchio, and remembering the previous night’s admonition, I decide that I do not want to be “the woman who no drink wine.” I order a glass of prosecco, figuring that one glass—just one—couldn’t possibly hurt. Except that it does. The pizza is outstanding, one of the best I’ve ever had in Italy, but the wine sends my head into a nasty tailspin for the remainder of the night.

Cursing Germany once again (because, really, when is there ever opportunity enough?), I know that to make it through I’ll have to go teetotal from here on out.

I’ll be in Florence in two days time. I’m already mourning the Chianti.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Normally, I like itineraries. It’s the sense of order, I suppose, that appeals to me. But this year, everything is different. Because of the Odd Year Curse and its corollary complications, I was forced to rearrange large chucks of travel at the last minute, and the days have never quite fit back together again. It’s time to throw everything aside and wing it.

My original plan was to go to Vicenza for the day by train to see the Teatro Olimpico and some Palladian villas, but now that I’m here in Italy, I don’t much feel like it. I’m in the mood for lazy exploration, and no city invites that more than Venice.

After breakfast, I walk down through the market again and across the Rialto Bridge, stopping at Antica Murrina to buy myself a Murano glass necklace, with a matching bracelet and earrings. I buy jewelry every time I’m in Venice—it’s too hard to resist—and this set, with its unusual combination of coral, tan and purple beads, is destined to be one of my favorites.

When I reach Piazza San Marco, I circle around the perimeter, peeking in the shops that line that the arcade, then I turn past the Doge’s Palace and join the wide promenade known as the Riva degli Schiavoni. It’s crowded with bodies this morning and with souvenir stands selling T-shirts with slogans like “Keep Calm and Love Venezia.” When I reach the Bridge of Sighs, it’s difficult to push past the bottleneck of tourists taking pictures, but I need to press on. I’m heading for the Arsenale, the city’s naval shipyard, which is the site of still more art exhibits for the Biennale.

It’s a long walk back under the heat of the summer sun, past a pair of cars sunken into a makeshift beach with striped umbrellas perched overhead, but I’m determined to see a performance piece I read about in The New York Times. It’s by an Icelandic artist named Ragnar Kjartansson and it features a small boat, described in the newspaper as “a cross between a Viking ship and a gondola,” slowing sailing back and forth with a cargo of professional musicians.

Much of the art I’ve seen at the Biennale has been forgettable, and some pieces have been memorably ridiculous. This is simply memorable.

There is a captain onboard commanding the rudder of the S.S. Hangover, and a five piece brass ensemble playing the same haunting piece of music in repetition. A sign nearby introducing the piece says that the procession “alludes, perhaps, to the sixteenth-century Venetian tradition of Theatres of the World, among many other of the city’s floating festivities.”

It’s the “perhaps” that I like. The interpretation is open and loose, and there may be none at all. One article I read likened it to a funeral dirge and to sailors “crossing the bar.” All I know is that it’s a moving spectacle, and I’m glad I made the effort to see it.

The walk back to Piazza San Marco through the quiet canals and alleyways of Castello is long and confusing, but intensely beautiful. There are rainbows of laundry hanging everywhere and flower boxes resting on sills. Aside from an occasional dog on the street, or a cat perched high in an open window, Venice seems entirely mine and mine alone. It’s nice to be far away from madding crowd, if only for a moment.

It’s my last night here and I have yet to linger and hear to orchestras play. In the mood to celebrate, I settle in at Caffè Florian and order a club sandwich, a plate of Parisian style macarons, and a vividly red, non-alcoholic drink called a “Skywasser” that passes for an exotic cocktail. The bells in the campanile are chiming the bottom of the hour, and the band is warming up.

A mother and daughter from Florida are sitting next to me and we strike up a conversation, which is pleasant enough at first, but the daughter doesn’t understand why I’m sitting facing the orchestra, rather than watching the people milling about the piazza. Frankly it’s what I always do and it never occurred to me to do otherwise. I was a musician myself for many years and I like to watch the orchestra play. I think it must be strange indeed to perform night after night to the backs of people’s heads, but the daughter doesn’t understand. “But why would anyone DO that?” she whispers loudly.

As the sun begins to set, I walk west through Piazza San Marco and follow the meandering streets all to the way to the Accademia Bridge, where I board a vaporetto for home. I haven’t ticked many boxes on this trip, and I’ve barely used my Venice Card at all. I’ve never felt less inclined to visit churches and museums, but it’s been a deeply satisfying visit nevertheless. The Italians call this wondrous city of canals and bridges La Serenissima, or most serene, and rightly so. I arrived here on a water taxi four days ago struggling under the weight of things, and I leave in the morning for the bustle and excitement of Florence, more at peace with the world than I have been in a long while, and ready to embrace whatever opportunity awaits.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

I’m bound for Florence this morning, but not quite yet. My train doesn’t leave until just past noon, so there’s still time left for one last walk around the sestiere of Santa Croce before I have to say goodbye to Walter and the wonderful Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo.

There are two “unofficial,” or collateral, exhibits from the Biennale nearby, plus a separate gallery devoted to honeybees and Murano glass. I decide to visit them all.

The first involves a crane and an odd red sculpture that’s been suspended from it these past four days. I saw it when I first arrived that day on the water taxi, just to the right of the church at San Stae, and I’ve wondered about its purpose ever since.

When I enter the United Cultural Nations exhibit, a beam of light leads me down the hall of a grand palazzo towards a room filled with the sound of tribal drums. Overhead, a hole has been cut in the ceiling and there, suspended high above, the red sculpture is hovering. It’s called the “Flying Ship.” The brochure says it’s meant to “promote rethinking the relations between individuals and others” and the “spirit to reach a new destination.” For me, though, it’s simply an Aha moment. It resolves a mystery. I may not understand what it means, but at last I know what it is.

The second exhibit is sponsored by Paraguay and while a number of artists are represented, two in particular stand out. On a small computer monitor, Daniel Milessi offers an imaginative history of his country in video game format. It reminds me of the old Pac-Man consoles I used to play in pizza parlors when I was a girl, though in place of the game’s original ghosts, the enemies are invaders and the outcome is told in pixels of blood.

My favorite of the day, though, is Pedro Barrail. There is a wall in the palazzo that’s been covered with its own image, printed with a large red dot in the center and the words: YOU ARE NOT HERE, alongside the longitude and latitude measurements of the room itself. It’s clever, really, and while I may not grab the “red lifesaver and head for redemption,” as the brochure advises, I find myself staring at it in defiance. It reminds me of the hurdles I have crossed over the past two years, to say nothing of the past two months.

I AM (most decidedly) HERE.

I grab my luggage at the hotel, promise Walter I’ll be back again next time, and then sprint off to the train station. It’s just a short journey to Florence, less than two hours, but the change in scenery is striking. Here, too, I am greeted by a series of familiar associations that bring a smile to my face as they pass outside the window of the cabthe green and white façade of Santa Maria Novella, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, and Brunelleschi‘s enormous red dome on the Duomo, which peeks out from behind nearly every street in town.

As in Venice, I’m returning to the same hotel that I booked on two previous trips to Italy. I’m a creature of habit and revisiting places gives me a sense of comfort and identity, a neighborhood to call my own. When I’m in London, I livetemporarily, at leastin South Kensington. In Paris, the 5th Arrondissement is my home. And when I’m in Florence, I stay at the Hotel Davanzati. It’s as simple as that.

It’s mid-afternoon when I climb the stairs and emerge out of the elevator into the quiet lobby. Tommaso greets me warmly from behind the reception desk and I inquire about his family, and his father Fabrizio in particular, as he encodes the key card. Before long, we’ve caught up and we’re talking about businesses and unions and Italian politics, and debating whether or not the U.S. is any less dysfunctional. It feels good to be back.

Outside, the day has turned gray and cool, and I spend the remainder of it reacquainting myself with the city. I stroll down to the Ponte Vecchio and across to the Oltrarno for some window shopping, before retracing my steps back to Via Porta Rossa for an early dinner at La Grotta Guelfa—some mixed crostini and a bowl of risotto with mushrooms.

Afterwards, I walk back to the Ponte Vecchio in the hope of finding a street musician named Claudio Spadi there. I’ve heard him play every time I’ve been to Florence, and there he is again, singing a cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” to an appreciative crowd and the setting sun.

As in Venice, some things never change, and for that I am grateful.

Monday, June 10, 2013

It’s a rainy morning in Florence, although I didn’t know it until I stepped out the door. The window in my room at the Hotel Davanzati has a pair of heavy wooden shutters which I kept closed all night, creating the darkest and most blissful cave in which to catch up on my sleep. Needless to say, I’m getting a late start. So late, in fact, that I barely catch the tail end of breakfast at 10:30 AM. Thank goodness for Patrizia’s delicious cappuccino. It’s helped me to wake up with a spring in my step.

Among other things, I’d liked like to do some shopping today. My Dad wants a new leather wallet and my nephew a leather belt. Tommaso is at the reception desk again this morning, so I approach him for some advice on where to go. Like his father, Fabrizio, he’s good at multi-tasking. He’s juggling the phone while he pulls out a map and circles the location of several boutiques he’d recommend, in addition to the San Lorenzo street market.

This is my third stay at the Hotel Davanzati, and yet somehow I’ve never visited the Palazzo Davanzati which is, quite literally, next door. I decide to go there first. With its lushly frescoed walls and wood beam ceilings, is a wonderful surprise. Yes, the hours are limited, which likely explains why I haven’t visited before, but the admission is cheap and the collection of furnishings, ceramics, and lace is magnificent—a time capsule, really, of Florentine life in the 15th and 16th centuries, at least for those families fortunate enough to be in the merchant class.

When I emerge an hour later, the pavement outside is still slick and wet as I turn from Via Porta Rossa onto Via Calimala. I walk past Piazza della Repubblica and its brightly colored carrousel and stop at Gilli to look at the window display. There’s an attractive selection of candy boxes in the shape of Florence’s cathedral dome, baptistery, and bell tower, but none that could survive uncrushed in my crowded suitcase at the moment.

My next destination is the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, where I’m going to see a famous cycle of frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli in the “Chapel of the Magi.” It’s another loose end left over from a previous trip’s itinerary. It’s a small space with limited access, which leads to a line of visitors downstairs, but it’s well worth the wait. The colors are rich and vibrant, and the scene is breathtaking in its detail. Ostensibly, Gozzoli depicts the procession of the Three Kings on their way to Bethlehem, but in a nod to his patron, the work is set in a rich Tuscan landscape, filled with wildlife and crowded with the faces of Florentine noblemen in their finest clothes. Some even believe that Casper, the youngest of the kings, is a portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who would later become a patron of the arts in his own right to luminaries such as Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Michelangelo Buonarroti.

After two museums in a row, I’m ready to go shopping, I stroll through the San Lorenzo street market, but see little to tempt me. When I can’t find anything I like at Peruzzi, either, I decide to try the venerable Scuola del Cuoio, a leather school in the friary at Santa Croce.

I haven’t been inside of the basilica itself since my first trip to Florence in 2008, when the entire apse was filled by a skyscraper of scaffolding. Surely, the work must have been completed since, so I decide to make a return visit along the way. Except that it hasn’t been completed, not even close. I think about the number of years it took to restore the campanile in Venice, or Bernini’s “Fountain of the Four Rivers” in Piazza Navona in Rome, and recall my conversation with Tommaso about Italian politics and how hard it is to get anything done in Italy.

The wallets at the leather school are simple and beautiful, just what I had in mind. I pick out a bifold in lambskin for my Dad in a deep chocolate brown, and I’m surprised at the register when the clerk tells me they would be happy to monogram it for him free of charge. She sends me back to a row of ancient looking worktables where I meet a cheerful young man who places the letters I need in a branding iron and holds it over a flame, before pressing it vigorously into a piece of gold leaf on the inside of the wallet. It’s the perfect gift and I can’t thank him enough.

By the time I leave, the sun has brightened considerably and the late afternoon temperature is rising. I decide to stop by the hotel for Happy Hour and to drop off my bag from the Scuola del Cuoio. Afterwards, I grab a light dinner at La Bussola and then take a slow walk up to the Duomo and back, stopping to watch an artist create a copy of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” in chalk on the street.

Florence, ItalyI’m standing on the Ponte Santa Trinita when the street lamps turn on at half past nine. There’s a musician with an accordion nearby playing a medley of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and “It’s a Wonderful World.” As I listen, I watch the color drain from the sky over the Ponte Vecchio, as if consumed by the fiery orange of the sunset dying behind me.

I’m thinking about how much I love Italy, and how glad I am to have come back to Florence, in particular. This place really is quite something.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I slept in so late yesterday that I barely made breakfast, and today I’ve missed it entirely. It’s after 10:30 AM and I need to make plans.

Tommaso is manning the reception desk at the Hotel Davanzati this morning, so I tell him I think I’d like to go on one of those tours of the Vasari Corridor. Does he think he can get me a last minute reservation? Of course, he can. He is a master at such things. He makes a quick phone call and finds that there’s room available in a group that leaves at 3:15 this afternoon. He prints out a confirmation page and shows me where to meet the guide on Via de’ Lamberti.

By now my stomach is growling, so I grab a late breakfast at Caffè Donnini in Piazza della Repubblica. As I scrape up the last bit of foam in my cappuccino with a spoon and pay the bill, I look at a map and settle on what to do next. I’m going to explore the Oltrarno in search of antiques and artisan workshops.

I cross the river on the Ponte Santa Trinita and continue along Via Maggio, where the store window at Giovanni Turchi’s catches my eye. There’s a lovely portrait miniature of a boy on a hobby horse. I ask to see it, and Giovanni himself—a kindly soul with frail legs and white hair—pulls it from the case. It’s probably American, he says, and I agree. He notices my accent and remarks that it would be nice to send it home where it belongs. I’d love to have it, but I glance at the price tag and know that I can’t possibly afford it. I hand it back and say I’m sorry, but Giovanni is a true Italian gentleman. He raises a hand to show that no apology is necessary and declares it “pleasure enough to see a beautiful woman” in his gallery. I just might come back later and invite Giovanni out on a dinner date, he’s just that sweet.

I wander aimlessly for a while, up one street and down the other, stopping at a neighborhood flea market in Piazza San Spirito. By early afternoon I’ve worked my way over to the Ponte Vecchio and I head back across the river in time for a quick lunch at a self-service cafeteria called Marchetti on Via dei Calzaiuoli, one the city’s main shopping streets.

I still need to find my nephew a black leather belt and the stores in Florence are overflowing with options, but most are marked “Made in Italy,” which seems tacky in English and destined for the tourist market. Feeling pressured for time, I decide to return to the Scuola del Cuoio, where I find something that’s perfect for a good price. The same young man who monogrammed my wallet yesterday is there again in the workshop. He recognizes me and greets me with a cheerful “You’re back!”

I rush to the hotel to drop off my purchase, careful not to be late for the Vasari Corridor tour. I arrive just as the guide is handing out headsets with radio receivers so that we can hear his commentary more clearly. His name is Mario and he has a thick accent and an even thicker mop of curly hair. He’s the Italian equivalent of a hippie, but he has the soul of a teacher. There are a dozen or so people on the tour and within minutes he’s learned all of our names. This impresses me at first. Hundreds of students a year pass through my classes, and I have to rely on flashcards to learn the names of even half of them by the end of term. He’s done well.

Mario begins with an introduction to medieval versus Renaissance art by pointing to the niches on the front of the Orsanmichele church across the street from the FlorenceTown tour office. We have an interesting discussion about Verrocchio’s bronze statue of “Doubting Thomas,” but from there, things quickly fall apart. We walk to the Uffizi where he spends the next hour and a half lecturing the group in a room full of paintings of the Madonna and Child. He talks obsessively about the “dropery” of the fabric and how it “devil-op-id” through the years, which has us scratching our heads, not just at the mispronunciations of drapery and developed, but at the tedium of the subject matter. I’ve been to the Uffizi before, and most us here have, so we’re eager to move on to the Vasari Corridor—after all, that is what we paid an astounding €85 to see. Still, Mario insists on quizzing us using the Socratic Method, which is when I begin to curse him for learning our names so well. “Deborah, John, Beverly, George—Come here. Which of these two paintings was first? Can you tell from the dropery?”

By the time we finally reach the entrance to the corridor, we’re running late, of course. The museum is about to close and the security guard who opens the door has a harsh word with Mario before letting us in. The guard follows us and remains disgruntled throughout, his arms crossed menacingly across his chest.

The Vasari Corrider is an enclosed passageway that was built for the Medicis in 1564, extending from the seat of government at the Palazzo Vecchio to their lavish living quarters at the Palazzo Pitti across the river. As such, it runs above the Ponte Vecchio and is nearly unnoticed by the shoppers below perusing the jewelry shops that line the bridge today.

The corridor itself is bare in its design, but it houses the world’s largest collection of artist’s self-portraits, including Old masters such as Rembrandt, Rubens, and Velazquez, but also more contemporary examples by John Singer Sargent and Marc Chagall, among many others (about 1,500 in all). On our sprint toward the Pitti Palace, we pass a wonderful work from 1790 of Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun painting at her easel with a brush in her hand. Mario doesn’t mention her at all, nor any of the female artists in the collection for that matter. He is still acting fanatically about “dropery” and he’s hell bent on pointing out the darkest and dreariest portraits on the wall. He’s far more concerned with the technique of painting than with the sitters themselves, which misses the entire point of a self-portrait, it seems to me.

Back at the Hotel Davanzati during Happy Hour, I discover that two of the couples from the tour are staying here as well, so we sit together and talk and gripe about Mario until it’s time for dinner. Tonight, Tommaso has recommended Osteria Il Porcellino, named for the statue of a wild boar that people rub on the snout when they want to return to Florence someday.

Afterwards, I see that Claudio Spadi is singing in Piazza della Repubblica, so I listen for a bit before moving on to an organ concert at Santa Maria de’ Ricci, where the proceeds are used to fund the church’s renovation. And later, I see a classical guitarist on the steps of the Mercato Nuovo. She’s playing “Con te partirò,” a phrase that means “Time to Say Goodbye.”

As I head back to the hotel under the orange glow of the street lights, I realize that I have just two nights left in Florence. The time to part will come soon enough, which is hard to bear when standing on the sidewalk in a city of endless possibilities.

I might just keep walking.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

In a moment of inspiration I’ll come to regret, I’ve decided to visit Bologna for the day.

I’ve never been there before, but I know that it’s a university town in Emilia-Romagna famous for its miles of covered walkways—known as porticos—as well as for its food. This is where that scrumptious pasta Bolognese sauce gets its name, so how could I possibly go wrong? It does occur to me that I should have researched the place a bit first, but my entire trip this year has been spontaneous, free of the burden of itineraries and expectations, and it’s worked out exceedingly well so far. I feel confident that serenditpity will guide me in Bologna, too.

I’m getting a late start again, and my train is running behind schedule, which doesn’t help matters, so I don’t get to Bologna Centrale until nearly noon. We’ve arrived at the new underground station that opened just days ago and I feel disoriented immediately. It’s cavernous inside and almost entirely barren. I had expected to find a tourist information office where I could pick up a city map, at least, but there’s nothing around and no one to ask for help. I take the escalator from one level to another, and then another, and eventually find my way out onto the street, but the neighborhood looks nothing like what I expected.

Originally, before I got sick and had to reshuffle my trip, I had reserved a hotel room in Bologna for one night at the Starthotels Excelsior directly across the street from the train station, but standing here now I can see it’s not here. Only later do I realize that I’ve emerged far on the other side of the tracks, facing north instead of south. Without any sense realistic sense of direction, I grab a taxi and tell the driver to take me somewhere in the city center. He drops me off in Piazza Maggiore, and hands me his card in case I need a ride back later. The truth is, part of me wants to turn back now.

I stumble into a branch of the tourist information office and a disinterested woman behind the counter hands me a map, and sells me a €12 ticket for a sightseeing bus that should give me a feel for the city, but really who knows? She waves me off without comment and sets back to reading her book.

By the time the City Red Bus reaches Piazza Maggiore, all of the outdoor seats on the deck are taken, which leaves me to the front of the vehicle under a plastic roof that acts like a greenhouse on a summer’s day. It’s sweltering. At each of the stops, I look back hopefully at the other passengers, praying that someone will step off somewhere to visit something so that I can take their place. The two leaning towers, the Torre Asinelli and the Torre Garisenda? No. The church of Santo Stefano, or San Domenico, or maybe San Francesco? No, no, and no. What about San Michele in Bosco, with its panoramic terrace overlooking the city? Surely, someone will disembark there to appreciate the view. No, indeed. Everyone stays resolutely on the bus, craning their necks and taking pictures. No one ever does get off.

By now, I’m drenched in sweat and in a raging mood. I reach into my purse for something to eat and find that my scarf—the one I keep on hand for covering my shoulders when visiting churches in Italy—has gotten caught in the zipper. When I can’t slide it free, emotion gets the best of me and I tug it HARD, expecting the scarf to tear away. Instead, the zipper breaks. I’ve yanked it clean apart, and I sit there staring at the crooked teeth and at the metal pull in my hand, wondering how I could have been so stupid. In vain, I try to hold the purse closed with a safety pin, knowing all the while that I’ll be an easy target for pickpockets from here on out.

When we complete the loop and arrive back at Piazza Maggiore, it’s nearly 2:00 PM. The buses are taking a long break for lunch, and so do I. I’m not feeling finicky, I just want to eat and to get out of the heat of the sun. In an alleyway just off the square, I find a place called Al Voltone and it seems reasonable enough. I order the Antica Bologna platter with fried tortellini, a foam of mortadella, polenta with fresh cheese, and a petroiana spear—at least that’s what the menu says. It’s all perfectly fine, but certainly not memorable. Nonetheless, the chance to sit and rest in the cool shade does me good.

I take some pictures in and around Piazza Maggiore, of the Palazzo del Podestà, the Palazzo D’Accursio, and the Neptune fountain, and then set off on foot through the porticos, past the leaning towers, to the basilica of Santo Stefano, which has just reopened for the afternoon. Actually, it’s a cluster of medieval churches, chapels, and cloisters, all from different periods. As I stare up at the dark brick dome in the ancient Santo Sepolcro, a polygonal temple dating from 12th century, I decide that I’ve done enough to justify the day. Perhaps my standards are low, but I’m ready to head back. Bologna hasn’t been my finest hour.

Near the Piazza Santo Stefano, I catch the City Red Bus back to the train station and walk past the clock that’s been frozen in time to honor the victims of the terrorist attack that occurred here in 1980. I buy a ticket for the next train to Florence and settle in for the ride.

I’m safe and sound back at the Hotel Davanzati in time for Happy Hour, entertaining Tommaso with the story of how I broke the zipper on my purse. He finds it quite amusing, and now that I’ve had a chance to unwind, I suppose I do, too. Still, he says I should remind him never to make me angry.

Indeed.

Perhaps it’s a good thing to be surprised by your own strength from time to time. Who knows what it may accomplish, even if it does mean sacrificing a perfectly good purse.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

After a less than inspiring visit to Bologna yesterday, I’m determined to do better today. Over breakfast, I unfold a map and consider my options. The Hotel Davanzati has a sister company called I Just Drive, which offers a number of small group tours. I had hoped to go on their outing to Pienza, Montalcino, and Montepulciano, but as in Venice my timing as a solo traveler is bad. No one else has booked the trip this week, so it’s understandable that it’s been cancelled. Modena could be reached by train, but Tommaso thinks it’s too far to go for the day. Ferrara is within reach, but Fabrizio wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve already been to San Gimignano, and while it’s a stunning town with soaring medieval towers, it’s too small to consider going back so soon. And tomorrow I’m heading west to Lucca and on to Pisa, so those destinations are out as well. I consider Fiesole for a moment, or maybe Pistoia, but I decide to roll the dice and lay my bet on the surest thing I know. I’m going to revisit the classic Tuscan hill town of Siena.

I went to Siena on my first trip to Italy back in 2008, but after touring the Palazzo Pubblico to see the frescoes depicting “The Allegories of Good and Bad Government,” and climbing the Torre del Mangia, I was too weary to bother with the cathedral or the baptistery or the adjacent Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. I spent the afternoon instead wandering the hilly streets in a happy stupor induced by some truly excellent food. It was a memorable day. Only later did it occur to me that I had missed the finest view of all, which is reached from the top of an unfinished wall of the Duomo, abandoned in the 14th century when the Black Plague swept through the city. My return today is all about unfinished business.

I walk to the SITA terminal near Santa Maria Novella and board a corse rapide bus that offers little in terms of scenery, but gets to Siena via the autostrada in little more than an hour. By 11:30 AM we’ve arrived at Piazza Antonio Gramsci and just as before, I follow the crowd of day trippers along Via Banchi di Sopra toward the city center and Piazza del Campo. I stand on the sloping pavement for a few minutes, soaking in the surroundings and the grandeur of the Palazzo Pubblico. There are pigeons bathing in the Fonte Gaia, children playing tag, and people lounging with their backs upon the warm bricks. It’s such a lively and pleasant place to be on a summer’s day that I’m tempted stay and eat lunch at one of the cafés that line the campo, but the meal I had here in 2008 was so exquisite that I feel obligated to find something that competes.

I pull up some TripAdvisor reviews on my iPhone—a wonder of technology that wasn’t at my fingertips the last time I was here—and opt for a table at Dolceforte. The owner, Anna, is sunny and gregarious, and justifiably proud of her food. I order a plate of wild boar ragù, and an arugula salad with walnuts, pears, and pecorino cheese, drizzled with a homemade balsamic reduction. Everything is delicious, especially the balsamic and when I tell her so, she beams.

With fuel in my stomach and energy in my legs, I decide to tackle the most trying item on my itinerary first—the narrow, corkscrew stairway that leads to the Panorama del Facciatone. Because I am determined to do things properly this time, I invest in an all-inclusive Opa Si pass for €12, then enter the Duomo museum and start climbing. There’s a waiting line to get there, but the sight of Siena at my feet more than makes up for the bottleneck. Between the height of the unfinished nave wall and the topography of the land, I am high above the fan of Piazza del Campo, as if floating on air. It would be difficult to imagine a more sublime view.

I descend the winding stairs and explore the museum itself, which has a treasure trove of medieval art, including Pisano’s original statues from the front façade of the Duomo, and Duccio’s “Maestà,” a stunning two-sided altarpiece completed in 1311. When I see the enthroned Madonna with Child, though, I can’t help but think of Mario and his “dropery.”

Once outside again, I round the corner to get a better view of the cathedral itself. It’s a lacy confection with a round window that reflects the clouds and the blue of the sky. The pink and green marble reminds me of the basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, but the Gothic spires and the gold mosaics have me thinking of Orvieto instead, which makes sense since the architects there were Sienese as well.

Inside, the nave is lined with bold striped columns of black and white stone, and the floor is paved with intricate mosaics and inlaid marble panels. There is a Nicola Pisano pulpit depicting the life of Christ that was completed in 1265, and an adjacent library that houses a collection of illuminated manuscripts with a series of stunning wall frescoes devoted to Pius II. The entire cathedral is a deeply spiritual place, and impressively intellectual as well for its place in art history, and yet somehow I can’t stop giggling at all the tourists who have been forced to wear the “cloak of shame.”

In many ways, Italy is still a conservative country, and a devoutly Catholic one, too. While in America, someone might attend mass on a Sunday morning wearing shorts and a halter top, there are standards of modesty here—shoulders at least, and often knees, must be covered. Surely, that’s not asking too much? I carry a scarf in my purse for such occasions, although today it is a looking a bit tattered and worse for wear after that wrestling match with the zipper on my purse in Bologna. But at least I come prepared. For those who don’t, there are disposable paper capes that must be worn, and they make people look positively ridiculous, as well they should. If only they could ban flip flops, too, I would be well satisfied.

Once I visit the crypt and the cool darkness of the baptistery, I’ve completed all the sites covered by my Opa Si pass, so I’m ready to wander about. I stop for some raspberry and lemon gelato at Grom, window shop for ceramics that display the coats of arms of the seventeen contrade of Siena that compete in the Palio each year, and buy a few ricciarelli cookies from Nannini to eat later.

By half past four, my legs have given out on the hilly terrain and I decide to catch the next SITA bus back to Florence. It’s been a scorching day and the slant of the afternoon sun warms the bus dangerously. By the time we reach the entrance to the city at Porta Romana, the temperature gauge on the dashboard is reading 40° Celsius, or more than 100° Fahrenheit.

Back at the hotel, I lay down to rest for a bit in my room and once again crank up the air conditioning. A while later, I come out for one final Happy Hour. As usual, there is music playing in the background, there are candles on the tables, and a dish of crostini alongside the hotel’s own Davanzati sauce. There’s a full house tonight, so I’m sitting at a table in the lobby when Tommaso comes over and sits down to join me. He leans over and peers into my glass. “What are you drinking,” he says, half curious, half amused. “Is that Coca-Cola?” Yes, I say, burying my face in my hands. With a good-natured grin, he says: “We do offer prosecco and Chianti, you know.” Will the embarrassment never end? Am I forever destined to be either pitied or scorned as “the woman who no drink wine”?

After enduring the heat on the bus, I can’t muster enough hunger to warrant going out for dinner. I grab a sandwich from the takeaway counter of a café instead and head over the Ponte Vecchio to buy a ceramic piece I saw in a shop there the other day on my morning tramp around the Oltrarno. The sign reads Sciccherie: Artigianato d’Arte Italiano. The woman behind the counter recognizes me and she introduces herself. Her name is Tiziana. She is kind and she enjoys practicing her English, which encourages us to talk. When I pick out an occupational plaque that depicts a L’INSEGNANTE, or teacher, she asks if I am buying it for myself, and I nod. At that, she wraps it carefully, first in bubble wrap, but then in paper, and ties it with a brightly colored ribbon, treating it with the care of a special present. “It is a gift you give yourself,” she says, and I like the sentiment very much.

On the walk back to the hotel, I stop and listen as Claudio Spadi sings Venderò. Tonight, Luca Sciortino has joined him and the mood on the Ponte Vecchio is as mellow as the setting sun. As I sit on the edge of the curb, I think about Tiziana and about Giovanni Turchi and the young man in the workshop of the Scuola del Cuoio, about Claudio who sings his heart out every night, and about Tommaso and Fabrizio back at the Davanzati. They’ve all been so nice. Perhaps that’s why I’ve grown fond of Florence over the years, and why I always feel wistful when it’s time to move on. It’s a strange feeling, to be so much at home in a place so far away from home, but there you have it.

When I pass the Mercato Nuovo, I make sure to drop a coin in the mouth of Il Porcellino and to rub his well-worn snout. It’s a ritual I’ve held to each trip on my final night in Florence. I suppose that means I’m a bit superstitious after all.

I know it works, though, because I always come back.

Friday, June 14, 2013

There’s a handsome new face at the reception desk this morning. It’s Fabrizio and Patrizia’s younger son Riccardo, fresh out of high school. He’s as friendly as everyone else in the family, and equally efficient in handling my hotel bill. We talk pleasantly for a few minutes as he runs my credit card through and prints the receipt, and when I ask for a small favor, he says he would be happy to store my luggage in the corner behind the desk to allow me a few more hours to sightsee before moving on.

There’s a special exhibit at the Palazzo Strozzi called “The Springtime of the Renaissance: Sculpture and the Arts in Florence, 1400-1460” that I want to see before I go. It’s an impressive collection that includes Filippo Brunelleschi’s original wooden model for the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. That object is the fundamental starting point of the Early Renaissance, along with the bronze panels Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti completed for a competition to determine which would be commissioned for the doors of the Baptistery. Those panels are here, too, each depicting the “Sacrifice of Isaac” from the Old Testament. There are nine large rooms in all to digest, with major works by Donatello, Lippi, Masaccio, and Della Robbia, among others. Coming here has been an afterthought, of sorts, but a welcome one.

I return to the Hotel Davanzati and walk up the flight of stairs one last time to claim my bags. Riccardo kindly arranges for a taxi to pick me up downstairs, and before long, I’m on the 11:38 AM train to Lucca. By accident, I’ve picked one of the slower Regionale trains, which makes more stops along the way, but perhaps the extra time will do me good. I need to clear my head after an intense five days in Florence. I have another week in Italy ahead of me and I want to enjoy it.

It’s half past one when a cab driver drops me off at the door of the Hotel Palazzo Alexander on Via Santa Giustina in Lucca. It’s a quiet residential street and a pleasant place to stay, if a bit worn around the edges. I’ll be here for the next two nights, mainly to explore an antiques market that opens tomorrow morning. The rest of today is my own, and I feel no need to rush.

I’ve been here before, on my first trip to Italy in 2008. I combined it then with a day trip to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower, the cathedral, and the Camposanto. It had started out with unseasonably cool temperatures, a driving wind, and torrential rain, but by the time I arrived in Lucca in mid-afternoon, the sun was splitting the clouds and the air was warm and breezy and fresh, as it so often is after a storm. I spent the time I had wandering the streets, walking the city’s walls, enjoying a late lunch at a café in Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, and climbing the Torre Guinigi to stand under the shade of the oak trees and to see the hills of Tuscany roll out like a carpet before me. On one of the rooftops, someone had written in large, block letters: WHERE IS THE HAPPYNESS? And for me it was there, captured in a moment now five years gone. It became one of my fondest memories from that trip, and I always knew I would come back.

I meander up to Piazza dell’Anfiteatro to take some pictures, then down Via Fillungo to the square by the church of San Michele in Foro, where there are people lounging lazily on the steps eating gelato. The shops have reopened following their afternoon slumber and the town is gradually crawling back to life.

Later, I walk into Trattoria Canuleia for dinner, which is just steps away from the curved walls of the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, and ask for un tavolo per uno—a table for one. It appears dark and nearly empty inside, but the waitress leads me out through the dining room to a shaded courtyard in back where there are a dozen or more people dining merrily under a canopy of umbrellas. There are white and aqua tablecloths and potted flowers on the tables, and there is a warm glow coming from the lamps that line the edge of the stone patio. It has the charm of a secret garden, and I’m grateful for the impulse that led me here.

There is a woman seated at the table next to mine and she’s likewise dining alone. Within minutes, she leans over to ask if she can join me. I nod readily, and she carries a glass of wine over to the seat across from mine. Her name is Diane and she’s from Melbourne, Australia on the last leg of her trip to Italy. As I work my way through a bowl of chilled zucchini soup with fresh mint and ricotta cheese, and then a dish of cabbage with buffalo mozzarella and sundried tomatoes, we talk about our travels—all the places we’ve been, and those we’d still like to see. She has a cheerful disposition and a lovely lilting accent, which reminds me of another Australian woman I once met on a train between Assisi and Arezzo.

When we part at the end of dinner, I’m sorry to see her go. Solo travel has its rewards to be sure, but it can be a hard and lonely business sometimes, which is what makes sharing an unexpected meal with a sociable stranger so comforting.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Three years ago, I spent a wonderful morning wandering the streets of Arezzo during their famous Fiera Antiquaria, an antiques market that’s held in the city on the first Sunday of each month and the Saturday before. I bought a pair of Italian paintings that day that hang on the opposite sides of my living room window at home in Vermont. Hoping for more good luck, I’ve come to Lucca where there’s a similar fair this weekend.

It’s been a constant refrain on this trip, but once again I’m getting a late start. It’s ten o’clock by the time I sit down for breakfast at the Hotel Palazzo Alexander, and I feel compelled to apologize to the hotel’s manager, who smiles warmly despite the inconvenience and offers to make me a cappuccino to go along with my bacon and eggs. He’s a very nice man.

When I tell him of my plans for the day, he says that the antique dealers and their wares are spread out along a chain of piazzas, and he circles the map to get me started—Piazza Napoleone, Piazza del Giglio, Piazza San Martino, and Piazza San Giovanni. It sounds like a treasure hunt, and I’m hoping to find where X marks the spot.

It’s a perfect summer’s day as I wander through stalls crammed with books and linens and china and urns, but what I really want I spy from the start. It’s a 19th century oil painting of Florence, probably intended for tourists on the Grand Tour. It depicts a group of boaters on the Arno, with the imposing tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and the red dome of Santa Maria del Fiore dominating the city skyline in the background. It’s reasonably affordable as it is, but it’s large and the condition is only fair. I can’t imagine how I would be able to ship it home without damaging the paint surface on the canvas, and even if I could, I’m afraid of what it would cost.

I ponder this for a bit and ask for advice from a helpful Brit who owns a gallery in town. It seems I can mail the painting to myself easily enough, but that requires a skill in packaging I simply don’t have, not to mention the materials themselves. Moreover, it would be difficult to find a local shipping company before I leave for Pisa in the morning. It is the weekend, after all. There are art dealers who handle such things, of course, but that would require the formality of Italian export laws, which treat antiques as cultural assets. He says that it could both time consuming and costly to acquire approval. Inasmuch as I like the painting, I decide not to risk it in the end.

I’m disappointed, but when I don’t see anything else to tempt me, I opt to walk away empty handed, and turn my focus to other pursuits.

I go shopping in the upscale boutiques along Via Fillungo, and visit the church of San Michele in Foro and the San Martino Cathedral. I stop for some macadamia nut gelato at De’ Cotelli, and climb the Torre dell’ Orologio for the postcard views. And, of course, I walk along the city walls, alongside joggers, and bicyclists, and families with strollers. It’s too beautiful of an afternoon to be caught indoors.

By 7:00 PM, I’m back at the church of San Giovanni for a concert, at the suggestion of Diane the night before. One of the great composers of Italian opera, Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca in 1858 and has remained a favorite son ever since. The daily concerts that are offered during the Puccini e la sua Lucca festival appeal unapologetically to the tourist crowd. Lasting just an hour, they are the perfect pre-dinner recital, and the musical selections are largely arias and duets from accessible and well-known operas, including Tosca, Madame Butterfly, and Turnadot. Still, the soloists are first rate and I enjoy it immensely, with one exception.

There is a woman in the row in front of me who insists on videotaping the entire event on her cell phone, probably for bragging rights back home to impress friends and family with her cultured taste. It’s like having double vision, seeing the performers singing live in one eye, while a tiny video simulcast plays in the other. It’s beyond annoying and it would never be allowed at La Scala in Milan or at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but here in Lucca there is a benign and relaxed tolerance for such things.

Because it seems fitting, I have dinner afterwards at Paris Bohème in Piazza Cittadella, so that I can sit facing the city’s bronze statue of Puccini. The night air has grown chilly and I wish I had thought to bring a jacket. I have a bowl of carrot soup and a satisfying plate of tortelli lucchesi in a rich ragù of Chianina beef.

On the short walk back to the hotel, I find myself humming “O Solo Mio,” the encore sung by the two dueling tenors at the concert tonight, to the rousing applause of the audience. It seems appropriate, for indeed, “what a wonderful thing a sunny day…”

Che bella cosa na jurnata ‘e sole,
n’aria serena doppo na tempesta!
Pe’ ll’aria fresca pare già na festa…
Che bella cosa na jurnata ‘e sole.
Ma n’atu sole
cchiù bello, oje ne’.
O sole mio
sta ‘nfronte a te!
O sole
O sole mio
sta ‘nfronte a te!
sta ‘nfronte a te!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

I’m traveling to Pisa today and the train ride is a short one—only thirty minutes. I sit back and enjoy a relaxing breakfast at the Hotel Palazzo Alexander, knowing that there’s no need to be there just yet.

I saw the Leaning Tower and the sites in and around Piazza dei Miracoli on my first trip to Italy back in 2008, and I’m not planning to go again. I’m visiting for a very different reason this time, to see the Luminara di San Ranieri, a festival held every June 16 in honor of the city’s patron saint, a 12th century troubadour who traded in his music for a deeper commitment to God. Tonight, in a tradition that dates back more than 300 years, over 100,000 candles will be lit along the banks of the Arno. Despite the inevitable crowd, I’m looking forward to it.

With plenty of time to get there, I decide to linger on in Lucca for nearly half the day. I visit the medieval church of San Frediano, stroll through a local flea market where I donate a few Euros to an animal shelter that has a cage full of adorable kittens, buy a hand painted Christmas ornament with the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro on it as a souvenir of my stay, and walk along the walls one last time, past the lush gardens of the Palazzo Pfanner to Porta San Gervasio and back.

It’s two in the afternoon when I arrive at Pisa Centrale and phone the Hotel Bologna to arrange a ride on their free shuttle bus. By half past, I’m settling into a nice single room, with a tall ceiling and a striped bedspread in warm tones of orange, yellow, and red.

Later, when I walk out to Lungarno Gamacorti with a dish of gelato in hand, there are preparations for the night’s festivities already underway up and down the banks of the Arno. There are street vendors selling balloons and candy and roasted nuts. White wooden frames in decorative shapes and patterns (called linen) have been attached to the buildings along the riverbank, and there are workmen in a dozen or more boom lifts, stretched high like a giraffe’s neck, hoisting candles into place. There are also platforms in the river itself, from which fireworks will be launched at the end of the night.

With hours to go before dark, I decide to go shopping along Corso Italia, Pisa’s equivalent of High Street. At the insistence of an old woman behind the counter at Catherine di Rofrano Patrizio, who speaks no English but communicates exceedingly well in gestures, I buy an aqua wrap dress with a low V-neck because she thinks it brings out the color of my eyes. I also pick out a simple coral sun dress from Vuerre, since it matches the Murano glass necklace I bought in Venice. As I’m in the dressing room trying it on, Avril Lavigne’s “Wish You Were Here” is playing on the store radio, and it makes me think of someone I miss, someone who’s going to like this dress very much when he sees it.

Damn! Damn! Damn!
What I’d do to have you here, here, here
I wish you were here
Damn! Damn! Damn!
What I’d do to have you near, near, near
I wish you were here

What was it I said, that solo travel is a hard and lonely business sometimes? It is.

I follow Corso Italia all the way down to the train station and back before stopping for a casual dinner in Piazza Chiara Gambacorti. I order a caprese salad and a plate of ravioli in a walnut cream sauce, and while neither are particularly good, the lively atmosphere more than makes up for the food. There is a flag with a Pisan cross hanging from an open window, a man on stilts walking about in red and black polka dot pants, and a cluster of balloons representing an odd mix of pop culture icons—from Smurfs and Barbies and Winnie the Poohs, to Spongebob Squarepants and Tweety Bird.

I head back to the hotel for a fresh camera battery, a new storage card, and a small tripod. By the time I reach the riverbank again, the crowd has swelled and it’s growing claustrophobic. Teenagers have taken positions high on the cement embankments, so I work my way over to the Ponte Solferino, where I’m fortunate to find a prime viewing position midway across.

By 9:30 PM, the sky has deepened into a rich cobalt blue and the candles on the palazzos are twinkling like a thousand strands of Christmas lights. It’s a beautiful sight, and for a moment I am tempted to walk all the way up to Piazza dei Miracoli to see the lanterns hanging on the Leaning Tower, but the thickness of the crowd makes moving virtually impossible.

Eventually, I work my way down to the Ponte di Mezzo and across to the other side to get a closer view of the candles, but it’s an unnerving crawl in an increasingly boisterous mob. I’m grateful to be back in place on the Ponte Solferino by the time the fireworks start at half past eleven.

It’s been a unique experience being here tonight, much like visiting London during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, or standing on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris for the final laps of the Tour de France. I’ve been fortunate enough to do both, but no one throws a party quite like the Italians, with the same mix of ancient tradition and unbridled joy. It says a lot about a people to watch them celebrate.

I may have missed the infiorata in Spello this year, but I’m glad I made it to Pisa.

Monday, June 17, 2013

There is more celebrating to do in Pisa today, but things will have to go on without me.

It’s the feast day of San Ranieri and there will be a regatta on the Arno late this afternoon in honor of the city’s patron saint. Teams of oarsmen representing each of the four neighborhoods will row against the current, down to the Palazzo Medici, and climb a rope to grab a flag at the top of a ten meter pole mounted at the finish line. I’m tempted to stay—of course, I am—but it’s too long to wait and I’m not in the mood to jockey for a position in the crowd. Besides, I’m eager to set off for Rome. This is the final leg of my journey and I’m already feeling the weight of shrinking days.

My train arrives at just past two, and soon I’m in a cab heading for the Hotel Hosianum Palace, a snug and sunny place with yellow stucco and green shutters on a tiny street near Piazza Venezia. I’ve booked a single room at a reduced rate for a four night stay, so I’m surprised when the clerk behind the desk upgrades me to a far more spacious double. I’ve stayed here twice before, and they’re grateful for my loyalty.

By now, I’m starving, but I’ve arrived too late for a proper lunch. I decide to walk down to the Jewish Ghetto—one of my very favorite neighborhoods in Rome—to grab a sandwich from a take-out counter instead.

As I head out of the hotel lobby and turn right, I’m greeted by a rabbit’s warren of ancient lanes. I continue on, through Piazza Margana and along Via dei Delfini. Within minutes, I emerge, just as I thought I would, through a small passageway between Da Giggetto and the elegant ruins of Porto d’Ottavia. I’m surprised that I haven’t gotten lost, but the happy memories I’ve made here through the years are scattered like bread crumbs and they help me find the way.

I’m walking with no particular destination in mind, other than to reacquaint myself with the city. In Italian Hours, the great novelist cum travel writer, Henry James wrote about those who “ramble irresponsibly and take things as they come.” My goal for the remains of the day is little more than that, and before long it summons to me what James had called “the smile of Rome.”

I stop and sit by the turtle fountain in Piazza Mattei, and then continue on past the charming triangular square in front of the church of Santa Barbara ai Librari to Campo de’ Fiori, which is pulsing with the energy of an amiable crowd. Along the way, I see a sign in a shop window that reads: “A man who drinks only water has a secret to hide from his fellow men.” I laugh out loud and think again about the waiter in Venice who scolded me for being a “woman who no drink wine.” I wonder what secrets I’ve been keeping from the world?

By now, it’s late afternoon and there is a blistering summer sun that slants wickedly in the sky overhead, radiating off the pavement. I move out of the open square and seek out the shade of narrow streets on a pilgrimage to the Pantheon.

George Eliot once called Rome “the city of visible history,” and so it is. It’s impossible to be here in Piazza della Rotonda and not stand in awe of the Pantheon’s massive marble columns, its pediment, and its vast, flat dome. Even centuries after its construction in the first century AD, it was such an impressive feat of engineering that Filippo Brunelleschi studied it before drafting his own plans for the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

Nearby, I pause to watch a pair of street performers. They are cross-legged and silent, holding prayer beads. One is mysteriously levitating above the other with no means of visible support, aside from a single raised hand holding a pole. It’s a good trick and there is group of American college students clustered around them, examining the men with a careful eye. No one seems able to figure it out, and that for me merits an easy Euro tip.

I circle back, past the shop window of Ghezzi Luciano, where there are ornate monstrances and chasubles and mitres on display—a reminder that Vatican City and the Holy See are just across the Tiber. When I emerge onto Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the street is throbbing with the noise of rush hour traffic. I cross over at the light and stop at Largo di Torre Argentina to visit the feral cats who sprawl across the ruins at the sanctuary there, clearly enjoying the heat of day far more than I. By now, the air conditioning back in my room at the hotel is beckoning.

When I venture out again for dinner at eight, the air feels thick, but the sun has fallen behind the roofline and the atmosphere is more pleasant. I walk across the Ponte Palatino to Trastevere, where I settle into a table on the patio of Il Ponentino, under the shade of an umbrella. The waiter comes by and I order a bruschetta to start, and then a plate of cacio e pepe, a simple pasta dish made with cheese and pepper that I had once enjoyed in Arezzo. Tonight, however, my pronunciation reduces the man to peels of laughter, and he warns me, in English, that I should be careful how I say that. I’m not entirely sure, but I think I’ve mistakenly asked for a rather private part of the male anatomy. Tommaso, at the Hotel Davanzati in Florence, was fond of correcting my pitiful Italian. If he were here, undoubtedly he would find that very funny, indeed.

I walk along the Tiber after dinner, through the stalls of the Lungo il Tevere Roma festival, where temporary bars and restaurants have sprung up for the summer. There is live music here and there, and scores of vendors selling clothing and jewelry.

In writing about his trip to Rome, Henry James complained about a “general oppressive feeling that the city of the soul has become for the time a monstrous mixture of watering-place and curiosity-shop and that its most ardent life is that of the tourists who haggle over false intaglios and yawn through palaces and temples.“ It’s a fair enough point, I suppose, when I think about the cheap baubles at the fair and at the hordes of visitors, driven by the impulse to say I WAS HERE, who pose in front of the Pantheon with barely a glance backwards to marvel at the building itself. And yet, he said, “you are told of a happy time when these abuses begin to pass away, when Rome becomes Rome again and you may have her all to yourself.”

By the time I reach the Ponte Palatino, the bridge is quiet and there is a dusky peach sky behind the dome of St. Peter’s. I stop to take a picture, to capture a fleeting moment in time.

Rome is Rome once more, and she is mine.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Some of my fondest memories of the Hotel Hosianum Palace are of having breakfast on the rooftop terrace, high among the church spires and the winged chariots that perch on top of the Vittorio Emanuele monument. That was on my first trip to Italy in 2008. When I returned two years later, the terrace was closed and when I inquired as to the reason, the man at the reception desk said bluntly: “Madame, it is too cold.”

In point of fact, the weather was perfect.

Alas, this morning, there is a sign yet again directing guests to the breakfast room in the basement. Surely, with temperatures soaring into the 90s, it is no longer too frigid to sit outdoors—even by sensitive Italian standards—so I ask the manager for an explanation, pointing to the envelope that holds my key card. It reads: “From May 15 till September (weather permitting), the morning American breakfast will be served on the Roof Garden of the fifth floor from 7:30 a.m. till 10:30 a.m. where besides tasting a rich breakfast, you can enjoy an incomparable view of the roofs of Rome.”

Why, exactly, is the terrace closed in the middle of June, I ask? “Madame,” I am told, “It has been too wet.”

Now, things are getting perfectly ridiculous. It’s hasn’t rained here in weeks. The last measureable precipitation Rome had was on June 4, the day I flew to Venice, and even that was just a tenth of an inch. Personally, I think the staff don’t want to be bothered hauling food up to the roof, even though there is an elevator.

I’m still annoyed later, as I walk up Via del Corso in search of a Vodaphone store. I need to top up the minutes on my SIM card. When I see a Uomo Nuovo demonstration spilling out of Piazza Colonna, it inspires me to protest an injustice of my own. Perhaps I should rally the guests back at the hotel to storm the barricades tomorrow morning, to fight for our right to dine al fresco.

I cut over toward Piazza Navona to wander about the square, with its lively mix of street performers and artists’ stalls, and I visit the Baroque church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. From there, though, I grab a taxi to the Museo Nazionale Romano at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, near the train station. It’s another blistering day and it’s much too far to walk.

The National Museum is one I’ve long overlooked, as do many tourists, it would seem, because the halls are nearly empty. There is a fine collection of Roman sculptures, including a marble copy of the original bronze discus thrower, his torso twisted and his muscles flexed. There’s also a large numismatic section, with more than 5,000 coins demonstrating the evolution of the Roman monetary system.

For me, though, the most impressive artifacts by far are the frescoes and mosaics. There’s a large floor mosaic with muses and mythological scenes from a villa along the Via Cassia, dating from the 3rd century A.D., and another depicting the struggle between Dionysus and the Indians from the Villa Ruffinella during the first half of the 4th century A.D.

It’s hard to imagine the time involved in creating such an intricate, and ultimately utilitarian, surface. There are thousands of individually cut pieces of stone—called tesserae—most no larger than a centimeter across. And they’re carefully placed in gradations of color, as if pulled from an artist’s palate, which creates a realistic sense of shape and dimension.

There are also a number of stunning room frescoes, including one from an underground triclinium at the Villa of Livia. Discovered in 1863, but dating back to the 1st century B.C., the room has been reinstalled here and it shows a lush garden with ornamental plants and birds drawn to such an exacting level of detail that most species are identifiable today. There are quince and pomegranate and boxwood trees, as well as poppies, ferns, violets, and irises.

As I walk toward Piazza della Reppublica afterwards, the oppressive heat that has descended on the city makes me wish I had lingered longer in the painted garden inside. But there are a number of sites I am determined to see, and my map looks like a game of connect the dots, with a long zig-zag line that stops at the Spanish Steps.

Across the street, I can see the crumbling brick wall that is the entrance to the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. It’s a Baroque church inside, designed in part by Michelangelo, but it was built within of the ancient frigidarium of the Baths of Diocletian, which makes the space refreshingly cool. If I can find a pleasant oasis like this every hour or so, I just might be able to get through the day.

I continue on along Via Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, hoping to see Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” at Santa Maria della Vittoria, but by the time I arrive, the church is closed for the afternoon. It’s scheduled to reopen soon, but I don’t want to stand in the sun and wait, so I turn down Via Barberini instead and stop for a late lunch in an air conditioned cafeteria. Then, I veer off and climb the stairs to the Capuchin Crypt on Via Venato.

On my first trip to Italy in 2008, I visited the Catacombs of San Callisto along the old Appian Way, but nothing has prepared me for this, not even the catacombs beneath the streets of Paris. There are alcoves of human bones, sectioned into parts—skulls in one, thigh bones in another, pelvises in a third, and so on—like a grandiose Halloween display. These are the remains of nearly 4,000 Capuchin monks, collected over the centuries and moved here in the early 18th century, to make room for new bodies in the friary’s small cemetery.

But the bones are not merely in neat stacks, as they are in Paris, with an occasional decorative flourish. They are woven into elaborate designs, including a skeletal grim reaper, holding scales and a scythe made of vertebrae. In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain had called it “a spectacle for sensitive nerves,” and so it is. He had wondered then how it might feel to be a Capuchin, to know that one day you would be “taken apart like an engine or a clock or like a house whose owner is gone, and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes.” I find myself pondering the same morbid question. I leave grateful, though, because at least it was cool inside.

By the time I reach the Trevi Fountain, it’s after four o’clock and the heat of the day suddenly feels worse because of the congested crowd. Would anyone mind if I waded in, like Sylvia in the movie La Dolce Vita? Yes, I suppose they would.

There’s a souvenir stand directly in front of the fountain today, and the vendor is selling magnets and ashtrays alongside of bobblehead dolls, snow globes, and plastic Pietàs. It’s horribly tacky stuff. In his infinite wisdom, the mayor of Rome has banned tourists from eating and drinking near public monuments, but not this monstrosity, even though it’s an assault on good taste that’s every bit as bad, if not worse.

My final stop for the day is a social one. A colleague of mine from work is in Rome for a few days attending a conference. We’ve agreed to meet at the fountain at the base of the Spanish Steps. We order drinks at Babington’s Tea Room, a cozy and very English place, and then take the elevator to the top of the hill to reach his hotel, the Intercontinental de la Ville. It has a stunning terrace overlooking the city, and he wants me to see it.

Unlike the rooftop terrace at my hotel, this one actually is open.

Yes, I’m still bitter, but a least for an hour or so, I can pretend that it’s mine.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The city is still in the middle of a heat wave and I’m trying my best to survive it.

Originally, I had hoped to go to the Papal Audience in St. Peter’s Square today, but the website warns that “As Rome can get extremely hot in the Summer, particularly in June, July, and August, and the Audience is outside, it is good to come prepared. BRING HATS, SUN SCREEN AND WATER.”

Yeah, no kidding.

The website also advises visitors to arrive two hours early for a security screening and to expect the Audience itself to last at least an hour. Because I had to reschedule my trip at the last minute, I’ve already missed seeing the new Pope on Corpus Domini. I would hate to surrender my only other chance, but I can’t bear the thought of standing for three hours or more in the boiling sun. I decide to scrap Plan A.

I devise Plan B over breakfast—which is, incidentally, still in the godforsaken basement of the Hotel Hosianum Palace, and not on the rooftop terrace. I suppose if I were to ask again this morning, the answer would be: “Madame, it is too hot.”

And maybe it is.

Plan B involved securing a last minute ticket on Viator’s half-day bus tour to Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este. At least that would have allowed me to escape the burning pavement of the city and retreat to a greener locale. My bad luck with bus tours has continued, however. The phone line keeps patching me through to a call center in the United States, where the difference in time zones makes it much too early to reach anyone during business hours.

Outside of hotel rooms, air conditioning is a rarity in Rome, especially in museums. Still, I’ve exhausted my options, and at least being indoors during the heat of the day is preferable to being out. Ultimately, I settle on Plan C, a return visit to the Vatican Museums. When I was first there in 2008, I was on an organized tour that careened through the galleries at breakneck speed. Today, I’ll be able to wander at will.

Determined to avoid the museum’s notoriously long queue to get in, I buy a ticket online before leaving the hotel. I have no way to print out the confirmation page, as requested, but I have an e-mail receipt on my iPhone and it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Despite the temperature, I’ve decided to brave a leisurely walk down Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and across the Tiber to the Via della Conciliazione. It’s noon by the time I approach St. Peter’s Square. Apparently, the Papal Audience has just let out and I’m in need of Moses to part the Red Sea of people flooding towards me, many of them sunburned to a crisp.

It’s still a long walk out and around the Vatican walls to the museum entrance, but there’s no line at all for pre-paid tickets, and the man at the counter inside doesn’t hesitate when I show him the confirmation number on my phone. At least something has gone according to plan today.

In their only gesture toward crowd control, the Vatican Museums are arranged into a one-way street, with large black arrows printed on the gallery map. There are minor deviations here and there that allow visitors to move more quickly to the Sistine Chapel, but mostly it’s like being on a theme park ride from which there is no escape once the rollercoaster has left the platform.

I devote the rest of the afternoon to inquisitive exploration. I visit the Pinacoteca for the first time, which the tour guide had bypassed entirely on my previous trip, and also the Padiglione delle Carrozze, which has an historic collection of cars and carriages, including the white jeep John Paul II was riding in when he was shot on May 13, 1981.

It’s been especially nice to see the Gallery of Maps again. I had missed seeing the island of Venice the first time around because I was rushing to catch up with the guide, but today I’ve been able to gape all I want.

The frescoes were commissioned in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII and they’re rendered in such exquisite detail that many of the maps are navigable today, which says at least as much about the permanence of Italian architecture as it does about the skill of the artist himself. In Florence, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore is clearly visible, as is the octagonal baptistery in front. And today in Venice, all a time traveler would have to do is pull up a chair in Piazza San Marco to feel perfectly at home in familiar surroundings.

It’s late afternoon when I emerge back onto the street. There are vendors selling colorful paper parasols to shade the sun, and people are buying them in droves. Combined with shorts and T-shirts, it makes the average tourist look like an out of place extra in a production of Madame Butterfly.

I have one last errand for the day, and it’s a special request. I’ve been challenged by a good friend from work to find the “tackiest” souvenir in Vatican City. I walk up and down the Via della Conciliazione before picking a shop that has a “We ♥ Papa Francesco” sign taped to the window, which looks promising. Inside, I find a combination key ring and bottle opener stamped with the Pope’s likeness that surely meets the mark, and I laugh when I imagine my friend wafting a prayer over a bottle of beer before popping the cap.

It’s time to catch a taxi and head back to the hotel, although this time—for the first time ever in Rome (surprisingly enough)—I’m ripped off by the cab driver. Despite showing him the address of the Hotel Hosianum Palace on a business card, he takes me somewhere else entirely, a Via dei Prefetti instead of Via dei Polacchi, and then insists on running the meter all the back to the proper destination. When we get there, I refuse to pay him in full and we settle on a smaller amount, but the experience still leaves me steamed.

I’m tired and not in the mood to go far for dinner, so I pick a table at Vinando in Piazza Margana and enjoy a good Margherita pizza with fresh mozzarella and cherry tomatoes. Feeling as much refreshed by the meal as by the cool descent of night, afterwards I decide to stroll down Via dei Fori Imperiali to take some pictures.

In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain had described the Coliseum as a “band-box with a side bitten out… Weeds and flowers spring from its massy arches and its circling seats, and vines hang their fringes from its lofty walls. An impressive silence broods over the monstrous structure where such multitudes of men and women were wont to assemble in other days. The butterflies have taken the places of queens of fashion and beauty of eighteen centuries ago, and the lizards sun themselves in the sacred seat of the Emperor.”

As with so many evocative travelogues about Italy through the years, Twain’s words could have been written as easily today, which is a sign of the culture’s strength and resilience, just like the Gallery of Maps at the Vatican. And while inertia rarely serves modern Italy well in politics or business, it’s hard not to appreciate it here on a balmy summer’s night in Rome, when the sublime view you see is the very same view enjoyed by so many who have come before.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

When I wake up this morning and open the green shutters on my window overlooking Via dei Polacchi, I’m conscious of the fact that it’s my last day in Rome. With all of the delays and distractions that brought me to Italy nearly a week later than planned, my internal clock is off and I’m not ready to leave just yet.

After breakfast, I ramble around Campo de’ Fiori. The name means “field of flowers” and when the market is here, it really is. Clustered around the brooding statue of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican monk who was burned at the stake here in 1600, there are scores of umbrellas shading vendors from the sun. There are fruit and vegetable stands and dried pastas for sale, as well as bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. And of course, there are flowers—big bunches of roses and chrysanthemums and daisies that burst with the vibrant colors of summer.

From here, I continue on to Piazza Navona, where there’s a jazz quartet playing “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” My levitating friends are back with their bright orange turbans and prayer beads, and there’s a street performer dressed like a headless man in a suit jacket and purple tie, waving to tourists as they stroll by, craning their heads in amusement.

I’m going to miss these walks. More than ever before this year, I’ve put schedules and itineraries aside. It was by necessity at first, but then—ever so gradually—by choice. It’s been nice to wake in the morning with little to do but wander as far as my feet will take me, and to embrace whatever the day, or the mood, or the moment, invites.

Originally, I had hoped to see a Brueghel exhibit titled “The Fascinating World of Flemish Art” at the Chiostro del Bramante, but it was set to close on June 2. I had scratched it from my list when the trip got postponed, so I’m surprised to see a poster this morning that’s been altered with a yellow banner reading PROROGATA, extended. Excited, I glance at my map and see that it’s just around the corner, to the west of Piazza Navona.

The Chiostro del Bramante is impressive in its own right, with graceful marble columns and porticos and arches, and the exhibition has been touted as the largest “devoted to the famous artistic dynasty ever to be held in Rome.” I buy a €12 ticket at the door and rove happily through the galleries, which include works by several members of the Brueghel family, including Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s “The Bird Trap” (1605), a sober winter scene with skaters gliding on a frozen river, and “Wedding Dance in the Open Air,” which overflows with carousing, ruddy-nosed peasants. There is also a series of intricate still lifes of butterflies, insects, and shells by Jan van Kessel, another descendent in a complex and talented family tree.

It’s one o’clock by the time I work my way back towards Piazza Venezia. Remembering the inspired view of the Roman Forum from the restaurant at the Capitoline Museum, I decide to go there for lunch, and wind up staying for much of the afternoon, exploring rooms I had somehow missed on my first visit back in 2008, including the Pinocoteca, where Caravaggio’s “The Fortune Teller” hangs, and the entirety of the Palazzo Nuovo and the Tabularium.

The sculptures I see are extraordinary. There is a naturalistic statue of a “Dying Galatian” that throbs with pain and human emotion, and another of Cupid and Psyche locked in a tender embrace. Then there are the rows of heads in the Sala degli Imperatori, or Hall of the Emperors, including the famous Fonseca Bust, with her mound of intricately carved curls piled high upon her head. There is such artistic wealth here that it’s hard to know where to look, or when to stop.

Outside on the Piazza del Campidoglio, it’s another blistering late afternoon, without a cloud in the sky to screen the sun. There are two people unloading cases of bottled water, though, and they’re handing them out for free. Whether the uniform they wear is from the city of Rome or from a corporate sponsor, I don’t know, but I’m exceedingly grateful for the refreshment.

I relax for a while in my air conditioned room at the Hotel Hosianum Palace, where my bags are already packed and stowed in the corner. Earlier in the day, I had liked the quiet streets near the Chiostro del Bramante, so later I head back to Piazza Navona and veer off onto Via di Tor Millina, to a little osteria and wine bar called Cybo for dinner. Loving as ever the languorous sound of Italian, I order the Brasato di vitella con carote glassate e purea di patate, or braised veal with glazed carrots and mashed potatoes, and while I wait for the entrée to arrive, I feel a cool vapor on my skin. I’ve seen fans on the patios of some restaurants in Rome, but here they have a complex system of hoses that work much like a mister in the vegetable aisle of a supermarket, and it feels absolutely wonderful! The veal is good, too, but it’s the gift of outdoor air conditioning on a hot summer’s night that I’ll remember best.

I walk back through the Jewish Ghetto one last time, following Via Giulia and a maze of smaller streets until I reach the Teatro Marcello, where there’s a choir singing in front of the ruins tonight. I stop to listen, and then continue on, back up the long stairs that lead to the Capitoline Hill, the lone statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, and the piazza designed by Michelangelo. I’ve come to watch darkness fall over the Roman Forum, and when it does it feels like a soft shroud.

It will lift in the morning, and the Gladiators will be back posing for pictures with tourists holding water bottles and paper parasols to shield their faces from the sun, but I won’t be here when it does.

It’s time to move on, and I’m excited by what comes next.

When I first came to Italy in 2008, the impulse was to pose in front of the Coliseum and the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza San Marco, and say I WAS HERE. What does it mean to have returned time and again, through sheer will and force of habit, to the same cities, the same hotels, and many of the same museums and streets? I’ve been thinking a lot about that this time around.

Nelson Mandela once said “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” Perhaps he’s right, but nothing about a place truly remains unchanged, even in Italy where it often seems as though inertia reigns. There is always more to discover, and new faces to meet.

In standing here, looking out across the vast remnants of Roman history, it occurs to me that time is more like layers of debris. Some memories we bury, but there are those we excavate purely for the joy of seeing them again, all the while building new walls and windows at the surface through which to see the world anew.