Travelogue for Italy, 2014

Open my heart and you will see
Grav’d inside of it, “Italy.”
Such lovers old are I and she:
So it always was, so shall ever be.

— Robert Browning

Corpus Domini in Rome, Italy - 2014Welcome! This is an online travel journal for my June 2014 trip to Italy, which covers the following destinations:

  • Florence
  • Arezzo
  • Fiesole
  • Monterosso al Mare
  • Vernazza
  • Rapallo
  • Santa Margherita Ligure
  • Camogli
  • San Fruttuoso
  • Portofino
  • Pistoia
  • Greve in Chianti
  • San Gimignano
  • Rome
  • Spoleto
  • Spello

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, 2010, and 2013.

Enjoy!
DLG

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Viaggiare (v.): to travel, to journey, to tour, (by plane) to fly

It’s just after nine on a warm summer’s night and I’m sitting comfortably aboard a Delta Air Lines flight to Paris, France, waiting for the engines to accelerate and the wheels to leave the ground. For me, it seems a miracle of human technology, this ascent into the heavens, and no matter how often or how far I roam, it never grows old.

As I crane my neck toward the window, eager to see the street lights and the chain of cars along the highways disappear beneath a dark canopy of clouds, the world inside the cabin feels as small and as ordinary as the universe is large and mysterious.

I break my gaze for now, knowing there are minor tasks to be accomplished, and these must occupy my hands. I reach for my iPad and noise-cancelling earphones, reset the time on my watch, inflate a foot rest to make myself more comfortable for the long flight ahead, and laugh as the safety video on the screen in front of me explains about emergency exit rows and oxygen masks using a 1980s theme featuring Alf, break dancing, leg warmers, and Rubik’s cubes.

I’m sitting next to a charming older couple in row thirty-four. They introduce themselves as Mary and Bob, and as we tuck into dinner they announce that they’re celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with a vacation in Paris and a Viking river cruise. I’m going on to Italy, I say, and for a few minutes we chat amicably about our itineraries and we wish each other well. The flight attendants clear our trays and dim the cabin lights, and soon there is only a patchwork of TV screens, laptops, and smart phones to illuminate the dark.

It’s then that Mary falls ill.

Whether with airsickness or anxiety, she is nauseous and shaking, and I’m struck by the quiet way in which Bob holds her hand and strokes her back as she leans forward, her head resting upon the small plastic tray table. It’s a strange thing, to be forty thousand feet above the earth in so confined a space. As passengers, we are so close to each other that we can’t help but be privy to intimate details in one another’s lives, and yet we sit stolidly facing forward, row upon row, pretending we do not see.

All of the sudden, I feel like an intruder in a story that is not my own. There is nothing I can do to help, and so I’m willing (and grateful even) when the flight attendant motions me to a new seat in the rear of the plane. By now I’m wide awake and restless, so instead of curling back to sleep, I scroll through for a movie to watch, settling on a new film by Richard Curtis, called About Time. The premise is that a socially awkward young man named Tim is able to use time travel to woo the woman of his dreams. It sounds silly from the start, but before long I’ve embraced it.

By the end, the man’s father, who is dying of cancer, has shared his secret formula for happiness: “Part one of the two part plan,” says Tim, “was that I should just get on with ordinary life, living it day by day, like anyone else. But then came part two of Dad’s plan. He told me to live every day again almost exactly the same. The first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us noticing how sweet the world can be, but the second time noticing. Okay, Dad. Let’s give it a go.”

It might be a better movie than I thought. Or, maybe I’m still thinking about Mary and Bob and the simple beauty of life-long love. Perhaps it’s because I’m on an airplane, and people tend to get overly emotional on airplanes. Whatever the reason, the moral of the story resonates, and as I lean back into my seat and pull up a blanket, I stare out the window into the endless dark of night and think about how this year’s adventure feels very much like traveling back in time.

A year ago, I was anticipating a well-orchestrated trip to Italy—my third in six years—but a string of bad luck, including health problems and a stolen credit card, derailed the entire first week, and I was forced to simplify the rest. I would miss the pope on Corpus Domini and the annual infioriata in Spello. Gone, too, was the trek to the coast to wander about the pastel fishing villages of Liguria. All that remained were Venice, Florence, and Rome—an off-kilter itinerary from the start, run in reverse.

A year later, what I want more than anything is a do-over.

I’ve rebooked the same hotel in Rome, with its stunning rooftop terrace, from which I’ll see the pope in a candlelight procession between the basilicas of Saint John Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore. I’ve snagged a room in Spello to see the floral carpets that weave through the streets of that tiny Umbrian hill town on the Sunday following Corpus Domini. And I’m bound once more for the sea and the sun of Liguria, where I plan to sail by ferry from Santa Margherita Ligure to Rapallo, San Fruttuoso, Portofino, and Camogli. And there’s more, too. So much more that I can hardly contain my excitement.

For the next month, Italy will be mine. And my home will be in Florence.

I reach over and pull down the shade on the window, so that the rising sun doesn’t wake me too soon. I close my eyes and try to empty my head, but I’m still thinking about the heady possibilities of time travel when I finally doze off.

“Okay,” I’m ready. “Let’s give it a go.”

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Andiamo (interj.): let’s go, hurry up, come on already!

Last fall, in the excitement of preparing for another trip to Italy, I decided that it was time, at last, to improve my pitiful Italian. I bought a set of Rosetta Stone CDs and signed up for an “Italian for Travelers” class through CCV, the Community College of Vermont, which offers evening courses for adults. The text we used was a slender volume with the overly ambitious title Conversational Italian in 7 Days. It was an unfortunate book, the kind that prompts you to memorize inane dialogues, including one in which a tourist asks a hotel clerk for the price of a room (Qual è il prezzo della camera?) and receives his answer in lira, an outdated unit of currency that was replaced by the Euro more than a decade and a half ago.

Months later, I’m still struggling with basic vocabulary, but as I stare out the window at the morning sun and feel a familiar rush of adrenaline in my stomach as the plane begins its descent into Paris, there’s one word that bounds back into my sleep-deprived skull:

Andiamo.

Let’s go!

I have just two hours at Charles de Gaulle airport before my connecting flight departs Gate F23 for Florence, but I’m determined to use it wisely. I log in for fifteen minutes of free wifi to send a text message to my family in Pennsylvania, and then grab a quick lunch at an EXKi café, but once I spot a familiar pastel awning on a kiosk nearby, I’m far more interested in dessert. I haven’t been to France since 2009 and I’m craving a Ladurée macaron. I do my best to push the Italian I’ve learned temporarily back into my brain and ask for a trio of delightful flavors, s’il vous plaît: rose petal, peach, and pistachio. Like Proust’s madeleine, the taste sends me tripping back in time, and for a few moments I sit quietly in a crowded row of airport chairs under the glass roof of the terminal, thinking about Paris and a rainy day I spent there once, many years ago, antiquing on the Left Bank of the Seine near the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It’s nice to be back, if only for a moment in transit.

The small Air France flight that takes me on to Italy is short and uneventful, but when I spy the massive dome of Florence’s cathedral out the window, rising high above the red-tiled roofs of the city, I know that I’ve arrived. Andiamo, andiamo!

Back on the ground, there is some minor housekeeping to be done. I collect my bags and pop a SIM card into my phone so that I can text Cristiana, the “greeter” at my apartment building, to let her know that I’m here, then I wait in line for a taxi, staring down at the business card provided by my rental agency, Italy Perfect. I practice the address over and over in my head before I finally speak it out loud: Lungarno Torrigiani, trenta-tre. Per favore.

It’s half past three in the afternoon, and the airport is just a few kilometers from the city center, but traffic is congested and it’s pushing my driver—a young man with dark brown hair and a relaxed disposition—into fits of causal profanity. Italian culture dictates that he be angered when a motorcycle veers directly in front of his cab while merging lanes, and he seems happy to oblige with a howl of indignation, a pump of the horn, and a rude gesture out the window, but there’s little relish in it. He’s does what he is expected to do, and then leans back and turns up the radio.

The ride is taking far longer than either I or Cristiana expected, so I pass the time by puzzling over a decal on the window of the cab that reads: Scendere lato marciapiede. This is translated helpfully into English as “Please get down on side-walk,” which is either an instruction to passengers on how to safely exit the vehicle, or a commandment to pedestrians to get out of the way of Mario Andretti, who by now is thumping his fingers on the steering wheel, and accelerating like a rocket at the smallest hint of an opening. Florence is a maze of small cobbled streets, and the pavement is choked with tourists walking obliviously down the center of the road.

By the time we reach the address, it’s a quarter past four and Cristiana has been called away on other pressing business. The doorman, an affable gentleman named Mauro, introduces himself and kindly offers to load my luggage into a vintage birdcage elevator, which clicks and clacks charmingly on its way to the fifth floor.

The double doors to my apartment are tall and carved of a deep, rich wood, and there is a polished brass plaque that reads “Bardi 2.” Mauro opens the door and hands me the key, saying that Laura will be by soon to walk me through the particulars on the air conditioning unit and the washing machine and so on, but my brain is hardly paying attention. I am standing on the threshold of a year’s worth of planning and suddenly I’m reminded of that Booking.com commercial on TV, the one where nervous travelers arrive at their destination, their hopes and dreams pinned on a reservation made sight unseen. As the narrator says: “The door opens, you hold your breath, and then you realize: YOU GOT IT RIGHT!”

I step inside, survey my surroundings, and think: “Yes!” Without a doubt, I got it right.

I sprint across the room to a large window, hung with cheerful floral drapes, open the levers, and gaze out. It’s a pleasant city view, with a hodgepodge of stucco buildings and shuttered windows, bathed in a warm afternoon light, and as I lean out and crane my neck to the left, I can see the church of San Miniato al Monte perched high on the hill behind a cluster of trees.

For a fleeting moment, I fancy that I am Lucy Honeychurch, the disappointed heroine in E.M. Forster’s classic novel, A Room with a View: “I want so to see the Arno. The rooms the Signora promised us in her letter would have looked over the Arno. The Signora had no business to do it at all. Oh, it is a shame!”

And I suppose it is.

Throughout the long, dreary winter in Vermont, had I longed to open the shutters on my imaginary windows to see all of Florence at my feet — from the red-tiled dome of the cathedral, to the sturdy and crenellated tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. Alas, the proverbial “Room with a View” is expensive. I’ve paid €1,990 for a four-week stay, but it would have cost €1,190 more to stay in a similar apartment facing the river, which I couldn’t justify to my practical brain and my limited pocketbook. In the end, I opted for a tiny one-bedroom apartment facing Via dei Bardi instead, with lemon yellow walls and lime green trim, tall ceilings, and big, bright windows. By the time I hear a knock at the door and circle back to the entrance to meet Laura, who smiles broadly and greets me with a generous hug, I’ve decided that I love my “Room with(out) a View.” It suits me well, and feels like home.

I relax for a bit, unpacking here and there. I hang my clothes in the walk-in closet, place some maps and brochures in a basket on the living room table, and spread out my toiletries on the glass shelf above the bathroom sink. There is a tall cabinet to explore, filled with cups and plates and pots and pans, and I take stock of what I have at my disposal while making a grocery list. After years of hotel rooms, it feels good to spread out and settle in.

By the time I venture out onto the street in search of a meal, it’s just past seven, and the late day sun feels warm and inviting on my jet-lagged body. After a long day in transit, I’m in the mood for a walk. The Uffizi Gallery is just across the river, and within minutes I could be crossing the Ponte Vecchio and back on Via Porta Rossa near the Hotel Davazanti, which is where I’ve stayed on all of my previous trips here. Those surroundings are familiar and enticing, but for now I’m far more eager to explore my new neighborhood on the Oltrarno.

I turn left and then left again, heading towards the Pitti Palace, but then instinctively veer right on Via dello Sprone, a narrow alley which spills out into the tiny Piazza della Passera. I wandered here once before on a shopping excursion. It was the perfect summer’s night—my last in Florence before moving on to Lucca—and the ceramic plaque I bought that day from a friendly woman named Tiziana, hangs in my library at home, where it gives me great pleasure. Coming back to this little square feels natural, a bit like picking up where I left off.

My stomach is growling for dinner and the menu outside of 5 e Cinque looks inviting. I order a fizzy glass of pignoletto wine, and then dive into a cećina, a flatbread made with chickpea flour, which is followed by a covaccino con capocollo di cinta senese—a thin Tuscan bread heaped with local salami.

Afterwards, I wander to the Ponte Vecchio, where my old friend Claudio Spadi is entertaining the crowd, and then stop for a dish of ice cream at Cantina del Gelato on Via dei Bardi, which has decadent swirls of hazelnut, Nutella, and caramelized almonds. By the time I reach the palazzo and the tiny birdcage elevator takes me back upstairs, my legs are tired, but my stomach is full and my heart is entirely content.

It’s going to be an extraordinary month.

 


My apartment in Florence

 

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Note: Although the apartment I rented is no longer offered through Italy Perfect, it is available by contacting the Rinascimento Palace directly, albeit for a higher price.

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Friday, May 30, 2014

Mangiare (v.): to eat, to tuck in

It’s silly to get excited about grocery shopping—it truly is—and yet those mundane errands we take for granted at home suddenly seem novel when we’re traveling abroad. Perhaps it’s the language barrier, or maybe it’s the promise of new and unfamiliar foods. Whatever the reason, it’s the first thing on my mind when I wake up this morning.

There’s a small shop just up the street from my apartment, with a blue and white awning that reads: Sapori & Dintorni, il Supermercato da Gustare e deGustare. It’s part of the Conad chain of grocery stores and as best I can figure, the slogan means “flavors and surroundings, the supermarket to taste and taste,” but really, it sounds best in Italian, far more elegant than the local Price Chopper in Vermont.

Inside, there’s a rush of customers speaking in rapid-fire Italian, and an imposing queue that snakes through the aisles on the way to the cashier. As I reach for a cart, I remind myself that I’ve done my homework, so I know something about what to expect:

Bring a cloth shopping bag. Check.

Remember to use plastic gloves before handling produce. Check.

Bag your own groceries. Check.

I also read something about ordering meats and cheeses over the counter at the salumiere, but at the moment I’m feeling too meek and too overwhelmed to try, worried I’ll get the fractions wrong and end up with a mezzo-kilo of ham instead of an etto.

By the time I make my way to the end of the line, I’m quite pleased with myself. I’ve found all of the essentials on my list—latte scremato, spremuta di arance biande, sacchi nettezza, and carta igienica—and as I examine the labels and let the words roll over my tongue, I’m amused that the things I’m about to buy sound so much more impressive than milk and juice, trash bags, and toilet paper.

I’ve managed to fill my cart with an array of other appetizing things, too, including focaccia bread and chocolate biscotti, as well as a few small custard tarts. My apartment has a tiny kitchenette with a two-burner stove and no oven, but there is a microwave, so I’ve also picked out a few packages of prepared pasta for quick and easy meals. Yes, I feel a teensy bit guilty buying such things here in the cradle of Tuscan cuisine, but let’s be honest… I’m no Mario Batali. Besides, I’m on vacation.

Buoyed by the morning’s adventure, I drop off my bags at the apartment and head outside again, this time over the Ponte Vecchio and into the historic heart of the city, along Via Calimala and its plush shops, past Piazza dell Repubblica and its carousel, all the way to the Duomo. There’s a Vodaphone shop nearby and I need to recharge the SIM card I bought last year for my iPhone, as well as purchase another so that I’ll have access to data on my iPad mini throughout the month. Afterwards, I head to Eataly, where I pick up a few more staples for the apartment, and then to the Mercato Centrale, where shopping succumbs to browsing and I spend a happy hour exploring the new first floor, with its artisan food vendors, wine shop, and cooking school.

By the time I make my way back to Piazza della Signoria, it’s late afternoon. My legs are wearing out, but my list is nearly complete. I spy a black “T” in the window of a caffè facing the square and duck in to buy a few bus tickets, then I walk to the corridor next door to buy an Amici degli Uffizi card, which for €60 will give me unlimited access not just to the Uffizi itself, but to many other sites in town, including the Accademia and the vast complex of museums at the Pitti Palace.

Back at the apartment, I warm up some pasta and sit down for dinner at the dining table facing the window, which I’ve improved with a vase of fresh sunflowers from the market. Afterwards, I take a slow stroll down to the Ponte alle Grazie and across to a well-reviewed ice cream shop on Via dei Neri. As I wander back, enthralled by the warmth of the setting sun on my face and the taste of dark chocolate and salted caramel gelati on my tongue, I think about how this is my fourth trip to Italy and how on each of the previous three, I had stayed in “tourist” Florence, where everyone smiles and speaks English, and there’s always a concierge to do the hard things for you, like booking tickets at the Uffizi, or calling to make a dinner reservation.

This time, I’ve made a point of striking out on my own. It may seem like a trivial thing, but I’m proud of my success. All of the mundane tasks I’ve accomplished today—the grocery shopping, the SIM cards, the bus tickets, and museum passes—have been a good investment. I’m preparing myself for the next four weeks, getting to know my surroundings, and gaining confidence in my skills. In short, I’m learning to survive outside of captivity, and all of the sudden, the possibilities of life in the wild feel endless and intoxicating.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Ricordare con la mente (v.): to summon up, remember, call to mind

In the darkest months of winter, back home in Vermont, it’s easy to slip into reverie. Long after my Italian tan fades and my skin returns to its seasonal gray pallor, I find myself daydreaming of gondoliers and Roman rooftops and the kinds of summer sunsets you see only in Florence, which in my mind play like a Martin Scorsese movie reel, seamlessly scored to the sounds of some street musician on the Ponte Vecchio.

It can be hard to recapture that particular brand of magic we feel while on vacation, especially when living in a place so far removed from where we’ve been. To borrow from C.S. Lewis, it’s as if we’ve stumbled into Narnia, sampled its wonders, and then retraced our steps all the way back to the lamppost in the woods, back through the fur coats in the wardrobe, only to emerge in sad confusion. We may have the smell of mothballs in our nostrils, but a hint of Turkish delight lingers on our tongues.

This is more than mere metaphor. Taste and smell are intertwined in the primitive parts of our brains, and together they produce what scientists call “autobiographical memory.” For Proust, lowering a dainty madeleine into a tea cup brought back powerful emotions from his childhood. For me, making an English cottage pie reminds me of a cold, rainy day in the Cotswolds. A savory crêpe with ham and cheese transports me to a park bench near the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. And a warm plate of tiny pancakes—called poffertjes—smothered in butter and powdered sugar, takes me immediately to Amsterdam and to a lazy day I spent there once, immersed in the paintings of Vermeer and Van Gogh.

But then there is coffee.

Coffee has failed me. Resoundingly.

At home, I ache for a proper cappuccino—the aroma of ground beans, the sound of milk frothing, the wet and silky appearance of the foam—all a delight for the senses, even before I’ve raised the cup to my lips. My three trips to Italy have turned me into a coffee snob, and I am not ashamed to admit it. In fact, I’ve been known to launch into mild diatribes about how American baristas fail to understand the cappuccino. The espresso is too weak, the foam is too dry, and the two are inevitably poured into a disposable paper cup, which always makes me cringe.

This morning, on my way to the train station, I sidle up to the bar at the venerable Caffè Rivoire in Piazza della Signoria and for a mere €1.50, savor a truly divine cappuccino. It’s so good, I almost cry. And it’s all so easy—the product of a few spoken words and an exchange of coins. But as I stand there, surrounded by carved wood and polished marble, alongside businessmen in tailored suits, it occurs to me that coffee is the least of it. What I really want is to take Italy, fold her up, and place her in my pocket, so that on some snowy day in February, when the wind chill is well below zero, I can take her out again, wrap my fingers around her warm china cup, and breathe in deeply.

But really, the best I can do is take a picture.

I’ve lingered so long that it’s late morning by the time I arrive at Santa Maria Novella. I’m here to catch a train to Arezzo for the city’s monthly antiques fair, La Fiera Antiquaria. I’ve been here once before, in 2010, and so the walk I take an hour later down Via Roma and past Piazza Guido Monaco, is a familiar one. It’s a beautiful day under a clear blue sky, and the streets are crowded with shoppers and dealers peddling their wares. I see books and buttons and piles of old skeleton keys, a collection of brass corkscrews, and a box of vintage eyeglasses.

I’ve come mainly to browse, but almost immediately, I spy something I desperately want. It’s a painting of Florence, and of the Ponte Vecchio in particular, and it’s almost precisely the view I see when I leave my apartment in the morning. I dither for a bit, wandering away and then circling back again. I wonder how I’ll get it home, for it’s too large and likely too fragile to fit in my suitcase. It looks old, but I’m wise enough to know that it’s not. It seems to be artificially aged, but beautifully painted by hand, a reproduction of the way the Arno would have looked a century or more ago, and it’s the kind of thing someone on “The Grand Tour” would have taken home as a prized souvenir. I do my best to negotiate with the dealer and then hand over some bills. It’s expensive, perhaps, but I’ve been in a nostalgic mood all morning and something tells me that this painting will bring a smile to my face months from now when the snow is knee deep outside my bedroom window.

I slip the painting into my nylon bag and then make my way through the crowd to Piazza Grande, one of Italy’s loveliest squares. Here, there are more booths to explore, and I take a moment to snap a “selfie” in a pair of antique gilt mirrors before turning my attention to food. Back in 2010, I had a memorable dinner under the loggia at Ristorante La Lancia d’Oro and I’m eager to try it again, although I’m also a bit nervous that it won’t measure up to my memories.

It does.

I order a plate of homemade spaghetti with asparagus, Cortona saffron cream, and bacon, and just as before, my meal is punctuated by other small plates that come unbidden—a small taste of tomato soup, and a quartet of miniature pastries for dessert. Some things never change, and for this I am grateful.

Afterwards, I wander further through streets of antique dealers, up to the park of the Medici Fortress, where the view overlooks a valley of country houses and olive groves, and poppies cling to the city’s 16th century walls. It’s a peaceful place to sit, but suddenly I notice how tired I’ve grown and I know that it’s time to head back to Florence.

There’s a twenty minute walk from the train station back to my apartment on the banks of the Arno, and along the way I think again about the cappuccino I had this morning at Caffè Rivoire, and about the pasta I enjoyed at my favorite restaurant in Arezzo, which was just as sublime as I remembered. As I turn the key to open the heavy wooden door of the palazzo, I turn around once more towards the river, and I think about the painting I have snugly tucked under my arm, and about the powerful hold that memories have over our hearts.

It’s been a good day.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ecco l’Italia (exp.): That’s Italy!

At the beginning of one of my favorite chapters in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, the young Lucy Honeychurch remarks on how pleasant it is “to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room… to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and, close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.”

I’m reminded of that passage this morning as I leave my apartment and wander down the lungarno and across the Ponte alle Grazie. In part, it’s because the scene is largely unchanged by the passage of time, especially on a Sunday morning in late Spring when the sun is peeking out beneath a canopy of white clouds and the sound of church bells are ringing in the distance. But I’m thinking of Forster, too, because my itinerary for the day has been largely inspired by a scene that takes place later in the book, in the hillside town of Fiesole, a few miles outside of Florence. It is there that Lucy kisses George for the first time, in a field of violets high on a bluff overlooking the city, and the moment is so enchanting that I can’t help but be drawn to the place itself.

Writing in 1908, Forester has Lucy and her companions arriving in Fiesole by horse and carriage, but here in the modern world, I’m forced to resort to the No. 7 bus, which departs from Piazza San Marco. It’s an easy walk of roughly twenty minutes—past David and the duomo—but I find myself meandering off course time and time again. First, the still of the air is broken by a cacophony of car horns near the church of Santa Croce, which I feel compelled to investigate. A caravan of vintage Fiats is snaking through the streets, the drivers honking wildly while their passengers stand up through the sunroofs taking pictures.

Next, I spot a street sign that’s been cleverly altered by a French artist named Clet Abraham. The red ground with a white bar means “Do Not Enter,” but the figure of a man in uniform has been added and he is leaning over to embrace it with a kiss, a pose reminiscent of a famous photograph taken on V-J Day in Times Square in 1945. Impressed by the ingenuity of it, I circle round and round in the streets near the Accademia in search of more. In one, the white bar is being carried by an angel with tiny wings, and just below it a heart has been threaded through a left turn arrow, as if pierced by Cupid’s bow. It’s addictive, this game of Where’s Waldo I’ve been playing. I know that it’s time to push on, and yet I suspect that Forster would have sympathized, for as he puts it: “Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away, and the traveler who has gone to Italy… may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.”

Just in front of the church of San Marco, I join a queue of British tourists waiting for the next bus to Fiesole. There’s an ATAF signboard announcing its arrival in two minutes and I’m pleased by the good timing, but after I turn around to snap a picture of yet another Clet street sign, the board has been altered to read twenty-seven minutes. Puzzled, I ask my companions what happened. An older man with a walking stick, white hair, and a plaid cap sighs deeply, throws his hands into the air, and says: “That’s Italy.”

Indeed, it is.

By the time we arrive in Fiesole, it’s just past one o’clock. I take a few minutes to explore the small antiques market in Piazza Mino that pops up on the first Sunday of the month, and then I make my way across the street and around the corner to the tourist information office to buy a combination ticket for the major sites in town—an ancient Roman amphitheater and archeological park, and the Bandini art museum, which has a fine collection of glazed terracotta figures by Andrea della Robbia. Both are enjoyable, but admittedly I feel more drawn to the signs that point toward the passeggiata panoromica. Fictional though she is, I want to see what Lucy saw.

As they were “nearing the edge of the promontory,” Forster describes how the “view was stealing around them,” while bushes “shattered it into countless pieces.” He’s right. It does. On I go, pressing further from the center of town, up a long, slow hill toward the open sky where the view begins to form at last. “[S]he could discern the river,” he says, “the golden plain, other hills… Light and beauty had enveloped her. She had fallen on to a little open terrace, which was covered with violets from end to end… From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.”

And so it is.

I use the long lens on my camera to scan the Arno valley beyond its green rim of trees, and I spot the façade of Santa Maria Novella, the red dome of the Medici Chapel, the tower in Piazza della Signoria, and even the palazzo facing the river where the Bardi apartment awaits my return. But soaring high over everything, just as it had when my flight descended into Florence’s Peretola airport, is Brunelleschi’s masterpiece, the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore—the duomo—Saint Mary of the Flower. The word reminds me again of Lucy and her violets and of what happens next in the story.

“Standing at its brink, like a swimmer who prepared, was the good man… [George] saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her.”

I’m squinting into the sun now. The afternoon’s rays are hot on my face and for a moment I have to blink back tears that are not entirely due to the brightness of the day. I am here and Florence is at my feet. It’s a sublime moment, spoiled only by the fleeting wish that I had a good man of my own to kiss. Traveling solo is an empowering experience and one I have never regretted, but it can also be lonely at times.

I close my eyes again, more slowly this time, and the remorse, or melancholy, or whatever it was, fades away. An Australian couple walks by and they ask if I’ll take their picture. I say yes, so long as they’ll snap mine.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Fatta l’Italia, bisogna fare gli Italiani (exp.):  “We have made Italy, now we must make the Italians.”

I’ve watched the final laps of the Tour de France along the rue de Rivioli in Paris, and seen the Queen in her carriage during the Diamond Jubilee in London, but for me, Italian festivals have become something of a specialty. I was in Rome once on Republic Day where I joined the throngs for a grand military parade at Piazza Venezia. I’ve also witnessed the solemn “Procession of the Holy Blood” in Orvieto, and a stunning display of luminaries along the Arno River in Pisa in honor of the city’s patron saint, San Ranieri. This year, I’m going whole hog—I plan to see a medieval harvest festival in San Gimignano, Pope Francis on Corpus Domini in Rome, and a famous infioriata in the tiny Umbrian hill town of Spello the weekend after. And, of course, I’ll be front and center for the Calcio Storico here in Florence on the 24th. I wouldn’t miss that for all the world.

Today, it begins. Once again I’m in Italy on June 2nd—the country’s Festa della Repubblica—and so I’ve scoured the internet and The Florentine newspaper for a calendar of events. As I sip my morning cappuccino at Caffè Scudieri, I see that there will be a wreath laying ceremony in Piazza Unità d’Italiana, followed by a parade past the Duomo, all the way down Via dei Calzaiuoli to Piazza della Signoria. Whether the festivities begin at 9:00 AM, or 9:30, or even 10:00 is generously open to interpretation, but Ecco l’Italia. That’s Italy!

For a place known for its ancient Roman ruins and Renaissance art, Italy is a surprisingly young country. Until a series of revolutions and independence movements in the 19th century—led by men whose names now grace streets and squares and monuments—it was little more than a peculiar collection of city-states ruled by powerful families and institutions. There was the Pope in Rome, the Medicis in Florence, the Doge in Venice, the Sforzas in Milan, and so on. Today’s “Republic Day” is a national holiday celebrated every June 2, that honors not the challenge of unification itself, but rather the referendum in 1946 that finally established a republican form of government after World War II and the fall of fascism.

As I run that complicated history through my brain, and find that the dots fail to connect, I decide that it’s better to be safe than sorry on the time. I down the last of my coffee and make my way to Piazza Unità d’Italiana, which is near the church of Santa Maria Novella and the train station. A crowd has started to gather, and soon after I arrive two Carabinieri in ceremonial dress place a wreath by the column at the center of the square, which has inscriptions commemorating the fallen soldiers and sailors of Tuscany, from the first Italian war of independence in 1848 through the First and Second World Wars. A brass band plays the national anthem, servicemen and servicewomen salute as the flag is raised, and I watch as the colorful bands of red, white, and green fabric catch the wind.

As the group moves in procession towards Piazza della Signoria, I rush ahead and up the steps into the Loggia dei Lanzi to get a better view, just beside Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze statue of “Perseus with the Head of Medusa.” And slowly they come. There are local officials accompanied by men in elaborate Renaissance costumes, a military band keeping time to the beat of a drum, and combat veterans proudly displaying their regimental banners. They fill a stage in front of the city hall, in the shadow of Michelangelo’s “David,” and the ceremony continues. Without a meaningful grasp of the language, there’s little I understand of the speeches, but as an outsider and a tourist there’s much to appreciate in the pomp and pageantry of the day.

Luigi Barzini once wrote that Italians are “naturally inclined toward arranging a spectacle, acting a character, staging a drama.” Here, I am observing Italy at its best, and nothing proves this more than the moment when firemen climb from the windows of the Palazzo Vecchio to unfurl a large Italian flag down the side of the building. The crowd gasps and bursts into applause, as once again the band strikes the opening notes of the national anthem, “Il Canto degli Italiani,” the Song of the Italians.

It’s then that I notice a woman standing next to me in the crowd. Aside from her small stature and advanced age, her appearance is unremarkable. She is the kind of Italian nonna we might expect to see in the kitchen making pasta, wearing an apron and orthotic shoes, but when she starts to sing, her voice is clear and unmistakably proud:

Fratelli d’Italia,
l’Italia s’è desta,
dell’elmo di Scipio
s’è cinta la testa.
Dov’è la Vittoria?
Le porga la chioma,
ché schiava di Roma
Iddio la creò.

Brothers of Italy,
Italy has woken,
Bound Scipio’s helmet
Upon her head.
Where is Victory?
Let her bow down,
For God created her
Slave of Rome.

Stringiamci a coorte,
siam pronti alla morte.
Siam pronti alla morte,
l’Italia chiamò.
Stringiamci a coorte,
siam pronti alla morte.
Siam pronti alla morte,
l’Italia chiamò, sì!

Let us join in a cohort,
We are ready to die.
We are ready to die,
Italy has called.
Let us join in a cohort,
We are ready to die.
We are ready to die,
Italy has called, yes!

After all these years, Italy is still a land of regions, of provincial conflicts and contradictions. And unification is still far from complete. There is a popular motto, variously attributed to Massimo D’Azeglio and Ferdinando Martini that says: “Fatta l’Italia, bisogna fare gli Italiani,” or “We have made Italy, now we must make the Italians.” It seems fitting to remember that on Republic Day, although outside the magnetic field of World Cup soccer, perhaps that’s easier said than done.

There is the Italy of the North and the Italy of the South, the Italy of Botticelli and that of Berlusconi, the Italy with the crumbling economy (where one in four young people are unemployed) and the Italy where such trivialities are easily cast aside in pursuit of la dolce vita. There is, in short, a certain schizophrenia to Italy that I struggle to understand, and perhaps that is part of its mysterious allure.

As the anthem comes to a close, the voice of the Italian nonna beside me fades and I turn in time to see her disappear into the crowds that are draining from the square in all directions. I wish I had had the temerity to talk with her, to ask her if she had lived here during the war and been witness to the German bombs that destroyed all of the bridges in Florence connecting the historic center to the Oltrarno—all except for the Ponte Vecchio, which, it is said, Hitler spared because it was too beautiful. And how had she felt about the country’s transition from monarchy to fascism to republicanism, all within her lifetime? In short, what had the day’s festivities had meant to her?

I regret that I have no picture to remember her by, but later, as I sort through the files on my camera, I hear her singing in the video I took, and that small memento makes me smile.

Despite my apartment on the banks of the Arno, which encourages a certain illusion of Italian life, Barzini is right. As a foreigner, my Italy is “mainly an imaginary country, not entirely corresponding to the Italy of the Italians.” As he puts it: “behind the turbulent and picturesque agitation of Italy, behind the amiable, festive, and touching spectacle, behind the skillful performances, real life is something else.”


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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Bottega (n.): workshop

Last fall, soon after I booked my apartment along the Arno, I decided to subscribe to The Florentine, in the hope that it would connect me more deeply to local news and events. Week after week, I read an eclectic mix of articles on everything from soccer matches to organic farming, and picked up odd phrases here and there in a regular column on the Florentine dialect, even though I couldn’t imagine I would ever be sfavato in Italy, which I was told meant “bored to death, unmotivated, unenthusiastic.” I happily scanned the ads for shops that catered to the needs of ex-pats, who by November were searching for an American-style Thanksgiving dinner, and I even perused the classifieds that sought English-speaking tutors and nannies. Shortly after Christmas, though, there was one story in particular that caught my eye. It focused on the San Lorenzo market, a place I had explored more than once.

In an effort to open the piazza in front of the basilica and to make room for a new electric bus route, vendors were being pushed into streets and alleyways near the Mercato Centrale. This was an aggressive and controversial move on the part of the mayor, Matteo Renzi, a charismatic man who within months would be tapped as the next Prime Minister of Italy. For years, tourists had flocked to the market for its inexpensive scarves and leather handbags, but there were few controls on the goods that were offered for sale, and most were poor quality imports that competed with the real “Made in Italy” products of local artisans, many of whom have small workshops on the south side of river, tucked away from the city’s historic center.

Sitting here now, in a plush green armchair in my tiny apartment, I’m thinking again about that article and the debate it provoked, and about Luigi Barzini’s warning to foreigners that “real life” is a world apart from the Italy of their fevered imaginations.

I’ve decide to devote the entire day to a unique challenge. I want to explore Florence through the eyes of its artisans and I’ll do that without ever crossing the river. There will be no stroll across the Ponte Vecchio today, past the glittering shop windows of jewelers and goldsmiths, and no walk down Via de’ Tornabuoni to observe the Spring fashions of Gucci and Ferragamo.

I’ve made the charming, cobbled streets of the Oltrarno my temporary home. I figure it’s time I get to know my neighbors.

The name Oltrarno simply means the “other side” of the Arno River, the side that is less explored by tourists who rarely venture beyond the Boboli Gardens and the imposing façade of the Pitti Palace. After sipping a morning cappuccino at Open Bar on Via dei Bardi, it’s there that I begin, in a large, sloped piazza under a clear blue sky.

I walk first into the bookbinding and stationary shop of Giulio Giannini e Figlio, which has operated from the same location since 1856, selling a form of art that dates back centuries further, that of marbleizing handmade paper. There are crowded shelves of carta marmorizzata, covering everything from photo albums to pencils to picture frames. I stand there for a few minutes, transfixed by the swirls of color that spread across the page like rows of scallop shells, and I find it marvelous that submerging a piece of paper into a liquid bath with floating dots of ink can produce patterns that are, at once, so carefully controlled and yet so strikingly unique.

I follow along the sidewalk further and enter another shop, Pitti Mosaici, where I’m greeted warmly by the shopkeeper, who introduces herself as Elenora. The showroom is a stunning space, filled with fine examples of pietra dura, an Italian phrase that literally means “hard rocks,” but translates more gracefully into the art of polished stone inlay. The Medici were obsessed with pietra dura and the work of the Renaissance artists they supported can be seen all over Florence, from the Palazzo Pitti and the Palazzo Signoria, to the Medici Chapels near the San Lorenzo market. Here in the 21st century, the tradition continues. There are large tables covered in all manner of fish and flowers, and tiny plaques inset with local landmarks, including the Ponte Vecchio and Brunelleschi’s red-tiled dome.

I glance about and my eyes catch hold of a beautiful circular mosaic of a bird with a cobalt blue head, perched on a delicate pink rose and set against a black marble background as dark as night. It’s a gorgeous piece, probably dating to the 1920s, she says, but I look at the price and know I can’t possibly afford it. I just can’t. We talk further, though, about this and that, and when I mention that I have a travel blog, Elenora graciously offers to take me on a tour of their workshop, which is just around the corner.

She introduces me to a trio of friendly artisans who are slicing and filing and polishing slivers of marble in order to fit them precisely together, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. One man is working from a pencil sketch of a rooster, while another is occupied by a pair of cherries hanging from a vine. The last is concentrating on an elaborate church, and I recognize it immediately as Santa Maria del Carmine, where I once made a pilgrimage to see a stunning cycle of Renaissance frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel. The sections of stone he has chosen have a subtle gradation of color that render the scene nearly three-dimensional, and as I look across the table at the painting he’s used as an inspiration, at his pencil sketches that translate those shapes into outlines, and finally at the stone inlay he’s produced, I am humbled. I can’t help but think that I will never in my life be as skilled at something as this man is in his art. And he’s still learning, she says. After twenty years, he’s still learning.

Careful not to disrupt their work for too long, I thank Elenora and the men I’ve met for their indulgence of time and make my way back into the alley and into yet another shop, that of a silversmith named Donato Zaccaro. As I browse the glass cases, Donato’s wife asks if I would like to see the workshop in back. Of course, I say, and she takes me to meet Donato himself, who is fashioning a large monogram of the letter “D.” Bashfully, I explain that it’s the first letter of my name, and Donato jokes that it’s his, too. His smile is infectious. He shows me pieces of paper on which he’s penciled the letters, and how he transfers the design onto wood using a series of nails, around which he bends a silver wire into shape. As he pounds the “D” flat and holds it up for my approval, I decide to buy it as a souvenir, knowing that by the time I leave Florence in a few weeks’ time, my suitcase will be filled with them, including a lovely paper picture frame and a mosaic of the duomo. I’ve been making a mental list all morning.

After an obligatory break for gelato at Gelateria della Passera, there are other artisans to visit, and they fill my afternoon happily. I explore a bead and embroidery workshop, a print maker and engraver, and a bespoke shoemaker, but my favorite of the afternoon is Giuliano Ricchi and his wife Maria, whose shop is tucked away in a quiet courtyard near the lively Piazza San Spirito. They are gracious and kind and within minutes Guiliano offers to takes me on a private tour to show me the equipment he uses to craft charm bracelets and metal boxes and business card holders, which he sells to luxury retailers abroad, including Neiman Marcus and Dior.

By the time I leave, my feet are tired and my stomach is growling for dinner. I sink into a seat at Trattoria la Casalinga, where a line is growing despite the early hour, and I’m grateful when I see that a carafe of good house wine costs less than bottled water. Wine it is!

The crostini with garlic and olive oil, and the spaghetti al pomodoro I order are equally inexpensive, but tasty and comforting in their simplicity of ingredients.

As I stroll back towards Borgo San Jacopo and stop to the admire the 16th century fountain on the corner of Via dello Sprone—the one by Buontalenti with the grotesque mask and the large fluted bowl, a well-loved landmark on the Oltrarno—I think about what a nice day it’s been. Through all of my wanderings, I’ve etched these streets into my memory, and the short walk back to my apartment feels like going home.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Giardino (n.): garden

Years ago, on my first trip to Florence, I ventured into the Boboli Gardens. It was late in the day and I had already walked up the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo and back. My feet were tired and my brain overwhelmed by hours spent in churches and museums, absorbed in the art of Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Piero della Francesca. I had thought a stroll through the gardens would be a respite for my body and my mind, but I was wrong. It was a hilly place, situated in a large triangle between the Palazzo Pitti, Forte Belvedere and Porta Romana, and the challenging terrain—which was not apparent on the tourist map I carried with me—wore me out almost as soon as I arrived.

This morning, some six years later, I’m back to try again, this time on a fresh pair of legs before the heat of the day descends. I use my Amici degli Uffizi card to pick up tickets at the entrance to the Palazzo Pitti, and then move through the cool shade of the courtyard, into the sunlit space beyond. There’s an airy amphitheatre fanning out and up the hill, anchored at the center by an Egyptian obelisk. I follow the path up and reach the terrace of the Neptune Fountain, where the god of the sea has his trident in hand, as if to pierce a fish out of the murky green water below.

Up and up I go, toward the statue of Abundance, until I reach the Porcelain Museum and the adjoining Garden of the Cavaliers, where a row of pink roses are clinging to the iron railing at the edge of the terrace. I stop to catch my breath and survey the surroundings. The imposing Palazzo Pitti is to my back, and the red roofs of Florence lie beyond. Ahead is a yellow valley dotted with old palazzos, olive groves, and cypress trees. I feel as though I’ve traveled a long way in a few steep steps. I’ve wandered no further than the Medicis’ back yard, and yet as if by magic, I’ve been transported from the frenetic streets of the city, to the languid countryside of Tuscany, where I’d very much like to stay for a while.

The morning hours turn to midday and then slip pleasantly into early afternoon. I stroll to the Kaffeehaus and an elegant terraced garden overlooking the city, then through a shaded avenue of cypress, flanked by statuettes, all the way down to an island pond near the Porta Romana gate, where an artist has set up an easel to capture the scene, much as John Singer Sargent did more than a century ago.

By the time I reach the Lemon House and the Buontalenti Grotto, I’m ready to head indoors. It’s been a memorable morning, lounging here much as Henry James did in the late 19th century, and it’s done much to change my initial impression. I think of Versailles for a moment, and about the manicured gardens of grand country estates in Britain. I suppose he was right about the Italian manner, “with flowers rather remarkably omitted, as too flimsy and easy and cheap, and without lawns that are too smart, paths that are too often swept and shrubs that are too closely trimmed.” Indeed, there is something wild and shabby about the Boboli Gardens, “here and there a dried-up fountain, and everywhere a piece of mildewed sculpture staring at you from a green alcove.” But the end result, as Henry James wrote, is an “irresistible mixture of nature and art” that rather inclines one to daydream.

I glance at my watch and head back the pebbled path. There are a multitude of museums to discover within the complex of the Palazzo Pitti, as well as a special exhibit of Jacopo Ligozzi’s work, including some fantastical naturalist and botanical drawings that has just opened in the Palentine Gallery. It’s only when a text message arrives on my phone that I break my gaze from the Raphaels, Titians, and Caravaggios.

Some months ago, a reader from the Midwest had contacted me through my blog to ask for help in planning a special trip to Italy with his son. As it turns out, we’ve landed in Florence at the same time and he’s graciously invited me to join them for a sunset limousine tour of the city. They’re staying at the Hotel Davanzati on Via Porta Rossa, with my old friends Fabrizio and Tommaso, who’ve booked our ride through their sister company, I Just Drive, and so I happily agree to meet them there at 7:30, relishing the chance to catch up.

By 8:00, we’ve settled into the back of a Bentley limousine, with an interior far wilder than I could have imagined. There are curved leather seats in stripes of gray, pink, and blue, a thumping audio system, and a minibar awash in neon light. When we arrive at Piazzale Michelangelo, my kind benefactor offers to take my picture, and I strike my best “mine, all mine” pose while leaning against the door, my arm stretched wide across the roof of the car.

It’s an extravagance being here—arriving by limousine to watch the sun set over a glorious city, both brimming with history and the vitality of youth—but I’m grateful most for an evening of unexpected companionship. As a solo traveler, I’ve come to appreciate these fleeting encounters, and whether I ever meet this generous father and his charming son again, I’m glad we crossed paths here on such a lovely summer’s night.

After a glass or two of prosecco on the return drive to Piazza della Repubblica, we joke that we should to stand up through the moon roof like Richard Gere in the movie Pretty Woman, but our driver, Leonardo, says that they’ve had to seal it off because people were throwing bottles out the window and into the street. “Italians can’t be trusted with anything nice,” he says, for a moment I’m reminded once again of the British tourist with the walking stick I met on the way to Fiesole.

Ecco l’Italia. That’s Italy!

By the time we part and I wish my new friends well on the remainder of their trip, the sky has darkened into a velvet black. It’s tempting to stay out late, walking the streets or listening to Claudio on the bridge, but it’s been a busy day and I still need to pack. I’m about to go on a vacation from my vacation. In the morning, I’m taking a train west in pursuit of palm trees and the Ligurian sea.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Rinascita (n.): rebirth, revival

In October 2011, flash floods from a vicious storm devastated one of my favorite little corners of the world—the Cinque Terre, a hamlet of tiny fishing villages perched on the rocky cliffs that line the southern coast of the Italian Riveria.

Vernazza, in particular, was hit hard by the mud slides that followed. Just a year before, with a belly full of pesto and focaccia bread, I had snapped a postcard view of the town on a warm summer’s night, a memory fit for a daydream. The following winter, while knee deep in snow and ice back home in Vermont, I found that if I closed my eyes I could summon the bells of the lemon yellow church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, and I could imagine the rows of pastel houses that fold back from the snug harbor, watched over by the ancient Doria Castle and a fleet of small boats bobbing in the teal green sea.

The storm that fall brought a rude awakening. A headline in The Telegraph in London announced: “Villages All but Wiped Out as Storms Batter Italy’s ‘Cinque Terre.’” The scale of the disaster, they said, was “unimaginable.” A raging river of water and sludge had poured down the steep and narrow streets, which acted like a miner’s sluice, burying the towns in as much as thirteen feet of debris. The harbor in Vernazza, so stuck in my mind, was left silted and dry, its boats splintered like matchsticks.

Rick Steves, a long-time champion of the region in his guidebooks, said it was “as if nature had murdered someone I loved.” He was right. I felt it, too.

Nearly three years have passed and I’m eager to go back, but nervous, too, of all that has changed. Literature is replete with the notion that you can’t go home again. I’m about to find out, but first I’m having a lazy morning at the apartment in Florence, finishing chores of laundry and dishes. I pack a small suitcase with rolling wheels and listen to its rhythmic sound on the sidewalks and cobbled streets all the way to Santa Maria Novella station, where I’m booked on the 12:30 train to Monterosso al Mare. The journey is an easy one, with a change at Pisa Centrale, and before long I find myself pressed against the window of the train, excited by the quick snatches of sun and sea, as we hurl through long, dark tunnels towards the station.

It’s three in the afternoon when I step out into the sun and onto the platform. A row of palm trees frames my view of the turquoise sea, and I pause for a moment to breathe in the air and to enjoy the energy of the tourists crowding the New Town promenade. Instinctively, I turn left, walking past symmetrical rows of beach umbrellas, and a sign (in English) that reads: “Homemade Sangria, Experience the ‘Drunk Ass’ Bucket.” I push onward, through the tunnel, and when I emerge into the quaint streets of Old Town, I see a dark-skinned man in a fedora, playing the accordion. I toss a few coins in a basket and then bend down to pat the belly of his dog, who is napping lazily at his feet. He nods at me and grins widely, and with that simple gesture, I know that life goes on and that people are resilient.

The Cinque Terre is alive and well.

I check into my room at the Hotel Margherita, where the tangerine stucco and green shutters look just as I remember. In fact, I settle into the same room as before, although the fragrant garden of basil and lemon trees I remember so well has been replaced by tomatoes and oranges. I kick back on the bed and think about how to spend my time. Over the next few days, I intend to head north, by train and by boat, to a collection of small seaside towns along the Italian Riveria— to Rapallo, Santa Margherita Ligure, Camogli, San Fruttuoso, and Portofino. But tonight, I long to see Vernazza.

The train ride is short, and the summer’s night long with possibilities. I stroll down to the harbor to admire the view, and the rows of pastel houses that slide toward the sea like a melting dish of rainbow sherbet, but before long my stomach is begging for dinner.

Remembering Rick Steves’ colorful review, I decide to try Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre, a casual eatery owned and operated by a pair of Sicilian brothers name Gianluca and Massimo. To be fair, the food itself is nothing memorable, but the conversation certainly is! At the table next to mine, a woman from Boston is enduring a lecture on how “real” cannolis are made with ricotta. Nearby, an American couple has dared to order the chocolate cannoli, which earns a forceful rebuke. It seems I have stumbled not into the “Cannoli Twins,” but rather into the “Cannoli Nazis.” By the end of my meal, I’m half tempted to order the chocolate myself, to see if Massimo’s head might explode—I truly think it would—but I haven’t the heart.

It’s nine by the time I arrive back in Monterosso al Mare. The sky is fading into a dusky pink, and the colorful chairs and umbrellas that line the beach have been folded away, standing guard like sentries awaiting the dawn.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Questa è la vita (exp.) – This is the life!

It’s a beautiful day to be on the Italian Riviera. As I walk to the train station in Monterosso al Mare on my way to the pretty seaside town of Rapallo, there is a brilliant blue sky overhead, a warm sun on my shoulders, and the scent of roses in the air, mixed with the aroma of freshly baked focaccia bread. All I can say is: Questa è la vita. This is the life!

It takes me little more than half an hour to travel north less than twenty miles at a cost of just eight Euros, but the difference in my surroundings is striking. There are similar rows of spindly palm trees and buildings awash in Ligurian pastels, but the architecture is decidedly more refined than in the villages of the Cinque Terre. The windows are hung with the same green Plantation shutters that swing open to let in the light, or close for shade while tilting out to tempt in the sea breeze, but here there are ornate pediments above the window frames. Some are in molded plaster, while others are grandly painted in the fashion of trompe l’oeil.

My feet take me instinctively the Lungomare Vittorio Veneto, a wide and lovely promenade lined with park benches and ice cream stands and colorful umbrellas, anchored at its far end by an old stone castle known, appropriately, as Castello sul Mare, or Castle-on-the-Sea, which my guidebook tells me was built in the mid-16th century to ward off pirates. I wander towards it to take a closer look and it’s then that I see her.

There is a woman in a strapless bikini. Her feet are pressed into the pebbles on the beach and gentle waves are lapping at her ankles. She’s reading a newspaper and judging from the expression on her face, the article is terribly funny because as I stand and watch, her eyes crinkle at the corners and her smile approaches a laugh. I realize something then. What strikes me most—though it shouldn’t—is her age. Her gray hair is nearly white, and it’s pushed back from her face in waves that are reminiscent of a style women used to achieve with pins and curlers half a century ago. She is not young, her figure is not perfect, and she does not care. She is basking in the warmth of the summer sun, and enjoying the cool of the water between her toes.

I love her. I want to be her.

I struggle to remember when I last wore a bikini. It was sometime in my awkward teenage years, just before a growing self-consciousness drove me into a one piece with a flouncy skirt. Was it 1982, the year my family drove south to Florida on vacation? Or was it on one of our many trips to Chincoteague and Assateague Islands in Virginia? No matter. It was a long time ago.

As I walk back along the promenade, past the Chiosco band stand in all its Baroque glory, I think of my hotel room back in Monterosso al Mare and of my luggage stacked neatly in the corner. I buy a dish of gelato and sink into a park bench facing the harbor. I didn’t pack a swimming suit. I spent more than a year planning this trip. I knew I was coming to the Italian Riviera and it didn’t once occur to me to pack a swimming suit. All of the sudden, I feel silly.

I stand and stretch my legs, make my way to the ferry terminal, and buy a ticket. It’s time to push on. I could take the train, of course, but if I cannot swim, why not sail on a day like this?

It’s a short ride on a crystalline sea that brings me to Santa Margherita Ligure. It’s a handsome resort town with extravagant villas and fountains and yachts moored in the harbor, although there is a romantic castle crumbling on a hill nearby that hints at a far more adventurous past. I stop to admire a statue of Christopher Columbus in Piazza della Libertà before setting off down Via Pelstro, which my guidebook assures me is “the strolling street for window-stopping, people-watching, and studying the characteristic Art Nouveau house painting from about 1900,” which includes elaborate ornaments, sundials, pediments, and false balconies.

For now, though, I’m walking in a determined fashion toward a bakery called Panificio. It’s well past one in the afternoon and my stomach is growling for food, in particular for a square of focaccia bread I spy in the shop window, smothered in thin slices of zucchini. The strawberry tart I order next is just for good measure. The sea air makes me hungry.

I wander as I eat, first to the castle and then to the tiny church of Sant’ Erasmo, which has been blessed by the sea with oars and nets and elaborate ships’ models. Then I climb higher and stumble into the gardens of Durazzo Park, which begin with a formal rose garden overlooking the harbor before descending into a forest below, whose wild walls and twig railings follow a path lined with classical statues grown thick with lichen and moss.

By the time I emerge from the shade, my eyes are squinting into a late afternoon sun. I visit the church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia and shops with a tempting array of local delicacies, but mainly I just roam the manicured streets until my legs give way and the train carries me back to Monterosso.

For dinner, I decide to try a small restaurant on a quiet street near my hotel, called Via Venti. It’s seven thirty and the heat of the sun has given way to an evening breeze that reaches my table outside and causes me to breathe a contented sigh. I fall into an easy talk with the woman sitting next to me, a fellow solo traveler, and together we strike up a lively conversation with a couple from California. They tell us they’ve eaten here eight times through the years, always in pursuit of the same dish—a plate of fagottini pasta, stuffed with pear and ricotta cheese. In a moment of divine serendipity, I realize that it’s what I’ve ordered for myself and when it arrives I can see why they’ve returned time and again to enjoy its pleasures.

As we dine together, they tell us a story. The last time they came to Italy they asked the chef for the recipe so that they could recreate the dish at home, which he graciously provided. With an equal mixture of pride and determination, the wife took a cooking class where she learned to make pasta from scratch, while her husband tracked down the most authentic ingredients and had them imported to the States. And yet somehow, it didn’t work. It just didn’t taste the same. In the end, it was easier—and verging on less expensive—for them to fly back and order it here.

We all laugh.

I understand their disappointment all too well. Through the years, I’ve tried to reconstruct the food I experience in my travels time and again, but with only occasional success. The chocolate fridge cake I made in 2006 was really quite good, but did it equal eating a slice in the cloister of Westminster Abbey? Of course not. I bought a special pan to cook poffertjes after my 2009 trip to the Netherlands, but could my tender pancakes, drenched in butter and powdered sugar, really compare to the plate I had in Amsterdam on a cold and rainy morning in June? Never. I can think longingly about a cup of Angelina’s hot chocolate on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, or the jägerschnitzel I once had in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, but no recipe in the world can bring them back.

It’s the memories we want, more than the food, and a fleeting experience we try to bottle that we can’t ever bring home. Yes, the fagottini was good tonight, but I knew it would be. I had pleasant dinner companions and a fine glass of wine. There was a cool sea breeze on my skin, and under a setting sun my tired feet gave way to a very happy heart.

Will I try to make some homemade pasta with pear and ricotta cheese when I get home to Vermont? Not a chance.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Rocambolesco (adj.) – fantastic, incredible, as in an experience

I’m walking to the train station again this morning, taking my familiar route down Via Roma and Via Feglina to the long dark tunnel dividing the “old town” of Monterosso from the “new.” When I emerge into the light and see the rows of beach umbrellas before me, I also see my fedora-wearing friend, the accordionist and his dog, and he pauses to wave hello.

Even on a slow regional train, the trip to Camogli takes only an hour, which seems well worth the effort for a village that Condé Nast Traveler recently called “one of Italy’s best-kept secrets.” I scan the article again as I make my way up the coast, the rhythmic sound of the tracks ringing in my ears. There is a description of the same “multi-story palazzi, painted in the muted pinks, yellows, and terra-cottas you find along this coast,” in towns such as Rapallo and Santa Margherita Ligure, “their deep-green shutters framed by trompe l’oeil flourishes.” But there are also assurances that Camogli is “far from the madding crowds” and “just-sleepy-enough” with its “under-the-radar calm.”

Perhaps. But not on a dazzling Saturday in June.

By the time I find the stairway that descends to Camogli’s waterfront, a wide stretch of pebble beach that arcs gracefully towards the 19th church of Santa Maria Assunta and the far more ancient castle of Dragonara, there are scores of sunbathers lounging on towels and deck chairs, and wading happily in the sea. The entire scene is so convivial that it has me rethinking the obsession American tourists have with “hidden” treasures, with experiences that depend not only on isolation, but also exclusion. Suddenly, it all seems rather churlish. I scan the crowd and see a young boy with a rod and reel fishing from a rocky ledge, a couple with a baby floating lazily on an inflatable raft, and a woman reclining with her knees bent, lost in the pages of a book.

In the late-19th century, Thomas Hardy famously used the phrase “far from the madding crowd” as the title of one of his novels, but the phrase originates with Thomas Gray, an English poet who years before had penned “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” It’s become something of a derisive catchphrase that urges escape from the frenzy of civilization.

I look again at the languid view before me. Personally, I think I’m already there. And I don’t mind sharing.

I scan the shops along Via Garibaldi and find another focacceria for lunch, this time settling on a thick slice of bread slathered in tomato sauce and cheese from Revello, as well as a hazelnut cookie, rolled and pinched on the sides, called a “camogliesi alla nocciola.” I stop at a jewelry store, Robe di Cuoio, and buy a corded bracelet with two seashell charms and a silver starfish. But mainly I wish I could stay longer.

It’s early afternoon and time to push on to the abbey at San Fruttuoso, which is accessible only on foot or by sea. It’s a warm day with a blistering sun and I have limited time to explore, so I opt for the ferry.

It’s a fascinating place, nestled into a secluded cove between promontories marked by castles and lighthouses, and I wile away another hour or two discovering the monastery’s medieval cloisters and the burial vaults of the Doria family.

By the time I board the ferry again for my final stop of the day, I’ve grown weary and my shoulders and neck have reddened with a wicked sunburn. Yet as the boat rounds a bend and enters the harbor, the view unfolding before me nearly takes my breath away.

I’ve arrived in glamorous Portofino, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

There are Italianate villas perched high above the town on hillsides studded with palm trees and cypress. Tall masted yachts are anchored in the harbor alongside smaller pleasure boats that gleam with brass and polished wood. And the town itself is a gauzy confection, hung with streams of colorful flags that create an atmosphere of perpetual celebration—a holiday without end—which is, I suppose, what it’s like to be rich and summering on the Riviera.

I spend some time window shopping for diamond baubles and silk scarves in shops like Rolex, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Louis Vuitton, half expecting to see Elizabeth Taylor emerging from Dior on the arm of Richard Burton. Then I head up the long, sloping path towards Castello Brown, stopping short at the tiny, tangerine church of San Giorgio. My legs are in open revolt and the view from here is stunning enough.

Back down at the harbor, I decide to sit and relax for a bit with a fruity cocktail at Caffè Excelsior, where the steady stream of well-heeled couples passing by reminds me of the way Robin Leach used to close each episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous back in the 1980s, by wishing his viewers “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” This is, I think, the closest I will ever get.

The ferry carries me back to Santa Margherita Ligure, where a train completes my circle back to Monterosso al Mare. It’s nearly eight o’clock by the time I slide my sunburned body into a quiet seat in the alley outside of Gastronomia San Martino. It’s a no-frills kind of place, where the menu is written on a chalkboard and orders are placed at the counter, but the chef is gregarious and kind and when a young woman delivers a cardboard plate of food to my table a short time later, the pansotto in walnut cream sauce that it holds is exceptional. The entire meal costs all of €11,50—less than the drink I had on the luxurious harbor front in Portofino—and that suits me just fine.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Risvegliarsi (fig.) – to reawaken, come alive

Sometimes, I bite off more than I can chew when planning my travels. Ideas that seem inspired on a snowy day in February, at times look far different once I’ve arrived and logistics begin to take shape. Today, I had hoped to go to Genoa for the Regatta of the Ancient Maritime Republics, a rowing competition that rotates annually between the towns of Genoa, Amalfi, Pisa, and Venice. Frankly, though, I’d rather not. I have a weakness for festivals of all kinds, but the information I’ve found online is sketchy at best and without a decent strategy for how to get to the venue, it feels more exhausting than adventurous. I decide to stay here instead. After days of jet-setting up and down the Italian Riviera, a quiet day in Monterosso al Mare is exactly what I need.

I take a slow stroll about town, stopping in Gioielli del Mare to buy a silver pendant I’ve been admiring in the shop window for days, one that reproduces the Gothic rose window in the church of San Giovanni nearby. I buy a sundress hanging on a rack outside a clothing store. I sip a glass of lemon granita. I unwind and relax and the hours melt by.

It’s nearly two in the afternoon when I find myself on a park bench in Piazza Garabaldi with a fragrant slice of focaccia bread in my lap. There are children playing on a swing set behind me, and the sound of their laughter mingles with the clinking of silverware at nearby cafés, and the cadence of rapid Italian as neighbors sit in the shade and gossip. Close by, two violinists are playing for spare change under the railroad bridge, but somewhere, too, is the unmistakable strains of an accordion—my friend and his dog. It’s a curious symphony for the senses, and I’m reminded of that scene in Paris Je T’Aime where a middle-aged woman finds herself in a similar park on a similar kind of day.

“Sitting there, alone in a foreign country,” she says in a voiceover fraught with repressed emotion, “far from my job and everyone I know, a feeling came over me. It was like remembering something I’d never known before or had always been waiting for, but I didn’t know what. Maybe it was something I’d forgotten or something I’ve been missing all my life. All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, joy and sadness. But not too much sadness, because I felt alive. Yes, alive. That was the moment I fell in love with Paris. And I felt Paris fall in love with me.”

Alive.

That’s what I feel. Fully present and alive.

I think again about the woman in Rapallo, the one with the bikini who stood reading a newspaper while the sea lapped about her feet. And suddenly, I know exactly what I want to do.

I’m going to go swimming!

I rush through the tunnel into New Town and stop at a beach store facing the promenade. I have things to buy. A beach towel, €12. Turquoise bikini, €10. Matching sarong, €7. Swimming in the Ligurian Sea on a lazy Sunday afternoon? Priceless.

The sand is hot and the shimmering water cool to the touch. My toes slip in first and sink gently into the loose pebbles, and I feel the ground shift with the ripple of the waves. I inch forward little by little until my entire body is floating as light as a feather. It’s exhilarating and I find it hard not to laugh.

Much later, when I sit down to dinner at L’Osteria, the evening mass at the church of San Giovanni is just letting out. The door is ajar and I can hear the parishioners singing. On the street, a dog is barking playfully at a tabby cat, who retreats under the patio in utter indifference.

The symphony continues. And for the first time in a long time, I feel as though I am the conductor.

After dinner, I take a walk up to the statue of St. Francis of Assisi, and then down to “Il Gigante” and back, bumping into Scott and his son Ian along the way. The sun has set, the air is cool, and they’re eating gelato and brimming with enthusiasm for the Cinque Terre. They tell me it’s a magical place that will be hard to leave behind.

I smile and nod. Of course, I agree.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Ondata di caldo (n.) – heatwave

It’s a beautiful morning in Monterosso al Mare, and with a reluctant heart, I’m heading back to my apartment on the Arno. When I emerge from the Old Town tunnel, I see my friend with the accordion, as I have every day, and I stop to scratch his dog on the belly and behind the ears. The man smiles, sees my luggage, and wishes me ciao and arrividerci.

It’s a hot day, so I’ve splurged on a 1st class ticket for the IC train to Pisa Centrale, which has lovely, private compartments with good climate control, but the regionale train that pushes on to Santa Maria Novella is stifling. By the time I step off, I’m drenched in sweat.

I’m back in Florence in time for the summer’s first heat wave, which already has me longing for the cool waters of the Ligurian Sea. I find myself veering towards narrow, shaded lanes on the walk back to my apartment, but along Via de’ Tornbuoni I’m grateful to Armani, Prada, and Gucci, who all have their doors standing wide open, allowing bursts of arctic air to spill out onto the street.

I spend the afternoon unpacking, doing laundry, grocery shopping, and straightening up. I eat dinner at home, but venture out later for some gelato at La Carraia, which melts nearly as fast as I can consume it. As I turn back, I retreat from the bustling lungarno in favor of Borgo San Jacopo, where the shops are dark and shuttered for the night. A wave of loneliness passes over me as I push open the door to my empty apartment and sink into one of the lime green armchairs. I send an email to a friend back home that reads: “Feeling a little homesick tonight… How are you?”

Just before I sink off to sleep, he writes back: “Looks like you’re having an amazing time! Homesick-shmomesick!”

I decide to shake it off, because he’s right. I am having an amazing time.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Vagabondare (v.) – to roam, wander

It’s going to be a scorching day here in Florence—the forecast is predicting 96 degrees—so over breakfast I take stock of my options. Climbing the dome seems foolhardy, and I’d rather wait for more pleasant temperatures for the walk up to Fort Belvedere and the Bardini Gardens. I settle on some aimless exploration of the city instead.

I drop by the leather school at the basilica of Santa Croce, the Scuola del Cuoio, and buy a set of handsome leather coasters for my nephew, Ethan, which they monogram in gold leaf. He turned twenty-three just last week, and these seem the perfect belated birthday present for a grown man, although when I send him a picture, I can’t resist warning him not to put cheap beer cans on something so fine, only craft brews and fancy cocktails!

I fill the rest of the day with random things, including my own version of an I-Spy game that puts me on the hunt for Clet street signs. I walk to the pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella in search of the rosewater that’s been used so liberally to scent my apartment. I stop for a late lunch under the veranda at the Caffetteria delle Oblate, which has a slight breeze and a stunning view of the Duomo. There I sit for a long while, communing with Alice Steinbach through her memoir, Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman, and enjoy my very first taste of semifreddo, a half-frozen dessert that melts pleasantly on the tongue.

Later, I stand on the Ponte Vecchio and watch as the heat of the day dissolves into a blanket of orange light. As I stare into the setting sun, everything around me is reduced to a simple silhouette—the city skyline, the street lamps, the tourists crowding the lungarno. The sky is on fire and it is awesome to behold.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Non tutte le ciambelle riescono col buco (idiom) – Not all doughnuts come out with a hole, meaning things don’t always turn out as planned.

Here’s an interesting fact: The vending machine at the train station in Pistoia, Italy sells underwear.

I’ve just gotten off the train and there is it. Three pair of low-waist briefs for just €9. It strikes me as an odd sort of convenience, intended for the ill-equipped traveler who either forgot to pack the essentials, or has gone too long between stops at the laundromat. What’s confusing, though, is that Pistoia isn’t on the tourist trail. Rick Steves ignores it completely in his guidebook. Lonely Planet mentions it twice, but only with the most bare-bones logistics, which begs the question: How did I find my way to Pistoia?

I suppose it’s a combination of proximity and laziness. I slept in late and it was nearly noon by the time I reached the train station in Florence with a vague inclination to go somewhere. The ride to Pistoia takes all of 37 minutes and one of the links that came up in a google search called it “the hidden jewel of Tuscany.” That’s good enough for me.

I’m flying by the seat of my pants, so maybe that underwear will come in handy after all.

I walk past the vending machine and out onto the street, using the GPS on my phone to navigate my way along Via XX Settembre to Via Cavour, and on to Piazza del Duomo. Nearly every Italian town has a Piazza del Duomo and it’s always a good place to start. There’s an octagonal baptistery and a Romanesque cathedral with a graceful arcaded façade, as well as a handsome old palazzo that serves as the town hall and civic museum, but aside from a soaring bell tower, it’s difficult to see any of it given that the square itself is overflowing with a flea market whose awnings and umbrellas radiate a claustrophobic heat.

I survey my surroundings and then flee to a restaurant nearby, La Botte Gaia, and order a selection of local cheeses as a light lunch as I assess the situation. As it turns out, the civic museum is closed on Wednesdays. Likewise, the churches in town will be closed for most of the afternoon, and the town’s most celebrated site, the Ospedale del Ceppo, with its glazed terra-cotta frieze by Della Robbia, is sheathed entirely in plastic and scaffolding. When I find an ad for a tour of the Pistoia underground, I leap at the chance. There’s not much else to do, really, and it’s in the high 90s outside. It’s bound to be cooler down there.

I’m their only visitor, so I’m sent down alone with a young guide. He takes me through a fascinating maze of arched brick passageways, but the history is largely lost on me since Giovanni Luca’s English is so broken that, at best, I only understand half of what he says. He tries hard, and asks frequently if I’m following along, but I haven’t the heart to tell him the truth. I want to prolong the tour as long as possible to avoid the heat outside.

In Italian Hours, a true masterpiece of a travelogue, Henry James writes about his visit to Pistoia in the late 19th century. He found it “drowsy,” but “full of idle vistas and melancholy nooks.” And he enjoyed himself, lounging away “in the empty streets the quiet hours of a warm afternoon.”

I’m trying, I really am. But the truth is, some places are off-the-beaten-path for a reason. Maybe it’s the heat talking, it probably is—the sign on a tabbachi shop I pass on the way back to the train station at just past five is registering 37 degrees Celsius—but for now, I think Pistoia is one of them.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Meriggiare (v.) – To escape the heart of the midday sun by resting in the shade.

It’s another scorching day in Tuscany and whether it’s the torpid heat or the routine exhaustion that comes with travel, I’m slow to rise this morning—so slow in fact that it’s nearly noon by the time my feet hit the pavement of the Lungarno Torrigiani.

In renting an apartment in Florence for the month, one of my goals has been to explore new areas, especially those outside the crowded streets of the centro storico. Last week, I wandered through the narrow lanes of San Spirito and San Frediano looking for artisan workshops. Today, I’m heading east to San Niccolò, a neighborhood that rests at the foot of city’s southern hills.

I pass the Ponte delle Grazie and spot a simple silhouette standing on the bridge’s parapet with one foot extended precariously over the edge. It’s Clet Abraham’s “Common Man” and I cross to get a closer look. That the statue is here at all is something of a surprise. It’s come and gone ever since it was surreptitiously installed under cover of darkness a few years ago, functioning, as blogger Ann Reavis says, as a “poke in the ribs” to the “all-too-serious art establishment and other red-tape loving bureaucrats of Florence.” Clet, of course, never applied for the proper permit.

Later, to explain and defend the work, he said: “The Common Man statue is intended as a stimulus to take an important and risky step.” It represents one of those moments in life where you take a leap of faith without knowing the consequences. From his perch, the next move might result in glorious flight or end with a sudden tumble into the river. “The irony lays in being part of this dangerous spectacle from the safe side of the railing. The act is permanently frozen in limbo, being a sculpture that doesn’t move and will never finish stepping out, and so will never know if his choice was the right one or not – the only way for us to know is if we were to try it ourselves.”

I’m standing on a bridge alone, halfway around the world from where I came. That’s what travel is all about, isn’t it? Stepping off into the unknown to see where it leads? I may be a rule-abiding college professor with an aversion to modern art, but let’s just say I like “Common Man.” I like it a lot. After all, even an imprudent dive into the Arno wouldn’t be a bad fate on a day like this!

When I reach the Torre di San Niccolò, a medieval stone watchtower built in the 14th century, I think again about Clet, and not just because my route has taken me by his studio on Via dell’Olmo. A few years ago, in another of his brilliant pranks, he hung a giant nose on the tower, mentally fashioning its windows into eyes, and its gate into a gaping mouth. I’ve looked at the pictures online and now even without it there, I can’t help but see a face. Maybe it’s less impressive than seeing the Man in the Moon or the Old Man of the Mountain, the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, or Elvis Presley on a potato chip, but it’s right there in front of me, and all because of an evolutionary wire in our brains called pareidolia. Quite simply, we see faces in ordinary, inanimate objects because we crave order in a world of chaos. We see patterns in random noise that encourage flights of fancy, transforming science into art. It’s something painters have understood and exploited since the Renaissance, so why not embrace it on the modern streets of Florence? Leonardo Da Vinci created optical illusions in his drawings, and so did Giuseppe Arcimboldo, hiding faces in elaborate collages of flowers, fruits, vegetables, and shells, with nary a complaint.

Critics and curmudgeons be damned. The world needs more Clet Abrahams.

I squint up at the long, winding road leading up the hill. I’m baking here in the sun, so I climb slowly, first to a terrace of depleted rose gardens, where already many of the blossoms are curled and brown, and then on to Piazzale Michelangelo, for the finest view of the city there ever could be. I buy a tall glass of lemon granita from a street vendor and sit on the rocky ledge, catching my breath and soaking in the splendor.

I decide to walk along the old stone walls of the city all the way to Fort Belvedere, which feels like a punishing chore on such a hot day. From Via Costa San Giorigio, I seize an opportunity to use my Amici degli Uffizi card and duck gratefully into the shade and seclusion of the Bardini Gardens, which have been beautifully restored after decades of neglect. There’s a cooling stream, acres of woodland, a wisteria arbor bordered with hydrangeas, and a long patio on which to enjoy a late lunch. Before long, I’ve almost forgotten about the heat.

I descend the hill slowly, terrace by terrace, until finally I’ve reached the lungarno again. I rest for bit, enjoying the air conditioning of my apartment and not caring how much it will cost when the utility bill arrives at the end of the month.

When I venture out again later, it’s back to San Niccolò for dinner at a restaurant called Zeb’s. It’s a tiny, unassuming place that I might never had noticed if not for a recommendation from Italy Perfect and a plethora of encouraging reviews on Trip Advisor and Yelp. But it’s also intimidating at first, with a chalkboard menu written entirely in Italian script, and only two rows of counter seats, both facing the bar. I’m feeling nervous, like a fish out of water, when one of the owners comes by. He’s a handsome man named Alberto Navari. He winks at me, putting me at ease, and then talks me through the dishes, advising me on a primi and secondi that are tasty and well-priced, beyond the usual tourist fare.

It’s been a good day, a quiet day, a day lost in thought.

I pass Clet’s “Common Man” again on the way back home, but this time I notice not just the outstretched leg, but also the placement of the arms, which are bent towards the waist, and the hands that are curled, as if into fists. He looks confident in his stride. Unafraid.

In a book called The Art of Travel, one of my favorite authors, Alain de Botton, writes that: “The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.” Perhaps he’s right. I’ve grown to love Florence and my neighborhood on the Oltrarno, and I take pride in the independence that I’ve felt here, and joy in the people I’ve met along the way. It’s been a quite an adventure so far—not just the last two weeks, but the past eight years.

Back then, I was the figure on the bridge. I’d reached a point in my life where I was static and unhappy. In booking a flight to London on a whim one day, I lifted one heavy foot and plunged it into the unknown.

Frozen in time, Clet’s man can never be certain if his choice is the right one or not.

“The only way for us to know is if we were to try it ourselves.”

I did.

And it was.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Un bicchiere di vino – A glass of wine.

It’s morning in Florence and the air is already heavy with humidity and the sweat of passengers crowding onto the 9:30 AM bus to Greve in Chianti. With the temperature expected to soar to 98 degrees today, I figure it’s best to flee to the countryside, and what better place to escape than a winery in the Tuscan hills?

In less than an hour, I’m standing on the side of the road, looking at the directions I’ve cut and pasted into my phone for the “food and wine experience” at Castello di Verrazzano.

You should take the SITA bus with destination Greve in Chianti and hop off at the bus stop called “Greti.”

Check.

On the main road go in the opposite direction for 100 meters, on your left you will see our wine shop.

Got it. Check.

From there you can reach the winery with a 30 minute walk. The road up to the castle leads through the vineyards of the property.

Oh, dear lord.

Admittedly, this seemed like an inspired idea some months ago—a summertime stroll through a beautiful vineyard. Now that I’ve arrived, two mitigating factors immediately present themselves. First, the stifling heat. That would be bad enough. And second, the hill. The road to the castle is decidedly up hill.

To quote the great Winnie-the-Pooh: “Oh, bother.”

The walk is, indeed, a lovely one. I’m surrounded by gently rolling peaks and valleys lined with long, straight lines of green vines that cling to wires strung between wooden posts. And beyond that are scrubby olive groves and cypress trees surrounding medieval castles with red tiled roofs and crenelated towers. It would have all the charm of Frances Mayes’ “Under the Tuscan Sun” if it weren’t for, well… the Tuscan sun.

By the time I arrive, my legs are tired, my lungs feel sticky, and the perspiration on my forehead is dripping down my face and burning my eyes. I slump onto a bench under an arbor of grape vines, glance at my watch, and feel relieved that I still have time to spare before the tour.

At noon, a dark-haired woman with a hearty laugh comes to the patio to gather the members of the tour. Her name is Maria and she leads us out onto the grounds, which are beautifully manicured with lush green lawns, old stone walls, reflecting pools, and fountains. In those noble surroundings, she tells us the story of the company’s namesake, Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian explorer who sailed to the east coast of America before ending up on the island of Guadeloupe in 1528, where it seems that he was killed and eaten by the natives. Maria makes a well-timed joke about Giovanni being the New World’s first Italian meal and we all laugh.

While the vineyard has been operated by the Cappellini family since 1958, the vineyards at Verrazzano are mentioned in manuscripts dating back as far back as the year 1150. Today, it’s a family affair and as Maria talks we see the owner’s mother Clara, a handsome woman in her 90s, emerge from the castle and wave to the group.

We duck into the cool of the cellars and hear more about the production of Verrazzano wines, which include a fine Chianti Classico. Above the wooden casks is a sign that reads:

SILENZIO. IL VINO STA RIPOSANDO.

Hush. The wine is resting.

After an hour long tour, with just the right mix of history, science, and humor, we’re ready to rest as well. We’re ushered into a large dining room with rustic wood beams, a terracotta floor, and elegant white table cloths. I’m sitting at a long table with a couple from Paris and an extended family from New Holland, Pennsylvania—parents and their grown daughter, their son and his girlfriend. We strike up a pleasant conversation, lubricated by the wine, and before long we’re chatting as merrily as old friends and clinking our glasses to chimes of salute! and cin cin!

The food part of the “food and wine experience” is actually quite a feast, a five course meal paired with seven excellent wines. We start with a glass of Verrazzano Rosso as we pass around large plates of ham, wild boar salami, head cheese, and fettunta—grilled bread drizzled with young olive oil that literally means “greased slice.” Next, comes a Chianti Classico DOCG, paired with penne pasta in a light tomato sauce with herbs. That’s followed by an even better Chianti Classico Riserva with roast pork, a garden salad, and white beans.

On and on it goes. The wine is flowing and the food never ending.

We enjoy a taste of pecorino cheese with a syrupy spoonful of balsamic vinegar, a cantuccini dipped in Vin Santo, and a shot of fiery grappa. People begin to sing and dance. The convivial mood is broken only once, and momentarily, by my own heathen act. Unable to keep pace with the alcohol, I’ve poured the remains of one glass into another to make room for the next tasting. Clearly, I’m an amateur among professionals, and my friends at the table gasp in horror!

By the end of the afternoon, we joke that we’re ready to roll down the hill, all the way back to the SR222 and the bus stop that will return us to Florence. Luckily, a service vehicle is heading that way, and the driver is kindly offers to drop us off.

I glance at the guestbook before we leave. “Fantastico,” “bellissimo” and other superlatives clutter the page.

Indeed.