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 pedal, 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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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.

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.

Top 10 Things to Do in Rome, Italy

RomeIn writing to a friend while on “The Grand Tour” of Europe in 1870, a young graduate of Harvard University named Roger Swaim, lamented his arrival in Rome. He had been to France already and would later continue on to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Holy Lands, but not before making a thorough visit of all the conventional sites—the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican—and he was not looking forward to it. “Oh dear! Here is this awful task of Rome on my hands, a mass of brick to investigate [and] excavations to penetrate.” Exhausted and overwhelmed, he felt that he should only “appreciate Rome after getting away,” for it would take time to forget its “filth and discomforts.”

For travelers today, it’s still possible to experience the grittiness of Swain’s Rome, but it’s just as easy to conjure the magnificence of a city built by emperors like Titus and Hadrian, or to bask in the Baroque splendor of art created by the hands of Caravaggio and Bernini. Rome is ever evolving and pulsing with the energy of history and human emotion. It is, after all, the Eternal City, and there is always more than enough to see. Here, though, is a short list that begins to scratch the surface. By the end of your stay, you will want to return time and again to excavate its many layers.


An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:

#10

Climb the Capitoline Hill and gaze out across the ruins of ancient Rome

The city of Rome was built upon seven ancient hills—the Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinal, and Viminal. Begin your visit at the Capitoline Hill at a treacherous intersection of streets near Piazza Venezia. To the right of the massive Vittorio Emanuele II monument, variously derided as a “wedding cake” or a “giant typewriter,” climb the cordonata, a set of long sloping steps that lead the Piazza del Campidoglio, where an impressive equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius dominates the space. What you see is a copy of the bronze original, which can be viewed in the adjacent Capitoline Museum, a meandering collection of galleries housed in the Renaissance palaces that surround the square. It’s well worth an entire afternoon’s visit, but for now, continue forward, either to the left or the right of the Palazzo del Senatore, until you reach a terrace overlooking the Roman Forum.

You are standing at the center of Rome and the ruins you see are the remnants of some of the city’s most important civic buildings. Look for the Temple of Saturn, the Temple of Vesta, and the church of San Luca e Martina and try to imagine their grandeur. Look to the distance then and you can see the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum. When the British novelist Charles Dickens visited Rome in the mid-19th century, he stood before the Colosseum and said that to “see it crumbling there, an inch a year; its walls and arches overgrown with green; its corridors open to the day… is to the see the ghost of old Rome, wicked, wonderful old city, haunting the very ground on which its people trod.”

LOCATION:  To reach the terrace, head to Piazza del Campidoglio, and for entrance to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum continue on and look for Piazzale del Colosseo, along Via dei Fori Imperiali.

HOURS:  The Capitoline Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 AM until 8:00 PM; the Colosseum and Roman Forum are open in the summer from 8:30 AM-7:15 PM. Click here for hours at other times of year.  

COST:  Admission is €13 for the Capitoline Museum; a combination ticket to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum costs €12 and can be purchased online to avoid a lengthy queue. Purchasing a RomaPass instead for €34 might be a worthwhile investment, depending on the number of days you have in Rome and the number of museums you plan to see.

TIP:   While virtually no one appreciates the aesthetics of the Vittorio Emanuele II monument at Piazza Venezia, there is an elevator at the back of the building that will whisk you to the top for a panoramic view of the city for just €7.

WEBSITES:  The Capitoline Museum; the Colosseum and Roman Forum

#9

Stand beneath the dome of the Pantheon to marvel at a feat of ancient engineering

Built during the reign of Hadrian around 126 AD, the Pantheon is thought to be the best preserved building from ancient Rome. With its elegant pediment and massive Corinthian columns, it may not look like a house of worship, but it is indeed a temple whose name is derived from a Greek word meaning All Gods. It is best known, however, for its coffered dome, which was considered such a feat of engineering, even centuries later, that Filippo Brunelleschi traveled here in an effort to uncover its secrets before starting work on his own massive dome in Florence on the basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore. The circular opening in the center of the dome—an oculus—allows daylight to illuminate the interior.

Afterwards, be sure to sit and linger by the obelisk in Piazza della Rotunda, or break for an espresso in one of the local cafés. It is a lively square and you are certain to be entertained by something interesting, whether it is a talented street musician, or a curious pair of levitating men in orange robes and turbans.

LOCATION:  Piazza della Rotunda

COST:  Free

HOURS:  Always open

WEBSITE:  The Pantheon

#8

Travel along the ancient Appian Way and descend into the catacombs of San Callisto

The Appian Way was one of the most important roads in ancient Rome. Once upon a time, its cobblestone pavement began at the Circus Maximus and continued on past the Baths of Caracalla, all the way to the port city of Brindisi. Beneath the surface, there are scores of underground tunnels where the early Christians buried their dead, and today, many of these “catacombs” are open for guided tours.

For a pleasant break from the urban intensity of Rome, travel out along the Appian Way to enjoy the open green space and a multitude of worthwhile sites, including the remains of a sophisticated system of aqueducts. Then, on the way back, stop at the Catacombs of San Callisto to explore a massive burial site that once held the bones of half a million Christians, as well as nine popes and numerous martyrs.

GETTING THERE:  The catacombs are reachable by public transportation (see this link for details), but the route is time-consuming. Instead, I’d recommend taking the Archeobus, a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus that begins its route in central Rome and then travels out along Via Appia Antica with a direct stop at the catacombs of San Callisto. Tickets cost €12 for adults and are valid for 48 hours. A family discount is available.

An organized bike tour is another fun option.

HOURS:  The catacombs of San Callisto are open daily (except on Christmas,  New Year’s Day and Easter Sunday) from 9:00 AM-12:00 PM and again from 2:00 PM-5:00 PM.

COST:  Admission to the catacombs is €8.

TIP:  The catacombs of San Callisto extend deep into the ground. It gets chilly down there, so taking a jacket is advisable, even in the summer.

WEBSITES: Appia Antica Park; Catacombs of San Callisto; the Park of the Appia Antica; Archeobus

#7

Spy the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica through a not-so-secret keyhole on the Aventine Hill

If you are in the mood for an interesting quest on a lazy afternoon, check your map and make your way to Piazza Cavalieri di Malta, where guidebooks promise a “secret keyhole” in a door that reveals a perfectly framed view of St. Peter’s Basilica through a tunnel of pruned hedge.

Look for the worn green door that guards the entrance to the garden of Priory of the Knights of Malta. It’s surprisingly easy to spot, because there is often a small crowd of people queuing for the chance to press their eyes and camera lenses against the keyhole. It may be a well-discovered “secret,” but it’s still as delightful as peering into a doll’s house through an old-fashioned shadow box.

LOCATION:  Piazza Cavalieri di Malta.

COST:  Free

TIP:  Taking a photograph through the keyhole is a tough shot because you have to get both the door and the dome in focus simultaneously. Be prepared to try and try again until you get it right, or do as I did and take a picture of each, then join them together using Photoshop.

WEBSITE:  ItalyGuides.it

#6

Stray off the beaten path and explore the narrow lanes of the Jewish Ghetto

Rome may be an intense and noisy city, but stray slightly off the beaten path into an historic neighborhood known as the Jewish Ghetto—tucked between the Vittorio Emanuele II monument and the Tiber River near Isola Tiberina—and you will find a maze of narrow alleyways that spill out into small piazzas, each more charming than the last.

If you are in the mood for culture and history, visit the Jewish Museum of Rome at the Great Synagogue, but if not, devote an afternoon to wandering aimlessly about the streets. Eventually, you will stumble upon the Bernini turtles that perch on the basin of the Fontana delle Tartarughe in Piazza Mattei, and the crumbling, remains of the Portico d’Ottavia, as well as host of enticing restaurants, shops, and boutiques.

If you stay for dinner, order a plate of carciofi alla giudia—Jewish-style artichokes, deep-fried to a luscious, golden brown.

LOCATION:  The Jewish Museum and synagogue are located on Lungotevere Dè Cenci.

HOURS:  The Jewish Museum and synagogue are open Sunday through Thursday, 10:00 AM-5:00 PM (summer hours are extended to 7:00 PM), and Friday from 9:00 AM-2:00 PM; closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays.

COST:  Admission to the Jewish museum and synagogue costs €11 for adults, €8 for those over age 65, and €4 for students.

TIP:  While in the vicinity, considering making a short detour to Largo di Torre Argentina, where there is a sanctuary for abandoned cats. You’ll see dozens of them lounging about on the ancient ruins, and donations to help with their care are gratefully accepted.

WEBSITES:  Museo Ebraico di RomaJewish Ghetto Walk (Rick Steves); Echoes from the Roman Ghetto (The New York Times); Foodie’s Guide to Rome’s Jewish Quarter (Fodor’s)

#5

It’s mangia time!

Eating in Rome is an elevated art form, best enjoyed slowly with family and friends over a bottle or two of wine. But even if you’re travelling solo, take the time to dine out and dine well. Where else can you sip a cappuccino while reading a book in one of the oldest cafés in Italy—the venerable Antica Caffè Greco, on Via dei Condotti? And where else can you indulge as happily and as cheaply as you can here with a slice of pizza al taglio or a dish of gelato?

You should also embrace all the city has to offer by savoring some traditional dishes. Italian cuisine, after all, is a patchwork of regional specialties and local ingredients. While in Tuscany you can expect to find wild boar and Chianina beef, when in Rome look for veal saltimbocca or a spicy bucatini all’Amatriciana. And if you happen to be there in the early summer, don’t ever pass up the chance to order a plate of fiori di zucca—zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta cheese, battered and deep-fried.

One final tip, based on personal experience… If ever you long for the simplicity of cacio e pepe, the Italian answer to macaroni and cheese, be very careful how you say it. The letter “C” can be tricky for foreigners. Quite by accident, I once ordered a very private part of the male anatomy instead. It was an innocent slip of the tongue that sent my waiter into peels of laughter!

TIPS:  It may go without saying, but avoid restaurants that post generic photographs of generic food, or those that offer a special menu turistico in English. To gain confidence with Italian vocabulary, consider buying a copy of Eating & Drinking in Italy, by Andy Herbach. He offers basic advice on restaurant etiquette, as well as an indispensable menu translator. In addition to paperback copies, it’s also available for Kindle and iBook readers.

WARNING:  Because of a recent city ordinance, eating and drinking is now banned in areas of “particular historic, artistic, architectonic and cultural value” in Rome, which very nearly everywhere. Local police can now impose fines on tourists who violate the rules by snacking on a sandwich near the Colosseum or the Spanish Steps.

WEBSITES:  Not sure what to tip? Don’t know the difference between a primi piatti and a secondi piatti? Try this handy primer from Fodor’s. For all you need to know about gelato, see: Your Ultimate Guide to Gelato in Rome. And for tips on how to navigate the confusing world of Italian coffee, check out: How to Drink Coffee… Like an Italian.

#4

Sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and more!

As if having the ruins of ancient Rome beneath your feet were not enough, the city’s museums offer a fascinating mix of the elegant, the sublime, and the macabre.

Visit the Borghese Gallery to admire Bernini’s exquisite sculpture of “Apollo and Daphne.” Trek to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme to see stunning frescoes and mosaics, including a lush painted garden from the Villa of Livia at the National Museum of Rome. Commune with the spirits of two of England’s greatest romantic poets at the Keats-Shelley House near the Spanish Steps. Or, plunge underground to see the skeletons of thousands of Capuchin monks woven into elaborate and ghoulish designs, including a grim reaper holding scales and a scythe made of human vertebrae. The opportunities are endless, bound only by the days in your itinerary and the strength left in your legs.

Here are my personal favorites, in descending order. For hours, locations, and the cost of admission, please refer to each museum’s website, linked below.

TIP:  If you plan to visit several museums in Rome, consider purchasing a Roma Pass, which costs €34 and provides free admission to the first two museums and reduced admission to each additional museum visited within a three-day period. It also provides unlimited use of the city’s public transportation network.

#3

Gaze upon the face of God in Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel

Getting to the Sistine Chapel is enough to test the patience of a saint.

First, there are the notoriously long lines get in, made worse by the heat of the summer sun. Then, there is the crushing weight of people inside—more than 6 million souls visit each year. In their only gesture toward crowd control, the Vatican Museums are arranged into a one-way street, with large black arrows printed on the gallery map. There are minor deviations here and there that allow visitors to move more quickly to the chapel itself by bypassing some inestimable treasures along the way, but mostly it’s like being on a theme park ride from which there is no escape once the rollercoaster has left the platform.

Buckle in and stay for the day.

Take your time and walk in awe through the 16th century Gallery of Maps that render the cities and towns of Italy in exquisite detail. You will see the Raphael Rooms, including his masterpiece, The School of Athens, paintings by Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci, and even an entire room devoted to sculptures of animals.

By the time you reach the Sistine Chapel, you will be acclimated to the unnatural closeness of the strangers and ready to gaze solely upon Michelangelo’s narrative: Noah and the flood, the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and (of course) God’s creation of Adam in the touch of two outstretched hands. Outside this place, in the pages of books, on coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets and computer mouse pads, the image is so familiar that it’s lost the power to impress. Here, though, you will feel the room pulse with energy and human emotion, and with history, too, for it is here the College of Cardinals meets to elect a new pope.

If time allows, follow the signs and continue on into St. Peter’s Basilica, and if strength remains after a thorough exploration, consider climbing to the top of the dome. Even with an elevator that rises part way, it’s a challenging climb to be sure. As the dome slants in, so too does the head room available on the stairs. It’s a tight and awkward squeeze, but the view is unparalleled. Look down upon St. Peter’s Square and then trace Via della Conciliazione all the way to Castel Sant’Angelo, across the bridge with its sentry of angels, all the way east to the Vittorio Emanuele II monument at Piazza Venezia, which towers over the city like an oversized wedding cake.

Rome is glorious and so, too, is Vatican City.

LOCATION:  St. Peter’s Basilica is located in Piazza San Pietro. To reach the Vatican Museums, turn right and walk out along the walls to Viale Vaticano. For more detailed directions, click here.

HOURS:  The Vatican Museums are open Monday to Saturday, 10:00 AM-6:00 PM. On Sundays, the museum closes at 2:00 PM, except for the last Sunday of every month, when there is also free entrance from 9:00 AM to 12.30 PM. Obviously, expect the lines to be even longer on that day.

COST:  Entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica is free; admission to the Vatican Museums costs €16 for adults.

IMPORTANT:  Modest dress is required. According to the Vatican website: “Access to Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Gardens and Saint Peter’s Basilica is permitted only to visitors dressed appropriately (no sleeveless blouses, no miniskirts, no shorts, no hats allowed).”

TIPS:  You can now reserve tickets for the Vatican Museums online. Do it! Or, be prepared to face the consequences—a line of epic proportions that, at times, stretches halfway around the walls of Vatican City. If money is no object, you should know that VIP tours that allow private access off-hours are available.

MORE TIPS:  To extend your visit to Vatican City, consider booking a Scavi tour which takes visitors deep into the necropolis to the tomb of St. Peter (€16). Or, above ground, you can request a ticket to a Papal Audience held most Wednesdays (free).

STILL MORE:  There are more than 900 churches in Rome. If you have the time and the inclination, continue on with these:

#2

Viva l’amore and toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain

If you are forced to wade through a horde of tourists to get anywhere near the Trevi Fountain in Rome—and you will be—you might want to blame Hollywood for making such enchanting movies as La Dolce Vita, Roman Holiday, and Three Coins in the Fountain.

The fountain is impressive in its own right. Completed in 1762 at the terminus of an ancient Roman aqueduct, the pool of water is ornamented by a massive wall of travertine and Carrara marble statues representing an aquatic theme. To be honest, though, most people who congregate here have little interest in art and architecture. Most have come with loose change in their pockets and a very specific task in mind.

According to Fodor’s: “Everyone knows the famous legend that if you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain you will ensure a return trip to the Eternal City. But not everyone knows how to do it the right way: You must toss a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder, with your back to the fountain. One coin means you’ll return to Rome; two, you’ll return and fall in love; three, you’ll return, find love, and marry.”

I’m a single lady, so the last time I was in Rome I threw an entire handful of coins of every size and denomination, just for good measure!

LOCATION:  Follow the crowds to Piazza di Trevi, off Via Del Tritone, near Piazza Barberini.

COST:  Free, aside from the coins you throw, which are collected regularly and used by the city to fund local charities.

TIPS:  If you feel inspired to reenact another scene from a famous Hollywood movie, you should visit the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, near the Circus Maximus, to snap a quick picture of “La Bocca della Verità,” or Mouth of Truth. It’s a carved stone face that was featured in the 1953 movie Roman Holiday. Legend has it that it bites off the hands of liars, so please be careful!  ;-)

Still can’t get enough? Try this walking tour of the locations used in Roman Holiday. Or, even better, explore the city on a scooter of your own, just like Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Vintage vespa tours are available from Bici & Baci.

WEBSITE:  Trevi Fountain

#1

When in Rome, do as the Romans do… and join the evening passeggiata

The sweet life. That’s what la dolce vita means, and being in Rome with the pulse of human existence all around, it’s easy to understand the meaning, especially at the end of the day when the noise of traffic fades away and the city falls into a romantic reverie. Families flood the streets and take a gentle stroll about in an Italian tradition known as the evening passeggiata.

Join the crowds and enjoy the show. As someone once told me on my very first trip the Eternal City: “Rome by night, she is magic.”

She is, indeed.

SUGGESTED ITINERARY:  Here is an interactive map of the route I suggest, starting at the Colosseum and ending by the Spanish Steps. Be warned: the total distance of this walk is roughly 3 miles, but will take you by some of the city’s prettiest squares and monuments, including Campo de’ Fiori, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and the Trevi Fountain.

Click on the link below that reads “View Larger Map” to see detailed walking directions from site to site.


A Photo Gallery of Rome

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Top 10 Things to Do in Florence, Italy

Whenever I think of Florence, I like to remember my favorite scene in E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room with a View. When the heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, first enters the Basilica of Santa Croce without a guidebook, she feels lost and alone.

Of course, it must be a wonderful building. But how like a barn! And how very cold! Of course, it contained frescoes by Giotto, in the presence of whose tactile values she was capable of feeling what was proper. But who was to tell her which they were? She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and trancepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin.

Then the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.

We should all be more like Lucy when we’re in Florence—that most intimidating of cities. As her companion, the outspoken Miss Lavish says, the “true Italy is only to be found by patient observation.”

With that in mind, put the guidebooks aside. “Give it to me; I shan’t let you carry it. We will simply drift.”


An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:

#10

Walk in Lucy’s footsteps and visit the Basilica of Santa Croce

The colorful marble stripes on the front of this Franciscan church may be Victorian—described by Forster as a “black-and-white façade of surpassing ugliness”—but the interior dates to the dawn of the Renaissance. There are frescoes by Giotto and Gaddi, as well as tombs and cenotaphs dedicated to many great Italian men, including:

  • Galileo Galilei, the mathematician and astronomer;
  • Dante Alighieri, known for his Divine Comedy;
  • Niccolò Machiavelli, author of a famously shrewd treatise on power known as The Prince; and
  • Michelangelo Buonarroti, the renowned sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, who designed the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, created the iconographic statue of David before his battle with Goliath, and painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Take your time to wander about Santa Croce, then be sure to see the wonderful church museum that’s adjacent, just through the cloisters.

LOCATION:  Piazza Santa Croce, 16

HOURS:  Monday-Saturday, 9:30 AM – 5:30 PM; Sundays and Holy Days, 2:00 PM – 5:30 PM

COST:  Full price ticket, €6; reduced price ticket for children, €4

RULES:  Appropriate dress; photography is permitted without a flash, no tripods

WEBSITE:  Basilica di Santa Croce 

#9

Shop for leather goods at the venerable Scuola del Cuoio

Florence is justifiably famous for its leather. You can shop the San Lorenzo street market* for fun and inexpensive items of questionable origin, or visit any number of the high quality boutiques in town, including Madova, Roberta, Peruzzi, and Frizzoni, but my own personal favorite is the Scuola del Cuoio. Their products—ranging from belts and wallets to stunning purses—are meticulously handcrafted out of lambskin and other more unusual pelts, including deer, ostrich, python, and alligator. For a memorable experience, you can also visit the workshop and watch as an artisan monograms your purchase in gold or silver leaf.

* Update: As of January 2014, the San Lorenzo street market has been indefinitely moved to Piazza del Mercato Centrale and its surrounding streets.

LOCATION:  Enter through the Basilica di Santa Croce, or through the garden that surrounds the apse, at Via San Giuseppe, 5r.

HOURS:  Fall/Winter, Monday-Friday, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM, Saturday, 10:30 AM – 6:00 PM; Spring/Summer, Daily 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM.

WEBSITE:  Scuola del Cuoio

#8

Cross the Ponte Vecchio and explore the antique galleries and artisan shops of the Oltrarno

The name “Oltrarno” simply means the “other side of the Arno.” From sculptors and wood carvers to gilders, bookbinders and goldsmiths, the small shops you’ll find along the maze of streets between the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza Santo Spirito may seem a world away from the hoards that congregate in Piazza della Signoria and Piazza del Duomo, but getting there requires nothing more than an easy walk across one of Florence’s beautiful bridges.

While the Ponte Santa Trinita and the Ponte alle Grazie were both destroyed by the Nazis near the end of World War II and later rebuilt, the Ponte Vecchio—or “Old Bridge,” in the middle—was spared. Like Brunelleschi’s red-tiled dome, the Ponte Vecchio is an iconographic symbol of Florence.

Before you cross the bridge to the Oltrarno, be sure to stand back along the riverbank to admire the shops that hang pell-mell from the sides. The butchers and fishmongers of the medieval city are long gone, replaced by jewelers whose wooden doors and wrought iron hardware at the close of day resemble a row of pirates’ treasure chests.

GETTING THERE:  Explore the area on your own (The New York Times and National Geographic both offer useful itineraries), or book a walking tour with a guide.

NOTE:  For a full day, combine a stroll about the Oltrarno with a visit to the Pitti Palace or the Boboli Gardens, or even late afternoon vespers at the church of San Miniato al Monte (see #4 below).

WEBSITE:  Welcome to Oltrarno

#7

Climb Giotto’s bell tower for a breathtaking view of the city

Getting to the top of the cathedral’s campanile in Florence requires 414 steps, but the view overlooking a sea of red tiled roofs more than makes up for the effort. You can see San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapel to the north, the Palazzo Vecchio to the south, Santa Croce to the east, and the church of San Miniato al Monte in the far distance on a hill across the Arno. Best of all, Giotto’s bell tower will give you an unparalleled look at Filippo Brunelleschi’s famous dome.

If you make it to the top and back, be sure to reward yourself with a few scoops of gelato. The delicious Grom is nearby, on Via del Campanile, at the corner of Via delle Oche.

LOCATION:  Piazza del Duomo. Enter via the stairs in the nave of the cathedral, or outside on the south side of the cathedral

NOTE:  There is no elevator. Visitors must climb 414 steps to reach to the top of the bell tower, but unlike the trek to the dome, the staircase is wide and headroom is ample, making it a better choice for those who are claustrophobic.

HOURS:  Daily, 8:30 AM – 7:30 PM

COST:  €6, although a combination ticket including the Duomo, bell tower, dome, crypt, baptistery, and museum is also available

WEBSITE:  Museo del Duomo

#6

See the Gates of Paradise and glimpse the fiery pits of Hell at the cathedral’s baptistery

Michelangelo once called Lorenzo Ghiberti’s bronze panels for the baptistery doors the “Gates of Paradise.” Here in Piazza del Duomo, those panels, which depict scenes from the Old Testament of the Bible, are reproductions of the originals that were installed in 1452, but they are stunning nonetheless.

Inside the baptistery, the scene is somewhat different. The lush ceiling mosaic depicts a benevolent Jesus with arms outstretched and a choir of angels overhead, but what you’ll notice most is a disturbing image of “The Last Judgment.” Look carefully and you’ll see Satan munching on the naked torso of an unrepentant sinner, while others meet an equally unpleasant fate in the jaws of snakes, lizards, and giant beetles.

If you save your visit for a sunny day, you’ll also see rays of sunshine slanting through the room’s narrow windows. When the gold leaf on the glass tiles capture the light, they shimmer and glow as if lit internally by the flames of a hundred candles.

LOCATION:  Piazza del Duomo

NOTE:  Ghiberti’s original bronze panels for the baptistery doors can be seen nearby at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

HOURS:  Monday – Saturday, 12:15 PM – 7:00 PM; Sunday and the first Saturday of the month, 8:30 AM – 2:00 PM

COST:  €4, although a combination ticket including the Duomo, bell tower, dome, crypt, baptistery, and museum is also available

WEBSITE:  Museo del Duomo

#5

Museums, museums, museums!

It’s hard to think of a city with more enticing museums than Florence.

You can see Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery, compare Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia to Donatello’s David at the Bargello, marvel at the world’s largest collection of artists’ self portraits in the Vasari Corridor, stand before Benozzo Gozzoli’s stunning frescoes in the Chapel of the Magi at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi or Fra Angelico’s Annunciation at the San Marco monastery, or indulge in the splendors of the Pitti Palace and the Palazzo Vecchio.

There is never time enough to visit museums in Florence, but be sure to wile away the hours at one—if not all—of these:

COST:  Admission fees for individual museums vary, but consider buying a Firenze Card which provides queue jumping access to 60 different churches, museums, and historical sites at a cost of €72. The card, which is valid for 72 hours, also includes public transportation, use of the city’s wifi network, and dedicated Android iPhone, and iPad apps with built in GPS. Another option is the Amici degli Uffizi pass, which costs €60, but is valid until the end of the year. For useful tips on which to buy and why, click here.

#4

Hear Benedictine monks sing in Georgian chant at the church of San Miniato al Monte

The basilica of San Miniato al Monte is a beautiful Romanesque church in its own right. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries, it has a long, graceful nave and an adjoining cloister and cemetery. But once you’ve visited the grounds thoroughly, consider staying for vespers, an evening prayer service in the Roman Catholic church during which the local Benedictine monks sing in Gregorian chant. It can be a wonderfully serene moment in an otherwise intense and overwhelming city.

LOCATION:  Via delle Porte Sante, 34

TIME:  On Sundays and Feast days, the monks accompany Mass with Gregorian chant at 10:00 AM and 5:30 PM in the crypt. In the summer, Gregorian chant also takes place during vespers at 5:30 PM on weekdays.

NOTE:  If you go, please—I beg you—be polite enough to stay through the entire service. There is nothing worse than a tourist who drops by, only to wander out a few minutes later.

COST:  Free, but a small donation to the church is a welcome gesture

WEBSITE:  Basilica di San Miniato al Monte

#3

Rub the snout of Il Porcellino for good luck and a future return to Florence

Il Porcellino is the statue of a wild boar located under the loggia of the Mercato Nuovo, near Piazza della Signoria. Legend has it that if you place a coin in his mouth and allow it to fall into the grating below, it will bring good luck. And if you rub his snout, you will ensure your return to Florence someday. Needless to say, it’s been polished to a brilliant shine by thousands of tourists.

I’ve visited the little piglet myself on the final night of each of my trips to Florence, and I know it works because I always come back.

LOCATION:  Piazza del Mercato Nuovo

COST:  Free, aside from the coin you use for luck! The proceeds are collected and distributed to local charities.

#2

Stop and listen to a street musician

From Italian pop to accordions and classical guitar, it seems that there’s always live music on the streets of Florence, especially in the evenings on the Ponte Vecchio, and in Piazza della Signoria and Piazza della Repubblica.

Stop, listen, enjoy. It’s free.

And if you like what you hear, tip them a Euro or two. Or better yet, buy their CD to bring those lovely Italian memories home. Listening to Claudio Spadi sing “A te” or “Acquarello” in the middle of a cold, Vermont winter always brings a smile to my face.

WHERE:  In the summer, you can usually find local musicians on the Ponte Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria, Piazza della Repubblica, and often in Piazza San Marco, Piazza Santa Croce, and Piazza Santo Spirito.

WHO:  My personal favorites? Here are some videos of performances by Claudio Spadi and Luca Sciortino, Justyna Maria Janiczak, and Piotr Tomaszewski

#1

Watch the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo

The panoramic view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo, high on a hill on the south bank of the Arno River, is magnificent. From a distance, the architectural details of the city melt into harmonious shades red and yellow, and like the brush strokes in an impressionist painting, the impact from afar is greater than the sum of its parts.

To see the city at its best, go in the evening and stay for the sunset. It’s a sight you’ll long remember.

LOCATION:  Viale Michelangelo

GETTING THERE:  Aside from a taxi or rental car, there are three options for getting to Piazzale Michelangelo:

1) Walk along the banks of the Oltrarno to the footpath that winds up the hill. Please note that there are many stairs and they are steep;

2) Take the number 12 bus from Santa Maria Novella train station; or

3) Reserve a sunset limousine tour with a company such as I Just Drive, which costs €18 per person and requires a minimum of four people.


Where to stay when in Florence

My personal choice is always the Hotel Davanzati at Via Porta Rossa, 5, but don’t just take my word for it. Check out their reviews on TripAdvisor.

Hotel Davanzati Hotel Davanzati Hotel Davanzati


A Photo Gallery of Florence

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Top 10 Things to Do in Venice, Italy

Venice, ItalyMore than a century ago, it was the great American novelist cum travel writer Henry James who decided that there was “nothing left to discover or describe” about Venice, and that “originality of attitude is completely impossible.”

But, he said, “it would be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to say. I write these lines with the full consciousness of having no information whatever to offer. I do not pretend to enlighten the reader; I pretend only to give fillip to his memory; and I hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love with his theme.”

And so I am.

Released from the burden of originality and the guilt of self-indulgence, here is my own To Do List for first-time visitors to Venice.


An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:

#10

Ride a vaporetto down the Grand Canal

Whether you arrive in Venice at Santa Lucia railway station, at the bus depot in Piazzale Roma, or at the small airport across the lagoon, the glorious Grand Canal will be among the first sites you see, and invariably, it will look exactly as you imagined. It will feel at once foreign and familiar, as if you’ve stepped into an 18th century painting by Canaletto, only to find that the world around you has changed little in its substance.

To extend the illusion a little longer, board a public water bus—known as a vaporetto—and ride it the length of the canal, under the Rialto Bridge, by the colorful and crumbling façades of grand palazzos like the Ca’ d’Oro and the Ca’ Rezzonico, all the way down past the dome of Santa Maria della Salute, before disembarking at St. Mark’s Square.

If the Grand Canal seems heavy with traffic today, bustling with motor boats, water buses, and gondolas, remind yourself that it was even more crowded in the 16th and 17th centuries, during the golden age of the Venetian Republic, when it was a major thoroughfare for merchants who traded goods across Europe and the Far East.

BUYING TICKETS:  ACTV tickets can be bought: 1) Online; 2) On site from the Hellovenezia ticket office at the railway station; or 3) From the automatic ticket machines on some landing docks.

COST:  A single ticket on the vaporetto costs €7, so buying a tourist travel card is a wise decision. Cards allow unlimited access for a period of either 12, 24, 36, 48, or 72 hours, or for 7 days from the time it is initially activated. Prices vary accordingly, from €18 to €50. For further details, see one of the websites below.

NOTE:  For the purposes of sightseeing, board a vaporetto on Line 1 (map), or pay slightly more to board the special Vaporetto dell’Arte, which includes a multilingual audio and video system. Remember, you will need to swipe your travel card on the iMob validating machines located at the entrance to the ACTV loading docks before you board, or face a hefty fine.

WEBSITES:  ACTV, VeniceConnectedVaporetto dell’Arte

#9

Soak in the Byzantine splendor of St. Mark’s Basilica

At the eastern end of St. Mark’s Square lies the basilica that was built to house the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist, plundered from Alexandria, Egypt in 828 A.D. Legend has it that the Venetians hid the relics in a barrel under layers of pork to slip them past Muslim guards, a scheme they later depicted in a mosaic above the portal that is farthest left of the front entrance.

While Venice is replete with Baroque churches, St. Mark’s Basilica is an exotic outlier, with its massive marble columns, graceful arches, and onion domes clad in lead. Look carefully about and you’ll also see a hodgepodge of ornaments that were brought back piecemeal over the centuries by Venetian merchants who had sailed to the Orient and back.

To see the interior—a “glittering robber’s den” encrusted with gold mosaic tiles, set unevenly to better refract the light—you will have to survive the basilica’s infamous queue, as well as its strict rules for entry, but both are a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing one of Europe’s finest churches.

GETTING THERE:  For directions to Piazza San Marco from various locations, including the train station and Piazzale Roma, click here.

HOURS:  Summer hours for the basilica are from 9:45 AM – 5:00 PM weekdays and Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 2:00 PM – 5:00 PM. Please check the website below for hours at other times of year.

NOTE:  Modest dress is required (cover those knees and shoulders!) and photography is not allowed, nor are large bags and purses. To avoid the maddening queue to get in, consider making a reservation online.

COST: Admission to the basilica itself is free, but small and very worthwhile charges apply to enter the chancel, treasury and loggia, areas which include the Pala d’Oro, a gold altarpiece constructed of enamel icons and encrusted with gemstones; an odd and extensive collection of chalices and reliquaries containing the blood and bones of saints; and the original gilded horses of St. Mark, the prize of so many lootings over the centuries.

MORE:  If time permits, consider purchasing a Chorus Pass for €12, which grants admission to sixteen churches in Venice.

WEBSITE:  Basilica di San Marco

#8

Visit the Doge’s Palace to walk across the Bridge of Sighs and see the prison cell from which Casanova famously escaped

The Palazzo Ducale, which adjoins St. Mark’s Basilica, was once the residence of the Doge of Venice. To make the most your experience here, book a “Secret Itineraries” tour with a well-trained guide, who will explain the civic and political history of the city and its “Council of Ten.”

You will see where the most delicate administrative tasks were performed, in an attic space far removed from prying eyes, then you’ll continue through the Chancellery, where walls of cabinets once contained secret documents, before arriving in the torture chamber in which prisoners were hung by their arms from ropes. You’ll even get to cross the infamous Bridge of Sighs and enter the prison itself to see the cell once occupied by Casanova, and from which he made his daring escape.

Along the way, be sure to keep your eye out for centuries old graffiti scratched into the window panes by bored clerks.

GETTING THERE:  If arriving by vaporetto, chose either the Vallaresso or San Zaccaria stop. For more information, click here.

HOURS:  From April to October, the Doge’s Palace is open daily from 8:30 AM – 7:00 PM, and from April-March, daily from 8:30 AM – 5:30 PM. “Secret Itineraries” tours in English run at 9:55 AM and 11.35 AM and should be reserved in advance.

COST:  A full-price ticket valid for the Doge’s Palace as well as the Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and the Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana costs €16. The “Secret Itineraries” tour is €20. For those tourists who intend to visit many of the city’s churches and museums, purchasing the Venice Card (€39.90 for adults) may be a worthwhile option.

MORE:  In addition to the Doge’s Palace,Venice offers an array of enticing museums. If time permits, or foul weather forces you indoors, consider visiting the following: Gallerie dell’Accademia (pre-19th century Venetian art); Peggy Guggenheim Collection (contemporary art); Museo Correr (collections focus on the art and history of Venice); or Ca’ Rezzonico (a museum of 18th century art).

WEBSITE:  Palazzo Ducale

#7

Gaze out across the rooftops of Venice from the top of the campanile in St. Mark’s Square

While most ancient bell towers in Italy require a sturdy pair of legs, the campanile in St. Mark’s Square has a large and speedy elevator. Ride it to the top for the sheer pleasure of the view. From a height of 324 feet, you can easily see the entire city, with a rim of coastline in every direction. Look for the iconic church of Santa Maria della Salute at the mouth of the Grand Canal. If you scan the red tiled roofs carefully with a camera lens or a telescope, you might also spy the elegant spiral staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo.

Rest assured, while the original 15th century campanile collapsed into rubble quite suddenly in 1902, the reconstructed tower won’t fall again because Venice recently completed a multi-year engineering project to shore up its foundation.

LOCATION: Piazza San Marco

HOURS:  Summer hours for the campanile are from 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM. Please check the website below for hours at other times of year.

COST:  A ticket to ride the elevator to the top of the campanile costs €8.

MORE:  For another extraordinary view of the city of Venice, take a vaporetto out to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and take the elevator to the top of the bell tower there.

WEBSITE:  Basilica di San Marco

#6

Visit the Rialto Market to experience the vivid sights, sounds, and smells of Venetian life

In the morning, the open-air Rialto Market is a feast for the senses, as local farmers and fisherman unload trays of fresh squid, cuttlefish, crabs and clams, as well as baskets of whatever produce is in season, from cherries and grapes to peas and asparagus.

If the old adage about eating with your eyes first is true—mangiare con gli occhi, as the Italians would say—you will stroll about and leave feeling very full and very happy.

LOCATION:  San Polo, Campo de la Pescheria (fruits and vegetables) and Campo de le Becarie, Loggia Grande and Loggia Piccola (fish)

HOURS:  The markets open around 7:00 AM. Note, the produce market is closed on Sundays and the fish market is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

WEBSITE:  Mercato di Rialto

#5

Go shopping anywhere and everywhere for Murano glass

While the fame of Venetian glass extends back to the Roman Empire, all of the furnaces and foundries were moved to the island of Murano in 1291 out of fear that a fire would consume the city’s wooden buildings. Today, the art, craft, and tradition of Murano glass continues and local boutiques sell a dizzying array of whimsical sculptures and ornate chandeliers.

On one of my visits to Venice, the shop window at Pauly & Co. in St. Mark’s Square displayed a series of balloon animals that would surely pass for the real thing, in addition to a green fedora for €7,500, and a folded shirt, complete with buttons, for €8,100. A craftsman even made what would appear to be Cinderella’s glass slipper, although at nearly €11,000 most women would need to marry Prince Charming to be able to afford it.

For a far less expensive option and one that’s easy to slide into a suitcase already bulging with Italian souvenirs, shop for jewelry instead.

RECOMMENDATIONS:  Personally, I like the jewelry collections at Antica Murrina and Le Perle. Here are some other suggestions from Lonely Planet.

NOTE:  If you spend enough and you’re a non-EU citizen, consider applying for a VAT refund.

#4

Escape the crowds for a day and go island hopping

Eventually, even the most ardent admirer of Venice will want to escape for the day to the nearby islands of Murano, Burano, or Torcello. The first is best known for glassmaking, the second for lace, and the third—I suspect—for being seldom visited by tourists.

Start with a short boat ride to Murano, where you can any number of glass factorys for a free tour. In the heat of the furnace, the craftsmen work quickly and deftly with molten glass that is roughly the texture of salt water taffy, just be wary of the salesmen who will follow you afterwards into the showroom. They can turn the subtle art of browsing into an uncomfortable, high stakes game of cat-and-mouse.

Next, make your way to Burano, a tiny fishing village where the streets are a riot of color, lined with houses that are painted in improbable shades of blue, orange, green, purple, and red. Flower pots rest on window ledges, laundry hangs to dry, and in the summer nearly every front door stands ajar, covered only with a striped curtain that catches the breeze, as a sail might on a boat.

If time remains, consider one last jump to Torcello. There is a brick walkway that leads away from the dock, but much of the island consists of open fields and undisturbed wetlands. Follow the path to a cluster of old buildings that includes two magnificent churches side-by-side—Santa Fosca, which is low and round, and the more conventional Santa Maria Assunta, with its solitary bell tower. Both are primitive, peaceful and calm, far removed from the opulence of Venice and its madding crowd.

GETTING THERE:  The islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello are easy to reach using public transportation. Vaporetto line numbers 12, 13, 14, 4.1, and 4.2 make the journey to Murano from Fondamente Nove (on the north side of Castello), and line number 12 continues on to Burano and Torcello.

COST:  Travel to the islands is included with a standard ACTV ticket

WEBSITES: Murano, Burano, Torcello 

#3

Be indulgent and hire a gondolier

Yes, it is cliché, and it is expensive, but you have traveled long and far to come to Venice, and you really should ride in a gondola.

Henry James once wrote that “little mental pictures rise before the collector of memories at the simple mention, written or spoken, of the places he has loved.” When he conjured an image of Venice, it was not Piazza San Marco that he thought about, nor was it the basilica, or the dome of the Salute church, or even the Grand Canal. Instead, in his mind’s eye he saw:

“…a narrow canal in the heart of the city—a patch of green water and a surface of pink wall. The gondola moves slowly; it gives a great smooth swerve, passes under a bridge, and the gondolier’s cry, carried over the quiet water, makes a kind of splash of stillness. A girl crosses the little bridge, which has an arch like a camel’s back, [and] you see her against the sky as you float beneath… On the other side of this small waterway is a great shabby façade of Gothic windows and balconies… It is very hot and still, the canal has a queer smell, and the whole place is enchanting.”

I rest my case.

LOCATION:  Gondolas depart from nearly every dock in Venice, so wander about and pick a neighborhood that appeals to you. Most itineraries will include at least a short piece of the Grand Canal, but it’s often a ride along the quiet side canals that is most enchanting.

COST:  The rates for gondoliers are fixed by the city of Venice. During the day, expect to pay €80 for a 40-minute ride for a maximum of six people, and €40 for each additional increment of 20 minutes. In the evening, the rate increases to a base price of €100. If you would like to be serenaded by your gondolier, that fee is additional and must be negotiated.

Too expensive? Here are some affordable alternatives:  1) Share a gondola ride with others at Santa Maria del Giglio; or 2) Take a traghetto across the Grand Canal. For a list of crossing points, click here.

WHAT TO EXPECT:  Gondola Rides in Venice: How to Get the Most from your Venice Gondola Experience

WEBSITE:  Gondola Venezia

#2

Spend a lazy evening under the stars listening to the orchestras play in Piazza San Marco

It’s said that when Casanova escaped from prison in 1756, he stopped off for a cup of coffee at Caffè Florian before fleeing to Paris. It’s easy to understand why when you see how lively and pleasant Piazza San Marco becomes at night, once the crowds have slipped away.

There are three restaurants in the square, each with neat rows of tables and chairs, and awnings under which an orchestra plays. Take a seat at Caffé Florian, Ristorante Gran Caffé Quadri, or Caffé Lavena, order a cocktail, lean back and relax as you are serenaded with sentimental waltzes and lively folk dances.

No one will blame you if you get up and dance.

LOCATION:  Piazza San Marco

HOURS: 

  • Caffé Florian is open daily from 9:00 AM – 11:00 PM in the summer, and closed Wednesdays in winter (menu)
  • Ristorante Gran Caffé Quadri is open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch from 12:30 PM – 2:30 PM, and for dinner from 7:30 PM – 10:30 PM
  • Caffé Lavena is open daily from 9:30 AM – 11:00 PM

NOTE:  To avoid an unhappy surprise when the bill arrives, please know that there is a supplemental charge per person whenever the orchestra is playing.

WEBSITES:  

#1

Put away the map and get lost

In a city built of islands, where there are 150 canals and 400 bridges, maps are of little use, and modern gadgets like cell phones with GPS, even less so. For that reason, it can be genuinely difficult to find things in Venice, so resolve to discover them instead. The lack of intention makes all the difference in the world. It allows frustration to give way to serendipity.

In exploring the city’s labyrinthine streets and canals, you may find comfort in periodic signs that read “Per Rialto and “Per San Marco,” but notice how they often they point in two directions at once, creating endless combinations.

Right, left, right.

Left, left, right.

Follow your fancy and see what pleasures await. On one of my tramps around Venice I was treated to shop windows that had exotic spices stacked into powdered pyramids, papier-mâché masks formed into the fanciful faces of cats, hedgehogs and owls, and tiny gold fish suspended in blown glass aquariums of every size and shape.

Walk on, and soon you’ll find yourself wondering what more there is to see just around the corner, and you’ll be tempted to devote the entire day to finding out.

It will be a day well spent.

LOCATION:  It matters not.

HOURS:  Unlimited.

COST:  Nothing.

MEMORIES:  Priceless


Where to stay when in Venice

My personal choice is always the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo at Santa Croce 2063, but don’t just take my word for it. Check out their reviews on TripAdvisor.

Hotel Al Ponte MocenigoHotel al Ponte MocenigoDSC_3323c


A Photo Gallery of Venice

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

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

Perhaps an explanation is in order.

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

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

Let’s weigh the evidence, shall we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seems I am going back to Italy after all.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 6, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, I hope not.

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

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

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

Bullshit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 7, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m glad I came.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 9, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

I AM (most decidedly) HERE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 10, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I might just keep walking.