Years Before We Went…
I have a friend who recently spent two years living in Cambodia, feeling that country’s magnetic pull, saying her life wouldn’t have been the same if she hadn’t gone. I’ve felt that way about Italy for years. I traveled to Door County, Wisconsin, over 10 years ago, falling for an inexpensive print I saw in a gallery. White houses with tiled roofs flowed down toward clear blue water, and I felt instantly transported to the top of that village hill. I put the painting in my kitchen, and when my Cambodian-living friends visited, the husband said the painting reminded him of a small Italian coastal town they visited. The food, the culture, the very idea of Italy has always called me east, and finally we got our chance to visit in 2011.
Our neighbor called our trip a “once-in-a-lifetime” and she was right. Although we knew we’d be doing much of the trip with a group, we made the most of it by using our free hours to explore, to really see how the Italians live.
Rome hummed with the energy of Vespas. They gathered in hordes at the stoplights, engines revving, to surge ahead en masse when the light turned green, zipping past slower cars and trucks. They’d thump onto the sidewalk to pass lumbering tour buses, returning to the street moments later.
We hopped a bus to Piazza Venezia, where the monument of Victor Emanuel II, first king of the unified Italy, loomed 250 feet above, towering over cars and buses whizzing around the roundabout below. Sometimes, the public transportation system puzzled – the Piazza Venezia lured us back on the second day, and since the bus route stops handily at the edge of the roundabout, we figured it would be easy to hop a bus back to our hotel, so we boarded and waited. And waited. Our driver got off the bus and walked off, gone for at least 15 minutes. Cigarette break? Lunch? Sick of driving? We never did find out.
But the first evening, the Trevi Fountain was our goal. We had no map or GPS, but figured the river of tourists would prove just as reliable, so we joined the flow down a side street. I watched an elderly lady stop before a massive wooden door, at least 12’ high. Market bag in one hand, key in the other, she opened a section of the door and, White Rabbit-like, disappeared inside. Thoughts of the Trevi were forgotten – what was behind the door? What did her apartment look like? With the door shut firmly, we were left to wonder.
Of the hundreds of fountains in ancient Rome, Trevi is one of the most beautiful. The façade is made of travertine stone, the statues of carrera marble. Every day, it spills over 2 million cubic feet of water, which cascades down into a luminous aqua green pool, the evening lights glowing, changing the water from gold to opal. We threaded our way through hordes of tourists and locals to find a spot at the edge of the fountain, leaning against each other to rest.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is at the edge of Piazza dei Miracoli, and people watching there is an absolute hoot. Minus the Tower for reference, many people seem to be leaning against invisible walls, one hand propped against air, while their companions snap pictures of these odd poses. There’s a spirit of fun around the Tower, with people milling, necks craned backward, all enjoying the oddity of a leaning building.
The Tower is larger than I expected, and it leans a great deal more than pictures show. It took over 175 years to build. Think about it – 175 years for one structure alone. It’s this sense of time that gives Italy its character. Our house is over a century old (and it leans a bit) but it certainly didn’t take that long just to build.
Starting with an inadequate foundation on soft ground led to the Tower’s decided tilt. Restoration work left the tower with an almost-four degree tilt, better than its original 5.5 degrees. It’s what gives Pisa its notoriety, and we wondered what would happen to tourism in the area if the tower were righted completely. The rows of tour buses would be gone, and the long lines of vendors selling everything from scarves to maps to coffee mugs would be forced to set up shop elsewhere.
We spent quite a while walking around the Tower, then headed across the cement to the Duomo. It was refreshingly cool in the shade, and we rested a few minutes before investigating a few gift shops nearby. Who can resist the allure of a leaning coffee mug for a dear friend who’s into coffee memorabilia? Not I. We walked across a narrow lawn to the Campanile, the free-standing bell tower, then decided that it was time to explore the town itself.
A few people have told me that they didn’t think there was much beyond the Piazza dei Miracoli, but Pisa is a great town for exploration. It took but a block before the hordes of tourists had thinned, and we roamed winding streets, stopping to admire the medieval-looking buildings. It’s interesting that a town’s reputation is built around one building, the rest all but forgotten in the tour books. Pisa is truly a charming town – narrow brick-lined streets and wrought iron balconies and gates kept us exploring for at least an hour. We passed the University of Pisa, where a door stood open. Had school started? What lessons were being taught?
Time didn’t allow for more exploration, so this remains a city for “next time.”
One great thing about Italy is the feeling you get of keeping one foot in the present, the other stuck firmly in the past. Nowhere was this more evident that in Florence (Firenze) the capital of Tuscany. In the city center, the buildings were completely medieval and it wouldn’t be surprising to see someone emerge from a building, decked out in period clothing, carrying a covered basket on her way to market.
Traffic isn’t allowed in the historic part of the city, so we had the better part of the day to roam at will. I use the term loosely, because you’re “roaming” with what seems like a million other tourists, so “jostling” is a more appropriate term. All the tour guides carry flags, so the city can end up feeling like there are teams of tourists, each lining up behind their flag to rally on to the next stop.
We found few spots that were free of the usual tourist-y hustle and bustle. Markets reminded me of anthills, tourists jostling and mingling for a deal. The narrow streets and tall buildings left us feeling like the city was pressing down, but we managed to find our way – very loosely – with a map.
The Duomo was absolutely fantastic. It’s a massive Gothic structure designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, built on the site of the 7th century Church of Santa Reparata. It was actually built in two sections, beginning in the 13th century. According to a guide, the Black Death construction, then it resumed. The exterior is a beautiful mix of pink, white and green marble, with the green forming an intricate Gothic pattern up the side of the structure. It took two centuries for the cathedral to be “officially” finished, and it absolutely towers over the street – it’s fun to crane your neck to see the people, almost 300 feet up, touring the dome. Walking the perimeter is a workout itself, but well worth it to get a complete scope of this amazing structure.
We found our way to Lorenzo de Medici’s palace a few streets away and decided to go in for a tour. The Medicis came to power under Cosimo de Medici during the late 14th century, and were known as Florence’s bankers. Lorenzo’s Palazzo Medici was beautiful – I expected something a bit more drab inside, given that it was built in the mid-1400s, but I was impressed. Chandeliers, wall tapestries and a central courtyard were luxurious and beautiful.
We took a breather from the heat by sitting under the loggia of the Piazza della Signoria. It’s a great people watching destination, and an hour passes like a minute. Guards or watchmen of some type patrol the piazza, reminding people that no food or drink is allowed, at least where we sat. I never did figure out why, but it added another dimension to the people watching – some sipped and munched quickly when the guards’ backs were turned, while others shoved their food into backpacks.
Sights ranged from sophisticated shoppers inside Gucci and Versace stores, to medieval-looking butcher shops. In my hometown, butcher shops announce themselves by the owner’s name on a sign outside; in Florence, this announcement was much more blatant. Fake animal heads mounted above the doors cast baleful glances down, the antithesis of the sunny Wal-Mart greeter’s attitude we’ve gotten used to.
No Walking and Talking at the Post Office…
We got back to our hotel room, one so tiny that you could turn around and bump into yourself without trying. We had about an hour before supper, so we decided a walk was in order. First things first, though – postcards needed to be mailed, so we headed across the square to the post office. Inside, a machine with three categories and three buttons provided tickets that dictated what line you’d get into. Domestic mail? International? Business class? After taking our ticket, we waited in line for about 20 minutes, only to find that we had chosen the wrong line. Back to the machine, another ticket, and another wait. Thankfully, this was the right line, but the poor guy behind the counter couldn’t understand a word we said. After reassuring him (“si, si”) that we wanted our postcards mailed, we limped along with broken Italian and hand gestures.
One customer was gesticulating as only the Italians can, waving his hands and talking to his companion. He was so engrossed in conversation that he ended up running into the glass doors of the post office, bouncing off like a tennis ball. We pretended not to notice as we followed him out. On the sidewalk, we realized we had 10 minutes left until supper, so we shrugged off the walk and headed back across the square to dress for dinner.
No Fork Left Unturned…
It was time to hop on the bus for our dinner in the Italian countryside. An hour outside Florence, La Certosa restaurant is situated opposite the Charterhouse of
Florence, which was built in the 13th century and formed from the Old Chemist of the monks. We gave a great deal of credit to Guiseppe, our bus driver, who navigated the beast through a hairpin driveway and up a steep hill to reach the ristorante. Dinner was great – wine, steak, vegetables, and afterward, dancing. Sure, La Certosa had gone “tourist” on us – a singer who crooned Americanized Italian songs á la Johnny Fontane in the “Godfather” wedding bash – but we fell for it anyhow.
We couldn’t figure out the extra “family” member at dinnertime, though. It was an older man who reminded me of Howard Cosell with glasses, and his main job seemed to be toting a bunch of forks from table to table. When I set down my fork after a course, he materialized at my side, whisked away the grubby offender, and replaced it with a sparkling version. What would happen if I just didn’t put my fork down??? I never did find out…
The evening finished with a rousing rendition of the Village People’s “YMCA,” and on the dance floor, I couldn’t tell who was a tourist and who was a local. It just didn’t seem to matter. To this day, I smile whenever I hear “YMCA” and think of our night in Tuscany.
No Pajamas in Wal-Mart…
A day or so later, we ended up in Verona, home to the legendary Juliet’s balcony. Originally a Roman city, Verona has many Roman ruins still in evidence, like the huge Arena that loomed over us on the way in. The Arena reminded me of the Coliseum, on a smaller scale, but still, it was ancient and impressive. Verona is quite close to Venice, but minus the hordes of tourists clogging the streets, which made roaming around a bit easier.
As in Rome, we followed the throngs to Casa di Giulietta, Juliet’s balcony, along the Via Cappello. I marveled that hundreds of people could jam themselves into a
space the size of – I’m guessing – 700 square feet. Every single inch of wall space was littered with graffiti – red lipstick hearts, blue inked messages of love in several languages, and gobs of chewing gum fashioned into hearts were plastered to the walls. People who paid a few euros for the opportunity of touring Juliet’s house hung over the balcony, waving to friends below.
My pragmatic side took over, and I took pains to find my husband and point out that this wasn’t even Juliet’s balcony – there is no proof that this place was connected to Shakespeare and heck, the balcony itself dated alllll the waaaay back to 1936.
He sighed and rolled his eyes, wondering if only for the moment, I could just let the romance and drama overtake me. I’m still trying on that account, and thankfully, Verona had much more to offer.
Marble sidewalks flowed between rows of marbled storefronts, and people watching was at its best. Women wearing skirts and lovely blouses, some in dresses, and many in high heels, rode bicycles past. High heels and bicycles! And the men – suit pants and button-down shirts, jackets slung casually over their
shoulders, shoes polished to a gleam, walked in pairs along the wide sidewalks. It was sartorially inspiring, and I knew I’d never see an Italian in his pajamas in public.
After stopping at a pasticceria for tiny pastries that melted away in our mouths, we headed for Castelvecchio, a few minutes’ walk. Built under the direction of Lord Cangrande Il della Scala, the castle served to stop invaders during the Middle Ages. Construction ran from 1354-1376, and we learned later that Napoleon, who occupied Verona in the late 1700s, had stayed at Castelvecchio several times.
Unlike many of the other elaborate buildings we’d seen, the castle had very little ornamentation. It was imposing, with four main buildings within the thick walls, seven towers rising up. The long-ago moat is now dry, but the overall effect is still powerful, a step back into military history.
We only had a handful of hours to discover what a treasure Verona is, and this brief stop whetted our appetite to learn more. Ultimately, our goal is to return to Italy, both for vacations, and with the hope of living there for one month each year. Verona is definitely on our list of places to revisit.
On to Venice…
Venice is the only place on earth where man comes closest to the feeling of walking on water.
It’s that simple. Sure, guidebooks go on and on about the way Venice resembles a film set, or extol its “magical” qualities, but nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to the physical effect of walking to the very edge of a sidewalk, stopped only by the vast expanse of the Laguna Veneta stretching out before you.
Motorized vehicles aren’t allowed here, so vaporettos (water buses) serve as transportation. If anyone suggests that you take a gondola ride and get serenaded by a troubadour, consider skipping it – exploring the myriad pathways and dead ends on foot is a much more rewarding adventure, and you’ll really get the feel of how the Venetians live.
It’s said that native Venetians have a map of Venice imprinted in their minds, and our flimsy paper map served as only a loose estimation of where to go. We found ourselves at the edge of the Fondamenta Sacca San Girolamo, looking out over the lagoon, and decided there was no better spot for lunch. I watched a stout grandma walk slowly out her front door, clad in a flowered housedress much like my grandma used to wear – did she have a tissue tucked into her bra strap, too? She set her market basket down, locked her door with a large key that disappeared into a pocket, then picked up the basket and made her way carefully over the cobblestone sidewalk to wherever the day was taking her.
A few streets over, fishermen cleaned nets and called to each other in their dialect. We were far from the throng of tourists that clogged the rest of the city, and felt a sense of expansiveness as a result. We passed outdoor restaurants, small shops, and the Venice Ghetto, where one bridge over, a group of men wore dark clothes in the midday heat, their peyots (sidelocks) winding spirals that rested on the tops of their jackets.
And yes, sooner or later we knew we had to find St. Mark’s Square. Truly, no visit to Venice should miss this spot. We had a limited idea on how to get there – basically just a sense of direction that it was “this way” – but knew that if we followed the train of tourists, we’d find it. What struck me was the way the sidewalks meandered, and the staggering variety of stores that we saw along the way – food markets, clothing boutiques, jewelry stores – really, something for everyone.
Sidewalks opened onto campos (called “piazzas” in other Italian cities) and in some campos, churches anchored the scene. Beggars were everywhere – it’s hard to take many of them seriously, because if we watched long enough, they’d get up, grab their cane, and walk away like nothing was wrong. One lady was different, though – she looked Indian, and a gauzy headdress covered part of her face. She held out a cup and called out from a mouth missing many teeth, shrunken lips covering what remained. I felt drawn to her – other beggars were easy to ignore, but not her. I wanted to know where she lived, who relied on her for support, and where did she go once the tourist season died down. I’d never find out, but the questions still remained.
St. Mark’s Square was great for people watching – hundreds packed the square – but what grabbed me was Caffé Florian around the corner. It boasts of being Italy’s oldest cafe – opened in 1720 – so having a drink in a restaurant that’s almost 300 years old gives you the chance to be a part of the tradition, to experience what thousands have enjoyed before you. Amazing.
On the other end of St. Mark’s is the Doge’s Palace – the residence of the doge, the supreme authority of the Republic of Venice. Several older renditions are evident in the foundation, with the present structure built in 1340. Doge Francesco Foscari extended the structure in 1424, and it towers over the laguna, a massive Gothic structure that makes a statement about power in the Middle Ages.
It was time to go, which was very difficult. We had stopped in campos and watched young children play soccer and climbed to the top of the Rialto bridge, the only bridge in Venice to survive the bombings of World War II. Our son got surrounded by a covey of “Ladies who Lunch” in St. Mark’s Square. We passed a restaurant at the edge of the square and stopped to admire the laguna. Steven was a few steps behind us, and paused to take some photos – as he stretched his arm above the crowd for a good shot, a group of grannies left the restaurant. They seemed unaware that he stood in their midst, because they were intent on what? Saying their goodbyes? Exchanging recipes? Dissing the wait staff? Their Venetian dialect was impossible to understand, but no matter – ladies who lunch are the same no matter where you are.