“Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand different circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will…whatever we may think.
They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures…and the best of them lead not only outwards in space, but inwards as well. Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection…
These thoughts belong to Venice at dawn…
Lawrence Durrell Bitter Lemons of Cyprus
September 15, 4:30 in the afternoon. Terminal 1 Air Canada Lounge
We saw the sun rise over Europe.
A thin sliver of crimson split the night sky inching up to blend with the sun’s rim light at the edge of a layer of deep gray night clouds.
A vibrant rose glow eventually back-lit this gun metal gray layer until it took on the sun’s crimson colouring. Foreshadowing? Perhaps God was providing a preview. Later, as our journey unfolded, we would see these peach, pearl, opal, ochre, terra cotta colours again in the fields, walls and roof- tops of Tuscany.
As we descended into Milan, the fullness of colour faded as the dawn-tinted clouds eventually gave way to dark gray again. Ombra. It felt as though a shadow was following us down.
Fog was falling from the clouds. The shadowy sky hovered over the airport and runways, bringing the humidity with it.
Finally, I am in Italy.
It feels as though it has taken me a lifetime to get here.
My father left Italy at the age of 14 and never returned.
He sailed on the “Roma,” third class, on October 14, 1926. From Vacri a small town in Chieti province he came to join his father Adamo in Sault Ste. Marie. His younger brothers, Ignatius, Mario and Michele would soon follow. Letizia, his mother had passed away.
Giuseppe Nanni landed at Ellis Island and cleared immigration on November 3rd. On November 4th he arrived in Canada at La Colle, Quebec. His tattered old passport says he was 16. But, that was a lie. Looking closely you can see where the date has been clumsily erased. Someone changed the 10 to an 8. Boldly wrote over the number. The penmanship and ink were blatantly different than the original. Perhaps he couldn’t sail on his own unless he was of age.
On the Nanni family record registered in Vacri his birthday is listed as February 23, 1910. It seems my father was as determined to get to Canada as I was to get to Italy.
As we taxi to the terminal I can’t help but wonder if he felt then as I do now.
The elevators at Milan’s Malpensa Airport have a mind of their own.
Perhaps it is because too many stranieri are trying to make them behave as they expect North American elevators do. Or maybe it is because the befuddled touristi are just too sleep- deprived and jet-lagged from flying all night that the lifts have decided to have some fun with them.
It became a game. Too many, too-cumbersome, too-heavy bags are dragged and thrown between the opening and closing jaws of the doors. Man tilting with machine. The tourists stand outside the elevator attempting to adjust their next move to the timing of the opening and closing, while those who managed to squeeze themselves in amongst the luggage push buttons that refuse to obey their frustrated fingers.
Fatigue, aggravation and uncertainty seem to be in sync with the elevators. Frustration is feeding them. Eventually the elevators grow tired of their little game and carry the defeated passengers to their next level of confusion.
Now, there are cars to rent, trains and buses to catch. And journeys to begin.
t 40 minutes to Termini Cadorna
On the railway ride into Milan, the Tappers are evident in all their artistry.
The have sprayed their names, signs and caricatures on the concrete walls of buildings, bridges and out-of-service trains so much so that you feel you are in New York City and not Milan. We flash by big, bold, vivid faces, symbols and sayings that we can’t understand. These paintings shout at us, “Benvenuti al Italia,” in a shocking new-world way. This only happens in America.
You don’t expect this in Italy.
Antica Locanda Dei Mercanti
Via San Tomasco is a simple little street just off Via Dante in the centro storico of Milano. Our cab driver had no trouble finding it. Our hotel, though, was nowhere in sight.
We stopped at the corner. The proprietor of a Travel Agency was standing outside his store.
“Dov’e la Antica Locanda Dei Mercanti?” asked our driver.
“E qui,” he replied, pointing to what looked like an ordinary apartment building next door.
Yes, there it was, #6 the address we were looking for. But, there was no sign. Nothing was obvious from the street. Not even the small white card scotch taped to the door.
The man from the travel agency indicated that the hotel was on the second floor. Inside the dark foyer we found a larger sign and half a flight of stairs up we found an elevator.
It was the size of a phone booth.
I went with the bags. Norma climbed the stairs.
Sliding back the steel-grate doors I saw a woman dressed in black like the women that work at Holts in Toronto. Our innkeeper. She smiled as she told us that our room wasn’t ready. The room would be ours at noon.
It was 9:30 in the morning.
Sleep walking in Milan… We stepped out on to the streets of Milan and found the humidity waiting for us like a faithful dog. For two travel exhausted, sleep-deprived neophyte travelers, Milan has too many people and too much energy. But the streets are the only place we can go now. Armed with a map with hastily circled points of interest given us by the woman at the hotel we leave Via Tomasco and find our way to a pedestrian only area. Two strangers on strange streets.
We wander. Espresso, caffe latte and brioche become our breakfast at an outdoor café. Only because the waiter doesn’t understand what we want and because we don’t really know.
We walk. The Duomo looms up before us. Massive, ornate and white-spired it dominates our view. Inside, its seems to double in size. Outside, the expanse of the piazza matches the church in magnitude.
They started building the Duomo in 1386. Napolean ordered them to complete it in 1813 when he ruled Milan. He was a man who liked to get things done. Perhaps he knew he had to finish it to make room for the people and the pigeons.
After settling into our Hotel it wasn’t until after 3:00 that we were back on the streets of Milan.
The heat and humidity had peaked. So had the crowds of tourists. We were making a gallant attempt to catch up with ourselves and the time and place we were suddenly immersed in. We hadn’t slept in 24 hours and we hadn’t eaten. Lunch was on our disoriented minds and Lesson One was quickly learned: Lunch is served between 12:30 and 2:00. Mi dispiace. Paninni or pizza were our alternate choices. Which leads to Lesson Two. Don’t walk the streets of a strange city eating pizza.
A young, weary-eyed gypsy was suddenly in front of me.
“For the baby. For the baby,” she said, pushing a child to me. She held the child in one arm in some sling-like harness made with enough material to hide her other hand.
“For the baby. For the baby.” There was hardly any room between us. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Norma. Crowding her were a young boy and obviously pregnant girl.
I called Norma’s name. She began yelling. Surprised, the boy and girl backed away from her. The pregnant girl came over to me.
“For the baby.” I jumped back. Looking down I saw that the snap on my bag had been opened. The gypsies disappeared into the street as quickly as they had appeared.
They got nothing. We had been warned.
Now, we were awake.
Travel is a great teacher. If you are not a good student the end results are all too evident.
A little shaken but not deterred we cautiously continue on to our original destination, Castello Sforzesco.
Entering over an empty moat and under a grand arch you find yourself in a large courtyard. Around you are fortified red-brick walls with wide stairways leading to walkways and towers. There are three courtyards, each with buildings now converted to museums and galleries. It is in one of these that we come face to face with our first Michelangelo.
In a secluded corner his Rondanini Pieta sits unfinished. This is the piece he worked on for the last nine years of his life. You can see the powerful chisel marks in the marble. You can feel the figures struggling to emerge. Even though the marble is unpolished you can see the beauty of Michelangelo’s vision waiting to be made clear.
Curiously a third arm hangs from a block of stone beside the uncompleted sculpture. It reminds me of a poster we’ve seen of an old man holding a newspaper. Seated beside him is a woman staring off into space. From underneath the newspaper a third arm is reaching for the woman’s purse.
An incident with the gypsies, the poster and a stone third arm, I can’t help but smile at the coincidence.
The street just outside our hotel is closed to traffic.
A local bar has taken advantage of this and set up a side walk café on the road. It’s a perfect place for us to sit in the shade and enjoy a beer. When I order, I’m given a look that I know I will eventually get used to. Norma is writing the first postcards of the trip. Locals stop here making themselves comfortable with drinks and small dish of potato chips and olives. From a taste point of view it’s an odd combination, but we make a mental note that we must try this, soon.
v Our first real meal in Milan is in the Galleria.
Still disoriented from the flight and the day’s events, we settle quickly on Biffi a restaurant with tables spilling out into the Galleria. Deciding to move ourselves away from the rush and crush of curious tourists we take a seat inside and settle in to watch the show.
After a delightful dinner of veal paillard and gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce, we stroll Galleria Vittorio Emanuele’s four corridors window-shopping the great names of fashion. Italians call it “il salotto di Milano,” Milan’s parlor. Based on the milling crowds it is easy to understand why. Built in 1864, you have to admire the brilliance of this glass-ceilinged, barrel-vaulted 19th century mall designed in the shape of a cross, one corridor leading you to the Duomo and the other to Piazza Scala. Now I know where the Eaton Centre got its inspiration.
On our way back to the hotel we are caught in a loud, happy gathering of the Hari Khrisna complete with giant floats and dancing disciples in saffron robes. Milan hasn’t failed to surprise us.
That evening we were asleep by 9:00 PM. A deep, dead-man, dreamless sleep. Awake Sunday at 8:00 AM. On Italian time in just one day.
c At 10:00 AM church bells summon the Milanese to mass. Sitting on our terrace, church sounds mingle with the metronome of morning. Above us pigeons call softly to one another. Below, the traffic sporadically sends sounds swirling up to us. To this music we welcome breakfast. Fresh whole fruit, fresh squeezed orange juice tasting better than anything memory can recall, yogurt as it doesn’t taste in Toronto, hard toast which we don’t eat in Toronto, Danish which one wouldn’t expect in Milan and coffee which tastes like nothing in Toronto; rich, dark thick and sweet.
Such is our Sunday morning in Milan, our first Sunday in Italy.
2 A bicycle rattles up the cobblestone street in front of our hotel. A young mother with her son on a seat mounted just behind the handlebars is riding towards me. The boy chattered (as young children do) to his father who ran along side. The father joked with his son. Mama wore an expensive light leather knapsack…Papa had a cell phone dangling from his belt. The family was well-dressed as most Milanese families are.
I stepped back on to the narrow sidewalk and they brushed past me as if I wasn’t there.
Further down the narrow street an elderly couple were unsteadily approaching. She leaning on his arm. He leaning on his cane. Coming from morning mass. Both seemed frail as they shuffled towards me. Both were impeccably dressed as most elderly Milanese are.
I pressed myself against the stone wall of the building to let them pass.
The woman looked up and smiled.
“Piacere,” she said.
Ahead of them the young family had just turned the corner. The elderly couple continued serenely in the same direction. But, they were in no hurry.
b The colour of Campari…
The name sits on a billboard on a background as distinctive as this bittersweet liquid’s colour. That’s all that is needed for the Milanese.
Gaspare Campari invented the drink some 140 years ago in a bar in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Looking at its rosy red tint I’m reminded of the sunrise that greeted us the morning we arrived in Milan.
Campari would be the official drink of our journey
2 Milan is Sunday morning quiet. Traffic is sparse. There are few people on the streets. The day is overcast but you know the heat and humidity are only a short hour away. Reading our map we walk seeking Piazza della Scala as our first destination. Our skills are still rudimentary and the Opera House eludes us.
Instead we come across a small square with the customary statue in the centre. At first we thought we were looking at Casa di Manzoni, the museum/home of Alessandro Manzoni who, according to The Rough Guide, wrote ‘The Betrothed,’ the greatest Italian novel of the 19th century which means absolutely nothing to us. Moving closer we notice a beggar on the steps of what turns out to be a small church.
Opening the wonderful wooden doors we stepped inside to the liturgy of our first Italian Mass. Simple, serene, tranquil. The words were like music. Because of the Italian we found ourselves being pulled back to the days when Mass was said in Latin. The fear, mystery and reverence you felt, (and can never forget), as a young, frightened Catholic came flooding back.
When we left another flashback crystalized from my childhood memory. There in the piazza small groups of men were locked in serious conversation. What they were talking about was probably trivial. When I was a kid at Dufferin and Davenport, I would circle these tight gatherings hoping to be swallowed up in their circle of words that I might feel grown up.
Outside La Scala the scalpers are busy.
And not just with the tourists. Locals too are looking for seats. La Boheme is on. Franco Zefferelli has staged it. Now, I regret not having paid whatever price they were asking, just to be in the house. As we walked around La Scala we heard the tenors and baritones warming up. That would have to be enough.
Later we saw the Milanese arriving for the performance. We mingled with them feeling as though we were part of the audience about to enter this storied hall. Inside the foyer the ushers were taking tickets. They were the best-dressed ushers I had ever seen…all in black tunic and breeches with white ruffled shirt collars showing and a gold medallion on a thick chain. They stiffly guarded the doors. All we could do was catch a glimpse of the ornate foyer that led to the grand hall.
There was no chance to go further.
La Scala is not as imposing a building as I though it would be, but then, because of what happens inside, it doesn’t have to be.
l At night the lights focus on the façade of the white marbled Duomo giving perched angels the feeling of flight. The spires dance in the glow as if basking in the Northern Lights.
t Statzione Centrale…
The air is heavy with humidity and full with traffic, motorini, and construction sounds of a city working. Street noise on Monday morning. Milan is busy. The day is gray. It is time to go.
Mussolini forced the construction of Statzione Centrale as a monument to himself. Its edifice is massive. The approach to the station is traffic-congested with cars and taxis jostling for position on the traffic circle that lets you into a drop off area clogged with exhaust and diesel fumes.
Inside people swarm the “Bigletteria.” They slide up the long escalator to the concourse where more humanity ebbs and flows in front of the newsstands, snack bars and sacred souvenir shops. People exit the escalators looking up. So many people pulling, pushing carrying, carting luggage eyes raised to the “Arriva/Partenza” boards that will tell them where they are going and when, leading them to the Binario with their waiting train.
Travelers know what they’re doing. Tourists don’t.
It is easy to spot the difference in a railway station. Seasoned travelers and the Milanese don’t have that mixed look of puzzlement and pain on their faces. They have no trouble making their needs known. Up to the wicket. Out with their money. Grazie and they’re on their way. Verify the ticket in the little yellow box. Done.
Right now we are not these people.
The most significant journey is always a personal one.
Travel has a way of forcing you to deal with discoveries about yourself. You must shake off the established patterns of everyday life as you know it. The stresses of travel leave no room for emotional baggage.
On the road there is no place for undiscovered cracks in a relationship. A couple must be confident that their connection is solid.
No one is ever sure what lies ahead, regardless of what travel agents, travel books or the internet tell you. If your relationship is a good one it will get stronger, deeper, richer more mutually supportive with each passing destination.
You are alone together. Travel gives couples time and opportunity to become what they thought they were.
t The train ride to Venice was dream-like.
It was as if we were in another world. Our compartment contained us as in a womb. All that we were at that moment in time was being transported to another world and we had no apparent control of our destiny. A ride that was to take just under three hours turned into four. Lunch became apples, rolls from breakfast and water.
We passed through the lake district with misty mountains in the distance, Soave, Valpollicella wine country we had only until now read about, in a serene state.
Our train stopped in Padova to let some locals off. The looked in as they walked passed our compartment.
“Touristi,” they said with self-satisfied smugness. Welcome to Venice.
A long, thin isthmus of road and railway track attaches the 118 islands of Venice to the mainland.
Around you is the Adriatic. In the distance the picture book antiquity of Venice begins to reveal itself. As you draw closer and look over your shoulder you see a refinery on the other shore. There is no beauty in the contrast.
Are we tourists or travelers?
It is not hard to tell. In our minds we are the former. To the people of the places we visit we are the latter.
Standing in Santa Lucia Station trying to get a street map of Venice certainly brands you, instantly. Asking for directions to your hotel confirms it further. If you are struggling with suitcases or backpack in the heat of the day, a tired, drawn look on your face, trying to move yourself and your belongings somewhere, you are marked.
You are a tourist. You have not yet earned the right to be called “traveler.” That will come later when you learn how to be invisible in a strange place.
Just outside Santa Lucia Station a high bridge spans the Grand Canal.
Our hotel is just over the bridge and down a slim lane on the other side. There are steps on the bridge that you must pull your luggage up one side, then bounce your luggage down the other. Hard work on a hot day. Especially with people watching you.
Finding our hotel turned into something of a farce as well.
According to the directions I found on the Internet, the Hotel Capri was just across from the railway station down a lane next to another hotel. That hotel was visible from the bridge. Asking for directions at the desk I was directed to an adjacent lane about as wide as a suitcase. It smelled of urine and garbage and I thought that this was not an attractive introduction to a three star Venetian hotel. The alley opened up to a normal street but still nothing. Frustrated, tired, and hot I returned to the front desk, tried again, returned and tried once more.
There it was. Not like a hotel at all but rather like all the other structures around me. All I had to do was walk a little further and turn right. The look of panic left Norma’s face when I told her of my success.
It returned when she came face to face with the narrow lane.
2 Walking in Venice for the first time Light, water, night The cycle of day and tides unite Revealing islands of grand design
Your ability to adapt is an important traveling tool. Good thing we are quickly learning how to use it. Soon after settling in to our pleasant room we were back following the twists and turns of the Fondamenta, Calle, Campi Canals and Rio of Venice.
Hunger drove us to find an early dinner. Our lunch had been meager indeed. A dinner of Carpaccio with slices of fresh parmigiano sprinkled with olive oil, insalata, taglialini in a mushroom cream sauce and a bottle of Valpolicella is enough to make us feel human again. Near the train station we find dessert, gelatti.
The day ends well. 2 as voices of children rise up from the street in their innocence in the distance the canals of my dreams take me to places I have never been. as the roads and railways reach out to me i become the journey.
We woke this morning to the sound of thunder. You can only imagine the sight of lightening over the Adriatic. We have to because we are shuttered to the world outside.
Rain in Venice. The sound of its falling comes to us from the street outside our window. Excited voices of children on their way to school. Only footsteps were heard on the cobblestones. No cars. That is the strange and wonderful sound of Venice. A sound that trails off naturally into silence the further you are from the Grand Canal. Venice is a labyrinth of streets, passages, lanes and slim canals surrounded by water. Water is the sound that we are unfamiliar with. The sea swallows sound and gives back its own brand of silence.
Away from the water there are lanes in Venice that never fail to lead you to a smile. Just when you feel you are lost, the claustrophobia pushing down on you vanishes into space…the space of a simple, unexpected campo shaded with trees, dappled with sunlight from a robin egg blue sky, beckoning with benches and welcoming with gelateria, pasticeria, shops and trattoria. You know that this is your moment to sit, search your street map to find out where you really are and indulge yourself with gelati.
Wandering a narrow alley pressed with people always takes you to a postcard moment.
One of these is the market just before the Rialto Bridge. Shopping the stalls we stop for fruit. Happily we discover a fountain flowing with fresh water. Soaking my handkerchief we let the cool liquid refresh our faces. We wash our fruit. We drink. Rejuvenated we stroll on.
From not far away the cries of vendors lead us to the fish market. Our senses are assailed by sight, sound and smell. Under canvass canopies, neatly stacked on ice are all manner of seafood. Eels are pealed, stripped of their skin and stacked for sale. Shellfish, flat fish, fat fish, ugly fish, fish we have never before seen lie with octopus, squid and scampi. The Ventians haggle prices with the fishmongers. Scurrying from stall to stall with cameras clicking, the tourists are shopping for memories.
In contrast to the every-day reality of the market are the shops on the Rialto Bridge. Blatantly obvious obnoxious souvenirs that must be an embarrassment to even the Venetians, shout at you. They are so cheaply overdone, in such bad taste, that you would be embarrassed to take them home.
They were probably made in China.
The piazza is packed full of Tour Groups with Tour Guides leading them around with unopened umbrellas raised above their heads. Ragged, plodding lines of Europeans, Asians, students, even Italians circle around the umbrellas when they stop at some site of historical or artistic significance.
There are small “Palm Court” style quartets at the four corners of the square, white-shirted musicians under canopies playing waltzes, music from Phantom of the Opera, The Godfather and cheesy Italian pop tunes from everywhere in Italy but Venice.
We sit on the stone steps of the Sotto Passaggio to take advantage of the shade and try to separate ourselves from the hordes of fellow tourists filling the square. A small girl throws small pieces of croissant at persistent pigeons. They swarm the crumbs. The wings of the incoming make a whistling, lufting sound and send the others scrambling.
The corn vendors of the piazza are doing well. For 2000 Lire you can buy a bag and become a pigeon’s best friend. Hold out your hand and you’ll have them eating out of it.
Pigeons love tourists.
We go to Harry’s Bar to escape the congestion of the square.
Harry actually showed up. He sat next to us talking to a wealthy British couple. Behind us was a very rich American couple. The gentleman used a throat microphone to carry on a conversation with his companion who looked every inch the rich American socialite. Throat cancer? She spoke Italian. They talked of art galleries and exhibitions and who brought their “only adequate” chef with them to Venice. He sounded mechanical, but, he ate well; tuna tartar and grilled shrimp for lunch.
Harry knew them too.
Had we known that this was the birthplace of the Bellini we would have tried that chilled blending of Prosecco and White Peach Juice, instead we order Campari and Soda. Norma has a Caprese salad with Buffala Mozzarella, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil and black olive tapenade. I had a green salad with olive oil dressing. I have never tasted better. We both ordered risotto. Zucca for Norma. Cipriani for me. Mine had a touch of curry. Both were creamy, tender, not hard and firm like those in Toronto.
The waiters were right out of Casablanca; white dinner jackets with white bow ties. They were attentive and obviously use to serving the very rich and famous.
Harry’s Bar appears small on the outside. You would hard pressed to find it if your weren’t looking for it. Inside it is cozy with its famous bar and tables tightly laced together around it. The Campari and soda were small but perfect. It was the most we’ve ever paid for lunch in our lives.
And Ernest Hemingway never showed up.
San Marco is sinking.
Was it because of the weight of the crowds in the square?
Actually, the tide was coming in off the Adriatic.
It was creeping up through Piazza San Marco. You could see it seeping up through the stones of the square. Tourists were walking around puddles.
As we stood in line to enter the Basilica we had to step up on to a makeshift bridge because waster was everywhere. It found its way into the foyer of the Church. If you wanted to buy souvenirs you had to walk in it. There is something strange about the sight and sound of tourists sloshing around in a holy place.
You would think that Saint Mark would petition heaven for some miracle to turn back the sea and save his church. All in good time I guess.
We met the traveling Brady Bunch from Australia while having dinner at Al Ponte de Tolentini.
Her kids, his kids, seven kids and two adults, the waiter had to put four tables together. After landing in London they drove a rented van from France to Italy in their escape from the Olympics.
This must be costing them a small fortune.
Walking at night its dampness finds you. The only lights, high on the corners of old buildings act as beacons as you feel your way across the wet, glistening cobblestones. That light is diffused by the dampness.
Street signs are too high in the dark to read. Besides they are either faded or meaningless. In the maze that meets you at every turn you hesitate before deciding on a direction. Listening to the echo of footsteps behind you, your only fear is not finding your way. Venetians pass you with a sly smile. They know you are confused, possibly lost. If you asked them for directions their answers would be simple, but you still wouldn’t understand them.
That’s your fault. Not theirs. Venice is both sinister and serene. 2 San Giovanni di Evangialista Tinoretto’s Crucifiction large Upon the wall An old man Given to the church Looks into my eyes “You are Italian. I can see.” He speaks to me as if I am his son I am only someone who will listen While He tells me every detail of everything That he watches over Of the history And why the painting are so And of the stories the paintings tell And of the reasons for the craftsmanship in the carvings Of wooden pews and marble reliefs In the small church On a small street in Venice. Not a Duomo, Basilica or Cathedral But a simple church Once the Church of storied men Now in the care of a simple man Who speaks to me in a language I should know Because he believes we are the same. And that I understand.
At La Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, La Orchestra di Venezia is giving a concert.
Mozart, Vivaldi, Pachelbel, Albinoni, Boccherini, their music is played on period instruments by musicians in period costumes. From Il Balletto Veneziano two couples danced gavotte and minuetti and a Comedia Del Arte clown played to the audience, trying to win the hearts of two young women with paper flowers.
There was a certain magic to it all.
The Great Upper Hall of the Scuola made it even more so. The acoustics were excellent because the cavernous room was long and vaulted with thick drapery on the windows. Tintoretto was a Brother at the Scuola. His generosity is expressed in his massive canvasses that cover every wall. In-laid marble floors, an alter of carved marble, painted ceilings and the long, winding marble staircase took you back to a time when all this was commonplace. When men wore wigs and danced with affected, feminine gestures that spoke volumes to those who understood, in salons and halls as grand as this.
There was such a time. And it lived again for us, one night at a concert in Venice.
Doing our laundry on a rainy afternoon in Venice. Thunder. Rain falls heavy on the cobblestones Washing them clean. b Every afternoon the tides assault Venice.
They role up and in from the sea surging into the Grand Canal and its tributaries. Around 4:00 it begins. By 4:30 it has conquered stone banks and is slipping up on to the walkways lapping at the feet of people walking by.
As the Vaporetti, Draghetti, and Motoscafi go about their business, their wake takes sides with the tide and gives it added strength.
The victory, though, is short-lived as gravity and the moon call the tide back out to sea. Along the Grand Canal its banks and the palazzi are spared any prolonged attack. They are draining a Rio just off the Grand Canal. With all the water gone you are surprised at how shallow it really is. Workmen are rebuilding the embankments that hold back the tide. Pumps go all night just to keep up with the constant ebb and flow.
Still, there are too many tomorrows left in their time and time and tide continue to destroy the foundations of their existence. o On a Vaparetto to Murano…
The Grand Canal opens wide to the sea. Venice now seems ghost-like in the distance. On the island cemetery San Michele we see a funeral gondola approaching the steps of the water gate. The gray sky, green sea and the black of the mourners are colours on a passing pallet.
Go back in time to an island where craftsmen lived to create delicate beauty in fiery furnaces. The master glass blowers of Murano are dying out they say. Time was their patron would kill them if they tried to abandon their craft and the island. The young won’t apprentice. Too hot, no money in it they say.
Still, there are the tourists. The men of Murano meet them as Vaporetti empty them on to the island. They are tempted to come to the “special rooms” where the works of the last few masters can be seen and had, packaging, shipping, insurance and certificate of authenticity included, all credit cards accepted.
Some of what you see is gaudy. The glass is overly decorated with strange objects and an excess of gold. Others are modern with an infusion of colours and shapes. Then there are a few that are simply beautiful in their simplicity. Delicate lines and patterns are alive in the glass looking as if they would break if you touched them.
The island is dedicated to the art of glass and its infinite possibilities. Walking the fondamenta beside wide canals you pass shop after shop with designs you’ve already seen in the shop you just passed. Is there a souvenir factory somewhere close? There must be because someone is producing kitchey creations for the tourist trade.
Every now and then a work or originality stands out from the sameness. But, you can’t afford it. You just stop, admire, then walk on.
The rest of the island, though, is peaceful, quiet. So far out to sea that the noise of boat traffic is swallowed up in the vastness of the surrounding space. Murano is exposed to the Adriatic more than Venice is.
Perhaps that is why is appears rugged, older, less lived in, simpler.
Murano is of a world but a world apart.
Traffic on the Grand Canal is light this morning. We are bound for Salute the Vaporetto boarding dock across from San Marco. We are going to walk quayside along Fondamenta Zattere.
Looking across Canale delle Guidecca to the island of Guidecca the light of mid-morning Venice plays out before you. There is a pointillism that blends into paintings that constantly change with the movement of sun, sky, cloud, mist and water. Water-buses crossing between shores appear as if in a Monet. Canal-side cafes artfully arrange themselves for the mind’s canvas. Weather worn facades of buildings become backdrops awash with the shadows of the day. Churches shape the horizon. Looking out across the water you see a palate where light and colour are mixed and blended then splashed with buoyant abandon on the shifting scene that unfolds anew with each step you take. Variations on a theme that is Venice. Transformations in time painted indelibly on your memory.
Dorsoduro is quiet. This residential area is gentle, clean, pretty and shady. Walking here reminds you of your neighborhood back home. There are gates and gardens, flower boxes on windows, boats tied to posts sticking out of liquid driveways. In front of what looks like someone’s house, University students casually come and go. On a Rio just up from the Canal we stop in for an espresso. The smiling young bariste make you feel like a local. If I were going to stay in Venice, this is where I would live.
On this our last night in Venice we find ourselves in a place well away from tourists. Shopkeepers are locking up for the night. Taking an outside table at a trattoria we order dinner and settle in to watch Venetians hurrying by on their way home.
Their day is ending. Our stay is ending.
t Leaving Venice on a train of confusion… Traveling the trains teaches lessons. We hold a ticket to Florence, First Class. This matters little to the bored, impatient person behind the glass who says the same thing to everyone.
All of today’s trains to Florence are full. You can get on anyway. You have a ticket. You can stand.
“Go to Bologna,” is the alternative he offers.
The lesson here is book your next departure on arrival. Learn time management so that you will arrive at the station hours early with time enough to deal with the little surprises that inevitably await. Learn to improvise on the surprises and find alternate routes to your destination. Finally learn to be firm and refuse to be treated like a tourist. Norma found out what “go to Bologna” meant from a woman ticket agent.
It meant that we had 20 minutes to catch the Bologna train then another 10 minutes to transfer there to another train for Florence.
Obviously Eurorail passes and Eurostar tickets don’t impress anyone.
t Full trains. Change trains. Late trains.
Travelers talking to travelers. Brothers and sisters of circumstance. They are feeling the inconvenience you’re feeling. Train conversations last only as long as your next stop. In that time they are full of stories, personal revelations, travel experiences and recommendations. They end with smiles and best wishes, somehow bitter sweet because you part friends that may never meet again.
Out of these conversations comes a truth that few travelers admit to. They believe they move from destination to destination at their own pace. Yet while the traveler is free to go where he chooses, he goes at a timetable set for him by civil servants who do not travel. Every time we enter a station this realization becomes more clear. Schedules conspire to control time and movement. Schedules tell us when we can go and how far.
We read them and obey.
We exit the train like a Special Forces Unit about to take down the station. Crowds and clock are the enemy as we search for the train to Florence. Descending into the Sottopassagio we spot the platform number. With minutes to spare we sprint like super-humans, suitcases aloft, body checking other tourists to clear a path up wet stairs to the waiting train.
Our prize is the train itself, a first class Eurostar Express in from Zurich. Recling seats. stereo, dining car, electronic window shades and clean washrooms.
Best of all we arrive in Florence with our nerves intact, long before the too-full-train-we-were-supposed-to-take does.
t The tunnels of Tuscany…
Suddenly the darkness comes at you. All the light around you is sucked into a dark tunnel and you are alone with just the blackness and the sound of iron hurtling through stone. Beside you in the blackness another train passes in the opposite direction. The co-mingling of sound and sightlessness shocks and startles you. Looking around you see nothing, but you feel the momentary fear that every passenger shares.
Like a lightening flash daylight is thrust upon you again. Momentary blindness is blinked away and the beauty of the Tuscan countryside lulls you back to reality.
The rolling hills of Toscana remind one of Vermont except for the terraced gardens. Terra cotta pantiles on roofs break the green landscape. From the window of the train vistas that you’ve only seen in coffee table books are now made real. Reality becomes more matter or fact when you arrive at Santa Maria Nouvella in Florence.
The crowds of confused travelers are back gathered around their luggage-laden carts gazing upward at the Arriva/ Partenza board with anxious eyes. An announcement over the P.A. system has them straining to hear, waiting for the English. Somehow they know that the translation only means delayed or late trains, more uncertainty and missed connections.
Trains from Milan and Venice are hours late. Breathing easier we count ourselves lucky as we enter the Railway Information Office.
The protocol is simple; take a number and wait. There are those who don’t understand the routine. They are the ones who walk in and seeing no line-up step up to the counter and begin asking questions, only to be met with a indignant stare and immediately sent away.
Their reactions to this apparent rudeness are mixed. Resignation that they are strangers interacting with a strange system either sends them to a bench to wait or storming out of the office cursing Italy, its rail system and the bad service that goes with it.
Patience is the only way you can win here. When we finally get to the counter we discover we are booked for a destination where the trains don’t run. A place called Poggibonsi is as far as our tickets will take us. You can’t get to San Gimignano by train. You never could. There are no tracks.
Sometimes the answers you seek come to you in the form of unexpected surprises. It looks like we’ll be riding a bus to San Gimignano.
Friends and Travel Books have told us that Stazione Santa Maria Novella is a place one should leave as soon as possible. Street people make the terminal their home. Walking around their cardboard beds and plastic bags crammed with worldly possessions we make our way to the taxi stand. When we tell the driver where we are going he looks puzzled and shrugs.
11,000 lire and 5 minutes later we are standing in front of our Hotel which just happens to be around the corner from the station.
Later, over Campari and soda in the garden of our hotel, we justify our indulgence. In a day full of challenges we had met and overcome all our trials. The cab ride was our reward.
Fear is a sometime companion for travelers.
Walking in a strange city is an adrenaline rush. The crowds, the traffic, the sights and sound, the streets that lead to nowhere, all co operate to confuse you. So it was when we turned on to a wide dark road littered with the refuse of the day. Amid the intermittent mounds of garbage we saw dark figures pulling large covered carts toward us. The sight of these hulking shadows stopped us cold. This was downtown Florence near the railway station. Was there was danger in the dark?
Turning away we sought safety in the anoniminity of the busy main street. It was a good move because it brought us to a 17th century mansion whose stable area was now the Osteria All’Antico Mercato. Inside we found locals and tourists together, sharing the crowded warmth of an old Florentine restaurant with murals of the old market on the walls. That alone should have given us an indication of what we had just seen.
Next to us two American women were planning the rest of their evening’s activities. Striking up a conversation over dinner, they told us of the great shopping in the area and how they had an even worse time getting out of Venice. They highly recommended that we return tomorrow morning to the market for unbelievable bargains on all kinds of leather goods.
“Where,” we innocently asked, “ is the market?”
They looked at each other incredulously and then at us, “Just around the corner.”
Putting trepidation aside we went, after dinner, back to that street of shadows. The carts were gone. In their place police cars, street sweepers and water trucks moved slowly ahead leaving behind them a wide boulevard glistening in the lamplight. This was the market, vacant and clean, ready for the next day.
There was nothing to be afraid of after all. They were just getting ready for the tourists.
Gypsies sit on the steps of buildings cradling their children.
These are sad looking women wrapped in clothes that look like they’ve never been washed. Their eyes are wild, their hair stringy, greasy and they hold out dirty hands begging for money. Most of them are young. The children they hold are always sleeping. Sprawled in their mother’s lap, arms falling out of a make-shift sling, hair wet with sweat, they look as if they are drugged. This is to capture your sympathy. It works. But you know better than to stop and give her a few coins.
There is always a piece of cardboard with an Italian\English plea scrawled on it. A small box or basket holds a few coins. And a bottle of Acqua Minerale rests near her hand. The ones that aren’t sitting are working the line-ups around the Duomo. Tourists hold their purses tighter when the gypsies are near.
b Florence’s green, ruby and white marble layered Duomo, appears heavy-handed on the outside and plain on the inside. The trappings and artistry of the smallest of Venice or Milan’s Duomo are missing.
It is famous for the mystery of its Dome. Actually it is two domes, an interior wall and an exterior one. Between them is a slim passageway that takes you to the top.
463 steps, some original stone, some spiraling iron that twist you around and around. At times you are wedged between walls staring up at the interior curvature of the cathedral ceiling. You put out a hand to steady yourself as you climb. The feel of cool concrete mingles with the perspiration of the effort. There are small glassless windows with steel grates that funnel cool air into the small space you are climbing through. This welcome wisp of air asks you to linger but you can’t because the people behind you want to share it too and there isn’t room enough for everyone to pause and catch their breath.
Suddenly space opens slightly and the last few laddered steps lead you out into the light. Emerging into the cool air you find yourself standing on a circular balcony high above the city. Burnt-sienna, red-roofed Florence stretches out to the distant hills. Around you angels and gargoyles welcome you to their perch. They point to sweeping vistas like tour guides frozen in stone and time. Down by the lightening rods weeds grow on the Dome’s roof. A miracle of holy fertility? Climbing back down you are led to an interior balcony. It lets you look down on the church below where people move silently over marble patterns inlaid on the floor. Stained glass windows diffuse sunlight and a heightened sense of colour floods in. A second, lower balcony leaves you facing the frescoes of the dome. The details of the murals reveal a rudimentary style. This close they look clumsy, over-drawn. From the floor stories below they appear detailed and delicate.
It is plain that Bruneschelli’s dome is a marvel. Those who built it must have been awed by what they had created.
b Admission to the Uffizzi Gallery is free on Sunday. This is a small gift for us because we get to spend our twenty-third wedding anniversary standing in line for three hours. Since the Uffizzi is “U” shaped, the line extends from the entrance around the three porticos and out on to the square back to the counterfeit David
A saxophone quintet entertains the crowd. Some stand and wait while others wander the square, visit the gift shops or explore museums and sculptures at the entrance to the Piazza Vecchio. The line moves slowly. No need to be afraid of losing one’s place. Everyone understands.
An Australian family, traveling with their two sons, share a place in line with us. Their children are older than the family we met in Venice. We pass the time telling travel stories. These are open people willing to share their experiences of trains, driving, restaurants, towns and cities…it is a sharing of familiar situations that free us all to be friendly.
On the other side of the Arno a religious procession slips slowly from bridge to bridge. You can see the statues and banners held high. The band plays badly. This is something I haven’t seen since childhood when I walked in procession along Dufferin Street to Santa Maria Degli Angeli with my cousin and grandmother. Sally carried a basket of rose petals. I carefully carried a candle, afraid the dripping wax would burn my hands.
After the Uffizzi we make our way to the Galleria dell’Accademia to find the real David. Since it is Sunday there is no admission fee, just another line. In the heat of the afternoon we wonder if it is all worth it. So much of what we have seen becomes a blur. Italy is over-populated with art. 2 We found a gourmet shop on the other side of the Arno that sold authentic balsamic vinegar in tiny wax-topped bottles for a lot of money. Their bottled water was only 1200 lire.
The cheapest, so far, in Italy. The axiom being: the closer you get to an historical site, the more expensive “aqua minerale” gets.
The Motorini are everywhere.
They are like mosquitoes, annoying. They buzz all around you, their noxious exhaust stinging you nostrils, constricting your throat, making it difficult to get a decent, clean breath of air.
Almost every street has endless rows of parallel parked scooters lined up against you. On the streets, they are relentless, a maelstrom of furiously circling scooters dominating traffic as they drone swiftly by, oblivious of anything else on the road no matter how big or small.
They are driven with impunity. The helmeted faces of the riders reveal a free-for-all-attitude. Looking into their eyes you see a fearsome determination to dominate. As a pedestrian all you can do stand aside.
In Italian, vespa means wasp. Nothing is lost in the translation.
The #7 bus.
Walking to the bus stop we notice that the sky is a spectacular blue. It will be another hot day. But, we are going to Fiesole in the hills north of Florence and it is sure to be cool a half-hour away from the centre of the city.
As the bus works its way through the car-clogged streets we realize how wrong we are. We are soon pressed against people as the packed bus starts its twisting, upward climb.
Florence falls away below us. The view is worth the ride. Distant hills seen before from the top of the Duomo begin to
take shape as clouds of morning mist caress them gently and then fade into the forests. We are buoyed by the thought
of our escape from traffic, tourists and noise.
Arriving in Piazza Mino you quickly realize that everything in Fiesole is uphill. One doesn’t mind the walk, though.
Each road leads to a picture-book view. Fiesole puts Florence at its feet.
The Etruscans were the first citizens of Fiesole. The Romans took over from them and later the Florentines claimed what was left. All left behind evidence of their existence. Etruscan walls, a Roman amphitheater and baths, diggings showing foundations of an ancient civilization, artifacts of daily life from a Bronze Age Settlement left behind museum glass. Each broken bit of pottery quietly affirms that this hilltop village predates Florence by centuries.
We are happy to be here. The air is cleaner. Every now and then a wayward breeze finds its way to our faces. Sitting
on a low wall at the side of the road we welcome the cooling wind. High above the Mugnone and Arno Valleys
Florence feels so far away.
As we walk we hide in the shade from the garden walls that surround the homes. Piano music floats on the air. Someone is practicing, someone accomplished.
Via Vecchio Fiesolana leads you down San Domenico and then to Florence.
The sun reflects heat off the crumpled asphalt. Alone except for a passing jogger, a solo scooter and the odd car we are lost in the solitude of a Tuscan summer’s afternoon. The road is steep, carved into the hillside so that the valley is on one side and high walls hiding the rustic Villa Medici and others with extensive gardens separating themselves from the tourists and traffic below is on the other.
Looking up we get glimpses of these gardens. Behind these walls are homes with history. We can only strain for views through garden gates and greenery that has been grown for privacy. Bird song and the sound of our footsteps are all that break the silence. This is what we came for.
t Leaving in the morning we see a Florence not seen in post cards or picture books.
We clatter through the back tracks of a station cluttered with the wrecks and waste of construction. Abandoned, out of service railway cars spay painted back to life with colours they never saw when they were in service, flat cars carrying debris from buildings being restored and renewed. A blight on the country side.
There is no art to the greater glory of God here. Rolling into Tuscany, tents and shanty towns spread out on either side, squalor and poverty among the ancient riches.
Why is it that the approach to the storied cities of Italy is always an ugly and unexpectedly brutish experience? Why is it that railways take you through the debris and decay of a city to a terminal of confusion? What a way to approach history.
v The train to Poggibonsi wasn’t full.
Then, who travels to a place with a name like Poggibonsi? A few students, locals going to work in the next town and tourists heading to Sienna or Florence. Besides, it is an unattractive industrial town with little to attract or explore compared to others in Tuscany. And, there we were, sitting in second class on a local trail with first class tickets.
The railway schedules, even the sign at Poggibonsi station says “POGGIBONSI – S.G.” That alone will tell you that you’ve come the right place. No matter, if you’re not driving or taking a bus, this is the only way to get to San Gimignano. We should have paid more attention to our tickets.
Our other mistake was getting on the last car in Florence. You just don’t do that when a small town is your destination. Small towns have short platforms. So, when we opened the doors there was a switching apparatus at our feet. After throwing our bags out and over it, we had to drag them over gravel to get to the platform.
People are watching us. Travelers indeed.
v We are given a choice.
To get to San Gimingano from the station we could either seek out the bus depot or catch the local out front. Since we had no idea where the actual bus station was we decided against that. Besides, the directions, as usual, were unclear. After an espresso at the bar we settled ourselves and our bags out front and waited.
Soon a small yellow bus arrived. Piling on our luggage we barricaded ourselves in the seats with our bags. As the locals boarded, we realized we were the only tourists there. We must have looked quite amusing to them.
Leaving town the flat industrial strip mall landscape changed. Driving into the country found more to look at than what the people of Poggibonsi were wearing. A valley of fields sloped from hill to hill. Sunflowers black with seeds hung their heavy heads in the sun. Most were wilted, their usefulness over now that it was early fall. Around each curve in the road we caught glimpses of the walls and towers of our destination.
San Gimignano delle Belle Torri seemed to be sitting in the sky
v Porta San Giovanni
From this gate a slim cobblestone street leads to the Piazza Della Cisterna and our hotel. Already this medieval town was teeming with tourists. Cars and buses had arrived earlier. Apparently San Gimignano is a day trip for a lot of people.
Years ago the townspeople realized what they had in their fortified village and decided to turn their towered town into something more than just a beautiful place to live. Judging from the number of sightseers and shoppers they have succeeded. Norma window-shopped as we pulled ourselves and our luggage towards Hotel La Cisterna.
Not long into town we couldn’t help but notice them. Fourteen of the original seventy-six towers remain. They dominate your sightline. Built as a sign of wealth and position their owners used them as towerhouses and fortresses. Would-be attackers could expect hot oil showered down on them when they came to evict the tenants. Today, flowers and birds have squatter’s rights.
An old well dominates the piazza in front of our hotel. People walk the black herring-bone patterned cobblestones of the piazza to sit on its steps to enjoy their gelatti, write post cards, take pictures or just rest and watch.
Snapshots…of San Gimignano develop in your mind…
Boars are everywhere in San Gimignano. Shops feature sausage, salami, prociuto made from Boars. Mounted Boar’s heads, stuffed Boars hang and stand in shop windows and doorways menacing shoppers.
Mushrooms, large and varied, sliced and whole, all artfully on display with hand-printed signs that say “non toccata.” Balsamic vinegar, olive oils, wines, pizza, focaccia, dolci, panini, antipasti to take with you as you wander the streets. Take a walk and you are surprised by walls with frescos. Inside and out churches are full of frescos. Some are faded and damaged, some brilliant with colour, delight you at every turn.
On the Via Innocenti there’s a low wall looking out at yet another Tuscan vista. Sitting there we catch a glimpse of a small sign, Caffe Enoteca “Il Vecchio Granaio.” Looking in we find a lovely little subterranean wine cellar carved into the hillside. Down stone steps is a grotto where the barrels and bottles are stored. Through a glass window in the floor we see the tasting room with antique table. Sitting at a marble-topped table we are served a ’96 Chianti Classico Riserva in balloon stemware. The taste of this vintage suspends time. As Norma has been saying, “we have nothing but time.”
Painters and potters, ceramics and silversmiths. On a back street in a small studio store a young woman paints a border on an unfired plate. Blues and yellows, her steady hand lovingly fills the stark edge with colour. When done she carefully carries it to her car, lays it gently in the trunk and covers it with a blanket. The kiln is waiting.
Early afternoon. Norma shops. A small deteriorating church just inside the wall at the northern Porta San Mateo gate. A man enters through a makeshift door. I follow him. Inside, the church has been gutted down to a dirt floor. On the walls the faded frescos cry out for colour. The man watches me watching him as he pulls on a white smock. Gathering his paints he turns to the walls. A backward glance suggests that I leave. He has work to do.
Dinner al fresco on a terrace high above the valley…home made ravioli, osso buco, insalta mista, fagioli nel olio and Chianti. At 7:15 the bells of the seven towers of San Gimignano call out to one another in a chorus of celebration of a time that once was. Dinner music.
From the top of a bell tower we stand looking out over the town and down into the Elsa valley. We can see the streets and squares. The roofs of San Gimignano and the roofs of Florence are similar in shape and colour. It is the roof tiles. Birds dart in and out of the walls. The breeze dries the perspiration on our bodies. Big bronze bells sit in their cradles waiting. We can look to the tops of other towers from here. On a tower to our right are a white plastic patio table and chairs…the old and the new.
Dante came as an ambassador from Florence to negotiate a peace. I stand in the same dark Sale di Dante, frescos on the walls, carved wooden benches beneath them. Here I try to imagine the poet presenting his case to the warring families. A bust of his head sits in an alcove at the front. He looks as if he is still presiding.
v In a sliver of a silversmiths shop, Risvegli D’Arte, we see a bracelet, beautiful in its simplicity. It would be a perfect gift for Jessica.
Inside the artist is working on a silver bowl. It is full of tar to hold its shape while he follows lines laid down on the outside, engraving designs that will eventually make it a unique piece. There is another bracelet, a thin strip of silver with indented rounded clasps. I put it on.
The artist thanks me and shakes my hand. His is black with tar. Mine is clean. There is a connection, though, since his hands made what I now wear. I have not yet taken it off.
The afternoon was bright, hot and humid.
We were walking outside the town following the ancient walls of San Gimignano. At the crest of a long hill we were greeted by something completely unexpected, the Brady Bunch from Australia.
The collective surprise on everyone’s faces must have been strange to others around us. In an Italy this crowded it was a wonderful coincidence.
They were staying in a villa in Luca. Tomorrow they leave for Australia. For them, the journey would be a long one, especially after their journey to Italy. Still they were happy and together. We said our good-byes for a second time and wished them a safe journey.
No doubt we would never see them again. We don’t even know their names.
As we left San Gimignano the last thing we encountered were street vendors setting up their stalls of cheap goods in the Piazza Cisterna. Obviously Thursday was market day.
It was a good day to leave.
Ahead of us was a bus ride back to Poggibonsi and then the train to Sienna. But we had been this way before. And this time the walk to the bus stop was all downhill.
In Poggibonsi we were treated to three acts of courtesy.
oSeeing that our bags were so big and heavy the bus driver apologized that he couldn’t take us directly to the train station.
oAt the station a young student helped Norma up the steps with her bags.
oWhen the train arrived a woman took one of our bags on board for us.
We were surprised and pleased because so far unsolicited acts of kindness had been rare.
We arrive early in Sienna. After San Gimignano the first thing that strikes us is the noise. Piccolo Hotel Oliveta is a converted farm house located outside the old city. The hotel people are pleasant and accommodating even though our room isn’t ready yet.
This could have been a repeat of our situation in Milan. But, we are seasoned travelers now. After a coffee at the hotel we walk into Sienna for a cursory look around.
Passing under the old gates of the medieval walls we began noticing flags and banners hanging from buildings and decorating store windows. They all had an heraldic animal motif. Every few blocks they would change. Sienna still keeps to the old custom of the Contrade, the ancient division of the city into wards, each with its own colours. Today there are seventeen and the long-standing rivalry is still played out in the Palio.
This is a race that is run in the Campo. When we finally get there we can only imagine this vast space covered in sand with mattresses to protect the horses and the crowd. All this fuss for three short laps. But the prize is pride and a year’s worth of bragging rights. The winner’s picture and the colours of the Contrade he raced and won for are everywhere.
Even though our rooms are small and simple, the view is picture book. A mist hangs over the valley. Apparently it happens every morning and evening. The land is parched from continuous heat. Some fields are turned and the soil is dry and dusty. They could use some rain. Roosters crow in the distance. We hear horses and dogs. A tractor rattles its way to the fields.
Sunflowers hang their dark heads. They droop to the ground instead of standing up to the sun. Grapes are heavy on the vines. Sienna settles into the day.
That night we walk to a restaurant in the opposite direction to the tourist area. Arriving early we sat on a bench at a bus stop to wait. Behind us a valley gave us a sunset view of the old city. Around us the Sienese went about their business. People coming home from work. The sound of dinner finishing. Children playing or protesting about getting ready for bed. This is work-a-day Sienna as normal as if we were in Toronto. After a wonderful dinner we walk the narrow sidewalks in the dark, dodging traffic on our way back to our hotel.
For us, Sienna becomes a day-trip. We sat in the shadow of the Torre del Mangia and watched people gradually fill the shell-shaped Campo. In no mood for galleries, churches or museums at that moment, we climbed stone steps to the streets behind the square idly passing time window-shopping.
Seated on a long stone bench against a stone wall opposite the Duomo, we eat our lunch of fruit we bought from a vendor. Following the bands of black and white marble up the façade of the cathedral we admire the mosaics in the gables. We are in no hurry to go in. Perhaps we are becoming tired of churches.
Looking for gelati takes us right into the middle of milling tourists. This is the part of Sienna where tour buses unload their day-trippers. The Church of San Domenico is their first stop.
Saint Catherine of Sienna’s head is on view in a side alter. The niche where she is said to have received the stigmata is, beside an ornately decorated chapel with a small glassed in enclave displaying the tip of one of her fingers and the small braided whip she used to flagellate herself. These are the trapping of sainthood.
Elsewhere in the barn-like church is another chapel with an equally interesting human decoration. Beneath its alter, in a glass enclosure, back-lit for better viewing, are an arrangement of someone’s bones. Whose, I have no idea.
Behind another alter are artifacts and paintings stacked and strewn about as you would store things you have no further use for in an attic. The value of the art in of all these churches seem to be lost on the Italians. Not on the tourists who come and pay to admire. But then, it has always been this way for the Italians. What is all the fuss about?
For unknown reasons, we found Sienna boring.
Returning to our hotel we decided to venture into Sienna proper, to a supermarket we had seen the night before.
For 17,000 lire, we bought bread, antipasto, cheeses, mortadella and salami. Back at the hotel, on their terrace over- looking the valley we had our picnic. This is an easy afternoon in Sienna. We are resting, catching our breath before we begin the last days of our journey. Right now, this is all we need.
The day is cooler. Rain begins to fall. We don’t move. Sitting under an arbor, protected, we let the afternoon pass in its own time. This sudden lethargy is a surprise to both of us.
What do tour groups do when it rains? Do tour guides, who have done this too many times before, lead them around getting them wet?
It was raining when we set out for the railway station in Sienna. This rain followed us all the way to Orvieto.
To get to Orvieto we had to change trains in Chuisi. Now, just when you think you have these schedules finally figured out, they force you into a completely different mindset than you already have. Norma realized there was no “binario” attached to the destination. Once again, our expected train would turn out to be a bus. After an hour’s wait in the rain, we loaded our luggage into the bottom of a large blue bus. The uninterested driver stood and smoked while passengers wrestled with the compartment doors and stored their luggage below. On board we sat in seats designed for Italian midgets. Our driver stood his post like a little Mussolini checking tickets and sneering.
Once behind the wheel, though, he became a different person. He drove with skill. The small, narrow, hilly, twisting roads were nothing to him. To him the bus was a Ferrari. He had obviously done this drive a time or two before.
We rode through the back country of Tuscany into Umbria. The fields had already been ploughed. They rested now, slabs of brown and terra cotta earth turned up to receive the rain. Farmhouses and villas sat alone on distant hills. A few tall cypress trees stood with them. Grey skies and stark landscapes made this a dark journey.
Quietly we stared out of the window. The restorative beauty of the Tuscan landscape comes upon you with a gentleness that reaches deep into your soul. It brings you a peace long forgotten and a tranquility rarely felt. You are, for the moment, lost in a reverie, a memory that you will revisit again and again.
As a child growing up in Sault Ste Marie and Toronto, I used to watch my father and his brothers caring for their gardens.
Sometimes I would help.
We would turn the soil, fertilize it, then with rake and hoe render the lumps of earth into smooth, level, orderly rows ready for seeds and seedlings. Water and weed and watch as plants and vines grew upwards, downwards, along and in between the rows.
The stakes would then come out for the pyramids…three-stick tipi where beans and tomatoes would work their way up and sprout the vegetables we would be waiting for.
I always wondered where my father and uncles learned how to erect them just so. Even as I grew older every back garden I saw in the Italian neighbourhoods I grew up in always looked the same. Their uniformity felt inbred. There was little difference in style, content or organization.
This morning, from the train, in San Gimignano from the bus, in Sienna from my hotel window, I saw those same back gardens and I was back with my father and his brothers and their gardens.
Is it something that is born into those who live close to and from the land? Is it what you must do, in your simple way, to provide for your family? If your are from the country in Italy, if you are not of class, nobility or privilege, you do what every other Italian like you does. You plant, care for and harvest your back garden. And you do it the same way Italians have done for generations.
v Pulling in to Chuisi station we quickly realized we had 15 minutes to retrieve our luggage and find the connecting train to Orvieto. It was bound for Rome and crowded.
Orvieto was only 27 minutes away. For some reason we got on the last car. Standing with our luggage in the doorway we could see there were no seats available. Past experiences told us this was bound to be trouble. Bravely attempting to move from car to car with our cumbersome luggage we realized that we could maim a few passengers along the way. Reason made us stop when we saw piles of luggage in a passage-way between cars. Obviously other travelers were in the same situation. We added out bags to the pile and sat on them to wait for our stop.
An older couple sat with us. Throughout their entire trip they had never made reservations ahead of time, depending on Tourist Offices to find them accommodations. Older and braver than we were, they were stopping in Orvieto for four days and no hotel. Our travel tales were trivial compared to theirs. In Florence we met with another older couple in the Information Office. They too had traveled all over Italy gambling on Tourist Offices to find them rooms.
Italian Railway Conductors are not always happy in their work. They are especially not happy to see you when you clutter up their route from car to car. Nonetheless we stood fast and counted down the time to Orvieto. Since we could not read the station names from our location it was all we had to rely on.
At Orvieto Scalo we stood in a downpour waiting for a cab. When you’re the only game in town you apparently come and go at your own pace. Since there were only three taxis in the entire town the competition would be fierce.
A large circular fountain sprouted water as most Italian fountains do. With the rain joining in, it was overflowing on to the square. Across from us a line of people stood in the rain waiting for the funicular railway to take them up to Orvieto. Above us on a tufa outcropping La Rupe, the old city appeared through the mist, rain and fog as if in some black and white Hollywood B horror movie, fortress walls rising high above the clouds commanding the valley below.
We were wet. We were waiting. We were entering the final days of our time in Italy. A white car pulled into the station. Realizing what it was, we out-maneuvered an American by placing our bags between him and the taxi. This was not a time for niceties.
“La Badia,” I said. Our driver smiled. He must have thought us wealthy for we were heading for a converted 8th century monastery that is now a favourite of rich Americans. It is said to be the oldest hotel in Italy with a restaurant famous for traditional Umbrian dishes. Popes, apparently use to vacation here. Neither rich nor of holy orders we were nonetheless welcomed warmly. Our money is as good as anyone’s.
Our first sight of La Badia is its tower.
In the 12th century the Countess Matilde di Canossa ordered that a twelve sided tower be built on the site. Unique in the world then and now it stands as a monument to the lady’s vanity. Frescos embellish the walls of the sacristy in the “Church of the Crucifixion.” The romanesque-lombardesque abbey and cloisters will soon be our home for two days before Rome, the last stop in our journey. We couldn’t have come to a more agreeable place.
The taxi turns on to the gravel courtyard of La Badia. Stone walls, gardens, fountains and friendly cats welcome us. You can look out through a crumbling portico across the valley and up into high Orvieto. Mist and fog fill the landscape. The wind shifts suddenly and Orvieto disappears. Clouds move and Orvieto comes into view again. Clouds clear, the valley reappears. This back and forth view is a like a slide show. Transparencies of perfect picture postcards
Cool and fragrant, the golden Orvieto Classico is refreshing and welcome with our leisurely afternoon lunch. Afterwards we settle into our room with a view. Rain still falls. Orvieto will have to wait until tomorrow.
Morning You cannot see medieval Orvieto. Fog has hidden it from sight. There is only gray just above the green hills. Rain falls still. Wind rolls the gray down the green and the spires of the Duomo appear. Orvieto has shrugged off the fog so that she might rule the valley again.
We know we must go to this distant place that is framed in our window.
Looking at it is no longer satisfying. At the front desk they suggest that calling a cab in this weather is a gamble at best.
“There are only three in town.”
“With this weather they could be busy. Besides, it is getting close to lunch time.”
Patiently we wait in the courtyard. The resident cat decides to make friends with us. There are nooks and crannies in the old monastery waiting to be explored and he quietly leads us to them. At the Church of the Crucifixion the doors are locked. Looking inside through the cracks in the wood we see hints of frescoes on the wall. Because of the pews stacked at the sides, the plain marble alter and little else, this simple church is in stark contrast to the Cathedral high on the hill in Orvieto. On the flagstone entrance wet colourful confetti lies soaking in the rain. A wedding has come and gone.
In not too long a time our taxi arrives. Our smiling driver is a familiar face. He brought us here yesterday. Again he grins as we ask him to take us to Via del Duomo. We think of him as our personal chauffeur who is paid very well.
On the drive up to the town centre we are convinced that he and our bus driver from Sienna must be related. His intimacy with the twists and turns of the wet narrow roads is obviously meant to inspire admiration in us, but we are busy sightseeing. Now we are high above the Umbrian countryside passing through the sheltering town walls. The gothic Duomo appears out of nowhere. There are no buses, no cars and few people in the Piazza del Duomo. The wet blackness of the square and the white marble of the church provide perfect contrast on this monochromatic day.
Since it is Sunday, we go to mass. Inside the church the tourists take pictures as the priest prepares to preach. There seems to be a tacit acceptance by the congregation. The sermon resonates off the marble walls. You can’t escape its sound even if you don’t understand its story. Norma feels that mass is more soul-swelling in Italy. The theatre of the old Cathedral and the priest’s humble reverence give old world authenticity to worship.
It is a beautiful cathedral. Hugh bronze doors dominate the front entrance. Marble faces carved with finite detail and tiny gold tiles on columns that run up the length of the church, shine through even on a day as dull as this. The façade of the church features marble carvings of religious themes. Alternating black and white marble stripes lead your eyes up to the multi-coloured mosaics which give the Duomo a sparkling beauty in today’s gray gloom.
After mass we walk the slick, slippery black slate streets. Stone masons laid them in a scallop pattern. Every street is the same. Each street leads to the outside walls of the city and we look down on inspiring views of the valley.
Rain follows us around Orvieto. Hazelnut lemon and chocolate gelatti brighten up our day. Riding the funicular down to Orvieto Scalo we arrive at a station that is strangely deserted.
We need a cab to take us back to La Badia. Knowing that it is useless to try and call one we take up our solitary position at the cab stand and settle in for the long wait.
After a half hour in the rain we decide to walk. Our decision proves to be a good thing as clouds begin to clear. Sunshine and blue skies are smiling down on us as we set out on our bold adventure in what we think is the right direction.
As we mine our memories for landmarks that will lead us back we shed coats, sweaters and umbrellas. We are overdressed for the sudden warmth. Fortunately we are walking through shaded tree-lined streets. When we leave the town a light wind blows down from the hills and leaves begin to fall. It is October and the feeling of an Ontario autumn comes upon us.
While Tuscany gives you a gentle undulating countryside of painter’s colours, Umbria is richer in the greens of bush, brush and trees on rolling hills. The two regions are a contrast of colour.
Such a pleasant walk. Now the tower of La Badia becomes a visible beacon leading us home. The girl from the front desk of the hotel drove by. She stopped ahead of us and reversed back. Amazed at what we were doing she kindly offered us a ride. We thanked her and continued on our way pleased with our accomplishment and the way the day had turned from gray to golden.
Sitting on a bench in front of La Badia’s tower we finally see Orvieto under blue skies and sunshine.
The sandy colour of the cliff face is receptive to sun. From where we are we can see caves or carvings for the first time. Above them the walls ring the town as if they’re trying to hold everything together. Sunset brings shadows but nothing dims the beauty of our Sunday evening. This is a most serene place. This ancient monastery has a calming effect on us. It is the last short stop on our journey and it is a good one.
Our favourite cabby pulls into the courtyard and smiles. Smiling back we are convinced that we have had exclusive rights to the only taxis and driver in Orvieto. Arriving at the railway station our illusion is shattered. There they are, idly waiting in the cab stands. Actually Orvieto has four taxis.
A young man at the Orvieto Scalo station…a Canadian flag stitched to the strap of his Jack Wolfskin backpack. On his head a Toronto Maple Leafs baseball hat. With him, a young girl, American from Washington DC. They had met at a hostel the day before. Bound for Rome, they got off at Orvieto on a whim. Now they are travel companions. He has been away from Kitchener for a couple of months now and his plans take him further, to Rome, to Greece and eventually back to England where he hoped to find work. They shared a sandwich. Breakfast, I suppose.
He helped us with our luggage when we boarded the crowded train. Perhaps I hadn’t realized how tired I was because my strength left me when I tried to hoist the bags overhead. Our young friend was there to grab the suitcase before it landed on an unsuspecting passenger. He smiled when I thanked him. I was happy to have him there.
Two people on personal journeys, young with nothing but time. Norma and I with most of our life behind us trying to make up for lost time. The ultimate destination for these two young souls was one that we had already passed through. On the ride to Rome he sat quietly while she blatantly flirted with two other traveling students.
On our first day in Rome we beat the rain to our hotel. Inside our un-air conditioned room, we could hear it pounding the pavement. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Outside the local traffic, trucks and motorini ran up and down the street and vibrated into our room. People were laughing, talking, singing. We looked at each other and thought, “there’s just no way we can escape it, is there?” From Milan, Florence, Sienna, even Venice, noise follows us. Our hotel rooms always seem to border on a main street, sometimes with a construction site thrown in just for sound balance. But then, the same has happened to us in New York and London. We must learn to ask for a ‘quiet room.’
Italy thrives on noise. It is as if most of the slim, narrow, bumpy, cobblestone streets are designed to process sound. Obviously that wasn’t the original idea, but still, the volume of traffic trying to squeeze through simply increases the volume of noise. With so many cars, trucks, buses and scooters competing against each other for space, the sound gathers at street level rises above the city and sits there like a haze of pollution.
This ‘haze’ doesn’t leave our street until around 11:00 PM. That’s when the trattoria across from us evicts the locals who then gather to sing or loudly discuss whatever it is that is so important to their current situation at that late hour of the evening. Then it subsides until early morning.
If you’re stirring around 6:30 AM the first thing you’ll hear is a lone motorini gunning up the street. Then, footsteps and voices. The bells of a somewhere church. Gradually the street noise builds again until the din is prominent around 7:30 AM, ready for another day. The morning alternates between calm and cacophonous building to a crescendo of sound by noon. You can’t escape the relentlessness of it. It is part of Rome’s circus…’Circus Maximus.’ Whatever crazed Emperor came up with that name it certainly was apocryphal.
The traffic, the tourists, the Romans; they are a three ring circus. Each performs their act for the entertainment of the other. The only question is, “who are the clowns?”
You would not expect the cheapest internet\e-mail rates in Italy to be found in Rome. You would not expect to find them in a Laundromat-Splashnet Lavanderia Self Service & Internet Café.
‘Trattoria Bruno’ is just down the street from our hotel and next to the internet\laundromat. So, catching up on e- mails and having lunch were quite convenient. The lunch crowd was mostly locals, always a good sign. Lunch itself was inexpensive; a zitti lasagna, risotto, sausage and peppers with fresh baked rolls and house wine, excellent.
Then, as is our habit on day one in a new destination, we set out to orient ourselves. Our skill at map reading had been finely honed over the last few weeks. Italy’ town planners had little time for the grid system. Once you became comfortable with this, sorting out streets and divining your direction isn’t much of a challenge. Of course, when streets have two names and signs are hidden high on building walls, you do suspect some sort of conspiracy. This day was all that. We were lost.
What we do find are archeological sites, all over Rome. They are digging under today’s city to find yesterday’s. Columns, pillars, walls, arches, steps, stones, statues, shapes of what were homes are littered about the city in roped- off areas. Turn a corner and you are in ancient Rome. The ‘Romani’ seem oblivious to it all. They don’t seem to care. Antiquity has become everyday.
A downpour interrupts our exploration. Out of nowhere umbrella peddlers in see-through plastic ponchos appear. One after another they accost you as you stand under a store-front hiding from the rain. They take your refusal without concern and quickly find someone else to bother. When the rain stops, they disappear, only to return now selling trinkets and trash.
Across the street is some important building. It is easy to tell because of the guards with guns. We’ve noticed them all over Italy. Banks, government buildings, police stations are either guarded or closed to outsiders. Who they fear is a mystery to us. They mill about, joke with each other and smoke on the job. The bored look on their faces wouldn’t make us feel secure. The rain makes them run for cover. Negotiating our way back to the Hotel Venezia we decide that getting around Rome won’t be that difficult. Inside our room we discover that the chandeliers are Venitian glass. To our delight we find that English movies are on TV. After a nap we determine that tomorrow we will attempt to find the Forum.
Having been in Italy almost three weeks now, it is interesting to watch newly arriving tourists exiting the Termini, dragging their bags, clutching their maps, leafing through their guide books, all carrying the same travel-induced, confused “where-the-hell-do-I go-from-here” look on their faces. We, on the other hand, have become clever at planning our itinerary the night before.
This morning we are on the streets of Rome following signs that point us to the Colosseum. Early on we stop to admire a church with a block-wide staircase that leads up to nowhere. Confused that there doesn’t seem to be an entrance we realize that we are standing, staring at the rear façade of this imposing twin-domed basilica. Walking around brings us into the midst of many pilgrims gathered at the equally imposing front entrance to Santa Maria Maggiore.
Curiosity pulls us inside.
Jubilee 2000 has attracted thousands of Catholics to Italy and right now most of them are here in this cavernous yet beautiful appointed church. Masses are being said in side chapels. Tour groups are clustered around altars and paintings, craning up at the vaulted gold-guilded ceiling. A line of priests parade toward a sacristy where gray robed brothers guard the doors against the faithful. Inside we see them don their robes of office; white for the priests, black for the bishops and red for the Cardinals.
Pomp and ceremony is subtle, but respect and reverence is everywhere as the monks lead the procession to mass. Since the service is being said by a Cardinal, we are there as part of the congregation.
Leaving Santa Maria Maggiore we resume our search for the Colosseum. The annoying sound of an ambulance approaches and passes. We have heard and seen many since coming to Italy. Unfortunately, today, a woman is lying on the road, paramedics kneeling around her. As we hurry by we silently remind ourselves to look both ways when crossing.
Turning down a high walled street we catch a momentary view of the Colesseum. At first sight you wonder how this historic amphitheater endured for all these years. Considering the centuries it has survived it is in remarkably good shape for its age. Begun around 72 AD by Emperor Vespasian it is now a shell of its former shelf. Stone was pillaged from its walls to build some of the grander palaces of Rome, including the Vatican.
The floor is gone. You can look down into the belly of this once violent pleasure-bowl and see the cells, cages and remnants of the lifts where animals and men waited to be hoisted into the sunlight and the fight for their lives. Now the vibrations of traffic and the Metro and the attendant pollution are eating away at this once noble structure. The crowds still come, only today, they are less bloodthirsty, just as curious and they must pay to get in.
From the arches of the Colesseum you can see a white marble- columned building. Dominating the skyline, it doesn’t appear to be like other structures in this area. What is missing is any element of antiquity. This is the building Romans love to hate. They call it the “marble monolith, the wedding cake, the typewriter.” Although not popular with anyone, it does contain the tomb of the unknown soldier, a museum and in front a massive statue of a man on a horse. The Vittorio Emanuele Monument was built of white marble from Brescia which for some reason hasn’t mellowed from the time it was constructed at the turn of the century.
Back in 81 BC all of the Roman aqueducts ended at the Trevi Fountain. This is the end of our touring for the day as well. Leaving, we notice the gypsies again. Three of them are approaching a man and woman. We are about to warn them when the man steps back telling his assailants to keep away. A few minutes later while buying postcards in a shop a different couple walks in and asks where the nearest police station is. Apparently the gypsies were successful with them.
There is a McDonalds in Piazza della Repubblica. We can’t resist having some fries with mayonnaise while watching Roman drivers challenge each other on the round-about that circles Fountain della Naide with its voluptuous nude nymphs.
Breakfast at the Hotel Venezia was the best in Italy. Always hearty, you had your choice of hard boiled eggs, toast, pastry of all kinds, mysterious local fruit, muesili, yogurt, liver pate, boar pate and waiters that always appeared bored.
This morning, we find ourselves making idle chatter with an American couple. As usual, the conversation circulates around where you’re from, where you’ve been and where you’re going. Experiences good and bad are always thrown in for colour. The couple had an audience with the Pope at 10:00. They had bought tickets (which I didn’t know you could do) and were planning on taking the Metro to Saint Peter’s Square. We mentioned that the Vatican was also our destination today, but we were just going to grab the #64 bus.
We all wondered what the crowds would be like what with all the pilgrims in Rome. Our American friends weren’t too concerned…they had tickets.
Norma and I made our way to Piazza dei Cinquecento part of which resembled an permanent bus traffic jam. It only took a couple of visits to information kiosks to locate the stop we needed. Deciding against the express we climbed aboard the local bus and settled in for a slow, street tour of Rome.
The end of the line for us was just the other side of the Tiber at the foot of another of those high-walled streets. They don’t let much traffic close to Saint Peter’s for obvious reasons. Finding the square was no problem. We just followed the crowds.
You are not prepared for “porta-potties” in Saint Peter’s Square. Nor are you expecting turnstiles and armed guards. As you file past both you are immediately overwhelmed by the expanse of the square, the gathering crowds and two huge “rock concert style” video screens with a larger than life Pope in full colour. This was the audience our American friends had tickets for. And they were there, somewhere, in that mass of people.
Up on the steps of the Vatican, under a canopy, Pope John Paul sat receiving the faithful from all over the world. Above him and off to the side, sat a group of obvious members of the clergy. Below him well away from the base of the steps were barricades containing row upon row of folding chairs where people sat. Behind this in tight groups, pilgrims in coloured neck-kerchiefs gathered under their official flags
A constant parade of clergy of all ranks came before him and presented the best wishes of pilgrims. Somewhere in the crowd applause and cheers would be heard, colourful banners and hankies would wave locating the group being represented. Then he would address them in their own language. Although he was visibly shaking, he never wavered in his commitment to make everyone feel as though he was speaking directly to them. There were times when he would have to rest his hand in his lap to steady the paper he was reading from.
Priests about to be ordained and their families received his blessing. At the end a parade of brides and grooms in full wedding dress filed past him to receive his blessing. Those on the dais then gathered around him for photograph after photograph. This went on for three hours. Then it was over.
A large black Mercedes convertible appeared out of nowhere to rescue the Pope. It then drove down the steps and through the crowds. In the back he stood and waved. Driving past a group of faithful in wheelchairs it paused briefly to allow him to acknowledge their cheers and then the Mercedes was gone as quickly as it came.
Immediately after his disappearance the crowds transformed into orderly lines. Taking our place among them we let ourselves be led to the Vatican. While shuffling forward we thought about the Americans who had paid for seats to this audience and wondered if their view had been any better than ours.
You begin to wonder if the Vatican can accommodate all the people flowing through its doors. Crowd control here is reminiscent of Disney Land only the venue is slightly more significant.
Moving to the welcome emptiness of a side hall we found the elevator that takes you up to Michaelangelo’s Dome. Given our past experiences we gladly paid the 8000 lire and avoided 362 stairs. We followed a cavernous concrete hallway that was the interior of the Dome to a balcony entrance. Stepping out on to the gallery immediately took your breath away.
Above you is the sweeping arch of the dome with light flooding in from the lantern at the top and spilling down below to the multi-coloured marble floor of the Vatican. Light flows through stained glass windows. For a moment the colours feel as though they have been diffused through a prism. The look is filtered and smoky. Then as clouds shift over the sun the colour changes to sepia. This play of light continues as you walk around absorbing the sight beneath you.
From the floor a hushed din rises up and collects in the Dome, echoes for a moment then disperses as if absorbed by the vastness of this structure. Suspended above all of this you are momentarily silenced by the sight. Then someone new enters the gallery and the spell is broken.
Walking on the roof of the Vatican is something you don’t do every day. Strolling around both minor cupolas and the statues on the façade that look down on the square reveals a truth quite unexpected…the backs of those statues are not finished. Laziness and expediency are two traits I didn’t think artists of that day had. Looking at the rough edge blandness of these imposing giants held together by rebar and trusses with modern lighting carefully camouflaged between them destroys their image of grandness for a moment. At least from behind.
Behind every myth, behind every legend, behind every great painting there is a reality that few of us wish to acknowledge. Truth always makes the dream more real than we would like. Finding truth in unexpected places always enlightens your experience of a situation if you are prepared to accept the revelation for what it is…fact not fancy. You can only be richer for the discovery.
The Vatican has been prudent in putting a gift shop on the roof. Most holy items on sale have been blessed by the Pope. Nuns of various habits happily take your money. You can buy Vatican stamps for your postcards, mail them right there in the Vatican mail box and the Vatican post office will cancel them with the Vatican postmark. It is after all a city and corporation unto itself.
After spending our money like everyone else we realized that we still hadn’t reached the top of the Dome. The elevator only took us so far. There were still 310 stairs to climb.
From the balcony of the Lantern you are blessed with a glorious view of Rome. Looking down on it, you finally come to appreciate the vastness of Saint Peter’s. Bernini designed his circular colonnades like arms to embrace the square and all who enter it. Caligula brought a first century BC Obelisk from Egypt. You can’t miss it rising from the centre of the square. It is topped with a cross; something that probably was never in Caligula’s plans. Walk around and you can see the lush gardens with the Papal Heliport, Radio Vatican and the Vatican Railway Station.
There was a time when God had it good. In the mind of everyman, God was his center, Church his focus and you built and created for your Creator. There is no greater example of this than the churches of Italy. There is no greater proof of this than the Vatican. Just look around. Everywhere you turn treasures of art, architecture and sculpture grace your view. Under-foot marbles of many colours are molded into mosaics. The richness of the Church belies its purpose. It is a permanent display of wealth that will never be realized. And it mesmerizes the world into worshiping art that was originally created for the greater glory of God.
Still the Vatican is a peaceful place. Its vast inner space enfolds you in a soft diffused light as you drift from chapel to chapel, head slightly bowed, speaking in whispers, absorbing eyes wide with the wonder of an endless display of beauty.
In a small nave, Michelangelo’s Pieta rests behind protective glass. He was only twenty-five when he created this delicate work. The contrast between this and his unfinished Rondanini Pieta that we first saw in Milan speaks volumes. He had traveled a great distance from beauty and grace to power and maturity.
Time is lost on us this day. Gelati and water make do as lunch. Heading for the Vatican Museum we noticed crowds of people coming towards us. This was strange. Normally we would be following them. Leafing through our guide-book we discovered that the museum was closed for the afternoon. By now we had had enough. It annoyed us that we had been shut out. Street sweepers were vacuuming up the remnants and refuse of the day, cleaning Vatican City for tomorrow’s tourists.
We decided we would be among them.
This evening we decided to return to Trattoria Bruno. At last night’s restaurant we had the worst meal of our entire trip. Something we never thought would happen in Italy. The trattoria received a glowing review but failed to deliver. There’s a lot to be said for trusting in guide books. Nevertheless “Bruno” restored our faith in Italian food. His place was not full. While the lone waitress took care of customers, he played with a model of a Tuscan farm house. Detail was precise and he was happy to answer our questions. Proudly he pointed to a newspaper article he had framed on the wall. There he was with his model and the Pope. Our host was a minor celebrity.
Mornings are cool. Afternoons are hot and humid. What with the pollution, traffic and crowds Rome becomes stifling just after lunch. A bus ride becomes unbearable. Down below the subway feels like a damp cave. By now the buzz of Rome is resonating throughout our bodies. After 15 days on the road, this city is getting to us in a way we never expected. Perhaps we’ve been away too long.
It didn’t help much that we got turned around in Rome’s Metro today. Lost is a better word. Trying to retrace our steps made things even worse. Their system is a colourful confusion of A and B lines. According to the signs we thought we were riding the right one. It can be frightening when you realize you’re going the wrong way on the wrong train. Asking for directions only compounds the confusion. Behind the glass the ticket taker said, “diritti.” We were left to figure out hand signs and finger pointing. Our decision was simpler; get out and walk back to Piazza dei Cinquecento and catch the #40 express bus to the Vatican Museum.
A towering incline of stone wall eventually leads us to the entrance. Like the Vatican, the Vatican Museum is excessive. All the riches of the Church gathered together in the largest, richest, most compelling place can be culturally intimidating. Inside, you are immediately at the mercy of gift shops
Roman and classical statuary, Renaissance paintings, books, old maps, coins, furnishings, there is no hope in seeing it all in one day. Today, the Egyptian and Etruscan Rooms and Tapestry Hall are open. The Raphael Stanza, the Appartamento Borgia and the Sistine Chapel, we want to see it all.
Raphael’s paintings are massive, their detail impressive. There are courtyards with fountains, frescoes, statues and bas relief. Corridors hung with paintings and ornate decorations have vaulted ceilings guilded with gold. You need to walk with eyes looking up, head to the ceiling for fear of missing something. This place needs three days to be completely explored.
For some reason I always thought that the Sistine Chapel was in Saint Peter’s Basilica. It isn’t. Still, my expectation was that it had to be a large room to contain a work so grand. Countless coffee table books full of details and close-ups of every aspect of Buonarotti’s Last Judgement had lulled me into thinking so. Instead I found myself in a barn-like structure staring upward, finally, at the magnificent reality of a man’s genius. This is where the agony and ecstasy of heavenly images on fresco had to be quickly created. Each day a fresh layer of plaster. Each day finishing before the plaster dried.
A PA system announces in multiple languages that photography is forbidden and that you must be quiet for your are in a holy place. Today it is the Pope’s private chapel. When he dies it will be the room where conclaves of Cardinals gather to select his successor. A fitting tribute to the artist who considered himself a sculptor and not a painter.
The Spanish Steps cascade down into Piazza di Spagna, which takes its name from the nearby Spanish Embassy. The balustrades and balconies of the steps are lined with red flowers. Once these steps were occupied by young men and women dressed to impress hoping to be discovered by artists looking for models. Now tourists claimed it by day and by night it becomes a hangout for young Italians on the hustle.
Looking for a place to relax we have a choice of Bodington’s Tea Room or Café Greco. Both have been in the piazza since 1760. Both are famous for the artists and writers that have spent time at their tables. If you want the most expensive espresso in Italy then you must stop in at Café Greco where waiters in tails serve you with an air of disdain.
As you leave the square you pass the Keats and Shelly Memorial House. Keats was not very happy about being in Italy when he lived there. Perhaps that was because he was dying of consumption. Byron and Mary Shelly lived across the square.
When we were in San Gimignano we met a woman who proclaimed that the best shopping in Italy was on Via Condotti. Judging from the number of couture shops we can see why. Leaving the steps we pass the stores where the beautiful people come to shop. We saw a few.
Yesterday Norma nearly fainted from the heat. Today I have a cold. Our journey has taken its toll. There is no doubt that we are exhausted. Short stays, train travel and endless walking have lead us to a weariness that can only be cured by going home. Tomorrow that will happened. Today we are going to Via Veneto.
In the 50s and 60s this was Rome’s most glamorous street. Federico Fellini, film stars and paparazzi hung out here. Wide tree lined, shaded streets, canopied cafes, expensive hotels and shops even Harry’s Bar, attract the moneyed tourists. At the top of Via Veneto is The Porta Pinciana and a vicious traffic circle. Behind the Porta is Villa Borghese and its gardens. Negotiating our way through the rush of buses, cars and motorini we finally find peace and tranquility just outside the walls of today’s ancient Rome.
Rain began to fall but it was no deterrent. We were not going to leave this oasis. Hedges and the umbrella pines in the park provided shelter. One shaded avenue leads us to the neo-classical Temple of Diana. It is smaller than it sounds but ample enough to hold us when the rainfall get heavier. When it lightened up we strolled to a pond surrounded by banana trees and palm trees. In the middle was an island with a small temple sheltering a statue who was, according to the guide book, Aesculapius, the God of Health. Considering the row boats and bicycles that were for rent this seemed perfectly in character. All manner of ducks didn’t mind that this was really an artificial lake.
Slowly strolling in the rain, we heard the singing of birds more than the sound of traffic for the first time since we arrived in Rome. Norma felt better for this. By now the park was almost deserted. Rain had discouraged almost everyone else. On our last day we welcomed the isolation. Even if it was only for a short time.
On our last night in Rome we watch B movies on Italian television…in English.
2 It rains as we leave Rome. It rains as we land in Montreal. More than 9 hours in the air and we miss our connecting flight. With French Canadian pilgrims who are happy to be home we ride a crowded shuttle bus from the runway to the terminal. Customs is like watching paint dry. Crowds fight for space around the luggage carousels and the night drags on. Now we need to find a flight to Toronto and Air Canada is not co-operating. We sprint to the Canadian counter without thanking the woman who directs us there. She thinks we are rude. Maybe we are. Politeness takes a back seat to getting home.
Italy was never like this.