Italy: Grand Delights PART I

My wife and I encountered the charms of Italy ten years ago during a tour titled “Romantic Europe: Paris to Rome”. So the surprises in Florence, Pisa, Venice, and Rome this year were few. It was the hilltop towns of Siena, Assisi, and San Marino and all of Sicily that delighted us in unexpected ways. Books and films set in Italy do raise expectations sometimes that are likely to disappoint. Eat, Pray, Love, for example, regardless of the obvious differences between story and reality, nonetheless, raises an expectation for travellers of experiencing first-rate food every day, a rekindling of faith, and fresh intimations of romantic love. Romantics beware: delicacies, spirituality, and passion are not guaranteed in Grand Tours of Italy. Every stop on our current Grand Tour of Italy from the top of the boot to the toe enriched our souls through the beauty of the landscapes and seascapes, the architecture, the sculptures and paintings, the food and wine, and the insights into the ancient and modern history of the country. The sketchy notes that follow trace the itinerary of our recent two-week journey.

ROME

Trevi Fountain

Rome springs to life in the September sun. Our hotel is in walking distance of Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and Piazza Navoni. Strolling past high-end shops and people-watching along the way make every step worthwhile. Even getting lost, heading back to our hotel at night because we stopped at the gelateria after dinner, has its rewards. Under the stars, Trevi Fountain takes on new life. The lighting on the sculptures of water gods and horses and rockery at night highlight so much detail lost in the daytime sun. During the day, Trevi Fountain feels crowded; at night the blazing splendor helps you forget the crowds are there.

SIENA—Tuscany

Piazza del Campo

The drive north into Tuscany becomes fascinating with the tour guide’s succinct, helpful mini-history of the hilltop towns. Siena does not disappoint. The surprise is the town square is a circle, a “campo.” Stopping at a café on a hot afternoon is great entertainment: first, we watch young people stretching out on the sloping campo as if suntanning at a beach; second, we engage an employee of the café on her break in conversation about the cost of living in Siena, why shopping in Florence is so good, and recent legal cases headlining local newspapers. As we chat, we look onto the campo at the centre of Siena. The campo has a ring of cement columns, four or five feet tall, around the perimeter. The marble walking path on the outside of the columns just in front of the cafés becomes the sand-covered track for bareback horse racing twice in the summer. Citizens and tourists pay a lot of money to watch the race, standing room only, from the centre of the campo (on the inside of the columns). The two races are taken very seriously by the various parishes in Siena and much civic planning goes into arranging the races and the accommodation for so many visitors. Pope Benedict requested a ticket for one of the races but had to be refused because of the burden of security on Siena’s busiest days of the year. I love it: you’re the Pope and you can’t get a ticket to the races!

FLORENCE—Tuscany

Michelangelo's DAVID

Admittedly Michelangelo’s “David” is the “whole package” in Florence. Impressive as the replica is on top of the hills overlooking the city or the copy in Piazza Della Signorio near the Uffizi Museum, the original at the Accademia is the world’s most famous sculpture because it is a feast for every eye from every angle. Dazzled by the brilliant accomplishment of Michelangelo, we move forward on the streets of Florence only to encounter a new phenomenon as we turn a corner. On posts probably set up for chaining bicycles, we see lovers’ locks (padlocks) attached any whichway by couples who wish to offer a sign of total commitment to one another. Police try to remove the locks overnight.

CHIANTI WINERY—Tuscany

Hostess talks Vino

Visiting a Chianti winery, Fattorio il Poggio, just south of Florence became an unforgettable evening. The charms of our hostess prevail through the informative walk into the vineyard, the stop in the processing room for olive pressing, the casual insights shared on pine nuts and bay leaves and pistachio trees on our way to the tables set up for wine tasting and dinner. Oh, what a party: superb wines, fine olives and olive oil dips, lively discussions on the merits of each wine, music that whips everyone from the tables, winery staff joining the festivities and starting “bunny hops” out of the dining room into the evening darkness under umbrella pine trees and into starlight winding our way back to our tables.

VENICE—Cannaregio district

Bridge over Cannaregio Canal

Bridge over Cannaregio Canal

In Venice, our most northern stop, we are disappointed that our hotel at the centre of the city is overbooked, but delighted with the first-class dining at that hotel after our sail around the city and our ride in the gondola. Hotel Bonvecchiati hosts what turns out to be the major highlight in Italian cuisine on our tour. As if the dinner experience is not enough, we stay in a renovated convent in the Cannaregio neighbourhood that is most pleasant and modern and convenient. The next morning our guide meets us at our hotel, leads us on a walking tour few people take, and offers many insights into the charms and challenges of living in this historic city. We meet locals going to and from work, labourers plying their trades along the canals, locals dropping into small cafês and shops. We seem to be the only tourists in Cannaregio. We enjoy a pleasant rest in the Jewish Ghetto, where we see one of the first banks in Venice and learn how Napoleon enabled the Jewish community to become a vibrant section of the Cannaregio district. The guide comments on and answers questions about all we see along the way of our forty-minute stroll to the Rialto Bridge, Saint Mark’s Square, and the Grand Canal.

SAN MARINO–Republic near the Adriatic Sea

As we start our southern journey through Italy, who would believe the oldest and the third smallest republic in the world after the Vatican and Monte Carlo, is San Marino, seated at the top of one of the mountains along the Appenine range, the “spine” of Italy. This gem, south of Venice and east of Florence near Rimini on the Adriatic Sea, offers easily the most beautiful landscapes—morning, noon, and night.

ASSISI–Umbria

St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi

On our way back to Rome for the start of the second week of the tour, we stop at Assisi, the home of Saint Francis, the patron saint of Italy. The initial view of Assisi, nestled in the middle of a lush, green hillside, is unforgettable. In the rain, a pink texture comes through the stonework of the town; in brilliant sunshine, the consistency of the sand-coloured stone of the houses and public buildings integrates elements of medieval and renaissance and Romanesque architecture seldom seen anywhere. As we leave a place of sacredness to the Italian people of faith, the organic unity of the whole town makes it stand out as a jewel in the Umbrian countryside.

POMPEI–Campania

The surprise of Pompei, lost to the world in the 79 A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, is the effect of the restoration on visitors. As interesting as the tour guide is on the past and present history and restoration of this extraordinary place, I am stunned by the reality that ordinary people once lived in ordinary houses we see, worked at the various business places, and walked the stone streets we are walking on. I still feel the stones of the roadways, I recall impressions of two-story villas, bakeries, gymnasia, colossal temples, and the brothel frescoes. During the visit itself, the real horror of what happened to the parents and children and the animals as a result of the catastrophe shut me down emotionally, suffocating the words of the guide, blocking the warmth and brilliance of the sun. I should have bought the brochure on Pompei: today I just might be able to absorb the details

Blog #9 WHY LESS IS MORE

W

We planned a trip to Greece a few years ago. It was more than we needed, perhaps, but it was what we wanted. We couldn’t afford that trip, so we waited. Friends did go on the equivalent of our dream trip to Greece. They loved it, but they felt they paid far too much money. So this year we planned again and settled for a less-expensive trip. We got more than we expected.

 

Travelling with “Transat Holiday Tours” from Montreal to Athens, we found ourselves surrounded by three hundred other tourists with a trip itinerary tailored to their wishes. We shared expectations and on the flight back to Canada, we traded highlights and disappointments. These conversations convinced us we enjoyed more for a lot less: we had chosen the appropriate itinerary to bring us home satisfied, yet with some change in our pockets.

 

We started with a visit to Athens for three days. The city tour of temples to Athena (The Parthenon), Zeus, and Hephestus, the Olympic stadium, the Plaka (an attractive food, booze, and shopping district), the National Museum of Archeology turned out to be a wonderful precursor of the whole trip: ruins of interest and significance, active walking, casual dining, endless shopping, and dramatic land and seascapes.

 

We left the big city for a four-day cruise among select Greek Islands.   A sunset visit to the Island of Mykonos took us walking along beach front cafés, a fishing-boat harbour, expensive jewelry shops, pelican “dances,” bougainvillea-roofed tavernas, and the first of many glorious sunsets highlighting traditional Greek Orthodox churches, windmills, and one striking, unconventionally-designed church—the most-photographed church in Greece.

 

We woke from our first night at sea in Turkey, docking at Kasudasi and taking a bus trip through the countryside to the second most important historic site in Turkey (after Istanbul). We drove to Ephesus, the most significant commercial centre after Rome by the time Christ was born. Some of us took a slight detour into the mountains where we enjoyed a sanctuary in nature at a tiny chapel located where Mary’s house is believed to have been located. St. John took Mary here to live out her life after the Crucifixion of Jesus. The bus ride down the mountainside gave us our first impression of Ephesus. The ruins trace a city of antiquity with remarkably recovered amphitheatres, government centres of debate and decision, hillside-embedded housing, commercial storefronts, public latrines with running water, water fountains, a spectacular library, with adjacent walls donated by a Roman Emperor that lead to the Agora and the twenty-four thousand seat amphitheatre for the people. With a final glance from the top row of the theatre, one can see along the Harbour Street to what was once the shores of the Aegean Sea. We finished our stop in Turkey back at Kasudasi, visiting a carpet factory and the Turkish bazaar. We then embarked on a short cruise to the Island of Patmos for the afternoon. Just a word of caution about shopping in Turkey: North American banks are very nervous about financial transactions in countries not in the European Union. Keep your bank in the loop about a stop in Turkey.

 

Patmos, reputed to be the holiest island in Greece (by the Greeks) and cited as the most idyllic island in the world (by a UN report), can be as little or as much as you wish. Some relaxed at the beach; others journeyed to the top of the mountains to visit the grotto where St. John wrote his Book of Revelations, to explore the monastery where the treasury museum was worth visiting, and to let the imagination embrace the myth-related islands surrounding Patmos.

 

We cruised to Rhodes where the colossus once stood hundreds of metres above sea level at the entrance to the harbour until an earthquake destroyed the huge statue in 255 BC. Our excursion across the island led us to Lindos, a spectacular, historical seaside acropolis. The ruins of the acropolis are gracefully set on the highest cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea far below and peaceful St. Paul’s Bay where the apostle Paul disembarked and preached to convert the hearts and minds of the people of ancient Rhodes to Christianity. Back in the city of Rhodes, the busy Turkish bazaar is nestled inside kilometres of medieval walls built by the Crusaders. The blend of Christian and Islamic architecture is at once comfortable and appealing.

 

The cruise for us ended at the Island of Crete, where we booked into a resort along the northern coast of the island about twenty miles from Heraklion—the major commercial port where the cruise ship had docked. We opted to enjoy the resort with its seaside and pool swimming possibilities, cosy accommodations, well-stocked bars, and excellent dining rooms. The Silva Beach resort is set up in a village-layout where all the walkways by the villas have flowering shrubs and fragrant seasonal flora at every step and every glance . We strolled the shopping streets along the seaside [Good buys in Crete in October as the tourist season is drawing to a close.] and on the hilltops near the resort. Others rented cars to tour mountain villages in the interior and charming ports along the coastlines of Greece’s largest island.

 

The stopover at the resort in Crete prepared us up nicely for our fast-trip to Santorini, the most picturesque island on our itinerary. We were ready to enjoy our four days on the top of a volcano crater. The side of the island facing Crete (seventy kilometres away) is notable for sheer cliffs extending four hundred metres up from sea level. Perched on the cliff top, the main city of Fira (where our upgraded Majestic Hotel was located) is modern and sophisticated; its white houses, tavernas, and hotels stand out in sharp contrast to the black volcanic cliffs and soils. The curvature of the island is the caldera, the inside slope of a volcanic island mass. After a series of eruptions every twenty thousand years, what is left is the outside wall of a circle facing into a water-encircled top of a volcano—now an island a few metres above sea level.   Through the millennia, the volcanic mountain has sunk hundreds of metres straight down into the sea. That tiny island just breaking sea level is all there is to see of the original volcano. This is all to say that the reality of the volcano and the beauty of the setting are the focus of every café, terraced home, store, walking street, and church. The fascination of Santorini grows out of the juxtaposition of the fearful and the beautiful wherever one looks. There are enough distractions in the bustling life of Fira to play down what the eye sees below the caldera. When one reaches the village of Oia, a hauntingly attractive village, the essence of Santorini emerges from the drenching sunlight when you start to feel that the painter behind every paint stroke of white or blue had one eye on the surface being painted and one eye on the volcano.

 

More time in Santorini offers more pleasure and reflection than is possible if one opts for a bigger trip on land (to Delphi, for example) or to more islands (there are hundreds of them). Because of its deserved reputation as a special island, no travel agent wants to leave Santorini out of the tourist’s itinerary. The result for too many goes something like this: one spends four hours in Santorini with a ride up the cliffs in a cable car, a walk through the shops, and a hop onto the bus back to the fast boat.

 

Starting with the excitement of Athens, appreciating the novelties of the island cruise, relaxing in Crete, and ending with a four-day stay in Santorini, we experienced an unforgettable, affordable, satisfying trip to Greece.

e planned a trip to Greece a few years ago. It was more than we needed, perhaps, but it was what we wanted. We couldn’t afford that trip, so we waited. Friends did go on the equivalent of our dream trip to Greece. They loved it, but they felt they paid far too much money. So this year we planned again and settled for a less-expensive trip. We got more than we expected.

Travelling with “Transat Holiday Tours” from Montreal to Athens, we found ourselves surrounded by three hundred other tourists with a trip itinerary tailored to their wishes. We shared expectations and on the flight back to Canada, we traded highlights and disappointments. These conversations convinced us we enjoyed more for a lot less: we had chosen the appropriate itinerary to bring us home satisfied, yet with some change in our pockets.

We started with a visit to Athens for three days. The city tour of temples to Athena (The Parthenon), Zeus, and Hephestus, the Olympic stadium, the Plaka (an attractive food, booze, and shopping district), the National Museum of Archeology turned out to be a wonderful precursor of the whole trip: ruins of interest and significance, active walking, casual dining, endless shopping, and dramatic land and seascapes.

We left the big city for a four-day cruise among select Greek Islands. A sunset visit to the Island of Mykonos took us walking along beach front cafés, a fishing-boat harbour, expensive jewelry shops, pelican “dances,” bougainvillea-roofed tavernas, and the first of many glorious sunsets highlighting traditional Greek Orthodox churches, windmills, and one striking, unconventionally-designed church—the most-photographed church in Greece.

We woke from our first night at sea in Turkey, docking at Kasudasi and taking a bus trip through the countryside to the second most important historic site in Turkey (after Istanbul). We drove to Ephesus, the most significant commercial centre after Rome by the time Christ was born. Some of us took a slight detour into the mountains where we enjoyed a sanctuary in nature at a tiny chapel located where Mary’s house is believed to have been located. St. John took Mary here to live out her life after the Crucifixion of Jesus. The bus ride down the mountainside gave us our first impression of Ephesus. The ruins trace a city of antiquity with remarkably recovered amphitheatres, government centres of debate and decision, hillside-embedded housing, commercial storefronts, public latrines with running water, water fountains, a spectacular library, with adjacent walls donated by a Roman Emperor that lead to the Agora and the twenty-four thousand seat amphitheatre for the people. With a final glance from the top row of the theatre, one can see along the Harbour Street to what was once the shores of the Aegean Sea. We finished our stop in Turkey back at Kasudasi, visiting a carpet factory and the Turkish bazaar. We then embarked on a short cruise to the Island of Patmos for the afternoon. Just a word of caution about shopping in Turkey: North American banks are very nervous about financial transactions in countries not in the European Union. Keep your bank in the loop about a stop in Turkey.

Patmos, reputed to be the holiest island in Greece (by the Greeks) and cited as the most idyllic island in the world (by a UN report), can be as little or as much as you wish. Some relaxed at the beach; others journeyed to the top of the mountains to visit the grotto where St. John wrote his Book of Revelations, to explore the monastery where the treasury museum was worth visiting, and to let the imagination embrace the myth-related islands surrounding Patmos.

We cruised to Rhodes where the colossus once stood hundreds of metres above sea level at the entrance to the harbour until an earthquake destroyed the huge statue in 255 BC. Our excursion across the island led us to Lindos, a spectacular, historical seaside acropolis. The ruins of the acropolis are gracefully set on the highest cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea far below and peaceful St. Paul’s Bay where the apostle Paul disembarked and preached to convert the hearts and minds of the people of ancient Rhodes to Christianity. Back in the city of Rhodes, the busy Turkish bazaar is nestled inside kilometres of medieval walls built by the Crusaders. The blend of Christian and Islamic architecture is at once comfortable and appealing.

The cruise for us ended at the Island of Crete, where we booked into a resort along the northern coast of the island about twenty miles from Heraklion—the major commercial port where the cruise ship had docked. We opted to enjoy the resort with its seaside and pool swimming possibilities, cosy accommodations, well-stocked bars, and excellent dining rooms. The Silva Beach resort is set up in a village-layout where all the walkways by the villas have flowering shrubs and fragrant seasonal flora at every step and every glance . We strolled the shopping streets along the seaside [Good buys in Crete in October as the tourist season is drawing to a close.] and on the hilltops near the resort. Others rented cars to tour mountain villages in the interior and charming ports along the coastlines of Greece’s largest island.

The stopover at the resort in Crete prepared us up nicely for our fast-trip to Santorini, the most picturesque island on our itinerary. We were ready to enjoy our four days on the top of a volcano crater. The side of the island facing Crete (seventy kilometres away) is notable for sheer cliffs extending four hundred metres up from sea level. Perched on the cliff top, the main city of Fira (where our upgraded Majestic Hotel was located) is modern and sophisticated; its white houses, tavernas, and hotels stand out in sharp contrast to the black volcanic cliffs and soils. The curvature of the island is the caldera, the inside slope of a volcanic island mass. After a series of eruptions every twenty thousand years, what is left is the outside wall of a circle facing into a water-encircled top of a volcano—now an island a few metres above sea level. Through the millennia, the volcanic mountain has sunk hundreds of metres straight down into the sea. That tiny island just breaking sea level is all there is to see of the original volcano. This is all to say that the reality of the volcano and the beauty of the setting are the focus of every café, terraced home, store, walking street, and church. The fascination of Santorini grows out of the juxtaposition of the fearful and the beautiful wherever one looks. There are enough distractions in the bustling life of Fira to play down what the eye sees below the caldera. When one reaches the village of Oia, a hauntingly attractive village, the essence of Santorini emerges from the drenching sunlight when you start to feel that the painter behind every paint stroke of white or blue had one eye on the surface being painted and one eye on the volcano.

More time in Santorini offers more pleasure and reflection than is possible if one opts for a bigger trip on land (to Delphi, for example) or to more islands (there are hundreds of them). Because of its deserved reputation as a special island, no travel agent wants to leave Santorini out of the tourist’s itinerary. The result for too many goes something like this: one spends four hours in Santorini with a ride up the cliffs in a cable car, a walk through the shops, and a hop onto the bus back to the fast boat.

Starting with the excitement of Athens, appreciating the novelties of the island cruise, relaxing in Crete, and ending with a four-day stay in Santorini, we experienced an unforgettable, affordable, satisfying trip to Greece.