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