Friday, December 3, 2010

That's Amore


So if you’re one of those people that had one of those super-romantic, exotic honeymoons to some faraway place, I don’t want to talk to you.

Our honeymoon consisted of driving along 1-84 and I-15 from Portland, Oregon to Highland, Utah—most of which passes through some of the most yawn-inducing landscape the West has to offer.

You know when the highlight of your honeymoon is staying at the Boise Red Lion Hotel you’re pegging the far end of the bland-o-meter.

We actually thought we were being scandalous by paying $110 for our first night in the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel. It sits surrounded by old-growth trees along the beautiful Columbia River in the heart of salmon country—something like the hotel in the movie Somewhere in Time. What could be more romantic, right?

We just didn’t know that our big-spending $110 per night would only fetch us a tiny room with a view of the parking lot and a décor that conjured up images of Granny in her bloomers—not exactly, shall we say…exciting?

I guess it didn’t help that we had chosen to get married during the long Presidents Day weekend in the middle of February—and mid-semester at BYU. So we really didn't have a lot of time for a romance-filled getaway.

Still, the sheer practicality of it had all the let’s party! of American Gothic.

And thus a tradition was born.

Every anniversary we would suit ourselves up in our best duds and dutifully go to dinner at a modestly-priced restaurant. If we were feeling particularly daring we would splurge and drive to Sundance to eat in the Tree Room’s more penny-wise little cousin—the Foundry Grill.

Crazy.

While others were celebrating their anniversaries with Caribbean cruises and San Francisco weekends we were requesting doggie bags after going on a P.F. Chang’s bender.

So when our 20th wedding anniversary rolled around I had had quite enough.

That’s when I shed the overalls, threw down the pitchfork, stamped my foot and said, “By gum, we’re gonna do this thing up right!”

And that’s also when I began studying a little Italiano.

Because, as everyone knows, Italy is the most romantic place on earth.

I had actually been there as a kid but apparently wasn’t cultured enough to appreciate its dilapidated charm. After being enthralled by the clean, Germanic order of Munich and Salzburg—my 16 year-old eyes only saw the decay of Italy.

But one guy’s decay is another guy’s charming.

And I’ve since turned into that other guy.

Yet February isn’t exactly the right time for a visit to Italy—so on Presidents Day weekend we suited up in our best duds and dutifully went to dinner at a modestly-priced restaurant…and talked about all the incredible things we were going to do in Italy in the middle of May.

*****

Our first taste of Italy came in Chicago, when we boarded an Alitalia jet.

I have to admit that most of my flying experiences leave me feeling more like livestock than human. Often during a miserable flight I want to bellow out a hearty mooooooo. I'm cramped in a sticky seat, trying to sleep sitting upright—my head bobbing and mouth gaping.

Then, when the flight attendant brings me a microscopic bag of peanuts I cluck and coo like Wallace and Gromit over a nice Wensleydale Cheese.

But Alitalia was like no other airline we've flown.

Clean, colorful, professional—and with food that far exceeded the normal fare served on any U.S. airline flight, Alitalia was a glimpse of things yet to come in the land of the Italians....

*****

We arrived in Rome at 8 AM on a Thursday.

Despite having done everything we could to get a full 8 hours of sleep on the flight, we were hammered.

They say you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your seat-mates.

Consequently no amount of Tylenol PM and earplugs could drown out the apple pie-faced glee club that was sitting (and singing) behind us. We had passed in and out of a tortuous sleep with visions of maniacally-smiling high-schoolers braying in our ears.

But we had arrived.

A bit dopey and bedraggled, but we were in Rome.

Our first challenge after retrieving our bags was to buy a ticket and board a train that would take us into the city.

And that is exactly where we discovered that during our trip planning stage, we had made two enormous mistakes.

That is, we were each toting a mammoth-sized bag.

Yes, against our better judgment—and despite having traveled to Europe before with more practical-sized bags—we listened to someone who told us that bigger is better.

That is so not so.

Especially when you’re competing against no-nonsense Italians who know that if they get on the train before you, they’ll not only get the best seats, but they’ll also have the pick of prime locations for their bags.

So we stood to the side of the train, blinking slowly, mouths agape, as Italians swarmed around us, pinning our bags to our sides, and leaving us to struggle with lifting 2 behemoth bags four feet up into the train car.

But thirty minutes later we were in the center of Rome.

*****

The Roma Termini Train Station sprawls over acres and acres of Rome. To say it can be bewildering to two drowsy first-timers is an understatement.

I think we exited the station through a little-used maintenance door—I’m not sure. But somehow we ended up alone, outside the station, in an alley that appeared to be prime pickpocket territory.

So calling upon all my latent acting skills, I affected a confident posture and pretended that I knew exactly where I was going and that it was perfectly natural for an American couple to suddenly appear in an obscure Roman alley.

*****

After stopping at our hotel we immediately headed out on our first, real foray onto the Roman streets.

Our first problem was: What to eat?

Mind you, it wasn’t because the food looked strange—just the opposite.

It all looked so good.

Straight away, walking southwest on Via Cavour, we passed shops piled high with multi-layered sandwiches, pizzas, calzones, ice cream….

As Italy newbies we began to panic, thinking we were walking past the best food in the city and that farther on in our walk there would be nothing. Surely we should grab something to eat here so we wouldn’t regret leaving it behind?

So we shared a sandwich, then an ice cream, then some pizza.

Then some more ice cream.

Ah, what novices we were.

Not to worry, folks. Italian cities are chock full of delicious foods! Go ahead and pass that ice cream shop. There’ll be another one even better around the next corner.

It’s a wonder more Italians aren’t obese.

We looked in vain to find anyone that might be described as portly, generously proportioned, or big-boned.

We decided they all must be bulimic.

*****

If I was composing a personal ad for a traveling companion it would go something like this:

Seeking an adventurous female with great sense of humor for trip to Italy. Must love eating exotic food, be curious about what’s around the next corner, and be able to walk miles without complaint. Must be able to tolerate often-befuddled male and have patience with dumb jokes. Ability to pass multiple high-fashion clothing shops without stopping to look or buy is a plus. Acceptance of nickname “Girl” is important. Cute, slim, with deep-brown eyes preferred.

This is Lori to a T.

…Or maybe an L.

I wouldn’t agree to do trips like these if she wasn’t coming along. It’s been twenty years and the girl is still the greatest blessing in my life.

*****

When in Rome, head for the Coliseum.

It’s where much of the famous Roman stuff is.

The Coliseum of course is the historical setting for some of the most inhumane and spectacular demonstrations of ancient Roman decadence.

Think gladiators, Christian executions, exotic animal hunts, and even a naval battle between full-size floating ships.

Surrounded by tourists and unofficially hosted by Gypsies in gladiator costumes, the Coliseum looks just like all the pictures you’ve ever seen. We had the strange experience of feeling like we’d been there before.

Is it interesting? Well, we’d have to say, mildly. But the area is one of the centers of activity and it’s fun to be there.

Just southwest of the Coliseum we stopped at the ruins of the Roman Emperors’ palaces on Palatine Hill.

Again, mildly interesting, and a picturesque place to visit.

Where Lori and I are really in our element is exploring, people-watching, and finding something yummy to eat.

So from there we walked northwest along Via Dei Fori Imperiali passing the Altare Della Patria and heading up the Via Del Corso.

But more importantly we bought a couple of really great pears from a street vendor, then found what has to be Rome’s best gelato.

The gelato deserves more than a passing mention.

Ah, gelato….

Along with Michelangelo’s David, Venice’s gondolas, and the wheat fields of Tuscany…gelato is an Italian national treasure.

Frankly, I’ve always wondered what exactly gelato is….

Is it a kind of Jello? Frozen Yogurt? Fruit Pudding?

No, it’s ice cream.

But calling it “ice cream” is like calling a Ferrari a car. It just doesn’t come close to telling the real story. Think of the very best ice cream you have ever had. Was it rich and creamy and flavorful?

Now it’s time to blow your mind.

Gelato is 10 times better.

I kid you not.

Sculpted into artistic heaps that stretch far above the stainless steel tubs that hold it, gelato is the creamiest, most intensely flavorful ice cream that will ever hit your palate.

With flavorful names that roll off Italian tongues like cioccolato, fragola, nocciola, cocco, fruitti di bosco, and stracciatella, (chocolate, strawberry, hazelnut, coconut, mixed fruit, and chocolate chip) gelato is as delectable as it sounds.

When learning some phrases in a foreign language one typically learns to say the most important things first. And that’s why I quickly learned how to say, Giorno! Vogliamo due gelati, per favore! (Hello! We want two gelatos, please!).

We were so enamored with gelato that it wasn’t unusual for us to get some at a street-side shop—then walk around the corner to another shop and get some more.

There were a few days when I had gelato for breakfast and for lunch.

To heck with pizza and pasta! Give me gelato!

*****

When you plan a trip to Italy you have to make a lot of decisions. Everyone who’s been to Italy has a strong opinion of what you absolutely must do and see.

Some were adamant that we see the Leaning Tower. Some said we must go to the Amalfi Coast. Our Home Teacher said we shouldn’t miss Lake Como.

When it comes to Italy, you’ve got to pick your sage. In our case, we listened to friends, but settled on Rick Steves.

For those of you who don’t watch PBS, Rick is a travel geek.

And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Watch his shows and get his books. He’ll tell you exactly where to find the best gelato, which sights are worthwhile, and which ones aren’t worth your time.

Rick Steves’ Italy 2010 was our bible—and he rarely steered us wrong.

So that night we decided to take Rick’s recommended Roman night-walk.

Starting at Campo de’ Fiori we made our way slowly through square after square of beautiful Roman fountains—with the finale being the famous Trevi Fountain, where late-night onlookers oohed and aahed over its classical beauty.

*****

The next day was Vatican day—but not before we followed Rick’s advice and tramped all the way across the center of Rome to find the best wood-fired pizza that Rome has to offer.

I have to explain that we ran across all sorts of travelers in Italy. We chatted it up with Aussies, Brits, Americans, Germans—you name it. Most of them were on some kind of a wine-tasting tour. But, being LDS, alcohol is out of the question.

But by darn if we weren’t on a food-tasting tour!

Our trip could have been called Adventures in Gastronomy, or The Nutritional Benefits of the All Gelato Diet, or Going to Italy? Bring Some Bigger Pants.

*****

When we finally reached the Vatican the line to enter the museum and see the Sistine Chapel was a quarter mile long.

I must now confess that we are not above paying good money to get to the front of such a line. So it didn't take us long to get suckered in by one of the “tours” whose main marketing point is the ability to bypass everyone and get right in the front door.

To their credit, they all try to warn you.

They'll tell you that you have to walk through a lot of different rooms before you get to the creme de la creme of the Vatican Museum—the Sistine Chapel. Just take a tip from us that when they say a lot, they mean A LOT.

In fact, it's such a hike, it's a good idea to drink plenty of water, keep some gorp handy and bring a backpack with overnight gear.

We are here to tell you that you will walk through what seems like hundreds of rooms full of religious art before you even have a hope of glimpsing the Sistine Chapel.

For those of you who are direction-challenged, you're toast.

If you can follow arrows and decipher some Italian in the form of Cappella Sistina, you might see the light of day once more.

Oh, and Rick Steves says that you should definitely do your little Vatican trip in the morning when there are far less people.

Whoops, we were there in the afternoon.

And it was, shall we say, bumper to bumper.

If you're direction-challenged and claustrophobic you're doubly toast.

So we walked through what seemed like miles of tapestries, paintings, busts, crosses, masks, and statues. Occasionally we remembered bits and pieces of long-forgotten Humanities classes and were able to vaguely recall the difference between a mosaic and a fresco.

It was all very impressive in its...enormousness, and fresconess and old-religiousness ...and holy-cow-they've-got-a-lot-of-old-art-ness.

Then, when we had just decided to set up our tent and settle in for the night, we finally came to the Sistine Chapel.

And now we must give Michelangelo his due.

We stood, mouths agape, staring up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where over 500 years ago the world's foremost artistic savant painted a masterpiece.

It was magnificent, and we felt privileged to be there and see it.

Just make sure you see it in the morning.

*****

When we left the Vatican it was raining hard. Luckily, we had our rain jackets with us. But even luckier for us was the small army of gypsies that suddenly appeared—as if sprouted by the rain—to sell us two cheap umbrellas.

Lori will tell you that there's something magical about walking along in the rain in Rome. It was all splish splash, rushing traffic, and trying to avoid stepping in the big puddles. We found that storefront awnings were handy for temporary shelters...and maybe even to steal a kiss or two.

*****


After the Vatican, being the wise travelers that we are, we gave ourselves plenty of time to make our way to the train station. You see, we had booked a private sleeping compartment on a night train to Venice. We figured, why use up a good day in Italy traveling on a train when you can simply sleep through it?

So we arrived at least 45 minutes early to ensure that we found that train.

Little did we know that we were already well behind the eight ball. Let me just say that making an assumption in Italy can cause a lot of problems.

Please allow me to create the picture for you.

Assuming that our train was at the Roma Termini Station, we casually walked into the enormous terminal-like building and stood in a line at a ticket counter. Thinking we had plenty of time we chatted it up with another American couple—never realizing that we were a breath away from missing our train and—having no hotel reservation for the night in Rome—were dangerously close to bunking up with sweaty Eurorail hippies in a forced stay at the local youth hostel.

When our turn finally came to talk to the ticket lady she said: “You're leaving from Tiburtina. You'd better hurry or you'll miss the train.”

Imagine my blinking and slightly puzzled look as I asked her how to get there.

“You'll need to go down the stairs and take the metro. Track B.”

Okay...

I'm thinking the “metro” is some sort of shuttle out to a far-flung platform where we'll catch our train—so we walk down the stairs, lugging our mammoth bags, and find ourselves in what appears to be a subway station.

You'd think that something would be clicking by now, but no.

We then attempt to walk through the turnstile which, of course, is meant as an open gate for smart people with a ticket and as a barrier for stupid people with no ticket.

Now something's beginning to click—but it's very vague.

Take a subway to Tiburtina? How big is this train station anyway? I'm still thinking of the subway as a sort of shuttle that will take us around a quick bend and drop us off at the Tiburtina platform....

So suddenly I find myself asking anyone around us if they speak English and a kind Italian man tries hard to understand me as I show him our sleeper car ticket and ask him if that works as a sort of shuttle ticket for the metro.

And somehow, someway, that poor kind soul who speaks very little English suppresses his natural inclination to laugh at the two befuddled Americans and succeeds in making us understand that we need to buy a subway ticket from a machine standing by.

It's at that point that we realize that Tiburtina may be a lot farther away than we may have thought.

In truth, it was on the other side of Rome—as in Roma Tiburtina Railway Station—but we were still thinking it was on the outskirts of the Roma Termini Railway Station.

All it took was one glance at my watch for the anxiety level to now reach critical mass.

We had exactly 17 minutes to get to wherever Tiburtina was.

So stuttering with stress I attempt to decipher the Italian subway ticket machine. It looks nothing like I've ever used before. No big button that says “Tiburtina” with a slot for money. In fact, it looks exactly like something out of a science fiction movie that little scientists with huge cerebrums might poke and prod, while furiously writing on large clipboards and saying things like, “Ah, yes. Mmm, very good. Oh my!—that's unexpected!”

So I feed the machine a 10 Euro note and it spits it back out at me.

I smooth the bill and poke it back in—and the machine shoots it back out.

Imagine me doing this 10 or 12 times, wishing I knew some cuss words in Italian, because if we don't get moving we are definitely going to miss that train to Venice.

Then the miraculous happens.

At that very moment in time the Milky Way tips slightly in the time-space continuum which aligns the planet Saturn with our moon and disrupts the Earth's jet stream over Italy which sends a gentle puff of air that slightly tousles Lori's hair and suddenly—for just that moment—she is able to read and understand Italian.


“It says that you can't exceed the ticket price by more than 1 Euro.”

“What?”

“You're putting in too big of a bill—it can't give you that much change.”

I look at her in wonder.

She then goes glassy-eyed, faints, and I catch her and hold her gently in my arms.

“What...what happened?” she says, blinking slowly.

“You were just reading Italian.” I say.

“I was?”

“Yes. And it was beautiful.”

She has never understood a word of Italian since.

So I shove a couple of Euro coins in the slot, poke a few science-fictiony buttons, and voilà! I have two subway tickets that will take us to Tiburtina!

In a flash we're through the turnstiles and standing on the subway platform, track A. And just in time—because we 're sure we can hear the next subway train coming down the tracks. A quick check with the Danish people standing nearby confirms that we are on the correct side of the tracks.


Or are we?

Didn't the ticket lady say track B?

At this point, all logic and reason—and all previous experience riding subways—desert me. All I can see is a yawning chasm of tracks separating us (standing on track A) from track B.

For a long second I consider jumping across.

But just before I am about to become a story on the evening news (“AMERCIAN TOURIST HIT BY SUBWAY TRAIN. WITNESSES SAY HE SUDDENLY WENT STUPID.”), something again clicks in Lori's head and she takes off running, yelling, “This way!”

Here now is a tip for all future Italy-bound travelers:

***When you find yourself on the wrong side of a set of tracks—before you go stupid—REMEMBER: there is always a way to get to the other side—and it's not only close, but safe.***

So with the rumble of an approaching train spurring us on, we clunk, clunk, clunk our ginormous bags down some stairs and hope the little wheels don't come flying off in the process. We then drag them up another set of stairs to arrive out-of-breath on platform B just as the next subway train arrives.

We jump on board, confirm that Tiburtina is six stops ahead, and resist the urge to completely wig, spazz or freak out because in another 11 minutes our sleeper train will leave toward Venice.

After what seems like a very long time we, at last, reach the stop marked “Tiburtina” and burst out of the train looking exactly like two desperate and panicky Americans.

Due to the post-traumatic stress syndrome for which I now take heavy medication, my memory of what happens next is, shall we say, a bit disjointed. But these are the little bits and flashes of memory that I have—not necessarily in order:

I am running around the station desperately asking puzzled Italians where Tiburtina is.

Lori is squeezing through a locked turnstile by virtue of her uncommonly small bottom.

I follow an Italian man's directions and run up a flight of stairs finding myself alone on a darkened Roman street.

We are running down a series of concrete hallways and find that we have circled back to the turnstiles.

I am trying to read the monitors but nowhere can I find anything that says Venice.

Lori is lugging her heavy bag up a gigantic stairway and I shout, “Every man for himself!” because mine is heavy too.

Somehow I finally realize that Tiburtina isn't a platform—it's a station—and we're in it. Asking the Italians “Where is Tiburtina?” is a bit like asking them “Where is Italy?”

Trying a different tactic I ask a janitor, “Which train goes to Venice?”

He replies, “Look for the train going to Udine.”

Ah yes. Of course.

That makes perfect sense.

When you want to go to Venice just take the train to Udine.

How silly of me.

Platform A4. The train to Udine.

Here now is another tip for all future Italy-bound travelers:

***Italian train station monitors only list the last stop of the line. Going to Florence? Look for the train going to Milan.***

One last lung-scorching , olympic-style run up a long flight of steps and we—as sweaty and wide-eyed Americans—join a casual throng of Italians waiting for the night train to Venice.

We had made it.

And with a few minutes to spare.

*****
When we arrived in Venice at 5:30 AM it was a ghost town. Dark and deserted.

Our first order of business was to figure out, once again, how to get a ticket for the water bus from one of those science-fictiony ticket machines. Sleep-deprived, jet-lagged, and confused, I was quite pleased with myself for getting the job done in slightly less than 10 minutes.

As the approaching sun slowly revealed the Venetian world, we chugged along in the water bus wondering where all the people were. Sure it was early, but when do these people get out of bed?

Arriving near Saint Mark's Square, we stepped out onto the abandoned Venice street feeling like we were missing something—like showing up for a party on the wrong day. Expecting to see a bustling Venice morning routine we were instead presented with a vacant waterfront.

Following directions, we made our way sleepily through one of the hundreds of alleys towards our hotel.
Problem was, what hotel lets you check in that early in the morning?
The next six hours are a blur of drowsy memories:
A polite Pakistani hotel manager telling us we can leave our bags in the lobby but can't check in until 2 o'clock.
Walking away from our bags wondering if we will ever see them again.
Eating breakfast in a small cafe—not because we were hungry—but because we needed to sit down.
Sleeping, sitting upright, on a moldy sofa in a dank and dark “hotel” foyer hoping we wouldn't get kicked out.
Wanting, yearning, longing, aching to be horizontal.
Realizing that a 6 hour sleeper train doesn't save you a day of traveling—it merely exhausts you so you spend the next day sleeping.
Finally being allowed to check in to our hotel at noon, lying gratefully on the bed, and wasting away our first day in Venice unconscious.
*****
By 3 o'clock in the afternoon we were ready to hit the town. Venice, by then, was fully awake and bustling.
Superbly confident in my directional ability I led Lori through one alley after another heading assuredly west toward the Rialto bridge. Just as I was sure it was around the next corner, we entered a familiar-looking piazza and realized that we had circled back to our hotel.
Sufficiently humbled, and cautious of the distinct possibility of getting hopelessly lost, we took note of landmarks and walked through the once-decadent, now-decaying piazzas and alleys, and over the hundreds of small bridges where the canals are an ever-present marvel.
In its day, Venice was an extremely wealthy city. Nearly every building is some kind of palace, mansion, or church. Built almost entirely of stone, the Venice of today looks similar to what it once was—however, now it has the well-worn patina of age.
And somehow that makes it all the better.
Gondoliers, in their trademark striped shirts, drifted through the backwater canals—inviting us to take a ride. We walked hand-in-hand, wide-eyed, stopping frequently to take pictures. It seemed like every inch of the cobbled streets offered an infinite number of award-winning camera angles.
*****
Forgive me now as I wax poetic about the food.
It's an understatement to say that Italians do wondrous things with pasta.
It's as if hundreds of years of experimenting has perfected the multiple ways it can be prepared and dressed up to look and taste out-of-this-world.
Following Rick Steves' advice, we made a reservation at an infamous Venetian trattoria that even the locals recommended.
My primo piatto (first course) dish of seafood spaghetti looked ordinary enough—in fact it looked like nothing more than spaghetti slicked liberally in olive oil. But when I took a bite a burst of flavors assailed my tongue making it rank among the most delicious things I've ever eaten.
Eating in Italy, Lori and I were constantly having blissful gastronomical moments that can only be compared to scenes from Pixar's movie, Ratatouille. If you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about. This or that ingredient is terrific by itself—but when combined, it's like fireworks to the palate.
And while eating such savory delights, one can't help but spontaneously burst forth with an unexpected “oooh” or “aaah” as if under the influence of some little known Italian Culinary Tourette's Syndrome.
*****
Forget the fact that our honeymoon pegged the far end of the bland-o-meter. Twenty years later and wandering the streets of Venice on a warm Spring evening was worth the wait.
And nobody with even an ounce of romance in them can pass up a Venetian gondola ride.
So we interviewed several gondoliers—wanting to spend our $100 bucks on only the most personable, fun, and knowledgeable gondolier that we could find.
We shopped for the right person like chefs choosing stock for a special dish. We asked questions, inspected different gondolas, tested personalities, joked and requested a song.
We finally chose a sturdy, good-looking gondolier named Paolo with a fine, hand-crafted gondola used for Venetian weddings.
He told us he wouldn't give us a song but he'd give us something far more special.
So, skipping the Grand Canal, he took us into the backwaters of Venice. And with a sonorous, Italian-accented voice he told us of how Venice came to be, and how Marco Polo had obtained a lucrative trade agreement with Asia—thus spawning the wealth of the city.
With Paolo's soothing narration, Lori and I slipped into a dreamy hypnotic daze—passing under small bridges and floating by impossibly charming restaurants—their windows open to the night air—with the sound of soft laughter and clinking dinnerware playing counterpoint.
And then, suddenly, Paolo began singing. With a voice fitting the magic of the evening, he sang us a traditional Venetian wedding song.
So what if the the best night of our honeymoon was at the Boise Red Lion Hotel? This was bliss. And instead of two young kids who hardly knew each other, we now had 20 years behind us and 6 wonderful kids at home.
Sing on, Paolo.
My girl and I will sit right here and watch Venice slowly slip by.
*****
For three days we wandered the streets of Venice—visiting all the famous spots including Saint Mark's Basilica, Rialto Bridge, the Correr Musem, Doge's Palace, and the Bridge of Sighs.
We got lost multiple times—in fact we purposely headed out into the Venetian hinterlands just to see what was out there.
Walking along a small street, far away from any tourists, we walked through neighborhoods where generations of Venetians have lived.
Passing over a small bridge I smiled and greeted an older gentleman in Italian. He immediately engaged me in a stilted conversation—his fluent Italian against my 200 word vocabulary. I introduced Lori and the old man greeted her pleasantly and then, after a few questions, he seemed to ask us to come with him someplace.
Did I understand him correctly?
Unsure of what he said, I nodded at him with a smile and whispered to Lori that he may have invited us somewhere.
Feeling a bit awkward, I decided I was wrong and we began to slip away down an alley.
But the old man followed us.
Matching my stride, he walked by my side as I wondered if he was simply walking in the same direction. Deciding to test it, I quickened my pace—and he quickly put a hand on my shoulder to slow me down.
Weird.
Soon he stopped us near a door in the alley and pulled a key out of his pocket.
At that point, I sized him up.
It was clear the guy was leading us into a barren back alley where he would slam the door shut behind us, yank off his old man mask and shout, “Ah HA! I have you now you steenking Americans!” Then brandishing a long Venetian dagger, he would say, “Now geev me all your a'money or I'll cut your a'tongues out!”
But fumbling with the lock, he opened the door and invited us into a lush courtyard. He explained that his name was Alejandro, that he was a 5th generation Venetian, and that this was his home.
Instead of robbing us of our Euros he simply wanted to invite two lost Americans to see his secret garden.
It was clear that Alejandro and his forefathers had carefully and artfully created this garden oasis over generations. He was especially proud of several palm trees that were perfectly placed among the roses.
We spent 45 minutes with Alejandro—wandering through his garden, taking pictures, talking with him about his family and children. At one point he invited us into his house and offered us a drink of brandy—which, being LDS, we graciously refused.
It was a gem of a moment—an impromptu, spontaneous visit with a man who was open and unhesitating in his desire to spend some time with some friendly-looking tourists. We found him so warm and friendly, he was the very definition of the Italian saying, “Entri come amici, vada come famiglia.”
Enter as friends, leave as family.
We hope to visit him again someday.
*****
Wistfully leaving Venice behind we next hopped a train to Cinque Terre.
Cinque what?” you say?
Cinque Terre. Five small fishing villages that literally hang from the cliffs in the northern Italian Riviera.
We had been told by many that the Cinque Terre (literally “Five Lands”) were some of the most charming little villages in Italy—and we wanted to spend some time there.
The beauty of the Cinque Terre is that cars or buses cannot go there. Within and between these little villages you either take the local train—or walk.
So we arrived, with much anticipation, in Vernazza—the fourth of the five—and stepped into a world that seems hundreds of years behind.
Everything was colors, stone steps, and impossible verticality.
Straightway we looked for Maria—who had a few rooms to let—and found that simply asking for her by name from any of the townsfolk led us directly to her.
Our room was up 60 stone steps from the street below and just beneath the shadow of Doria Castle—a structure that was built in the 1400s to protect the villages from marauding pirates.
Because they're fishing villages, Cinque Terre has a distinct seafaring flair.
And how could it not? They look out over the Riviera where the surf has pounded the cliffs for centuries and where the little villages are under the constant influence of the dramatic moods of the sea.
So with the air bright and cool we explored our temporary little home—getting lost in the maze of steps that lead unexpectedly to brightly-colored miniature courtyards—or through short tunnels in the cliffs leading directly to someone's doorstep.
*****
Rimming the sea of Cinque Terre, the cliffs grow cacti, lemon trees, grapes, towering pines, and are the home of zipping little lizards.
There is a walking trail that leads from one village to the next—yet due to the precariousness of the cliffs, there is a sort of “trail police” that closes portions of it any time it looks particularly unstable.
Luckily, the portion between Corniglia and Riomaggiore was open. So we set out one late morning along the trail and walked along the cliffs, through vineyards and seaside forests, from one charming town to the next.
The stretch between Manarola and Riomaggiare is the Via Dell' Amore.
Up until the 1920s there was almost no contact between the villages. The stoic fishermen kept to themselves and the wild cliffs and tangled forest were an almost impenetrable barrier to the outside world. So, if your name was Gisella and you were looking for a husband, you'd gaze out over the lowly village boys (all 27 of them) and wonder which one of those frustratingly familiar faces you could possibly have an exciting romance with.
Is it Alfonso the dog-faced boy? Gino with the stinky feet? The stuttering Salvatore?
The choices were simply too limited.
So, after hundreds of years of head-scratching over the problem, somebody eventually had an “Aha!” moment that hatched the singular most novel idea to enter the human mind.
They would build a path between the villages.
Thus, the “Lover's Lane” was born.
Nowadays Italian lovers attach padlocks anywhere they can (symbolizing locked hearts??) and paint the tunnel and rocks with elaborate romance-inspired graffiti.
Unfortunately we didn't have a lock or we would have shamelessly followed suit.
But we did have a pen that Lori put to good use.
*****
Some of our best memories of Cinque Terre include:
A fantastic seafood meal at the castle restaurant—our table overlooking the sea.
Getting to know Massimo (“Max”) the Sicilian, at whose restaurant we breakfasted daily on warm manicotti-filled pastries and fresh-squeezed, blood orange juice.
Riding a shuttle 6 miles above Monterosso al Mare and then hiking down to Vernazza through a beautiful seaside forest.
Searching for each village's little church and lighting a candle.
Finding an abandoned convent in the hills, surrounded by majestic, old oaks—with one of the most peaceful views of Vernazza far below.
*****
It was time to pick up our rental car in Florence.
I'm a gadget guy, so you can imagine my geeky excitement when I got to combine a zippy little Fiat 500 with the first-time use of a GPS I had bought specifically for our trip.
Rental cars can range anywhere from depressing to giddily trip-enhancing. The Fiat we were fortunately assigned was definitely the latter. After all, who wants to drone around Italy in a Ford Focus when you can zip, zip, zip around in a blue-blooded, Italian-made compact?
Not much bigger than a Smart Car, the bubbly Fiat 500 seems to have a little smile on its face that says, “Ciao!” every time you approach it.
We were headed, by car, to Tuscany—an area in Italy renowned for its inviting vineyards, rambling villas, and art-inspiring wheat fields.
As we made our way out of Florence with the GPS pronouncing Italian street names in a comical, robotic, staccato—legions of buzzy motorcycles slalomed around us with only a few centimeters to spare.
If you plan on driving in Italian cities I would recommend a full medical workup on your heart before you go. I'm pretty sure I left permanent hand prints in the steering wheel knowing that I would certainly kill a full swarm of Italian motorcyclists if I so much as twitched a single inch to the left or right.
But once out on the open road, driving in Italy was a dream.
Our destination was San Gimignano—a medieval Tuscan town where we had booked a B&B in an old farmhouse.
To say that Tuscany is magical is an understatement.
To our eyes, it was one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
It's as if a master gardener following a grand design has artfully mixed great patches of perfectly-tended vineyards, olive groves, and wheat fields with the mysterious wilds of old-growth forest. With perfect whimsy, inviting villas perch atop rolling hills while ice cream clouds of impossible brightness contrast with a bright, blue sky.
The rolling hills—stretching for miles—are capped by endless shades of lazy blue haze and are cast in an ever-deepening shade of violet.
On our first night in Tuscany we rambled around the town of San Gimignano—walking its stone-cobbled streets under the shadow of its medieval towers until well after dark.
Walking back to our B&B along a winding dirt road we were surrounded on all sides by lush growth, trees, flowering bushes, and great stretches of olives and grapes. We were delighted to pass through wave after wave of intoxicating, evening-aged fragrances while stars shone brightly over the landscape.
Oddly, birds were in full chorus as if they too sensed it was an extraordinary night.
I jokingly commented to Lori that the only thing that kept the night from being perfect was a lack of fireflies.
And then, suddenly, there were fireflies.
Hundreds of them.
Blinking along the road and through the vineyards—it was as if the stars themselves had dropped down for a closer look.
*****
We spent the next few days taking full advantage of our little Fiat and drove to the far reaches of Tuscany. We explored all the best Etruscan and medieval hill towns like Civita, Orvieto, Siena, Volterra, and Pienza.
In Pienza we stopped to taste their famous Pecorino cheese. Lori and I are adventurous eaters and we so wanted to feel drippingly sophisticated as we chewed our pecorino with little bits of pear and honey. But let's just say that the Pecorino tasted less like sheep cheese and more like what you'd find on the bottom of a sheep's pen.
Creme de la dingleberry with a piquant twist of bodaggit.
*****
We meandered over hill and dale entranced by the fetching beauty of the Tuscan wheat fields and vineyards. We set our GPS on “shortest route” and were constantly surprised by the little back roads and lanes that it sent us zipping along. At times we were on little paths that were just wide enough for a diminutive Fiat—and we prayed that nobody was coming in the opposite direction.
But never once did our robotic-voiced GPS let us down.
Entering the maze of cobbled streets in Orvieto, we held our breath as the streets narrowed to within inches of the little car. With the medieval buildings towering around us, we twisted and turned and marveled that the GPS could still see the satellites.
Leaving Orvieto long after dark, we realized that we had meandered far from our little B&B and we needed some gas.
So finding a gas station with no attendants whatsoever, we puzzled, scratched our heads, rubbed our chins, threw our hands in the air, and said a little prayer to the Italian petrol gods to figure out how in the world to get that gas into our car. Luckily someone else came by to gas their car and I surreptitiously watched as they poked some buttons on a central payment machine to direct the gas to the particular pump they were parked by.
*****
Some our favorite memories of Tuscany are:
Lori batting her eyes at the owner of the Etruscan caves museum in Orvieto hoping he'd let us in to see the caves after closing time. He did.
Eating at our favorite restaurant in San Gimignano overlooking the valley. Twice.
Getting the perfect bruschetta—toast with fresh tomatoes, garlic and drizzled olive oil—in Civita.
Searching for and eventually finding a little LDS chapel in Siena and attending sacrament meeting. Lori found it while I was hopelessly confused.
Stopping at a traveling market in Radda In Chianti and accidentally buying 2 kilos of apples when I only really wanted 2 (single) apples.
Me trying out random Italian phrases on a cute and laughing village shopkeeper in San Gimignano. “You have given us a great gift. You are my best friend. You are not hairy.”
*****
Each place we visited in Italy seemed a little more difficult to leave.
So with only one real day left in Italy we regretfully left Tuscany behind to spend a day in Florence. We figured if we were that close to that famous city we should spend some time there. Besides, we had to return the Fiat.
So we drove back to Florence watching San Gimignano, the vineyards, and the easy grace of the Tuscan hills fade in the rear view mirror.
After all we had seen and experienced in Italy—the rush of Rome, the mystery of Venice, Cinque Terre, Tuscany—somehow a quick visit to Florence seemed a bit of a letdown. What could possibly be left in Italy that could move us?
Hadn't we already hit the conclusion of our little story? Weren't we settling into an easy happily-ever-after?
So feeling like we were about to roll the credits after a triumphant FINIS, we consigned ourselves to one more sight.
Far in advance we had booked a specific time to see Michelangelo's statue of David.
We must admit that at that time in our trip we were a bit tired and feeling ready to pack up and head home. In fact, we briefly discussed giving away our David tickets to some random tourists.
But feeling obligated, we rather unenthusiastically made our way across Florence to see that one last thing.
The museum that houses David seems small and nondescript. If it weren't for the crowds milling around outside, one could easily walk past it without any suspicion that it contains anything special.
Shortly after entering we immediately saw several statues. For just a moment we thought that perhaps one of them was “the” statue.
But no.
Then we saw others against a far wall and again, for a moment, we wondered if one of them was “it.”
Jostling with the crowds we turned a corner in the museum as a long corridor lined with various statues revealed itself.
And there—at the end of the hall—was unmistakably Michelangelo's greatest creation.
Standing 17 feet tall, the statue is absolutely stunning.
Under a dome that bathes him in natural light, David looks like he might at any time step off the pedestal and saunter out onto the streets of Florence.
There are few moments in life that are truly jaw-dropping but that was one of them.
We walked in slow circles around it and marveled at the detail, the grace, and the sheer beauty of it. We're here to tell you that no photo we've ever seen has come anywhere close to doing it justice.
Without a doubt, it's the most magnificent piece of art we've ever seen.
And well worth waiting 20 years for.
FINIS

4 comments:

Quiltersal said...

Oh, my, Derek! That brings back some wonderful memories of a trip I took with a teaching partner and 35 middle-schoolers back in 1998....Not quite as extensive as yours, we were in Assisi, Pisa, Rome, Capri, Naples, and Sorrento. And, of course, we didn't spend nearly as much time wandering as you and Lori did...middle schoolers have the attention span of gnats, after all. But Rick Steves is/was our guide for all the trips we led - his advice allowed my partner and I to see England, France, and Italy for 2 weeks with nothing more than a backpack to lug around! So glad you and Lori had a chance to see Italy...so romantic and charming....and you are old enough to appreciate all it has to offer now.

Tuskidero said...

Derek! Your writing is soooo very very good. I was transported. And as usual your photography is always excellent, professional and various other superlatives. I must say that the smell of wet cobblestones transports me back to those places. I'm most impressed at how much in love you obviously are, and how you included Lori in every way. The best part was when she fainted after reading Italian...The BEST. Love you, Tusky

Rebecca said...

Ok, I finally finished reading this entire post, and now I want to read it again...Actually, I want to live it, but since that's not possible in the near future, reading it again might give me some satisfaction. Your description of Venitian romance almost made me cry it was so beautiful. And I laughed out loud at your description of the cheese. Wowzers.

Great report! Maybe when you get tired of physical therapy you could write for a living.

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