Art, Eating and Adventure in Northern Italy
Flying in, we got a beautiful view of the harbor and city. It's very vertical: hillsides, staircases, alleys to nowhere. We only explored the area immediately around the central train station. The university is housed in a large number of beautiful centuries-old buildings, featuring courtyards, arches, plantings, etc. There's no campus as such, just buildings along the street. Judging from posters, this neighborhood is a hotbed of concerts, plays, and radical politics. Everywhere we looked there were architectural gems, but they were covered in centuries of grime. On the plus side, there was hardly any litter.
Taking the train from our base in Sestri Levanté, we got off at Riomaggiore, the southernmost of this series of five medieval villages along the Mediterranean coast, and worked our way north. We explored four of the five villages, but ran out of time before seeing the most northerly one (Monterossa).
Riomaggiore is surprisingly undeveloped, pleasantly lacking in tourist shops. This eaceful village was my favorite of the group. The sea walk here is called Via Del Amore (Street of Love), and is accessible by elevator (free if you buy the Cinque Terre Card, available for one day or several days and including unlimited rail and bus transportation among the villages and the nearby town of LevantÛ).
Manarola was pleasant but not memorable, somewhat more densely built than the other towns. From there, we followed the sea walk to Corneglia—2km (just over a mile). 1 hour was suggested, but it took us only 40 very scenic minutes, with views of the sea, of the terraced hillside vineyards, and stone walls. We took the bus uphill to the main town is, with pleasant cheese and fruit shops, caffes, etc.
Then a quick train ride to Vernazza, the most touristy of those we saw, full of silly t-shirt and souvenir shops. The main street leads down to a protected harbor beach, with a church and clock tower directly overlooking, and a view of the castle tower (which can be seen only if you're in the water; it can't be seen from the actual beach or the avenue going down).
In Sestri Levanté, off the tourist track but close to Cinque Terre, we stayed with Barbara and Sergio and their two children. Sergio spoke no English, but he understood our Spanish, and we understood most of his answers in Italian. He grew up nearby and told us a bit about the local Ligourian culture and dialect. He's into klezmer and world music and spun us a whole bunch of interesting tunes from around the planet. When he pulled out a new klezmer CD by Frank London and asked if I knew his music, I burst out laughing. "E mi amico" ("he is my friend"). I said. "I knew him in college."
Sergio is also an excellent cook, too; he prepared us a fabulous dinner of pesto, potato fritatta, and tomatoes from his own garden with fresh mozzarella.
Barbara gave us a walking tour. With only 20,000 people, Sestri has a surprisingly large and busy downtown—about three times the size I'd expect for that population. The co-op supermarket (selling many natural foods) is vast, but most of the shops are tiny, like the friendly fruit and cheese shop we stopped into. We also saw a music store with shockingly low prices (violins starting at E90 , mandolins not much higher). The waterfront consists of two semicircles with a peninsula between them. Starting on the left side, there are a number of elegant old buildings starting with the Hotel Helvetia, moving around past a former school that Sergio had attended and ending at a large striped building that used to be a convent. The local government bought it with the help of the European Union but hasn't figured out what to do with it. So for now it sits empty. It looks nicely restored on the outside—and the buildings here do not have the grimy exteriors of Genoa; this one actually sparkled.
The other semicircle is a row of beaches, mostly private. But there are two public areas, one of which—a tiny strip of sand alongside a rock jetty—we sampled. The water was absolutely perfect, and not excessively crowded. Nicer by far than either of the two places we swam in Cinque Terre.
A bit of an adventure getting to Paolo, our next host: we couldn't open the door of the train at his tiny little station just outside Pisa, and when we got off at the next stop (Rigoli), the place was almost deserted, except for an old man walking his ancient mother in a wheelchair, who informed us in Italian that this was a very poor village without a public phone. We went all the way to Lucca for a phone, then couldn't reach him. Then it turned out that we had the wrong phone number anyway.
I argued that if, like Rigoli, his town was too small for a phone, everyone would know him; we should return and ask around. Afraid of being stranded, Dina preferred to find lodging in Lucca and track Paolo down the next day. After some heated discussion, we took another train back to San Giuliano (his village). Our 15-year-old daughter Alana and I walked to town in search of a phone book—flagging down people along the way to ask if they knew him—while Dina and Rafael called Barbara to see if she had the host list with Paolo's correct number. She did, which was fortunate, since when we found a phone book at a caffe, he had an unlisted number (and none of the people we asked happened to know him). We were two hours late getting there and tracking him down. But it was worth the adventure—he was very gracious, and lived in a gorgeous self-designed house. After dinner, Paolo took us to Pisa, where we saw the Tower and its two adjacent churches at night—a beautiful time to see them, glowing and ethereal as if they made of lace, not marble!
The station at San Guiliano is quite something. It must have once been very grand, a large three-storey building—but now it was a ruin. The men's room looked like it had had a fire, and that the plumbing hadn't been connected for many years. Paolo told us there are plans to restore it and make it into a commercial development.
Friday morning, we set out for Pisa and Lucca. The train to Lucca came first, so we started there. The Old City is compact and attractive, behind a series of brick fortifications almost too wide to be called a wall; it's at least 100 feet across, and in some places, much more than that. There's an active pedestrian/bike way at the top, and in many spots, parks and greenery—even a small playground.
The train stops just outside the wall, and after crossing through the outer wall, a courtyard, and an inner wall, we were very close to the cathedral square. The duomo (Italian word for church—whether or not it has a dome) is a somewhat triangular building, with sculpture everywhere along the outside—especially the main entrance facing the piazza. But we approached first from the rear, and the building was beautiful from that side as well. Stopping first to buy some stamps and then to cash a traveler's check at a bank (each a very slow and lugubrious process), we then entered the cathedral. The style of most Italian churches we'd seen so far is a fairly simple interior, with several paintings and stained glass windows. In this church, the paintings had coin-operated lights, but admission was free. Judging by the postcard stall outside, its biggest attraction is a painting of the Last Supper, which was the only one lit up as we went through. There's also a little souvenir stand inside, with very reasonable prices. Alana bought a small watercolor of the Pisa duomo and tower for 6 euros. Postcards, both inside and out, start at 30 cents.
After a quick refreshment stop at a bakery (fresh-squeezed orange juice and two iced coffees with milk, taken standing at the coffee bar, total E2.90), we walked a few short blocks following signs to the "Orto Botanico"—botanical garden (orto usually means vegetable, and this one did include an herb garden). This was quite lovely, with a giant Cedar of Lebanon planted in 1822, several sequoias, assorted cypresses, trees from Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
Speaking of plantings, we've seen, on our journey, numerous fig trees, citrus, bamboo, and something that looks like it might be sugar cane—as well as tons of grapes and olives, of course. Also corn here and there, but not a lot of it. Other grains grow but I didn't recognize them.
Figuring it would be far cheaper to eat in Lucca than in touristy Pisa, we had our first real restaurant meal of the trip in the commercial part of the old city, walking on the wall a few blocks. We chose a delightful place where we sat on an outside patio along the side of the building, and enjoyed four excellent dishes plus bottled water for E25 plus tip. We had to pay cash, though; not found a lot of places seem to take credit cards.
On to Pisa, a very different scene from the previous night. Thousands of tourists along the piazza—but no line for the tower. We quickly found out why when we went to the ticket office: the wait was three hours, but if you bought a ticket, you were assigned your 30-minute slot. Most people were just lounging around, waiting their turn, though the more intrepid were buying admission to the cathedral, the baptistry, the operations museum, the graveyard museum, or other attractions along the piazza.
With the long wait, we simply took a few photographs and moved on. And glad we were to have first seen it at night, without the crowds and craziness and endless tacky souvenir stands.
We walked through the university neighborhood adjoining the tower, then crossed the Arno River—very elegant, ancient buildings on both sides, with wide bridges between them—kind of like the Neva in St. Petersburg (though the buildings were much smaller than those palaces)—and down to the central train station. (The tower and churches are near the smaller station.)
Along the way, we passed elegant fashion shops for men and women—but the people in the streets were almost all dressed very casually (of course, it's been the hottest weather in memory around here, and the locals are all complaining—so perhaps this isn't the time they dress their best). We also stopped for cold drinks again, and this time, even quite a few blocks away from the tourists, prices were much higher: E2.50 for fresh lemonade and E2.00 each for 1/2 liter bottles of water and iced tea. Guess we made the right decision for lunch!
A city overwhelmingly involved with painting, sculpture, fresco. Art is everywhere: atop the edges of the buildings, in the streets in front of every church and palace, in building lobbies, and of course inside the churches and monuments.
The city, though, is noisy, overrun with tourists, and ferociously expensive—especially in the central area north of the Arno.
And frustrating, too, because much of what we wanted to see was either closed, under renovation, too expensive, too long to wait in line, or simply impossible to find. We arrived at Michelangelo's Medici chapel—but the subterranean passage with his artwork was closed, and then we couldn't locate the supposedly adjacent Laurentian library.
The downtown area is remarkably compact, crowded with churches, palaces, piazzi, and gelaterias (we sampled particularly good gelato just a block from the train station).
The first sight of the duomo is stunning, especially after the rather dreary walk coming out of the smoky and depressing railroad terminal. It's a complex of several buildings: the main sanctuary, the tower, the baptistry. There's no admission charge (and a fast-moving line) to the sanctuary, a beautiful building, ornate on the outside, relatively simple on the inside, but filled with fabulous sculptures and paintings. A separate line (E6 admission) allows small groups to climb the more than 400 steps to one of the upper balconies. We felt it would be worth the money, but—with just a few hours to see the city, between trains—not the wait of probably an hour and a half or so. The tower was the same price and about the same number of steps—but without the close up of the dome itself, which is covered with amazing frescoes. We declined.
We made the mistake of eating north of the Arno, at one of the many cafeterias that line the streets. Food was expensive and not very good.
Internet access, on the other hand, was a bargain at E2 for fifteen minutes, cheaper in bulk. But changing a traveler's check in euros is costly in some places—free at the Genoa airport, but 4% at a bank in Lucca, 8% from one money changer right near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, and—after rejecting that offer—3% on the other side of the bridge (south).
The Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), originally built in 1345, is quite an amazing structure, like pictures I've seen of London Bridge 1000 years ago—but most of the shops are high-end jewelers. Once south of the bridge, the town becomes less hectic—and much more pleasant. We wandered a series of back alleys to return to the train station, staying away from the big, crowded piazzas.
We're convinced that the way to do Florence is to come off-season, with a large bank account and several days.
In and Around Venezia (Venice)
Venice is magical from the moment you step out the door of the train station—but also pretty crazy in the summer time. Arriving at night during a festival, it was almost impossible to find our lodging (a bed and breakfast in a 15th-century church guesthouse). We wandered in circles through narrow alleys, as hordes of Saturday night festival revelers swarmed past us (and eddied around our awkward luggage). Meanwhile, we at least got to gawk at the seemingly endless rows of elegant palaces and churches, most of them several hundred years old. We finally found the place and got settled just before a spectacular 90-minute fireworks display (which we saw from the windows of our room).
The next morning, we went out to the nearby Church of Saints Giovanni and Paolo, a magnificent edifice with a red marble interior and beautiful stained glass.
Then to the waterfront for a boat trip to Murano, the glassblower's island. Several of the studios happily demonstrate their art—some of the fastest glass blowing I've ever seen. The craft is at a very high level in many of the shops (though there's plenty of junk as well). And the prices decreased as we got farther from the waterbus stop. Our favorite spot on this island was along the Rio de Vetrai, a very scenic street along a rather narrow canal, with shops and ancient buildings lining the banks. It ran from the first bus stop down to the island's Grand Canal (a lot less grand than Venice's). There are enough tourists here to keep dozens of glass shops in business (each with a few specialties plus many of the typical items, such as tiny glass animals and glass candies)—but it doesn't feel touristy after about two blocks from the bus stop.
We enjoyed a very nice lunch in Murano, and then got back on the waterbus to Cimitaro, the island of the dead—a sprawling and very beautiful cemetery with the graves of several notables, including Ezra Pound, Joseph Brodsky, and Igor and Vera Stravinksy. We didn't find Pound's grave, but we saw the others, as well as those of many children, war casualties, and ordinary citizens, grouped by religion (Protestants all in an area called Evangelico, Eastern Orthodox in the Greco area).
By sheer luck, we were in town during the annual Festa del Redentore (redemption festival), which celebrates Venice's recovery from the Black Plague. For this event, a temporary pontoon bridge is constructed across the Grand Canal (which blocks the canal and changes the waterbus routes). If you walk across, as we did later that afternoon, you're supposed to be protected against the Plague.
Monday, we visited Burano—the lace village, a longish boat ride through a channel marked with big timbers. The lace included cotton camisoles in various exotic colors, as well as the usual whites: tablecloths, toilet paper holders, roll holders, etc. To me, the most interesting thing about the island was the colors of the houses—assorted brilliant shades of red, blue, purple, pink. A lot of textile bargains, e.g., gorgeous patterned silk scarves for E10, cheap hippie dresses and skirts for about the same, large masks for E15.
Returning to Venice, we walked about two miles through the Strata Nova (New Street) and surrounding shopping district to tour the Jewish Ghetto. A ticket, purchased at the Jewish Ghetto museum, includes three of the five neighborhood synagogues, all dating from the 15th century. German (Ashkenazik), 1428; Canton (French), 1431; Spanish, Levantine and Italian, from the mid-15th century. The tour is expensive but fascinating. It includes either the Sephardic or the Levantine synagogue, whichever one is not currently in season for services. One is too hard to heat in the winter, and the other is too small for the hot summer. All have the bimah (pulpit) on the opposite of the room from the ark, with men's seating in the middle and the women's section upstairs behind wooden grates. But they don't allow photos and the guide's English requires careful listening.
Several Judaica stores are nearby, one immediately to the left of the museum with glassware made by the only Jewish blower in Murano (a woman), whose brother owns the shop—he claims to be a descendant of one of the first Jewish families in Venice, a nearly unbroken line spanning several centuries. To the right of the museum, a shop specializing in silver. Across from the Spanish and Levantine synagogues, there's a shop of Jewish silhouettes—but unfortunately it closed before we finished the synagogue tour.
It turns out the word "ghetto" originated here. The Jewish quarter was originally an old iron foundry, "getto" in Italian. It was the first place to wall off Jews and lock them in for the night, so the word morphed. To make things more confusing, the New Ghetto was settled before the Old Ghetto, and later the Newest Ghetto—all old metal foundries. Peak population was 8000. In 1938, over 1300 Jewish residents still remained. Word leaked out of the impending Nazi roundup, and most escaped. More than 200, though, were captured and deported; only seven came back. (For a good article on the Venice ghetto, I recommend Durant Imboden's Venice for visitors; good pictures but a poorly written article are at JewishVenice.com.)
The museum itself has a small but worthwhile collection of elegant antique oil menorahs, ketubbot (ornate calligraphy wedding contracts), and a bit of local Jewish history.
Tuesday morning, we walked over the Rialto Bridge, passed a lot of shlocky and overpriced tourist shops—and some very elegant and even more overpriced stores, then went straight for about two blocks until we hit the fish market, where we turned right, walked two blocks and found the produce market. Cheap, high quality veggies and fruits were a welcome relief after all the starch and cheese we've been eating. We bought plums, raspberries, currants, arugala, lettuce, tomatoes—spending about E10 for several pounds. Supplementing these goodies with bread and cheese, we enjoyed a picnic along the canal, watching the gondolas go by—like a train, almost no pauses between them at times.
Around 4 p.m., Dina and I took all four Alter-Muri and Horowitz Friedman children on a gondola ride—about forty serene minutes gliding in a silent rowboat through the narrow back canals (E60, after a bit of negotiation). Our boatman could carry a tune, though his repertoire was popish (US/Italian) and he generally didn't know the words. He also wasn't much of a tour guide, pointing out only Casanova's baroque palace and Marco Polo's surprisingly modern looking mansion (clean lines, recent windows), with a couple of prompts when we asked what some of the other buildings were (we didn't ask often).
Still, this was a highlight for all of us. I can totally understand the attraction, especially in the late afternoon when canals offer respite from the crowds and intense heat. When the boats come close together, the boatmen converse and joke with each other. With the city absolutely swarming with tourists, it felt like a trip to the country, especially since the boat favors the less traveled canals; even on the walkways above, there are relatively few people. I suspect the other route, along the Grand Canal in sometimes-choppy water, may have been a less rewarding experience, at least for us.
Afterward, we walked back to the Strata Nova until the street changes names to Cannaregio shortly before the ghetto, and had dessert at Pasticceria Cazzetta (Cannaregio, 1979) a bakery we'd spotted the previous day. The tiramisu in the window had looked so good that we had to taste some. It turned out to be a wonderful place. Very friendly, very much a neighborhood hangout (we were the only tourists there, and were treated very well—the place was packed with locals standing, eating, and drinking). Pastries were good (my chocolate cake/cookie) to extraordinary (the sumptuously rich and creamy tiramisu, served in gigantic slices)—and the bill for five of us was only E7.90 .
Wednesday, at the urging of our children, we went to the Lido, the island where Venetians go to swim. It was a wonderful surprise—I had expected something on the order of Coney Island or Ocean City, Maryland—a big, urban beach with noise, litter, crowds, and too much neon.
But it wasn't like that at all. First off, coming out of the boat, we took a left and walked a few blocks through an elegant neighborhood of fancy villas, then rounded a sharp-angle turn to head back toward the village center and found—TREES! Something so rare and precious in Venice that a tree-lined street felt like a truly wonderful gift.
Then we rented bicycles and took a short ride through town, along the Venice side (tree-lined, poorly paved, and interrupted by several detours back to the main street due to canals), then over to the Adriatic side along the sea wall (straight, well-paved, continuous views of the sea, but treeless). Once out of town, the sea is divided by evenly spaced jetties made of large boulders; small groups of one or two families were hanging out or swimming. The water was warm and clear, without much current at least as far as the jetties. Peaceful. We heard it's a really nice ride out to a village at the end of the island, but once again, we had to cut our journey short.
Walking in along a courtyard off the main street, we found a moderately priced restaurant with good food and excellent service, and then enjoyed a spiffy sunset on the boat ride back to Venice.
Touristy and crowded though it is, the Piazza San Marco is the heart and soul of Venice, and worth a solid day. We started early in the day, while the line for the duomo is still in the shade. Since there's no admission charge, it moves fast. The cathedral is a feast of marble, frescoes, paintings, and gilt. The main room is quite spacious, and offers separate areas (with small admission fees) for the treasure and the Gold Room. There's also a separate entrance that leads to outdoor balconies, close up to the artwork at the top of the church and overlooking the plaza. Then there are assorted outbuildings such as the tower, but we wanted to save some energy for the museums.
Afterwards, we crossed the piazza, went up the stairs under the archway near the tourist information booth and bought the four-museum ticket. (If you're more ambitious than we were, the 10-museum city-wide ticket may be a better value).
Three of the museums are all in one building, and are really one museum with three separate sets of exhibits. First is the Correr, which offers insights into the life of ordinary and royal Venice from about 800 on—including a comprehensive collection of coins from every era in Venice. Other highlights include a maritime wing with a rare and well-preserved three-masted ship's lantern and a room of beautiful 17th century bookcases filled with works from the period—some of them displaying their ornate covers or interiors.
Next is the anthropological museum, a small and rather uninspired collection of primarily Roman (and a few Greek) artifacts—and finally, the magnificent library, in a grand, palatial room, with sections depicting medicine, art, politics, and other areas of 15th century day-to-day life—told through lavishly illustrated books of the period.
The same ticket also includes the Doge—the duke's palace, back on the cathedral side of the piazza—a lavish multilayered edifice full of works by Tintoretto, Titian, and other Italian masters—and a look at the not-so-pleasant side of Venice past: the Bridge of Sighs and tour of the duke's prison. One of the most interesting parts for me was the map room, which showed a very different perspective on the world, tilted so that the connections among the Adriatic, Aegean and Mediterranean are clear, and it's suddenly obvious how and why the Italians and Turks spent so much energy fighting each other for control of this very strategic area.
Most of the rest of the piazza is lined with pricy restaurants and exclusive boutiques—but the Caffe Aurora offered the best gelato of our entire trip (two smallish scoops for two euros, and well worth it). Many of the eateries offer competing live musicians in front of their establishments, so during the evening, multitudes of listeners wander from jazz to classical to pop.
On our way back to Tuscany, we spent one night in Verona, where we stayed at a spotless youth hostel in a beautiful old monastery on a hill, and saw an opera performance in the ancient Roman arena (circa 200 A.D.). While certainly attractive, Verona didn't really move us. The center of town, behind the old wall, is car-free—but crowded with people visiting the so-called Juliette's balcony (as in "Romeo and"); there's no proof that this is anything other than a scam. We were not pleased to spend almost a full extra day there when the railroads went on strike, and spent most of the extra time lingering in the garden of a local pizzeria, swapping travel stories with our companions.
Sumptuous Splurges in Siena
After the nationwide rail strike that delayed our arrival until nightfall, pampering was just what we needed. And we found it at our apartment hotel, the Borgo Grondaie, in Siena.
Our suite, at E145 per night, was not cheap—but since they had room, they gave us a free upgrade to the E200 suite, with two king-bed bedrooms instead of one. This includes a kitchen and dishes, living room furnished several cuts above the usual bland hotel fare, a thoroughly modern bathroom with an excellent massage showerhead and beautiful tile work, mountain bikes to borrow, a very private terrace with lovely trellises of flowering vines, a swimming pool—and a staff as friendly and helpful as anywhere I've ever stayed. Both Antonio and Gaia go out of their way to assist. And it's actually air conditioned! With temperatures topping 40 degrees C (104 F) on several days of our trip, we'd been amazed that even fans were rare.
That first night, we walked around the downtown a bit, which seemed quiet and austerely beautiful. Other than near a big jazz nightclub in a park, the streets were very quiet—not deserted, but with few people about. We walked down a broad street lined on both sides with high-fashion boutiques, looking for a place to eat at 9:30 p.m.
All the other Italian cities we've been to offer a constant parade of trattoras, pizzarias, caffes, bakeries, snack bars, wine bars…but downtown Siena had very few choices at this hour: McDonald's, a small trattora that Dina and Alana both rejected…and our "sleeper"choice, La Rotonda, the restaurant inside the Jolly Hotel, at Piazza La Lizza.
Here, we experienced a far cry from the usual fare: authentic Toscana specialties served in an elegant and friendly atmosphere (and with no hassles about our very casual dress). They were so nice that when we told him we were vegetarian, Roberto not only whisked away the standard freebie appetizer (olives wrapped in meat, dipped in batter, and deep-fried), but replaced it with a lovely selection of cheeses.
And this restaurant had several vegetarian options in every category!
We decided to do the evening in the typical Italian first course/second course style.
For the first course, all four of us shared a plate of pears, mild pecorino cheese, extremely fresh roasted walnuts, and honey—an unusual combination, but it worked. The walnuts were the best I've ever had, and the sweetness of the honey worked surprisingly well with the cheese. It was a smallish portion, especially divided by four, but there was plenty of food in the other courses (plus a big basket of assorted breads as we sat down—I particularly liked a sort of corn/wheat sandwich bread with nuts and seeds).
For the main course, Alana and I both ordered spinach ravioli—done in an eggy dough and served with a wonderful fresh tomato sauce—Rafael ordered agli olio, expecting the thick homemade spaghetti we were seeing at other tables, and was disappointed when he got ordinary spaghetti—but it was done very tastily, with little pieces of hot pepper. Dina's vegetable soup had one flavor I didn't care for, but Alana really enjoyed it. And the olive oil they served with it was simply incredible.
Then we all shared an enormous plate of the chocolate ball cake I've been seeing around and wanting to try. It turned out to be creampuffs covered with a chocolate custard: light, rich tasting, not too sweet, and very flavorful. I simply can't imagine eating an entire portion (three big scoops), especially after a huge meal.
All this plus a liter of mineral water came in at a very reasonable E52, or just E13 per person! We were full without being overstuffed, and it turned out to be one of our best meals of the trip.
Cortona and Assisi
Exhausted after being caught in the transit strike, we got a very late start the next day, finally leaving Siena in our little rented Renault at 12:30. The drive was beautiful: villas on the hillsides, stands of cypress, everything green despite the drought. And driving in this part of Italy, at least, was far easier than I'd feared. Destinations (though not highway numbers) are clearly marked and usually easy to follow, and most other drivers were polite, if (in many cases) extremely fast.
The only place the signs let us down was at a crossroads just outside Cortona, where arrows to the town pointed both ways and we took the wrong choice. So we turned around and snaked up the hill, parking at the first lot in the old part of town.
There's one main street, heavily geared toward tourists (though the town was far from crawling with them, even on a hot Saturday afternoon where many locals might be expected to flee to cool mountain towns like this one).
Other than tourism, the main industries seem to be olive oil and wine. The street is lined with enotecas (wine shops that also offer a wide away of gourmet food specialties) selling the oil and wine along with various assortments of dried pastas, fancy mushrooms, and other specialty foods. We also saw some wonderful looking pastry made of figs, nuts, and spices; it's a local specialty, but it looked better than it tasted (maybe because we were expecting it to be chocolate).
We'd made this detour because of Rafael, who took a minicourse on Italy last spring with a woman who'd lived here—but Dina was utterly charmed by it. I liked the town, but to me, its best feature is the set of views from on top of the mountain—especially the side facing toward the big lake and Perugia.
It was 4:30 by the time we rolled in at the Basilica of Santa Maria del Angeli, just outside Assisi, where we'd arranged to meet my Internet friend Tim, his wife Vanna, and daughter Gioia. Clearly visible from the highway, its blue dome dominates the entire village—a good, easy landmark.
Inside this huge marble edifice is a small and simple country church, built and deocrated by San Francesco (Saint Francis) himself. But the great saint of country life and simplicity would probably be horrified to see the domineering cathedral that now surrounds his little place of worship. Tim told us there had been a very bad earthquake a few years back that had damaged much of the cathedral—but not Francesco's church.
Francesco worked and died here, but his body is up the hill in Assisi (pronounced Ah-see-zee).
Coming up the hill, the views of Assisi and its cathedral complex—all done in a rose-colored stone—were stunning. We left our cars in an inexpensive but crowded parking lot and headed inside.
And actually, 5 p.m. turned out to be an excellent time to see Assisi, because most of the crowds were gone. I took a picture of the nearly deserted courtyard.
The main chapel is dominated by a long series of Giotto frescoes circa 1290-1300, which Tim credits with starting (or anticipating) the Renaissance. They had a practical as well as artistic purpose—helping illiterate worshipers follow along with the service. The church is full of other masterpieces as well, all done around the same period. The ceiling is especially spectacular.
Then downstairs to Francesco's tomb. This is a place of power. An incredible energy fills the entire room—not the stillness one might expect, but a strong outward push. Tim says he enjoys going there to meditate. I think it has the strongest natural energy field of any place I've ever been.
The rest of Assisi stretches out along the hilltop, all very beautiful and including some very unusual buildings: a lovely columned marble alley along the front of one building—some of the columns bent at peculiar angles—and then across the street and down a few hundred yards, a church that looked almost exactly like the small temples outside the Parthenon on the outside, and like a garish Mexican church on the inside (most of the churches in Italy that we've seen do without this sort of gaudy silver and gold decorations, going instead for painting, sculpture, and fresco).
Tim and Vanna invited us back to their house for dinner. They live about half an hour out of town down a dirt road. Tim is a builder and redid his large and comfortable house.
They own quite a bit of land and the views are gorgeous—and they are very gracious hosts whom we thoroughly enjoyed from the moment we met. The afternoon and evening we spent together will be a very special memory of this very special trip, and well worth the hassle of driving home in the dark for two hours on unfamiliar roads.
Sunday, it was time to explore Siena itself. There were certainly tourists, but the place was far from overrun with them. And it seemed that many business owners were taking their own holiday in this last week of July.
The famous clock tower in the Campo was worth a look, as was the beautiful striped duomo—and I liked the curvature of the campo's other buildings, forming a circular piazza (there's another nearby in the stadium piazza, near where we had dinner the first night).
Very few restaurants, lots of enotecas (far more expensive than Cortona) and tourist souvenir shops along the main shopping street—and for art lovers, many important sites to see. For us, less so. After the beautiful rose-pink of Assisi, Sinea's unrelenting gray-brown brick and stone buildings felt grim and fortress-like. We went to a concert in a tiny, austere Anglican church that held about 40 people—a commentary on how few Protestants there are around here. It was located just inside the wall. If we had come here first, I'm sure we'd have fallen in love with Siena, as so many of our friends have—but it simply didn't feel like a must-see.
Ventemiglia and Back to Genoa
After more than a week in Switzerland and France, Italy felt so familiar! We just missed the train to Genoa, which gave us an hour to walk around the border town of Ventemiglia. A few blocks from the train station is a nice park overlooking the harbor—where I bought one of the best hot chocolates of my entire existence from a little stand with no atmosphere and low prices (E1.30)—but a real espresso machine. Rich, unsweetened cocoa and steamed milk—I should have been drinking this everywhere I went. It was served in a plastic cold drink cup and I worried that it would melt through, but it held.
On our return to Genoa, we got off at the other train station, Brignoli, and took the #40 bus all the way up the mountain to the youth hostel. The beginning of this route is an extremely elegant downtown area, crammed with beautiful palaces, fancy stores, and vibrant cafes. As the bus climbs through a series of hairpin turns, the streets get narrower and narrower, there are fewer and fewer shops (and almost none open at night)—a residential neighborhood.
The best thing about the hostel is a terrace overlooking the old port, far below. And the second-best is a family restaurant a little farther up the hill (a few flights of stairs directly outside the hostel), where we had excellent food and very friendly services at reasonable prices—though air conditioning and a nonsmoking section would have added greatly to our enjoyment.
We had a little more time to explore Genoa in the morning, since our plane didn't leave for many hours. And not knowing the bus system, we ended up on a circular route that gave us a close look at many neighborhoods—though, by this time, we'd have rather taken a direct bus and seen less. Heading down one of the narrow alleys through an Arab-dominated area of produce stores and ultra-discount clothing shops, we arrived at the port. The biggest thing to see there is a replica of an ancient ship, constructed for a famous pirate movie. The waterfront has been redone, but it doesn't quite hang together. It's actually more interesting looking down from the top of the mountain, from the piazza at the hostel.
And then…one more bakery, one more bookstore, and it was time to say goodbye to Italy.
Reflections on the Italian Psyche
From my perspective as an American, Italy is such a mass of contradictions! A land of precision engineering for sports cars and computers, but where everything breaks down as a matter of course. Where hotel and residence bathrooms almost always include a bidet—but there may or may not be a toilet seat or even a western-style toilet in a public bathroom. Where customers have to weigh and price their own produce in the supermarket, inevitably causing delays as a customer goes back to weigh a forgotten item (and probably a good deal of wrong pricing too, if there are several different kinds of a particular fruit). Where you first walk to the cashier at the parking lot and settle up, and then scan your receipt through an automatic gatelifter.
But it's also a place where such a high percentage of people go well out of their way to be extremely helpful—taking in some instances, quite a few minutes out of their day to do so—and everyone is laid back, but where no one has any authority to bend a rule even slightly, no matter how much customer service good will is involved.
Where food is savored slowly over long, ample meals—but many people happily gulp coffee standing at the bar or eat pizza slices on the street.
Where great art is everywhere you look—but in many areas, so is casually scrawled graffiti. Where so many of the world's great composers lived and worked—but street musicians play covers of American pop songs and the radio stations play either Italian remakes or the American originals.
But the contradictions are part of its charm. I'd go back again in a heartbeat.
Shel Horowitz is editor of Global Travel Review and author of the new book Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First. The author would like to gratefully acknowledge Dina Friedman
for assistance with this article.
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