Due Settimani in Italia
We arose later than usual, read the paper over breakfast and then finished packing for our trip. Mary’s sister Joanne and husband Jack were going to take us to the airport at Noon.We had a definite sense of anticipation for our long awaited Italian adventure.
As we entered the brand new Buffalo and Niagara International Airport Terminal, I was impressed with the gracefulness of the sweeping lines of the building. It has that vibrant, flowing quality of a Dulles or an LAX.
We had a last cup of coffee with Joanne and Jack and then checked into the Continental counter with our bags.
At 2:00 P.M. sharp, we off-lifted and made the uneventful 1 hour and 15 minute flight into Newark Airport where we were scheduled to hook up with our Alitalia flight for a 7 P.M. flight to Malpensa Airport in Milan Italy.
We had some time to kill,so we strolled the terminal wondering as always at the many stories evident around us. Airports are fascinating places to people watch and we weren’t disappointed. We had a last cup of flavored coffee at a stand called “Jake’s” and then checked in for the Continental/Alitalia flight #601 to Milan. The plane, a wide-bodied monster, was packed to the gunwales with passengers of all types.We spotted a few Central Holidays carry on bags and wondered if these folks would be on the tour with us. It appeared to us that the majority of the flight was filled with Italian nationals returning home from a visit to the United States.
Ironically, I was reading a book on the early years of the Italian mafia, titled “Capo”. by Peter Watson.
As usual on these overnight flights, we sought sleep and didn’t find it. We read our books and passed the time as well as we could for the 7 hours that it took us to reach Milan’s Malpensa Airport.
On the way into Italy, we could look down and see the hard granite peaks of the French and Italian Alps.They were snow covered and uninviting, a reef of sky-born peaks waiting to hull out the careless and low flying aircraft. Still, they were the Alps and and we were seeing them for the first time.
We touched down in Milan at 8:00 A.M local time and after retrieving our luggage from the baggage carousel, we had a brief stop at customs that cleared us for our stay.. Next, we set out in search of the Central Holidays Tour guide who was scheduled to meet us. In the process,we met and introduced ourselves to Bill and Marie Mead from New Jersey.They were to become good friends of ours in the days ahead.
It was rainy and cool. Off in the distance you could see the snow covered Alps.Garlands of dirty gray clouds, pregnant with rain, ringed the mountain peaks like ringers tossed in a carnival game.
We were gathered up by Lucio Levi, our tour guide, and escorted to the Central Holidays bus for the I hour ride up into the Lake Lugano region of Switzerland.
The Alpine scenery is pleasant and interesting.Everything seemed well ordered and in its place. The border crossing into Switzerland was perfunctory. The new European Community is in the process of dismantling all of the cumbersome customs checks between its member states. Lucio pointed out the “CH” designation on the license plates of the Swiss automobiles.It stands for Confederation Helveticorum, the Roman and official name of Switzerland.
Lucio began his narration of the history of the area.It was the beginning of two enjoyable weeks of a series of intensive instructions on Art, literature, culture,history and architecture.We never tired of listening to this erudite scholar whom winsome fate had cast among us. He was a font of information to us on an impressively diverse array of subjects.
Lake Lugano hove into view as the sun came out and we were impressed at the well ordered splendor. From the towering mountains nature had gouged out , like the four fingers of a hand, a deep and scenic glacial lake. The Town, with a permanent population of 15,000, is situated on one shore of the Lake. It has a wonderful pedestrian promenade lined with sycamores and Cherry trees that were just starting to bloom. The trees were first planted by the Romans and named “Cherry” after the Roman word “Cherazza.” The term is a truncation of a region in Turkey where the Romans had found the tree in abundance.
The Sun was shining and we could see diverse Alpine landscapes reflected in the depths of the Lake.It was an impressive start to the tour.
Lucio brought us to the Hotel Admiral where we checked in to room #415, unpacked and took a short nap.We were tired from the flight.
After our conference with Ozzie Nelson(nap),Mary and I walked along the pedestrian shopping mall, the”Via Nassa,” to watch the crowds.It was sunny, cool and in the 50’s. We stopped by the famous Swiss Jeweler Bucherer and admired their pricey wares.The jeweler gave us a silver spoon as a memento.
Next, we sat in an open square overlooking the lake and had a panini and cappuccino at the Ristorante Vanini. It cost 22 Swiss Francs and was enjoyable. We walked along the Lake promenade and noted with interest the statues of George Washington and the Swiss hero, William Tell. A delightful civic park, with flowers in bloom, was bucolic and restful
We sat frequently , at various stops along the lake side, to admire the Alpine visage.It is picture postcard pretty.
After the pleasant stroll by the lake, we walked over to the mountainside funicular. It promised to take us to the summit of the mountain for a wonderful view of the Alps. It was too high for me.The last few hundred yards of the journey looked almost vertical in its ascent.
We were again tiring and headed back to the hotel to relax before dinner. We noticed a sign for the pool(Piscina) and headed down to the basement for a relaxing swim.The water was heated and we luxuriated in its warmth. After our swim we showered and dressed for dinner.
The Central Holidays bus picked us up at the hotel at 7 P.M. and we
drove a short way along the lakeshore to the “Capo San Martino” Ristorante overlooking Lake Lugano. Night had fallen and the lake shore was atwinkle with illumination beneath the ponderous shadows of the towering mountains around us. We settled in with Bill and Marie Mead for courses of pasta, salad, omelet(for me) and finally a Torte with cafe’ for desert. Accompanying this repast was a nice red wine and mineral water. It was delicious and set well the stage for the ensuing caloric tide that was to pleasantly engulf us over the next two weeks.The food here is wonderful.
The dinner and company were very nice but we were tiring.The bus took us for a brief night ride around the lake and then returned us to the hotel. We repacked our suitcases, read for a while and then crashed tired from the day. It had been a very pleasant start to the tour.
Tuesday,April 7- Lake Lugano,Switzerland
We arose early at 6 A.M.,showered, packed our bags and put them in the hall by 7A.M. for pickup. Then, we met the Meads for breakfast . and chatted about the previous day and how beautiful the area was.
At 8 A.M. sharp the bus set out for Milan. We viewed again the beauty of the Alpine landscape and Lake Lugano. After crossing the Italian border we drove on to Milano. The traffic was extremely congested in the city. Cars seemed to park all over the place. We drove by the 600 year old Visconti Palace, with its imposing tower and battlements.The fortress had once had 132 drawbridges across its formidable moat.
The bus let us off near the venerable “ La Scala” Opera House, named after the daughter of the powerful Scala Family in nearby Verona. Inside, Emmanuella our guide gave us a narrated tour of the opera house and accompanying museum. We saw musical scores and various mementos from operas created by the Italian masters Puccini,Verdi and Donizetti. In the performance hall, the audience seating is constructed in a “U” shape facing the enormous stage. Private boxes rise six levels along the “U.” The interior floor level of the “U” is filled with seating as well. The top two levels of boxes are for standing room customers. Crystal chandeliers and red velvet opulence lend a Victorian elegance to the whole. Getting a ticket to a performance here is difficult at best,even though the place is enormous. We could well visualize a hearty rendition of “Carmen” or “Aida” performed before enthusiastic and cheering crowds. For the first time, I could picture myself chanting “Bravo” during a performance and not looking pretentious. LaScala has that effect on you.
Pierre Marini is the architect who created this jewel. It had been bombed accidentally and completely destroyed during W.W.II. It was rebuilt according to original specifications, by the Italian Government, after the War. Historians credit Marini for making popular the use of macadam for the roads surrounding the facility.The soft material quieted somewhat the noise made by the metal wheels of the many carriages passing by and enhanced the acoustical enjoyment of the house.
From LaScala, we walked to the “Galleria” shopping complex, the fore runner of our covered malls. The shops lined a cross shaped and tiled arcade that was covered high above by a peaked glass roof.The four corners of the cross were open to the air and a fountain gurgled at the join of the cross arms.
From the Galleria, Emmanuella marched us to the imposing edifice of il “Duomo”, the Cathedral in Milan..Started in 1386, by the Duc Di Visconti, this Gothic-lace masterpiece had taken 4 centuries to complete. The roof line is a series of spires each topped by a small statue, perhaps a wealthy patron or friend of the Visconti’s.
The Cathedral was the first for us in a series of such masterful granite and marble epiphanies throughout Italia. Each was to leave us in awe of the many frescoes, statuary and artwork on casual display.
It was rainy and cool .We reboarded our bus and crawled for 45 minutes through heavy traffic to the expressway East to Verona. Along the way, we stopped at an “Autogrill” for Zuppe, panne and mineral water (26K-L). The fare here is far superior to our standard Thruway food.
For the next hour we drove through the Po river valley and admired the vineyards and verdant agriculture of the region. The Soave and Valpolicelli vineyards predominate in the area. The imposing Soave Castle could be seen far off in the distance, dominating a hilltop and commanding the region. Lucio informed us that 87% of Italia is hilly or mountainous. Regions like the Po river valley make up the remainder and are heavily involved in agriculture and grape production.
At Verona, we met our guide “Mauro.” He is a character. He had apparently formed a rather strong dislike for the famous Operatic Tenor Pavarotti and referred to him often as “The barking dog.” The Streets of Verona are narrow and picturesque. We walked them and admired the architecture.Off one small lane we entered a courtyard,that of the Capuletti (small hat) family. There, on the second level, is what is thought to be the balcony featured so prominently in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” If it isn’t the real one, it should be. In the corner of the courtyard stands a life size statue of a young girl, Juliet Capulet. Generations of tourists had rubbed her right breast for luck and it sparkled in contrast to the dull sheen of bronze covering the rest of the statue. The walls of the stone courtyard are covered with hundred of linked initials in heart shapes, a curious graffiti memorial to young love.
From the Capuletti courtyard we wandered about town.The Coliseum in Verona is older than the one in Rome.It is an open amphitheater that is now used for operatic performances.
From Verona, we drove Eastward for an hour to the Adriatic Coast and the fabled Republic of the Doges, Venice. You must first cross a paved causeway, stretching from the mainland for a mile, to reach this island city. From the terminus of the causeway we boarded motor launches, for the 20 minute ride along the picturesque Grand Canal, to a landing area near our hotel, the 800 year old “Saturnia.” Another motor launch had been hired to carry our luggage to the hotel. The Gondoliers and their gondolas competed for space with the water taxis and work boats along the many narrow side canals. It was like taking a ride through a Disney exhibit.
The Hotel Saturnia is both venerable and elegant. Mahogany bannisters and woodwork, Venetian glass fixtures and fabric print wall paper give the hotel an ambiance of quiet elegance. Our luggage was slow in arriving so we relaxed and took stock of ourselves.Then,when it did arrive, we performed a quick change and descended to the hotel dining room (Caravelle) for a 7:30 Dinner with the Meads and Jim and Nina Lynch. Fettucini with Tuna, salad, Dover sole,risotto with cockles and shrimp,ice cream and coffee, accompanied by red wine and mineral water presented us with a memorable repast. It was wonderful.
Marie Mead’s nephew and his girl joined us for tea .They are law students in London and had trained down to see Marie.They were very nice and we enjoyed talking to them.
It was past 9:30 and we were tiring.We said good night and repaired to our room to read and retire. We were pretty casual about being in so magical a city like Venice. I constantly marvel at the human ability to adapt to unusual places and circumstances. Is yawning on the Moon next?
We arose early,showered and met the Meads for an early breakfast at 7:30 A.M. Like most tours and cruises, meals are the less harried periods of the day and the time to share impressions and experiences of the day before. It was also a chance to get to know the people with whom you are traveling.At 8:30, we met our local guide, Alessandro. He was escorting us on a narrated walking tour of Venice this morning.
We walked the narrow pedestrian alley ways and delighted in the architecture and charm of this magical city. Arched pedestrian bridges crossed the many small canals as we made our way to the center of Venice,The Piazza San Marco. The Square itself was completed by Napoleon .He closed off one end of a U shaped court.It is now lined on three sides by two story stone structures, with a colonaded walk beneath each.Shops line the interior of the colonnade. The fourth side is the wonderful Byzantine Masterpiece,the Church of St.Mark , from which the area takes its name. This marble covered and gilded apparition is an architectural delight.The soaring bell tower next to it dominates Venice.
The immense square is populated by throngs of tourists and locals feeding an enormous army of the aerial rats that we call pigeons. The Italians refer to the square as Europe’s living room. Alessandro informed us that on 100 days of the year the square is entirely submerged in the waters of the nearby Adriatic. The merchants construct a series of duck walks around the square to negotiate the water. It must be some sight.Luckily for us it was dry as a bone when we walked it.
On the corner of the square, near the Church, sits the former seat of the Venetian Republic, The Palazza Ducale. It is an enormous, two-story structure that once housed the Senate and House of Rep. of the Venetian Republic.We toured this grand edifice and admired the beauty of the many Tintoretto and Varonese murals that depict the History of Venice in the “Four Grande Rooms” that were allotted to the Doge, the elected reps and the judiciary. Careful restorations had brought to life the color and splendor of Venetian history. I had never experienced Varonese or Tintoretto on such a grand scale before and enjoyed immensely the sweeping saga in oil that lay before us.
The guide told us of the Doges. Each one was elected for life, but not until he was over ninety years of age. In this way, the Venetians insured a reasonable turnover in their chief executives.The average Doge ruled for 9 years.
As we walked along the polished marble looking floors, our guide explained their unique construction. This building and all of Venice is built upon pilings sunk into the bottom of the lagoon.Minor tremors and other earth movements often shift the surface below. Hard marble floors would be too rigid and soon crack apart. Instead,the artisans used fine marble chips, mixed with a plaster paste. When dried,it is saturated with vegetable oil three times yearly and buffed to a high finish.The result is marble in appearance, yet vibrant and giving to the various strains of the building. Similarly, the floor joists and timbers between floors are constructed all of wood so that thebuilding will give with the stress and strain of frequent movement.
Next, we walked the path of the condemned over the famous “Bridge of Sighs” and down into the dungeons of the palace. It was dank and dark and cold. People who came this way seldom returned.
From the Palazza Ducale, we walked a few streets away and toured the showroom for the “Murano” glass works. After a brief demonstration in glass blowing, an army of sales people descended upon us to show us the many colored and world famous Venetian glassware. The Venetians had developed the techniques for making transparent glass in the 16th century and later the technique for making glass mirrors by adding silver to one side of transparent glass. We had a new appreciation for the ornate glassware that we previously thought somewhat tacky. The main production facilities lie on an island complex a few miles from Venice.
After the glass works, Mary and I walked the Venetian promenade along the Adriatic. .Huge car ferries and all manner of water traffic were busily scurrying about. Famous old hotels like the Londra and the Daniella give a flair to the area. Gondoliers, a babble of languages and cultures all mingled harmoniously. One began to appreciate the cosmopolitan sophistication of Venice.
We strolled the streets and alleys of Venice buying some postcards and stamps for friends and window shopping. At 12 Noon, we met up with our group for a Gondola ride down the many small canals of Venice. These vessels are sleek, ebony, highly -decorated canoe -like structures that operate with one large oar working off a stern mounted fulcrum and a hearty gondolier to propel them. They are expensive vessels and can cost up to $18,000 each. How they manage to steer these fragile craft around the narrow turns and in and out of the crowded boat traffic is a mystery to me, but they did. One of their fellows played Italian folk songs on an accordion to accompany a robust operatic tenor who sang with the heart and passion induced only by the melancholy of great opera.We absolutely enjoyed this quintessential tourist ride along the canals of Venice.(cost $28 ea,)It is one of the many high spots of our tour. An enterprising photographer took snaps of us in the gondolas when we left and had them developed upon our return. For 10,000 Lire we had a wonderful souvenir of the event.
After our gondola ride we strolled the Piazza San Marco and bought some Panini vegetarian and Mineral water from a small stand (14k).We ate our lunch in the square, like the Venetians, and dodged the dive bombing aerial rats that were the delight of squealing children.
We returned to the Saturnia for a brief R&R. Later that afternoon we set out along the narrow alleyways to find the Academia Art Museum. After some exploring, we came upon the Museum but did not want to fight the hordes of students and tourists already occupying the place.We continued walking along the quaint back alleys and passed by the renowned “Peggy Guggenheim” Museum of Modern Art.
Finally, we came to the church of St.Basil. It sits across the wide grand canal from the Piazza San Marco. How were we going to get across without retracing our steps to the nearest bridge far behind us? A gondola would take us of course. We saw some energetic young men oaring a sleek black gondola across the choppy waters of the Grand Canal.
When they returned, we followed them to their anchorage and inquired as to the price of the crossing.The young lad in the stern, perhaps tired of being asked that question 5 million times a day, answered in English “One million dollars.” Then, gracious as most of the Italians are, he smiled and said 700 Lire.We gave him 3,000 and were duly oared across the canal to the Piazza San Marco.We strolled the promenade once again and stopped for a cappuccino in the square.(5K)
Next, we entered the charming Correr Museo, a repository of Venetian art and history from 1300 onward. We enjoyed the
various array of art and sculpture and military arms that depicted the life of the Venetian Republic. I was quite taken with a bizarre painting by Heironymous Bosch. He must have been Salvatore Dali’s inspiration.It is weirdly beautiful.From the Correr Museo, we walked back along the alleys to the Hotel Saturnia and relaxed before dinner.
At 7:00 P.M., we assembled in the lobby for a 10 minute walk along the back alleys of Venice to “Giardinetto’s Trattoria.” It is a small and charming family -run restaurant that treated us like kin. We had eggplant with grilled tomato and vegetables, pasta with clams, sole, insalata, and tiramisu all washed down with Soave Bolla and Mineral Water. Marie’s nephew Michael and girlfriend Jennifer were able to join us for dinner and we enjoyed their company.
After this wonderful dinner we walked back towards the hotel, stopping briefly at the Piazza San Marco. for a last look.We were leaving Venice tomorrow morning, regretfully. It is a charming and magical City and we hope soon to come again.
We returned to the hotel, packed our bags for tomorrow’s departure and read for a while before sleep took us.
We arose early and had our bags in the hall by 7:30 A.M. Then, we had a quick breakfast with the Meads and browsed the streets near the hotel one last time.
At 8:30, a water taxi picked us up from the rear door of the hotel and we had a last twenty minute ride along the canals of Venice. The taxi dropped us off at the head of the causeway where we boarded our Central Holidays bus and set off for the one hour drive to Padua.
Padua, is a scenic college town in the hills near Venice.About one third of its population are students.We were let off in front of the red brick Byzantine colossus that is the Basilica honoring St.Anthony of Padua. The land and the Church are also part of the Vatican State,one of the few such distinctions in Italy
We entered the church and again appreciated the statuary and art work that these churches are a repository for. We touched the metal tomb of St.Anthony and said a prayer. Around his altar and tomb are pictures, letters and mementos from people who had their prayers answered by St. Anthony.
In front of the church is an interesting military statue of a famous Venetian Army General,”Gottemellatta.” Curiously, his nickname translates as :”honeypot.”
We stopped for a cappuccino (36k), at a nearby cafe with the Meads, and admired the church and its surroundings. The churches, statues and reliquary were starting to blend together in a whirl of images and memories
We reboarded our motor chariot and drove for 90 minutes into the foothills of the Appenines towards Bologna.The Po River valley here is lush and grows abundant quantities of sugar beets, corn, wheat and rice.
Bologna is a prosperous looking town. Most of the cities buildings are constructed of bricks that are a red umber color. Many of its streets are lined with a colonade-type of walkway created by an overhanging second story of the buildings. The effect is a vaulted and arched colonnade lined with shops, and safe form the elements.
We walked into the venerable courtyard of the University of Bologna School of Medicine, founded in 1088. The School was hundreds of years ahead of the rest of Europe in dissecting cadavers for research purposes. My own brother Mike had attended this University’s Perugia Campus, so we took a few pictures for him.
Lunch was a Bolognese special. We found the “Osteria De Poeti” down a small lane. It is a wonderful old trattoria that is a favorite of students and revelers.We descended into a basement that could well have been found in Bavaria. It had casks of wine and various local adornments that made it charming and comfortable.
We settled in for some antipasto, pasta with mushrooms, salad, omelet & potato(for me), and peach torte all washed down with sparkling Lambrusco wine and mineral water. It was delicious. The Bolognese have a well deserved reputation for eating very well.
After lunch Mary & I briefly strolled the area looking in on the pricey shops like Gucci and Fratelli Rosetti. The Town looked very prosperous.
We rejoined our bus and set out over the Appenines towards the Toscanna region of Italy and the cradle of the European Renaissance , Florence.
The Mountains here are gentle of slope and crowded with tall and dark cypress trees. Groves of olive trees are clustered everywhere along the hillsides.No arable land appears to be wasted.
An hour and one half later, we approached the outskirts of Firenza. The brick buildings here are more of an “ocher” color.Each city appears to have a distinct and uniform “color” to the brick buildings in its area We skirted the city center and drove past many splendid Tuscan villas to reach “Michelangelo Square”. The Square sits on a promontory that over looks the Arno river and all of Florence.In the center of the square is a casting of Michelangelo’s “David”.It was sunny out, with high fleecy clouds.The Arno flowed sluggishly beneath us. Off in the distance we could see the distinctive shapes of the Duomo with its majestic bell tower and the Chiesa Santa Croce (Church of the Holy Cross) Mark Twain was a frequent visitor to the area and once remarked that the Arno would “be a credible river if someone would pump some water into it .” It wasn’t Twain’s Mississippi but it was scenic and pastoral.
We had only a brief 15 minutes to ogle this idyllic landscape.That is all tour buses are allotted.Lucio noted wryly “any three idiots in a camper can park here all day, but not us”. Allora, we did our “Chevy Chase” look and remounted the bus for the ride into Florence.
At 6 P.M. as the day waned, we arrived at our hotel the “Anglo American” on the Via Garibaldi. We checked into room # 334, unpacked, wrote some journal entries and tried to relax before dinner. We were
meeting Mary’s boss Renee’ Goshin and husband Arthur tonight for dinner.
At 8:30, we called for a taxi and rode across town to the “Alle Murate” restaurant on the Via Ghibellini. The streets were impossibly narrow and lined with cars and the ever present and annoying motor bikes. We were early so we strolled up to the Piazza Santa Croce and back. At 9:00 Arthur and Rene joined us in this quaint and intimate Tuscan Ristorante. We had zuppe, Salmone,salad and gellato.It was very good($161 K for two).
After dinner Arthur and Renee’ gave us a ride back to the hotel negotiating the winding and narrow streets of Florence. It was mild out and in the 50’s.We retired, read our books and met the sandman.
GOOD FRIDAY, April 10,- Florence,Italy
We arose early, showered and readied for the day. We joined Jim and Nina Lynch for an early breakfast and then boarded our bus for a brief ride over to the “Museo Academia”, the repository of MichelAngelo’s masterpiece, the statue of “David.” In 1873, the Venetians had moved the statue from its place in the Piazza Signorini to this museum to protect it from the deteriorating effect of the elements.
We met up with “Nedo” our guide and stood in line for forty minutes to get inside the Museum. Even at 9 A.M., the line to get in was stretched around the block. We were to find that it was worth the wait.
There are works by Michelangelo and others in the building, but the focus of the shrine is correctly placed upon “David.” Michelangelo had carved this 20 ft statue from a single block of marble when he was only 27. It took him two years to complete it, from 1501-1503.
The guide told us that David, as well as depicting the biblical slaying of goliath, was sculpted as a metaphor for the Venetian republic that had recently thrown off the shackles of the ruling Medici’s. “David” was the populace looking South in expectation of fighting the Medici’s once again.
As I viewed this majestic work, I admired the graceful lines of the physically powerful man depicted. Over his left shoulder he held a sling casually, as if in afterthought. In the right hand is curled a stone ready for use. The hands are brutish and large and I wondered at the contrast to the graceful lines of the whole.The eyes look unfocused and stare off into the distance. It is a work well worthy of seeing and admiring.
From the Museo, we walked the narrow back streets to the Duomo. It is an imposing architectural creation, Romanesque in style. It is faced with green marble and trimmed in both red and white marble.Next to it and somewhat asymmetrical is the Agiotto bell tower, faced in the same marble motif. Opposite both of these structures is the domelike “Baptistry” with its fabled 15 foot high doors of gold.The golden portals had been replaced by bronze ones, the originals placed in a museum. Even still they were imposing. Ten panels on the bronze doors ,framed in black marble, depicted various biblical scenes.
Next, Nedo led us through the winding and narrow streets to the Piazza Signorini, the original site of David. There stood another wonderfully sculpted water fountain, a casting of David and a few other Greco Roman figures and a covered portico of sorts with a large array of statuary including the famous “Rape of the Sabine Women.”. This was the ruling place of the Florentines. In one corner of the square can be seen the three story stone structure of one of Italy’s finest galleries, “The Uffizzi.”
From the Piazza Signorini, we walked more winding alleys to the most famous church in Florence, Santa Croce or Church of the Holy Cross.
Started in 1300, this Romanesque beauty hold the tombs of Nicolo Machiavelli, Rosinni and Galileo with memorials to Dante and DaVinci (who is buried in Ravenna).
We admired as before the artwork, religious icons and soaring vaulted beauty of these churches, repositories of art and culture and learning. The world literally did revolve around the church here in Italy.
The high water mark, from the horrendous flooding of the mid 1960’s , is still visible on the walls. We learned later that hundreds of international volunteers, affectionately dubbed “mud people” by the locals, had come to Italy after the flood to help restore the frescos and objects d’art.
After Santa Croce, we stopped into the “Misuri” Leather works to admire their work. The employees gave a brief demonstration of leather gilding. However, their main purpose was to sell Misuri leather products. Italy is justly famous for its leather goods. We sat for a while in the Piazza to watch the crowds swirl and then Mary and I headed back to the Piazza Signorini to enter one of the world’s more renowned art museums,The “Uffizzi” Gallery.
We waited in line for 45 minutes and then, for a 12K Lire entrance fee, we ascended the three flights of stone stairs to the famous gallery. The windows are open to the light and you can look out, from one end of the upper gallery, to the Arno River below. Along the hallways, almost casually placed, are scores of Greco Roman statuary salvaged from private villas, public buildings and many other sources throughout the empire. The floor plan is set out in a large quadrangle. Many diverse groupings of art work are displayed in these smaller rooms.
We viewed many wonderful oils of Tintoretto,Botticelli,Michelangelo and even DaVinci. “The Holy Family”.”The Rights of Spring” and “The Birth of Venus” are three of the more memorable oils in the collection. I could see where Boucher and Reubens must have taken their inspiration from.
Tiring, we stopped for cappuccino at the small cafe (12K) and watched the swirl of tourists and art lovers drifting by. The Europeans seem to consciously expose their children to art and literature and culture on a much greater scale than we do.
As with most Galleries after a few hours, the “glaze “ descends upon us and we know it is time to leave.
We left the Uffizzi and walked along the Arno to another fabled site in Florence, The Ponte Veccio. or” Old Bridge” . The Florentines had ordered all of the gold merchants to center here in the middle ages.They and many jewelers still plied their trades along this venerable bridge over the Arno. A massive swirl of tourists, from everywhere, window-shopped for gold and jewelry along both sides of the the bridge.
We stopped at a stand on the far side of the river for pizza and watched the scene as if in a movie.
From the Ponte Veccio, we walked along the Arno until we came upon :”Harry’s Bar.” We have been in a few in other European cities and decided to stop in for a glass of Chianti. We ordered(16K) and chatted with the bar tender in our best Italian and enjoyed the ambiance of the place. As we left we wished each other “Buona Pasqua.” (Happy Easter)
From Harry’s, we walked further along the Arno to the Via Garibaldi and our Hotel. As we entered the Lobby, the heavens opened up and it rained like biblical times. We read, transcribed our notes and chilled out for a few hours before dinner.
At 7:15, we boarded our bus for a drive up into the Tuscan Hills.We were to have a private dinner at a Villa where Mark Twain once lived for two years, the “Villa Viviani.” Twain completed one of his works, “Puddin'head Wilson” here. The Villa is a pale- yellow, two -story Italianate mansion sitting amidst sculpted floral gardens and overlooking the Tuscan countryside. Even the rain could not dampen the splendor of the place.Three fire places were ablaze as we entered the cozy villa. We had Campari and soda and chatted with our fellow travelers while admiring the casual splendor of the formerly private Villa.
We were seated upon a canvas covered terrace overlooking the valley. The waiters served us courses of Insalata, Risotto, pasta con mushrooms, Potatoes with cheese and peas and a lemon torte for desert. We washed down this magnificent repast with both red and white wine and mineral water as a musical group played Italian folk songs. ”Santa Lucia”, ‘”Marie” and many other favorites entertained us as several of our group engaged in an impromptu tarantella on the dance floor. It felt like we had been invited to a private Italian wedding in the Tuscan Hills. As we left the Villa Viviani, the skies cleared and a full moon shined over the Tuscan hills.It was the stuff of which tourist brochures are made.
Most of the gang was mildly lit from the evening’s revels and the bus ride back to the hotel was happily raucous and enjoyable.
We repaired to our rooms and settled in to read and let Morpheus claim us. It had been a full and interesting day in a wonderful region of Italia. We were glad that we had come.
HOLY SATURDAY, April 11th-Florence,Italy
We arose a little later this morning. It was free for us to wander Florence. We had breakfast with Tom and Nancy Martenis, from Vermont , and then set off walking the narrow streets of Florence. We found the Via Turnabuoni and window-shopped the many pricey stores like Gucci, Bvlgari and Cartier. The municipal workers were sweeping the sidewalks with old fashioned besom-style brooms.Then the modern street sweeper and sprinkler would come by and finish the process. It looked very Parisian and picturesque.
We ambled along the narrow lanes and found and stopped in another old Church, that of St.Rita. We lit a candle and said a prayer before continuing on. The Piazza Duomo was, as always, awash in tourists.We briefly admired the church, bell tower and Baptistry before continuing on. We walked by the “Church of the Medici’s”.It is now surrounded by what is called the “straw market”, rows of vendors and merchants selling cheap leather goods and souvenirs. I am not sure the haughty Medicis would have approved, but then maybe that was the point of it all.
Next, we found the “Nuovo Mercado” a pedestrian area of exclusive shops and wandering tourists. We played out our role as expected.
From the new market, we walked along the Arno to the Uffizzi Gallery and mingled with the throngs that gathered there daily in the small square next to the gallery. It always seemed like a carnival and it was enjoyable just to stop and watch the swirl of people and events. The sidewalk vendors performed a continual ballet of cat and mouse with the Carabinieri who shooed them away whenever they came upon them.The Ponte Veccio was similarly awash in people. The ubiquitous and annoying motorbikes threaded in and out of the pedestrian throngs.
Further along the Arno we stopped at a small cafe’ and bought spinach and cheese panini and mineral water for 15K.We stood in the sun along the Arno and ate our lunch while watching the daily drama played out on the Ponte Veccio. I was beginning to like this eat and run concept that is so quintessentially European. We continued along the Arno to the Via Garibaldi and our hotel where we relaxed for a brief R&R .It was getting cloudy and cooler out.
At 2:30 P.M. we boarded our bus for the one hour ride west to the premier tourist attraction in the area, the leaning tower of Pisa. Our guide later told us that the attraction drew nine million visitors yearly to the site.
The Arno valley here is lush and green.Scores of nurseries and tree farms furnish Italy and much of Europe with trees and shrubs.
The Appenines off on the horizon were hazy and rain clouded. They seemed Tolkienesque and forbidding in contrast to the sunny valley .
Soon we were approaching Pisa, a seaport of great importance in antiquity.The Town had first been founded some 2600 years ago by the Etruscans.. Then, for centuries it had been a fiefdom of Florence.
Finally, we approached the Romanesque complex of the Church of Santa Maria.The Duomo, or main church, had been built in 1063 and the adjacent Bell tower in 1173. Midway through the construction of the bell tower a pronounced “lean” had developed. It stands 8 levels high and has that delightful “wedding cake “ appearance so prominent in the Romanesque style. The tower leans about 14 feet off center and is now counter balanced with steel cables and 900 tons of concrete. The lean had been progressing at the rate of 1 inch every twenty five years. Architects think they now have the “lean” arrested.
The Church itself is impressive with its massive carved pulpit ,ornate statuary. and grand murals along the church walls. The baptistry is similarly styled and the three building are harmoniously attractive architecturally as a grouping.The “lean” of the bell tower makes a delightful photograph against the granite solidity of the other two structures.
We enjoyed the visual splendor of the complex and then stopped in a small cafe for a cappuccino.(36 K).The site is surrounded with tacky souvenir stands that somewhat detract from its beauty. The crowds of tourists don’t help either but then what were we?
We reboarded our bus and set off through the Tuscan hills for Florence, passing by the small town of Vinci from whence Leonardo came.
It was raining in Florence and we settled in to relax at the hotel before dinner.
At 7:30, we joined the Meads and the Martenis’s for dinner in the hotel dining room of the Anglo American. I had an omelette, pasta and ice cream and a glass of wine. It was less than we expected but then every meal can’t be a gourmet feast.
We retired to our room to pack for tomorrow’s departure, read and let Morpheus guide us. It was rainy,cool and in the 50’s.
EASTER SUNDAY,April 12,-Florence,Italy
We were up early to pack our bags and put them in the hall by 7A.M. After a quick shower, we met the Meads and the Lynch’s in the hotel dining room for breakfast, before our 8 A.M. departure. We took a last walk to the Arno River sensing that it would be a long time before we walked this way again. It was cloudy ,cool and in the 40’s on this Easter morning in Florence.
We were heading through rural Umbria to the historic mountaintop village of Asissi, home of St Francis. As we passed the beautiful shore of Lake Trebbiano, Lucio explained the significance of this sight in Roman History.
The massive bulk of a 50,000 man Roman Legion had been deployed in the wide valley just behind us. Hannibal and his Carthaginian invaders sat undiscovered at the head of the narrow defile along the lake that we now traversed. The Romans, thinking perhaps to catch the Carthaginians unawares, started their march in the predawn hours into the narrow defile. As they marched into the rising sun they could see only the swirling lake and mountain mists above them.They marched confidently and unknowingly into the grinding maw of a killing machine waiting on the slopes above them. Unable to maneuver in the narrow valley and outmatched by superior cavalry, the Roman legion was ground to pieces against the Carthaginian phalanx. Broken swords and bodies littered the scenic landscape for years afterwards.A few of the local village are named “pile of bones” or “bloody fields” to memorialize the slaughter. In a mind blink I had traveled across the centuries and now sat looking at a beautiful lake scape where so much death had once occurred. Italy can do that to you, an unexpected and startling mind -blink into antiquity, underneath the Umbrian sun
Hannibal roamed Italy for another 18 years before returning to Carthage.Then, the avenging Romans destroyed Carthage so completely that not a single stone was left standing on top of another.The vengeful Romans even sowed the ground with salt so that nothing would ever grow in the area again. Two mighty armies and peoples had pounded upon the granite slate of history with waxen mallets,their impressions all too soon faded and worn by the fibrous and scouring sands of time.
We soon approached the hilltop village of Asissi in time for the High Easter Mass in the lower Cathedral at 10:30 A.M. We and hundreds of others listened to the Mass in Italian and sat respectfully in this historic old church. Curiously, scores of tourists still filed down the side aisles headed for the tomb of St.Francis on the lower level, economics I suppose.
After Mass and communion, we met “ Marcella” our guide.She began a brief explanation of the significance of the church and the history of St. Francis. The cold,wind and rain soon defeated her. Most of us set off in different directions to explore this medieval town. Mary & I walked up the nearby stairs and viewed the scaffolding with which they were repairing the upper church of St.Francis, damaged a few months before in an earthquake.Four men had been killed by falling rubble of the fresco ceiling.
We wandered up the curved and winding alleys of the upper town admiring the substantial brown, fieldstone structures with red-tile roofs. A few souvenir shops claimed our attention before we sought shelter in the well ordered security of the Hotel Windsor/Savoy, a 4 star and comfortable hillside retreat. Most of the tour had done likewise. We sat for a time thawing out and awaiting the luncheon that the hotel was putting on for us. In a bright and high- windowed room, over looking the valley below,we were served Pasta, vegetables(for me) ,cream puffs, white wine, mineral water and cafe’latte. It was very good and the festive mood returned to us .
After lunch, we walked around for a brief time admiring the valley scape and the well ordered Town of St.Francis of Asissi.
We boarded our bus and continued on through the hills near Perugia, stopping at the small mountain town of TORGIANO, noted for its vineyards and wine making . At the”Osteria de Museo”, we sampled red, white and rose’ wines of the region.
Tiring with the day, we climbed aboard our motorized chariot and drove the final 100 miles along the Po river valley to the Eternal City, Roma There are flocks of sheep, vineyards and villas on every hilltop along the way to Roma.We were expectant and chatty with anticipation at arriving in so fabled a city.
The traffic into the city was light by Roman standards and by 6:15 P.M. we had arrived at the Visconti Palace, near the Castle San Angelo and the Vatican. We checked into our room, unpacked and settled in.
The sun was still with us and we were in Rome, so we set out with the Meads for a walk to Navona Square across the Tiber River. We saw Bernini’s famous “four rivers” fountain and the many swirls of tourists that gather here nightly. In a mood for walking, we set out down the narrow lanes in search of the fabled “Spanish Steps.” Our navigation was less than perfect and we ended up atop the capitol steps near the Vittorio Emmanuel Monument.There, a passing tourist kindly informed us that we were not on the Scala Espagna.Hey what did we know? If he hadn’t stopped, these would have been the Spanish steps to us. We walked on in the night admiring the lighted splendor of the Vittorio Emmanuel Monument, through the Piazza Venezia and along the busy Via Corso to the upscale Via Condotti and finally to the most famous gathering point in Rome, The Spanish Steps , named after the former residence of the Spanish Ambassador. Keats and other Literary figures had once lived and written here.
The two grand series of steps surround a wonderful floral garden .At the top of the very long steps stands the outline of the Villa Medici with its twin Byzantine towers. At the very bottom of the steps is a small fountain from which the hearty drink for luck (ugh).We walked to the top of the stairs and admired the dome of St.Peter’s far in the distance. The storied and very expensive Hotel Hassler stands at the top of the stairs awaiting the well heeled. We surveyed, for a time, the swarm of people walking and sitting along the length of the stairs and decided it was time to head back.
The Hotel was a lot closer than we thought. We sought Cena(dinner) at a place nearby that Lucio had recommended .It was one of the few restaurants open on Easter Night. It was properly titled as “La Vigna dei Papi” or the Vineyard of the Pope, but to us, it became the “Pope’s Deli.” We had a wonderful minestrone zuppa, insalata, vegetables with desert, mineral water and several flagons of a tasty red wine, all for the modest sum of 75k Lire( for 2). We laughed heartily about the two sets of Spanish steps and enjoyed the camaraderie and the enjoyment of being in the Eternal City.The heavens opened while we were inside and we felt grateful to the elements for holding off until we were undercover. Lucio sat at another table quietly enjoying his own thoughts.We stopped by and chatted with him for a while before heading back to the Visconti Palace and a night of well deserved rest.We read for a while and soon surrendered to the sandman, tired and happy that we were here.
We were up by 7A.M..It was cloudy, cool and 50 degrees. We showered and then met the Meads and Lynches for breakfast at 8A.M. By now I was feeling like an ad for Iowa pork from eating all of this rich food.
At 9A.M. we were joined by “Nora”, our guide, for a short ride to that most famous of all Roman landmarks,The Coliseum.It stands in ruined relief against the cerulean blue sky, four tiers of arches in an open circle. Made of brown brick and originally faced with white marble, it now stands as a crumbling reminder to the glory that was Rome. It was constructed from 72-80 A.D. by the Flavian Emperors over the ruins of Nero’s “golden house.” It has 80 separate entrances, each numbered above by a Roman numeral.Seating was assigned according to rank and station.The upper seats (the end zones of antiquity) were for the plebeian rabble.
Interestingly, the stadium had a canvas awning that could be erected over the entire structure by a team of 400 sailors using nautical ropes and pulleys.
The original arena floor was wooden. It is on this surface that gladiators fought each other or wild beasts. No Christians were ever fed to the lions here despite the movies and myths.
Hydraulic engineers could also flood the first level and stage mock sea battles for the entertainment of the nobility.
And now here it stood, a heap of interesting rubble stripped by scavengers for centuries of all its former beauty. As we wandered around and tried to imagine the cheering throngs that once sat here, I could hear in my mind’s ear the savage cries and the roar of the crowd. Much like our own football and baseball stadia, the fans scurried to their seats cursing the traffic and hoping not to miss the thrill of the first contact and the approving roar of the mob. They, like we, surveyed the crowds and looked for familiar faces to wave and ask after. It was a family outing in ancient Rome.The language had evolved to English for us, but the thirst for blood and the animal frenzy of the crowd remain with us even today.
Next to the Coliseum stands the mighty Arch of the Christian Emperor, Constantine. Built in the 3rd Century A.D. it looks much like the Arc D’Triomphe in Paris.Perhaps Napoleon brought this idea home to France with him when he looted the rest of Italy’s treasures.
From the Arch of Constantine, we walked along the narrow “Via Sacra” over the same cobblestones trod upon by the Romans. It was here that the victorious Roman Generals marched in triumph to the Forum, to receives accolades from the Roman Senate. Strange animals and war treasures set the crowd agog with delight. The dazed and weary prisoners of war marched, shackled and weary, into a life of slavery. The victorious general, driven in an ornate and ceremonial chariot ,nodded approvingly at the tumultuous cheers from the Roman people. Behind him, in the chariot, stood a slave with a laurel wreath of gold , held over the general’s head, whispering in his ear an admonition, the phrase “Sic transit gloria.” Fame is fleeting.
The Forum itself was entered through the smaller Arch of Titus, built to commemorate the subjugation of Judea in 70 A.D. A Menorah is carved in bass relief on the arch to signify the Roman triumph over Judaism.
Today, all that is left of the magnificent debating place of the Romans is a pile of rubble and a grassy meadow,perhaps they too had once heard the whisper ”Sic Transit Gloria.”
Still, standing there beneath the quiet blue sky of a Roman afternoon, one could imagine the triumphs and intrigues of a powerful empire that must have played out here daily. If you listen on a quiet evening, the locals claim, you can here them talking still.
As we left the forum and walked back over the Via Sacra, we passed by the grassy and treed remains of the Palatine hill where Rome was founded, in the 8th century B.C,. by the fabled twins Romulus and Remus.
The ruins of the Palace of the Flavian Emperors stands forlornly on the hill overlooking an empty oval of grass that had once been the Circus Maximus. Scenes of the chariot races from the movie “ Ben Hur” stir the mind and imagination. Much of the glory that was Rome had faded into the dustbin of historical footnote.
From the Palatine and Capitol Hills, our bus took us for a brief ride across the Tiber to the living and breathing heart of Rome, Vatican City.
We stopped first at a religious store for rosaries, icons and all such necessary souvenirs. The store offered various packages of reliquary that could be sent over to the Vatican to be blessed and delivered later to your hotel room. It reminded me somewhat irreverently of the duty free stores along the U.S.Borders. I though Martin Luther had straightened this stuff out a few hundred years ago.
Next, we marched across the street to stand in what is perhaps one of the three most noted squares in the world, that of St.Peter’s. Hundreds of times I have seen this square on television, as a Papal address was given or more dramatically, when a new pope is elected. I could see the circular roof line of the statues of the Saints and martyrs. I could look above to the Papal balcony, now draped in flowers for the Easter address in 48 languages. My mind’s ear heard the cheer of the teeming throngs who often packed the square to hear the Papal address “il Papa” they chanted.
We made our way past the fountains and chairs, with thousands of others, to the very center of world wide Catholicism, the Church of St.Peter.
Words are poor descriptors for the tiled mosaic friezes, bronze castings of various popes and shrines to many of the saints and holy family. The chair of St.Peter , the enormous four bronze columns surrounding the pulpit of St.Peter and the bronze, gold and marble masterpiece that is the central altar.
Beneath us in a tomb lies the remains of the fisherman, Peter. Mass was being said at the main altar and priests from many nations were giving confession in a dozen languages. Nuns and priests from the far flung regions of the world wide church walked respectfully and purposefully amidst the sprawl of tourists from as many countries.
We stood in awe of that masterpiece of Michelangelo’s , “The Pieta.”
The sorrowful mother holding in her arms the body of the crucified Jesus. You could feel the hurt in her eyes and sense the forlorn helplessness of a mother whose child had been taken from her. Even were it not religious, this carved block of marble would inspire awe and appreciation.
Like our visits to all great museums, we began to glaze over after a time. We rejoined our group for the short bus ride back to the hotel.
A tour of the catacombs and the Appian Way was scheduled for the afternoon, but Mary & I decided we had toured enough for the day. We walked from the hotel, across the Tiber, up the Via Corso and across the Via Condotti to the Spanish Steps. It was sunny and warm out and the area was a throng of people.We sat by the fountain and watched the ebb and flow of the tourists as they took pictures, drank from the fountain(ugh) and milled about, not realizing that the principle activity was to sit and watch the others.
From the Spanish steps and the nearby Piazza Espagna, we wandered across the narrow back streets to the Via Della Mercede, where we stopped at a small cafe for panini and mineral water.(20K) Curiously, the small and tasteful cafe was called the “Broadway Bar.”
After this refreshing stop we followed the winding streets and the conveniently posted signs to another Roman tourist favorite, Bernini’s “Trevi Fountain.” Dutifully, we threw coins over our shoulders into the fountain and hoped it meant we would return to Rome again.
There were crowds of people surrounding the fountain. Most seemed to be Italian families out for the day on “ Pasquita” or “little Easter” holiday.
We stood for a while watching many others, young and old, throw coins into the fountain and take pictures of each other.Everyone seemed festive and happy to be here, perhaps reflective of the legendary sunny Roman temperament.
From the Trevi Fountain, we retraced our path to the Spanish Steps and then up the Via Condotti and across the Tiber to our hotel to take a breather before dinner.
At 7:45 P.M., our group assembled on the bus and drove across Rome to a small,very popular and delightful Tratoria by the name of “Ambasciatta D’Abruzzi.” (Embassy of the region of Abbruzzi)
We crowded all 45 of us into a small back room and were served family style by sweating waiters. We had three different types of pasta with mushrooms ,cheese ,vegetable & penne., a mushroom omelette for me, veal for the others. A nice desert and all washed down with mineral water and liberal quantities of Abruzzi wine . It was another meal to remember.
As we dined, the heavens opened and it poured. We scurried the few blocks to our bus, laughing at the rain and each other.
The bus took us back to the hotel and as we entered it rained like biblical times. We retreated to our rooms to read and relax from a long day.
Morpheus joined us amidst the raindrops and we slept like dead crocodiles.
We were up very early this morning, at 5:45 A.M. We met the Meads for breakfast in the hotel dining room at 6:30 A.M. We had an early 7:15 bus to see one of the world’s most renowned masterpieces, The Sistine Chapel.
As early as we got there, the lines had already formed outside of the Vatican Museum.Luckily for us, the museum opens up at 8:00 A.M. for tour groups and not until 8:45 to the general public.Nora, our guide, had gotten us there as the second group in line. She told us that the normal wait could be up to two hours with a line winding back a mile or so into St.Peter’s square. Nora shepherded us through the entrance way and via the elegantly paneled elevators, to the second floor level of the Vatican Museum. Nora was taking us directly to the Sistine Chapel, bypassing the rest of the museum in order to give us time to better enjoy the chapel unhurriedly.
As we walked the length of the ornately decorated hallways of the Vatican Museum, Nora pointed out the array of wall-sized painted arras completed by Raphael and his students. Then, there were the tiled religious frescoes in bright greens and vivid blues. Trump L’oeil paintings along the ceiling gave us the impression of three dimensional sculptures hovering above us. It was a world of elegance and taste and beauty. Not too far beyond the walls, a child was bitten by a rat in a filthy squalid slum.
Next, we entered the quiet precincts of the Sala Immaculata Conceptione,an intimate little chapel adorned with grand murals honoring the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a primary tenet of church dogma.
Finally, we walked down a few steps into that sanctum sanctorum , il Sistina Chapella. Built by Pope Sixtus IV as a private Chapel, the church was divided into an inner and outer chapel, separated by a 12 foot, ornate, wrought-iron screen.
The 40 foot walls are geometrically separated into four distinct art groupings. The first fifteen feet are painted as purple velvet curtains.The texture of the work leads you, from a distance, to watch the curtains lest they move. Next, along each longitudinal wall is a series of six grand murals some 12 feet high. Three are the works of the master, Botticelli, the others by Perugino and his school, depicting biblical scenes and medieval Italy.
The third level is an evenly spaced depiction of a series of Popes, perhaps a sop to the financiers of the chapel.Lastly, in small triangles and created in a special paint by Michelangelo that is a collage of vivid oranges, blues,reds and peaches,are the prophets of the old testament like Daniel and Ezekiel. The rear wall of the chapel is an entire chapel sized mural that had taken Michelangelo 7 years to complete.It depicts many scenes from the final judgment day.It would take a long time to decipher all of the images present there. It seems Michailangelo wasn’t above a fit of pique ,depicting a troublesome Vatican secretary as a horned devil in hell. It is nice to know that even geniuses are human.
Finally, we come to the most prized of artworks, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.Starting in 1508, under the stern direction of Pope Julius II,Michelangelo painted, in four years, a series of ceiling wide panels depicting God’s creation of the universe ,the original sin in the garden of eden,Noah and the flood. In his first two panels Michelangelo noted that his perspective was crowded.The remaining panels are wider spaced and
more sweeping in design.His vivid colors command your attention as the symbolism of his depictions follows in timely sequence the story of creation. The grand pyramids of Egypt are similarly encripted. As always, the painters and artists speak to the ages.
We had about thirty minutes of the chapel virtually to ourselves, to sit and quietly contemplate the artwork.This is virtually unheard of when the teeming throngs roil through the museum.Our guide Nora had earned her keep this day.
We left the chapel appreciative of the experience and sat for a while in an outdoor alcove, near the Vatican post office and in view of the high relief of the Vatican Dome of St.Peter’s. It was a great photo spot.
The group had the option to stay and visit the many thousands of exhibits, but we were” museumed out.” We elected to take the bus back to the hotel.
From the hotel, we walked with the Meads across the Tiber and wandered the back streets, on our way to the Pantheon. Marie saw a nice leather coat in a small store and bought it The shop owner formerly had a girl friend that lived in Buffalo.He had even visited once,small world.
Almost unexpectedly, we came upon that solid Greco-Roman temple, the Pantheon. First built in 27 B.C. and later restored by Hadrian in 117 A.D., it is one of the oldest buildings in Rome.Fronted by a massive array of doric columns and looking for all the world like an older and dingier version of our Supreme Court Building,it is impressive in its casual antiquity. Inside, the marble floor is in good repair for so old a building. There are more interior Corinthian columns, along the circular walls and supporting the circular and convex dome whose center is open to the elements. A roseate marble glimmered in the filtered light from the polished walls.There are several small shrines to San Guiseppe and other saints.
We sat for a time and admired the understated beauty of the Pantheon. Pagan, Christian or other, it is a place designed for quiet contemplation and harmony with the elements of nature.
From the Pantheon we traversed the narrow streets to the Piazza Navona and again admired Bernini’s fountain of the four rivers. We settled upon a colorful Pizzeria ,named oddly enough the “4 Fiume”Pizzeria. There we had verdura zuppe, panne, pizza verdura and aqua minerale.It was very good and cost a modest 55k(for 2).As we exited the restaurant, we noticed nearby the “Tre Scalini” cafe.It is a much reccomended spot for a Roman favorite,”Tartufo.” This wonderful creation is ice cream ,dipped in hot liquid chocolate and cooled, and then covered in whip cream. It is both rich and delicious, well deserving of its reputation.
We walked along the narrow lanes to the Tiber River and past the massive fortification of Castle San Angelo with its wide moat. It had been at various times the tomb of an emperor, a fortification,a prison and is now a museum. It was windy and cool out as we returned to the hotel to pack for our departure tomorrow morning and prepare for dinner.
Tonight was to be the last evening in Italy for about half of our tour group,so a special dinner was planned.They were being replaced by 12 new arrivals who had joined us in Rome two days previously. At 7:15 our melancholy bus load set out for a Roman experience. We were headed to a very special and much feted restaurant,”Meo Patacca.”
Upon arrival, we descended a flight of masonry stairs into the ancient cellar of a very old restaurant. As we sat in anticipation, the strolling minstrels played the Mandolin,.picollo, and folk guitar in nostalgic Italian folk songs. “Santa Lucia” and “Marie” echoed throughout the cavern walls as efficient waiters served us pasta con mushrooms,insalata, more pasta for me and gelatto washed down with mineral water and liberal quantities of local red and white wine. We ate, we sang, we laughed and we enjoyed the evening immensely. Toasts of “Arrivederci Roma” and “Salute” passed back and forth.It was a wonderful farewell party for those leaving Italy tomorrow.
The bus ride back was raucous and filled with laughter.It spilled over into the hotel lobby in an orgy of final picture taking and fond goodbyes.We had shared most of our waking hours with these people for the last ten days.They were already old friends and we would miss, but not forget them.
Mary and I decide to take a 15 minute walk to the Piazza Cavour to clear our heads before retiring. It was pleasant to walk amidst the Roman night and remember all that we had seen and done in one of the most ancient of European capitols.
We retired to our room, finished packing for the morning departure and slept like the dead.
We arose early, to finish packing and put our bags in the hall by 7A.M. for pick up After breakfast in the hotel, we boarded our bus for the 8:00 A.M. departure for Naples .It seemed odd to be leaving without many of our previous week’s companions.
As we negotiated the morning traffic out of Rome, Lucio pointed out to us the remaining lengths of the old city wall.Stretching for some eleven miles, it rises over 20 feet in height. It was constructed from the local travertino stone.The wall is a series of layers of the narrow and flat adobe bricks that the Romans called “latterizzi” or “flat bricks.”They are so shaped because the brick makers found it much easier to fire and harden the narrower and flatter bricks for construction.The wall,once a symbol of protection and solidity is now but a curious oddity outlining the old city.
The ride South was uneventful.We were driving through the narrow valley that stretches from Rome to Naples. It is the avenue North from Naples and the major reason the Allies had landed at Sorrento in WW II. The famous Abbe of Monte Cassino, the Mother house of the Benedictine order, stands on one of the promontories that over looks the valley.It’s role, or lack of it, in the German “Gustav.” line that blocked the allied advance became a controversy during and after the war.
The Allies drew heavy casualties here in their advance.The New Zealand Commander, attached to the British Eight Army, insisted that the Abbe be bombed. to destroy a German defense and reduce his casualties. The area Commander, American Mark Clark, resisted at destroying an Italian National Monument. His Intelligence section had informed him that the Germans were not occupying the Abbe or using it as a defensive position.Churchill intervened with Eisenhower, who acceded to the New Zealander’s plea. The Abbe was bombed and completely leveled, much to the anger of the Italians then and now. The irony of the situation is that the Germans took over the rubble of the abbe and made an excellent defensive position of it for the coming battle of Monte Cassino, which I will describe later when we visit the abbe. Such are the vicissitudes and calamities of war
To the East, the Appenines were snow covered.The mountains here are tall and can reach over 14,000 feet in height. To the West, the hills are lower and darker, the remains of extinct volcanoes. Italy long ago must have been a pyrotechnic land shaking with continuous earth tremors , the skies covered with ash from the erupting volcanoes.
At the Southern end of the valley, sitting along the beautiful bay of Naples like a large and tiered amphi-theater, sits the City of Naples. The Greeks had first settled the area and named the city” Neo Polis” for New City.It is from this that we derive the Latin “Naples.” The ground that the area sits on had once been a volcano that exploded ,leaving the tiered amphi theater that gives the city its distinctive shape.
Just off the coast we could see the fabled island of Capri (accent on the first syllable),with its shape of a woman lying in repose.The Neapolitans call it “La Bella Dormentata” or “sleeping beauty.”
We drove through the city , crossing over the Via Toledo, the city’s main street. It is named for the Spanish Ambassador at a time when the Kingdom of Naples was a part of Spain. We saw the dark bulk of a Norman castle in the harbor, built by Norsemen around 900 A.D..The Santa Lucia section along the waterfront is the harbor area.Naples is, to its residents, a “city of fours.”There are four castles, four palaces, four hills and so on.
The traffic was heavy and a small demonstration of some sort was closing the downtown area.Our capable wheel man Fabrizio reversed course in the crowded street and threaded our way along the waterfront heading south along the coast.
Our next destination was the small town of Torre Del Greco, where we stopped at a small company of artisans(Giovanni Apa) who carve cameo broaches from sea shells. We watched the trained artisans etch and carve the medallions, rings and various pieces of jewelry from the shells. Then, we shopped for a time in the showroom. The works are beautiful,if expensive. Outside, we got a delicious Italian treat from a small pushcart vendor,lemon ice(2k) .It was delicious.
We were ready for our major tour of the day, the buried city of Pompei. It is but a short drive along the coast. We stopped at the entrance to the area and had some lunch at the Hotel Vittorio.The place has its own female version of the T.V. “Soup Nazi.” We chuckled at her performance but were careful not to incur her wrath.
Our guide for the day, “Enzo”, met us outside the ristorante and shepherded us through the turnstiles and up the stairs and hill to the fabled ruins of Pompei.
The city had first been settled in 800 B.C. as a Greek settlement.It sat peacefully on the seashore, at the tip of a small peninsula. An earthquake in 62 A.D. had rocked the city causing much damage. The Romans dutifully began their repairs. Then on August 24,in 79 A,D. nearby Mount Vesuvius exploded. For 72 hours the ash rained down on Pompei burying it in 27 feet of volcanic ash. Most of the 26,000 inhabitants,60% of whom were Jewish and Egyptian slaves, escaped the entombment. Some 1,100 were not so lucky.Perhaps they were slaves left behind to guard their master’s possessions.Maybe some were looters.No one knows for sure.
Some few “bodies” were discovered in the ash, completely encased in volcanic material, yet retaining their human shape. The most poignant of which is the young pregnant woman wearing a slave’s belt. Another is of a man sitting with his face in his hands to ward off the ash. One wonders, like Thornton Wilder’s “Bridge of San Luis Rey”, what quirk of fate brought these people to this unfortunate time and place.
After the eruption and entombment, the town wasn’t “rediscovered” until 1748. Excavations didn’t even start until 1941. About 75 % of the 2 square mile town is now completely excavated.
Enzo took us to the town’s central forum where we viewed the remains of the curia, basilica,which served as a financial center at the time, and other municipal buildings.Most had been constructed of brick and faced with marble.
We walked the narrow lanes and saw the remains of the merchant shops and private villas. The weight of the ash had collapsed all of the ceilings and the effect looked like a scene from a WWII movie after an aerial bombardment. There were over 42 bordellos in the town, attesting to the city’s commercial viability.
We viewed a remarkably well preserved public bath with its steam rooms and lounging areas.It gave you a sense of the ancients as not so different from us.
Lastly, we entered and toured a well preserved private Roman villa.I had been taught all of the names in school, but they were disconnected terms in a book.Now, as I walked through the entrance vestibule and looked into the private sala, and observed the architectural and engineering sophistication of the central garden ,cooling water fountains and tiled friezes, I began to appreciate the knowledge of the Romans.This villa must have been vibrantly beautiful and a place of luxury and comfort..
A rear room contained erotic art friezes that were common at the time. They and the mural in the vestibule, with the outsized priasmic phallus, drew the most snickers from the tourists. It certainly puts everyone on notice to consider well what others will find and view in your home after your passing.
It was sunny and 60 degrees out as we wandered the lanes. Vesuvius stood to the North, dark and brooding with its jagged and broken cone. The mind blink was warping in and out as images of ancient people inter phased with the modern tourists walking the lanes. Italy does do that to you.
Too soon, we reboarded our bus leaving Pompeii behind.We continued South, along the coastal road, admiring the beautiful Bay of Naples.Occasionally we would stop at a bend in the high coastal road to shoot a picture or admire a particularly lovely stretch of the coast. Soon we came to the small coastal town of Sorrento, where we were to stay for the next three nights.
We drove up the hillside to our hotel, the majestic Sorrento Palace. The place is enormous. It faces the bay with two wings of four stories of rooms.Five outdoor pools empty into one another on a second and lower terrace A Grand central lobby, with bars and restaurant to the sides, faces out onto a broad patio that overlooks the Bay of Naples. It is very scenic.
We were assigned Room # 62, where we unpacked and settled in tired from the long day. Renovations were going on beneath us and the racket was considerable. Still who could complain?The lemon and sour orange trees abounded in the hotel garden, the sweeping bay was gorgeous and the warm air wafted over us with the scent of lemon and orange.It worked for me.
At 7:15 we saddled up and drove through town to the scenic “il Mulino” Ristorante. ( The Mill). It sits over a 200 foot deep ravine, with a wide and sweeping veranda.We were served insalata, a wonderful pasta, Dover sole, another offering of that great pasta and finally a hazelnut torte for desert.All washed down with mineral water and white wine. A strolling balladeer played Italian folk songs and entertained us, until one of our group requested and got some American sing along type songs.(sigh)
The dinner was delicious and we enjoyed ourselves. The bus carried us back to the hotel where we read ,caught up with journal entries and surrendered to a conversation with ozzie nelson. It had been a long day since leaving Rome and we were as tired as old logs in a swamp.
Thursday,April 16,- Sorrento,Italy
We were up early, wakened by the thunder and lightning flashing across the surface of the bay. The lemon and orange trees were swaying gently and the birds were singing happily in the rain. It was a pleasant and bucolic morning portrait that one could quickly get used to .
We showered,dressed and had breakfast with the Lynches in the upper dining room, “Re Artu”(King Arthur). The topic of conversation was whether or not the jet foil trip to Capri was still a go for today.
The trip was a go. We piled into our bus and took a short ride to the picturesque Sorrento harbor, where we met “Roberta” our guide(she of the nero pelle.)
We boarded the jet foil and for twenty five minutes had a ride worthy of Disney.The boat slalomed through the four foot rollers like a hog in a wallow. We rolled side to side and jumped the occasional roller.If you weren’t holding on tight, you would go rolling down the aisle of the sleek jet-boat like a tumbleweed in the wind.
The waters calmed as we hove to in the harbor area of “Grand Marina” on the fabled Isle of Capri.The Island has been a privileged place of pleasure for two Millennia.The Emperor Hadrian had reputedly moved his entire court here and ruled the empire by a system of semaphores along the mountains to Rome.
Grand Marina is a colorful collection of small vessels, souvenir shops and small cafes. Roberta shepherded us to the funicular that would take us up the hillside to the lower village of Capri. The ride up was brief, enjoyable and not too intimidating for an acraphobic.
We wandered by the quaint shops to the scenic overlook park named “Giardino Augusta,” after the emperor Augustus.It had been financed and constructed by the Krupp armaments family. We gazed out across the deep blue Mediterranean, admiring the two massive rock formations in the harbor. The rock on the left was called “Stellar”, the rock on the right”Capri.” The scene was inspiring .Roberta told us that no new construction was allowed on the island because of space and conservation regulations.Costs for existing housing was running at from $5,000-$9,000 per square meter(U.S. Dollars.) Only the mega rich could afford to stay here. In front of the 5 star Hotel Quisianna, playground of the well heeled, Roberta cut us loose for a few hours to have lunch and do some shopping.
Mary and I wandered the alleys admiring the shops and stopped at a small cafe for panini and cappuccino. The sun was shining and we had a gorgeous view of the bay and mountains along the shoreline.
Shortly, we reassembled the group and packed ourselves into a small bus for the ride up the steep and winding hillside roads to the upper village of “AnaCapri.”
There,we wandered for a time the upscale shops on the narrow pedestrian lanes and admired the even better view, of the bay, from the top of the mountain that is the Isle of Capri. We stopped for ice cream at a small stand and watched the shoppers come and go.It was one of those sunny Mediterranean afternoons that give the area its magic and allure.
Too soon, we piled into the mini-buses for the ride down the winding hillside to the lower harbor village of Grand Marina, where we purchased a few last souvenirs before boarding the 3:15 P.M. jet foil for Sorrento Harbor.The sea had calmed during the day and the ride back was smooth and uneventful.
The bus dropped us and the Meads off in the Piazza Sorrento where we wandered the shops of a delightfully medieval pedestrian alley, stopping for cappuccino and biscotti at the picturesque “Gelateria da Mimo.”
While the girls were in browsing a shop, I noticed that Bill and I were left standing on a street corner. I had a perfume bag in my hand and he had his wife’s purse.Oy Vey!
We walked slowly through town and up the hill to the Sorrento Palace where we sat on the terrace and admired for a time the lovely view as the sun set over the Bay of Naples. How many more times can I expect to do this in a lifetime?
For dinner the troupe was assembling at the “re Artu” in the hotel.We were served pasta,salad and French fries,sotto sale fare.Well, even Babe Ruth didn’t bat a thousand.
After dinner, we stopped by the lobby and listened to some music and chatted with each other for a while. It was pleasant but we were tiring. We called it a night fairly early. We read for a while and then, to the faint odor of lemon and orange blossoms, drifted off to sleep.
We arose fairly early amidst our salubrious surroundings and readied for the day. After a shower and breakfast in “Re Artu.” we boarded our bus for the day’s excursion, the main feature of which was to be a drive along the scenic Amalfi Coast. Traversing roads that were higher and narrower than those around “Big Sur.” in California. They were equally as spectacular in sweeping and panaoramic scenery.
First ,we stopped in town at the “Lucky Cuomo Store.” It is a display show room for an industry that provides work for a large portion of the town,wood working and furniture construction. The sales rep gave us a demo of the various types of woods used and the process involved in making the elaborately in-laid and finely crafted furniture. Everything available could be shipped right to your door in the U.S. We shopped for a time and some of the tour group made purchases.
Next, we started out along the “Amalfi Drive.” It was cloudy and Tolkienesque this far up along the mountainside, hanging several hundred feet in the air, on a highway cantilevered off the mountain.It is not a favorite of acrophobics. Mussolini had first built the original stretch in the 1930’s.It had since been widened but is still a narrow two lanes, traversed by a monstrous crush of tour buses and traffic. We stopped for pictures at a scenic overlook and fruit stand in Positano, the birth place of Sophia Loren. Then, proceeded on along our precarious automotive tramway. The vistas were scenic and beautiful, the roads crowded. The whole area had once been a favorite raiding spot of the Tripoli Pirates from Africa. The more remote villages were the ones least likely to suffer pillage.
As we approached the small tourist town of Amalfi, the traffic thickened like molasses in January. There were tour busses parked everywhere along the roadside. To even enter and park in the town center the buses needed a reservation. Our tour company had been thoughtful enough to get one, so we inched into the sea side parking area where some forty other tour buses sat in rows awaiting their camera clicking occupants.
It started to sprinkle soon after we arrived, so most of us took Lucio’s advice and stopped for lunch at the “Pizzeria Di Marie.” We had wonderful Minestrone soup and vegetable pizzas, with panne and mineral water, as we watched Mama Maria and her family work the old fashioned pizza ovens,smiling at the sudden onrush of business form the crazy Americans.
After lunch,we walked along the narrow and crowded main street and stopped for a cappuccino at the “Cafe Royal.” (5k) Then, as the splatter of rain began, we stopped into the lovely Chiesa San Andrea perched at the head of a precipitous flight of steps. It looked like another brown brick,Byzantine beauty similar to that of Padua or Asissi. I thus inferred it was a Franciscan run establishment. The Moorish arches in the colonnade, along the front vestibule, were visually pleasing and a nice adaptation of another integrated architectural style.
As we left the church, the rain started getting progressively heavier.We raced to the parking area and found our bus .Most of the crowd had made it back already as a genuine gully washer blew in from the sea.
We waited until all of the soggy stragglers had made it back aboard and then slowly inched our way out of town through the tangled snarl of traffic.Frabizio, our sunny tempered wheel man was at his best along these narrow and crowded lanes . We were lucky too have so able a pilot steering us safely over roads as potenially treacherous as these.
The road back led over the mountains through more of the quaint mountain villages. Tour buses were only allowed in the Southbound direction along the Amalfi drive, because of the hairpin turns and narrow passageways. The clouds were descending around us as the mist and fog swirled along the upper glens. There were 5 star resort hotels like the “Grotto Emeralda” and the “Santa Caterina” along the way, but they passed in a swirl of mist.Without so daring and capable a wheel man we may well have been sitting in a cafe someplace waiting for the weather to clear. Attaboy boy Fabrizio! We arrived uneventfully at the hotel around 4:30 and retired to our rooms to read and relax before dinner.
At 7:00 P.M. we boarded our bus for a pleasant ride over the mountain to a restaurant long famous in the area, the “Antico Francischiello.” It sits high above the Bay of Sorrento. It has red napkins and checkered table cloths and that delightfully comfortable appearance that you might expect in so high end a tourist area.We were seated in a glass-windowed room that overlooked the moonlit Bay of Sorrento off in the distance.It was a visual moonlight serenade...
We were served tomatoes and Mozzarella cheese on toast, vegetables(for me) bruscetta for the others, salad, pasta crepes with cheese and the house specialty for desert, the “Deliciouso Limone”, a lemon angel-food cake that is wonderful. We washed it down with mineral water ,red and white wine and coffee. It was a delightful repast .The restaurant’s hard earned reputation for great food and pleasant surroundings is well justified .
The bus returned us to the hotel, where we sat again in the lobby listening to music and chatting with each other.We were leaving these gentle surroundings tomorrow morning and heading North to Rome. Our journey would soon be at an end. We returned to our rooms to pack for departure and sleep, tired with the long and busy day.
We were up early, enjoying the scent of lemons and oranges and the sounds of birds chirping happily in the hotel garden.It seemed like every available patch of green space in the area has its own lemon or sour orange grove along this narrow coast.
We packed our bags and put them in the hall for the 8:00 A.M. pick-up. Then, we had a leisurely breakfast in “Re Artu”. A last walk around the grounds and a wistful look out from the hillside balcony and we boarded our bus for the 9:00 A.M. departure. We were headed to the Abbe of Monte Cassino and later in the day, Rome. The tour buses were prohibited from clogging the narrow local roads between 8 and 9 A.M., to allow the local piccolo mostri (little monsters) to reach their schools safely and the populace to arrive at their work stations, before the roadways became clogged , freight-train like, with tour buses.
A light rain fell as we motored Northward along the scenic coastline.Our fellow passengers on the bus were subdued and thoughtful, perhaps mindful of their imminent departure and the real life that lay waiting for us just beyond the ocean.
We stopped for cappuccino and a break at a roadside rest stop.Lucio warned us about being approached by Gypsies with bogus items for sale. This is something new? Maybe he has never been to New York City? There was even a sign, posted outside the rest stop in Italian, warning of shady characters offering items for sale, with cartoon like bad guys depicted. Someone actually did approach me, but unknownst to him I hadn’t a clue as to what he was saying in his staccato burst of Italian.
Another hour up the road and we approached the towering spur of Mt.Cairo that holds the hilltop Abbe of Monte Cassino. We followed a series of five miles of winding and heart stopping switch backs, rising some 1200 feet from the valley floor,.to this magnificently reconstructed white limestone edifice. It had been completely leveled during WWII. The Abbe, and the La Scala opera house in Milan, had been the two national monuments reconstructed by the Italian Government immediately following the war. It wasn’t the first time the Abbe had seen such travail.
First founded and built by the Benedictine order of Monks in 539 A.D., Invading tribes of the vandals had destroyed it in 579 A.D.. In the 800’s the invading Arabs again sacked the rebuilt monastery. Finally, a massive earthquake had leveled the place in the 1300’s Now here it stood, pristine and formidable, a monument to the staying power of a remarkable and at times very powerful order of Monks. There should be a novel in here some place.It was cold and windy out with a light rain spattering around us, as we approached the rising entrance of this fortesslike Abbe.
As the wind swirled around us we passed into the first of the “four open courts” of the monastery. Here, a central green space is dominated by statuary depicting the dying St.Benedict, upheld by two monks supporting the saint’s lifeless form.
The next level and open stone courtyard features another statue of St.Benedict and one of his twin sister Scholastica, a rather interesting woman who had helped found the order. It was she who had started the custom, followed to date, of including a library and chapel in every Benedictine monastery. She is a rather interesting historical figure of some mystery and conjecture.
The next court, at the head of a small stairs and open to the sky, is the “court of the protectors.” Displayed in it, is a series of figures and small monuments to the lay members of the order who had become Kings and Popes. Each in his own way had looked after the interests of the order, perhaps in a time of great need for the brothers.
Finally, we entered the magnificent chapel. It is covered with lustrous marble and trimmed in gold.The bronze candelabra sparkled in the dim light and I could feel one of those time-warping mind blinks forming. There are several side altars and tile frescoes honoring the holy family and the saints. A short hallway behind the main chapel leads to a grotto of sorts below the main altar.I could see light reflecting from a rather magnificent chamber tiled in deep blue and gold ceramic tiles. A service of sorts was in progress, so we retreated to the main church above.
Lucio had told us to look for one of the twenty remaining elderly monks, survivors of the WWII bombing. They were the last twenty or so remaining monks in the complex, an unbroken monastic chain stretching from antiquity.
We left the Abbe amidst the splatter of rain.One of our group, an elderly woman, was experiencing a brief reunion with local residents that she had not seen in fifty years.
Descending the winding roads from the Abbe, we could see off in the distance the floral cross and quiet grounds of the Polish Military Cemetery A 1200 man Battalion of these gallant lads had been attached to the British Eight Army during the final siege and storming of the MonteCassino.These brave men had led the charge and been virtually annihilated to a man by the superior German forces entrenched in the rubble of the Abbe high above them. Nearby, lie the remains of the German, Italian and American War dead as well. The real estate here abouts is consecrated in the blood of many fine young men from lands far and near.
Lucio narrated for us a tale of the many daily practices that the life of so important an Abbe had influenced among the local populace. And from them on towards many lands as well. The Benedictines gave us the word”Noon.” It is a corruption of “Nove Hora” or the “ninth hour”.It is a time nine hours after they first rose to work(3A.M.), a time to rest and take nourishment. The word “miniature” as in painting, comes from the word “Minium” a name for the red pigment used by the Monks in drawing the gilded inscriptions around the borders of holy books.
A Benedictine monk, by the name of “Fra Guido”, had also given us our system of musical notes and scales. Like most Monestaries during the dark ages , the Abbes were centers of learning and repositories for artwork .Perhaps it explains why they were so often sacked by the marauding barbarians.
We stopped again, about an hour along the highway North, for some excellent Minestrone zuppe, panne and mineral water at a “RistoAgip” stop.The food was both good and welcome, but the waiter skinned us with a bogus tale of included charges. It was perhaps the first such experience on the entire trip. On the whole we had found Italian merchants to be uniformly pleasant, inordinately honest and genuinely helpful and patient especially with the exasperating antics of the army of multi lingual tourists.
As we approached the Eternal City , we could see many bright yellow mustard fields, flocks of sheep and abundant agriculture in the rolling hills outside of Rome. We threaded our way through the city traffic and arrived again at the Visconti Palace for our last night in Rome.
It was only 3:00P.M, so Mary and I set out across the Tiber for a last look at the Spanish Steps. It was sunny, cool and in the 50’s out.The Via Condotti and environs were as crowded as usual, with their weekend visitors. We milled for a time amidst the crowd, enjoying as always people watching and the diversity of the crowd We did not know when we would walk this way again.
Then, we retraced our steps heading back to the Tiber River. We ran into Bill and Marie Mead along the way and decided o take a last look at St .Peter’s and the Vatican.
The walk along the Tiber and past the massive old and circular fortress of Castle San Angelo was pleasant. It seemed like we had the known the Meads for a very long time and were casually comfortable in their presence.
The area around the Vatican was a swirl of people as we again admired St.Peter’s square. We bought some ice cream and took a few final picture in the always busy square.
Next, we walked into The Basilica of St.Peter’s. It was surprisingly uncrowded at this time of the afternoon. We viewed and admired again Michaelangelo’s Pieta by ourselves and then walked slowly and respectfully around the floor of the most famous and spectacular church in Christendom.
A curate was singing mass near the main altar and the multi lingual confessionals all had lines of the faithful waiting penitently, signs of an older and different church from the one that we now know in America.
We gazed, interested, upon the many marble statues and tile frescoes along the various walls of the enormous church. We stopped for a time and said a prayer at one of the small altars, thinking ourselves privileged to do so.
I was rather taken with a small and innocuous bronze plaque on a wall near a museum, at the side of the church. Inscribed upon it is the lineal array of the Popes form Peter, in the upper left hand corner, to Jean Paulus I in the lower right hand corner.It is an unbroken chain of some of the most important and powerful men in History. With the exception of the Avignon Popes, all had reigned from this church. They too had hammered upon the granite slate of history, but with a more hardened mallet whose imprint still remains, alive and vital.Only time and winsome fate will determine the duration of its impression.
Glazing over form the impressive reliquary and art treasures, we left St.Peter’s, a mental portrait fixed forever in our minds of so fascinating a place of worship, power and beauty.
We walked back along the Tiber River to our hotel and ` relaxed before dinner, our last one in Rome and Italy.
At 7:30, our tour bus transported us to “George’s”, an elegant Roman Ristorante on the upscale “Via Venetto.” We sat, as a group, in a small private sala that was tastefully subdued yet elegant. The room was circular with a high and vaulted ceiling Fluted doric columns supported the walls and the large floor to ceiling windows gave the aura of a private garden in a Roman Villa. Tuxedoed waiters efficiently served us green spinach pasta for the primo piatta.,Salmon and crab pate(Veal for the others) for the secondo piatta, a wonderfully tasty green salad, whitefish with mushrooms,anchovies and onions, and finally a creme pie desert.This magnificent repast was washed down with mineral water, red and white wines and a decaffeinated cappuccino. It was a meal worthy of a Roman Senator and a fitting finale’ to a gustatory onslaught that would be long remembered by all of us.
The staff of the restaurant was inordinately gracious, even when one character in our group pulled the Maitre’D aside and began to offer him suggestions on how to better run the place. At times like these, you can only pretend not to know the person involved and run for the door.
The bus returned us to the hotel by 10:30 and we made our fond goodbyes in the lobby to the few of the tour group who were taking other flights in the morning and wouldn’t be joining us for the final run to the airport.We then retired to our rooms to pack our bags one last time and converse with Morpheus.
Sunday,April 19- Rome,Italy.
We were up by 5:15 A.M. to pack and place our bags in the hall for the 6:00 A.M pickup. Then, we had a lighting 12 minute breakfast with the Meads and ran to catch the bus for the airport.
We watched, for a last time, the walls of the ancient city pass by us and thought wistfully of the many people and places that we had seen in these last two weeks. It seemed so very long ago since we had first arrived in Milan. Surely we were differen people for the many experiences that we had shared.
I came away impressed with the cultural history of Italy. Unlike many other peoples in the world, the Italians rarely boast of their nation’s many accomplishments in Literature, the arts, sciences and a dozen other fields of study. The Italians are a dichotomy of sorts. For hundreds of years they were a bellicose and fearsome people who dominated, civilized and even terrorized the known world. Yet today, they are a gentle, good-hearted and decent nation who love family and the quiet enjoyments of food, wine and music. Perhaps they more overtly embody the cultural schizophrenia inherent in all of us. In any case we much enjoyed our stay as guests in this beautiful land amidst a people that we found both warm and charming.We hope often to return and visit them.
At Rome’s “Leonardo DaVinci (Fumico) airport, we said goodbye to that estimable scholar Lucio Levi and his pleasant and capable wheel man Fabrizio, checked our bags in through customs and then found our way
to the departure gate of Alitalia Airlines.
We had a last Cappuccino, changed over some lire at larcenous rates and sat waiting for our flight. The crowds were building and the energy and tempers were beginning to fray.
We boarded Alitalia flight #640 and had a pleasant, if long , nine-hour, marathon flight back to Newark International Airport.We passed through customs and rechecked our bags with Continental Airlines for the flight to Buffalo.
Newark was fast becoming a madhouse as teeming thousands were returning from everywhere on their Easter Vacations. We said a sad goodbye to the Mead’s, promising to keep in touch.Then, we waited for a few hours and watched several arguments and shouting matches break out.The P.A. system, like the droning of the Angelus, was a Litany of overbooked flights, mechanical and weather delays and the usual chaos on so crowded a travel day. We sat patiently and resigned, hoping for safe passage in a last aerial lifeboat to that far away outpost on Lake Erie, Buffalo. Finally, some five hours after arrival, our flight was announced. We boarded buses and were driven to one of those Continental prop planes that you used to see in the old movies from the forties and fifties. The front nine rows of passengers had to board and be seated before the remaining rows could board, or the plane would fall back on its tail.
Surprisingly, we took off without incident. After a one hour and twenty minute flight, through the rainy night sky, we landed at Buffalo International airport,happy to be home. As always, we were mildly astounded to have our bags arrive with us. We retrieved them from the carousel and headed out the lower level of the terminal in search of a taxi. We road home amidst the rain and were appreciative of arriving safe and sound after so long a journey.
We opened up the castle, turned up the heat and did a few minor chores before settling in to the welcome arms of Morpheus, dead tired form the 22 hour journey. It had been a long and pleasant trip. We had enjoyed ourselves immensely. Still, however humble, there really is no place like home.
Joseph Xavier Martin