Italy is deceptively familiar. We have seen it in the movies, heard its songs, tasted its food, and read about it. Yet Italy’s history is so old and its culture so complex that my grasp will always remain inadequate. This much I knew as I embarked on my seventh visit to that land. All I could hope for was to scratch the surface a bit deeper. These sketches are meant to pull together my fleeting impressions of the place and its people as I looked for the whole by experiencing its diversity.
We descended from the plane’s stairway onto a forebodingly dark tarmac at the Naples airport. I had been forewarned about this city. My favorite story was the one Frank told me. His family had originally come from here. “During World War II in Naples they stole a tank from the occupying Nazis – it was never found again.”
So it was that I found the taxi ride to my hotel surprisingly pleasant. No fuss, a reasonable price, and great roads as we punctured the mild and moist Mediterranean evening’s air. Even in the dark the view from Vomero, which is the “balcony” of Naples was promising. Never mind that my room in the hotel “faced the mountain” -meaning that it was against the rock of the cliff, reserved especially for those who booked on Expedia.com, as the receptionist said. Breakfast was in a grand hall on the top floor with breathtaking vistas of Mount Vesuvius on the east, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast extending south and Capri to the right. The town itself was at my feet.
In my room there was no publication about the town, of the type you expect to find in hotels with a certain air like this one. I asked the receptionist, who doubled as the “concierge,” for a city map. He was taken aback and rummaged in several drawers behind him before he came up with a letter-size black and white copy of a map from a standard guide book. A German couple who noticed my disappointment chuckled in sympathy. “Those who stay here don’t need maps,” they said. “We just sleep here. We go sight-seeing on our own.”
This was a hotel for the local gentry. The gilded rooms in the lobby would fill up later in the evening with people dressed in the latest fashion Italy had to offer. This morning, the terrace outside the breakfast area was the scene of a power meeting. Five men were listening to a presentation by a woman; all were in business attire.
Naples may be ancient, founded by the Greeks in 474 B.C., but Italy is of recent vintage. It became a unified nation only in 1861, a fact I recalled as I began my self-guided tour from Vittorio Emanuel Street and went by subway to Cavour Piazza (square), and returned from Garibaldi Piazza. These were the king, the diplomat, and the general, amply given credit for the Italian Risorgimento (Unification).
Italian hotels did not provide guests pen and paper to write, but Italians are said to be avid readers. The area around the aptly named Dante square furnished good evidence with its many book stores. They bought and sold both new and used books, with students as the primary customers. This was a carefree neighborhood. Four older men were playing cards on a patch of grass
which they shared with dog refuse and empty bottles.
The crowd was at the Duomo (Cathedral). This happened to be September 19, the “Day of Blood.” The woman at the Tourist office explained: “Neapolitans believe that on this day the blood of their patron saint, St. Januarius who died in 305 A.D., will liquefy -a miracle believed to protect the city from disasters.” The streets around the Duomo were lined with vendors selling candy. I went into the Cathedral. The presiding bishop came through the throngs as the guards made way for him. The guards wore red berets with insignias identifying them as members of the Order of Malta. The Bishop extended his hand to be kissed by an elderly woman who was standing next to me. At the altar a priest was holding a phial that contained the saint’s blood for reverent kissing by the believers. Outside, I chatted with four welcoming seminarians in brown robes. A group of visiting elementary school children posed for me on the steps of the Duomo before their teachers ran up and waived their hands frantically to say I should stop taking pictures.
Pizza was invented in Naples and I asked where one could find a good example. I was directed to Via dei Tribunali which has been the main street of the old town since Roman times. I skipped Sophia Loren’s favorite pizzeria for the one chosen by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. His picture from a past visit was displayed under the name of the place, Il Presidente. “The name had existed before,” I was told. In a simple room downstairs I was seated under an older picture of the place, copies of which I had seen for sale at street vendors’ counters. Of the two men in this picture I recognized the actor Toto. “Who is the other one?” I asked my waiter. “That is Philip, the patron.” He told me that Philip was still the owner.
I thought that the margherita pizza -invented in honor of Queen Margherita in 1889 when she single handedly elevated pizza from the food of peasants to a favorite of the royalties- was the best I had ever had: thin crust, tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil, made in a wood-fired oven. It was simple and fresh. Two days later, I tried the more famous da Michel Pizzeria. I ordered the marinara, with oregano and garlic. It was not as good. An older man was standing watch under the arch that connected its two small rooms, while the young manager ran the show. Tourists lined up outside.
The charm of Naples’s old town is in its chaos. Amidst narrow streets and ancient structures, people move as much on scooters as on foot. Commerce is done on the sidewalks as much as indoors. In the back alleys there are as many private shrines attached to homes as there are churches. I sought some quite in Pio Monte della Misericordia. In the famous church which was surprisingly empty I mediated on Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy, considered to be the most important work of art in Naples.
The pulsating life of the old town is a world apart from Vomero where the upper-middle class lives. The drizzle on this Saturday night did not keep young couples from expressing affection on street corners. As I waited for the traffic light to change, I noted that a woman in her twenties touched her man on the face, kissed him on the cheek, pulled him toward herself, stepped back, pinched him on the arm, pouted, and then posed to smile at him. I saw several couples in similar positions in Naples.
If you like pizza, Naples is nirvana. If you desire something else, you may be in trouble. It is hard to find eateries that are not pizzerias. I walked into one, Ristorante Gorizia which, founded in 1916, was considered an old establishment in Vomero. From behind his podium, Salvatore the owner addressed me in Italian. When he realized that I did not fully understand him, he said “O.K., I speak in English” with an exaggerated British accent. “Wait on this side; I will seat you in 5 minutes.” I shared a table with two women. One was British and taught at a university and the other, an Italian, was a dental equipment salesperson. They were friends in an a cappella group from a nearby town. They had gone shopping for perfumes that day, and were especially pleased that they were given free samples. The Italian liked the scent of hers which was called Andy Warhol. The British woman did not: “it smells like what my grandmother used to wear.”
The British woman said that her students were not serious enough about learning and that the university system was very political, “all about connections,” and that it was not going to change because the tenured professors were influential in the parliament. “In fact, the former Prime Minister was himself a university professor.” The Italian woman was gently critical of my ineptitude in eating pasta, but she gave up after trying to correct me. “Don’t ever cut the pasta,” she said.
They asked me where I was going next, and when I said Milan and Lake Como, the Italian said “I was there and don’t like Milan and the Lakes because they are grey and sad.” She liked the warm climate of the south. She asked me about the ongoing American presidential election campaign and volunteered her own preferences. She liked Barak Obama “because he is black,” and did not like John McCain, “because he is old.” She “hated” Sara Palin because she was “too aggressive.”
The Italian woman told me that Dean Martin’s family came from near Naples. Later, as I waited for the train in the Cavour Metro Station I could hear an old Frank Sinatra song from the loudspeaker. A man who was sitting next to me on the bench lifted his finger and knowingly said “New York,” in an accent not quite the same as Sinatra’s.
The Amalfi Coast
The piazza at the Mediterranean shore of Amalfi where the ferry from Naples dislodged us was a transportation hub for the buses that would later take us back to Naples by way of the famed Amalfi coast. In mid morning, a group of five local residents were hanging out here. A hefty young woman in black was pushing another one, while a man was trying to quell their fight by blocking the aggressor.
I went through the arch under the buildings that separated the main square from the sea. The Sant’Andrea Cathedral, striking with its rare Sicilian Arabic architecture and two dozen steps before it, dominated the vista to the right. Straight up a narrow street provided the only outlet. The stores largely catered to tourists who seemed like sojourners on a market day.
Our bus hugged the many thrilling curvatures of the Amalfi Coast drive and often had to stop and negotiate the scarce space with oncoming traffic. We welcomed these pauses as they extended our fleeting chance to take in the truly splendid scenery. I envied the even slower pace of the occasional pedestrians who were impervious to the obvious hazards of the busy road. The blue of the sky and the sea was interrupted by terraced patches of fig trees, bougainvilleas, and grape vines. In their midst there were villas, many with pools, a reminder of the ironic inaccessibility of all that water of the sea to these dwellers of the cliff.
The streets that carved the hamlet of Positano’s descent to the Mediterranean amplified its beauty. A newly-wed couple had chosen wisely to have their pictures taken here. The Italian groom translated for his American wife the commands of the photographer as they went from the platform of the ceramic domed church to the picturesque bends of the street. I went to lunch at the popular La Zagara café and deli. The waiter was in a jovial mood. He opined that among his American customers eighty percent were for Obama. I asked about Italian politics. He pulled out the lining of the pocket of his pants to indicate the theft of his money and laughed. Up on the hill, in the parlor of a union hall, pensioned men in their golden years were playing cards.
Tucked in the corner of the main square in Sorrento was a shop full of dried red peppers. It looked more authentic than the tourist stores in the narrow alleyways of the old town. The alleys ended in the park overlooking the rows of planks and water-chairs for sunbathers which framed a segment of the sea. I walked down the path of the ravine that splits the town, to the Roman ruins where there was a real beach.
The public announcement system on the train from Naples to Pompeii told us the names of every local stop in English as well as in Italian, but curiously only after we left that station. The estimated 2000 persons who perished in Pompeii did not receive any notice of Mt. Vesuvius’s eruption on August 24, 79 A.D. The seven meters of ash that were consequently piled on them preserved incomparably intact a moment of ancient living environment to be discovered only some fifteen centuries later.
To bring that dead scene to life, the archeologists ingeniously poured liquid plaster in the hollow spaces created by the decomposed human corpses. These plastered forms are on display in Pompeii. Pompeii appears to have been a rationally planned city. Its broadest street is also its longest and where its major public sites -the forum, temples, and basilica- are located. The basilica was the largest hall. There the judges rendered their rulings from a platform raised to ensure their own security from the ire of the losing side.
I went to sit on the edge of the much bigger outdoor amphitheater, where the masses judged the fate of the gladiators. They sought pleasure also in the elaborate public baths with rooms for cold, lukewarm, and hot waters. Their 10 room brothel is one of the best preserved buildings. The erotic paintings we saw on its walls functioned as a menu for services offered.
Erotic paintings, however, also existed on the walls in private homes. These and other paintings in Pompeii which I saw -everyday scenes and portraits- are considered to be the best of Roman paintings. They are original and indigenous art, no longer under the Hellenistic influence. The mosaics in Pompeii, on the other hand, are mostly by Nilo- Hellenistic craftsmen. The ducks, the birds and the street musicians are Egyptian in style and motifs. I recalled seeing their ancient precursors in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.
Almost all of the mosaics have been removed to the Naples Archeological Museum. What you find in Pompeii are copies. The most prominent mosaic which I saw both in original and copy (in situs) was the Battle of Alexander. That is also the work of Nilo- Hellenistic artists done around 80 B.C. It is based on a copy of a painting by the early Hellenist artist, Philoxenes of Eretria. It commemorates Alexander’s victory at Issus in November 333 B.C. over the Persian king Darius III. It is given a historical value as the earliest drawing of Alexander in existence. To my surprise, however, the scene it depicts, with the two leaders face to face, was more imagined than real because in that war Alexander never came close to Darius, giving up the chase after pursuing him for some 25 kilometers.
In a narrow street behind the swanky Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, a sign for a silk clothing outlet caught my eye. The white mulberry trees in the nearby town of Como died out a long time ago but, the shopkeeper explained, Como has kept its reputation for fine silk scarves and ties by making them in its original design with imported yarn. I told him about another favorite Asian tree of mine, the fig tree from which I had picked figs that morning, and how unusual the tall mountains looked through the leaves of that sub-tropical tree with the fresh snow. The shopkeeper said he was getting ready for the ski season, and patted his stomach blaming the summer excesses. “I have to get fit. I have to lose weight; I have to go to the gym.”
I took the ferry across the lake with a French professor I met at the conference I was attending at Bellagio’s Rockefeller Institute. As we walked through the village of Tremezzo, we found ourselves on a trail labeled Greenway. We hiked three miles. We saw a unique view of Lake Como through openings in buildings that dated to the Middle Ages. We passed through a small square before a municipal building. Flags which we did not recognize were on the poles. We asked a passerby what the occasion was. “There was a district festival here last night.” It must have been more like a block party as this independent community appeared so small. At the shore we went into the lobby of a large Belle Époque hotel. A group of British tourists were checking out. My French friend picked up the tariff sheet from the reception desk. “Collecting these is my hobby,” he explained. Prices for rooms were nearly half those at Bellagio.
For dinner I sat next to another new friend from the conference, a professor from Venezuela, in the Metropole restaurant which was the only one on the lake side of the street. The waiter who greeted us was from Latin America and he said there were many more from there working in Bellagio’s restaurants. The waiter who came to take our orders, however, was Italian. With a tone of familiarity he must have thought was suitable to the hordes of tourists, he commanded us: “order fast; we are trying to go home!” The smoke from wood burning fireplaces in those homes was now permeating our clothes.
“I don’t like Italy,” said the Italian driver who was taking me from Bellagio to Milan the next day. “Italians are stupid. They cut in front of you on the road; they do construction work in the wrong season, not when people are away on vacation; they pave the sidewalks while it is the roads that need repair.” He continued “I’d rather be Swiss. Many of the people who live across the border a few kilometers away have the same last name as mine. That village used to be ours before we lost it to Switzerland.” He said that his grandfather had gone to the U.S. and came back and bought a farm here. “But the Communists expropriated it in the 1960s.” I asked him if he liked Berlusconi as Prime Minister. “He is the same as other politicians. The reason people voted for him is because he wins. Look at his soccer team.” He believed that changing the currency to the Euro only helped the politicians: “prices went up 100%.” He said that the “new generation is no good.” They had no sense of loyalty. “If cigarettes are smuggled across the lake from Switzerland, they now report it to the police. Smuggling is not illegal; it is just not giving money to the government as taxes.” He said that he liked to go on trips with his friends and not with his wife: “too much trouble.” I asked if he had children. “No. I have been married twice, but no children. Now the Chinese and the Arabs are having all the children.” He said he had just come back from driving six academicians from Baghdad to a conference in Slovenia. “I wore this for them,” he showed his American flag pin and grinned.
Builders. In Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, at the point where the axis of its two wings meet, the display cases were about Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid, the winner of the prestigious Prizker award in architecture. She and her team of international architects were changing the face of a large part of the city by a project of residential and commercial towers, parks, and canals.
They were following more than one distinguished precedent, as I learned. Devastated in World War II, Castello Sforzesco, the palace that had housed many past rulers of Milan, was saved from plans for erasing it altogether by a group of Milanese architects who turned it into a most splendid monument. It houses many of Milan’s museums. We walked the grounds of the Castle and entered the museums that told its past history. In 1893 another Milanese architect had persuaded the authorities to avoid demolishing the Castle for speculative urbanization. He restored the old structure and connected it to the center of town by Via Dante which became the “managerial quarter” of the town with its new government buildings, banks, insurance headquarters, and shops. Still earlier, Napoleon Bonaparte, who declared himself the King of Italy in 1805, had drained the old surrounding moat, removed the draw bridge, and made the Castle his residence.
We strolled on Via Dante toward Duomo. Napoleon also gets credit for the 135 spires and 3200 statues which make this gothic Cathedral of Milan unique -befitting a town which became the first capital of Christianity in 313. The jungle of spires, pinnacles, decorations and columns on the piers and upper parts of the Duomo – in which we almost got lost – was mostly made by craftsmen commissioned under Napoleon.
Da Vinci. It occurred to me that both in the Duomo and in the Castle of Milan, the French Emperor crossed paths with Leonard da Vinci. The 15th century engineer had designed the moat and defenses of the Castle. Da Vinci, I learned, also made possible the transport of the marble for the Duomo from Lake Maggiore through the waterways of Milan by a novel series of locks that raised the water level.
This was when Milan was a city of canals. Now, only the Grand Canal remains. I took the number 2 tram to look at it from via Lodovico Il Moro. The man this street is named after, Lodovico, was da Vinci’s principal employer. He was perhaps the most important builder of them all. He also asked da Vinci’s help in expanding the Basilica of Santa Maria delle Grazie in 1490. From this church’s tranquil cloisters I saw its great dome, and then went inside and sat where I imagined da Vinci once prayed, next to another Caravaggio on the wall.
Da Vinci could not have had much free time. Among other things, while he was in Milan, da Vinci painted The Last Supper in the refractory of the convent next door. In Milan that mural is known as Cenacolo Vinciano. “What does it literally mean?” I asked a fellow visitor who was Italian. He replied “where you eat; a dinning room; da Vinci’s dining room.” He then asked me “did you know that Napoleon’s soldiers used da Vinci’s mural for target practice?”
La Scala. It is da Vinci, the Florentine, who is celebrated in the heart of Milan’s culture. His statue dominates the piazza in front of La Scala. The recent history of Teatro La Scala itself, however, belongs to the conductor Arturo Toscanini. He made La Scala the focus of the operatic world.
This was not the opera season, but we were able to look at the hallowed hall as a part of our visit to the Scala Museum. Lush red silk-lined tiers of boxes surrounded a stage where a truncated rehearsal was taking place. A young girl and a young man pirouetted, while several others were listening to an instructor. The main lobby was simply adorned with Toscanini’s bust along with Puccini’s. The divas were commemorated in the Museum’s rooms. In one, an old portrait of Maria Callas dominated a wall. Her rival for Toscanini’s attention, Renata Tebaldi, did not get her portrait on the next wall until 2008.
Golden Quad. People-watching is a past-time for tourists and locals alike in Milan. That is why the many outdoor cafes in the Galleria and on Dante Street were always full. This area around the Duomo also covers the Golden Quad (Quadrilatero d’Oro) where the titans of Italian style ruled, led by their native son, Giorgio Armani and including the likes of Prada, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino, Kartell and Alessi whose main stores have moved here since 1960s, mostly from Florence.
I went to watch the fasionistas in the alleys of the Quad. The executive types were lunching in the outdoor restaurants dusty from the nearby construction work. In the more modest cafes I found their employees. In this café half of the space was taken by a long counter that displayed the special sandwiches of the day. We sat at one of the small tables on the fringe. A man in his early forties entered with two women. Cutting la bella figura, he wore a T-shirt which exposed his tattooed arms. As one of his companions sat next to us and greeted a friend, the other got busy on her cell phone. The man remained standing while his eyes roamed, until it spotted another woman. She was apparently a long forgotten acquaintance. When she left the café, he followed, calling after her. The window displays in those stores proclaimed the fashion verdict for the color of this fall: purple was “the new black.”
We watched as we walked toward a park nearby. There a man was doing push ups while his son waited. All was tranquil here, but on the edge of the park as we crossed into Piazza Stati Uniti d’America, a soldier with a machine gun paced, guarding the American Consulate. When we reached the train station, unprotected, two young boys nearly succeeded in picking my friend’s purse.
We followed our GPS Navigator’s many commands to “turn left” and “turn right” in the twisting narrow streets of old town Verona until we realized that ours was the only car engulfed in a sea of pedestrians. Our Navigator could not foretell that this was the day of a festival and we did not see any signs forewarning us. The restaurant that was our destination was closed by the time we reached it. We abandoned the Navigator and the car on the edge of the town and walked to the festival which, we were now told, was “the day when people return to play games of their childhood.”
We watched them in a piazza – which in Roman times was the forum – with our backs to the house which was the residence of the Della Scala family. They won in the competition of rival families in the 13th century, marking their top dog status by cani (dogs) in their code of arms which we could see on the frescoed walls still standing. That ancient competition inspired Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette, which play in turn inspired the enterprising citizens of Verona to build a balcony in 1935 for its famous imaginary medieval scene. This was near us and bus loads of tourists were visiting it. We chose to examine another lure that the locals believed in, as our waiter advised. A few feet away, from the arch that connected this piazza to the next, hung a whale’s rib. It has been expected to fall on the first just person who passed under it and, by failing to fall, it has embarrassed many with righteous pretensions, including more than one Pope.
A resident poet in Venice has affectionately called his town an “urban fossil.” I found it hard to quarrel with him. It is not just that Venice’s population has decreased 75% in the last fifty years, and the pedestrian planks in St. Mark’s Square were a reminder of the frequent flooding. What is charming to the tourists could also be described as decrepitude.
Venice consists of 117 small islands, some 150 canals, and 410 bridges. We packed lightly for our stay and took the water-bus to a stop on a canal from which we climbed little bridges and went through dark alleys to a building that served as our lodging. It seemed that no effort had been made for centuries to keep its exterior clean. Through the door, we entered a courtyard of exceptional ugliness that resembled an abandoned urban lot. We hiked up two long flights of stairs as hanging laundry of every description waived us in. They belonged to the residents of the apartments surrounding the open air courtyard. Our bed and breakfast was the apartment on the third floor.
In its homey living room, a fashionably dressed woman welcomed us. I asked her what the name of her place, La Villeggiatura, meant. “In the old days, they did not go on vacation for just a few days or even a few weeks,” she said, “they went to the country for months. That kind of trip is called la Villeggiatura.” This certainly was not a country house. Our room was an attic worked on with ingenuity within the agreed conspiracy that said “after all this is Venice.” We did not have a window; instead, we had a skylight.
We shared breakfast with another guest who shuffled to the dining room in her slippers and bath robe and hair curlers. We then went to see the loot that the Venetians brought back from the First Crusade against the infidels in 1095 and from the Fourth Crusade in the beginning of the 13th century -this second time by plundering fellow Christians of Constantinople. On that foundation these feisty merchant mariners had built Europe’s most enduring government -lasting one thousand years- which as an oligarchy was also its least unrepresentative. I was impressed by the vast Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Dodge’s Palace which, built in 1419, seated up to 1700 Council members who had some say in governance. The Venetians controlled trade between Europe and the East, while allowing religious freedom to all who facilitated their project: the Turks, the Armenians, and the Jews who were kept mostly in a former foundry (ghetto)-now elevated virtually to a tourist shrine.
In St. Mark’s Square which Napoleon once called Europe’s finest drawing room, we sat at a table in the 18th century Quadri café and watched pigeons play with tourists, as a band played old favorites, taking turns every 20 minutes with another band at the café across the piazza. I enjoyed the quieter Campo Formosa which is the favorite of the locals because it is sunnier. A passing Australian who was attending the Venice Biennale of Architecture told me about the provenance of this square’s appellation. The 11th century church here was built to fulfill the vision that appeared to St. Magnus who saw the Virgin as a buxom and shapely woman, formosa. Another Venetian priest, Antonio Vivaldi, is more famous, but as a composer. Unable to attend the concert of his works at the venerable Teatro La Fenice, I contented myself with buying a superb recording of his Violoncello music by the Orchestra da Camera from the uncommonly well-stocked Vivaldi Store near Rialto.
An equally widely known artistic contribution of Venice is its glasswork. The pride of ownership of the craft of making crystal and glass since the 10th century was once so strong in Venice that it was deemed treason for an artisan to leave the city, lest he teach the secret to others. Nevertheless, the fear of the fire hazard from the kilns eventually caused a wholesale evacuation of the industry to the island of Moreno in the northwest lagoon.
Moreno appeared to be a miniature recreation of Venice itself with its canals and bridges. We saw local businessmen disembarking from boats at the Ai Frati restaurant where we had lunch at the water’s edge. The pitcher from which we were served water was so attractive that I asked the owner if I could buy one. “No,” he said, “these were made especially for me by a friend who uses a secret method.”
The Tuscan Villa
On the outskirts of Siena, we turned left at the little shrine with the Crucifix on the road. On the unpaved path, the open field was farm like. The sun had gone behind the hills. The iron gate of the stone house opened to let us into a spacious courtyard where we parked the car. A cheerful woman came out of the house to greet us. “Leave the luggage; the waiter will take them up,” she said. She asked us abut the trip and walked with us to our room.
On the top floor, our bedroom alone was twice as big as any we ever had on this trip. But we also had a bathroom almost as large, and a living room even bigger which we did not have to share as there were no other guests. All were furnished beautifully. It was cozy, yet elegant. We were greatly pleased and said so. Our host, Merika, cupped her big hands around my face, laughed, and kissed me on the cheek. This was ten minuets after we met. Then she turned and kissed my blushing friend.
She had asked if we wanted her to cook for us that night as we were arriving late. “I am a very good cook,” she had said in her email. Now she gave us the choice of two pastas. We chose tagliatelle with porcine mushrooms. I said I wanted to take a shower before dinner. When I took longer than she expected, she protested loudly, “la pasta is getting cold. Hurry up!”
The frescoed mural made the dinning room especially inviting. The table was set formally with candle light. We were served by the “waiter” who now wore a white jacket. The pasta with shaved truffles and porcines was perfect. I asked if pigs had been used to find the truffles. Merika said “yes, and dogs.”
To our surprise, there was a second course, equally good, of veal Milanese. “My father is from Milan,” she said. The Roma tomatoes were from her own garden. They were not as ugly as heirlooms but were far more tasty. The second vegetable was sautéed fennel, which I had never had before. The full bodied Chianti, served from a decanter, was also from Merika’s own winery. The meal was complete when a home-made tart arrived for desert.
Next morning we woke up to the smell of baking at this 17th Century villa. Coffee cake was a part of the sumptuous breakfast we were served. I stepped out into the courtyard. Workers were repairing the roof. “There is always work to do,” Merika said. “Carlos (the waiter) just told me that the spa needs repair.” The villa had been in her mother’s family for three generations. “My mother is from a town nearby,” she said. Merika had left a professional job in Milan to turn this house into an inn. In our quarters there were framed pictures of her family. I commented that a man looked like Marcelo Mastroianni. “That man with grey hair? He is my father,” she said. The topless young woman in another picture was her daughter. She was in New York now working as a personal chef for two families and trying to write “romance,” Merika said.
I asked Merika if guests ever expressed interest in buying her Tuscan villa. “Yes,” she said, “but they never follow up,” as she waived her right hand dismissively.
From Siena we took the old Cassia road south to the valley of the River Orcia. This was the path traversed by merchants, pilgrims, and mercenaries in the middle ages. They have left their marks in this most beautiful valley of Tuscany, “a land of wind and desert” in the terra di Siena hues of yellow, red, and ochre brown. All around us were Cyprus trees – that had been brought from Central Asia -, churches and abbeys of striking splendor, and castles with imposing fortifications.
Montalcino. The 1361 rocca (fortress) in the hamlet of Montalcino is perched above 3000 hectares of vineyards, 1500 of which are dedicated to Brunello, the rich ruby red wine with “intense aroma and delicate, warm flavor with a hint of vanilla” that many consider Tuscany’s best. Montalcino’s red wines had been famous since the 15th century. Ferruccio Biondi Santi, however, “invented” Brunello. He did this, we were told, by leaving out from the traditional Montalcino Chianti recipe, the Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo, and Colorino grapes, and exclusively using the Sangiovese variety. The Santi family collection contains a bottle dated 1888 which is from the first result of that experiment.
We went to the family’s Caffe Fiaschetteria Italiana in Montalcino. Inside the art deco café (and bar), the bartender told me that the word fiaschetteria was a derivative of the Italian “fiasco,” meaning flask as in a flask of wine. An American couple was sitting next to us. The man asked when I had left the U.S. He explained that they had been away for three weeks, that he could not get enough information about what was happening back home as he spoke no Italian, and that he was anxious about his retirement nest egg. This was October 1, 2008, and it was thus that we got into a long conversation about another “fiasco,” the swirling economic turmoil in the United States.
Assisi. In the courtyard of Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi workers were erecting the stands for the annual Festa di San Francesco, the main religious event of the city which would take place on October 3rd and 4th. St. Francis is the patron saint of all Italy, but it was a large delegation of Croatians which I ran into just past the soothing green field facing the courtyard. With red caps and banners they were marching down toward the Basilica. “We are Croatians living in Germany,” a woman told me and offered her red cap as a souvenir. She insisted, “I have two of these; our priest gave them to us.”
Spoleto. The town of Spoleto has been made famous by the Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti who in 1958 founded the Festival of Two Worlds here. The visitors to the annual summer festival were long gone and Spoleto now looked its authentic provincial self in the fall light. At six in the evening, women clerks were spilling out of shops that had just closed onto the gently inclined Garibaldi street, lighting cigarettes and hugging each other goodbye. At the bar in Piazza del Mercato men were having a drink and munching on the snacks placed on the counter: potato chips, olives, nuts, and small pieces of pizza. Mothers and children were gathered in the ice cream shop which was connected to the bar.
San Gimgnano. In the garden before the Rocca in Tuscany’s San Gimgnano a man was peering through a narrow opening in the walls of the 14th century fortress, trying to capture his glimpse of both the town and the lush surrounding countryside on a water color canvas. The small town’s 14 towers, left from the original 72, are monuments to the vanity of the medieval families who commissioned them as symbols of their power and wealth. Because of these, San Gimgnano has earned the appellation of Tuscany’s Manhattan – although a wit could also mention the large number of Americans who were visiting it.
Il Campo is the focal point of Siena’s life in the evening. To me it appeared to be a vast, bare, stark, concave space of brick ground. The monotony of the bricks was broken only by their division into nine sectors, representing the Council of Nine, the bourgeois ruling families who constructed it in the mid 14th century. In the part of Il Campo closer to a ring of restaurants was the other anomaly, the 15th century Fonte Gaia, the dubiously called “happy fountain”.
I could appreciate all the fuss about Il Campo only later when I saw in a shop window the spectacular pictures of Il Palio. This is a carnival full of colorful pageantry, held twice in the summer, when ten bareback riders in medieval costumes race around Il Campo for the prize of palio (silk banner).
Tonight we sought local colors, instead, in a neighborhood restaurant, Terzo Girone. It had two open ovens in its main room, one for making pizza and the other for grilling meats. It still maintained a separate, Sala Fumatori, for its smoking customers. I asked the waiter if he had Peroni or Moretti beer. He showed disdain toward those famous labels and suggested that I should have what he called Italy’s “best beer,” Menabrea. He was right.
The view of the historic Arno River and the 14th Century Ponte Vecchio from my hotel room was partially blocked. But I had no justification to complain because the blocking was from the Vasari Corridor, a passageway built in 1565 to connect the venerable Palazzo Vecchio to the Grand Duke’s new residence, the Palazzo Pitti. Stumbling over magnificent historic sites is not unusual in the few blocks that is the old Florence.
What made the dazzling bronze door of the Baptistery even more compelling for us was the knowledge that it was where Lorenzo Ghiberti in early 15th century first introduced perspective to visual arts. What made climbing 463 steep steps to the top of the Duomo endurable was the chance to look at the first dome without supporting frame, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1419. There was also the panoramic view of the whole city, including Dante’s tomb, as pointed out to us by a young Italian woman. “The Italian language was invented by Dante Caligari,” she reminded us.
Down on the street, immigrants from Africa had spread piles of knock-off designer bags on the ground in apparently fruitless efforts to attract a buyer. The renowned statues around them were also fake – copies placed in their original sites in old Florence. The real ones have been moved to the museums. I found Michelangelo’s Pieta which is in the Duomo museum to be special. Undertaken when Michelangelo was 80 years old, in this Pieta which he intended for his tomb, the artist depicts himself as Nicodemus. Pieta was Michelangelo’s last work, and when in 1980 it was moved from Rome to Florence, the city where he had first burst onto the stage as a prominent sculptor with his David at the age of 29, an artistic circle was completed. Florence is Michelangelo’s town where he is also buried.
This is not to diminish Florence’s claim to others as a visit to Uffizi makes clears. Here we saw the Annunciation done by the young da Vinci in 1472 which caused his teacher Lorenzo di Credi to say that the pupil had already surpassed him. Here we also saw Botticelli’s incomparable allegorical paintings, Birth of Venus and Primavera. Indeed, Uffizi was jammed full of masterpieces by others: Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, Giotto, and also non-Italians, specially the Flemish and Germans: Rembrandt, Ruben, and Durer. To the museum’s attendant guards, however, all these appeared jaded: they sat text-messaging when not talking to each other.
Families. For nearly two centuries the Medicis were remarkably consistent patrons of the arts. They donated the entire family collection to Florence with the stipulation that it would not be moved from the city and that it would be open to the public. In Cantinetta dei Verrassane I found myself wondering what families now lived in Florence. This was a bakery and a place to have lunch. It also promoted Wine Tourism in Castello di Verrazzano between Florence and Siena “where Giovanni da Verrazzano who discovered the bay of New York” was born in 1485. It was a popular and crowded place. A matronly hostess conducted the traffic between the counter where you could buy food and eat standing in the aisles and the few tables where you could sit and be served lunch. Fashionably dressed women came in and went directly to the hostess and received preferential treatment. When we were eventually seated, the waiter wasted no time. “We have no meat, no pasta, no pizza. What do you want?” he said and answered himself: “some cheese, some salumi, and some salad.” We nodded submissively. He brought three dishes, one each of the above, and focaccia and two types of sliced bread. They were all excellent as were the four different glasses of wine which he also chose for us.
As we drove from Florence to Pisa, it was not difficult to imagine the landscape that the Medicis traversed in the early 15th century to take this town in order to gain access to the sea. Whatever development had taken place in the meantime seemed dwarfed by the vastness of the rolling hills and distant mountains. Pisa itself remained pastoral and provincial compared to Florence. The Medicis had turned Pisa into a focus for science and learning. We passed Pisa’s “School of Medicine and Surgery” on the street that led us to the famous Leaning Tower (Torre Pendente). We saw students and other locals mingle with a relatively small crowd of tourists in the large green that surrounds the Tower and Pisa’s Duomo and Baptistery which are Europe’s most extensive concentration of Romanesque architecture.
Modern Italy chose La Spezia, miles north of Pisa, as its naval base at a gulf so romantic and favored by poets that it is called the Gulf of Poets. On the early afternoon of Sunday, however, this city was in a slumber. The open market was closed and the pedestrian street Via del Parione was empty. Only restaurants close to the train station where we bought the ticket for Cinque Terre were open. We shared our meal with a noisy and messy local high school soccer team. The service was fittingly leisurely which contrasted with the rush by a group of men who came in just for coffee. They stayed only five minutes, long enough to be given their fix which they gulped down scalding hot in no more than five seconds.
When we returned from Cinque Terre to La Spezia that evening, the rhythm of life had changed dramatically. Via del Parione was crowded with people strolling up and down. Many children were also present in this passeggiatina. The ice cream shops and pizzerias were doing a brisk business. In the open market at the end of the street the vendors were selling clothes as well as produce and fruit.
The train ride from La Spezia to Riomaggiore, the southernmost village of the Cinque Terre group took just a few minutes. We crossed the ravine that forms the main street of Riomaggiore and began the kilometer-long promenade toward the next village, Manarola which is called Lovers’ Lane. This path is on the edge of the cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. Stone benches along the way accommodated many more older people than lovers who had come to enjoy the scenery in the perfect sunny weather.
We walked up the hill in Manarola. In the stone-walled vineyards on the left side of the road men were working late in the afternoon. When we came to the small square near the top of the street we were treated to the delightful sight of a 1338 Church and a bell tower that once served as a defensive lookout.
Farmers on small three-wheeled motorized wagons shared the narrow winding road with fast drivers of BMWs and Mercedes as we all descended from the mountains to Monterosso al Mare. Clouds made this most northern village of Cinque Terre cold and windy but could not bar two swimmers from its aquamarine blue water. The chef at Micky’s restaurant would not serve us as it was three in the afternoon but she teasingly offered her kitchen to us to cook for ourselves. We opted, instead, to go to the unusual focacceria here which makes 15 kinds of focaccia and a signature chick pea pie.
Then and Now
A tied satin ribbon hid the cheap padlock on the kitchenette which was on one side of our room in the hotel. The effect was disarmingly quaint. This exemplified the aura of the Lido Palace Hotel which offered the quintessential Santa Margherita experience. You were transported to the middle of the 20th century when this place had its heyday. The elegant part remaining was the view of the spectacular bay which was lined with palm trees and bordered in the distance by green hills. The statutory in the waterfront park included a rare Cristoforo Colombo. The Hotel’s restaurant was now run by Anna and her Irish friend Jo, “for Josephine,” who served risotto, the local favorite. The buses outside were for the largely Italian tourists.
Nearby Portofino, in contrast, catered to the crowds of Americans who had disembarked from cruise ships. A sign pointed to the “Tourist Harbor.” In fact, there was no other harbor visible in this fabled town of pink, yellow, and green square buildings – with distinct shutters – which has turned into an enclave of designer boutiques and outdoor cafes. A jewelry store marketed “Blue Dream”. A crusty vendor oriented her customer on a linen map of Italy. Her matronly compatriots gossiped. A sole store sold “Home Production (Produzione Propria)” Italian baked savory and sweets.