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Giordano Bruno, Campo di' Fiore

Poor Giordano Bruno.  Ten years before Galileo would take the same stance, this former Dominican friar had the temerity to assert that the sun and not the earth was the center of the universe, earning him a spot front and center in Rome’s Campo di’ Fiore, where he was burned at the stake.

Four hundred years plus one decade later, I wait in the shadow of his imposing monument at day’s end, watching an army of street sweeping machines whoosh around the piazza seemingly willy-nilly to clean up after the day’s busy fruit and vegetable market.  A fragrant cloud of squashed flowers, pulverized tomatoes and bruised basil fills my nostrils while tourists study the menu boards of cafes lining the piazza and locals lounge at outdoor tables smoking and drinking wine in juice glasses.

The Saturday night before Palm Sunday in Rome, Holy Week upon us, and the city is more clogged than ever with tourists.  Arriving late this afternoon, I’d navigated my way through the throngs in Piazza Navona, spying no less than half a dozen large tour groups, their guide waving high above his head the polka dot umbrella or the giant yellow daisy or the stick with a bright green ribbon tied to it.  The clients, American and Japanese mostly, followed along like obedient puppies.  I’ve always fantasized about how much more enjoyable Rome would be were its streets not jammed with these packs of knee-socked, camera-toting, menu turistico-seeking people from elsewhere.  Where were the real Romans?  Caught behind one of these gaggles of tourists, no doubt.

And yet, though traditionally I have not been a proponent of guided tours, preferring rather to do my own research and make my own discoveries, on a previous trip to Rome, my companion and I were solicited on the endless queue outside the Vatican Museums and were persuaded to join a small group tour.  If I’m honest, we were lured primarily by the promise of being able to sip coffee in a café while our guide waited on the two-hour line for us, but the real sweetness of the deal turned out to be the astonishingly knowledgeable guide himself, a friendly South African with a Ph.D. in art history, who spewed out nuggets of priceless and juicy information that resulted in a far richer experience than we could ever have had on our own.  Given that successful foray then, with caution, I amended my position.  A carefully chosen tour with a truly knowledgeable, personable guide can lend an extra dimension.

It was this enlightened outlook that had provoked me to sign up this trip for a three-hour tour with the clever name, “Rome by the Glass,” which promised the opportunity to “indulge your inner Bacchus” as a certified sommelier brought you to local, authentic enoteche and educated you on the regional wines of Italy.

Which brings me to be hanging out with the heretic Bruno under the afternoon’s waning sun.  It’s not quite six p.m. when Ettore finds me and informs me I’m his only client tonight, and without further ado, we set off in the direction of our first enoteca.  Ettore points out sights along the way—the Piazza Farnese, one of his favorite piazzas and one overlooked by tourists, the Holocaust memorial plaque and the Star of David on a red wall in the Jewish Ghetto, the captivating Fountain of the Turtles in the Piazza Mattei.  He walks fast, talks faster and, for the moment, all I can manage is a nod, a smile.  I feel shy, the only tourist on a group tour.

Enoteca Il Piccolo is tucked away in a small cobblestone street shooting off the Piazza Navona.  True to its name, the enoteca is tiny—a handful of wooden tables squeezed together in a rustic looking space, bottles of wine shelved along the walls from waist height to the ceiling.  There’s only one remaining table, the one closest to the bar, and I move some boxes of foodstuffs off the chair.  Along the short bar, an array of snacks beckons:  bite-sized pizzas, olives, bread, spinach wrapped in turkey, roast pork.  I collect a bit of everything on a small plate while Ettore engages in a very passionate conversation with the young man behind the bar, presumably ordering a couple of white wines to taste.  When he returns to the table, I raise my eyebrows and he understands.  “In Italy,” he says with a resigned shrug, “everything is a negotiation.”

Naturally our conversation at first centers around wine.  Ettore’s knowledge turns out to be quite vast and I get the distinct impression that as much information as he’s feeding me, it constitutes only a fraction of all he knows.  He tells me there are 450 varieties of grapes found throughout Italy.  He explains about color and perfume and acidity and legs.  Those are just the basics.

Our first taste is a Sauvignon from the Veneto region.  Ettore swirls the wine in the glass.  Note the barely yellow color, like straw.  Note how long the wine sticks to the side of the glass—not long, meaning low alcohol content.  Note the smell—slightly grassy.  This Sauvignon has been served fairly cold, allowing for more perfume while reducing acidity.  It’s a young wine, he says.  Less exposure to the sun, less heat, lend the wine its crispness.  At last we drink.  I hold the wine in my mouth a moment and close my eyes.  I’m not good at this, I feel silly, but the Sauvignon playing on my tongue reminds me of a gentle summer night, a slight breeze riffling my hair, and I think, this tour is turning out all right.

The second wine arrives and Ettore hasn’t finished emphasizing the importance of temperature, using Coca-Cola as an illustration of the relationship between temperature and acidity:  the warmer the Coca-Cola, the more acidic.  And since it takes three minutes to warm the wine by one degree Celsius, a good sommelier will serve the wine a degree or two colder than ideal knowing it will take a few minutes before the customer picks it up and drinks.  Well now, that clears it all up.

By now I’m thirsty and surely our Grecía Salentina has warmed sufficiently, so I pick up my glass.  “This is a more direct wine,” says Ettore, hailing from Compania Avellino, a region on the bottom of Italy’s heel.  He leads me through the steps:  inspecting first the more golden color, then swirling again to show how the legs stick to the glass longer, evidence of the higher alcohol content.  I swirl along with him and wait for the legs to drip back down.

As we drink, the legs of our conversation grow stickier.  The language of wine is so technical, I say to Ettore, commending him on his fluency in English, which prompts him to reveal his secret weapon:  an American wife, originally from San Diego.  He tells me the story of how they met a decade earlier, when he was selling sweet, peachy wine to undiscriminating tourists in Florence.  After getting married, they started their tour company together.  Then it’s my turn.  Learning that my partner’s son is 23, he shakes his head.  “In America,” he says, “he’s a man already, but in Italy he would barely be weaned.”  Ettore himself is an exception, of course, but he laments the immaturity of his male compatriots, noting that even though it is changing, when Italian men marry, most still expect their wives to do all the cleaning, cooking, shopping, child-rearing and handling of household finances.

Time for the next enoteca, and threading our way through the nighttime bustle of the city, we touch upon American politics, the depressed real estate prices in Puglia and his incomprehension about American fashion.  What Ettore can’t understand is why American kids wear their jeans hanging down off their butts.  In Italy, he points out, it’s the exact opposite—the tighter, the better.  “I’ve noticed,” I say, and we laugh like two old friends.

At La Vecchia Bottega del Vino in the Jewish Ghetto, Ettore orders us a plate of local charcuterie and another of cheeses.  While we nibble on prosciutto and speck, bresaola and mortadella, we sample the first of two reds, a Nero d’Avola from Sicily.  The heat of the sun comes into play here.  In most places, the days are warm, the nights cool, but in Sicily the nights are also warm—influencing the taste of the grape.

With the cheese plate comes the lustier Barbaresco, product of Piedmont.  The Barbaresco has the longest legs yet.  We swirl and sniff and sip while we shift now to the topic of children, and I’m surprised to learn that Italy has the second lowest birth rate (Spain is first) in the western world and that few Italian women have more than one child.  Ettore chalks it up to economics, but I wonder.  Whatever the reason, at this point, more Italians are dying every year than being born.  Considering the Catholic majority in the country and the proximity of the Vatican, this is a revelation to me.

Ettore and I are having a good time.  We could linger over this table all night, but his wife is waiting on him for dinner and, after all, this is a paid tour, not a night out with a friend—although the distinction is hardly clear.

By the time we part company, it’s almost 10 p.m., four hours since I stared up at Giordano Bruno.  Given his prominence, I imagine Bruno sees quite a lot of tour groups congregating at his feet.  I reflect on the Inquisition which sentenced the former friar to death back in 1600, when apparently no one had a very open mind.  I’m still skeptical about how many tours (and there are so many in Rome) give you a real feeling for the city, how many take you beyond the standard tourist pabulum, but after my enjoyable and educational night with Ettore, I’ll hold off on burning any tour guides at the stake.

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On the afternoon of Palm Sunday in Rome, after enjoying a macchiato in the shadow of the Pantheon, I met up with a new friend from the writers’ conference from which I’d just come.  The sunshine was glorious, illuminating the white dome of a cathedral, glinting off Hadrian’s Elephant, toasting our cheeks and shoulders.  Church-goers ambled through the cobblestone streets holding olive branches aloft while tourists squinted at maps and caroused souvenir shops.

We could have easily whiled the day away in a cafe, talking and drinking and people-watching, while the sun showered us with its love, but we were on our way to the Galleria Borghese (www.galleriaborghese.it), which houses a majority of the art collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a nephew of Pope Paul V.   Sciopione apparently had very good taste, having been an early patron of Bernini and a collector of works by Caravaggio, Rubens, Raphael and many others.

Gail and I started on the second floor, an accidental but serendipitous strategy since the museum entry is timed and everyone else began on the first floor–meaning that, for a while anyway, we had the galleries to ourselves.

One room of jaw-dropping paintings gave on to another and we went from one to the next to the next craning our necks at the elaborately frescoed ceilings, pointing at this painting by Titian and that painting by Raphael.  The Caravaggios were on loan to a special exhibition going on over at the Quirinale, but there was still gaping to be done over Jacopo Bassano’s The Last Supper and Domenichino’s Diana.

Domenichino's Diana (picture courtesy of Galleria Borghese website)

But the real oohing and aahing was still to come.  Already dizzy from the collection of paintings, we made our way down the spiral staircase to the ground floor where the sculpture rooms beckoned.

Mostly, the Borghese, like much of Rome, is all about Bernini, yet Canova’s white marble statue of Paolina Bonaparte reclining on a mattress is every bit as worthy.  I admit to knowing very little about art, and so I cannot speak to what makes art “good” or “bad,” but as a sentient human being, I was moved by the wrinkles in the mattress which looked like anything but stone, and by the utter tranquility of Paolina’s pose and facial expression.

That said, if it had been the case that the Borghese had room for only a few pieces of art, we would have been satisifed with three particular Berninis.  The fierce expression of determination on the face of Bernini’s David as he confronts Goliath compells you while the chiseled indentations of Pluto’s grip on his victim in The Rape of Proserpine takes your breath away.  To think that both of these masterpieces were finished before the sculptor was 25 years old is almost incomprehensible.

It was his Apollo and Daphne, though, that truly moved me. 

Apollo and Daphne, Bernini (picture courtesy of Galleria Borghese website)

Gail and I moved in slow, trancelike circles around this statue that depicts the virgin nymph Daphne turning into a laurel tree in order to escape Apollo.  There is bark where skin should be, her fingers and toes are morphing to twigs, leaves grow within her hair.  Her desperation is physical.  The facial expressions, the opposing textures of tree and human flesh–how this could have been fashioned out of a slab of rock is mind-boggling.  Again, my art education is dismal, but even I know a masterpiece when I see one.

I fantasized about curling up at Daphne’s feet, taking a nap and then waking up an hour later to gaze at her all over again, but it was time to go.  Gail and I took a final circle around, trying to take it all in, to etch it into our memories so we could recall it at any moment.

And to be doubly safe, we made a beeline for the gift shop and bought postcards.

**Thank you, Gail, for sharing this special time at the Borghese with me

Oh, I was once so independent, so footlose and fancy-free!  I wanted to go on a trip–say, Paris; say, the Galapagos–and if I had no travel companion, that wasn’t going to stop me.  On the contrary, the thought of striking it out on my own energized me.

I was younger then.  I was either single or in a relationship, but not a very serious one.  I am less young now and in a committed relationship, and the man I’m committed to happens to be an excellent travel companion.  Not everyone is lucky to travel well with their partner, but I’m one of those more fortunate. 

In the ten years we have been together, we’ve traveled hand-in-hand to spots around the U.S., but also to France, Italy, Australia and the Philippines.  Our shared memories of these adventures add another indelible dimension to our bond.

So when I was accepted into the Sirenland Writers Conference, which would take place in Positano, Italy, we had a bit of a dilemma. 

Ken took a stand.  As envious as he might be, he was convinced that he would be a distraction and he wanted more than anything for me to focus on writing and meeting new writer friends and getting everything out of the conference I could.

I understood his position and believed he was probably right.  I’ve been to writers conferences before–albeit not in such a glorious setting–and they are intense experiences.  I would miss him while there, but I’d be too busy to realize it most of the time.

My hesitation, though, came with the pre- and post-trips.  Given the cost of airfare and the fact that (uncharacteristically) I had the time, I decided I may as well tack on a couple of sidetrips:  three days in Capri beforehand, three days in Rome afterward.

It was in Capri where I realized that the thrill of traveling solo, for me, has shriveled up and died.

It was off-season in Capri, wonderfully quiet, and most of my time involved walking for miles along desolate paths and roads hugging a coastline that at every turn offered up a startling vista of sea and sky and rock and foliage more magnificent than the last.  In the face of such majesty, there is nothing to do but turn to the person at your side and whimper in stunned appreciation.

No one stood at my side this time, though.  And it wasn’t just anyone I missed now.  The bittersweet moment evoked an actual, physical pang in my chest.  That this beauty should not be shared–the disappointment shook me with the force of tragedy.  

So what I did was, I took pictures.  Dozens and dozens of them.  I would capture this, damnit, and I would email the photos to Ken and it would be like he had been there, sharing these moments with me. 

A camera is not an eye, though.  Nor is it a heart. 

That night, I sent two postcards home to Ken, two different views of gorgeous Capri.  I sent him a postcard every day of my trip–after Capri, there was Positano and then Rome.  In all these places, a dozen times a day, I set my eyes on a breathtaking landscape or ate an amazing meal or felt moved by the pealing of ancient church bells.  I didn’t have to write that I missed him.  He knew that already, as I knew he missed me.

I’d been proud once of what I considered my free spirit, my willingness to tackle whatever came my way all on my own.  I can still do that, but apparently I no longer want to.

On my recent trip to Anacapri, the western and quieter side of the Isle of Capri, I set out one morning for the infamous Grotta Azzurra.  I admit I knew little about the grotto, but since I’d heard of it, it must surely be worth seeing. 

The advantage of staying in Anacapri was that I could walk there rather than take a bus, taxi or boat from Marina Grande in Capri.  It was a long walk and it was off-season, which meant that I barely encountered another soul.  In fact, I came across more dogs than people.  There seem to be a lot of dogs on the island and many roam freely. 

The vistas along my walk were beyond stunning and I took my time, snapping photograph and after photograph, though knowing a camera could never see what my eyes could.

Almost an hour later, I reached the grotto and climbed down the steps to where I could get a rowboat to take me inside.  Most people were arriving on the boat from Marina Grande and they transferred directly from that boat to the smaller rowboats.  I was the only one who waited at the Anacapri stairs and it took a long time for me to coax a boatman over to me–perhaps because I was alone (i.e., less profitable).

Finally a man took mercy on me and helped me into the rocking boat.  The boatman introduced himself as Marco.  He then informed me the visit would cost 11 euros and if I liked his service…  He left the sentence unfinished, knowing I had received the message loud and clear.

Marco instructed me to lay down flat in the back of the boat as we approached the narrow opening of the grotto.   It reminded me of spelunking, when I had to squeeze through an opening called the birth canal.  (The spelunking adventure, though, had been free.)

Laying down his oars, reminding me again–down, flat–Marco tugged on chains attached to the sides of the cave and pulled us over the swell at the mouth of grotto and inside.  I was allowed to sit up now and when I did, for the first time in my life, I saw BLUE.  I didn’t know till then that I had never seen blue before.  That idea had been forming in my mind all along the coast-hugging road on my way to the grotto, but now I was utterly convinced.

The blue was otherworldly, a light coming from below and casting everything in an ethereal glow.  Water slapped against the sides of the boat while Marco began to sing something softly, unintelligibly–all of which might have been moving were it not negated by the giggling of Japanese tourists in three other boats in the cave, which magnified every sound.

Grotta Azzurra

And yet it was gorgeous.  Marco paddled us around in circles a few times and I took the obligatory pictures which, again, I knew would never begin to capture it.  The tour lasted five minutes, no more.  For just 11 euros.

My guide did not enlighten me on what made the water inside the cave so blue, what made it glow so.  Though I knew he spoke English, he barely said a word to me, and I gave him a couple of euros extra anyway.

I wanted to go over to the other side of the island, so he managed to get me on the boat with the big Japanese tour group going back to Marina Grande.  Another 11 euros.

Back at the hotel, the proprietess told me what made the water so blue (daylight enters through an opening below the grotto and is reflected up – http://www.capri.com/en/grotta-azzurra), and I wondered to myself why Marco didn’t tell me at least that much–to add to his “service.”  If I’m honest, I was a bit disgruntled.

Over dinner that night, thinking about my day, I debated with myself if the five-minute visit was worth all the money.  After all, I’d also hiked up to Villa Jovis, the spectacular ruins of the villa built by Emperor Augustus and last lived in by Tiberius. 

Villa Jovis

I spent an hour there and could have lingered longer were I not famished.  The entry fee was a mere 2 euros.

In the end, I decided the Grotta Azzurra was worthwhile in the way that the major attraction of any place usually is.  I may never get to Capri again, they know that, and that fact alone seems to warrant the hefty admission price.  There’s nothing new to be learned here–this is the case at virtually every famous attraction in the world.

A less generous traveler would label the grotto a tourist trap, but I’m not inclined to be so harsh.  Had I not visited its major attraction, I would have gone home feeling like I’d missed out–a worse feeling than being ripped off.  After all, Capri–like many places we visit–relies on tourism dollars and who am I to quibble?  I’m not rich, but I had traveled all the way from New York to this fairly remote place and complaining would have seemed terribly petty.

Satisfied, I poured another glass of wine from the carafe I’d ordered, a carafe, incidentally, that cost only 8 euros.

I was fortunate enough recently to attend the Sirenland Writers Conference (www.sirenland.net). 

As if spending a week with a few dozen super talented writers were not enough to make the conference worthwhile, the event takes place on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, in breathtaking Positano.

View from the balcony of my room at Le Sirenuse

With a reputation as a resort area for the Beautiful People (that is, beautiful and rich), a place like Positano is the stuff of dreams for a middle class girl like me.  Which is to say, just the thought of going to Positano already had me swooning.

We’ve all seen the pictures of the colorful houses perched one atop the other up the sides of the cliffs, as if to add just one more might send them all toppling.  In old Italian movies, we’ve seen the twisty roads high above the Mediterranean that hug the Amalfi Coast (bring the Dramamine!). 

The Long and Winding Road

But, oh, the surprise in store for me when I checked into the hotel (albergo) where the conference is held.  Le Sirenuse (www.lesirenuse.com) is one of, if not the, most luxurious hotel in Positano.

In the week before the hotel opens for the season, the Sersale family hosts the Sirenland Writers Conference in high style–and with such graciousness and enthusiasm for the art of writing literature.

Prior to arriving in Positano, I’d spent three days traveling solo in Capri.  That morning, I’d taken the ferry from Capri to Sorrento (in season, there is a direct ferry to Positano) and then the bus to Positano.  I was exhausted when I arrived, having done quite a bit of traveling (and hiking) in those days.

At the front desk, Gennaro was all smiles and ready to check me in.  Leaving my luggage behind in the lobby (someone would deliver it to my room), Gennaro led me through the stunning lobby area, down a flight of marble stairs and through a maze of opulent sitting areas to room #91.

Room #91, Le Sirenuse

He opened the door, we walked the few steps down the short hallway and then turned the corner.  Perhaps my exhaustion had brought my emotions closer to the surface, but tears came to my eyes at the sight of this room–and the view beyond.

Never in my life could I have imagined I would ever stay in such a place.  I felt–for lack of a better word–undeserving.  First of all, the size.  The room was almost as large as my entire apartment here in New York (which, I realize, isn’t saying all that much!).  In addition to the huge bed outfitted with Frette sheets and duvet and the world’s most comfortable pillows, there was a sitting area with a table, cushy love seat and two armchairs, a little dressing table area with a window overlooking the water, a desk, an armoire that spanned most of a long wall, and….best of all…sliding doors that opened to an expansive view of the Mediterranean Sea, the beach (the sand darkened by volcanic ash) and that ubiquitous cliff of precariously stacked houses.

And I hadn’t even seen the bathroom yet, with its giant jacuzzi, its plush towels and robes and complimentary Eau d’Italie toiletries.  Or the dining room downstairs, with its lemon trees, the vines climbing the walls, and the chandeliers of hundreds of candles.  Or the myriad terraces, each offering slightly different views, all the more impressive than the last.

Gennaro left me with my key, a heavy golden mermaid (le sirenuse) and immediately I took a picture of it.  A minute later my suitcase arrived, but before I unpacked or did anything else, I shot photographs of every inch of my room, trying to make it seem real.

Even after spending a week there, it still felt more like a fantasy.  The room, the breakfast feast each morning, the conference itself, the new friends, the Baci chocolate waiting at my bedside each night–it all seemed part of some alternate life, a life I had somehow stolen and called my own.

After I’d taken my pictures, I leaned on the railing in front of the sliding doors and stared at the beach, the hillside, the fisherman paddling his rowboat out to sea.  It was cloudy, and cool, but it hardly mattered.  I closed my eyes and breathed in the moist air, listened to the gentle crash of the surf against the shore.

I left Le Sirenuse and Positano almost a week ago now.  I have to keep reminding myself that I did not imagine it.  For five days and six nights, I lived like one of the Beautiful People and I felt, well, special, as I’m sure all my fellow Sirenlanders did.  And maybe that’s because we are.

 
** Mille grazie to Franco, Antonio and Carla Sersale for all they did to welcome us at Le Sirenuse**

As a New Yorker, I have been under the misapprehension that I walk a lot, but it’s nothing compared to the walking the hardy Caprese do. Young, old, disabled (!), it appears they walk miles on a daily basis without a thought—uphill, up cliffs!

Of course, they have cars, too, and they surely have the best driving skills in the world to maneuver the extremely narrow roads and the hairpin turns. One of the tricks, I think, must be not to look out at the view because the vertigo would surely send you over the edge. Another trick must be patience. Numerous times I have seen two cars—or buses—coming at each other and they must come to a halt in the middle of the road and somehow, without an angry word or threatening glance, they decide who needs to back up so one can get through. I can’t imagine the Capri driving test.

Also, as in the rest of Italy, motorbikes abound. I’ve seen one going up the cliff with two kitchen chairs tied to the back of his bike. At a pizzeria, I saw a man pick up three pizzas and ride off with them balanced upon his lap. Another man at the pizzeria had his girlfriend along for the ride and she held the boxes in two hands rather than hold on to his waist. A family of three rode another bike and, perhaps most unusual of all, I noticed a biker riding with what appeared to be a four-foot long samurai sword rising up from between his legs.

But it’s walking I wanted to talk about.

View from the Via Krupp, Capri, March 2010

In Capri, I walked almost everywhere. From my hotel to the Grotta Azzurra, from Capri Centro to Giardini di Augusto and winding all the way down to the coast along the spectacularly scenic Via Krupp, from Anacapri Centro to back to my hotel…many times.

One morning, I climbed up to Villa Jovis, the ruins of a villa built by the Emperor Augustus and later ceded to Tiberius, who purportedly pitched people who displeased him from the dizzying heights into the sea—that is, when he wasn’t cavorting with young boys and girls. Because it is off-season, I saw perhaps three people on the half-hour or so climb from Capri town center. (If I’m honest, a bit longer for me, because I tend to get lost.) The ruins evidenced a shockingly enormous complex, but the views were the real draw.

Villa Jovis, Capri, March 2010

If I had to do it all over again, I would have brought a picnic lunch, a snack at least, to enjoy while I was there.   Apparently the site is crowded with tourists during the summer, but in late March, there were perhaps only five others there at most. It could have been a very peaceful picnic, contemplating, perhaps, the fall of the Roman Empire. (An older couple occupied benches in a “room” that had once been servant’s quarters—larger than most NYC apartments, I will note—and when I passed, I caught a powerful whiff of the oranges they were eating.)

I had definitely earned my planned lunch at what had once been Graham Greene’s favorite restaurant, Da Gemma. As luck would have it, it had opened for the season just today. But more on that another time.

I admit it:  I’m a big planner.  Generally my detail orientation and organizational prowess are quite handy, even desired skills, and yet I’ve learned–both in planning my life and in planning trips–that sometimes you need to let go.  It’s not necessary to plan every single moment of your day.  While this may seem obvious to you, for those of you reading this who are just like me, you know what a revelation this is.

When I’m travelling, though, I am far more relaxed than I am at home and have always had an easier time giving myself up to the moment.  Yes, I do my destination research beforehand, and I do purchase the museum tickets and make a reservation or two before leaving home, but I also allow for flexibility and even whole chunks of free time.

And this is where Serendipity often seizes its opportunity.

One particular instance comes to mind.  Two years ago, on a trip to Florence, Italy, I was on a mission to buy leather boots.  As my partner, Ken, supported me in this effort, pointing out potential shops, we came upon a gelateria and decided to take a break and indulge ourselves for the second time that day.  We sat on the stone steps of (what else?) a cathedral while eating our cups of pistacchio and melone decadence when Ken nudged me and directed my attention toward an especially fine specimen of Italian manhood.  (It should be noted that Ken is very secure in our relationship!)

Aurelio looked to be George Clooney’s taller, better looking, younger brother.  Seductively slumped against a Vespa, smoking a cigarette as if he were whispering sweet nothings into its ear, wearing a blue sweater that was only almost as blue as the inviting sky of his eyes (I could tell even from a distance, so piercing were they!).

I licked my gelato.

(About now, you’re thinking, but what does this have to do with serendipity.  Be patient!)

Aurelio flicked his cigarette away and entered the leather shop he’d been loitering outside.  We finished our gelato and I said, “Maybe they have boots.”

No boots, but jackets, bags, and other objets d’leather and nothing, really, that I wanted to buy or could afford.  While I browsed, Ken struck up a conversation with Aurelio and we wound up chatting with him for about 45 minutes.  We even took his picture!

Aurelio and Me

When we were finally ready to leave, I had one last question for Aurelio.  Where does he eat in Florence?  Because we had been trying to find a restaurant frequented by locals, not tourists–not the easiest of undertakings in a city like Florence.

While he demured that he rarely eats out because his wife (drat!) is such an exemplary cook, he did give us a suggestion.  Not only did he provide us the name, but he drew us a map from our hotel to the restaurant and even told us what to order.

We followed his instructions and ordered what he told us (a good thing, since the menu had no English and our waiter wasn’t exactly bilingual) and it was hands-down the best meal we had in Florence, if not on our entire trip in Italy.

More than two years later, at the mere mention of the phrase bistecca fiorentina, I can taste the garlic and lemon and olive oil sizzling on my tongue, and everything about that magical night in Florence comes flooding back:  the warmth of the late September evening, the strings of lights dancing in the breeze, the desolate cobblestone street we strolled down, my shoes in my hand, the moon our only eyewitness.

For such Proustian memories as these can we thank Serendipity.

Pictures by QT Luong

One week from now, I’ll be leaving for a two-week sojourn in Italy, traveling first to Anacapri, then to the ankle area of “the boot,” otherwise known as the Amalfi Coast–specifically Positano, and wrapping up with a few precious days in Rome.

The occasion?  A week-long writers conference in Positano (I’m a fiction writer, currently working on a novel – www.judepolotan.com ).  And if you’re already going to the expense of traveling to Italy, you may as well make the most of it, right?

While I have always been big on anticipation, perhaps because I have been particularly over-committed as of late, this trip has sneaked up on me.  But sneaked up on me it did this past weekend, and as always, I am filled with this sense of I-can’t-believe-I’m-going-to-[insert destination]-it-seems-unreal! 

It may seem unreal, but I can’t wait.  When I should be working on my novel or paying my bills, instead I’m surfing the Internet for information on hiking in Capri or the perfect off-the-beaten-path restaurant in Rome.  I’m making lists of what to do (get euros! call credit card companies!) and of what to bring (adapter, travel journal, walking shoes for cobblestone).  I’m reading a guidebook and travel literature about Italy (Pagan Holiday by Tony Perrottet).  I’m reliving my last trip to Rome by poring over old photographs.

I wake up excited each morning now, counting down the days in my head.  The days leading up to a trip are more hectic, but also happier than other days.  Like Christmastime when you were a kid, but the “gifts” are better!

I’m reminded of an Australian woman for whom I once worked.  She’d travelled to virtually every country in the world.  Everytime she was going on a trip–Kenya, Morrocco, Vietnam, Tibet–I was beside myself with envy.  (Paradoxically, she afforded her employees little vacation time.)  I thought I could at least live vicariously through her anticipation and I would arrive at the office in the mornings and say to her, “Are you getting excited?”  But she never really was.  She was looking forward to the trip perhaps, but her attitude was blase, world weary.  I was disappointed, but I also felt sorry for her.

My profound hope is that, no matter how much I travel, the jittery anticipation I feel before taking off for a distant land never leaves me.  Anticipation is an integral part of the fun, a part I truly savor.

Cliche, perhaps.  Too many tourists, oh sure.  But during my trip to Rome in 2007–my first–I wouldn’t go back to the hotel for the night until I’d gazed upon the Trevi Fountain yet again–it is that beautiful.  Best yet, a tiny cafe on a corner nearby had what I thought was the best macchiato in town.

Of course, I threw more than one coin into that fountain and here I am, returning 2-1/2 years later.

So now I’ve got a blog in which I can share my musings on all things travel.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks as I share my adventures in Italy.  I leave for Anacapri on 17 March, then onto Positano, winding up in Rome.

Can’t wait!

Oldies but Goodies

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