Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Basking under the Tuscan sun

Posted by PicasaOn the edge of a rustic plaza jutting from the summit of a 1,700-foot hill, I took in a grand view of Tuscan countryside, an ocean of rolling hills and plains, a green montage of various shades and textures. I had made it to Cortona, the hilltop town in Tuscany inspiring countless wall calendars, postcards, coffee table books, and even a movie — Under the Tuscan Sun.

The train from Rome had dropped me off at a tiny, deserted station with automatic ticket machines rather than attendants. A little nervous, I walked into the adjacent town to find a tobacco shop where I could buy a ticket for the bus that would take me up the hill to Cortona. The bus dropped me off in the aforementioned rustic plaza, Piazza Garibaldi, where the small town’s cobblestone commercial strip began, strung with lights and garland and lined with gourmet shops, vinotecas and smart boutiques, many with Etruscan wells or cellars from the Middle Ages.

At the end of the town’s main artery, Via Nazionale, dubbed the flat wrinkle as it's the only level pathway to be found in a town of painfully steep streets, is the quaint Piazza della Repubblica dominated by the city hall, Palazzo della Comune. Fashioned from two medieval towers, the construction boasts a large clock and a grand staircase that makes for a perfect picnic location, where I ate my made-to-order fromage and prosciutto panini from a tiny supermarket.

I spent hours huffing up the town’s almost vertical streets, some with narrow stone staircases, taking hundreds of pictures of the charming Tuscan doors and sandstone houses. I made the climb up to various small, country-style churches, passing porches with potted plants, pet dogs, and cooped chickens. I kept ascending until I passed the gate of the town’s 2,500-year-old Etruscan walls, where I followed a dirt path along the mountain that offered sweeping views of the fertile farmland below. In the sunny near-silence, I admired the clusters of cottages balancing on the mountainside with their smoking chimneys and tiled roofs. I continued climbing until I reached the cathedral to the city’s patron Saint Margherita at the pinnacle of the mountain.

On a nearby hill I stepped up onto the remains of Etruscan tombs (I didn't know they were sacred burial ruins at the time!) to get the most dramatic perspective of the dreamy, tranquil Tuscan vistas stretching as far as I could see. — No field or clod of earth is kept better than here — Goethe said of the Cortona countryside. And basking under the Tuscan sunlight, I couldn’t have agreed more.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Naples: A raw slice of Italy

I survived a day in Naples. But I didn’t dare carry a purse, and I left before dark. Pollution and litter, deranged vespas, hanging laundry, and legendary pizza come to mind when I recall my intense day in Napoli. Romans insisted that they would fear for themselves in Naples, advising that I stay away. But I had to go. I needed to infuse a bit of third-world style chaos into my Italian vacation in order to consider it an adventure.

I wanted a story to tell — an experience to remember. I, an Italian-ignorant, solo American girl who could pass for 17 (according to the Italians) took to the streets in Italy’s most crime-ridden city, the gritty home of the mafia, more Cairo or Rio de Janeiro than Milan — the closest thing to extreme travel on the European circuit.

Rather than a purse, I carried a wrinkled, red gift bag holding only my camera, train tickets, and notes I'd copied from my guidebook. (There was no way I was going to have my nose in a Rick Steves' book on the streets of Naples.) In the front pocket of my jeans under my long winter coat I had folded a bit of cash along with my Visa and my identification (just in case). For the first half of my day in the ancient port city I didn’t even dare get out my camera. I would only cross the insane streets on the heels of a local.

I saw men arguing, exchanging charged Italian insults while shaking their fists in the air. Plazas with statues of Dante and stately cathedrals still stand, although marred by graffiti and rubbish. Without any green parks or open spaces, Naples is officially Europe’s most densely populated city. After years of corrupt governments, the residents don't seem to take any efforts toward law and order seriously.
I noted that puffy nylon bomber jackets, often in neon colors, replaced the fur coats of Venice. In the States, the Napoleon woman would be the type to have long acrylic nails and maybe even a couple gold teeth. Think rhinestones and gaudy earrings. Napoleon men are the Italian stereotype -- unbuttoned shirts revealing chest hair and gold chains, leather jackets and tight jeans, oppressive cologne and indoor sunglasses.

Naples is the Bronx of Italy. No, considering the brash colors, the blaring Italian pop music, and the frenetic street vendors in the pulsing urban center, I’ll take it a step further and say I felt as if I was in Central America. Many people claim the south of Italy is the real Italy. I would say Naples certainly offers an extreme dose of Italian culture at its rawest.

After surviving the metro ride from the train station (where I saw a conspicuous blonde with hiking boots and a giant backpack furiously flipping through her guidebook in a corner and swore to myself I would never be that sort of traveler), I made my way to the unkempt yet still grand palace housing the Museo Archelogico to discover all of the treasures sacked from Pompeii and the Roman baths.

Past the grand staircase at the entrance is Michelangelo’s Toro Farnese. At 13 striking feet it’s the tallest marble group statue discovered from antiquity. It depicts two vengeful twins tying their father’s consort, the witch Dirce, to a bull to be bashed against a cliff as their mother looks on. Upstairs is a mosaic from a Pompeii residence that depicts Alexander the Great in Battle with the Persians, a remarkable accomplishment in shadowing and perspective that outdates the Renaissance by centuries.

The museum's once-locked Gabinetto Segreto exhibits a collection of erotic art, mostly stolen from Pompeii, where it adorned not only brothels (as a sort of menu of services) but also private residences (especially bedrooms), stores, and communal buildings. The collection includes plenty of phalluses and fertility trinkets as well as numerous representations of Kama Sutra and sodomy along with a few hermaphrodites and illustrations of bestiality thrown in.

Along with dozens of classical bronze garden statues such as the whimsical Drunken Faun, the museum also displays a disconcerting model of a group of skeletons discovered in Pompeii, cowering in terror as they took their last breaths when Mount Vesuvius released its final blows.

I saw Mount Vesuvius looming over the city myself as I took in the harbor views near the sea of concrete Piazza Plebescito. I breathed a little easier when I arrived there at the end of the intimidating main street teeming with pedestrians. By the plaza in the elegant Gran Caffe Gamrinus, a hangout of the 19th-century intellectual elite, I sampled the traditional Napoleon pastry sfogliatela, a crispy scallop-shaped crust filled with sweetened ricotta. I beamed when the barista understood my pronunciation.

Behind an archetypal fountain roundabout clogged with perilously speeding motorcycles stand two sophisticated remnants from Naples’ glory days: Europe’s oldest opera house, Teatro di San Carlo, and the Galleria Umberto, a Victorian shopping mall. I started to feel a bit more at ease seeing a couple of other tourists, some even taking photographs. On the way back uptown, I passed commanding, block-like examples of Fascist architecture with engravings hailing the powers of the state.

I ventured three whole blocks into the infamous Spanish Quarter, an overcrowded, filthy neighborhood with endless lines of wet laundry. Despite its reputation as a gritty center for organized crime and the Dickinson novel comparisons, this is where friendly grocers will still make you a sandwich and neighbors congregate for a chat on street corners.

I turned onto Spaccanapoli, the ancient Greek road dividing city's historic quarter in half that now is a tight, action-packed market street stuffed with a bizarre assortment of shops and stands. Lining the street are gold and silver stores selling jewelry made from melted stolen pieces and dozens of stands selling (often grotesquely comic) nativity scene figures. Women also vend a variety of heebie-jeebies-inducing potions and amulets, the neighborhood being notoriously superstitious. Napoleons still live life outside on this crusty street, where boys pee, couples kiss, old women gossip, men fight, and teenagers flirt.

Before leaving Naples I had to eat pizza. It was half the reason I took the two-hour train ride south of Rome. I stopped at the Antica Pizzeria da Michel, circa 1870, considered the best pizza in the city that invented pizza. Upon arrival, I discovered a two-hour wait list in the small joint with harsh fluorescent lighting, stark white walls and a wood-burning oven in the middle.

I lucked out being on my own; the host immediately stuck me at the end of a table by a heavily made-up Napoleon woman with her blond 18-year-old daughter and her visiting friend. They spoke almost no English but managed to communicate that they had waited two hours for a table and assured me that this was the place for Naples’ best pizza. We all ordered the classic margherita with tomato sauce and mozzarella. They all quickly devoured their entire pies, and I followed suit. I must say the pizza was not what I expected. It had a doughy, crepe-like consistency with a downright soupy center and lightly puffed crust. The buffalo mozzarella tasted farm-fresh, but the sauce tasted almost too simple, reminding me of canned tomato paste.
My dinner companions warned me that the 15-minute walk to the train station was incredibly risky at night. They advised me to leave as soon as I finished my pizza, running if I had to. Despite all of their warnings, they said goodbye and hopped into their four-seat car without offering me a ride.

I got another taste of Napoleon hospitality when I ducked into a storefront to have a look at my map, not wanting to announce my confusion on the streets crammed with dodgy dealers hawking heaps of stolen electronics. I dropped a crumpled receipt into what I thought was a waste bin, and a saleswoman shrieked what I deciphered to be “What do you think your doing!?” I realized it wasn’t a bin but an umbrella container.

I mumbled a “mi dispiace” (sorry) and fled to what I now considered the safety and comfort of Rome.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Rome is for romantic

I felt the mandatory sense of awe as I retraced the steps of Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius in the Roman Forum. As I photographed the imposing pillars and the ruined shrines to Venus, I kept reminding myself that I stood in the former epicenter of the all-conquering Roman Empire, the birthplace of democracy.

After a two-hour wait in 33-degree rain outside the Vatican Museum, I spent a good 20 minutes gawking at Michelangelo’s magnificent Sistine Chapel ceiling, its surprisingly brilliant original colors (which I doubt any modern art historian would have predicted) revealed after a restoration project sponsored by a Japanese television network.

The layers of Rome’s rich history confounded me. In the backstreets behind the Coliseum I found the small church of San Clemete. I entered a 12th-century exterior, descended to a fourth-century basilica, and followed another staircase down to a mysterious pre-Christian Mithraic temple, which led to a 2,000 year-old Roman alley, now nearly 30-feet underground.

Despite my respect for the Eternal City as the birthplace of Western Civilization, I must confess that my most elated moments in Rome included sipping reputedly the world’s finest espresso in the famed (and consequently crammed with customers) Caffe San Eustachio by a handsome barista and discovering what I consider to be possibly the world’s most romantic street, Via Giulia. I felt a giddy sense of euphoria as I admired the pastel Renaissance palaces with Victorian lampposts and ivy-spilling balconies, the elegant 16th-century piazzas, and the crumbling churches behind cast-iron gates lining the intimate cobbled avenue. In the Giotto Gelateria, a favorite of Pope John Paul and Audrey Hepburn in A Roman Holiday, two scoops of dark chocolate and pistachio gelato had a similar affect on my state of mind, as would discovering an illuminated angelic fountain at the end of a silent cobblestone alley strung with Christmas lights.

Via Giulia was hands-down my favorite street in Rome, and Trastevere was my preferred neighborhood. Separated from the heart of Rome (and the tourists) by the Tiber River, the dodgy Ponte Sisto leads to the scruffy and colorful bohemian quarter, rife with lovely dilapidated buildings and piazzas that house rustic restaurants and dusty bakeries.

Romantic Rome continued to woo me as I explored the sumptuous palace known as the Borghese Gallery. I stood mesmerized in front of the sensuous Bernini sculptures Apollo and Daphne and The Rape of Proserpina, convinced that the masterpieces were worth the 30-minute walk through the muddy maze of the vast Villa Borghese park in the pouring rain and the subsequent two-hour wait to enter the reservations-only gallery. I suspect my reaction was related to the fact that rampant reprints of famous paintings diminish most of the appreciation we feel when seeing the originals, while the intricacies of a sculpture simply can’t be captured in a two-dimensional reproduction. So seeing the actual work retains the capacity to fascinate.

Despite my passion for ice cream and atmospheric streets, my interest in Rome did go a little deeper than la dolce vita. I made my way to see Peter’s chains and Michelangelo’s Moses in the cathedral San Pietro in Vincoli and climbed Aventino Hill to sees the first crucifix. I made the steep and curvy trek up Janiculum Hill (without sidewalks) to view the sun set over Rome, and I took a bus to Via Appia Antica, the ancient road outside the Roman Walls, to tour the catacombs of San Castillo.

The early Christians buried their dead rather than following the Roman custom of cremation and didn’t bother to embalm them as they considered Christ’s return and the resurrection of the deceased believers imminent. They visited the underground cemeteries to share communion and prayer with their dead relatives and light a candle in their memories. Contrary to myth, the hundreds of miles of catacombs were never used to escape persecution, being well known to the public.

Yes, I found the catacombs fascinating, but truthfully, Rome won me over with its romantic fountains, captivating sculpture, faded grandeur, legions of cats, heavenly cappuccinos, and first-class gelato.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

No Snow or mistletoe

I didn’t wrap or unwrap one package this Christmas. It was an advent season absent of any gift shopping, cookie baking, tree decorating, or carol singing. I didn’t encounter any Santa Clauses or mistletoe or watch any holiday movies. There were no office parties or family dinners.

Completely untainted by commercialism, this Christmas was indisputably the most religious holiday I’ve ever experienced. Midnight mass was the highlight of my Christmas Eve. My Christmas day was planned around the Pope’s midday blessing. In the capital of Christendom, much of my Christmas week consisted of admiring world class churches and all varieties of presepi, Italian nativity scenes.

I saw the holy family displayed in countless cathedrals, businesses, and public buildings, often tucked away in store windows and crowning plazas. I even noticed a tiny nativity on top of a telephone pole. I visited the world’s largest nativity scene in Saint Peter’s Square and discovered the world’s first nativity scene in San Maria Maggiore. Many displays painstakingly depicted entire villages. Some had running water, music, and even smoke and light affects. Others were no more than a simple wooden trio. Many artists set the scene in their hometown and the protagonists were often dressed as Renaissance Italians.

Before I'd discovered the world of presepi and was just solidifying my plans for an Italian Christmas, my first thought was to attend Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican. But after a bit of research I decided that being crammed among thousands of strangers, purportedly prone to pushing and shoving, staring at a giant projector screen at 1 a.m. in the cold wasn’t quite the Italian Christmas Eve experience I had in mind. Instead I planned to attend the service at Santa Maria Aracoeli, one of the oldest and most revered churches with 124 steps leading up to its entrance. On the big night, chilly winter air filled the unheated church. Most of the well-dressed parishioners kept on their coats and hats during the ceremonious two-hour service led by two high-ranked bishops.

Now all of the mangers in the aforementioned presepi remain empty until midnight on Christmas Eve, when the baby Jesus is added to the scene. Santa Maria Aracoeli houses a celebrated relic, a small statue of the infant Jesus supposedly carved from an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane by a friar in Jerusalem during the 15th century and painted by an angel while he slept. On a voyage to Rome, the Santo Bambino fell overboard in a storm but miraculously reappeared on Italian shores.

At the end of the service, the bishop climbed a baroque throne to unveil the shiny, jewel-encrusted and rather hideous statue and lift it into the air. He then led the congregation in a solemn procession to the nativity scene, where he placed the baby in the manger. Next, the members of the parade waited their turn in line to kneel, heads bowed, and give the statue the traditional Epiphany kiss. So this was just their way of worshiping and celebrating the coming of Christ to save the world, but I was thinking -- There's no way I would get down on one knee and kiss a baby doll.

Christmas morning I walked to the Vatican to attend the Pope’s annual Christmas day blessing in Saint Peter’s Square. Being small and alone, I managed to squeeze my way through the crowd of thousands to a good view of his papacy, Benedict XVI. At the end of the blessing he began to recite a Christmas blessing in every language. He started with Italian before switching to his native German and then to English. When he spoke in Spanish, the language the majority of Catholics speak, I unexpectedly started to tear up, thinking about the humble women I’d seen in small Latin American villages on their way to morning mass or clutching rosaries. As the Pope continued to give his blessing in every language imaginable, my goosebumps intensified. People from every corner of the world made up the mass of people filling the square. With every new language, I saw someone in the crowd whose face lit up.

The whole spectacle evoked an overwhelming feeling of unity. Despite the wars, the political disputes, the economic crises, the environmental threats, here were people from all over the globe joined in a celebration of hope and peace. I thought about the horrific popes I’d learned about throughout my education who started wars and promoted genocide and exploited the poor. As I considered the Catholic Church’s dark past, listening to an intellectual polyglot with a humble demeanor preaching peace and redemption momentarily gave me hope that humankind was progressing to better things.

A Roman holiday

An American girl studying in Rome confided to me that she’d had enough of the chaotic, laissez fair Roman lifestyle and was ready to be back in the States. I responded that I didn’t have much interest in visiting the city. From what I’d heard it was dirty and hectic and even seedy. I didn’t add that when I thought of Rome I pictured tourists clamoring to take photos of piles of rocks and headless statues in desolate dirt plazas while tour guides droned on like high school history textbooks. I preferred to explore more charming, atmospheric, or exotic locations.

Two months later I would find myself in Rome, and as anyone who knows the city would have predicted, my conceptions were irrational and unfair.

I arrived to the Eternal City after a six-hour Christmas Eve train ride from Venice. I tried to look extra confident in the intimidating Termini train station because I’d been warned about the aggressive pick pockets. After settling into my hostel near the Vatican, I decided to take an exploratory walk, which inadvertently turned out to be a full-blown nighttime tour of the centro storico.

I crossed the Tiber River, passing the gates of the Aurelian wall as I entered Piazza de Popolo, with its 3,200 year-old obelisk sacked from Egypt and grand fountain guarded by fierce stone lions. I followed the Christmas lights down Via Condotti, the designer-label-worshipping city’s best known shopping street, which led me to the beautiful and baroque Piazza Spagna and the Spanish Steps, a favorite haunt of sensitive literary types like Keats and Shelley.

I then looked for the Trevi Fountain and found it roaring and gleaming in all its after-dark glory, and proceeded to make my way to the 2,000-year-old Pantheon. Inside the vast open building I looked up through the open dome into the black sky and tried to wrap my mind around the fact that I was in the middle of perhaps the most majestic and certainly the best-preserved structure remaining from the ancient world, built as a pagan temple centuries before Christianity and churches even existed.

I got a little disoriented in search of the Coliseum. In between crosswalks, I saw a father cross a busy street with his toddler while motorcycles weaved by. A few yards behind the mother sprinted while pushing a stroller and nearly got hit by a speeding car. At first I wasn’t about to do as the Romans and step out in the street as hordes of cars came at me at frightening speeds. Although pedestrian crossings were marked, there were no stoplights. But after daring to cross the street a few times, I realized that in Rome, pedestrians rule. No, the cars don’t stop at crosswalks if they don't see anyone crossing, even when pedestrian lights are flashing, but they will always yield to pedestrians, no matter where they cross. At first I ran across the street, but a Roman gave me counterintuitive advice, warning me not to run but rather to walk so the cars had time to see me. It worked every time, and I felt like royalty whenever I strolled across, with the frenzied traffic submitting to my whims.

When I arrived to the grandiose traffic circle that is Piazza Venezia, I had to stop and gawk at the imposing wedding cake of a fortress dripping with marble icing on top of the hill in front of me. (The building, II Vittoriano, is an inappropriately modern 19th-century structure built by a former prime minister on a power trip. It not only destroyed the harmony of the surrounding ancient ruins, but also blocks the view to Palatine Hill.)

After escaping a balding but long-haired man with an impressive layer of yellow film covering his teeth who insisted on giving me directions, I walked toward the Coliseum. I passed what I didn’t know were the Trajan Baths in my approach to the artfully lit triumph of ancient architecture. As traffic sped by, I tried to envision crowds roaring for gladiator battles and wild animal fights, the sand floor absorbing gallons of blood.

As I made my way back, I climbed the steps up to Michelangelo’s masterpiece of Renaissance symmetry, Piazza del Campidoglio, and later stopped to wander around the buzzing Christmas toy market in Piazza Navona with its carousel and sweets vendors set up around the spectacular Bernini fountains.

I found myself by the Tiber River again, but couldn’t find the bridge I’d crossed earlier. I figured I’d just keep following the river until I found it. But half an hour later I was still walking, and it was getting colder and darker and had started to rain and I wasn’t passing any people. I had no idea where I was or if it was safe, and I was in ROME the city that everyone warns you about. My frustration shifted to fear. About another half an hour later when I was cursing my decision to go to Italy over the holidays by myself and thinking I would pay about anything for a taxi if one would ever pass, I glanced back and realized that I’d just passed Saint Peter’s Cathedral.

As tired as I was, I had to backtrack and make my way to Saint Peter’s Square. Michelangelo’s giant golden dome (the world's largest) overlooked the empty plaza, which glistened in the light rain. A bright orange Contiki tour bus pulled up, and a pack of cranky, sweatshirt-clad early 20-somethings grudgingly got off, huddling up together muttering things like “Where are we now? I thought we were going to the Vatican.” and “When do we get to the hotel? Let’s hope it’s better than Paris” while ignoring their tour guide’s recited a speech. That was all I needed to realize that wasting an hour lost on a cold Roman night beat being herded around from one monument to the next with complaining strangers. I was meant to discover Italy on my own.

Monday, February 9, 2009

On the Slovenian border

I squinted in the sunlight as I followed a sidewalk stretching along the rocky coast of the glassy Adriatic Sea to a white castle overlooking the water. I adjusted my bag again to keep it from slipping off my shoulder. One of the shoulder straps had broken that morning. The soles of my boots were wearing thin. Two buttons had fallen of my coat. I had been traveling for less than a week and my wardrobe was already falling apart.

The sight seemed designed for photographs and postcards. The afternoon sunlight intensified into deeper shades of gold as I neared the gate. Later as I walked back down the long stretch of sidewalk to catch the bus back to the city of Trieste, the sky ignited into a brilliant, multi-colored sunset. Here I was, on the dramatic Adriatic coastline with rugged green mountains marking the Slovenian border in the distance. The day before I hadn’t known the city existed, and even when I arrived I had no idea that I was in the northeasternmost corner of Italy on land that belonged to Austria until 1920.

The port city of Trieste, once a music and literature hub attracting international talents such as James Joyce and Sigmund Freud, now is neither an influential nor touristy city. In fact, I might have been the only foreigner there exploring that day. When I got off the train I asked for a map and walked toward the center in search of a cafĂ© where I could plan my day over espresso. I entered an elegant little place on the edge of certainly the most grandiose plaza I had ever seen, UnitĂ  d'Italia. In a corner table I sipped my coffee and examined my map while a cigar-smoking man discussed the morning news with the two baristas. Coincidentally my visitors’ map mentioned that Trieste is famous for its 19th-century Vienna-style coffee houses still fitted out in their original Victorian crystal chandeliers.

Just off the spectacular plaza lined with dozens of 20-foot-tall Christmas trees, children ice-skated to blasting Christmas carols. A smaller plaza adjacent to a smart shopping district held a bustling holiday market. Trieste is certainly not a quaint, rustic Italian town. More Vienna than Rome, it is an elegant if austere city of wide, straight streets and palatial, marble buildings.

After finding the ancient amphitheatre marked on my map, I climbed nearly vertical streets to a sober fortress-like castle in the surrounding hills. I had to brace myself during the steep descent to the city. Afterward I ended up wandering back to the market, where I visited a petting zoo. I saw a tiny calf napping on its reclining mothers back, a sight I appreciated almost as much as the storybook castle.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Fashion and romance in Verona

An official came by to check all the passengers’ tickets on the train to Verona. When I showed him my ticket, he informed me that it was dated for the next day and therefore invalid. I had bought it at the station the night before rather than the day of because I was nervous about using the Italian train system for the first time. I even spoke with a person at the counter rather than using a self-service machine to be sure that I didn’t mess anything up.

The officer demanded that I purchase a correct ticket for 60 euros, explaining that tickets purchased on board were more expensive. My original ticket had cost me about 10 euros. I only paid 35 euros for my flight to Venice. I didn’t even have 60 euros with me. I explained that the ticket office had made a mistake. I argued; I pleaded; I raised my voice. The man would have none of it, and I ended up paying with my Visa.

Admittedly I’m a sensitive person and tend to get emotional. But I usually maintain my composure in upsetting situations that don’t involve relationships or underachievement. But I handled this incident anything but gracefully. —Scusi— a man said a minute later, motioning that I was sitting in his assigned seat. I started crying. And when the tears started flowing, they wouldn’t stop. As we continued on our two-hour journey to Verona, I sniffled into a tissue an empathetic Italian man had handed me as my eyes and lips began to swell. A repulsive sight, I’m sure.

But it only took about an hour in Verona for me to decide that it was all worth it. I'd never been to a place that was just so pretty. On the edge of the town’s historic center a 14th-century brick castle bridge offered views of a storybook-perfect town along the river — rolling green hills, medieval steeples, and neat rows of colorful houses. Chic Italian girls on vintage designer bicycles with baskets breezed past young families breakfasting in elegant outdoor cafes. To me, the festive Christmas markets and the piazzas boasting ancient fountains framed by pastel buildings and the fairytale balconies spilling with green ivy and the Renaissance windows with flower boxes were worth the steep train fine. (I’m beginning to recognize that I’m an aesthete. Does it make me shallow that lovely things make me so happy?)

Around 10 a.m. I saw a tall, willowy woman with a chic silver bob and oversize sunglasses teeter by in red heels, sheer black pantyhose, and a voluminous grey fur coat. No pants. And it was Saturday. It seemed like all the people I saw kept getting better dressed. I began to think that I was meant to be born in a place where parading the streets in a killer coat and heels with your family on a Saturday morning is expected. (Maybe I’m a bit bitter after suffering unfair criticism for overdressing most of my life. It’s amazing how much it irritates people when they feel you put in more effort than the occasion called for.) Later the locals came out for their compulsory evening stroll, the passegiatta, and in Verona’s pedestrianized historic center this stroll could double as a high fashion parade past the luxury brand stores lining the main strip, Via Mazzini. And I shamelessly relished every minute of the world-class people watching.

Along with its world-renowned opera festival, Shakespeare’s choice of Verona as his setting for Romeo and Juliet is Verona’s claim to fame? “In fair Verona where we lay our scene … A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life,” so the play goes. Visitors can photograph Juliet’s balcony where she urged Romeo to “deny thy father and refuse thy name” and even pay to tour her house, now a museum. The balcony is absolutely perfect, but the rest of the sight is presented in such a junior-high, pop-tart style that I couldn’t help rolling my eyes.

Not that I would ever fall for the idea that Shakespeare’s play was based on true events and a real couple... Okay, I admit it, after touring Juliet’s house and searching out Romeo’s residence and seeing Juliet’s tomb marked on the map, I was quite confused and started to think that maybe all along I had been unaware that the tragic individuals in the play were more than fictional characters. I’m not that gullible it’s just that the Verona tourist sector is just that shameless in their presentation of everything as fact. I mean, the entrance to Juliet’s “house” was completely plastered in sentimental notes to the suicidal teenager from pining visitors.

And that balcony was good.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Into the lagoon

Fortunately the melancholy of my solo journey down the Grand Canal in the rain didn't lessen my resolve to cross nearly every one of Venice’s 400 bridges connecting its 117 tiny islets the next few days. I was in no hurry. Rather than buying a map, I let myself get lost. The city felt less deserted with the arrival of the weekend tourists, so I was no longer self-conscious getting out my camera and flipping though my guidebook. I walked and walked and walked, leaving no piazzale un-photographed or alley unexplored.

I was unwavering in my determination to know Venice inside and out. I woke up before dawn to take a boat ride to the church on the nearby island of San Giorgio Maggiore to watch the sun rise over Venice, momentarily illuminating all the domes with a rosy gleam. Afterward, I had enough time to gawk at the nearly alive fish among the produce at the morning market and take a 60-second, 50-cent trip across the Grand Canal with a dozen other passengers on a retired gondola just to say I had the experience. (Does it count if you're standing?)

I stopped to peer in the windows of small shops with handcrafted carnival masks covering every inch of the walls and shelves and others selling artisanal stationery or richly colored oriental pillows, purposely avoiding the dozens of tacky stalls selling cheap key rings, magnets, and plastic masks. At an antique fair brimming with vintage treasures I checked the gulp-inducing price tag on a ‘40s era Prada clutch. I turned into an alley to devour my first slice of Italian pizza (bigger than some entire pies) from a dusty corner take-away restaurant, only to be disappointed with the burnt crust and bland sauce.

As I wandered around aimlessly, snapping pictures and exploring side streets, I consistently made unintentional discoveries. I peered in a simple brick church to find that Vivaldi had claimed it as his home parish. I took a nighttime stroll through the lovely and quiet Jewish ghetto in Cannaregio, seeing through an open window a cozy dining room where a family stood around the table celebrating Shabbat. I stopped in a quaint wine shop where the chatty owner filled my water bottle with dry, white wine from the barrel in exchange for 1.5 euros. I followed hoards of women in full-length furs and high heels to the elegant La Fenice opera house. I entered another open church and ended up spending an entire hour staring at an exhibition of captivating, absurdly detailed nativity scenes, called presepi (perhaps the most ubiquitous of Italian Christmas traditions).

Sunday morning the sun was shining and I took a boat ride to the cemetery island of San Michele, which resembles a brick floating on the Venetian Lagoon. I found myself in the midst of a small horde of matronly types, the kind who wear thick glasses and wool skirts and orthopedic shoes. They carried flowers or water buckets to spruce up the graves of loved ones, mostly stacked above ground. As the only tourist, I didn’t have the nerve to get out my camera during this sacred Sunday morning ritual among the cypresses.

My gloriously sunny Sunday continued with a visit to another one of Venice's lesser island neighbors, the fishing village of Burano, once famous for its tortuously intricate lace. As I walked the small streets of the outrageously colorful island (out of the rainbow of small block houses I preferred the Barbie-pink and robin's-egg-blue), I saw white-haired men in berets docking their humble boats. Near a small but impressively leaning tower a woman, with her contribution to Sunday lunch in hand, rang the doorbell of purple house where lively conversation already spilled from the open windows. — So this is someone's reality — I thought.

My final stop was the nearly forsaken island of Torcello. Although it once rivaled Venice, now all that seemed to remain were a few bleating goats, a few more chickens, and a couple of paths leading to some lovely overgrown and sunken ruins surrounding a lofty cathedral with 11th-century Greek mosaics. Soon I was on the boat back to Venice, basking in the almost-too-golden-to-be-real sunlight with the breeze off the (honest to God) crystal-brilliant water of the Lagoon whipping my hair.

It started in Venezia

I had to go to Venice. In my mind Venice was Casanova fleeing down dark allies after forbidden encounters (thanks Heath Ledger), an aging craftsman painting a carnival mask in his tiny workshop (an in-flight Travel Channel episode), and debauchery-ridden carnival masquerades with women in dazzling silken gowns and men draped in velvets (blame The Merchant of Venice film adaptation).

I imagined an enchanting evening gliding under bridges in a gondola, standing at the bar of a rustic restaurant with a glass of wine and plate full of snacks, or ambling along the Grand Canal and through tight cobblestone alleyways in the moonlight.

I tried to uphold my fairytale expectations despite hearing past visitors’ complaints of unbearable crowds, stenches, and prices. And I refused to consider their condescending comparisons of the city to Disney Land.

On the contrary, my introduction to Venice was hushed and lonely, almost otherworldly. The December sun was setting when I discovered the famed Rialto Bridge, and as I gazed out over the Grand Canal I got a bit teary eyed — overwhelmed by the combination of its beauty and my own solitude. As I continued exploring after dark I passed almost no one. I had to practically push the ghosts out of the way while crossing narrow bridges and squeezing through narrow alleys in the chilly mist. Venice has no traffic, which makes for a particularly quiet city with remarkably silent and eerie nights.

In the Castello neighborhood, a few old women came out of their apartments wrapped in fur coats, lugging grocery trolleys behind them. After inadvertently covering quite a bit of the residential portion of the city, I finally came across the famed Saint Mark's Square, which I too found nearly silent and vacant, the lights hazy in the darkness.

Things got even chillier and windier my first full day in Venice but stayed just as empty. Not only did I walk directly in the top sights that my trusty guidebook warned would require a two-hour wait, but I also wandered through most of them alone. I must say it’s a bit jarring to have the mystique of Venice to yourself. A wistful, forlorn air dominates the city. Or as a dramatic type would put it, gallons of melancholy fill the Venetian canals. The city's days as a powerful, decadent merchant republic are now a distant past. Presently, it survives as a sort of living museum with no real purpose besides tourism.

My itinerary began with an examination of the glittering, gold Byzantine mosaics and colorful marbles in Saint Mark's Basilica. The exotic cathedral is an authentic thieves’ lair as a historic law demanded that all merchants trading in the East return with a new embellishment for the church. Next I wandered through the Doge's Palace, perhaps the only visitor in the political complex, crossing the Bridge of Sighs to descend into the darker, clammy prison below. Alone in the silent dungeon, I could see my breath as I examined the graffiti that troubled inmates had carved into the stone walls of their cells. It was more than enough to make the hairs on my arm raise.

Next I trekked to the Accademia, a grand gallery dedicated to high renaissance art. Again, I was almost by myself. As I made an effort to examine each of the masterpieces, I listened to my iPod to keep up my spirits. Admittedly the most memorable works were the horrifically detailed, almost cartoonish demonic depictions by Bosch. I moved on to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed in the discerning heiress’ airy, luminous former home, an art gallery devoted to the surreal, abstract, and modern.

That night I set out for my anticipated trip down the Grand Canal. After reading that gondola rides run about 80 euro, I'd decided to settle for a humbler vapporetti, or water bus. I caught the bus late in the evening with hopes that the lights reflected on the pearly water and the absence of other passengers would combat the motorboat's lack of charm. I sat on one of the outside seats to take in the views, and listened to my iPod to stifle the roar of the engine while trying to ignore the fumes. I started to sink into self pity as the icy rain drizzled on my cheeks while I floated by illuminated marble palaces on the way down the world's most romantic canal. Here I was, on my own in Italy, days before Christmas, listening to an ill-timed Weepies ballad on my shuffle.

— How on earth did I end up here now, like this? — I thought.