Ed. Note: For several reasons this was the most difficult chapter to complete yet so I apologize for the delay
As has long been pre-arranged I made the flight from Cagliari to Rome to meet my cousin Mark who was on one of those Jewish sponsored trips. He spent two days in Rome, then a couple weeks in Israel and now he had a week of free time. So I could finally think about slowing down. Other plans were coming together. I am looking into staying in Venice for the Redentore festival about which I know nothing other than it’s a festival and fireworks are involved. For early August I’m trying to get to Guca for the balkan brass music festival there. It’s wonderfully captured in the movie Brasslands. And I’ve been accepted as a volunteer for Dimensions a festival of mostly electronic music in Croatia at the end of August. I should note that Croatia has a music festival going on somewhere pretty much every day of the summer. It’s become one of the hottest destinations for European tourists and I’m setting aside about two weeks, not including the festival, for this country.
I flew RyanAir which if you don’t know is one of Europe’s budget airlines which make it very cheap to get around. Many flights are less than $50. However, you pay for everything: snacks, checked-in luggage, printing your boarding pass at the airport – anything that is not a seat that doesn’t recline. Thankfully most flights are so short that none of this is an issue.
I used Airbnb to stay in Rome because of my experience with big city hostels. I didn’t want a place where we are packed in like chickens. The price difference wasn’t that big, there weren’t hostels available in my preferred neighborhood and I wanted to meet some Romans. Well, the last part didn’t really work out. The apartment we got was inhabited by a few Spanish students who seemed to be behind a laptop when they weren’t sleeping. I think classes were going on in the summer. The second part didn’t really work out either. I wanted to stay in Trastevere, which is the bohemian neighborhood but was only able to get a place in Testaccio which is just across the river, quieter and has yet fewer tourists.
I had a few hours to kill after getting off the train and walked through the city. I walked past an unmarked building behind a heavy fence with several security guards milling around. What could it be? I wondered. Must be an American embassy and sure enough, walking further down the block I saw the Stars and Stripes. It’s a pretty massive complex with a line of people snaking from the metal detector, down the block. I stopped in a cafe to have an Italian sort of breakfast. The cappuccino I got was just to blend in but the pastry, which is what I actually wanted, floored me. It was soaked through to the point of total saturation with rum. I think it would have caught fire had I been careless enough to smoke a cigarette, which I suppose every Italian takes with their coffee.
I think I started to understand what the student of metaphors was talking about. Rome is a big mish-mash of eras. You never know how old what you are looking at is and many things are under reconstruction adding to the confusion. A pyramid that I thought was a relatively new addition since it was in the middle of a busy intersection some distance away from the city center turned out to be two thousand years old. It was built when there was a fashion for Egyptian things in Rome (kind of makes you dizzy to think about two thousand year old trends). It’s pretty unique because it has a much sharper angle than the Egyptian pyramids. Really Rome is such an overload that there was a funny incident when my brother asked me online if I saw Trajan’s column. I had to google it and found that it was in a spot which I passed every day. But I couldn’t remember it. There were like dozens of other monuments all around and it just didn’t stand out so much. But I spotted it later on several photos.
I’m not going to try to sum up Rome. It’s just too large and too active to pin down in three days. So, some observations.
The building that impressed me most was the Pantheon. I really regret not going inside. It was just sublime in its scale and proportions. And it was soundtracked by a street performing opera singer. The Trevi fountain however was being restored and had a glass fence ten yards out, so not much to do there other than shake my fist at a McDonalds on the next block.
I had cause to wonder about McDonalds later since there seemed to be one within a short distance of every important monument in Italy. Why was it so popular? Who were the people who ate there? It wasn’t particularly cheap, at 7.35 euro for a Big Mac. You could find similarly priced lunch just about anywhere. Maybe I already answered my own question: tourists looking for something familiar. But I’ve also seen them near malls far outside tourist areas so Italians must like it as well.
Rome only has two metro lines. I guess it’s hard to build one when every time you dig you uncover some thousands years old remains.
I noticed that Spanish often substitutes “l” where Italian has an “i”: piazza, piano, bianco. They do look similar. Was it just a copying accident in a textbook that stuck?
So I didn’t get up to much in Rome other than wandering around. I think both I and Mark used this opportunity – him being away from a group and me finally having a place to spend a few days and do laundry and cook – to relax. My next stop with Mark was near Florence. I decided not to stay in Florence because it’s full of tourists and expensive and I thought we’d see a more authentic Italy in the countryside. I wasn’t wrong. It took a lot of work to get there. We had to take a train, find out the bus from there wasn’t running so take a different bus and then a taxi. This was the village of Tavarnelle. It’s in the Chianti region, where the eponymous wine comes from. There were vineyards all around. Just down the road was a hotel offering free wine tasting which we duly took advantage of. They also threw in olive oil, jam, honey and other local products. Really amazing. And they know what they are doing because I wound up buying a bottle of red wine as a gift. There were tons of little villages all around and we took day trips to Florence and Sienna. We barely scratched the surface. Definitely a good spot to spend a week or more.
At the hostel I met Maria Alejandra (Male) who was from Mexico and had a week on her own before starting a summer class in Florence. She worked in a call center for Comcast. I had no idea they farmed that out to Mexico. Comcast doesn’t want you to know that you are speaking to a foreigner. So her English was excellent but she really made me fall in love with Spanish again. There’s just something about Mexican Spanish. Maybe it’s that they have a slang word for everything, even more so than Russian. She really knew American pop-culture. Maybe I’m showing my ignorance but that was surprising. In her company we explored the nearby cities.
Florence was a little disappointing at first. We came in from the north end which is fairly modern, saw the Duomo, which was impressive and then went East to climb to the Piazza Michelangelo. This is where my disappointment reached a zenith. I was expecting some kind of lawn or something but instead it’s just a huge parking lot without any shade. The view is great however, you get the whole of Florence laid out in front of you. When we passed local artists showing their paintings in the street I laughed at how comically huge they depicted the Duomo. But when you get up there it really is like that, dwarfing everything around it. It’s impressive now when we are used to huge buildings. I can’t even imagine the effect it had five hundred years ago when it was probably the largest building for thousands of miles.
It was only after we came down from the hill and went toward the Old Bridge that Florence opened itself up to me. Turns out the old city is to the south of the Duomo. I suppose the setting sun also set the right mood. I didn’t even notice the hoards of tourists all around. The magic of the city totally captured me.
The bridge itself, the only one that survived the bombing isn’t as interesting when you are on it. It’s one of the few bridges in the world that has shops on it and they mostly sell jewelry. I bought a commedia dell’arte mask from one of the souvenir shops. I really wanted a papier mache Plague Doctor mask and they were much cheaper than I saw on eBay but it would be hard to transport so I got a leather Arlecchino. On one of the big piazzas a band was playing Romanian gypsy music. There was one little moment that stuck with me. We were already walking back to the bus station. I saw a well-dressed man closing up his jewelry shop. The man looked at me looking at him, just a moment of eye contact. I felt that everything before was superficial. Me, Mark and Male were hanging out with Florence as the background. But now I was made aware of its inhabitants – the soul of the city, you could say.
On another day one of the hostel workers gave us and an older couple from the Netherlands a lift to her village, San Donato. It was festival day. A Vespa club drove down the main drag. There was an artisanal market where I asked the belt maker to punch another hole in my belt. A honey maker had his donkey in a little stall eating hay. Later in the evening there was a procession of citizens dressed up in medieval clothes accompanied by drums and a few hunting birds at the tail. There was some complicated flag waving which seems to be a feature of any traditional celebration here.
Mark had to go back home and Male and I went to Siena on our last day staying in Chianti. Maybe because it wasn’t bombed during WWII, the medieval part seemed a lot larger than in Florence. This was they day before Siena’s grandest festival – a twice annual horse race. Each ward of the city was decorated with their flags and tables were set out for the ensuing party. Residents were putting out tableware, cutting up fruits and making other preparations. The seating in one ward alone numbered 516. Young men wearing scarves bearing their ward’s colors gathered in groups to drink beer and sing songs. I was glad to witness it, we may have had trouble even getting close on actual race day. I wish I could have seen either city at night but the last bus to our village left before seven o’clock.Before I said goodbye to Male we went to Cinque Terre. It’s a national park with five villages along the coast. Unfortunately we only had half a day so we only saw the village we stayed at, Corniglia. It was the smallest of the bunch and the only one not right on the sea. Corniglia is on a cliff, above the sea. The tiny place is completely flooded by tourists in the daytime but by twilight most of them leave. There are many narrow passages and staircases and other ways to get as much use out of limited space as possible that make it a joy to explore. I felt like a kid turning every corner and chancing upon overlooks. Old men sat in the piazza by the spooky eyeless statue that is the town’s symbol conversing and watching the children play. A cat completely ignored us and when we came back out of the dead end we saw why – it was torturing a lizard.