Category: Italy


Venice’s backstreets

Villa and canal bridge, Venice, Italy

Villa and canal bridge, Venice, Italy

Acres of cars are stacked within parking garages and lines of pedestrian passengers are streaming onto the ferry as the departure time to Venice approaches.

 

The drive from Verona to Venice that began right after breakfast took less than two hours, which promises arrival in time for lunch at a Venetian trattoria.

 

Cul-de-sac, Venice, Italy

Cul-de-sac, Venice, Italy

 

 

The Alps are still clearly visible for the first part of the drive, but the highway soon becomes a beeline across a coastal plain.

 

It’s easy to see why Venetian forefathers fled this indefensible terrain and moved wholesale onto the islands of the lagoon.

 

 

Palazzo entryway, Venice, Italy

Palazzo entryway, Venice, Italy

 

 

It’s doubtful, though, that they could have imagined how their swampy islands would one day become one of the world’s first post-Roman republics, or that it would become the pre-eminent economic and maritime power of its era and a bastion of the Italian Renaissance.

 

Causeways connect Venice to the Italian mainland by rail and motor vehicle, but no cars, trucks, or busses are permitted beyond their city terminals.

 

 

Postered wall, Venice, Italy.

Postered wall, Venice, Italy.

 

 

Getting around in Venice is strictly by water taxi or on foot.

 

The ferry terminal not only connects Venice with the Italian mainland, but also to ports all up and down the Adriatic coast, and on to Greece.

 

 

Pedestrian crossroads,Venice,Italy

Pedestrian crossroads,Venice,Italy

 

The very mention of Venice recalls the iconic images of its canals and its Piazza San Marco, but since two days afford ample time to see them – and other postcard sights – I first wander instead off the beaten path.

 

Many of Venice’s most intimate and captivating spaces can be found along the pedestrian lanes that lace its islands.

 

Café, Venice, Italy

Café, Venice, Italy

 

Walkways broken only by the largest canals follow pedestrian bridges over the smaller canals, but their loosely organized grid sometimes twists to follow the route of the waterways.

 

 

 

Neighborhood piazza, Venice, Italy

Neighborhood piazza, Venice, Italy

Here, away from the friendly chaos of the canals, are quiet residential streets punctuated by family-owned shops and pocket piazzas.

 

The scent of the sea and swarms of tourists are never far away, but within Venice’s labyrinth of narrow, stone lanes and alleys there is sense of serenity and timelessness.

 

Wandering untethered to a parked car with no footsteps to retrace is a deliciously liberating experience.  On these small islands, it’s impossible to get lost for long.

 

Sidewalk  cafe, Venice, Italy

Sidewalk cafe, Venice, Italy

 

 

The lack of motorized vehicles necessarily slows the pace in Venice and allows the city to unfold before visitors in richly elegant slow motion.

 

There’s time to fully absorb the colors and aromas.

 

 

Restaurant, Venice, Italy.

Restaurant, Venice, Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

There’s time to linger for a longer look or to laze over a leisurely lunch or espresso.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pizza  dough sculptures, pizzeria, Venice, Italy

Pizza dough sculptures, pizzeria, Venice, Italy

 

There’s a chance to grasp, if only fleetingly, a sense of how people defined community before they were isolated from each other by freeways and shopping malls and suburbs.

 

City lane, Venice, Italy

City lane, Venice, Italy

 

At the end of this walkabout, I can think of no better place to emerge from the quiet alleyways than into the storied atmosphere of Harry’s Bar.

 

Harry’s is the home both of carpaccio and the Bellini, and is also famous for its very dry (10:1) martini.

 

The famous Harry's Bar, Venice, Italy.

The famous Harry’s Bar, Venice, Italy.

 

Harry’s is at least as well known, though, for the unending stream of celebrities who have paraded through its doors since it opened in 1931.

 

Its guest book bears the signatures of Toscanini, Marconi, Somerset Maughan, Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Hutton, Orson Welles, Truman Capote, Georges Braque and Peggy Guggenheim.

 

Harry’s was also a favorite of Ernest Hemingway’s and other fans have included Alfred Hitchcock, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Aristotle Onassis, and Woody Allen.

 

Still ahead to see in Venice:  The fabled canals and the Piazza San Marcos – St. Mark’s Square.  Then it’s on to Padua.

Milan to Verona by autostrada

E-64 autostrada, eastbound from Milano, Italy

E-64 autostrada, eastbound from Milano, Italy

My one earlier visit to Italy was on a cruise that left only cravings for more of what was still unseen in the heartland of Northern Italy.

 

The plan for this trip is to drive the countryside within a triangle loosely anchored by Milan, Venice, and Florence, that includes Verona, Padua, Venice, and Parma.

 

Milan has been left for the end of the itinerary, which turns out to be fortuitous.

 

Alps seen from near Bergamo, Italy

Alps obscured by clouds near Bergamo, Italy

 

 

Verona, the first night’s destination, should be a leisurely drive of under three hours, but that plan is derailed the moment the plane touches down.

 

A light rain soaking the runway becomes a deluge in the time it takes to clear Immigration and Customs and point the rental car east on the autostrada.

 

 

 

Street in the Citta' Alta, Bergamo, Italy

Street in the Citta’ Alta, Bergamo, Italy

Rain and fog have throttled visibility down to a few car lengths, but heavy traffic includes plenty of trucks.

In the no-speed-limit left lane, fast-approaching headlights loom in the rear view until they blow past, undeterred by the weather.

It takes nearly two hours to cover the first 60 miles.  By midday, though, there’s a break in the weather and the Italian Alps, ever-present on the right side of the autostrada, begin to appear out of the fog and clouds.

 

Entrance to the Citta' Alta, Bergamo, Italy

Entrance to the Citta’ Alta, Bergamo, Italy

 

With a room guaranteed for the evening in Verona, an unscheduled stop for lunch has become suddenly appealing, and an exit labeled “Bergamo” is well-placed.

 

 

It turns out that there are actually two Bergamos.  The old city, the Citta’ Alta, sits high on a bluff at the edge of the Alps, and the new city is spread out on the plain below.

 

View from above the Citta' Alta, Bergamo, Italy

View from above the Citta’ Alta, Bergamo, Italy

Even by European standards, this place is old, for the Celts were here before the Romans.

 

The daunting climb to the Citta’ Alta was not deterrent enough for Attila the Hun, who destroyed it the 5th century.

 

The city, though, rebounded to become the seat of a Lombard duchy, and after its conquest by Charlemagne, a county seat.

 

Bergamo-style polenta and sweets

Bergamo-style polenta and sweets

 

In the early Middle Ages it was an independent commune, but later became part of the Venetian Republic until both were conquered by Napoleon.

 

After Napoleon’s exile, it became part of the Austrian Empire until it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy in 1859 .

 

 

 

Bergamo 008

Footpath in the Citta Alta, Bergamo, Italy

 

 

 

This city has lent its name to a regional folk dance style known as bergamask. Shakespeare refers to it in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream as a “Bergomask dance”.

 

The music is characterized by dissonances and irregular intervals that later inspired Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque”.

 

 

 

Trattoria, Bergamo, Italy

Trattoria, Bergamo, Italy

 

The Città Alta is surrounded by 17th-century defensive walls.

 

It is connected to the lower city by a cable car.  With parking spaces very limited in the upper city, the funicular is the recommended approach.

 

 

 

 

More Alps seen from near Bergamo, Italy

Alps in cleared skies as seen near Bergamo, Italy

 

 

 

Lunch at a trattoria in the Citta’ Alta ends with cleared skies.

 

A hotel room awaits in Verona, but with weather delays and the stop in Bergamo, it’s dusk by arrival.

 

 

 

 

Night life on the streets of Verona, Italy

Night life on the streets of Verona, Italy

 

Verona’s strategic location between Milan and Venice, astride the route through the Alps to Innsbruck, has made it much contested for centuris.

 

Incredibly, though, it is one of a handful of Italian cities that did not suffer major destruction during World War II.

 

 

Castelvechio bridge,  Verona, Italy

Castelvecchio bridge, Verona, Italy

 

 

The city’s history is foggy before it became a Roman  town around 300 BC, but the value and importance of its many historical buildings have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

 

 

 

Night life on the streets of Verona, Italy

Night life on the streets of Verona, Italy

 

 

 

At the time of its the completion in 1356, Verona’s Ponte Scaligero boasted the world’s largest bridge arch.

 

 

 

Piazza Bra (Arena at left), Verona, Italy

Piazza Bra (Arena at left), Verona, Italy

 

 

 

A Roman amphitheater, The Arena, still survives in the Piazza Bra, and only the theaters in Rome and Capua seat more than it 25,000.

 

 

 

Piazza Bra (Arena at right), Verona, Italy

Piazza Bra (Arena at right), Verona, Italy

 

 

While little of the original perimeter wall remains, the interior is virtually intact, and it is still used today for theatre and summer opera, fairs, and other public events.

 

 

 

Castelvechio bridge,  Verona, Italy

Castelvechio bridge, Verona, Italy

 

As in Bergamo, there are enough sights to keep visitors occupied for a couple of days, but Venice calls, and with the weather now clear, tomorrow’s arrival should be well before lunch.

 

Pompeii unearthed

The city of Naples wraps around its namesake bay

The city of Naples wraps around its namesake bay

With only two days remaining after the cruise ship docks for the final time at Rome’s port of Civitavecchia, I opt to spend one of them visiting Pompeii, which 3 hours away via the autostrada just below Naples.

A travel oasis along the way looks far more like a page out of the Dean & Deluca catalog than an Interstate eatery.

Cured hams hang in the window and a bank of glistening espresso machines sits behind a long marble counter.

There seems to be no such thing as fast food in Italy, and taste confirms that it’s for delectably good reason.

 

 

 

Ubiquitous Vespas weave through street traffic

Ubiquitous Vespas weave through street traffic

An hour or so outside of Naples the road passes a hilltop crowned by the monastery of Monte Cassino.

Founded by Saint Benedict on the site of a former Roman temple to Apollo, it has been repeatedly sacked by invading armies and destroyed three times, the last during a bloody four month siege of an entrenched German army early in 1944.

 

 

 

 

About 15 miles short of Pompeii, the route passes through Naples.  The old part of the city is the vintage Italy of ‘50’s cinema.  Palm trees line the harbor and ferries carry day-trippers to the Isle of Capri clearly visible on the horizon 30 miles away.

Faded elegance still adorns the city

Faded elegance still adorns the city

Tenement streets climb hillsides

Tenement streets climb hillsides

Narrow streets climb hillsides through ancient tenements broken from time to time by the uninspired concrete architecture of post-war buildings that mark the scars of more than 200 Allied bombings. Poverty is rampant in many of these neighborhoods, where over 100 clans of the Camorra – the local version of the Mafia – control not only criminal activity, but thousands of legitimate businesses.  Visitors are warned not to wander unfamiliar streets here alone. There’s no lingering here; Pompeii beckons!

Vesuvius smolders less than 5 miles behind Pompeii

Vesuvius smolders less than 5 miles behind Pompeii

Mount Vesuvius squats between Naples and Pompeii, towering nearly a mile high and squeezing the coast road against the sea.  It’s experienced more than 30 major eruptions since the one that buried Pompeii in 79 A.D., the last occurring shortly after the arrival of Allied armies in 1944.

Many buildins survive intact

Many buildings survive intact

The first sight of Pompeii’s streets is breathlessly arresting.  Unlike other often-vandalized ruins, it was protected for 17 centuries by a cocoon of volcanic ash.

Frescoes and mosaics survive in abundance

Frescoes and mosaics survive in abundance

 

The power of this place is not just the number of buildings left remarkably intact, but the distinctive window afforded into the daily lives not only of well-to-do Romans who vacationed there, but the service workers who supported their leisure. Artifacts excavated over the last 300 years and now on display are personal and intimate.  Makeup cases and hair combs.  Pocket change.  Beautiful mosaics and frescos in still-vibrant colors adorn the floors and walls of spacious villas, many featuring portraits of their owners.

Fountains and pools are abundant

Fountains and pools are abundant

This city of 20,000 boasted an amphitheater, forum, gymnasium and hotel.  Fountains and public baths were once fed by an aqueduct.

A bakery stands idle

A bakery stands idle

 

A wine bar endlessly awaits the arrival of fresh amphoras

A wine bar endlessly awaits the arrival of fresh amphoras

At vacant curbside food stalls, brick ovens stand at the ready and empty stands await the arrival of wine amphoras.

Wheel ruts are carved into paved streets

Wheel ruts are carved into paved streets

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tracks are worn into stone streets by chariot and wagon wheels.  The cubicles of a bordello stand open in invitation and graffiti and pornography adorn street walls.

 

 

 

By far the most startling of artifacts, though, are plaster castings made of victims – residents and even household pets – entombed in volcanic ash by the tragedy, their flesh long ago wasted away to leave only vacant impressions. It’s otherwise hard to dismiss the illusion that the residents have just stepped out, to shortly return.

A plaster mummy cast from an ashen mold

A plaster mummy cast from an ashen mold

Vibrantly colored mosaics survive

Vibrantly colored mosaics survive

Before the long ride back to Rome there’s dinner – and an obligatory taste of the local limoncello liqueur – at a charming hotel restaurant in nearby Sorrento, which marks the beginning of the hairpin thread of highway that travels the scenic Amalfi coast.

By the time I step again onto Rome’s Via Veneto and pass through the lobby of the Hotel Excelsior17 hours have passed, but it’s a delicious exhaustion! In the morning it’s on to Da Vinci Airport and the flight back to the States, the fresh memories of a week-long Mediterranean cruise still playing in my head.

If you’ve missed any of the earlier posts for this cruise – or want to revisit any –  you’ll find them here:

 

Roaming thru Rome

Ancient images evoke Fellini's Satyricon

Ancient images evoke Fellini’s Satyricon

What can be left to write about a place that’s been called “The Eternal City” for most of its nearly 3,000 year history?

The city’s been so widely photographed and the world has come to know it so intimately through films ranging from Biblical epics to Fellini that no stone seems to have been left unturned.

What came alive for me as I walked its streets was not only a sense of Rome as the thread upon which so much of Western history is strung, and its unending paradoxes.

There are few places in which the past co-exists with the present so seamlessly as in Rome.

St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican

St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

Here it’s common to see trendy new boutiques and restaurants installed in centuries-old buildings.  Legions of Vespas circle Baroque fountains and Classical ruins.

Romans seem at once an unconscious extension of the rich past which surrounds them and at the same time casually indifferent to it.

The cruise line has booked everyone into the Excelsior Hotel as the trip winds to a close. The Excelsior is famous as the travel residence of choice for celebrities from Mark Twain to the Rolling Stones.

As I walk through its lobby and out onto the Via Veneto I can’t help but recall scenes shot here for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Ruins of the Roman Forum

Ruins of the Roman Forum

Many of ancient Rome’s surviving structures – worn, weathered, and vandalized for nearly two millennia –  stand in stark contrast to  the architectural grandeur of Renaissance Rome, some of which is built of marble stripped from their facings.

 

Roman Coliseum

Roman Coliseum

 

 

 

 

The Roman Forum survives only as a disappointingly bare skeleton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even stripped of its façade, though, the Coliseum engulfs visitors walking the arena floor with its sheer size.

I can’t help but reflect on the fact that it was not until the latter part of the twentieth century that man first built stadiums to eclipse it in scope.

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon, Rome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A notable exception to ruined Classical Rome is the Pantheon.

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon, Rome

Its simple, geometric perfection seems to leave nothing left unsaid, and to stand beneath its dome looking up through the circular eye open to the sky was for me a far more spiritual experience than walking among the gilded angels of St. Peter’s.

Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

St. Peter's Square, The Vatican

St. Peter’s Square, The Vatican

 

 

The Vatican is an embarrassment of riches.

Swiss guards, The Vatican

Swiss guards, The Vatican

 

It’s impossible not to be awed by the endless tableau of master works in St. Peter’s basilica.

St. Peter's basilica

St. Peter’s basilica

St. Peter's basilica, The Vatican

St. Peter’s basilica, The Vatican

It’s also hard not to be left with a the sense that the intent of this place is to dwarf its awestruck human visitors and to glorify not so much the deity as the institution of the Church.

Vatican Museum

Vatican Museum

Only the Louvre can compare with the Vatican Museum for the number and quality of its works, and the building itself is a work of art, solid and imposing and classical in its detail.

Here the works of old masters seen before only in art books leap out of the frame, larger than life and richly colored.

The Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum

It seems that every inch of every ceiling is covered in art, ornately framed in gold leaf.

 

 

The Trevi Fountain, popularized in the U.S. by the movies Three Coins In A Fountain and Roman Holiday, seems ever so familiar.  I’m startled, though, to see this monumental structure rising out of a residential neighborhood rather than as the anchor of a grand piazza, which was planned but never built.

The fountain also famously appears in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and when he died in 1996 the fountain was turned off and draped in black… a testimony to the way in which Rome’s old and new not only coexist, but constantly intermingle.

Trevi Fountain, Rome

Trevi Fountain, Rome

Trajan's Column, Rome, Italy

Trajan’s Column, Rome, Italy

The spire of Trajan’s column, adorned with carvings depicting Rome’s Dacian Wars victory, instantly evokes an image of the similar column erected by Napoleon in the Place Vendôme.

Trajan's Column, Rome, Italy

Trajan’s Column, Rome, Italy

The walk back to the hotel leads up the Spanish Steps, which on this day look more like the Spanish Bleachers, buried as they are in a sea of seated tourists.

Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy

Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy

With the date of a return visit in some vague future and my time in Europe drawing to a close, I make the decision to skip Rome’s catacombs in order to carve out time for a day trip to Naples and Pompeii before flying back to the States.

If you’ve just joined this account my Mediterranean cruise, you can still begin at the beginning:

Days 1-2:  Barcelona

Day 3:  Montserrat Monastery

Day 4: France’s Languedoc

Day 5: Monaco & the French Riviera

Day 6: Italy’s Cinque Terre gateway

Italy’s Cinqueterra gateway

Footpaths connect the five villages of Italy's Cinque Terre

Footpaths connect the five villages of the Cinque Terre

Call it luck, but in years of travel I’ve rarely experience an upended itinerary that didn’t have a silver lining, and my luck again held when heavy seas prevented our ship from docking at Portofino.

 

The alternate port was a placed called Porto Venere, gateway to Italy’s Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”) where five villages that hug cliffs along the Ligurian coastline are unreachable by auto and connected only by footpaths, trains and boats.

Approaching Port Venere, Italy from the harbor

Approaching Port Venere from the harbor

 

The sun isn’t long risen as the launch slices through the waves toward the village, which is just awakening from its slumber.

 

Porto Venere is the imagined picture postcard against which all of my European visits are measured, and it easily exceeds expectations.

Quay at Porto Venere, Italy

Quay at Porto Venere, Italy

 

The lower village wraps around a bay that was once the home port of the Byzantines’ western Mediterranean fleet.

Fisherman dry & mend nets, Porto Venere, Italy

Fisherman dry & mend nets, Porto Venere, Italy

 

 

Here fisherman just returned with the morning’s catch are drying and mending their nets. Above them a women hangs laundry from a porch railing and suns herself as it dries.

Drying laundry, Porto Venere, Italy

Drying laundry, Porto Venere, Italy

Church of St. Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

Church of St. Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

 

The single most striking landmark here is a church that sits on the promontory of a finger of land that reaches out to gather the bay.

 

Its appeal is irresistible, and since much of the village clings to the steeply pitched hillside or is perched along its summit, the climb to the church the route winds through narrow, ageless village streets.

Narrow streets of Porto Venere, Italy

Narrow streets of Porto Venere, Italy

 

The village may be ancient and its buildings well worn, but everything here is infused with a tastefully simple Italian style that lends to it a casual elegance.

Visitor paused in front of a meat market, Porto Venere, Italy

Visitor paused in front of a meat market, Porto Venere, Italy

 

Stone streets have been washed and swept squeaky clean, and bright flowers sit in window planters along the lanes.

Bakery window, Porto Venere, Italy

Bakery window, Porto Venere, Italy

 

Local and tourists alike browse local businesses, and the tantalizing aromas of cured meats and freshly baked breads and pastries drift out into the street.

Restaurant, Porto Venere, Italy

Restaurant, Porto Venere, Italy

Harbor view, Porto Venere, Italy

Harbor view, Porto Venere, Italy

 

Through an open door a restaurant is polished and groomed in anticipation of lunch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the summit I look down through the telescope of an alley entrance that caps a steep stone staircase.

 

Through it I can see the village gathered along the wharves and my ship riding at anchor in the harbor beyond.

Cemetery, Porto Venere, Italy

Cemetery, Porto Venere, Italy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The church is finally close at hand, but I pause first to wander through a small cemetery where centuries of graves are stacked atop each other in the ever-shrinking space.

 

As I look down onto the town, church, and coastline stretched out below it’s hard to imagine a more picturesque setting in which to be buried, or one that could give more comfort to visitors.

Church of St. Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

Church of St. Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At last the massive doors of the Church of St. Peter are within arm’s reach.

 

Completed in 1198 A.D., this striking Romanesque structure stands on the site of a fifth century Christian church which itself replaced a Roman temple to Venus built there in the first century B.C.

Italians on holiday, Porto Venere, Italy

Italians on holiday, Porto Venere, Italy

 

 

By now the sun is high in the sky and along the harbor below Italians on holiday are picking out places along the rocky shore to sun themselves with typical European immodesty; Speedos are here in abundance!

Lovers play in Porto Venere, Italy

Lovers at play in Porto Venere, Italy

 

As the visit draws to a close, a bikini-clad young woman caresses the face of a young man seated on a quintessential Vespa.  It’s a scene that’s undoubtedly repeated itself again and again over the last 50 years, and it reminds me that la dolce vita is still alive and well in the land of Fellini’s birth.

 

 

As I scramble back aboard, though, I’m already contemplating the next port of call and it also recalls Fellini:  Roma.

 

If you’ve just joined this account my Mediterranean cruise, you can still begin at the beginning:

Days 1-2:  Barcelona

Day 3:  Montserrat Monastery

Day 4: France’s Languedoc

Day 5: Monaco & the French Riviera