Nov. 19th, 2006 01:45 pm
tmcg: (Default)
[personal profile] tmcg
The quickie report on Italy, with snapshots:

The five of us flew in two groups to Rome, hooked up at the airport to pick up our rental minivan, and drove to Tuscany to spend a week in a house in Montefollonico. The apartment itself was beautiful--comfortably large, beautifully appointed, filled with art (Signora Pinelli, the charming owner, is an artist, her gallery next door). The location was perfect; we hadn't been sure we wanted to stay "in town" as opposed to "in the countryside" (say, at a farmhouse), but this town was the best of both--tiny and historic and charming, with a terrific restaurant, a comfortable bar just outside the front gate where locals hung out talking and playing cards, grocery stores where we could pick up sundries, and its own historic churches and buildings dating back to the thirteenth century and a wall dating back to Etruscan times--and we had great views from inside the house, from the garden behind it, and from an overlook just down the street and through the ancient back gate. It also had a bank with an ATM, and a post office, tourist information office, and barber, none of which we ever managed to get to when they were open--which was far less an inconvenience than another indication of the town's small-village charm.

montefollonico villa, front door

villa garden

We took day trips in our rented minivan to visit hilltop cities in the vicinity: Montepulciano, Pienza, Sienalunga, Montalcino, Siena, Cortona. The Tuscan countryside--fields of velvety green interspersed with ruler-straight vineyards and tidy olive groves on an undulating landscape between walled hilltop cities of steep, narrow stone streets--is all it's cracked up to be: charming, peaceful, pretty, at times breathtakingly gorgeous. We spent day after day wandering the streets on foot, stopping now and then to stand at bar counters for a quick cappuccino; the two photographers in the group did a lot of shooting. Because the streets are paved in flagstone, they feel like pedestrian malls in other cities, so it took us a while to get used to vehicles roaring through every now and then; and acoustically they give the sense of a set or a soundstage, both echoing and enclosing the sounds of voices, traffic, footfalls. Our favorite restaurants were Le Botte Piena, in Montefollonico itself, and Latte di Luna, in Pienza (where Willie the mina bird, in the little foyer, greets everyone with "Buona sera!" in his bird voice as they come in); some favorite local dishes involved peccorino (sheep cheese), tagliatelle and papardelle and "pici" (tipici , a local pasta, a bit like thick lumpy homemade spaghetti), truffle sauce. We went to market day in Sienalunga, climbed around the fortress in Montalcino, climbed Cortona itself (an astonishingly steep city among steep hilltop cities; around every turn and crook in the streets was another "up," another fascinating and unique perspective; I loved that city, could spend days just wandering there), explored the churches and museums of Siena and sunned ourselves on the Campo. One evening we ate in (actually out, on the villa patio), a feast of all the meats and cheeses and wines people had been picking up in shops as we went along; the last day we spent appreciating Montefollonico and environs itself, hiking the roads and fields and woods, doing laundry (an adventure in itself) and packing up, lingering over coffees at a table outside the local bar.

The Campo in Siena

We drove up to Venice through a chilly mist, dropped off the minivan, and spent five days wandering the city, which is sentient and haunted and tricksy and as beautiful in its decay as in its historic opulence. We stayed in the B&B Corte Compana, owned and run by Riccardo, a great guy and entertaining, informative, helpful host; can't recommend it highly enough. Foodwise, we grazed our way through the city, snacking on crostini and panini, settling in for evening meals at restaurants recommended by the guidebooks or Riccardo or discovered along the way in our travels. We sang along softly with the crowd to "Nessun Dorma" played by one of the "dueling" outdoor hotel bands in the Piazza San Marco, popped into the Basilica di San Marco one day when we passed and the line was really short (we asked a guy supervising the line where we should go for tickets, and he scornfully said "No ticket--is church!" in a tone that implied "How could you think a place of worship would charge?," and when we got in we found that access to everything but the main section cost a euro), browsed every carnival-mask shop and workshop in the city, roamed almost every parish. We went across to San Giorgio Maggiore to take in the view of the city from the top of the church bell tower (the bells do ring while you're up there, which is more than startling); went out to Murano with the person who wanted to explore the glassworks there (he made it out to Burano, too, which I wish I'd managed to do) and then continued around to the Isola di San Michele (the cemetery island) and visited Diaghilev's and Stravinsky's graves (we blew off Ezra Pound, sorry guy, it was getting late and we were getting tired); on Halloween we made our way through crowds of trick-or-treating kids to hear "The Four Seasons" in a converted church, then made our way home upstream through currents of dressed-to-the-nines college-age kids streaming toward the party district; the next morning we happened upon the church where Vivaldi was baptized, and stayed for part of the All Saints' Day Mass. We took a gondola ride, feeling acutely touristy as we started out and then discovering that it's a sublimely relaxing, soothing experience that provides perspectives on the city you can't get any other way; the gondoliere bloomed with answers when we started asking him interesting questions, and between what we learned from him and what we learned from Riccardo, we acquired a mixture of respect and green envy for the guys (who are some of the only people who can actually afford to live in Venice anymore; there are fifteen million tourists a year and sixty-some thousand permanent residents, and a lot of the people who work in Venice live in the more affordable Mestre, across the causeway). As in Siena (which was a rival of Florence in their heyday), the memory of the losses suffered during the Black Death is still strong. The city fascinated me, this crazy jammed jumble of stone architecture built on wood pilings on a mudflat in a lagoon, this relic of a bygone age of merchant glory and corruption and fierce independence; it's choked with tourists, its flesh fed by the arterial blood of the crowded shopping streets around the piazza, living off its own novelty; coexisting with the dimension of the thronged attractions in the center is a center city that's only empty stone streets and quiet waterways and ghosts; within the bustle of people shopping and eating and snapping pictures is the echoey silence of a museum, as if the intrinsic aliveness has been displaced by a flow of transience. Out beyond the central attractions, there is local warmth and vitality, a relaxed normality, but in neighborhoods that feel like little pockets of quiet village life, sparsely populated; and everywhere is the sense of dry revenants clinging to this watery place, and the cold, alien sentience of stone.

We took the train down to Florence and spent three days wandering the city, visiting churches and museums, and shopping in the outdoor markets around San Lorenzo. Venice's treasures are mainly exterior; the attraction is the streets and waterways and buildings of the city. With some important exceptions, like the sculptures in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence's treasures are interior; it's a very nice city, but basically it's just a city, and the attractions are the art housed inside the museums. We went to the Bargello and the Uffizi and the Accademia, and being somewhat contrarian about art by nature I was more absorbed and moved by a lot of the minor and early and unfinished works than by the most famous, major exhibits; but Michelangelo's David absolutely blew me away, and I'm fantastically glad I got to see it in person, because no photograph or video could convey the aliveness of it, the way it takes the light, the pure beauty of the stone and the proportions and expression of the figure. David lived up to his hype. I was also almost speechlessly affected by the Duomo. I haven't seen enough of the beautiful buildings in the world to go anywhere near a claim that it is the most beautiful building in the world, but if I set out to see them all, my expectation would be to find in the end that it is. I'm fantastically grateful that I got to see the Duomo in person, too--to walk right up and peer in awe at the detail of the marble inlays of different colors and different grains; to look up at the intricacy of carvings that capture and involve the eye, one after another, on and on without end; to stand across the plaza and take in the enormity of it, the micro unifying into the macro, the gestalt of architectural majesty and sculptural detail...and the way the stone absorbs light and returns it, subtle changes as the sun moves and the shadows shift, the way it seems to glow with its own luminosity at night. It's impressive on the inside, too, and we passed on the 414 steps of the campanile tower for the 463 steps of the dome, which include sets of steep, narrow curving stone steps right up inside the dome (after you've made a partial circuit of the walkway for a view of the paintings on the inside, wherein the denizens of hell, no great surprise, are a lot more interesting than the angels and saints et al.); I didn't share the trouble some people had with the height, but inside that dome--possibly because of the periodic traffic jams as too many people climbing encountered too many people descending--I felt a touch of claustrophobia for the first time in my life. The view from the top was great, of course, but the climb was actually the coolest part, to me, being right up inside the structure. I also loved the mosaics on the dome ceiling inside the Battistero; you lean back to take it all in, and it does this sort of zoomy drug-trippy visual thing, receding and expanding into an almost hyperreal three-dimensionality, the glow of the gold getting brighter and brighter and filling the world. The Arno is pretty, the bridges are neat, there's a unique peach quality to late-day sunlight on the Ponte Vecchio, the markets are fun and we picked up a couple of way-cool leather jackets (and anyone who knows me well knows that I'd pretty much rather shoot myself through the head with a crossbow than go shopping, so it's saying a lot that I enjoyed the experience)...but David, the Duomo, and the inside of the Battistero get my votes for Most Awesome Experiences in Florence.

ponte vecchio, firenze

We took the train down to Rome and parted ways: three of us to fly home, two of us to spend the day exploring historic sites in Rome and battling pickpockets and gypsies, then spend the night in a convent before flying home on Monday. Suffering Rome is the price you pay to visit the first-century ruins; I'm sure that our perspective was colored by travel fatigue in general and the order in which we'd experienced the Italian places we visited and the fact that we come from a big famous historic interesting dirty dangerous city ourselves and aren't automatically impressed by big-cityness for its own sake, but as we left we laughed and said "Arrivederci, Roma--ptooey!" with mock spits-over-the-shoulder. At the same time, we had really only one afternoon and evening there, which doesn't give any place much of a chance, and we did earmark a few things for a future return; we were there on a Sunday and so couldn't get in to see the Sistine Chapel, and by the time we'd made our way to the Palatino the gates were closing (we could have just slipped through, actually, and wandered for a while, but we hadn't read up on Rome and we knew that we'd get a lot more out of it if we had some background to appreciate what we were seeing). We also missed by a few minutes the open hours of the Colosseum, but peering through the gates was enough for me; it was cool to see the outside, as an architectural landmark and a piece of history, but what the place represents in my mind is slavery and suffering and grisly death for the all-too-twenty-first-century enjoyment of bloodthirsty spectators, and I was just as happy not to "pay respects" by going inside to stand on that ground. I had a similarly ambivalent reaction to the Basilica of St. Peter, which we took the Metro out to see toward evening, but it is indeed, aesthetically, an awe-inspiring place of opulent splendor; the Pieta is very beautiful and very moving; and a Mass was celebrated while we were exploring the inside, with all the solemn beauty of that ritual (and clouds of incense and the singing of a wonderful choir to drench the senses), a bit of lucky timing I appreciated.

What struck me most about Rome, in my whirlwind walkaround after two weeks starting in the countryside and moving up through increasingly large and crowded and modern metropolises, is that it's a layered city, a modern city on top of a medieval city on top of a Roman Empire city, all visible in glimpses, in cross section. Scanning the panorama from the top of the fairly jaw-dropping Monument of Vittorio Emanuele II (where, by the way, the guards and soldiers are really not kidding about respectful behavior around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which I found gratifying), you see fragments of first-century Rome and then a chunk of the Middle Ages and then a spill of typical Italian terra-cotta roofs and all around it the twentieth-century environs. You walk into the Pantheon and immediately see where the Roman Empire iconography has been supplanted by the Christian. You step a little ways from avenues heavy with automotive traffic and through a domineering archway that was the triumphal gateway to Rome nearly two millennia ago. The centuries are jammed and jumbled together in Rome the way the buildings are in Venice, the way the art and statues are in Florence. Mock spitting-over-the-shoulder notwithstanding, I am glad we stopped there and had a look round, and I'd like to stop there again and fill in the missing pieces.

The Trevi fountain really is beautiful to look at, and it's amazing how few people in the blooming buzzing crowd around it are actually looking at it; mostly they're fiddling with their cameras and having pictures of themselves taken with it. I'd heard that the drivers in Rome are all "crazy" and perfectly happy to mow pedestrians down, and I barely even noticed the traffic; it's no worse there than in New York, and I hereby direct to any city in India the people who talk about dangerous traffic and streets it's too scary to cross. I'd also heard about the pickpockets in Rome, though, and that was no exaggeration. They are legion and they are good. Nobody got anything off us, but we were impressed by how close they came.

I didn't take snapshots in Rome; I'd used up all my crappy disposable CVS cameras, and vendors wanted ten euros for a crappy disposable camera everywhere I checked in Florence and Rome. Two of the people we traveled with are avid photographers and both were packing high-quality digital equipment; I knew they'd take far better photos than I ever could (I'll post links if I get permission), and if I dropped a crappy disposable camera into a canal or off the battlements of a fortress it wouldn't matter that much. Also, the point was to experience with my own senses environments and art that have been copiously and beautifully recorded by others. But FWIW a selection of my other crappy snapshots are in this LJ gallery, and actually I'm kind of pleased with how some of them turned out.

There's more I'd like to record about the trip, and so much more I'd like to say, about adventures in communication and about people we met and about trying to read Calvino's Invisible Cities in the original in Venice and about cultural subtleties and culture clash in unexpected places and all kinds of things. But this is the gist of the trip, anyway, and more than I thought I'd manage to post, so I'm content. So much happened that only the people we traveled with could really appreciate, so much comes down to "it was hilarious at the time, but I guess you had to be there"; and it's always interesting how articulating an experience, the act of describing it and the description itself, can change the quality of the memory of it, fixing it in words that maybe can never be exactly the right words and inevitably color it with all the other associations those words conjure; there's a cool passage about that in the Calvino book, which I'll have to find and post as a quotation. Photographs can facilitate memory or overlay it, take the place of it; telling a story can change the story. So I don't grieve what I left unrecorded in pictures (well, except for some cool shots I could have taken from the gondola if my film hadn't run out) or what I leave unrecorded in words; some of it might stay safer and truer that way, and all of it will no doubt, over time, leach into fiction, which, since I'm not a very good travel writer or memoirist or blogger, is where it's best used anyway. :)

Date: 2006-11-19 09:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
That's SO amazing! Thanks for sharing it!

Date: 2006-11-20 06:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
You're welcome! Thanks for being there to give me a taste of home when I was able to log in to the Proxy Circle from abroad, and for being here too. :)

Date: 2006-11-20 11:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
You're welcome! Thanks for dropping in and giving us a glimpse of that great vacation.

Date: 2006-11-20 03:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm officially jealous.

Date: 2006-11-20 06:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm usually the jealous one, so for this once I'll accept the turnabout. *g*

Date: 2006-11-20 05:43 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Way beyond jealous :)

The photo of a canal? (top photo, 3rd batch) I love the lighting in that one. Is it enlargeable?

Date: 2006-11-20 06:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
It is enlargeable if you click a few times on the image--three times brings up the full-size image, I think. It gets pretty grainy at full size, but there's an intermediate stage where it shows more detail and still looks relatively clear. I'm glad you like it! :)

Date: 2006-11-20 07:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
O the pretty light!

Date: 2006-11-22 04:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

It was very pretty.

Date: 2006-11-20 10:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Color me majorly jealous here. I want to go to Italy sooo badly. And you seemed to have a such a wonderful time.

Date: 2006-11-22 04:34 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
It's funny, it was never a place I particularly wanted to go, beyond a general desire to explore Europe, but I jumped on the chance the moment some friends started talking about it. I'm glad I did, and I think you'd love it.

Date: 2006-11-23 10:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The photos came ot really well and you looks great. I'm glad you got to see the David. Pictures don't capture it at all.

Date: 2006-12-01 06:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
That is so true! It really is something well worth seeing in person. Thanks for making sure I did! Your exhortations kept me strong when a day trip to Pisa threatened to take up the slot I had open for visiting David, and David won, and I'm really glad. :)

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