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A Week in Italy

Author: RichardNika
Date of Trip: April 2006

I’d never been to Italy, even though I’ve done a lot of traveling in my life. My wife and I were on our way home to south Florida from Turkey and we stopped in Rome on a Sunday. She’d been there a year earlier and was an excellent walking guide. We stayed in a strange “hotel” on the Via National. We had to use one key to open a huge door, walk through a courtyard and use three more keys to finally reach our room. There are bargains in Italy but not for hotels. I did a lot of research and we ended up being lucky to pay 100 Euros ($125) a night for a nice but not fancy room with private bath. That first evening we just walked and walked, saw some ruins, some neat fountains and Trajan’s column.

We started out by taking a taxi to the Borghese Galleries. Taxis, by the way, are not expensive in Italy, not even in Rome. The Borghese is an incredible art museum. If you want to see it, you need to order your tickets online, in advance. You have exactly two hours to see it all, then you’re kicked out and the next group is admitted. The art is diverse and incredible – paintings, miniatures, sculpture and jewelry. You have to remember to always look up at the ceilings, where some of the best art is found. In every room, the upper wall and ceiling art makes it appear that people, usually cherubs, are holding up the ceiling.

If I had to pick one favorite piece,it would be a large painting of the Last Supper. The Disciples look like a scruffy bunch of poor street people and casual workers, which is probably what they did look like. They were eating, of course, and a dog was crouched on the floor, waiting for scraps. Jesus looked a little less scruffy, but no less real.

We left when our time was up and walked endlessly through the Borghese Gardens park. It was a beautiful day, and Romans were out with their kids. Everyone was out walking, biking, pedaling little vehicles and buying snacks, soda and beer. We finally reached an overlook, from where we could see the whole Roman city panorama. Then we backtracked and ended up in a desolate area, but were relieved to find a Metro tunnel. Down in the tunnel, we found a supermarket, where we got food and cold drinks for a fraction of what the park kiosks charged.

We walked and walked. The Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain were jammed with young folks enjoying their Sunday. Most impressive, perhaps, was the Pantheon, the only structure surviving totally intact from ancient Roman times. Carefully constructed to avoid collapse, its ceiling’s round hole or “oculus” had a mystic quality to it, and as I looked up at it for the final time, a crescent moon was framed in it…on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Monday morning, I saw my wife off at the main railroad station, returned to the hotel for breakfast, and then left my luggage behind and headed for the Vatican. I’d been warned about pickpockets on the bus there, but my money belt was secure on my tummy, inside my undershirt. Don’t go to Italy, or anywhere for that matter, without one!

The line for the Musei Vaticani is long, and when I finally got inside, I walked what seemed like miles of incredible arty-lined corridors before reaching the Sistine Chapel. The art was extraordinary, endless exquisite statues of all sizes, some amazingly realistic, paintings, tapestries, Etruscan pottery. Wear walking shoes! I finally made it into the Sistine Chapel, where the famed Adam and God scene is just one of dozens on the ceiling. The area was jammed, with benches along the side. I stood by the benches, waiting for someone to give up a seat, then just sat and looked. The signs prohibiting flash photography and loud talking were completely ignored, despite occasional outcries from guards.

I made my way back to the train station and my late afternoon train to Venice, about a 5 hour ride. I had a one week Italian rail pass, and a young snotty female conductor threatened to fine me 50 Euros for not having entered the starting date in my own hand, which no one had told me to do. The train was the only one on my trip with American-style seating. It was also the most comfortable. We crossed a causeway right into Venice. I walked down the station steps and faced the Grand Canal and a large station for vaporettos – public water buses. I found my hotel, checked into a comfortable and reasonable (E65) room and then walked around a bit and patronized the internet cafe, then turned in.

I had the next day, up through mid-evening to explore Venice, and set out with gusto. I had never seen so many tourists in one place. The vaporetto took me to St. Marks Plaza, which was jammed with people and, strangely, an enormous 40-50 foot high blown up photo of the Empire State Building. I went through the cathedral, then toured the Doges Palace, which is a three hour project. A great deal of Renaissance art and furnishings are left there, but the “bridge of sighs” where prisoners were herded, and the dismal dark cells are also not to be missed.

There were some excellent museums I could have visited, but my time was limited and it was already early afternoon and, as one guidebook says, the main attraction of Venice is Venice itself. I took two more trips on the vaporetto and went for long walks, getting into neighborhoods where people actually lived in ancient 3, 4 and 5 story apartments. I walked all three bridges, and enjoyed seeing not just the tourist-filled gondolas – and I did not hear a single gondolier singing! – but also the working boats, including a garbage boat equipped with a crane, collecting residential trash. I would have liked to have seen the brown UPS boat making its deliveries, but missed that. I saw a plaintive poster for a missing cat named Ginger – I hope she turned up.

In Part I, I talked about my time in Rome and Venice, but I didn’t have time for a few final comments on that last unique city.

Venice is a wonderful and unusual place, but it is becoming a tourist theme park. I have never seen such crowds of tourists. Living in another popular tourist city – Miami Beach – with a resident population only slightly larger than that of Venice (88,000 here, about 3/4 of that in Venice) I can sympathize with the permanent residents there, who complain about higher prices than elsewhere in Italy. Indeed, a public water bus – a vaporetto – is 5 Euros in Venice, several times what a street bus is elsewhere in Italy. Food costs more there, and so does the one internet cafe I found. And yet, I too was a tourist there. When and if I am lucky enough to return, I would like to do so in the dead of winter, when the crowds are thin, and have two days – one for the museums and the art, and one to just explore everywhere on foot. Remember, Venice is surprisingly small, and you can walk through all of it in one full day.

I left Venice in the early evening. As with all subsequent trains, I had a 6-seat 2nd class compartment – these are not especially roomy or comfortable, but train trips within Italy are rarely more than a few hours, and most of the people are friendly.

I reached Florence late in the evening. I had no hotel reservation, but found a 3-star near the station which was fine. I studied my guidebook, visited the internet cafe up the street and turned in. I had one full day there coming up and intended to use it to the fullest.

In the morning, I set out on foot. I had a route mapped out which included some difficult choices. The Academia with Michelangelo’s David was well off my route, and my wife had warned me that, aside from the David there was nothing exciting there but”medieval paintings with halos.” There was a report of an imminent railroad strike, so I stopped in a travel agency and was told not to worry – the scheduled strike would be that day and only for eight hours!

First stop was the Duomo, the huge cathedral. This was an impressive and massive space – I spent some time walking about, admiring the art and the architecture. Being a cathedral, admission was free. My next stop along my route was the Bergello Museum. This relatively little-known museum is a fabulous place – among the statuary on the ground floor is a 10-foot high statue Michelangelo sculpture of Bacchus, the god of wine, with a cup of wine in one hand and a child under the other arm. Michelangelo was 22 when he made it. The museum was multi-storied and had an immense variety of art – sculpture, paintings, enamel, marvelous pottery, coins and medals and much more. It was upon entering the museum that I learned of my good fortune – my week in Italy coincided precisely with “Culture Week,” April 2-9, during which admission to almost all museums and attractions in Italy was free. I figured out after returning home that this probably saved me close to $150.

Next stop was the Uffizi Gallery, perhaps the best known art museum in Italy, and rightly so. Works that you have seen in books and probably in your dreams are there. Unfortunately, Culture Week also meant a huge slow-moving line of students, and it took at least 90 minutes to get inside. All the art is on what we would call the second floor, mostly in rooms adjoining a wide hallway which is filled with sculptures. You can take as much time as you wish, and you will so wish. I spent perhaps 10 minutes just trying to figure out the facial expression on Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” You don’t really get it in photographs. Finally heading downstairs, there was a special exhibit involving Leonardo da Vinci and his scientific findings, inventions and discoveries, replete with working models and interactive displays. The Uffizi is the only museum I was in in which the policy against flash photography is strictly enforced.

My final museum stop was the Palazzo Vecchio, which adjoins a huge and crowded square – in the middle of the square, a section of pavement is marked to denote the spot where the religious fanatic Savonarola was burnt at the stake many centuries ago. The Palazzo was and still is a government building, but filled with magnificent paintings and furnishings – the city council still meets there, in the same room in which they met centuries ago. An interactive video display on the history and culture of Florence occupied me for some time.

After leaving, I walked along the Arno River and up to the middle of the famed Ponte Vecchio Bridge, with its many fine small shops. Then, exhausted, I finally managed to get a taxi back to my hotel, dinner and my internet cafe visit.

The next morning, the trains were indeed back to normal, and I took the fairly short ride to Orvieto, a charming hilltop town that my wife had visited the year before on her trip with Go Ahead Tours (she recommends them highly, by the way). To get there from the station, you can either take a taxi up the steep road or use the aerial tramway, which I did. There was no “left luggage” facility at the station, and when I reached the town, I faced a main street going uphill for at least a mile. I pulled my luggage behind me, finally finding a kindly hotel proprietor who allowed me to leave it there for a few hours.

Orvieto is a charming town; its main street goes uphill, reaches a crest and then starts down the other side. Side streets extend for blocks on either side, and I explored a few, getting some wonderful photos and encountering a small neighborhood open marketplace. School let out, and a mob of chattering kids passed by me, giving me glances – Orvieto is, after all, not a major tourist destination. But the architecture is beautiful, and there are many small galleries. near the crest. I saw the cathedral, a few blocks off to the left, and headed for it. It was closed, but its exterior was the most extraordinarily and intricately decorated exterior of any building that I have ever seen. The amazing huge wooden doors were once moved inside but then replaced in their original position by no less than the Pope himself. Many of the exterior sculptures in the walls appear to tell stories. On the streets near the cathedral are shops selling the artwork that is the town’s specialty – large and elaborately decorated and painted plates and plaques in deep relief.

Heading back downhill, I stopped in a tiny place and had an individual pizza, about the size of a dinner plate, for the usual one Euro – about $1.25 – far less than anywhere in the US. The accompanying beer cost about the same. Before boarding the funicular back to the train station, I stopped to take photos of the unbelievable views of the countryside. Then it was on to perhaps the Italian city least appreciated by tourists – Naples.

After taking the funicular (aerial tramway) back down from the charming hilltop town of Orvieto, I boarded a through train to Naples – Napoli – via Rome. The train went through the eastern suburbs of Rome, into the city, stopped at both railroad stations and then came out through the southern suburbs and two hours along the coast down to Naples. There were clear views on both sides of Rome of ancient aqueducts, some going on for miles. Arriving at Napoli Centrale, I quickly found a reasonable 3 star hotel within blocks of the station.

The first of my two days in Napoli belonged to Pompeii, which is reached by the wonderfully-named Circumvesuviana railroad, which leaves from the main station. The trains topped first at Pompeii, a modern town where people live and work, and then at “Pompeii Scava” (as in exCAVAtions) where people used to live, where a few dogs live now, and where a staff of curators and maintenance workers work. I got off, walked from the station, past stands selling food, drinks and souvenirs – including beautiful crystalline chunks of black lava – and crossed the street to an entrance, where, once again, admission was free thanks to Culture Week. I began my self-guided tour at The Forum, a large place of public assembly which included many partial structures and large pieces of stone. Walking from there, I progressed from public areas into streets and past homes and shops. Pompeii was and still is a city of streets, sidewalks, curbs and intersections. With only a few exceptions, the homes and shops have all lost their roofs, but countless walls, floors, storage spaces and stone benches survive. There were many many bakeries and food shops, with ovens and storage cupboards and vessels still intact. There were also a number of brothels, particularly on the “street of the brothels,” which was unfortunately closed off for maintenance. The homes were generally packed together, modest in size but not unduly small, with several rooms.

The ancient Romans designed their streets in such a way as to provide for public convenience, both then and now. There are sidewalks everywhere, although many are narrow – but people were smaller 2,000 years ago. The curbs are steep – too steep to easily use for crossing the street, even by today’s larger people. But at every intersection and every 30 or 40 feet are, quite literally, carefully designed and uniformly sized stepping-stones. These are sized and placed in such a way as to make it easy to cross the street, even by today’s big-footed folk as well as by the smaller former inhabitants, while at the same time providing spaces for the passage between the stones for the wheels of carts and carriages.

Contrary to popular belief, there are no preserved bodies on view at Pompeii, but there are CASTS of these bodies, or of the space that they occupied inside of the hardened ash and mud. These casts are extremely accurate, showing small and detailed features, including facial expressions that are hard to forget. These casts are in glass cases, scattered and mounted so that they can be easily viewed and photographed close up.

One cast I was especially anxious to see was that of a dog that had been chained and then abandoned by its master. Unfortunately, the case for the dog had been moved to a maintenance shelter, and bore a sign announcing that the cast had been taken to Canada for an exhibit there. However, there were several dogs in the area who were very much alive. Someone told me that they lived there. And there was one beautiful intact mosaic that highlighted a dog.

I moved on to some more public buildings and a few homes – villas – with gardens and entry halls, obviously owned by the wealthier class. There were also small public spaces, and I found several faded wall paintings, murals and some more mosaics. After passing by a huge athletic field, I made my way to one of the medium-sized theaters, a bowl-like space, where I rested on a bench by the stage and looked up at the several thousand seats, trying to imagine what plays, concerts and small-scale spectacles had been presented there.

After again passing through The Forum, I exited, bought a much-needed cold drink and a chunk of the crystalline lava, and boarded the Circumvesuviana, back to Napoli Centrale.

The next day belonged to Napoli itself. Napoli Centrale station is close to the market area, with its narrow steep streets that reminded me of Hong Kong. The streets are lined by stalls, tables and shops selling endless varieties and quantities of fresh fish, meats, cheeses, dairy products and baked goods as well as handicrafts, many with religious themes, and ready to eat foods. The surroundings as well as the people were fascinating in their diversity, and I took many photos. One oddity was a sign posted above a pizzeria displaying, of all things, a confederate flag. At another small pizzeria, there was a small photo posted of Bill Clinton. The reason, I was told, was that he had stopped to eat there!

The great cathedral, the Duomo, was closed and so was the entrance to underground Napoli. I went into another church nearby which was open, the Gesu Nuovo. It was an impressive place with wonderful paintings, sculptures and, of course, magnificent stained glass windows. And there were the usual intriguing relics. But it was off to the side where I found something extraordinary – the rooms and chapel to one side dedicated to a Neapolitan doctor, Giuseppe Moscati, who was recently made a saint. Hundreds and hundreds if testimonials to his curative powers adorned numerous walls. Each one was framed, and included a small basic sketch of the body part involved. It was clear that he had never turned anyone away because they couldn’t pay him. One room held his coffin and a life sized statue of him, with one arm outstretched. As I watched, a woman walked over and took the hand in hers, obviously hoping for a cure. After she left, I also took the hand in mine and wished for good health for all of my family members, myself and our pets.

As I looked through the exhibits I discovered that the good doctor died young – in his 40s. Perhaps he was too busy helping others to take care of himself. I left that church greatly moved by what I had seen. One of those special episodes that just happen unexpectedly when you travel.

After this episode, I checked out a few more churches on the way to the Archeological Museum, an amazing facility and with free admission – but only during Culture Week! There’s an incredible assortment of art from long gone eras, and in all forms. A particular interest of mine is numismatics – the study of coins and medals – and I browsed an amazing collection of rare and high quality Roman and Italian coins, as well as from other countries.

The pride of the Museum, however, is the Pompeii collection. Many visitors to Pompeii don’t realize that the finest and best-preserved art works from Pompeii have been removed from the site and brought to this museum. The lifelike statuary, the mosaics and paintings are all extraordinary. Of course, everyone wants to see the erotica. It’s kept in a section of its own. Museum visitors are asked to get a timed ticket to go in there, but you probably won’t need it. I won’t try to describe the pictures, objects and ceramics, but they are – um – very interesting. As I left those rooms, a group of what appeared to be 5th or 6th graders was being conducted through them. Things are indeed different there! Like every museum I visited other than the Uffizi, an against-the-rules taking of a flash picture will result, at worst, with – as Stephen Colbert would say – a wag of the finger.

I took a long walk down to the harbor, with its magnificent views of Vesuvius, the coastline and the ships and sailboats. Then by bus and on foot back to my hotel.

One has to take Napoli as it is. At one point, two men tried to grab me in broad daylight and rob me, but my money belt prevented that. There are gypsy beggars on many corners. The city has problems, but it is such a wonderful place. There are dozens of churches, all filled with great art, and world-class museums, including the Capidomonte art museum, which I didn’t have time to visit. There is also easy close-by access to such places as Capri and Salerno, and the “other Pompeii,” Herculaneum.

I spent my third and final night there and caught an early morning train back to Rome. I had a day there and then, the final morning, a 7:00 AM flight home. I knew that if I got a hotel room, I’d not only be out another 100 or so Euros, but I’d never make my flight. So I decided to check my luggage at the main Termini station and spend that night in the airport. On the way back to Rome, I saw additional miles of aqueducts.

Arriving at Termini, I headed for “left luggage.” I had one suitcase and one briefcase. The line for left luggage was very long and very slow. Almost all those in line seemed to be young American backpackers. When I got to the head of the line, after waiting over an hour, I realized that all luggage had to go through the same type of large x-ray machine that is used on checked baggage in airports, and that does, in fact, damage film. There were 14 filled disposable cameras in my briefcase, so I checked the suitcase and carried the briefcase.

I took a bus down the Via Nazionale to visit my now-familiar internet café. After that, I took a bus back to Termini. Now, when you board a bus in Rome, you’re supposed to put your bus ticket in the ticket-stamping machine, but in practice, it’s often too crowded to get to. Back at Termini, I decided the one thing I wanted to see in Rome that I had so far missed was the Colloseum. I had no idea how to use the Metro to get there, so I got in line for a taxi with six or seven other people.

I made the mistake – do not do this! – of setting my briefcase down for only a few seconds and focusing my eyes elsewhere, and then I suddenly realized it had disappeared. At that same moment, several American men in the line began shouting,as did I, and I became aware of a young man who was racing away with it. I jumped up and began running after him, and he dropped it and fled.

I took my taxi to the Colloseum. Again, I got in free – the admission price is normally something like 13 or 15 Euros – but I decided to pay 3 Euros to join a guided group and also to bypass the line. I won’t attempt to describe the Coliseum in detail here – everyone has seen pictures of it – but it is unique and massively impressive. The guide gave me an audio set so that I could hear her wherever I was, but her English was so heavily accented I could understand almost nothing that she said. It didn’t matter – just looking around at the extraordinary panorama, the framework of the tens of thousands of seats and of the complicated floor, the hallways and galleries, and the pieces of columns and statuary littering the corridors, as if waiting to replace something else. As the sun sank in the sky, I watched the shadows gather about the elements of this extraordinary structure. I finally went back outside, and spent a few minutes watching it from there as well.

A sign said Termini and another Metro, so I bought a ticket and rode the train the two stops back. It was packed and as I stood amidst a crowd of boys, it seemed as though hands were searching for my wallet, which fortunately was secure in the money belt.

There’s no avoiding the cost of the train to the airport. I found an upstairs lounge with rows of padded chairs with, thankfully, no armrests. I bought drinks from a canteen just before it closed, and I had plenty of food saved from the many included breakfasts. Someone had thoughtfully left a big stack of that day’s London Sunday newspapers behind, so there was plenty of reading material.

My goodbye to Italy was when my jumbo Alitalia flight left Milan and Italian airspace and I feel into a much needed nap.

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