Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Tour of Italy

From the start, I have to say that a tour group wasn’t our first choice. We had visions of fat old people in flowered shirts being shepherded from site to site. Still, after doing the research, we decided that it was the most efficient and economical way to do an initial reconnaissance of Italy. On the plus side, we visited a lot more places than we’d have visited on our own. In eight days, we visited Rome, Pompeii, Naples (Napoli), the Isle of Capri (that’s KAH-pree), Assisi, Siena, Florence (Firenze), Pisa, Padua, and Venice (Venezia). (As a side note: why do we English speakers feel obligated to take poetic names like Napoli, Firenze, Venezia, and Roma, and turn them into boring names like Naples, Florence, Venice, and Rome?) And going by bus between cities meant that we got to enjoy a lot of beautiful countryside. On the minus side, we didn’t get to spend enough time in any of these places. And Tonya wasn’t thrilled with the fact that all of the tour guides were speaking Spanish. Still, it gave us a solid base for planning future trips. We’ve already scheduled a return to Venezia, and are planning at least one more trip down south.

Spain is wonderful. France is wonderful. Holland and England are wonderful. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in all of these places. But Italy is…Italia! It’s in a different league. The ambience, the countryside, the towns, the art, the buildings….wow. It’s a place that we’ll want to visit again and again. We took so many pictures that we had to post them in two locations…take a look at them at


With two half-days free, and blessed with lovely weather, we were able to explore Roma on our own more thoroughly than the other places. Still, there’s a lot more to see, and we didn’t get to a tenth of it. The only tour event we joined in Roma was the visit to the Vatican…well worth it when we saw the length of the line we got to avoid. (We did have a small scare on our way to the Vatican. We got separated from our group when we crossed with another group, and ended up following the wrong guide. Happily, everyone was going in the same direction, so we hooked back up with our people at the group entry line. After that, we made a point of sticking close to the guide.) The subway system is inadequate for a European capital city, but it got us more or less where we wanted to go. What a joy just walking the streets! There was some new wonder around every corner. We took to looking inside every church we passed, and were rewarded with amazing artwork. We had an exciting moment on New Year’s Eve….we didn’t return to the hotel with the tour group, because we wanted to stay longer in the city. When we went to board the Metro to come back to the hotel for dinner, we found that the Colosseum stop was closed for a New Year’s Eve concert. We hoofed it to the next Metro stop (a good distance away), and then had to walk another mile and a half once we got back out to the area of the hotel. We made it to dinner with a good ten minutes to spare.

We spent too little time in Pompeii, the ancient Roman city that was buried by volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, and not re-discovered until the 1700’s. It gives a fascinating glimpse of what an actual Roman town looked like; most towns have been built over so many times in the last 2,000 years that all you can find of the original town are the excavated foundations. It’s a bit chilling to see how much population there is today between Pompeii and the volcano. If there were another eruption, the loss of life could be staggering. In A.D. 79, the residents of Pompeii had about three days’ warning that something was wrong (the springs which supplied the city’s water had gone dry, although they didn’t know that meant an eruption was coming). Of the hundreds of thousands of people living there today, how many could be evacuated in time?

Sad to say, I thought Napoli was the ugliest city we saw in Italy. Industrial, sprawling, dirty, congested…yuck. We were given a choice between spending a half-day in Napoli, or paying 76€ each for the boat ride to the Isle of Capri. Really no choice at all. I felt as if we´d been shaken down. Still, we had a lovely time on Capri. We took a boat ride to see some of the famous sea grottos, and then a funicular ride to the top of the hill. I´m told that we saw a couple of European celebrities up there, but I didn´t recognize any of them. While walking down to the port, we saw a man working in his vegetable garden, which also had a few fruit trees. We told him, “Molto bello!” (Very pretty!). He gave us some oranges from his trees. Yes, they were delicious.

The picturesque hillside town of Assisi was the home of St. Francis, who would probably be appalled at the size of the cathedral built in his name. While we were in the cathedral, we heard a soloist singing “Tu scendi dalle stelle” (O Bambino), a lovely Christmas carol. Very nice.

The main attractions in Firenze are the museums, although we had a nice time walking through town as well. The highlight of the day was getting to see Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of David. I didn’t expect to be impressed by it, but I was. Part of it was the size; I don’t know the exact height, but it looked to be a good twenty feet. Another part was the incredible attention to detail, all the way down to the veins on the forearms and feet. Still another was the oh-so-human expression on David’s face as he prepared to confront Goliath; the combination of fear and pride. Definitely a masterpiece. Still, as our guide pointed out, it was the work of a young man (Michelangelo was 26 when he completed it, she said). It was sculpted in imitation of the old Greek statues, with a rather conventional subject and pose. His later works were more innovative in terms of content and pose. Still, for all that, it’s far and away his best-known work.

We enjoyed a lovely drive over the Apennine Mountains to get to Venezia. Making these drives emphasized how small the European countries are in comparison to the USA; in about four hours, we drove across the width of Italy. Venezia is fairly close to the Alps, which supply nice icy winds to the city. It was COLD. We opted to spend more time inside the museums, rather than walking around the town and freezing our as….ah….toes off.

It’s difficult to say what constitutes an “island” in Venezia. The city started on a few small islands in a shallow lagoon, and was extended on wooden pylons set into the sand. The water in the canals is at sea level. Thinking that way, you can’t say there’s an “island of Venezia.” Instead, there are dozens (or even hundreds) of little islands connected by bridges. Little by little, the level of the sea has been increasing (global warming, whether caused by mankind or not, is a reality), while the city has been slowly sinking into the sands of the lagoon. It’s entirely possible that Venezia will one day disappear beneath the sea. There are some very ambitious engineering projects underway to try to save the city; only time will tell if they can do it. In Piazza San Marco, we saw a very interesting thing: stacks of wooden platforms on metal legs about a foot high. Apparently, at this time of year, the piazza is sometimes under water at high tide. Not wanting to slow down the tourist trade, they set out platforms to create walkways across the piazza. Brr. Maybe the sinking of Venezia is closer than we think.

We’ll be back to Venezia in February for the annual carnival; with luck, it won’t be quite so frigid. Tonya got to see the Murano glassworking demonstration, although it was in Venezia rather than on the island of Murano. It was neat to see the glasswork, and the heat of the oven was quite welcome.

Another side note: our flight to Roma left from Madrid, and we took advantage of this to spend a full day visiting the Prado Museum. We’ve been through Madrid several times by now, but this was the first time that we had time and the museums were open. The Prado has an amazing collection of works by Velasquez, Goya, El Greco, and other Spanish artists. (Yes, I realize that El Greco wasn’t Spanish, but his did all of his famous paintings in the royal Spanish court.) An unexpected surprise was several works by Bosch and Brueghel. We couldn’t take pictures there, but here are links to some of the paintings we saw (my favorites, courtesy of Webmuseum):

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