Friday, July 17, 2009

The Great European Vacation: Italy

Italy was really not the main objective for this trip; we passed through to spend a few days with our friends in Florence, and then we dropped them off in Milan. We then returned to Milan a few weeks later for our flight back home. Still, even in that short time, we had some nice experiences in Italy. (In all fairness, part of our adventures in the Alps was in northern Italy…but the Alps will be the subject of another blog entry.) See the Italy pictures at:

A note for traveling in Europe: make sure you have a small car. I insisted on an automatic transmission which is not very easy to rent in Europe. So unfortunately, an automatic for 4 adults and luggage was a much larger car than we would ever want to drive in Europe. Actually, it would have looked about average on an American highway, but we’re in a different world here. We named it Gigantor. (Who’s willing to date themselves by admitting that they remember the Gigantor cartoons?) We ran into more than one sticky situation driving that car. I will never forget the evening we were coming home from Florence (we were staying outside of town in a Tuscan villa that was updated in the 1500’s; the same family has occupied the villa since the 1700’s). We were driving down a road that was little more than 6 inches wider than the Gigantor, with another car trying to pass us going the other direction. Size and determination finally won. The other car backed up to a wider section of the road so we could pass each other.

Milan is not Rome; it is not Florence; it’s a large industrial town, mostly built in the 1800’s. Not normally a top-tier Italian destination, although it has a nice cathedral (duomo). Still, the big draw of Italian cities is the art. In Milan, and we were treated to a couple of Leonardo da Vinci paintings. There is a lovely “Madonna and Child” at the Sforza Castle, and “The Last Supper” is nothing short of spectacular. I hadn’t realized how large “The Last Supper” is; it’s really a fresco rather than a painting, and covers most of a wall. It’s best that we visited it now, rather than a couple of years ago. They’ve recently finished major restoration, removing five hundred years of accumulated grime and candle soot and over-painting to reveal what’s left of Leonardo’s original work. And what’s left is quite impressive. Sadly, we couldn’t take pictures there. A very indignant guard swooped down on a tourist who dared to ignore the “No Photography” sign, and forced him to delete the images from his digital camera.

As we were exploring Sforza Castle, there were lots of the normal historical information signs. It was a bit depressing to read them in this case; Italy was in a state of political turmoil pretty much from the fall of the Roman empire until modern times. There wasn’t even a single country called “Italy” until the mid-1800’s; it was a patchwork of city-states and Papal territories in a state of continual war. Milan changed hands many times over the centuries. We read about the Lombard invasion; the Spanish occupation; the Austrian domination; the French occupation; the civil war. Nasty.

Leaving Milan the first time, we headed north along the shore of beautiful Lake Como, getting teasing glimpses of the Alps ahead of us. We had traded in Gigantor for a much smaller car (we named this one Little Dent), which made for a lot calmer driving.

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