Saturday, February 4, 2012

Partners in Crime

We hadn’t realized just how hungry we were for the companionship of American travel mates until Joe’s brother Jeff and his wife Stacey arrived for a ten-day visit. Since we’ve been in Europe for a full four months now, we occasionally catch ourselves looking at things with jaded, travel-weary lenses so the addition of fresh-eyed, newbie partners-in-crime was a gift. They had never been to Italy or the continent before and we relished our roles as quasi-residents and experienced tour guides as we wandered with them through Rome, Norcia and Florence.

Rome is a museum with no ceiling and walls and something to see at every turn. Modern buildings push up against ancient, crumbling structures and architectural evidence of civilizations long gone is everywhere. You need your imagination in full gear to guess at the provenance of many of the remains, however, since plaques and other such explanations are minimal. Jeff and Stacey often asked us about the relics we passed on our walkabouts, a derelict wall or lichen-covered statue missing her head, and we usually responded, “Not sure - we’ll have to look it up.” But even insistent Internet searches often yield little. While some signage at the major ancient sites like the Forum, Circus Maximus and Pantheon is provided, it leaves much to be desired (although a recent renovation of the Coliseum turned part of the amphitheater’s outer corridors into an intriguing and well-marked museum). For the most part, what’s left of Rome’s ancient self is simply there to observe and you have to depend on your mind’s eye to conjure up past glories. One thing is clear, however: Romans never wanted, nor do they want now, for water. Known for its plentiful water supply, thanks to aqueducts that carry frosty mountain water all over the city, Rome boasts fountains on almost every of its corners and in the center of its piazzas, both ornate sculptured basins and little fontanelles for drinking. Often referred to as nasoni, after their nose-shaped spigots, the public fontanelles offer an endless supply of clear water that’s not only completely safe to drink, it’s delicious and fresh and freezing cold. The product of quirky creativity, if you plug the end of the spigot with your finger, the water spurts out of a handy hole on top, thereby creating a makeshift water fountain. Each is labeled with the ubiquitous “SPQR,” the initials of the Latin phrase, Senātus Populusque Rōmānus ("The Senate and People of Rome"), which refers both to the government of the ancient republic and the modern day city. Stacey filled up many a water bottle from the spouts of various nasoni as we toured Rome and Vatican City. We spent a day in St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museum and marveled at the Sistine Chapel, home of Papal enclaves and the breathtaking frescoes of the impassioned sculptor but reluctant painter, Michelangelo Buonarroti. Overrun with tourists on previous summer visits, the famous chapel was actually calm and relatively quiet and we were able to take our time admiring the ceilings and the Last Judgment behind the altar. As accurately expressed by Goethe, "Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving."

Coexisting amidst the grandeur of the ancient architecture and the magnificence of the Renaissance sculptures is an unmistakable shabbiness to Rome that I recall from my first backpacking trip in the ‘70s. Our visitors observed right away the swaths of graffiti that cover bridges, buildings and street signs. And it appears that whatever efforts have been made to tackle the visual scourge is futile since Rome’s prolific graffiti artists quickly paint over any progress that’s been made. Litter is an ongoing problem in any urban landscape, but in Rome it seems just a little bit worse. It’s certainly no Morocco, but we’ve even stepped over deep gaps in the sidewalk that have become convenient garbage disposals, filled with cans and candy wrappers and all measure of junk. And don’t get me started on the cigarette butts... The ever-present grime leaves the impression that residents can’t be bothered to take care of their splendid city and simply don’t appreciate the significance of its glorious past.  
After five days in Rome and anxious to show Jeff and Stacey the Italian countryside, we piled into our rental car and headed two-and-a-half hours northeast through the mountains, deep into Umbria and the off-the-beaten track town of Norcia. At the base of the snow-topped peaks of the Monti Sibillini on a broad plain and protected behind a circuit of 14th century walls, Norcia is famous for its wild boar, black truffles and Italy’s best lentils. It is also home to the lovely Palazzo Seneca in the heart of the village center, our lodging for the night. A private residence from the 16th century and now restored as a beautiful hotel, the Palazzo features two gargantuan stone fireplaces whose blazes radiated the warmth we appreciated as we chased away the chilly mountain air with cups of hot tea and biscotti. The hotel’s gourmet Vespasia Restaurant, which we’d hoped to share with Jeff and Stacey, was closed for most of January, so that evening we ate in the rustic taverna across the street. Our stick-to-your-ribs Umbrian meal included lentil stew, pasta with truffles, wild boar sausage, crusty bread, multiple bottles of the hearty local red and some end-of-the-meal digestifs, Limoncello (the sweet, lemony Italian liqueur that has quickly become our favorite) and Sambuca. We spent only one night in Norcia, barely enough time to scrape the surface of what it had to offer, but we did learn that St. Benedict, its most famous native son, was born there in 480 AD and founded its still functioning Benedictine monastery. We added this charming town and Palazzo Seneca to our list of places to which we’ll one day return, in season, and then embarked on the three-hour car ride northwest to Florence. Michelangelo’s David and Brunelleschi’s dome were waiting.

By the time we reached Florence, the four of us had fallen into a travel rhythm that included late, leisurely breakfasts with multiple cappuccinos (our companions approved of our determination not to turn travel into boot camp), one or two major sights a day and then either dinner at a comfortable trattoria or a picnic of bread, cheese, prosciutto and wine at our hotel. We developed a long list of those shared private jokes that made us laugh but that others might not appreciate. Jeff said bueno whenever prego was called for, Stacey and I made fun of our husbands’ inability to smile when photographed, we posed for silly pictures on top of statuary and Jeff set himself at the end of a line of Roman heads, his flushed face set apart from the white marble and the only one with nose intact. The highlight of our visit to Florence was our audience with the-masterpiece-thy-name-is-David, standing tall, proud and defiant in the atrium of the Accademia Gallery, designed and built just for him. We appreciated his perfection for as long as time allowed and while we could have stayed for hours more, Botticelli and his paintings in the Uffizi beckoned. For the first time in three visits to Florence, I was finally able to experience the artwork of this expansive museum; it had been closed due to strikes on my two previous visits in 1977 and 1979, the second time bringing me to tears of frustration. But I finally got my long-awaited time with Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Primavera, and the other treasures in the Uffizi’s long, windowed corridors. Pushing aside all trepidation about the height of Brunelleschi’s engineering marvel, we climbed the 460-plus corkscrewed steps to the top of the Duomo, which sits atop the colorful cathedral and stands watch over the sweep of the city. On reaching the summit, we were rewarded with magnificent views over Florence, a low-lying city nestled in a cup of hills dotted with spiky pines and tall, layered cypresses. The serrated silhouette of the ridges in the distance is distinctly Florentine and provides the landscape with its special charm. After the dizzying descent, I fought the urge to stick out my finger to swipe at the green, white and pink marble confection of the cathedral’s exterior to see if its creamy exterior frosting tasted as good as it looked.
Our thoroughly enjoyable ten days together with our good buddies and worthy travel companions simply flew by. Before we knew it, we found ourselves saying another tearful au revoir at yet another Italian airport. But it was time to settle down, take a break from our nomadic existence and park ourselves in one place for a while. We battled the morning traffic back into Rome where a studio apartment awaited. We filled the fridge with yogurt, cheese, milk and salami, stuck a liter of Limoncello in the freezer and hunkered down for a month more of winter.

Pictures of our adventures:

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