Italian Journey (September 2006)

Palpable Italy – Highlights from Fall 2006 City/Country Journey:

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ROME – chaotic, overwhelming with history slapping you in the face as you venture up narrow streets, glance down an excavation site or gaze skyward to an Egyptian obelisk’s tip. Meanwhile the modern metropolis zooms by at hyper-speed; smart cars and vespas vacuum-packed at curbs, cell phones clutched to many ears, holding those famous over-animated Italian hand gestures hostage. The HHT groups’ 3-day trek around the Eternal City started from Hotel Modigliani, conveniently located off chic Via Veneto and walking distance to Borghese Park, The Spanish Steps, and Trevi Fountain, where this statue of “Ocean” stands as the centrifugal force in architect Salvi’s 18th century masterpiece. Our first stop was Trevi, one of the world’s most famous watering holes. You can drink the water, and I did. You hear the fountain before you see it, then “thwack” – turn a corner and you’re face to face with the massive strength of sculpted gods erupting from raw rock. Unless you go early morning there’s a crowd, but whenever you can go, do. Once there be sure to toss a coin in the fountain to guarantee a return to Rome. Our guide Jack explained the coins go to The Red Cross, so throw a Euro in for a good cause. Obviously to really “do” Rome you need a lot more than 3 days, but in that time we made it to the must see sacred sites, The Vatican, St. Peter’s Cathedral and the Sistine Chapel, the magnificently decorated Santa Maria Maggiore, and the Pantheon. What an astonishing place. Built 20 centuries ago as a temple honoring all gods and goddesses, now a consecrated Catholic church, it is considered one of the world’s great spiritual buildings. Combine mega-proportions with dramatic shafts of light streaming in from on high onto original marble and granite floors and gorgeous artworks, and a gasp and goose-bump producing titanic temple results. The dome’s center opens to the heavens, so luckily it was a sunny day. Unlike the next day when a torrential downpour soaked us to the bone as we walked the Forum. Lesson 1, DO dress in layers and pack an umbrella! Lesson 2, if you’re a history lover like me, set aside at least 5 days for Rome. But even our mini-visit provided fun facts. Don’t expect to see bones in some Christian catacombs. The one we toured had none. The catacomb guide’s explanation, “Bones disintegrate.” Completely?! I didn’t buy that, and asked Jack. Truth is when early Christian pilgrims first flocked to no-longer Pagan Rome the bones of once persecuted Christians were sold as sacred relics! And don’t pay any attention when someone warns you to “Beware the Ides of March,” the supposed day of Caesar’s assassination. Calculated by the original Roman calendar the fatal stabbing occurred closer to Valentine’s Day. Our Roman stay was a whirlwind; with so much walking one group member said “This will go down in history as the buns of steel tour.” Good! We also fit in a couple of rejuvenating yoga sessions, which helped counteract the daily doses of gelato, pasta, antipastos and wine. Speaking of which – a great restaurant with a smashing view above the Spanish Steps – Ciampini, If you want a centrally located hotel, book way in advance at small and intimate Modigliani, Please give my regards to the gracious staff.

On to Antica Torre Tornabuoni 1,, our charming Florence “residence.” After a 360 take of Florence from the rooftop terrace a group member said, “Glass of wine, good book, this view, I’m set!” We were close to the Duomo and an easy stroll to the Oltrarno (translates -”the other side of the Arno”) where you’ll happen on Boboli Gardens, Pitti Palace, artisans’ workshops and good boutiques. If insider shopping tips interest you, call guide and personal shopper Flavia Beppi at ++39 055 2476305. She’ll connect you to high-end boutique owners willing to give discounts and steer you away from Pointe Vecchio’s overpriced gold dealers to hidden wholesalers. She’ll point out vendors hawking Pinocchio marionettes. Seems his creator was Florentine, as was gelato’s inventor! But the true Florence treasures are art, history, and the painterly vistas, with clean cobbled streets, gentle arching bridges and the Arno as mirror to mellow toned buildings. This city transformed from a backwash village to the birthplace of the Renaissance when the wealthy Medici’s became art patrons. They were everyone’s bankers, including the Popes. They funded Michelangelo’s education. Their wealth spilled into the city coffers, which financed lifelong projects such as Brunelleschi’s Duomo dome and Ghiberti’s bronze baptistery doors. Art collections grew. The Medici offices became the “Uffizi” which actually means “office.” I’d read mixed reviews about the Uffizi, but I loved it. Our guided tour,, brought it to life. A fascinating exhibit devoted to Da Vinci shows through January 7th 2007, so hie thyself to Florence! Fun fact: money not only bought the Medici’s art. It literally gave them leave to avoid the black plague, which killed 70% of Florence’s population. Tunnels and bridges connecting Medici residences to their offices and banks allowed them to be sequestered in comfort away from the germ infested streets. Noble women would not have been caught dead in high-heels, which were invented out of necessity by prostitutes. They donned tremendously high heels, in order to totter above the rats and filth proliferating in the streets. Highlights of my too-brief Florence stay were giving the 17 foot tall Statue of David the once over, and then resting my eyes on Michelangelo’s emerging statues (unfinished, raw – spirits breaking free from stone) at The Academy Museum; a fun and flavorful dinner at La Giostra,, order expensive wine and feast on the complimentary antipasto trays, and the best of all, walking to the hilltop cathedral near Michelangelo square and being soothed to the marrow as monks sang Gregorian chants. This free service takes place daily at 5:30 pm. Thoroughly wine and art sated, we went on to indulge in more of the life giving substances in Italy’s “green heart” Umbria.

October proved a grand month to visit this region, famous for wine, olive oil, artists like Raphael, saints like St. Francis of Assisi, who found inspiration in Umbria’s medieval hill towns. Locanda del Gallo, “House of the Rooster”, our home for the week, nests high on a hill very much far away from it all. Herbs scent the air. Only stars and the moon light the country dark trails. Locanda’s much loved Zen-d-out pets prove what happens if you stay here too long. You forget the world’s quarrels and turn totally trusting. For the next week we had time for daily Pilates and yoga – swims in the chilly but divine infinity pool – and good fun during hands-on cooking classes and a weaver’s workshop. We were also privileged to savor dishes like curried pasta and snow-powder light custard created by Locanda’s delightful Sri-Lankan born chef, Jimmi. It would have been easy to stay put at Locanda but our daytrips, with Maria Rita De Angelis as guide, and harmonica/piano playing Giovanni as gallant driver, were rewarding and fun. In Spello locals gave us home grown grapes and proudly showed off their garden. Assisi bustled with preparations for their name Saint’s feast day, with people from all over the world present, some openly praying in the central square, others indulging in delicacies available in tasting tents. We visited the tombs of St. Francis and St. Claire in Assisi and learned that Frances is so called because he spoke French, and when St. Claire’s tomb was opened in the 1800s, centuries after her death, they found her to be perfectly preserved! We visited Gubbio’s weekly market, where bargains abound. And here’s a tip: At Tenuta San Lorenzo, a place not on typical tours, you can enjoy a country buffet and all the wine you can drink for € 12; contact, phone 0742.22553. We did, and had the best time. If you’re traveling to Umbria consider staying at “House of the Rooster.” View it at and contact Paola, Enhance your Umbrian experience by touring with Maria Rita, Send blessings to both these lovely ladies.

Our gateway home was Rome, with a final night before departure at Hotel Villa San Pio, on Aventino Hill What a wonderful sanctuary this proved to be. Peaceful garden, charming rooms, abundant breakfast, walking distance to sites such as the Coliseum and a most fabulous Italian market in the nearby Testaccio neighborhood,
Volpetti Piu,, phone: 06 5744306. Pavarotti, the Villa’s resident cat relished the salami and cheese we shared with him. His satisfied puss now graces my new apron, which pretty much sends the take home message Italy offered me – live life with gusto. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Let go petty concerns and savor all that the good Earth offers; fine food and wine, dear friends and loved ones, and thriving cultures like Italy which is alive with complex histories and palpable beauty.

Ciao Bellas – Tannis

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