Saturday, June 5, 2010

Arrivederci!


I have arrived home safely, though perhaps am not yet awake enough to be sound in mind. On the plane I tried repeatedly to write a thank you note to all of you who have read this blog, but have a hard time putting into words how much I've appreciated your "company" on my trip. I'm flattered and amazed that anyone read this at all - I wrote it so that I could remember the details, people, and events of every day, and to make sure my family knew I was safe. Instead this became a wonderful connection to home, an invisible (and blissfuly unopinionated!) travel companion. It was the travel companion who made me quit pouting and go explore Verona even when I didn't like it, and the listener when I needed to tell someone (over and over and over again) how amazing Tuscany really was. So to those I know well (hi mom!) and those I have never even met (hi Calence Sarah!), thank you for sharing this experience with me. I hope you'll come along again the next time life allows some more adventures - my journeys wouldn't be the same without you. Ciao!

The Continued Adventures of Il Cappello


I realized that the ongoing saga of Mark's hat was left woefully hanging as I moved past Rome, so I wanted to assure you that it did not miss out on the adventures. It also enjoyed the views from the Tuscan countryside, played guard in an old palace in Verona, flirted with Juliet's statue, and spent a few moments on the Grand Canal in Venice. It was always up for an adventure, even when it meant spending lots of time waiting in train stations...

Thursday, June 3, 2010


I left my peaceful seat to head to Squero di San Travaso, the place where they have made and repaired gondolas for centuries. As soon as I got on the boat to go there, however, the rain picked up again. Pouring rain, thunder that sounded as if one of the lions guarding Venice's borders had come to live, and clear bolts of lightning fell from the sky. No one else seemed to think it was odd to have boats on the water in a thunderstorm, so I fretted alone. Has anyone ever been electrocuted on Vaporetto No. 51, or will I be the first? Made it to the boat stop in time for the rain to begin in earnest, and joined a large group of smokers under an awning to wait. (It was not as relaxing as our smoke breaks, Tony!) Just as I gave up, ran back to the station and prepared to head back to the hotel, the sky cleared and within an hour every could in the sky was gone. I bought an umbrella, which I hope will guarantee sunny skies for the rest of the trip - rain usually comes when I'm unprepared.

The gondola store was nothing too terribly interesting, but the walk was - I wandered through miles of Venice, along the canal but mostly off the beaten path. Back to the htoel to check in for tomorrow's flight home (sigh), then on to enjoy the afternoon. I spent 15 minutes in line for the Bell Tower at St. Mark's Square, jostled by tourists, then decided I didn't like lines, didn't like heights and didn't really care if I missed the 1000+ steps to climb, so I applied the €8 entrance fee I would have paid to a very overpriced but completely delightful ice cream sundae at Caffe Lavena, in St. Mark's Square.

I'm still here now, writing while teh enormously large gondola of ice cream melts in the sun. (Yes, Anna, I did actually ask the gorgeous Italian waiter to take my picture. Very embarassing but everyone else does it too!)

After my delightful 'lunch' it was another boat-filled afternoon. I really don't think I could ever get tired of someone chauffering me around on a boat. I've lost track now of how many times I've circled around and through Venice, but I always notice something new. I tried to figure out the rules of the 'road' for these boats, but couldn't decifer any method to their madness. The drivers get irritated with each other and may occasionally honk or wave their arms around, but they all wait their turn or get out of the way when necessary. The only sea vessl I saw be stubborn to the point of almost being run over was (no surprise) a seagull.

I did a lot of walking today, too - the highlight was the giardini, public gardens, with random statues in various stages of becoming old (like all of us). It was peaceful and quiet, away from the chaos of the tourists.

I've continued the garden theme, and now am in the small courtyard garden at my hotel. The photos of this hideaway were why I picked the hotel, and it was worth it. Occasionally you can hear footsteps outside the gate but most of the time it is just me and the birds, escaping the craziness of St. Mark's Square.

Soon I'll leave to have dinner and - if we're feeling crazy - a gondola ride with my wonderful friends from Denver. They've followed me to Venice today, and I'm very glad. Food and laughter are the perfect recipe for my last night in Italy!

Venetian Morning


I keep thinking of the phrase 'a veritable assault on the senses,' though I can't remember where I've heard or read it before. It's the perfect description for an early morning in Venice - at laest, it is if you can allow 'assault' to be a good thing. The sights, sounds, smells...it all creates quite an experience. The quiet crackle of the milk foam settling on my cappuchino (it had plenty of time to settle, since I didn't drink much of it - can't like espresso no matter how much I try!), the crunch of the croissant as I bite into it, the chirping of birds outside in the garden (or inside, when they sneak in through an open door to steal croissant crumbs), the constant whistling of deliverymen on the rain-covered streets, the clanging on the wheels of the trash carts, the waves slapping against the edges of the canal as the boats chug by. The countless colors change as the clouds give way to sinshine and the air fills with cheery conversations in many languages as stores open and the tourists emerge. I've wandered into the back streets of Venice, behind the mercado with its brilliantly-colored displays of fruit and stomach-turning containers of meat. Here there are no tourists (well, except me!) and I can sit in the piazza to watch the Italians' morning rituals. So far, it's the Italian dogs that are the most entertaining - their enthusiasm and energy rival that of the tourists. They're thrilled to be here, hoping to meet others of their own kind, but then oh, time's flying so ciao! have to run.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Venezia

To really write about my experience in Venice, I would never put down my pen. This city is so amazingly busy and alive - 'vibrant' is cliche, but it does at least begin to describe it.

The bustle of a city alters so significantly without vehicles - of the wheeled variety, that is. I was never able to picture how the watery streets worked, and now that I can picture it I have no words to describe it. I had secretly feared that I would be claustrophobic being on islands with all these people, but that hasn't happened at all. It's actually a city built for people like me who are easily confused: there's a big river - FOLLOW IT! Tomorrow I'll tackle some side streets, and we'll see how that goes.

My day's activities can be described in one glorious word: boats. I got a travel pass (unlimited 'bus' boat rides) and just climbed on a boat until it parked somewhere and then hopped onto another one. It was very cold and rainy but I just wrapped myself in another one of my delightful purchases (I can't help it - I'm addicted to scarves and they're everywhere!) and snapped pictures until my fingers were frozen. The tourist sites and the industrial eyesores - I loved them all.

To make the day still more perfect, I went to the opera tonight. It was wonderful and in a small venue directly on St. Mark's Square - it only held about 200 people. No need for microphones, just a 7-member orchestra, a tenor and a soprano singing a selection from various operas. It was very, very good, not that I would have been picky about opera in Venice on St. Mark's Square.

There has been a really depressing lack of music on this trip until tonight. Other tourists noticed it in Tuscany, too - art and artists and writers are highlighted and revered, but except for the Arena in Verona, no one ever even mentions the deep history of Italian music. I would be thrilled to hear opera everywhere (a train station playing Bocelli or a Pavarotti track played from a piazza? Sign me up!) but instead every time I hear music it's American. And not good American music, either - at dinner in Cortona I heard the dreadful remix of 'Forever Young' coming from the speakers. (Really? Really?!) Anyway, Venice has made up for the lack of music. I had read there was music in St. Mark's Square but visualized street musicians competing for attention and coins. I couldn't have been more wrong!

Time's up on my computer use but I'll write again soon...

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!


I thought of the perfect way to describe the Veronese (Veronites?): being around them is like watching a preview for that TV show V, which has something to do with aliens invading. You see all these incredibly good-looking people and you think, wow, they almost look human! Indeed. But I won't dwell on them - especially since it's only 9:30 Wednesday morning and I've walked all over town. In the early morning hours I know I missed out on some good shopping and people-watching, but I got what I think is perect: Verona without its people.

There's no way to put into words how breathtakingly beautiful this city is, so I'll rely on pictures instead. It's no wonder Starbucks picked it for the cheesy picture on one of their coffees - it screams old Italian. It was raining this morning but that only enhanced the feel of time travel and mystery.

I wandered by many of the tourist sites, excluding the churches (they're lovely but at this point they all have started looking too similar). There were a few highlights but what I really loved were the unimportant buildings. Old buildings, brightly-colored in the cold, grey morning...flower-covered balconies...storefronts with ancient lamps next to their signs...crumbled sculptures above doorways. It was a gorgeous mosaic of a city composed of each of these small details.

My favorite site was Ponte Scaligero, a bridge adjacent to Castelveccio. The bridge itself is not beautiful, especially compared to other famous bridges of Europe, but its history helped me paint a picture of Verona without the expensive shops and fancy restaurants. Ponte Scaligero was bombed by the Nazis, then rebuilt at the same place. I can't even imagine the horrors of war in these beautiful streets, but I appreciated the sobering sight.

On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum, Casa di Giuletta was delightful. I went before it opened and was glad I did, since the courtyard was very small. I shared it only with another ambitious tourist, a student from China who studies in France. Her English was perfect and I promised myself (again) that I will learn to speak multiple languages.

I covered territory quickly and was able to hop on the morning train to Venice, leaving The Blank-Faced People behind...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Wanders through Verona

As the train emerged from the tunnels through which it hurtled from Florence to Bologna, I got to look out the window again. Still many shades of green, fields of carefully-lined armies of trees or vines, but not a hill in sight - the agriculture becomes as one-dimensional as a photograph laid flat at eye level. There are parking lots here, and supermarkets. A field of bright red poppies redeems the landscape slightly, but still I find myself overwhelmed by homesickness for the landscape of Tuscany. It is time for the afternoon walk now in Cortona, with a new week's worth of tourists and even warmer weather. Too late now to turn back, though, so instead I search for more poppies.

I jumped into wandering around Verona as soon as I arrived. It is truly the cleanest city I have ever visited - there is no trash anywhere to be seen in the streets or the alleys, and even the cigarette butts are few to be found. Trash and recycle bins line up neatly against curbs, not a single one of them overflowing. The city buses run on natural gas, and thousands of people ride bikes - this place is like the poster child for a cap and trade system. (Tony, don't tell anyone I said that!) I walked all over town tonight because I had to get Cortona out of my system before I could accurately judge Verona. Every place on Earth, after all, suffers in comparison to Cortona. This really is a gorgeous city, though, and I plan to read some guidebooks tonight that will help me to better appreciate the history. I'm most excited about the Arena, where famous operas had their first showing - I get chills just thinking about it. They still do operas there, but unfortunately I'm a couple of months too early for the season. My only complaint about Verona is the people - they really are the most unfriendly bunch of humans I've ever encountered. They're very kind to each other - there's so much laughing and kissing on the street that it begins to feel like you're in the middle of a Broadway musical. But to those they don't know, they're remarkably grouchy. I kept experimenting in styles of friendliness: I tried nodding politely, and they stared; I tried a warm 'bona sera,' and they stared, I tried smiling like a long-lost friend, and they stared; I let the air out of their bike tires, and then they really stared. I'm just kidding about the tires part, though I did consider scowling at them to see if maybe it was Opposite World. I decided I didn't really care that much. They're very, very friendly to dogs here - everyone stops to pet them - so they can't actually be terrible people.

I ate the best pizza of my life (with spinach for me and ricotta for you, mom!) at the most beautiful restaurant I've ever sen, then wandered back to the hotel in the twilight. (I should be careful how I use that term - I seem to remember something about those dumb vampire stories being connected to Verona somehow.) I only have a few hours to spend here tomorrow before heading to Venice, but this super-cheap hotel is super-chic. The plate-glass front doors were so modern and stylish and CLEAR that I walked confusedly by them SIX times before I came inside...I thought they were just a window. A slightly awkward beginning but so far I have at least avoided walking into the plate of glass that is directly in front of the plate glass door (these people are not sympathetic to klutzes) and have not yet walked into a mirror, which are all over the place.

Now I'm off to use the super-trendy computer to write my blog. Like, totally. Ciao!

The Last of Cortona


My exit from Cortona was just so amazing, I have to tell you about it. Last night I stayed on the balcony until most of the tourists had gone to bed, but still wasn't completely ready to end my last day in Cortona. So I sat in the lounge for awhile with Guido, one of the extremely friendly hotel staffers, and watched a documentary on the Garden of Eden. I have no idea what the point was even though Guido translated the highlights, but clothes made of leaves speak for themselves.

The rest of my departure was just as friendly. If anyone had said there was a tourist town where the hotel staff is genuinely sad to see you go, where the lady in the restaurant always remembers what you like to drink, and the taxi driver (who covers at least two towns, by the way) gives you a hug goodbye at the train station, I would never have believed them. Fellow tourists, please don't change Cortona while I'm gone!

Deep Thoughts from the Train

- Why do the doors between train cars fly open frequently while the train moves, but remain firmly shut when you are trying to push a suitcase through them?

- Why didn't the Italian birth rate drop earlier than it did? Harsh, but true: there are rude, loud, obnoxious, smoking teenagers everywhere. They're the only thing I've found that can ruin moments in Tuscany...and as I write this, there is a big crowd of them on the train with me.

- How does the Italian system work for eminent domain? These towns were obviously built well before trains were invented - whose house got bulldozed for this efficient public transportation system? I'll bet the Orange Coalition would like to hear about it...***sarcasm alert***

- Why am I never validated? Train tickets must be bought and correct trains must be boarded, but between the two steps, tickets must be validated. How hard could it possibly be? There are, after all, yellow validation machines in multiple places throughout the station. But, much like the Italian words for numbers, my mind just cannot grasp it. No matter how early I arrive for a train, I end up having last minute panic because I have to run to the end of the platform to validate.

- Why don't I always ride fancy trains? To arrive in Verona I must board the faster, sleeker trains - significantly different thatn the regionale trains I have taken so far. Your seat is reserved and there's no need to validate (hallelujah!) because, after all, itàs just that: YOUR ticket, that no one else could use so va bene, just climb on board. This train is high pressure - no slouching here! It's the nicest private jet I've ever been on, though it never leaves the ground. The doors open with motion sensors, the seats are padded; an electronic sign calmly greets you to Trenitalia. Most on board are ignorant of this train's relaxing qualities, however; the man across from me is in jeans but types frantically into his phone...across the aisle, a man in an expensive suit with perfectly-matched marroon leather belt and shoes frequently jumps up to pace in the aisle, talking on two phones at once. Their fretting makes me feel even more relaxed. I used to be one of them only two weeks ago, but haven't had a cell phone ring in days. My one moment of reaching for the phone made me laugh since it wasn't a phone buzzing at all, but my camera turning off and closing the lens. I can't be too critical since, after all, in another two weeks I'll have two Blackberries. Until then, however, I slide a little lower in my seat and begin to read another good book.

Arrivederci, Cortona

I've poured over train schedules and feel at least mildly confident that I know how to get to Verona today. I am sad about leaving Cortona - it's become a peaceful haven of friendly faces. Last night I joined the large American tour group for one of their activities (GASP!) - their guide had arranged a time to interact with two Cortona residents and he was kind enough to let me sit in on the conversation. It wasn't anything overly exciting but it was interesting, and I was comforted to hear them say (to our faces, anyway) that no, of course they don't mind the tourists being here.

I had great intentions of spending yesterday in Assisi, but walked around Cortona instead. Some of you have said the blog helps you relax (YAY!) so yesterday I relaxed, too, and wrote all sorts of meaningless observations that will either relax you or bore you until you're asleep at your computer.

I did a lot of people-watching in very interesting places. In the piazza by my hotel, a small group of painters arrived mid-morning and set up camp for the day, painting the landscape below. I so envy their ability to set up an easel and capture, no matter how awkwardly, the stunning view. I can't even get my camera to capture it! They eagerly delved in, walking around the margins of the piazza to consult with their colleagues and collect the right variety of brushes and colors. I had hoped to return in the afternoon to find them frustrated and tired, with wadded up papers around them (hey, I'm relaxed but I'm not a saint!), but they seemed just as energetic hours later. It was amazing to see how they'd created such drastically different portrayals of the same viewpoint.

Their talent made me contemplate spending way too much money on a paint set at the local bookstore, but I don't have room to even bring it home with me so fortunately I found another souvenir: a really lovely handbag/briefcase. I decided it was the perfect way to blend the relaxation and beauty of Tuscany with the new job and pressures of reality that lurk at home. I looked at the bag repeatedly but didn't realize that anyone had noticed until the store owner said he was glad I'd finally decided to buy it (the bag was always located outside the store, so his people-watching skills are impressive!). In America, it would be obvious that the owner was just eager to make money, but in this magical place I have no problem believing his enthusiasm for my happiness was genuine. He spoke little English but somehow we had a lovely conversation about how perfect the bag was for me, dogs (his adorable dog was a small terrier named "Tita"), American music (he had a Rob Thomas CD playing - his American friends had sent it to him), and the loveliness of Cortona. And the fact that I smiled all the way back to my hotel, stopping to admire the bag in every store window, assures me that the purchase was worth the food I will give up in order to pay for it.

Another large portion of my day was spent on the steps overlooking Piazza della Reppublica, Cortona's hub of activity at every hour of the day or night. Armed with an ice cream cone or gelato (or both, in my case), you can people-watch for hours. I've learned that you can never tell a person's nationality at just a glance in Cortona. Countless times, people who have seemed Obviously American (yes, it's a look all it's own!) have ended up being from another part of the world without any ability to speak English. Every once in awhile a tourist can even manage to look like a Cortona resident - for a few moments, anyway. The individuals who are obviously Italian, however, are the old men. During the day, they gather in groups throughout the town to chat and smoke cigarettes; in the afternoon, they take up residence on the benches in Piazza della Reppublica; at night, they gather in the light of storefronts to catch up on all the activities they didn't cover the last time they chatted. My favorite is a stooped, short man who sits at Bar Signorelli every evening to eat an ice cream cone. He just seems to collect friends (sounds familiar!) as various people sit to chat, then resume their journeys. Almost all the non-tourists wave to him as they walk by; he acknowledges them graciously but never stops eating his ice cream cone. Last night I got a smile from him - it was a lovely gift on my last night in town.

Countless people wandered through "my" piazza while I sat there today: the young family who spent the day walking every street in town, but return to the piazza because their small child likes holding dad's hands and pretending she's walking while he swings her slowly up each step then back down again; the young thin man pushing the young thin woman (sister?) up and down the one flat, handicap-friendly street in town; the hip young couple who appar to be in the midst of a competition to see whose curly hair can stand up tallest; the young men in firemen's pants smoking in the street (those pants were everywhere in Rome, too - I still can't figure out why); the adorable curly-haired toddler with the red headband who smiled at me behind her pacifier as her grandfather carried herby; the tourists who wear baseball caps of American baseball teams and strut through town daring anyone to think they belong, and the tourists who buy scarves and espadrilles, daring anyone to think they don't belong (and yes, I'm probably in one of those categories - five scarves purchased on this trip so far!); the pigeon with black spots on his white head; the man on the balcony with his jacket slung over his shoulder, looking either sexy or pathetic, depending on whether the pose is pretentious or naturally Italian; the waiter who served me last night, wearing jeans instead of his sharp black pants uniform; the waiter who never is seen out of his suit because he is always at work (though I can't blame him - it's the best restaurant in town); the small white dog with big brown spots who has a collar but always runs through town alone - quickly, joyfully, never stopping to say hello or appreciate the attention he earns; the man who owns the ice cream shop, always dressed in pure white as if he's a chef or a butcher; the elderly Cortona woman whose practical, flat shoes are made out of beautiful marbled grey fabric. And then, without warning and without a specific time, the residents disappear and the square is filled once again with only tourists tripping over each other while balancing their guidebooks and multi-colored ice cream cones. It's time to return to the hotel balcony.

I've mentioned my hotel's balcony before but now have to emphasize how wonderful it really is. It has one of the best views in the city and is, at any given moment, as culturally diverse as the U.N. It is on the balcony that I met the British tour guide, the Thai scientist, and the Italian con man with the limp cigar permanently drooping from his mouth, and it is there that I've worked very hard NOT to spend too much time meeting Americans. Yesterday morning, I met two brothers from Serbia; one a thoughtful, cynical economics professor and the other a dramatic writer, poet and movie director. The artist didn't speak much English but that didn't stop him from being a lovely conversationalist and an even more enthusiastic flirt. As he waxed poetic, reading from a small notebook his thoughts on numerous Italian towns they'd visited, his older brother provided a very amusing running commentary that The Artist seemed not to even hear. The Professor had been to America, spending ten days driving from Denver to Phoenix. When I asked what inspired that particular destination, he shrugged and replied that he'd wanted to see the Colorado River. Inexplicable to me but then again, I have no better response when asked why I chose to visit Cortona. The brothers were on a wine tour of Tuscany and had plans to drive to more towns yesterday. When, I asked? Professor rolled his eyes at The Artist (who was still trying to say my name properly - "like Bette Davis?") and wryly but kindly said, "after breakfast, after coffee, after 'Bette.'" I excused myself after awhile so I could have peace and quiet, and The Professor could begin the journey to his wine.

Now it's time to get my bags and begin the multi-staged trek to the next destination...

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Firenze


Today Italy and I bonded - I no longer felt threatened by the language barrier or the uncertainly of it all, at least temporarily. I felt emboldened and very (!!!) uncharacteristically relaxed and spontaneous, I got up in time to sit on the ptio of my wonderful new hotel room and watch the sun rise while I read my guidebook to pick a destination for a day of adventure. I picked Florence.

I have to take a moment to say grazie mille to all the people who looked at me like I was crazy when I said I was going to Tuscany without visiting Florence (but not to those who look at me like I'm crazy for other reasons). Florence is a lovely city and, though I prefer Rome, I am very, very glad that I spent time there.

The best thing about my trip was my travel companions. I keep meeting the most delightful people and today was no exception - as I left the hotel and climbed aboard the bus to the train station, I started chatting with two girls who had been in Cortona for the boring conference (on microbiology, as it turns out, not mathematics). They're ph.d students but are anything but boring - we laughed a lot today. One was from Thailand, the other from London though she'd been born in Afghanistan. We did a whirlwind tour of Florence, skipping most of the tourist sights (sorry, David! Hopefully you'll still be posing au naturel the next time I come visit) when we all fell in love with the Piazale Michelangelo and its amazing views of the city. Apart from a visit to the Basilica di Santa Croce and the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli, we spent all our time looking over the city. We took buses to save time (they had a plane to catch; I just wanted to get back to the beautiful balcony at my hotel in Cortona), but got to see a lot of the city that way. Armed with a cheesy but pretty painting of Florence, I returned to relaxation in Cortona.

I love the evenings here - somehow it's even better than sunset at Pacific Beach. Not only does everyone stop their work or studies, but they all begin to mill around. Traffic stops driving on the flat street (it's actually called that because yes, there's only one in this otherwise steep hill town), and everyone lingers in the streets or sits in the sidewalk cafes to watch those walking by. Shop owners leave their stores to talk to neighbors or buy an ice cream next door (or both!), leaving their stores open. Sometimes they put up a sign to let you know they'll be back; other times, you must go in search of the owner down the street in order to pay for something. It's amazing - the trust of humanity makes Cortona seem like you've traveled back in time even more than the Roman roads or Etruscan walls do. The town's people assume that people are the best we can expect them to be, and I love it.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

La Dolce Vita


"La dolce vita" is a phrase I've heard several times today, as tourists and Cortona residents alike take time to unwind and catch up on a lazy Saturday. It was Market Day today and, because I seem to be the only tourist who emerges before 10 a.m., I got to shop with Italians. Intimidating, but with every conversation I get a little more confident in my ability to communicate. Not because my Italian is improving quickly, unfortunately, but because a little goes a long way when you can also eloquently speak Hand Gestures. No matter how many times I try to remember numbers in Italian, I forget as soon as I need them. But even the Great Number Block didn't hinder my ability to shop, since ten fingers work to illustrate costs of items in any language! I'll spare you details, but I did buy some beautiful new clothes that may or may not fit in my new suitcase.

I'm fitting into life in Cortona, mainly due to the fact that these are incredibly friendly people. My Denver friends tease me because every time we walk through town people say hello to me - it's pretty amazing! The people who work at my hotel, the waitress who served me the first night here, the girl from the shop where I bought postcards, the owner of the art gallery on Via Nationale - they all say hello and remember me when pass in the street. It may mean that I made some terrible cultural or linguistic faux pas that burned my face into their memory, but whatever the reason, I love it.

I keep adding new waiters to my list of aquaintences, too. My hotel in Cortona costs half as much as my home in Rome did, so I've been eating like a king. (And no, I don't mean "queen" since I think they got royally ripped off most of the time...and yes, pun was intented!) I began at a lovely restaurante on one of Cortona's side streets, where I finally got a taste of carciofi, the famous Italian artichokes. They were worth the wait, despite the fact that the ratio of artichokes to gnocci was high on the gnocci and low on the carciofi. I also ordered grilled potatoes with rosemary...and didn't realize until it arrived that I'd basically ordered Tuscan french fries without realizing it. Old habits die hard...but it was delicious. I've also managed to consume bruschetta (messy but heavenly) and absolutely the best ravioli I've ever had in my life.

One of my favorite things about Cortona is the flowers. They glow from everywhere: windows, hillsides, tables, streets...they seem to love life here very much. It's especially appreciated because - while I didn't want to dwell on this while in Rome - the flowers on my hotel patio there were fake. And not the high-quality, looks-almost-like-it's-real kind of fake - these would have been bought at Wal-Mart if there were Wal-Marts in Rome (thank God there aren't!). But the flowers here are deliciously real, with the exception of some nice, not-bought-at-Wal-Mart fake sunflowers occasionally featured in front of stores or - my favorite - on the balcony of a local real estate agent. Portions of Under the Tuscan Sun were filmed from that balcony which, I think, is a source of pride - even for those who were frustrated with the outrageous changes Hollywood made to their town for no apparent reason (i.e., adding a big fountain in the center of town).

I spend a lot of time wondering how the long-term residents feel about all of the stranieri (foreigners) visiting their town. Until not too long ago, the town had few visitors, but then the invasion started - in large part due to Frances Mayes' brilliant descriptions of the town and Diane Lane's not-as-brilliant portrayal of a completely different story of the same name (Mayes' real story was, apparently, lacking in drama and irresponsible affairs with young Italian men). Everyone seems happy to have the tourists, though...except for one house that had multiple "no trespassing" and "beware of the dog" signs on the gates. Now there's someone who doesn't enjoy camera-laden strangers on the street, no matter how appreciative those tourists may be.

There are certainly lots of tourists here, but they're not all American (I avoid using "we're" since I refuse to think of myself as a tourist even though I am and I've got the camera to prove it). I've met several people from Australia, heard a few conversations in French, and tripped over an entire tour bus of Germans. In my hotel, however, The Americans have invaded. There was a conference here for those studying some specific topic - "mathematics, or something equally as boring," in the words of my delightful but sarcastic concierge. Yesterday, an enormous tour group arrived and, when they return from their daily excursions throughout Tuscany, the hallways echo with their conversations. I work very hard to distance myself from the large groups - they're slightly annoying by American standards, but the concierge thinks they're really crazy because they get up at the break of dawn and then launch into their tours before most Cortona residents have had their first caffe. I greet them in Italian when I encounter them - I'm certainly not going to be mistaken for a real Italian, but at least they'll know I'm not a member of their Nametag Gang. (That sarcasm is for you, Grammie!)

I have, however, befriended the tour guide - a British man who is funny enough to be a character out of Jeeves and Wooster. He's very tall, which I imagine must be an advantage when your job requires dozens of people to see and follow you. This morning, Mr. Guide (his real name is Mick) gave me perfect directions to walk to Cortona's literary mecca: Frances Mayes' house, Bramasole - and he didn't even make fun of me for being enthusiastic about it. (It was even more beautiful than I'd imagined, by the way, but looked very much like I thought it would - a testament to her writing ability!). I confessed that tour groups make me nautious - something he seemed to accept and understand. We sneak in bits of conversation when his lemmings are focused on their own tasks, and he just smuggled me some of the food served for his clients when I was sitting out on the patio. I'm fascinated by his job and we both share a distaste for the snide tone of Too Much Tuscan Sun, written by another Tuscan tour guide. I would be first in line to read Mick's stories, should he ever choose to write them.

I've tuned out the buzz of English conversation coming from the tour's dinner next door, though it's comforting to have so much nearby conversation that I can understand. I spend hours like this, on the hotel patio gazing across Tuscany. There are mountains rising behind mountains, and layer upon layer of scenery that stretches beyond where the eye can see. The details sharpen my vision if I stare longer and longer across the vast countryside - it's as if the landscape becomes an optometrist's vision chart. There at the edge of town is the equivalent of the oversized "E"; keep searching, straining to see the small "print" far into Umbria, in the mountains behind the lake. I don't get a free bottle of contact solution from this visit, but I have the more valuable reward of noticing a tree-lined street miles away that I didn't see this morning.

Friday, May 28, 2010

La Cortona Bella


As I'm writing this, I'm sitting almost at the top of Cortona (it looks like the absolutely highest point is inside a museum on the hill behind me, so eventually I'll make it in there!). My view includes the roof and towers of Santa Margherita, the church of the patron saint of Cortona, and miles and miles of the Tuscan valley below. My bench is what appears to be a stone from the Etruscan times (they build walls and dwelled in this city in the eighth (eighth!!!) century BC), and the air is clear and sweet-smelling because of the wildflowers that cover every spot on the hillsides. There are birds here - thousands and thousands of birds, who swoop and soar over all the rooftops until they must be incredibly dizzy but oh, so happy. The prized and, as I mentioned before, ridiculously large sunglasses that helped me blend in in Rome seem to be silly and overdone in this Tuscan hill town - I've buried them deep in my handbag since the colors of the countryside are worth any wrinkles I may get from squinting against the sun while I'm here.

Cortona's immediate neighbor, Camucia, was where my train stopped when I arrived yesterday. I took a treno regionale partly because it is cheaper than the faster, newer trains but mostly because I wanted to see the countryside and towns as we passed through. I saw lots of villages - all beautiful but most did not make me want to stop for long. As we moved from the area around Rome into Tuscany, I saw many delightful scenes and stereotypes: farms and small vineyards, laid out across the hills so it had the appearance of a multi-patterned, asymetrical quilt...an occasional gathering of sheep or cows, a horse eating near one of the rivers...bales of hay rolled tightly into wheels that looked like rolls of unlaid carpet...an elderly man walking down a dirt road with his goat close behind him...sometimes, a fortress-like stone structure or ruins of an ancient wall peeked from distant hillsides.

I didn't know what to expect of Cortona's appearance, so each town we passed provided a comparison for me. It couldn't be like that town because it's higher on a hill...but it won't be much like that town because it has towns below it...it's built within walls so it won't be as sprawling as the village that just went by... Tuscany seems to be designed to outdo the imagination (not to say that heaven can't be better than rural Italy, but the phrase "eye hath not seen, ear has not heard" comes to mind as I try to find an adequate description of the beauty here), so of course Cortona was better than what I'd dreamed up.

After a few confused moments at the Camucia train station (why can't they just have a sign that says all these doors are locked because, stupid,you're supposed to walk around to the front of the building?!), I encountered a delightful taxi driver who agreed to drive me up the hill into Cortona - it was a much nicer option that waiting for the bus, so I splurged. He joyfully began my tour up the hill...after 10 minutes because first he needed to finish his ice cream cone. It's the kind of delay that would generate chaotic rage in America, but in Camucia it was perfect - I was so happy about his childish enthusiasm for ice cream that it was almost as good as having ice cream myself. Plus, this guy was so much like German Perez - I would have waited for him to eat an entire three-course meal if he'd asked me to.

I was glad I took the taxi instead of the bus also because my driver's explanation of the town and the region was so interesting. In a mixture of broken English and some Italian words I could understand, he pointed out the beautiful churches, the interesting shops, the countryside (Cortona's in Tuscany but the huge lake we can see in the distance is in Umbria, the region farther east), and the walls (there are old walls around and throughout Cortona - the larger walls are Etruscan, the narrower walls are from those youngsters in the medieval times).

After my long day and frustrating train ordeals, I had promised myself a quiet evening with a book in my room. That idea disappeared immediately, however - this place is to be explored and befriended. I could stare at the countryside and still discover something new at every moment - the colors change, the lighting changes...always something new in this ancient place.

So refreshed with a new burst of energy and enthusiasm, I ventured out of my hotel in search of food and adventure. I didn't have to wait long! A few steps past the piazza outside my hotel, I befriended a really lovely couple from Denver after we both paused to enjoy the 9:00 ringing of the church bells. These friends are funny and delightful and the kind of people with whom you could never run out of interesting conversation. And - even better - they understand my desire to rudely ignore them completely when I want to be alone (very important, since it's hard to hide in a town this small!). We're having dinner again tonight in the restaurant where they filmed scenes for Under the Tuscan Sun.

My hotel is lovely and my room has green shutters that open onto a patio covered with flowers and enclosed by the stone walls of ancient times. It's very nice but tomorrow I'm moving into a room across the hall where I can view Tuscany right from my window morning, night and noon.

I'm in low gear today, determined to relax rather than rush from one thing to the next - a fast pace is fine for Rome but it's unfathomable in Tuscany and, in fact, there's not that much to do in Cortona so it inspires relaxation. It's perfect. My morning led me up Via San Margherita, an extremely steep but even more extremely beautiful walkway that led to the summit where I am now. There are beautiful shrines all along the road - one guidebook said they depict the seven stations of the cross, but there are far more than seven of them so I'm not sure what they symbolize. I just know they're lovely and they provide the perfect (i.e. frequent!) opportunity to stop and rest on the walk up the hill.

I have absolutely no idea what time it is because I stubbornly refuse to buy a watch - the church bells rang like mad some time ago, so I'm guessing it's past noon. A logical mind might ask why I didn't just count the rings of the bells; the answer, however, is that it was impossible to do so. each bell began at a different time, blending into one another (at one point, I counted to 15 before realizing that was imposible), and the lovely sound echoes off of the surrounding hillsides to create a chorus of bells. One of the bells completely gave up on clearly announcing the time and instead rang quickly and joyously, sounding in a non-stop, sing-song way that sounded as if a child were swinging wildly on the bell pull.

I don't need a watch to tell me that it's time for lunch, though - and besides, tourists keep coming to ask if I know what time the museum behind me will re-open after their lengthy lunch hor. So for now I will stop writing and begin the steep descent back into Cortona's piazzas.

My Roman Holiday

Still a little worn out from the packed day Wednesday, on Thursday I jumped into the tourist madness to see the only two sights I'd always had on my list for Rome: the Colosseum and the Mouth of Truth.


After a relatively short wait in line, I bought a ticket to enter the site of ancient sport. The Colosseum, as I mentioned in an earlier epistle, is breath-taking and amazing - the fact that ancient Romans could construct something that would survive centuries, generations, wars, natural disasters and, most of all, people...it's just mind-boggling. Especially when you think about how our engineers can't even build Adams Street in a ways that will prevent a big hole from appearing near 17th Avenue every time it rains a few drops.


Despite its amazing structure and history, though, I didn't want to stay long in the Colosseum. It's an arena and if you didn't know better, you wouldn't be surprised to hear vendors selling hot dogs and cotton candy. But it wasn't baseball they were watching - it was sick, inexplicable torture of men and animals. As an addict to politics, the whole concept of gladiators and their battles disturbs me. Roman rulers provided these bloody shows, in part, to cater to the masses - to unite them around a hobby or a "team" (gladiators had the equivalent of fan gear and ad endorsements!) and to help create loyalty by allowing them to participate in that common hobby free of charge. What is it about human nature that could allow so many to unite around the lowest common denominator: the desire to watch others suffer and to have group power over the life or death of another human being? What could have possibly been in the minds of the "vestal virgins" as their celebrity status required them to watch countless bloody fights in one day?

If you're depressed or annoyed by these dark thoughts, you'll understand why I only spent about an hour in the Colosseum.

The Roman ruins brought no such sadness, however, and they enthralled me as I walked toward the Basilica di Santa Maria and the famous bocca contained within. Every time I thought I'd passed the ruins, another would suddenly appear. When I glimpsed the building in this picture, I audibly gasped.

La Bocca della Verite is actually somewhat hard to find - it's in a part of Rome where citizens actually do business. The church is in a corner under a very large, grand building...and a sign on the door of the grand building explains somewhat impatiently, in English, that this is a municipal building for the important municipal business and please, for God's sake, keep walking around the corner if you're a tourist. I laughed when I saw it because I can imagine exactly how some low-level city receptionist finally snapped after a day of map-carrying idiots in "I heart Roma" t-shirts came in an out of her office and slapped a sign on the door in hopes of never seeing one of them again.

The sign did do the trick, though, and this map-carrying tourist walked on to the church. (Note: I was not wearing an "I heart Roma" t-shirt!)

There was a short line and it took a few minutes for me to realize that the Mouth of Truth was there, at the front of the line, right in the entryway of the church. No grand curtains or removable plastic gates guiding people past engraved explanations of the Mouth's history...no, just a gate enclosing the entryway. The Mouth, and the face attached to it, is allowed to look out over a busy street and piazza day and night. If you want your picture with him, please deposit .50 euro in the box and wait your turn in line, mille grazie. My surprise about this is better understood when you consider that I spent 5 euro to have a photo taken with smoking, overweight, cynical "gladiators," and .80 euro just to enter the restroom at the Termini train station. .50 euro to stand where Audrey Hepburn once stood: PRICELESS.

I will spare you the details of the rest of my time in Rome partly because it is dull and mostly because I don't want to think about it. It involved four hours of being jostled among uncaring, impatient strangers at the train station - two hours because I got there early to avoid missing my train, and another two because somehow I managed to miss my train. It was an afternoon full of the sentiments that solo travelers try never to express: frustration, loneliness and, most of all, the desire to get on a train, plain, boat or automobile - any vehicle that will immediately take you home, where everyone speaks your language, you are not limited to parrot-like repetition of the few phrases you know ("hello," "goodbye," "thank you!") and where you never, EVER have to try to remember how to plug something into an electrical outlet.

After a few tears (hidden by my ridiculously oversized but wonderful sunglasses I bought in Rome), I was once again a zealous wanderer ready to take on Tuscany...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cortona

Cortona is literally heaven on earth. It's so beautiful that when I arrived awhile ago I actually forgot about the harrowing task of getting here (missed train, etc...I'll write more about it later but it doesn't even seem important now!).

The Internet situation here is a little tricky - the computer is so old I'm surprised it doesn't rely on DOS. I'm hoping to share pictures soon, though, so you will know I'm in no way exaggerating.

Off in search of food...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

To the Next Adventure

I'm checking out of my wonderful "home in Rome" now so I can head to Cortona later this afternoon. I'm not sure if I will have Internet access while I am there - wanted to let you know so my mom, aunts and friends won't worry about my sudden disappearance. Thanks for reading these and sharing my adventures!

Il Cappello di Marcus


I've forgotten to tell you about My Project. My dear friend and mentor Sir Marcus B. left his baseball cap atmy going-away gala last week and, like any irresponsible person who's about to flee the country would do, I kidnapped it.

I am taking good care of il cappello, Mark - it has become my travel companion. Like Tom Hands and Wilson, but without all the lost-on-an-island drama. Il Cappello began it's journey in this bag...mostly because it is funny, and partly because it gives me a great opportunity to say thank you to Alva for the lovely gift of comfortable, travel-worthy pajamas!

Il Cappello's journey continued on the open-air tour bus (it was embarrased but hey, a hat's got to get oriented to a new city somehow and it was still scared of Rome traffic at that point) and then continued on to it's most exciting event: a meeting with an emperor.

May 26 - A Few of My Favorite Things


1. A Dose of Reality. While wandering around Trastavere this morning, I came across a real estate office. The most inexpensive apartment (note: apartment, not mansion!) in Trastavere was 330 thousand euro. There will be no impulsive, Under-the-Tuscan-Sun-style purchases for Beth! At least, not on this trip...

2. Time. It turns out that the European system for time is a very good idea. If, for example, a traveler were to know it is 13:00 in Rome, rather than 1:00, such a sojourner would know that it is, in fact, 4:00 AM in Arizona, not 4:00 PM. Sorry, mom and dad!

3. Clotheslines. There are clotheslines everywhere in Rome - each of the apartments in my hotel building (did I mention that some people get to live here?! Excuse me while I remind myself of the reality check in number 1...) has a clothesline outside their window. The residents hang out the window, drape their laundry on the line, and hope that their underwear doesn't drop down three floors to the spot where Luigi is working on the exterior of the building. (Note: the situation is real, but I just made up the name Luigi for him.) Why don't we have more urban clotheslines at home?

5. The Elevator. I keep seeing ads around town for something called the Time Elevator. It appears to be a 45-minute IMAX-style film about the 2,750 year history of Rome. I'm baffled. Why wouldn't you just walk through the streets to visualize the amazing history?! It's more interesting and, I'm sure, less likely to give you motion sickness.

Moments with Keats, Gypsies, and Superman


Many more miles of wandering this afternoon, and the sore feet and aching back to prove it. My camera died after I wrote the last entry, but not before I got these great shots of the bastione around the top of Castel Sant'Angelo. It's awesome for history's sake, of course, but also because of the many Monty Python quotes that come to mind ("fetchez la vache!").

My next stop was Piazza del Popolo - partly because it's something you're supposed to see in Rome but mostly because it was the closest metro stop. And thanks to the metro, I finally got to meet gypsies.

I've been warned about the gypsies in Rome, who are reputed to be pickpockets, beggars and all-around nightmares for the naive tourist. My first encounter with one of these golden-skinned women, however, was very appreciated. I should confess that I love gypsies. Love the legends about them, love the warnings about them, even love the fear of them. I've always wanted to be a gypsy like those glorified by Aladdin or Shakira: wild, exciting, unpredictable and brave when it matters. So I was somewhat determined to like these women no matter what. My first gypsy friend rescued me when I was gazing with bewilderment at the maachine that was supposed to easily sell me my train ticket to Cortona. She appeared behind me and patiently walked me through the process; only after my ticket had printed did she ask for money and only then did I realize she was not just another helpful Italian. I assume that no one who knows my crazy belief that I can help those who may or may not deserve it will be surprised that I gave her a couple of euros; I did, however, manage to say "no" to all the other gypsies who continued to appear at metro stops.

Armed with a fully-charged camera and a fresh pair of shoes, I journeyed to the Spanish Steps...kind of. I actually got deliciously lost and walked by many of the over-fancy hotels and even, I think, an embassy or two. After such grandeur perhaps it's no surprise that the Spanish Steps were an enormous disappointment. They're steps and, even when backed by a fancy building, are not unlike the amazing architecture all over the city - I really don't understand the fascination they hold for many. As I was dodging groups of tourists on the Steps, however, I did meet Pietro - a very nice older Italian guy (not that kind of older, Suzanne! Just old-enough-to-not-be-threatening kind of older) who lived outside of Rome but had just ridden his Vespa into town to pay bills. (Which does beg the question: what bills are paid near the Spanish Steps?) He quickly gave up on my horrifically basic Italian (every time an Italian breaks into flawless English, I feel a little bit smaller as a person), but before he ran to pay his bills he did make sure that I was able to say what he believed to be the most important Italian phrase: Mi scusi, un caffe, per piacere!

My five-minute chat with Mr. Vespa ended at Piazza Spagna 26, the house that contains the Keats-Shelley museum and an address that had me baffled until Pierto pointed it out. Keats died there which is, of course, slightly depressing - especially in the room that contains his old bed and a death mask. But the libraries in the museum were amazing and it was worth a few euro to spend some time with the guy who wrote something as wonderful as "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

Another hour of being completely lost, this time in the upper-end shopping district. My enjoyment of the window shopping was dimmed slightly by the crowds and constant threat of being run over by a Mercedes. (If I'm going to be hit by a car, I'd really prefer if it were something more unique than a Mercedes. A Ferrari, perhaps?) I did greatly enjoy seeing Superman walking down the street, though - after all, surely he could prevent random Mercedes-linked killings on the street? A small film crew followed him but didn't provide any clues as to what they were doing.

After resorting to tourist-style map glancing and street sign gazing, I was still lost. Every street I thought would take me home instead led further away. Being lost is very enjoyable, though, and every street made it worth the effort. A side street somewhere along Via del Corso became crowded with dozens of people standing in the street, all eating multi-colored gelato. I figured anything worthy of that much attention must be worth trying, so I joined the extremely long line down the street. After all, it had been at least two hours since I'd had gelato. (Nope, I'm not exaggerating the degree of my gelato addiction!) This gelato was indeed worth the wait (when I got to the hotel, I discovered that the place was Giolitti, a place that has served gelatto in that spot since 1900!) Over 60 flavors from which the baffled mind must choose - I commiserated with a honeymooning American couple who were with me in line, but in the end, of course, we were each on our own for this difficult life decision. I finally ended up with lampone and melone - raspberry and canteloupe - and yes, I managed to order the whole thing in Italian! There are no words for how good good gelatto is so I won't even try to express it.

Now I'm "home," relaxing in my hotel while listening to the conversations in the street below my window. I was supposed to join a three-hour walking tour of the city tonight - I'd made reservations before I left Arizona - but just couldn't bear to go. I've been walking around Rome for over 12 hours almost without stop, but mostly I just don't want to share this city with a group of strangers. It was undoubtedly worth the money I'd already paid for the tour to be able to avoid anything that begins with the spine-chilling phrase "Your guide will be carrying a blue folder." Quelle horreur! (Wrong language but I don't know an equally-useful Italian phrase.)

Castel Sant'Angelo

Alas, when I returned to the Castel Sant'Angelo of this morning, it had disappeared! In its place was an old building surrounded by a circus, complete with street performers, t-shirt carts, gelato sellers, and hundreds of people. I'm sure most of the people who are reading these blog entries read my earlier enthusiasm and grimaced knowingly, but I really thought I had found an overlooked treasure! **Insert self-deprecating eye-roll here.** Nevertheless, once I avoided the man selling a bubble machine (no offense, Anna, but it worked better than your system!) and the guy wrapped in a gold sheet to look like King Tut (does he think tourists won't know that Rome isn't in Egypt?!), the time inside the castel was wonderful. I took dozens (hundreds? I stopped counting) of photographs and it's difficult to pick the ones to post here - I love them all. (Dad, I'm sorry for always making fun of you for taking so many pictures of random things!) Walking up the ramp dimmed even the awe I felt on the marble steps of the U.S. Congress - those represent amazing history, but Hadrian's funeral procession happened in this place in 138 AD. It's pretty hard to top the overwhelming sensation of time travel associated with this building. Most of the museum visit blurred slightly - ancient rooms, really old art and military artifacts, busts of ancient emperors. Some moments stood out, though - the angel sculpted by Raffaello in 1544, the view of Rome from the terrace (I took the picture of the crane for you, Jason - it's a global sign of progress!), the small rooms designed to hold emperors' remains, and the pleasant surprise of an outdoor restaurant next to the rooftop viewing area. I'm sitting there now, waiting to have my first Italian spaghetti. I don't expect much - the antipasto that they brought me, I kid you not, was corn nuts in a glass bowl - but I was hungry and hey, there's something to be said for eating in the halls where emperors once walked. Or decayed, as the evidence overwhelmingly suggests.

Roma


Rome is like a drug. It's frightening and threatening at first, but it gets into your blood quickly and then you're hooked. (Note: lest you worry, I have never used nor been addicted to drugs. File this under "imaginative ramblings.") The addiction makes you do crazy things, like spring out of bed before dawn because, despite your still-asleep state and comfortable bed, you suddenly realize that you MUST get to Fontana di Trevi in time to watch the sun's first rays highlight the sculptures. It makes you skip a free breakfast because you need to feel cobblestones under your feet. It makes even the most minimal of preparation routines seem to take forever, because each moment getting ready deducts a moment from time spent out in the car exhaust-filled Roman air. It even causes questioning of basic necessities...do I really need to take a shower and brush my teeth?! (Never fear - I do, and I did.)

After my pilgrimage to "my" Trevi (where I threw in a 2 euro coin - since a small coin is supposed to ensure your return to Roam, I thought I'd up the odds just to make sure I really do get to come back), I wandered through the streets toward the Vatican, watching the city come alive. It was exactly like the opening act of My Fair Lady: store doors rolling open, fruit vendors pulling from their vans brilliantly red berries, fluffy green lettuce and their famous green-purple artichokes from their vans, newspaper deliveries being tossed from the open windows of cars so small I'm not sure how many newspapers they could hold. It took all my energy to keep from bursting into a loud and possibly on-key version of "Wouldn't It Be Loverlyy," but I managed to only hum it as I walked around.

I made it to Vatican City before 7, but not before the international crowds had begun to arrive. (Note to Katy: prepare youself. This story doesn't end well for good Catholics.) I had my first conversation with a group of truly wonderful nuns from all over the world - I was directed to the group by a nun who spoke no English. I complimented the nun who answered my questions on her impeccable English, only to realize that she was holding an American flag. I guess all roads really do lead to Rome! I felt very foolish...next time, I'll just stick to the question about habit-covered hairstyles! Anyway, after brainstorming with a whole group of nuns, a lovely gentleman from Spain and an even lovelier Swiss Guard (how DO they make those tutu-like uniforms look masculine?), I discovered that I was supposed to be standing in the line with the nuns and Spanish man and that my advance order of a ticket for the Papal audience didn't let me cut in line at all. So I joined the line (I'm stalling because I'm trying to break this to you gently, Katy.) After only 10 minutes of standing in front of a loud eastern European couple (who didn't speak English but were covered head-to-toe in New York City tourist apparel so I guess they're on quite a vacation!) and in back of an entire group of teenagers from somewhere (I don't know what language they were speaking but then again, I never understand a word teenagers say even in America), I gave up and wandered down Via Borgo Pio toward the river. It was a decidedly sacreligious decision, but I didn't want to spend the whole morning in line with 10,000 others. (I'm really sorry, Katy! I have carried postcards around for you and Bill, though, so they will at least have the aura of the Vatican. It's certainly not the same as a blessing, but since I threw 2 euro into Trevi, I'm pretty confident that I'll be back to hear the Pope another time.)

My destination after leaving the Vatican was Castel Sant'Angelo, which I expected to be worth a glance before heading across the lovely Ponte Sant'Angelo. I fell in love, though - even more so than when I met "my" Trevi. Castel Sant'Angelo is the remains of years of really rich, powerful people trying to one-up the former rich, powerful people. (For a more accurate and thorough description of this building's amazing history, visit wikipedia.) Whether due to the early hour or the draw of more famous sites, there were no other tourists anywhere to be seen. Instead, I was accompanied only by Italians out for morning runs and dogs out for...well, you know what dogs do on morning walks. (Feel like relieving yourself, Fido? Let's go to the place that was built in 135 AD...ahhh now that's a good boy, now I have to go to work. Ciao!) I walked around the entire building, every step more enthralled with this place that seemed to be forgotten. So imagine my joy when I sighed, put away my camera and prepared to step across to the bridge...then found the door to a museum that's inside the castle!!! I didn't get far, since I was shooed out until the museum opens at 9:00. But my quick glimpse of inner stone stairways and aging statues tells me it will be worth the wait.

In the meantime, I've wandered. I crossed the Ponte Sant'Angelo, guarded by angels who each have their own personality. (I'll let you guess which I labeled "Holy Angel," "Angry Angel," "Perch Angel," and "Gay Angel." The real guards of the bridge, though, are St. Peter and St. Paul. I took a photo of one of them but felt as if he wasn't pleased by it. They're both quite stern.








Many streets and several bridges later, I finally reached Ponte Sisto, the entrance to the Trastavere neighborhood. I've been sitting on a lovely cafe patio for awhile now, surrounded by the sexy magic of Italian conversation as I watch people live their lives right in front of me. The woman walking the black and white dog with only three legs...the polizia popping in for a quick espresso before returning to their task of sitting in their cars on street corners smoking and watching tourists try to navigate walking through traffic...the three women laughing at their small children who swing their feet from stroller seats, then those same women laughing at each other as they return with empty strollers after dropping their kids off at daycare...the big group of art students who are standing in themiddle of the road sketching a building...the man walking back and forth with countless boxes of San Pelligrino bottles for delivery to a ristorante behind me...all of it has a calm, yet bustling rhythm of its own.

And it turns out to be okay that I left my watch at home, since I didn't need it anyway. Not only do the glorious church bells toll each hour all over town - they also ring to mark each 15-minute increment! It's amazing and very useful. They were looking out for me, those ancient Romans who built all these wonderful churches.

Now my iced tea is gone and the art class has finished their sketching and moved out of the street, so it's time for me to begin my wanderings again. On to the Castel Sant'Angelo museum!

P.S. After I typed all this, I realized that there are two different people named Kathy who I know are reading at least some of these blog entries. Aunt Katy, I'm sorry if you thought I kept dropping your name in vain! Though you are much more patient than I am and would have probably stuck around to hear from the Pope, my apologies in the initial entry were targeted at Katy the Senate Ruler.

P.P.S. Craig, remember how you got that graffiti-removal program through the legislature a few years ago for Pima County? I think there's a career for you if you ever want to move to Trastavere!