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...