Sept.9 - Oct. 1, 2006
We are off for the airport and arrive by 5:45am. Easy check-in and security until Kaz & Mich realize they have some things that aren’t allowed. Mich has to go through the whole thing again. We are on the plane with no trouble, except that my legs are crunched in the seat in front of me. We meet a very nice guy sitting next to us, Saint Brian, who works for Evening Magazine. The terminal in Toronto was anything but fancy, since it is in transition, it was bare bones. By the time we transferred terminals, and ate a little something, there wasn’t much time to wait for the next plane. Our bulkhead to Rome at least had plenty of room, but not the most comfortable seats. We were pretty tired of sitting when we arrived, thirty minutes late. Luggage was late coming down, but everyone got theirs just fine and we are out of the terminal where a guy grabs us and we are scammed for a lot of money to the hotel, but it was a nice ride.
Our hotel, the Cambridge, is close to the train station and we spy the Coliseum and Constantine’s Arch on the way. The hotel has advertised itself as being wheelchair accessible and is so with the use of a stair-climbing apparatus. I am spared the hassle of transferring into their chair when 4 strong young men offer to lift me the 10 steps after we return from our afternoon excursion. Anne and company have loaded their bags into their rooms and we discover that mom has mislaid her wallet with I.D, credit and bank cards and traveler checks. Anxious moments ensue and we try to call Patty at home unsuccessfully.
It is warm and pleasant and still plenty of light left in the day so we, Anne, Lisa, Kaz and Mich and I head towards the train station in hopes of catching the #64 bus that takes one towards the Vatican but our destination is the Piazza Navonna and the nearby ancient Pantheon. Mom and Mary stay behind to rest after the long flight and try to get on local time. We skip our stop and are forced to retrace our path a few blocks before traveling down a side street and see the marvelous Bernini statues in the center of Piazza Navonna. I have naturally seen reproductions in my art history books but with the added sights, sounds and smells it is a complete experience.
I am concerned that the Pantheon might be closing soon so urge my companions along. Anne struggles with the cobblestones but it’s only bad in a few spots. The ancient pagan temple has been rechristened long ago as a Christian space and the niches that now hold Madonnas and saints had previously been reserved for Zeus and his lesser gods. I’m able to locate Raphael’s tomb and different popes who held in high regard the accomplishments of the ancient engineers, poets and craftsmen. The open occulli is the only light save a small electric light over a gilded portrait of Our Lady.
We are pleased to linger in the piazza with gelato and watch people and tour groups coming and going and find a crack in the exterior wall around the right side of the entrance to deposit one of my pins. We return to Piazza Navonna in search of a spot for dinner and tour the remaining fountains, listen to some musicians and watch portrait artists ply their trade. I would’ve been pleased to eat on the Piazza but Lisa suggests a quieter place around the corner where we sit outside with Spaghetti Vongole for me and Mich and the ladies opt for grilled lamb, chicken and pork. A delicious meal washed down with excellent Brunello and we all feel a little more Roman in the process. It is an easy matter to locate a nearby bus stop for the short ride to the station and a shorter walk to the hotel. Once I’m lifted up the steps, I’m obliged to remove the back wheels from my chair in order to access the elevator to our dinky but comfortable room. Bonnie will come in late this evening and we won’t stay up for her. By my calculations I have been up nearly 36 hours and even the adrenalin of being back in Italy has worn off. By 9:30 we are in bed and sound asleep.
9/11 anniversaryWe barely notice the event but pray for those affected souls and their families. I start my routine at 4:30 and Anne gets up and prepares for our departure. We will all catch the 12:30 pm train and I am slightly miffed at having to leave Rome so soon. Anne detects my displeasure and is determined to help me see the other ancient wonder that I had missed on our previous trip here. We have a brief breakfast and again struggle with the elevator and enlist help to get down the steps. There is a street market going on around the corner and we are happy to stroll down the middle of the street instead of negotiating the awkward sidewalks.
We catch the #75 bus but it initially heads in the wrong direction before returning to the station and down the hill towards the ancient Roman Coliseum. It is quite warm as we approach the structure and are in awe of this marvel of despotic entertainment. My admission is free since I’m unable to access the whole area and we enter the gate and find our way to a vantage point where we can appreciate the construction and try to imagine the horrific events that passed for leisure pastimes in millennium gone by. No problem finding a hole to stick one of my pins here. To the right of an inner gate paved with marble stones the pock marked brickwork now holds a creation of mine that will also last the ages. As we begin to exit the arena I notice that there is an elevator where I might’ve been able to catch the view from an elevated viewpoint. I always try to save something for next time and we don’t have the proper change for a souvenir squashed penny.
We’re back on the bus to the station where I wait while Anne gets the bags and collects our companions. I am saddened to learn that a thief has stolen Mich’s bag that contained his camera and glasses he wears at the computer. The train is late but we get a lift to load me and are on our way to Umbria. The weather remains beautiful and I read a bit and listen to my ipod while heading north. We pass towns that are more and more familiar. Spello, Spoletto, Termi, Assisi and finally Perugia where we disembark and go next door to get our 2 rental cars. It’s a tight fit but with the help of a bike rack on the back for my chair we’re all loaded and head west towards Lago Trasimeno and our rendezvous at the Villa above the north side of the lake in Lisciano Niccone. An exquisite view to the west and we are here in plenty of time for them to unload and return to town for some marketing. Bonnie, mom, Mary and Lisa decide to stay and eat in a café in town and Anne, Kaz and Mich bring back fixings for Ravioli, salad, olives and local wine. The sunset is terrific, the meal divine and our gentle companions a joy to be with as we begin to share what will be abundant memories of a very special time together.
Cortona will be our first destination on our Italian idyll. Everyone is loaded and excited to see this ancient medieval town that rises dramatically above the surrounding plains. A mighty fortress in times past and the birthplace of Piero de Cortona, Signorelli and futurist Gino Severini, it is now famous with tourists as the Italian home of author Francis Mayes who’s books “Bella Tuscany” and others have made this a Mecca in the region. We can easily spot the tourists with guide books in hand on account of their corpulence and even meet a couple from Bellevue who are on a tour of the entire country. The town appears unchanged from our previous visit except for the more numerous exclusive clothing shops and galleries along the main street.
We are able to locate the first small etching that is really all I’m searching for, a delicate scene with a tower and strong contrasts. We have all split up and will rendezvous at the main square at 2pm. It’s quite warm and we are delighted to view the countryside from our perch on Garibaldi Square. We are aware of the siesta but it doesn’t seem to take effect. Galleries and shops continue to stay open and Anne finds a beautiful glass bottle stopper.
Kaz and Mich join us for lunch on the other main square and the gnocchi has a rich white sauce but is very tasty but not as good as Kaz and Mich’s lasagna. From there Anne struggles me down a hill to the cathedral that I remember well from before with its fabulous view and collection of saint’s reliquaries and darkly religious paintings. I am left here in the gloomy cool of the interior while they explore some of the steep streets that radiate from the square. I am pleased to see that the museums that were closed on our last visit are now open and that gives me hope for the many others that we missed. I am obliged to acquiesce to the wishes of Anne who isn’t interested in seeing ancient Etruscan relics and will bide my time until other opportunities present themselves. I have recited some prayers and am the only one in the cathedral until Anne and friends collect me. We load and are soon on our way back to the villa and enjoy the sights that make Umbria so special. An ancient fortress rises above a villa and we hope to get a photo that would make a fine painting.
It is well into the siesta time and no stores are open yet for us to stock our cupboards so return to the villa, relax a bit and then get my painting gear set up on the table that looks out over the valley below. I am surprisingly awake and feel like I might be getting onto local time. Mich decides to take a nap and the ladies return to Mercantale for groceries. I paint and channel surf and am perplexed by the plethora of channels that feature naked women offering their phone sex services on regular television. The ladies all return and begin to prepare a scrumptious feast of grilled chicken that Anne has liberally spiced with local herbs and a large demijohn of red wine that isn’t the best but will suffice. For $7.00 it’s a bargain and our entire meal costs about the same as the coperto that the restaurant charges just to sit down at the table. Anne is fading fast but I persuade her into challenging me to a game of cribbage. Any thoughts I might have had in taking advantage of her exhaustion are dashed as she proceeds to skunk me. By 9pm we are ready to retire for we will attempt to beat the crush of tourists that are bound to be in Pienza domani and we will also try to see nearby Montepulciano. Where my sleepiness went I haven’t a clue. I was awake all night and my BP was a struggle as usual. I may avail myself of the siesta time or get hopped up on caffeine.
I’m really dragging but am excited to return to a town that was a highlight of our trip last time. Pienza is famous for their pecarino and virgin olive oil. We take a rather circuitous route past Castigliogno de Lago and Chiusi and climb into the Tuscan hill country. Anne’s driving is superb as usual and my lack of sleep affects my ability to navigate properly. We pass the spa town of Terme that has grown quite a bit and recognize a few wineries that boast the regional Nobile and Brunello varieties that are distinct to the area. It takes over 2 hours to arrive in Pienza and it is just as we remember it. Our first stop is at a pungent cheese shop where we taste different kinds of new and aged goat cheese and purchase a round to split later back at the villa. It’s a good thing it is sealed in wax for the aroma would’ve permeated everything in my bag. There are no bad photos to be taken and the narrow side streets offer views looking over the countryside that are rich in color and dotted with golden farm houses that like our villa have been converted to cater to the agritourismo industry. The famed Latte de Luna Café is at the end of a long viale and Anne and I recall the delightful meal we had back in’99. I again savor the duck and sample the dishes our companions have ordered.
Siesta is in slow progress and the few shops that have remained open are doing a half-hearted business. I’m glad we had taken the time to enter the small chiesa near the cathedral with its deteriorating frescoes done in Giotto’s style and I can make out an annunciation scene and various saint’s exploits. The cool clouds have burned off and a brilliant sun accompanies our wanderings. Anne notices that the vendors are not as pleasant as our first time and we are told ‘Don’t touch!” the new cheese and samples are not offered as freely. Mom buys a beautiful glass bottle stopper and we get a few postcards. It’s a shame that Lisa decided not to join us on account of a worsening cold and will recuperate for the day at the villa. Tour groups have arrived en masse and begin to crowd the main street as we uscita under the arch that marks the beginning of town. Gathering clouds begin to sprinkle onto our windshield but I am still hoping to tour nearby Montepulciano.
We take the town exit but the rain gets heavier and we decide to not push our luck. We then notice a sign pointing towards Castilione de Lago that promises to cut our travel time in half and we have plenty of time to stop at a supermarket for vittles and a sweet bottle of wine to improve the demijohn we got ieri. The other car beats us back to the villa in spite of a wrong turn on the autostradde that nearly forced them to drive to Firenze. Our evening meal now wafts through my nostrils. Anne is roasting red peppers and zucchini and we will add leftovers from lunch to a regal repast. I paint a little more on yesterday’s effort and if I stay awake past 9pm it will be a miracle. We are debating tomorrow’s destination but will not be joining the ladies in Spoletto. I’m pushing for Florence since there is no BP and I’m hoping midweek will keep the crowds to a minimum.
I’m glad we’re able to be flexible and allow our spontaneous side to predominate our actions. I’m thankful to have slept soundly even though a disturbing dream had Anne leave me in favor of operating a thrift shop for a homeless shelter. Lisa is feeling a little better and will join mom, Mary and Bonnie for a trip to Arezzo and then to Monterchi. We too will head north and study the extraordinary frescoes and paintings by Piero della Francesco. It is cool and cloudy but doesn’t appear too threatening but I bring along my sweatshirt just in case. First though, we settle with Giovanna, the landlord who is pleased to receive our wad of cash for the villa rent. She tells us where I can get my pants washed in nearby Marcantale and soon we are on the autostradde heading towards Arezzo. Somehow we get redirected onto a service road and it takes nearly an hour before we’ve traveled the 45 miles. There is beautiful farm country and some amazing villas along the way.
Arezzo is bigger, faster and more crowded with tourists as well as locals than we remember it but the further we ascend into the old town the calmer it becomes. Just as before we rather stumble across the chiesa of San Francesco that boasts Piero’s most famous fresco cycle, the finding of the true cross. I see what I can from the nave while Mich waits outside for Anne and Kaz to return from parking the car. After they come we get tickets to view the frescos from within the chapel and listen to the recorded commentary that describes them in detail. I am glad that the restorers have left those damaged areas blank rather than filling in the missing areas with inferior work. We are ready to have lunch and find a small café within a block and have meat, pasta, calamari and pizza. The weather is not improving as we reload into the car and head towards our next encounter with Piero in his hometown of San Sepolcro. Highway construction forces us onto side roads where we stop briefly to purchase some freshly exhumed porcini mushrooms.
It’s drizzling when we arrive in San Sepulcro and locate the Museo Civico to see his paintings of the Miscordia, angels, the glorious Resurrection and other minor pieces. I am also pleased to see a terrific painting by Pontormo showing the martyrdom of St. Quentin with an enormous spike through his body that is held in stocks. The lower floor is accessible and we descend to the brick vaulted basement to see the comprehensive collection of liturgical vestments and an astounding array of chalices, reliquaries and ancient locks with their corresponding keys. We have waited until now to return a call from Kaz and Mich’s son who have sent them an email message to please call home. While standing in a light rain in the main square they call and hear the dreadful news that Mich’s younger brother has passed on from unexpected and still unknown reasons. Our hearts go out to them and we are at a loss on the way to console them best. We load up and have a difficult time getting to the highway and Anne is determined to find a shorter route back to the villa rather than all the way to Perugia and around. We exit at Umbertide and circle town several times before stopping at a gas station for directions and head north towards Citta del Castello before cutting southwest for the last 15 kilometers. The rain is heavy at times and my wheelchair on the back of the car is drenched. The rack is also leaving small indentions on the trunk lid and we will find a way to pad it from getting worse. Back at the villa we compare notes with the other ladies and discover that we would’ve been disappointed in Monterchi to find that the famous painting of a pregnant Madonna was completely inaccessible. We have our leftovers for dinner and enjoy a caldo chocolate before retiring. Rain continues.
Flexibility is the name of the game. After the long driving Anne and Bonnie endured yesterday I am happy to go the short distance to Assisi. This was one of our intended destinations anyway and since the upper church was closed for earthquake restorations back in ’99, I am especially excited about seeing the famed Giotto frescoes detailing the life of Italy’s patron saint. Bonnie has other plans and wishes to shop in Deruta to the south of Perugia. Mom wants to inquire after her lost traveler’s checks and Lisa feels she needs to know how to get to the car rental so they will go and see Perugia and have lunch before motoring south. Unfortunately, their maps are either too detailed or out of date and they spend the day in frustrating travel. They should’ve followed us. We had an extraordinary visit to the main pilgrimage site in Umbria. Large crowds were expected but for the most part are patient and courteous. We pass by the cathedral in the lower city and remark how modern and upgraded the area has become. A flower-lined boulevard now leads toward upper Assisi and we are surprised to see that there are no traffic guards directing traffic.
With little initial effort we park next to the cathedral of San Francesco and enter the lower church. A mass is in progress and we have arrived just as the host is being consecrated. Kaz, Mich and Anne head towards the stairs that lead down to St. Francis’ crypt while I devote my attention to spiritual matters and join the other communicants who begin to line up to receive the holy Eucharist. The priest holds it up and recites the ritual phrase before placing it on my tongue. I pass on the sip from the chalice and let the wafer dissolve in my mouth, as I turn inward at the back of the chapel. The final prayers are translated into English and we are directed to go in peace. Fortified in spirit I am now prepared to examine the marvelous frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue and others. When we were here before an installation of priests was in progress and as exciting as it was to witness the white clad novitiates and hear the angelic voices of a children’s choir I was not free to explore the area around the main altar. It is a serene joy to absorb the holy surroundings and knowing that St. Francis’ remains and relics lie directly below my wheels I imagine the entire structure pulsing with the prayers of millions. I am pleased to share what knowledge I can with Kaz and Mich while Anne appreciates the fine inlaid choir stalls and side chapels. I ask her about the saint’s crypt and whether it is possible to deposit one of my pins close by. She says that indeed many small written indulgences have been left near his interred body and though a large tour group has just descended she is willing and finds a crack to set one of my pins close to Francis.
The early threat of rain has completely abated and we emerge from the lower cathedral to brilliant, warm sunshine with puffy cumulous clouds breezing overhead. A long, steep roadway is before us in order to access the upper cathedral and we manage by using Mich’s belt and another strap to pull my chair while Anne pushes from behind. We pause at the top to enjoy the tremendous view and recall how at this very spot I received blessings from visiting priests on our last visit. Nothing quite so inspirational will occur this time and we linger while Anne grabs some pizza to consume before we enter the sacred confines of the upper church of St. Francesco. Anne and I listen to the video guide that describes the illustrations of Giotto that line the walls and the massive restoration effort that followed the devastating earthquake of ’97. A miraculous job has returned the cathedral to its former glory with only modest evidence of the labor involved. It is a great blessing for me to see this after the disappointment from before and I am reminded to not be too anxious or upset about missing some attraction and that time will always create other opportunities. We offer our individual prayers and I feel the stirrings of the Holy Ghost as I gaze heavenward to admire the artistic creations. We pose for pictures outside and reattach the straps for the climb to the main piazza. We stop in a print shop partly on the way up to purchase a signed print that shows a typical staircase up a narrow street. It gets pretty steep and the crowds and traffic heavier as we approach the piazza and I am happy to linger on the square while they enter the ancient temple of Minerva and some of the other shops. One store specializes in religious material and instead of feeling trivialized by the wide assortment of crosses, chalices, candles and vestments I actually feel my spirit amplified and come away with a few holy cards and a pin with a crucifix by Cimabue painted on it. We will soon come across the original.
As we continue strolling down the viale and look in the many shops, we stop in a gallery and are tempted by the paintings of a young artist named Grimaldi. His colorful paintings of churches, squares and buildings remind me of certain works of mine and I’m pleased to acquire a small, signed print and corresponding t-shirt. Anne stops in a pasticheria for some extravagant pastries and Kaz and Mich attempt to call home. We see the large church of St. Chiara (Clare) and enter through a side door. The cross on the pin I just purchased is suspended above the altar and we learn that it is before this crucifix that St. Francis received the message from God to “Restore my church”. Behind closed doors we hear the incantations of a priest conducting a mass and I read a plaque that explains that the crypt of St. Clare is below us. Anne’s birthday coincides with her feast day and she pays her respects in solemn silence. A magnificent view is to be had from the plaza in front of the church and we inhale the Umbrian breezes deeply before beginning our downward trek.
By the time we have made our way down dodging traffic and pedestrians we are more than ready for a refreshing gelato. One last climb to the car and we are loaded and on our way back. It’s rush hour and after a few harrowing moments getting past Perugia we are safely in Tuoro and begin climbing back towards our villa. A ristorante is above the town with an amazing view of the lake and we stop for dinner of pasta, meat and vino de locale. Anne sees an image of Christ in the clouds and I recognize it complete with a crown of thorns in a slightly darker hue. We have had a truly blessed day that we will hope to repeat with mom before our time here is finished.
Rain! Well, it had been threatening for a couple days and we had endured a few light showers but this is the real thing. Wind and water conspire to squash any plans I might have had. Not that this dyed in the wool Seattleite couldn’t have managed to deal with rain but my chair mounted on the bike rack would’ve been drenched and a half before going a kilometer. Instead I will be satisfied to stay in and write my journal and postcards, watch a little television and paint. The others will go to nearby Castiglione de Lago to market and tour the local sites. Anne cooks a sumptuous feast of risotto for all of us and the day has its highlight. A slow day and I hope we don’t have too many like it.
Another day of rain. Rats! I’m glad we saw Assisi the other day since Anne will serve as tour guide for Mom and Lisa while Mary and Bonnie will explore Umbertide and San Sepolcro. Kaz and Mich will hang out with me and I barely move 10 feet all day. I begin with a crossword puzzle after breakfast and read a few chapters of my book “The Dante Club”. The weather continues to be dreary as I break out my painting gear and attempt another watercolor of the same scene as before. This one turns out much better and I do another using a postcard from Pienza as my inspiration. Flies are a constant irritant and Mich manages to exterminate a few of the worst offenders. I was going to leave the TV off for this Sunday, not wanting to contaminate my eyes but succumb to the temptation and come across “The Seven Year Itch”. Even in Italian Marilyn Monroe is delightful as the coquette and Tom Ewell’s character fumbles amid his over-active imagination.
The ladies return within minutes of each other and Mom’s experience exceeds her expectation. They toured the lower cathedral while mass was in session and Anne particularly appreciates time spent in St. Clare’s chapel. We may go back together if time allows but I’m very glad Mom could be there. Our evening meal is a modest but tasty affair of barley soup topped off by cake with blackberry sauce. We watch Maria Nuovo win the Pallio in Sienna on TV. Firenze domani.
Florence. The good, bad and the ugly. I thought that it would be a good thing to go on a Monday even though the art museums would be closed. That way we could see the Duomo, Piazza Vecchio, Ponte Vecchio and do some shopping without worrying about seeing the masterpieces in the Uffizi, Petit Palais, Bargello or Accademia. Surely we would find another day to see just those attractions. We are awake, breakfasted and loaded in time to be on the road just past sunrise and fly north on the autostradde. There are many trucks but Anne’s driving skills get us on the outskirts of the renaissance capital in under 2 hours. Since we are meeting the others and making transportation connections to Venezia at the train station we pass by the first exit into Firenze and encounter traffic jams and are turned around getting to our destination. We knew we would encounter some frustration but before we’ve even started our day’s exploration does not bode well. At least it’s a gorgeous sunny day with not a hint of rain. Eventually, we find our way to the station after an unscheduled tour of the inner city and meet up with the others. Bonnie and Mary will take a bus tour of the city while the rest of us navigate on foot.
Our first stop naturally is the Duomo with its magnificent façade that glistens from recent cleaning. We enter through the side door but my companions are limited to 4 so Kaz and Mich graciously wait in the side Piazza while we tour the extraordinary interior. I am very pleased to be here with Mom who tells me how as a child in Catholic school she first learned of this place and how she thought then that she would never see it her lifetime. I recall myself how I thought in ’99 that it would be my only time to experience the sacred confines. It has warmed up considerably when we exit and we are all in the mood for lunch. I suggest an eatery that we had patronized with Marney and Page on our last visit that features a view of the Piazza Vecchio where one can see the Loggia statues and the copy of David.
Our meal of linguini and scampi is very good and we feel rested enough to tackle the abrupt cobblestone streets and the hoards of tourists. Anne strikes up a conversation with 2 British ladies at an adjoining table who are on a cruise and it occurs to me that a multitude of tour directors have perfected their groups in and out of the city and this may be the cause of the thousands of tourists everywhere. I feel for Anne who is pushing me and has to pay so much attention to the irregular walkway that she is unable to appreciate the beautiful buildings, statuary or even the stylishly dressed senoras who course the viales as we make our way to the next requisite attract; the Ponte Vecchio. I don’t recall the going being so rough but it is and the struggle is exasperating. We catch our breath and take a few pictures at the apex of the bridge and my mind drifts back pleasantly to the evening we spent here listening to musicians and admiring the city lights after the day trippers had gone. Now we are among the masses and continue towards the Petit Palais, knowing that at least some of it is closed. Half of the street has been repaved and it’s a little smoother but knowing we’ve a long walk back causes some anxiety. I’m able to locate a shop selling etchings and purchase a beautiful skyline of Florence. On the opposite side of the Arno we stop for a gelato with the idea that it would refresh us for the road back but are aggravated that a vendor has overcharged Kaz and Mich for their ice cream cones instead.
We pick up a few postcards and a pin on our way back and take time to admire Ghiberti’s wonderful golden doors of the Baptistery but do not enter the space itself, as it is way too crowded. The central market lies between the train station, and us so we examine the stalls and buy a Harley Davidson t-shirt for Scott on our way back to the rendezvous spot. We have little problem getting out of Florence but miss our exit returning home and are obliged to drive through Chusi and back up past Castiglione de Lago. We’re able to pick up our laundry and a few items for dinner on the way back and enjoy yet another fabulous meal of tortellini, beets and bean salad. After 4 glasses of wine the trying time in Florence blurs to a distant memory and we begin our preparations for Venice.
I had initial reservations about taking the train for our overnight in Venezia. My logic was rooted in our inability to travel at our own pace and stopping along the way to see other sites, notably the fine mosaics and Dante’s tomb in Ravenna. After the hassles of driving to Firenze however, I was more than willing to shelve my desires and go with the group plan. We rise in plenty of time to load in the dark and drive the short distance to Terentolla, the train station that will first take us back to Firenze where we will transfer to our first-class seats for the remainder of the ride to the jewel of the Adriatic. The weather is superb and the morning mist clears off to reveal a warm, clear day that will be another one to remember with delight. We pass farmlands dotted by the occasional church steeple and nearly every hill has a castle or remnant of a fortress atop it.
I am deeply engrossed in my murder mystery “The Dante Club” who’s perpetrator is killing off his victims by imitating the torments of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” the main sleuths; Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow follow leads that more and more are pointing to their inner circle for suspects. It is an enjoyable read and all the more so with its literary allusions and sprinkling of Italian phrases. Mom has finished my book “The Broker” and passed it on to Mich who reads about the fugitive under government protection as he hides out in Bologna. On the train we pass Bologna itself and many smaller towns that are heavily industrialized, especially Mestre, just outside Venezia where many of the tourist oriented laborers reside.
The train vomits its passengers among the crowds that have already arrived by plane, bus and cruise ship and the helpful porters manage my chair with an experienced ease that demands no gratuity and little thanks. We are grateful nevertheless for their assistance and that of the informatzione staff who supply us with a key to operate the lifts over some of the bridges and confirmation and directions to the 4 different hotels that our group will be ensconced in. we attempt to set a rendezvous in San Marcos Square for 2 hours hence before going our separate ways and thankfully we have packed light enough that it is fairly easy for us to load onto the passenger ferry that will take us a few stops to where our supposedly accessible hotel should be welcoming us with open arms. We get our first taste of disappointment after getting directions from a restaurant m’aitre d who points us down a rather dingy side street along a canal and a steep bridge that is impossible for me to negotiate. I don’t let my apprehensions show as I suggest that I relax here and enjoy the sun reflecting off the façade of a chiesa dedicated to San Sebastione while Anne scouts ahead, makes our hotel accommodations and deposits our bag. After the first hour goes by with no sight of her my concerns deepen and when finally she reappears with Sabine, the proprietors daughter and still clutching our overnight bag, I fear for the worst. Sure enough, and without too much surprise, I listen while Anne relates the bad news. Not only is the hotel entirely inaccessible but also no one is able to find us a suitable replacement. Various unpleasant scenarios come to mind including staying up all night among the rats and dead pigeons in San Marcos or taking turns sleeping on benches at the train station. Anne will return to the hotel with Sabine in hopes that a place has been found here at the height of the post summer season while I say a few prayers to St. Sebastion and watch the various watercraft ply their trade along the canal. Brown clad nuns scurry past me on their own missions and stylish Italian girls with their Armani shades sachet among the tourists who are coming and going.
We are now way behind our rendezvous time and give up hope of reuniting with our party until tomorrow at the train station for our return trip. The smile on Anne’s face when she returns is reassuring but tinged with more disappointment when she relates how we have secured lodging but that we will not be reimbursed the money we’ve already spent on this first, inaccessible hotel since it was booked through cheaphotels.com. Anne will try to get a credit or money back upon our return home. We are pleasantly surprised as we return to the Roma stop and check in with the St. Chiara Hotel. Not only is the hotel named after St. Clare, who’s feast day coincides with Anne’s birthday but our room is spacious, clean and comes with a full buffet breakfast and Murano chandelier. It’s going to be an expensive night and I’m glad we only here the one night. Anne is relieved and happily snaps many pictures as we reenter the water ferry and cruise the Grand Canal.
Venezia has changed little. There are perhaps more tourists than before but it is manageable and the cobblestones are fairly easy to maneuver. It is easy to spot the American tourists since the are twice the size of the average European, care little about their appearance and are draped with cameras, extra clothing and holding any number of maps, tour guides and trinkets purchased at inflated prices no doubt. The wonderful buildings and the exotic light effects reflecting off the choppy canals pleasingly distract us. The photos Anne is taking will keep me occupied with painting for a long time. We are determined to have dinner at Alla Madonna, the famously inexpensive establishment where we enjoyed a terrific meal during our last time here with Bonnie. It won’t open until 7pm so we assume a red-clothed table near the Rialto Bridge that is reserved for those who only want a drink and pass some relaxed time watching the passing scene and enjoying the conversation with each other, the engaging waiter and a traveling couple at the next table. We’re ready to tour a few back streets while waiting for Alla Madonna to open and almost immediately come across an art gallery where we acquire 2 small but excellent etchings showing typical Venetian scenes. Anne sets one of my pins into half-dried cement along the Grand Canal but when we return after dinner we discover that someone has come along and pried it up already. Our meal is an unforgettable affair and Anne even recognizes the gray-haired waiter from our last visit. We share a mixed seafood grill and delicious risotto along with a liter of the rosso de casa. The funky atmosphere is enlivened by paintings that have no relation to each other and have probably been painted by friends of the proprietors. One in particular, of a Madonna and baby with the Rialto Bridge in the background was clearly drawn on a tablecloth before being framed and proudly displayed. Indecipherable conversation is all around us and the place is packed within minutes of it opening its doors.
We have been one of the first to arrive and are pleased to enter the cooler evening air with our next stop San Marcos Square, not in hopes of meeting any of our companions but to see the illuminations of the Cathedral and tower and to listen to the fine string bands that take turns playing traditional popular and classic tunes in front of the restaurants lining the square. The flash on our camera is impeding the kinds of shots we wish to take and in an effort to access the menu to shut it off Anne inadvertently erases every picture that she has taken today and the previous day in Florence. Horror grips her and I reassure her that we still have plenty of time to get photos and secretly I am excited that we may yet return to Florence now to replace the lost images. The golden mosaics on St. Marco’s Cathedral glisten in the evening light and the gentle breeze off the Adriatic cools our wine induced heads. We hope to rise early and check in at Bonnie and Mary’s hotel in the morning so reluctantly leave San Marcos and float back to our appointed room. On the crowded boat ride back a lady next to us notices the purple and gold W on my sweatshirt and asks if I’m a U of WA Husky. It turns out that she and her husband, who teaches digital photography at the Art Institute of Seattle are on a teaching holiday with 12 other students. We enjoy a lively discussion and he is able to set our camera settings properly. The right footrest on my wheelchair has come loose and is causing my foot to slip off and we will require assistance in the morning by the hotel staff to correct the problem. In the meantime we ignore this and any other problems we had encountered during the day or the exorbanite cost we are incurring to have this adventure and hold each other dearly in grateful embrace.
We have slept well with dreams of gliding along golden encrusted byways amid towering edifices featuring statues that seem to serenade us as we pass. After our filling breakfast of pastry, fruit and cappuccino we see that even at 7:30am there is tremendous activity on shore as well as along the waterways. The sky is grey with some blue beginning to peek through and we both assume the sun will burn through and we will be treated to another glorious sunny day. As we are waiting for the ferry to take us back towards San Marcos we hear 2 loud thunder claps but are reluctant to go back for our rain gear and lose our place in line. Once we’re on board and on our way Anne begins to retake the pictures we lost the previous night. Early sprinkles rapidly develop into a raging downpour and we’re barely under cover aboard our craft and consider staying on board in order to avoid dealing with the torrent. As we approach the San Marco stop it abates briefly and we decide to go for it but it picks up again and we make a beeline towards the covered portico of the Doge’s Palazzo. We’re both fairly drenched but it’s warm and eventually we will dry off. Anne buys an Italiano jacket and we wait amongst the other unprepared tourists and listen in on some of the tour guide’s explanations of the palace and surrounding area.
We walk around to the front of the palace and see that the entrance is before us and our admission is complimentary. I had become resigned to the fact that very little is accessible and had the weather been nice we probably would not have even inquired. As fate would have it we enjoy a remarkable tour of the regal apartments and meeting halls that are filled with masterpieces by Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto and even a collection by Bosch. Anne takes many pictures out the open windows and we are pleased to see that the rain has passed over and the rest of the day will be full of brilliant sunshine. The church of San Marco is only accessible by elevated gangways and the incredibly long line would have deterred us anyway so we settle for wandering the back streets and window shop with the other tourists. The prices are ridiculous here near San Marcos and we know where the cheaper market is so we re-board the ferry, take many more pictures and disembark near the Rialto Bridge. Anne takes my picture next to an ancient and deteriorated bust of the Madonna and the foot of the bridge where we have hidden a pin that will not be so easily detected. It is lunchtime and we stroll the back streets until we come across a peaceful square with an outside covered dining patio. We split a light and delicious meal of risotto, mixed vegetables and salad with the local wine. It’s a shame to be in a rush even though our time of departure is quickly approaching so we ignore the time and casually enjoy our last meal in Venice.
Anne finds a beautiful glass bottle stopper and we get postcards and a Venetian bacchanal mask pin to add to my collection. With reluctance and some minor difficulty we retrace our path in order to locate an accessible route to a ferry landing. I’m let off outside the train station where I relish the final moments while Anne returns to the hotel for our bag before we all link up and compare our experiences. It has been a glorious excursion into history, art and memorable meals and we will certainly look forward to our next opportunity to taste again this timeless and unique city. Anne and I again have excellent seats on our ride back to Firenze and have a light dinner while waiting for our connecting train.
The other girls have managed to catch a slightly earlier train but it will stop in every small town on the way back to Terentolla where they will have a late pizza dinner. When we return, get our car and drive back to the villa we have preceded them and this causes us concern since we assumed they had plenty of time to get back. When they return 15 minutes after we have there is general relief but I am so filled with experience that my mind races most of the night and I will catch up on needed rest by staying in most of the next day.
After the extraordinary experience of Venice it seems appropriate to chill out at the villa and I’m able to detail these notes. We enjoy a remarkable glow from a glorious time that we will always remember. It is another sunny and pretty day and I spend a portion of it reading my murder mystery book and painting while basking under the Tuscan sun. Our evening is enlivened by a journey to nearby Castiglione de Lago for a fantastic meal overlooking Lago Trasimeno. I have scrumptious roasted chicken and share Anne’s mixed seafood grill. We see bats swooping overhead during a pink sunset. Mary treats me to a small bottle of Brunello afterwards and we all share her purchase of some potent grappa once we’re safely back at the barn.
Anne takes some beautiful pictures of dew laden spider webs as we prepare to load for the short drive to Umbertide and then on to Citta de Castello. In Umbertide it is chilly in the shade but the morning fog quickly burns off and the day warms up nicely. We tour some ancient streets and Anne shows me a curious wall painting that seems to suggest the Madonna preparing to chastise the nursing Christ child. While waiting for a small pinacoteca to open Anne enters a kitchen shop and buys 2 cruets to hold oil and vinegar. The art museum is across the tracks and the pregnant attendant is a little late in opening the door. The wheelchair lift is inoperable so we are obliged to unlock a side door and lift me over a steep threshold. The masterpiece of the small space is a magnificent work by Luca Signorelli, a large altarpiece showing a deposition of the cross with many figures and attendant scenes on the accompanying predella. Also by Signorelli is a haunting face of the suffering messiah life size that is in a case that we can get right up to. The gallery attendant presents us with posters on our way out and Lisa stumbles and falls hard on the cobblestone street but is not hurt badly. We load up and briefly drive the autostradde and in no time are at the outskirts of the walled city of Citta de Castello.
The narrow streets are confusing at first but we secure parking and are thankful that the cobblestones aren’t too bad. Bonnie doesn’t want to visit the civic art museo and goes her own way with Mary while Mich and Kaz search for an internet café to send a message home. The rest of us consult our trusty maps and soon locate the modest but impressive collection of paintings at the art museum. It is closing for siesta soon but we still are charged full price and the abrupt ramp is over the city’s main sewer line. Whew! The paintings by mostly unknown Italians are all religious in nature and the masterpiece of the collection is a large martyrdom of St. Sebastion by Luca Signorelli. I don’t have time to explore the upper galleries and later learn that some modern works by Carra and de Chirico are included in the collection. With most all shops closed we have no alternative but to stop for lunch and find a secluded patio where I enjoy the mushroom risotto with an excellent side of small onions cooked on a skewer after soaking in balsamic vinegar. We all share tastes of each other’s meals except Mom who fears she is coming down with Lisa’s cold. The red wine is cheaper than the cokes and I have never consumed so much vino before than I have on this trip. It is curious though that I feel only slightly inebriated and suffer no headache or hangover.
Anne had noticed a church devoted to St. Francis on our way into town and after the others have dispersed in different directions we make our way to the church and ask a brown hooded padre to allow us entry even though it is closed for cleaning. The cleaning lady excuses herself so that we can admire the interior in peace and I am flabbergasted to immediately recognize an early Raphael depicting the marriage of Mary and Joseph. A large altarpiece by Vasari is behind a sturdy screen at the other end and we are pleased to deposit a coin in the electric candle devotional before a statue of our lord exposing his sacred heart. Anne then shops with Kaz for groceries and buys some rabbit that she will later prepare for the entire company with polenta, mushrooms and salad. Our last cultural experience of the day is a stop at an enormous building that had once been a tobacco drying facility. I had read how there were frescoes by Parmigianino and other works in the Burri Collection but there appears to be 2 institutions and we are at the contemporary one instead. The unexpected paintings are enormous non-representational works that are stark, bold and only a few feature more than 2 or 3 colors. It is a mild relief to suspend our interpretation of religious symbolism and simply appreciate a singular statement. After returning to the villa we relax with bruschetta and vino while Anne cooks up a terrific meal of rabbit and polenta for everyone. They all eat outside and watch the sunset while Mom and I eat inside. She is feeling a little better and will rest up all day tomorrow. Anne got very little sleep and is currently sacked out on the couch next to me while Kaz and Mich also prepare to turn in early. Good night dear journale.
Bonnie leaves us today for Rome and back home to Seattle. She catches the train out of Torentolla at 2:30 so we have just enough time to explore the lakeside town of Passigano del Lago. It’s Saturday and the sleepy town is even more so during siesta. We stroll along the waterfront and enjoy the warm weather and check out a street market at one end of town. In the distance we can see castles on the islands in the lake and the famous battle between Hannibal and the Roman Legion occurred near Passigano. It would’ve been memorable to take a ferry cruise around the lake but we don’t know how long it might take so decide on a lunch outside the Lido Hotel. I have a full plate of meat while the others have lighter fare. After dropping Bonnie at the train station Mich drives our car while Anne drives the other car back. I set up to do postcards while Kaz, Mich and Anne take a long walk and return with a beautiful bouquet of wildflowers. Mom feels much better and Lisa also has stayed in and rested. We have leftovers for dinner and enjoy conversation with our roommates in the evening. Anne skunks me (again) in cribbage.
Everyone is feeling good but aren’t anxious for driving too far. We had suggested Citta della Pieve some days ago on account of the gruesome and unique depiction of Christ in a red velvet lined coffin above the altar in one of the churches. This has sparked everyone’s interest and since it isn’t far Lisa feels like she can manage the car and follows close behind us after a light breakfast. Anne and I did not sleep well last night partly because of some cross words that could have been suppressed and we both try a little harder to not provoke each other. It is another exquisite day weather wise and we enjoy a pleasant drive through the countryside and climb up to the ancient Etruscan city. We park below the main gate and aren’t too surprised that most of the shops are closed since this is Sunday. As we ascend the viale I recognize a large painting by Perugino through an open door. We enter and after a few moments the attendant informs us that it is 2 euros each to see the painting but for one more we can have a guided tour of the city that will meet outside the cathedral in 15 minutes. We arrive at the rendezvous spot but are soon told that there are no English-speaking tour guides forthcoming. The continuous misrepresentations are becoming tiresome but at least there is a ramp into the cathedral that is just finishing mass. We enter the majestic and sacred space to see more work by Perugino and lesser but still very fine paintings among the side chapels and along the nave. There are also some extraordinary trompe loille renderings of marble surfaces on the pillars and walls.
We next explore the palazzo adjacent to the cathedral and see an ancient Etruscan obelisk and old pagan depictions of the seasons. The upper floors are inaccessible but only exhibit contemporary paintings by local artists. We walk down the street, stop at the informazione station and find out that our desired church is closed for renovations. Nearby we enter a simple but elegant church dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima with blue curtains draped along the back of the altar. It is time for lunch and all the finer eating establishments are either closed, inaccessible, crowded or only offer stale sandwiches and gelato. After scouting several possibilities we have sandwiches next to the church we had hoped to enter and are refreshed by gelato. We reload into the cars and take a round about way returning to our villa that offers wonderful vistas of the area and attempt to drive to Panicale, a small town that we remember from before but aren’t able to locate the turn off and instead drive near Paciano, another hill town. A busy celebration is winding down and the crowds and carabiniere are redirecting the traffic flow so we continue on our way. Once back at our peaceful villa I set up to paint another angle of our wonderful view in watercolor and Anne rests before beginning preparations for our dinner that features polenta, salami, cheese, olives, roasted peppers and a terrific barley salad by Mary. I do a few more postcards and a couple crossword puzzles while searching news channels for information regarding an e-coli outbreak in the states that has infected the spinach industry and killed hundreds. Anne calls home and Patty has a surprise birthday present for me (Tickets to see Bob Dylan!).
It is the last day for us to be with Mom, Lisa and Mary. They have decided to stay a little closer to the villa and drive to Montone because it is a smaller dot on the map and probably has fewer tourists. We remember how much we had enjoyed Gubbio and even though we recall steep, narrow roads we feel sure that with Kaz and Mich assisting we shouldn’t have too much trouble. Anne’s driving is impeccable as usual and even though there are gathering clouds we feel certain that things will burn off and we will again be treated to sunny skies. We first attempt to return the oil and vinegar cruets Anne purchased in Umbertide a few days ago because they pose a problem returning home with them. Monday morning is a time for businesses to be closed however and she will return them on our way back. Gubbio has grown markedly since ’99 with more buildings and people but still easily manageable and we have little trouble getting to the center of town and park near the Cathedral of San Francesco. I am so glad that the honored saint is held in such esteem throughout Italy but especially here in Umbria where his simplicity and concern for the poor serve as the model for a perfect life.
There is a vibrant street market underway and we buy onions, eggs and fruit to replenish our larder. The first street we ascend takes us to a square devoted to St. Giovanni with his church adjacent and modern sculptures adorning the recently refurbished square. Anne and Kaz reconnoiter while Mich and I take in the atmosphere while the noon bells ring out from churches all over town. An information center is at one end of the square and Anne secures a walking map that gives us directions to the main plaza above town. We think it best to have lunch first and climb a stiff little street and enter a delightful restaurant with a glassed-in view of a serene courtyard. Kaz and I order the grilled pollo and Mich and Anne each have pizzas and we all share the meal. We make a stab at ascending an even steeper street towards an elevator that should take us to the piazza above but it soon becomes apparent that our best bet is to return to the car and drive to the top instead. We had hoped to enter San Francesco but it is closed until 3:30pm so we drive up and find a parking spot next to the piazza. The view is outstanding but the clouds have rolled in and we even feel the first droplets of what will soon become a full-fledged rainstorm.
Across the street shops are beginning to reopen and we get a couple token items including a Murano bottle stopper for Patty. An elevator nearby takes us to the civic museo that displays ancient Roman and Baroque paintings by marginal artists but the depth of feeling in the images of the suffering Christ are impassioned and moving. We see one of the large pillar type constructions that are raced through town every May 15th and take a few pictures. Outside we can see that the rain is really coming down and waste little time loading into the car and finding our way out of town. My chair on the back of the car is getting drenched but there is nothing to do but push on and hope it dries out. Anne is able to get a refund in Umbertide and the other ladies pull up just as we are arriving back at the villa. They have had a terrific time in Montone but got lost on the way back and relate their trials over a fantastic meal that Anne and Kaz creates. Fried pork and potatoes, onions and bread will satisfy our appetites and we even have dessert of cake with cream sauce. What we can make of the weather radar images doesn’t exactly fill us with optimism for tomorrow but we will take what comes and are only planning on getting the ladies onto the train to Rome in Perugia followed by a visit to that city’s center and art museum.
The weather is very iffy as we rise early to take Mom, Mary and Lisa to Perugia to turn in the car and get them onto the train to Roma. I offer to stay behind but a few glimpses of blue sky through the clouds gives me hope that conditions will improve and we may yet see the old city and a return visit to the art museum of Umbria with its fine paintings and gothic statuary. Everything goes according to plan with Lisa driving and keeping up beautifully through Tuoro, Passigagno and the Perugia exit. We miscalculate a turn and get thrown off course temporarily but soon we are parked at the stazione and bidding our companions buon fortuna as they head to the Eternal City. They have some tours planned and whatever inclement weather they might encounter shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Whether we see them when we arrive in a few day’s time or not remains to be seen. Anne has learned that Amanda is also in Rome visiting from England but we’ve no way of contacting her and will settle for comparing notes when we see her next time.
As we’re finishing up our farewells a few sprinkles of rain begin to pepper the windshield and it’s apparent a weather front is about descend upon us. We are not about to endure maddening traffic and a drenching walk to a museo that might not even be open so get back on the highway and return to Licciono Niccone and our warm and dry villa. The rain is heavy and will last all day. Anne, Kaz and Mich will drive out to Castiglione de Lago and the supermarket for a few items to take back home with us and call home where Gunner, their grandchild is talking more and tells them “I love you”. I begin a watercolor from a postcard of Gubbio and spend most of the day detailing the bricks, shingles and windows in a hillside with the civic hall above the town. One of the very few channels on television reports on nothing but Chinese affairs and I listen to an interesting documentary about the early dynasties and their efforts to unify the country. Anne slightly overcooks the ravioli at dinnertime but as usual she has prepared a fabulous meal considering that we are now using up the last of our remaining food-stuffs and even make the most of the remnants from Mom’s and the other’s cupboard.
Anne has driven to the railroad station in Terentolla to see about tickets for a last visit to Florence. When she returns she feigns a sour face and explains that there is a train strike scheduled for tomorrow and we can’t go to Florence. After seeing my crestfallen face she produces tickets and announces that we will go on Thursday instead! I am elated but hold myself in check so as to be not too disappointed if things don’t work out. Kaz and Mich decide to move next door for the few days in order to use the bathtub and avoid the treacherous spiral staircase in the middle of the night.
The weather has most definitely improved and I know that I will get out and see some Umbrian sights today. After hearing the rave reviews from Mom and company about the sights and cuisine of nearby Montone we are all agreed that we should check it out. My morning routine is unexpectedly delayed but we’re still full of breakfast and on our way by 9:30 and heading past the tobacco and cornfields and climbing into the steep hillsides. We have no difficulty finding Montone and park near the main gate. It is as Mom and company have described; picturesque, uncrowded and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is also mostly inaccessible. I’m able to ascend into the main square that is the picture of calm and order a cappuccino at an outside café. We inquire as to the access and hours of the cathedral and natural history museum but both are closed. No matter, I will relax and read my tour book about the area while the others explore and capture the marvelous sights on our camera. A group of elderly nuns in unusual habits stroll past as I read how a cherished thorn from Christ’s crown is displayed each Easter and can easily understand how this place has been voted one of the most beautiful hill towns in Italy.
We are all extremely pleased that the day is turning out to be a gorgeous one and we determine that we have plenty of time to head south and see the long anticipated city of Perugia. It’s a bit of a shame that it is not closer to lunchtime after the recommendation from the ladies earlier. It’s all right though. We have had nothing but outstanding meals wherever we have gone and will surely find a nice place in Perugia. The day warms up nicely and with navigating assistance from our companions we descend the mountain and get on the autostradde and make our way south. The directions are easy to follow and in no time we are climbing the streets around the base of Perugia’s main square and locate a convenient parking space near the equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel. Our first stop is the obligatory view looking over the valley towards Assisi that is a distant blur in the background beyond the churches in the lower Perugia area. Anne and I had wonderful times here in’99 and we happily show Kaz and Mich towards the main viale that leads to the cathedral and the terrific art museum that boasts the finest collection between Florence and Rome. But first we are in a mood for lunch.
Anne spies a quiet and secluded café but I persuade her to find a spot where I can sit in the sun and people watch. Bad idea. We stop at the first outdoor spot along the main avenue and should’ve known better when there is no cloth napkins nor menus or bread. We order risotto and a couple pasta dishes and vino della casa. The waiter brings back plastic forks and spoons and 2 separate glasses of wine instead of a short carafe. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Our meals are awful and taste like they were made last week and micro-waved a time or two previously. We’re hungry enough to eat it anyway and are soon continuing our way towards the art museum. Thankfully, it has not closed during siesta and even though I am required to pay for a change, the galleries have been completely refurbished and are mercifully free of groups of tourists. The chronological order and clearly marked galleries are elucidating and show off the excellent works of art in state of the art surroundings. The only protective glass is over a remarkable Madonna and Child by Duccio. A particularly fine Holy Family by Piero della Francesco that is in a room of its own and shows the most amazing inverted reflection from under the halos especially moves me. His attention to accurately portraying perspective is also worth noting and the clarity of his overall composition. Most all of the works are presented with accompanying side panels and underlying predella scenes and it’s not difficult to imagine them in their original setting. I cannot hide a smile as I look upon a monochrome fresco of a crucifixion scene that shows the deceased body of Jesus with the left hand side full of mourning figures. On the right side an angel looks out at us with a hand semi-covering his happy smile as if to say “Don’t worry, be happy, for He will be raised”. There are many liturgical accoutrements and some outstanding statues, enamelware and even presses used to imprint communion wafers. The collection culminates with the largest assembly of works by Perugino anywhere but if my Italian is correct they now appear to be mainly the school of or copies by other hands.
It has been a delightful warm-up to tomorrow’s planned visit to Firenze and the Uffizi but again I hesitate to get too excited. We linger on the square by the cathedral with gelato and acquire a few postcards and fondly recall how during our last visit here we called home to receive the news that Jennifer had become pregnant with Fletcher. Our drive back to the villa is short and pleasant and we stop only briefly for ice cream to accompany Anne’s delicious apple crisp. The rest of our dinner is only leftovers but so delicious that it more than makes up for our lousy lunch. We download the camera and play back the wonderful images that will happily spark our memories for the remainder of our lives.
I am very glad that I did not get my hopes up too much about the prospects of going back to Florence and visiting the marvelous collections at the Uffizi and Petit Palais. Unfortunately I neglected to temper my expectations regarding Rome. More on that presently. After an incredibly lousy night’s sleep, Kaz, Mich, Anne and I caught an early train out of Terentolla toward Firenze and the heart of the renaissance. The fog that had dominated the valleys burns off right on schedule and we arrive at the train station along with other tourists, students and day laborers. Even though our previous time here did not meet our expectations we at least have our bearings and immediately head towards the Piazza Vecchio and the Uffizi. The queue for tickets is already quite long but on account of my wheelchair we are ushered to the entrance and receive complimentary tickets for Anne and me.
As expected I am obliged to remove my wheels and rely on wheelie bars to access the narrow elevator but thanks to my companions we accomplish this with a minimum of effort and are soon entering the first salle. There are compelling guides describing the various masterpieces and it is tempting to follow along with the groups accompanying them. The labels are mercifully short and in English and I direct my friends to those paintings that are most significant. I remembered that virtually every paintings is behind glass but this early in the day they are mercifully free of smudges and the reflections don’t seen so obtrusive. My early favorites include the gothic annunciation by Martini and the Madonna enthroned by Giotto and Madonna and Child by Fra Angelico. The latter generates such a crowd that I exercise considerable patience before being able to approach it closely. For the most part people are very respectful of my wheelchair and politely move out of the way when I approach the magnificent works of art. By the time we reach the large Botticelli room I have lost my companions but they check in with me periodically and we have a rendezvous time arranged. It is a wonder to sit between Botticelli’s “Venus” and his “Primavera”. Somewhat like the British Pre-Raphaelites, he seems to use the same idealized female face over and over again and this seems incongruous when applied to both religious and pagan themes. A very pleasant surprise awaits us in the next room with a special exhibition by Leonardo. Not only are the familiar pieces displayed; “The Annunciation” and the extraordinary “Birth of Christ” but several key paintings from other periods including the unfinished but deeply moving “St. Jerome” from the Vatican collection and Verrochio’s “Baptism of Christ” who’s angels are the earliest documented works by the master’s hand.
Also included are other artists either he was influenced by such as Signorelli or by immediate followers. It is a small room as are most of the Uffizi galleries and if 2 tour groups are in the room together it is quite a crush. We bypass the accompanying video presentation and continue our exploration of some of history’s milestones of cultural achievement. I know the Michaelangelo tondo painting of the Holy Family is to come as well as the languid nude by Titian so give a rather cursory appreciation of the latter renaissance work by Corregio, Carracci and others but do take the time to fully appreciate the Northern renaissance works by Durer and Holbein. The others have found a bench to rest upon at the halfway point and I urge them to rest and catch up with me at their leisure. They assure me not to rush and take all the time I need to see everything. I dodge the larger groups and am able to enjoy the mannerist works that presently capture my passion including brilliant work by Pontormo, Parmigianino and Rosso. I also renew my admiration for the prolific Vasari and especially appreciate his smaller works. I skip a couple galleries devoted to portraits and the French and Dutch schools are not very comprehensive but have key late works by Rubens and 2 terrific self-portraits by Rembrandt.
I am right on schedule as I reunite with the others and they can tell by my weary smile that I have had my fill. We exit to the piazza and forgo any visit to the gift shop in favor of lunch on the steps between 2 “Living Statues” that elicit laughs and a few euros from the milling throng. Anne and I assure Kaz and Mich that there is no need for them to endure our next museum visit to the Petit Palais and they agree to wander and meet us on the steps of the loggia at the Piazza Vecchio in a couple hours. Anne is gracious and in a good humor as we negotiate cobblestones and curbs on our way across the Ponte Vecchio but is put to the test as we approach the steep incline and rutted stones of the Petit Palais.
Our admission is free but we’re still required to get tickets and decide to take in the modern works on the top floor first. This turns out to be a good strategy as Anne seems to prefer these milder works by mostly unknown Italians and I give my eyes a rest in scrutinizing details and reading the information and just appreciate the fluid style and tame subject matter. These galleries are free of the crowds at the Uffizi and the palatial setting with views of the adjoining Boboli Gardens gives one the feeling of being transported back in time. Some of the highlights of the main collection are the numerous Raphaels of mostly Madonnas with the Christ child and some extraordinary Rubens and it is also a joy to see the “Judith with the Head of Holofernes” by Artemesia Gentelleshi who must have been a threatening figure to the male artists of her time including her father Oratzio judging by his very inferior work included in the collection. One stunning black woman is also touring the exhibition and Anne remarks that her beauty and tender affection for her newborn rivals the paintings we are viewing. It has been a thrilling day for this art lover and I am deeply appreciative of Anne’s efforts in making this experience a reality and gladly defer any other thoughts of seeing more art today. Especially when I consider that we are leaving in the morning for Rome and the treasures we plan to see at the Vatican.
We are only a few minutes late reconnecting with Mich and Kaz and give them a report over refreshing gelatos while watching a white-faced mime tease and entertain the crowds making their way through the funnel between the Piazza and the Uffizi. Exactly as our previous trip, our next stop is a few blocks away at a large marketplace where Anne shops for a purse, wallet and miscellaneous gifts. I feel certain that I can find the restaurant where we had enjoyed a terrific meal after being turned away from the Medici tombs last time on account of their inaccessibility. This does, however, require us to negotiate the abrupt cobblestones of the central market. We purchase a very small but exquisite drawing of the Ponte Vecchio on our way and get to the restaurant (we think) a half hour before opening. We relax over drinks across the street and admire the style conscious pedestrians before assuming a table behind a barricade of plants that shield us from the sight of traffic but not the noise. It is still a delicious and not very expensive meal in spite of Anne and I sharing an entire bottle of Abruzzo to accompany our risotto and pasta. We are not scheduled to re-board the train for a couple hours so have time to return to the cathedral square and find a place to hide one of my pins and enjoy the evening lights without the day-trippers. As the ladies make use of the restaurant’s bathroom Anne realizes that this is not where we had previously dined after all and we both recognize it one block further as we trek towards the cathedral. To the left of the wheelchair entrance to the cathedral we find a space between the wall and pillar at eye level to place one of my pins and will hope to recover it at some future time.
We have also determined that if we ever return to Tuscany that we will stay very close to a train station and make excursions that way. After a few photos of the city lights of central Florence we head towards the train station in plenty of time to catch our ride back to Terentolla and I close my weary eyes for some blissful rest. It has been a remarkable day and though part of us will be sad to leave the peace of the countryside we are grateful that for the most part our stay has been trouble-free and we have some excellent occasions to remember.
I had serious reservations about our ability to travel to Rome, check into our hotel and bus over to the Vatican in time to see the Sistine Chapel and Pinacoteca but was hopeful. I again got very little sleep and was fairly groggy by the time we had a spot of breakfast and were all loaded for our last drive up and down the winding road to the highway and on to Perugia Station. Giovanna made a last minute gift of a jar of the family honey and it was a chore finding room in our overstuffed luggage to accommodate it. Another beautiful is shaping up and by the time we’ve returned the rental car and loaded onto the train it is blue skies and clear sailing. I spend a fair amount of time reading but look up to catch sights of ruined castles and roman bridges and also periods of time with eyes closed and trying to rest. Our first disappointment is at the Rome station when no lift is available to help me off the train. Nearly an hour goes by before I’m able to descend to the platform and then comes our next and defining miscalculation.
It seemed a good decision to leave most of our bags at the train station until the morning’s ride to the airport instead of carrying them the 5 blocks to the Cambridge Hotel. I wait with our overnight bag while the 3 of them descend below to the storage area. I know that there is a serious problem when I have spent an hour waiting next to questionable characters before Kaz and Mich return without Anne. They tell me that the lines downstairs are insane and that they will go on to the hotel and check-in and return soon. I set a rendezvous point and wait more for Anne who is forlorn when she appears a short time later with tales of her ordeal in checking the bags. I have nearly given up any idea of seeing any art today and when she tells me we must now go to the disabled assistance office to reserve our tickets for tomorrow I’m even more concerned about our limited timeframe. We secure seating and return to Mich and Kaz but instead of being able to head to the buses we are confronted with more trouble. The hotel doesn’t seem to have the wheelchair room we has reserved and much worse than that Kaz’s purse is missing from her carrying bag! We speculate on how this could’ve happened and they recall how a trio of gypsies with babies in arms had pushed their way onto the already crowded elevator at the train station. With nimble fingers the thieves must have reached under the jackets Kaz had over her valuables and made off with credit cards, cash and identification. Thankfully, she still has her passport. We feel so sorry for them and realize what a blunder it was to try to save a little time the next morning.
We are obliged to go to the hotel to state our case and it takes more precious time to rearrange rooms and secure our night’s lodging. Mich and Kaz are both too upset to try to enjoy any sightseeing and will spend the next couple of hours attempting to cancel their credit cards before any illegal purchases can be made. We have come this far and don’t see any alternative but to go on with our plan and hope beyond hope that we might still be able to glimpse some part of the Vatican. The #64 bus is loading and we are soon heading towards Vatican City with a hot and crowded collection of passengers. We exit at Saint Peter’s Square sweaty and hungry but know we have no time to eat if we are to have any chance to see anything. One look at the square and we get our bearings to the museum entrance and fight traffic and cobblestones to get there in haste. We spy a Vatican guard and inquire of hours to get in and receive our last disappointing news of the day. In spite of our best efforts, we will not be permitted to enter. This crushing news is at least tempered slightly by hearing that Saint Peter’s Basilica is open until 7pm and we have plenty of time to see the most sacred site in Christendom.
Our hunger has us depleted in energy and the combined disappointments have frayed our nerves and I regret the harsh words I uttered over a dismal pizza that we order at a corner café next to the Vatican. In silence we continue our way to Saint Peter’s and feel somewhat relieved to know the way towards the wheelchair accessible entrance. The square is full of chairs for some special service and we are obliged to take a long way around only to hear from one of the brightly colored Swiss Guards that due to construction we will have to turn around and go back to a different entrance. Dejected but determined we retrace our steps and stop briefly at a post office for a couple commemoratives before climbing steps and finding the elevator. An attendant finally gives us a bit of good news: the papal tombs are still open and are accessible. I had thought that the crypt under the basilica was completely inaccessible but thanks to Anne and a fairly steep ramp we are soon viewing the ancient resting places of popes. Names familiar and obscure are attached to simple slabs and elaborate crypts and in spite of our weariness we are excited to see this subterranean vault. The time-weathered sarcophagi give way to a dazzling white and brilliantly lit marble tomb of the newest member of the fraternity, Pope John Paul II. Flowers and family photos festoon his gold-plated name and a devout pilgrim dressed completely in white kneels in still contemplation on one side. How his knees must ache comes to my mind and I am ashamed of the shallow nature of my own faith. I had thought I might add a pin of mine to the other offerings but feel unworthy of the gesture and slowly withdraw from his resting place. Around the corner we come upon Saint Peter’s tomb that lies directly below the basilica’s altar. The gold mosaic and recessed area stirs my inner self but the ordeal of the day clouds the experience. We feel a deep sadness being surrounded by death and try to appreciate the living kindness and abundant belief in God that these surroundings represent. I feel a little sorry for the forgotten and neglected popes that line the walls as we head for the exit and realize that time has a claim on us all and the best we can do is to help others while we are able.
Anne pushes me to the ramp that leads into the basilica and another pleasant surprise is encountered. I had remembered our last time here that we could only see the awesome achievement of Michaelangelo’s youth, “The Pieta” from a great distance. It is now a mere 30 feet away and every feature is clear, from the calm resignation of the still very young Mary to the lifeless visage of the Redeemer. The deep folds and polished surfaces create a life force that has never been equaled, even by the divine Michelangelo in my humble opinion. In isn’t easy to tear myself away but we have barely an hour to see what we can before closing. I’m sure my pin is still behind the gigantic angel that holds an enormous clam shell containing holy water and pose for a picture before making the sign of the cross in appreciation that this time I will not be stricken with an infected injury to my hip or any malady that will mar this trip beyond what we have already endured. It is difficult to appreciate the vastness of this space that completely engulfs any other place of worship I’ve encountered. The scale is nearly incomprehensible with huge statues and lettering taller than a man’s height. It is designed to humble the pilgrim and glorify the majesty of God and does so in a most compelling fashion. Anne rests near an altar dedicated to Saint Jerome while I encounter a side chapel devoted to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and humbly offer my own prayer to add to the countless others that will bring their own measure of faith to these holy confines. One last look at the Pieta and we leave Saint Peter’s for who knows, maybe the last time.
We feel better for being able to have accomplished a part of our day’s plans but are still sad and upset about our friend’s loss and hope that they will be able to maintain their trust in people. We’re sure that they will look back on the positive aspects of our journey and feel that in spite of the problems we have faced that the trip was the opportunity of a lifetime. I know that because of their assistance, Anne and I were able to enjoy an amazing experience and we became even closer friends with them. Even though I was not able to spend as much time with my mother as I had expected I was extremely glad that she was with us and I look forward to hearing about her time here in Rome. Our bus ride back to the train station is quiet and contemplative after a trying day. Our mood is lifted over a sidewalk café dinner of pork shoulder amid stars overhead and headlights below and a couple glasses of wine eases our lingering anxiety and we stroll towards the hotel for a well deserved sleep.
Kaz and Mich seem resigned and glad to be heading home when we see them in the morning. I have blessedly received a decent night’s sleep and have a hearty breakfast in preparation for a long flight to Toronto where we will sleep overnight before pushing on home. We show up at the disabled assistance office and collect our bags with enough time to catch an earlier train to Leonardo da Vinci Airport and make our way past security and to the gate where we see the smiling faces of Mom, Mary and Lisa. From the sounds of things they have enjoyed an incredible few days of tours and meals and we try to de-emphasize our difficulties and share our experiences of Florence and Perugia. They are also pleased that we had followed their lead and visited Montone. We’re ushered to our seats with minimal hassle and settle in for the long flight. I watch the first of 3 movies, “The Sentinel” but rest and read most of the way. One last headache lies before us.
The Sheraton where we are staying in Toronto lies several blocks from the airport and the cold rain makes for a miserable wait while the shuttle bus refuses to appear. Anne and I plead with the concierge at the closer Sheraton but since our non-refundable tickets were issued through Expedia.com she is powerless to assist beyond giving us directions that first send us into oncoming traffic where we skirt arriving buses that veer out of our way just in time. Finally, we get proper directions, a shuttle picks the others up and we are all flabbergasted that after all the hassle the hotel is a simple 5-minute walk away. We have a late dinner (it’s 3:30 am Rome time) and take to our respective beds. I will forgo any sight-seeing in Toronto the next day and write these notes while hopefully the ladies can enjoy a leisurely tour of town before our last arduous leg of this amazing adventure.
Mich also stayed in and gets some well earned rest before our 5:45 pm flight. I was happy to devote the morning to describing these notes while catching up on CNN News in english. The ladies have had a terrific time getting around toronto and tell me later how wheelchair friendly the transportation is. They visited a textile museum and Anne bought a lovely bracelet made out of ostrich egg shell beads. We have a last meal together and I get one of the very few hamburgers I might eat in a given year. The boarding with my chair goes smoothly but we were all surprised that Lisa was not there to meet us. She had stayed at the closer Hilton and took the opportunity to catch an earlier flight back home. I would've loved to watch the in-flight movie, "Cars" but was determined to finish my book. 8 pages from the end the movie ends and they dim the lights way down. Anne assists with our pocket flashlight and I complete the engrossing tale.
As usual, the flight leaves my neck muscles sore and it may be awhile before my rythyms return to normal. It's great to see Patty show up with the van and we congratulate each other and express sincere thanks for the good humor, the manual assistance and the insights shared.