The Crowded Roads to Rome

Visiting Italy in 21st-century August is a tricky thing, it takes skill and preparation.  The country is dense.  It is dense with art, culture, and historical artifacts, but it is also dense with the tracks of mindlessly spending zombie tourists with a chronic lack of interest in much beyond the lack of ranch dressing at restaurants or “a proper curry.”  Like a doodled piece of scrap paper, the lines and shapes overdrawn and dark, the map of Italy shows all the roads and places where millions have already been. But I knew Italy should not be dismissed as one may dismiss a good restaurant by saying, “no one goes there anymore, because it’s always crowded.”  I was deeply impressed by the depth of history, the amount of art, the food and wine, the architecture, the Tuscan landscape, the Italian personality, and even the public transportation.

I rarely read current releases of fiction because I feel that I have so much catching up to do with the classics. It seems to me irresponsible to neglect them. In Italy, a traveler will find, especially in Florence and in Rome, a smorgasbord of classics in art, architecture, literature, sculpture and cuisine.  In this rare case, cliché is irrelevant; the sight of many of these works of art inspire one to learn more, to understand, to appreciate, and to help preserve forever.  What a perfect reason to travel in the first place.

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To get to Pisa, it is a beautiful train ride, but the city itself isn’t impressive. The campanile (free standing bell tower) is impressive, if a bit smaller than I imagined. The grounds of the Piazza del Duomo and the Pisa Baptistry are wonderfully preserved.

 

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The view of Florence (our home base) from the Gardens of Boboli. It is quite a hike to the top, but worth the view.

 

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A wonderful costume chop in Venice.

 

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A great collection of water taxis. Venice.

 

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My favorite summer drink, Campari and soda (Bug’s happens to be Aperol). They both really do taste better in Florence.

 

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The port at Livorno, with recreational boats returning home after a day on the water. We went to Livorno, a dirty industrial town, just to have the cacciucco, a thick red seafood stew. Again, it was worth the trouble. Eating by the water and being near boats again was something that I really needed.

 

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I’d have to have my head examined if we didn’t taste too many wines while in Italy. This night, we sampled not only great examples of Chianti, as well as reds from Brunello, Montepulciano and Montalcino, but also exquisite mortadella, salami, and cured ham. I’ll let you find this place on your own.

 

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Another place to gaze and contemplate. I could have started at the ceilings and walls of the Vatian Museum for days. Unfortunately, the hordes of August tourists are rushed through like gerbils in a plastic tube. But seriously, more frescos, tapestries and overall detail than can be imagined.

 

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The Colosseum, Rome.

 

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A typical Tuscan terrace restaurant.

 

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A wine in the Piazza di Campo, Siena.

 

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The Pantheon, Πάνθειον, or “temple of any god,” an ancient Roman structure standing in the middle of modernity, and it instills awe in any observer. With tall Corinthian columns in front, and a large oculus in the top of the dome letting the sun it at all times, it was built from 118-128 AD. Rome.

 

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The monuments in Italy have caused me to think about scale, some structures being bigger than others. I continue to wonder why one thing built is larger or smaller than another, or a different size than I imagined. The Trevi Fountain needs no introduction. It has recently been refurbished, and much bigger than I thought it’d be. Yes, I through a coin in and made a wish.  Rome.

 

 

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The Fountain of Neptune. If you’ve seen A Room with a View, you’ll recognize this one. It wasn’t working this day.

 

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These are the actual telescopes that Galileo used when he was proving his theory of heliocentrism–that the sun is the center of the solar system. His evidence outraged the Church, and they forced him to recant his findings, and kept him under house arrest for the rest of his life. At that time, Galileo, the father of the scientific method, wrote his book “Two Sciences.”

 

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The Colosseum is a place where anyone can feel at the center of everything. Set in the Roman Foro, the original Rome, it is a remarkable sight, inside and out. It is easy to imagine the spectacle and brutality that went on here. This was one of my favorite parts of Rome, and the modern day Romans have done well to preserve it.

 

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I don’t think I’m supposed to publish art like this, but I can’t resist in this case. Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo (Sagrada Familia) pops out like a Vermeer. A tondo is the circular frame typical in the Renaissance. And this one stands out amongst all other paintings. And he didn’t even want to be a painter. Found in the Uffizi Museum.

 

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If you’re like us, a shop like this in Siena is a wonderful place, a place of real cultural exploration. Here, there are cured meats, tens of kinds of cheese, homemade pastas (like Pici, a typical thick spaghetti from Tuscany), cinghiale (wild boar) salami, spices and rubs, funghi, wines and Amari (bitters and digestives), aquavit, fresh panini, chocolates, cakes and cookies (like panforte, and amaretti), even a giant porchetta. We didn’t want to leave.

 

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The Piazza il Camp in Siena cannot be missed. This is the location of the famous Palio, a horse race around the tight plaza. The race is a biannual contest between the neighborhoods of Siena, each zone represented by an animal. Siena is also known for its cuisine. This was the view from our restaurant terrace.

 

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A view of an excellent city. Firenze from the small town of Fiesole, on our last day.

 

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Another one I’m not sure about publishing, but another icon of sculpture. In the Vatican itself you will find Michelangelo’s La Pietá, and it’s simply gorgeous and perfect.

 

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The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. We walked by this each night after dinner and it never lost its charm, and it never will.

 

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Formerly known as Circus Argonalis, Piazza Navona was a Roman racing grounds (i.e., the chariot race scene in Ben-Hur), now there are beautiful buildings and fountains made by Bernini and the Egyption Obelisk of Domitian.

 

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Inside the Vatican.

 

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Having a truly Italian gelato at the locally famous Vivoli. Amaretto, of course.

 

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If you really try hard, and really hard, you may be able to find some beauty and substance in Venice in August. But please, whatever you do, don’t go to Venice in August (or possible ever, thanks to the mass tourist market).

 

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A carpaccio in the restaurant Caffe Italiano, Florence.

 

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Another pretty picture that I’m afraid is simply dishonest. Venice has been sold outright to masses of uninterested tourists and the sensibility of the catatonic traveling spender. It might already be too far gone. We shall see.

 

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Another great wine tasting night in a place that you can find if you purposely get lost in Florence.  That cheese is an aged goat cheese wrapped in peppered chestnut tree leaves, and it will make you feel as if you’ve truly never tasted real cheese.

 

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This four-table restaurant in Florence (which we found by accident) specializes in Tuscan Black Truffle (those shavings on the pork). This dish was fit for a king. A 6-hour cooked pork (called “tonno” or tuna, because of its texture), locally grown artichoke, zucchini and white beans. A plate easily worth 50 euros in Madrid.

 

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A view of the Ponte Vecchio from a window in the Uffizi museum. The bridge is the oldest surviving in Florence, and has long been a center for jewel shops, and the tradition survives today, at night the jewels locked up in thick safes.

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