Italy Journals – Part II

9/15 – Rome

Lying in bed as the city slowly wakes, the light from the crack in the window brightening, the breeze picking up, cool and clean, tempered with something good, like fresh bread. The sounds as the city breaths, birdsongs and traffic, maybe the distant rumble of a dump truck on a pothole. This is an organic way to wake, not a digital screaming jolt that normally wakes me, ripped from the cradle of dreams to bleary eyed blindness. No, I lay in the half-light, the morning music, and gradually my eyes begin to work, and any vestiges of drowsy weariness cleanly fade.

***

Marked the Coliseum off our list, another guided tour with small short-wave radios plugged into our ears, huddled around a sole speaker. The stately limestone blocks, cut and placed with the blood of slaves, that which would continue to fuel the infamy of the place. Again I was confronted with the question of glory, of honor, and if it ever resided in that moral arena. No, I think, only misery, temporary satiation of blood lust, short-lived terror and pain (by both animals and combatants). A distraction from the petty drudgery of life under an iron empire. Thankfully, the sacrifice of thousands of young Christians, first as fodder for swords and torches, then boycotts of the horror – put an end to it. Says a lot about the power of public opinion, and that pop culture does not inevitably slide towards hopeless decadence.

Returned to the B&B to pick up bags, hot and humid, a bit of grumpiness in the cramped streets. There is a bazaar of sorts, tucked between the old dusty masonry and the row of parked Vespas, ramshackle stalls and tents, heaped with obligatory fruits and vegetables from the countryside, but also old books and records, handcrafted boots, children’s footwear, silken shawls, mass produced cheap junk from China, rip-off designer purses and watches, even the assorted junk an old man pulled out of his attic. Those who browse the goods are as varied as the items for sale – herds of cigarette smoking youths, white leather shoes and tight black pants, designer t-shirts; local mothers with strollers; perhaps even the transplant from bygone time – the little old mustached man in full tan suit, sucking on a carved pipe, newspaper folded under his arm.

In a way this scene is reassuring – that the Europe we idolize and seek does in fact exist, and is not merely a tourist trap facade.

Sweated in lines for an hour, then the 2:50 to Firenze. Not that happy about the 15 euro surcharge – somewhat defeats the purpose of the rail pass. Same countryside I remember – vast stretches of tan rock and brown-green fields, clumps of Tuscan clay-roofed towns, crumbling ruins atop exposed high points. In the blue distance, jutting monolith mountains, hazed with a gray smoke, then up into the cirrus-streaked blue, warm sun over all.

Florence

Lodging was a bit of a hike from the train station, hauling luggage over narrow sidewalks, cut off from the cobblestone roadway by the ever-present mopeds and smart cars. The building is stately, yet another ancient metal-grade elevator, up to the beaming hostess “Buon giorno!” we all emote, wiping sweat from brow.

The room is large, uncluttered, yet not extravagant. Brick floors, iron-frame bed, marble bathroom. The walls covered in sketches of sea life and native avians, some sort of DaVinci compass, and the wide window overlooks a leafy courtyard, happy Italian chattering rising from the cafe below. Steph naps, curling up like a fetus, and I pore over maps.

She wants to rest longer and I’m restless, so I leave her curled up, hop down the smooth steps to the rickety cobblestones. Trek down first to he San Lorenzo, a leather and textile market encircling the dome. Dark skinned Africans with watches and wallets, leather belts hanging off them like snakes. I wrap back around towards the Duomo, the ornate facade filling the entire horizon of narrow alleyways, carved white stone, dripping ugly stains of pollution. The church is incredible, visually stunning with monolith scale, both the height of the stacked domes and the entire intricate world caved into the limestone and bronze. I silhouette the beast in the western orange for a few photos, then pick up Steph for dinner.

Not surprisingly, we’re herded into a prime tourist trap, lured uncontrollably by the pathway of spraypaint artists, mimes, gypsies with cheap neon toys. Into a grand square, bounded on four sides by the Hotel Savoy, an impressive baroque arch and a massive Guess advert, pale European model large enough to tackle the Colossus of Rhodes.

The bright, clean-tented restaurant with nice decor and reasonable menu turns out to have impossibly terrible service, headed up by a suited and dour mob boss of a man. But the food itself is the best we’ve had so far, and a two-hour wait seems appropriate for Italy – if only to confirm preconceived notions. Gelato at some other tourist trap, wander around wondering where all the well-dressed teenagers are headed, half the chic females coifed somewhere between the runway and playboy. Some new club, Grande Opening “YAM”, a herd of beaming youths outside, the few brave cars slowly inching through, dropping off their cargo.

We end the night at an Irish pub, watching an Italian soccer match, boredly flipping stack of coasters.

9/16

Sleep late, struggling to overcome the inertia of hung over dehydration. Finally do around 11:30. Hit the internet cafe, then the moped rental. Nervously hand over my passport for 24 hours in exchange for a beat-up Honda 125cc.

Unsteady at first, more so with the whack center of gravity from Steph hanging onto the back. But before long it’s weaving parked Fiats, narrow alleyways, leaning into the turns, coasting through roundabouts, smile permanently affixed to my face.

We loop the Duomo, south to the termini, inadvertently get routed onto the highway. Nervous, pull off on an entrance ramp, prop the bike against the curb, pull out the map, orient ourselves. Then it’s back on, trying to remember the twists and turns, foreign names, spot the height of the Duomo over the alleyways. We repeat the loop, decide to brave the highway, follow the signs to the Piazza Michelangelo.

It’s high speed on smooth pavement now (60 kmh!) in between the city busses and other Vespas, a weaving tree-lined highway that runs out over the river, ascends into the hills to the south of Florence. I squint my eyes, bat out a bug, still grinning as the tiny motor chugs up the hill.

Finally we crest, an expansive vista overlooking the entirety of Florence, from the arched bridges to the enormous red-brown dome. The bronze cross on top looks about level from us, hundreds of meters up. A copy David stares out across the expanse, corroding at the joins, green and old. But the form and skill is still there, a perfect cast of the marble that’s locked up below (Museums were unfortunately on strike).

After a few requisite souvenirs (Italy soccer jersey, David magnet), we begin to coast down, a winding descent past private estates and mansions, manicured lawns, fountains of lesser renaissance masters. Then back into the medieval maze.

Lunch at a cafe, a few gifts at the San Lorenzo leather market. Then its out in search of a gelateria, dubbed by the New York Times the best in Florence.

Armed with only an address and the general quadrant of the map, we ride north, pulling onto a quick roundabout. A wrong turn here, a missed exit there and we’re staring at the concrete barricade of a dead train yard between us and our goal, the sole bridge onramp guarded by a maze of one-way lanes. Ten minutes of backtracking and we finally find the ascension point, a smooth arch of pavement over the rusted, overgrown tracks.

Another barricade blocks our path – guarded by a pair of Polizei. We’re near the stadium, and every corner is filled with parked mopeds. A uniform cry rises in unison beyond some trees. It’s game time…

But we won’t be daunted. We’d ridden this far and the famed gelateria would not elude us! We take a wide berth of the stadium, weaving through the parked vehicles, abandoned like some apocalyptic scene, covering the sidewalks and crosswalks, hazardously rammed into intersections. Another set of roundabouts and map consultations and we find our destination street. But alas – it too is barricaded!

Noting the street numbers, we squeeze the moped into a legally dubious parking spot and trot towards the gelateria. The sky is looming cloudy and dark, and all the businesses on the street are closed. Helmets under our arms, we finally spot it, nothing extraordinary, no glowing halos or cascading rainbows. Just a beige awning, a few lazy locals sauntering out, licking cones.

Our appetite for gelato has dwindled in the harrowing trek, so we take two small cones of Buontalenti, the secret Medici recipe that was recovered after being lost for hundreds of years. It’s a creamy vanilla, so rich it almost has a hint of mild cheesecake, or eggnog.

Wary of the clouds, we plot our escape route and coast back to the historical district. The first drops fall a block to our hotel, but I spend another ten minutes navigating the one-way alleys and pressing tourist herds, flecks of wet stinging my eyes.

Back at the hotel room, we lay unmoving on bed, watching an Italian-dubbed American movie set in Rome. I sip some Earl Grey, attempting to maintain energy. Fail.

***

Ride out after its growing dark, yellow and blue lights scattering on the slick cobblestones. Head south to first the train station to procure a reservation to Venice, looping a chaotic roundabout twice to find a parking space.

After, coast along the riverside roadway, bridges and lights on the water to our right. Pass under the Ponte Vecchio, stacked windows and abodes, clinging half hazard to the single arched roadway. Baskets of basil in the windows, tan curtains lofting in the evening breeze, same hue as the pinkish stone.

Park the moped on the side of a packed lot, manually scooting the rear end to legally fit a tiny slot. Walk to the Santa Croce in search of a recommended trattoria. Never do find it, the address padded with a chain portcullis, walls tagged with ugly graffiti. Settle on a small trattoria in the Santa Croce courtyard.

It’s quieter here, devoid of the art stands, mimes, gypsies and their toys, owing to a ban on solicitation. Instead, a band of locals punt about a soccer ball, next to priceless statues of Dante, the bone white facade of the church, highlighted in pink lines.

The meal is great, service prompt and friendly. Liter of house wine, bruschetta (tomatoes are fresh but not soggy), soup, italian sausage, zucchini risotto, incredibly rich gnocchi.

The couple next to us is dour, unspeaking, perturbed by our presence merely a foot away. Steph says they are in a fight, some middle aged American couple, frumpy and wrinkled. I crack stupid jokes to provide a foil, and we smile when they finally leave.

Walk south to seek out the tombs of Galileo and Dante in the S.Croce’s graveyard. The gate is closed, locked, and I peer through in the dark to eek out some kind of view.

“You could have absorbed their smarts, standing on their graves,” Steph jokes.

Shrugging, we walk back alongside the river to the covered bridge, drawn by the sounds of music, a wash of flashbulbs firing. The single lane walkway choked with tourists, against the artists with reprints of the David, Botticelli’s Venus, tasteful European nudes. There’s a duo with amped guitar and violin, a sort of mix between acoustic Metallica and folksy fiddle.

Walk back through a throng attempting to figure out the night mode of their digital cameras, to capture the feel of the moment, the water, the air, the lights, the smooth warmth, the wind and the buzz of mopeds, Italian ballads.

Ride home like pros, leaning into the turns, the warmth of the wine seeping into extremities, behind my squinting eyes. Past the Duomo, full throttle down a long side street, slow for the bumpy roundabout, then onto our street.

End the night again at the Irish pub, strike up conversation with the two young bartenders – one Danish, who speaks with an Irish lilt, close cropped red hair and beard, the other Californian, with dark Italian features, recent graduate of Culinary school. Volunteer more details than we’re asked, perhaps, but that’s what bartenders are for – to listen. Finish off the last of the sudsy stout, then its to bed.

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