My trip with José to Italy from May 28—June 5 was his first to Europe and my first time back since seeing Madonna in Up for Grabs (so worth it—wish I'd been blogging then!) in 2002. We started in Rome, progressed to Florence, pulled of a day trip to Venice and ended in Milan, resulting in a balls-to-the-wall schedule of walking to, around and from a stew of antiquities and delicacies.
I'll do my best to summon things up without making this 5,000 words. Maybe 4,999...
May 28/29—NYC to Roma
The flight over was fine, not counting the Estelle Costanza LOUDLY micro-managing her hapless Frank in the seats behind us. There was a dozing guy near us who was so cute I wanted to be his tooth fairy, except without the teeth and quarters. We we flew Alitalia, which was terrific—spacious and with slots to charge our electronics, not to mention elaborate Italian meals and our introduction to the blood-orange juice so popular everywhere in Italy. But we did choose to leave around 5:20PM, meaning we arrived in Rome around 2:30AM our time but 8:30AM their time. This meant we could only train to Termini Station, cab to the Ponte Sisto Hotel to check our bags, and then immediately begin our first of three full days.
It was wonderful to walk a block and find a majestic fountain whose glowing white figures looked so alive against the electric-blue sky (it was one of only three majestically sunny days on the trip) and a bit further to explore the Campo de Fiori market. But it was even cooler to go a bit further and encounter the Pantheon (pictured, left). Sadly, it was closed off when we arrived, so we barely experienced it.
The same can't be said for the overwhelmingly striking Trevi Fountain—it felt like a Fellini shoot in progress, teeming with looky-loos of every stripe to the point where it almost seemed you could expect to see people hanging off the statues. The harsh sun and collective vibe of, "This is THAT PLACE. We are really HERE!" made it an intense few minutes.
As we progressed toward the legendary Coliseum/Forum area, I was slowly transforming into a zombie, even without having been bitten by one. The jet lag was a challenge that first day. Luckily, the interminable walk amongst surreal ruins (they're just all lying around in Rome!) was broken up when we stumbled across a very special Tamara de Lempicka exhibition. Good little Madonna fan that I am, I couldn't resist. The works were spellbinding in person, and many of them new to me. Her absolute most famous works were not there, but the scarcity of what was more than made up for that. Unfortch, this was the first of several "photo op disasters" I had—no photography was allowed, yet I can usually snag plenty of iPhone snaps undetected. This time, I was caught. Chastened, I had to actually look at the show without simultaneously recording it.
Rested up (a bit), we trudged onward, feeling like we'd won a bout with a blood-thirsty lion by the time the Coliseum rose before us. It's inexplicable how strange it is to be confronted with such an iconic structure, and to realize how far into the past it stretches. Inside, I was shocked that many antiquities on display, including ancient statuary, were simply behind ropes, which led to many tourist reaching over to touch them or grope a male statue's balls for goofy photos. No policing at all at this site, but I would eventually realize the protection at various sites ranged wildly from hands off, grazie, to I won't tell if you won't.
Seeing the Coliseum inside was thrilling, especially because I hadn't realized the floor was gone, allowing all the inner chambers to be viewed. No telling how many people lost their lives for sport there, a monument to all-too-human inhumanity that made an unsettling juxtaposition with the exquisite architecture of this and the nearby Forum and Palatino and all their priceless contents.
After the monumental monument sight-seeing, we headed back to our hotel, which turned out to be quite cute, clean and perfectly located for us. In a picturesque alley, the hotel had small rooms but big bathrooms and was a short walk over a lovely bridge to the Trastavere area, where we strolled after dark in search of our first big Italian meal. We were nervous as hell, being in a foreign country, not being certain of etiquette or if we'd have trouble communicating, but José's first of many orders of spaghetti carbonara and grilled calamari helped him relax. I started with a memorable penne alla arrabiata (spicy!) and, due to the lack of other non-meat offerings, had to settle for chicken parmagiana. This is a bit like ordering chop suey in China, but it was amazingly delicious and we went away satisfied, all the more so because the waiter was a flamboyant Roberto Benigni type who'd spent part of the meal playfully sparring with a wandering musician.
We got up early, availed ourselves of the hotel's free breakfast buffet (the Italians can come up with a surprising variety of excuses to eat ham) and then cabbed over to the Vatican, where our reservation guaranteed priority entry. I hate to support the Vatican—which, God knows, does not support me—but I have to say that its collection is unmissable, and was one of the few destinations that encouraged photography (mostly—keep reading). We zipped in first and bypassed obscene amounts of stunning statuary, ornate ceilings, hanging tapestries and paintings in order to hit the Sistine Chapel before it filled up. It was disappointing to see that NO PHOTOGRAPHY was allowed in there, but we spotted others doing it so we openly videoed and took (non-flash) photos for several minutes before being swatted down. (Strike two.)
The Sistine Chapel truly was one of the highlights of the trip. Cool and dark, it feels appropriately austere, yet the outrageously detailed and engaging paintings all over the walls and ceilings are endlessly inviting. I don't know how I pictured it, but it wasn't this—it wasn't this busy chamber buzzing with scenes that compete with Michelangelo's most famous motif, the outstretched finger of God reaching toward that of Adam dead center.
Sated, we went on our way to see the the stuff we missed, but a guard rudely informed us we'd have to leave and return from the beginning. We obliged, but when I took a picture of a guard (in the area where photos were fine), we got quite a fright when he stormed over, saying, "You take a picture of me? You take a picture of me? I don't like. Delete." He stood over me menacingly as I fumbled to delete it, realizing that two pictures back he'd see someone's butt and another picture back he'd see our contraband Sistine Chapel shots. His companion guard was gorgeous, younger and all smiles, telling me he would have posed for a picture happily, etc. Now he tells me. I fake-erased the photos and he almost didn't buy it but finally left me alone.
The rest of the Vatican was, as I said before, stunning. It's oddly un-museumy to see thousands of items just lumped together with little concern for pacing or era or artist, but it's also like encountering a dragon's lair of goodies.
Next, we left and found our way to St. Peter's Basillica, where we got to see the Pietà by Michelangelo after waiting in a crazily long line (into which an Italian mom shamelessly cut just behind us; this seemed to be common among Italian women of a certain age).
Exhausted, we cabbed to the Spanish Steppes (pictured at left), a really pretty area filled with nice views and—José's fave—good shopping. Our lunch was terrific, including sardines, the first of many caprese salads and some seafood risotto. The walk from there back to our hotel was torture, but it was a great way for José to buy one of everything in Italy—tchotchkes, clothes, you name it.
At night, we hit a place called Da Sergio. We weren't happy we were kept waiting despite a table for four being kept open forever and ever, nor did everyone smoking around us help (this was common anywhere throughout Italy anyway), but the place wound up being great. I had my favorite meal there, highlighted by fettucine con funghi that was indescribably rich and delicious. (Sidebar: We both gained almost four pounds on the trip despite extensive cardio.)
Gelato was had.
Early to rise the next day, we zipped over to the Galleria Borghese, home to the obscene art collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a pope's nephew who was the Debbie Reynolds of his time. No photos were allowed, but I wouldn't have felt too guilty trying to snap some considering that the man whose belongings we were looking at had threatened people with jail and worse in order to get many of them in the first place. Truly, the collection is spectacular. Borghese had a thing for classical statues from the first few centuries after Christ as well as just about everything worthwhile done by Bernini in the 1600s. We were especially taken with the Berninis and with a statue of Hermaphroditus (a 200AD copy of an earlier work, I believe). The audio tour was hilarious because every item seemed to have a provenance of having been stolen or obtained after some heavy intimidation. I have to say I did relate to the beast—we collectors will do almost anything to get what we want.
More so than any other museum we went to, it can be said that every single item at the Villa Borghese is an utterly unique masterpiece.
After, we walked through a street fair before cabbing to the hotel, where we walked along "Rome's prettiest street," Giulia. It was pretty, but nothing memorable outside of a lovely arch, but it did lead to an abandoned restaurant that fed us some succulent branzini and shrimp and some pesto tortellini.
The day was young, so we cabbed to the Catacombe di San Sebastiano. The trip through the catacombs was not so exciting. Our guide, an Indian woman with a comically grave British intonation ("Vun hundred thousand sowwwwwwles are buried here," she said more than once), hustled us through the dark chambers—in which photography is also forbidden, though I managed to swipe a few minor pics and some video—while informing us of the area's ancient roots. It was impressive to see the original crypt of Saint Sebastian as well as a nearly 2,000-year-old crematorium, and I did love seeing all the graffiti from the 300s and 400s, but it was over quickly and without much intrigue. The basilica above holds what is alleged to be one of the arrows that killed Sebastian as well as other relics, and was okay with photography.
It was rainy, but not so much that shopping was ruled out, and it had dried up by the time we went to eat at an upscale place called A MoDerna. We gorged on lobster fettucine and a chocolate cheesecake, among other delights.
June 1—Roma to Firenze
We cabbed in the early morning back to Termini to bid arrivederci to Roma, boarding a first-class (recommended!) train ride to Florence. We barely made it, having miscalculated how much time it would take, and wound up relying on one of those annoying, unofficial guys who tells you info for tips. In this case, he was a life-saver. We got on with a few minutes to spare.
Arriving in Florence, we were within walking distance of the A-plus Hotel Orologio. Cheaper than the Hotel Ponte Sisto, the difference was incredible—it was like a five-star luxury hotel with a boutique air about it. We checked our bags and strolled to the city's famous Duomo, a beautiful cathedral with 462 steps to the top. It was hell getting up those steps, because they got steeper and steeper (and the halls were really rough-hewn, like vertical catacombs) and the entrance/exit were the same. But arriving at the top was worth it. José—who doesn't like heights—kept telling me, "I'm freaking out! I'm freaking out!" but my policy is that you're not freaking out if you're together enough to say you are. Amazing views of the city.
Leaving, we plunged into some shopping. Almost immediately after arriving, we'd felt like Florence was more our speed than Rome, and all the shops cemented that feeling. It was just much more walkable and had more cute shops without sacrificing the artifacts and sights. We went to the Basilica of Santa Croce to see the tombs of great men like Michelangelo, Enrico Fermi and even Galileo (which surprised me as I'd figured he was persona non grata to the Catholic Church), relaxed at the hotel, and ended the day at one of the best places we ate, the famous Il Latini. It was odd because there was no menu; they just told us in general what we were getting and brought it. It was a sickening amount of food, including a huge plate of appetizers (chicken liver on bread, prosciutto, caprese), ravioli, a pork chop that actually won vs. José's appetite, half a chicken, beans, biscotti...it went on for hours and we had to exchange nervous smiles with our tablemates as we weren't sure, at one point, if it would ever end.
We woke up, had some great free breakfast at the hotel and then did a bit of shopping (José was by now obsessed with leather goods), including a stop by the famous boar statue, whose nose brings good luck.
We were on our way to the Accademia, home of the famous David. Once again, José's reservations-making skills came in handy, as we bypassed a line and started in on enjoying the site's collection of interesting paintings. But the eye-popper is The David—you turn a corner and at the end of a long hallway, he's standing in a domed area bathed in light. The absolute highlight of the trip was seeing him...it just takes your breath away. As you move closer, you see the oversized hands and feet and notice the large head, all tricks Michelangelo employed as it was meant to be viewed from afar. It definitely looks like he could come alive and glance your way at any moment.
No photography was allowed here, either, but fuck—it's The David! So lots of people were sneaking shots. It wasn't hard to do because there were only two guards. At various points, I was iPhoning pictures directly behind them while others were hiding in alcoves and taking pictures of themselves with David in the background. Finally, José and I took turns taking short footage of each other in front of him. I believe the sites don't allow photography around paintings because even accidental flashes would add up and cause damage. But around statuary, the only explanation other than security (who's stealing it?) has to be the desire to force people to come see it in person. Honestly, I don't see anyone who cares to see The David skipping a trip after laying eyes on my snapshots. And if they cared so much, they'd be far stricter—anyone caught was simply reminded, "No photos!"
We did lots more shopping and strolling around Florence's beautiful streets and alleys, and were
especially into the bridge in town that's littered with all kinds of storefronts. We passed a procession dressed in vintage outfits made up of guys tossing flags back and forth. No idea what it signified and they weren't exactly rehearsed to death, but some of them looked like modern art in their revealing tights.
Dinner was at La Giostra, famed for being run by an elderly chef and his "handsome twin sons," and for its motto that "the very slow food...the best!" It was, indeed, very slow, and the place was so packed we had to dine in a roomier annex, but the food was top-notch. I had an asparagus pasta and delicious apple-strewn chicken that were out of this world. We topped it off with some of the gelato we were ingesting on a daily basis.
June 3—Firenze to Venezia to Milano
This was our craziest day—three cities in just over 12 hours! We had to get up and get to the train station to find a train to Venice. This time, we were early, but we had issues getting into the right car. As we struggled against the flow of foot traffic, one American douche muttered, "There's always one." And he's right—there's always one douchebag American around to spoil things. I was mostly unimpressed with the traveling Americanos I saw, whether bratty college kids behaving like they owned the place, the older Southern couple who sat by us on the train and talked about how the pickpocketing threat was a surprise "because we're just so trusting," or this guy, it seemed that people from the U.S. were invariably the ones most likely to do something annoying. The worst had to be this punk kid DJ Nick Cohen (it was on his laptop), who looked like he was trying to pass as a rapper while swigging wine from a bottle, loudly telling anyone who'd listen that he "used to be a nerd but traded it in for wine" and then left his empty bottle in the bathroom sink. "I smoke on airplanes," he bragged.
In Venice, we wasted over an hour waiting to check our bags at the train station, then panicked over whether we were getting on the right vaporetto—but were were, and we wound up taking a leisurely ride over to San Marco, the astoundingly ornate, Gothic church. Once there, we could fully appreciate the movie-set-like quality of all the canals, not to mention the horror-film-ready look of the church! It was just so incredible, a mix of decay and preservation, religious fervor and picture-snapping tourists (it was forbidden, but tolerated if done discreetly).
We saw the famous statues of four horses that had been outside for centuries prior to being pulled in for safekeeping, as well as many mosaics and precious statues...even some body parts of dead saints. Unfortunately, this church charges separately in order to see just about every separate room.
Not wanting to fuck around, I immediately hailed a gondola for a full ride through the canals and the Grand Canal. Our gondolier was no-nonsense but accommodating, granting us a chatty tour that was punctuated several times by, "The gondola, it is a perfect boat, yes?" He pointed out previous high-water marks from the '50s and '60s as well as 500-year-old homes that are still to this day in private hands. It was idyllic—another highlight, if all too short.
Our shopping in Venice was very similar to that of Florence—you really can't turn around without running into a charming shop filled with Murano glass or souvenirs or clothing. We especially loved La Bottega di Mascareri, featuring artfully created masks by an artist who's best friends with the actor John D'Aquino, who I know of from writing about him on the teen series Cory in the House.
We had a nice, leisurely lunch (and by now had realized we were not monsters if didn't order appetizers, primis and secondis!) that was marred by the one food item in Italy we could not abide—Venice's traditional salt cod. It smelled and tasted exactly like human shit! It was stomach-turning. The other fish dish (glorified fish and chips, really) was yummy, as was the tortellini.
After, we simply walked through all of Venice, using our feet to get back to the train station instead of the stress-inducing, crowded vaporettos. We ate candy and gelato and bought knick-knacks and soaked up the semi-sunny day in the enchanted city that was exactly the way we dreamed it would be.
But our day wasn't quite over; we had to claim our bags (we went too early, assuming it'd take an hour when it took zero seconds) and then catch a train to Milano, which we did without any hitch. Our running joke throughout the trip was that someone would come up and say something to us and then say, "By the way...that's my seat!" But we wound up never getting it wrong.
Arriving late at night in Milan, my buddy Giulio fetched us from the station. The main train station there is just wow-inducing! A mix of old and new with its restored facade and interior accented by a neon triangle out front. He had a delicious simple dinner waiting for us and tucked us in, promising us a crazy day in the morning.
Milan was probably my second-fave city, so it would be Florence, Milan, Venice, Rome (though I liked them all). It had a New York vibe, but had the perfect mix of antiquity and modernity. "I want to show you we're not a ruin, not a postcard," Giulio told us, and he accomplished that, making sure we partook of the ritzy shopping centers after subwaying to a caffe and scarfing down some exquisite pastry.
Milan is no slouch in the Duomo department—it's endlessly huge cathedral was easier for us to scale and offered the best views of the trip because all the ornate masonry at the top would overlap as you gazed out, giving it a unique depth. There's a solid gold Virgin Mary on top, and we got quite close, though not as close as the helicopter that tried to steal it in the '70s.
We met up with his friend and did some department-store shopping (down even ask how many outfits José indulged himself in or how many mugs!) and ate in the light rain outdoors at a place Sheryl Crow and Marilyn Manson have enjoyed under his care. The zucchini blossoms filled with ricotta were a stand-out.
Giulio managed to get us to walk all over the grounds of the nearby castle, which is largely under renovation so was hard to fully appreciate, and even took us to a museum of Italian design. We were crashing, so we napped until it was time for one final pig-out, this one at a trolley ride away (think: San Francisco) at Il Carpaccio. What an amazing restaurant! We force-fed ourselves a sampler dish of appetizers and I wound up my gourmand's vacation with swordfish in red sauce, Italian applie pie and, of course, a tray of cherries.
June 5—Milano to NYC
The next day was a downpour, so we were happy it was wasted in travel. Getting to the airport to take off for home, it was hard to believe we'd done—and eaten—so much. The whole flight, we had a lady in front of us who was with a Long Island tourist group and who felt the need to speaking loudly in broken Italian to the lady next to her. I mean it was relentless for eight hours! At the end, she stood and said, "Well, it was nice meeting you!" I couldn't believe they weren't old friends.
At home, our dogs all but did backflips and so did we. I'm just now, almost a week later, recovering from the time-zone difference. But it was unforgettable. I only wish I could go into more detail; even this Biblical-sized post only touches the surface.