Apparently, it rained non-stop here at home from the day we left until the day we came back. Ha! Two weeks in Italy and not a drop - not a single drop - of rain to be had. Just sunny skies, soaring temperatures, toxic diesel fumes, men (and even one prococious 3 year old) who make you feel like the centre of the universe, more food than can possibly be good for two people, even more wine, long road trips, and one suitcase now fit for the trash. I have no luck with luggage.
After a sardine-like flight on Air Transat, Debby and I arrived in Rome exhausted and elated. We made our way on the train from the airport to Termini station - me saying how much a train ride feels like the perfect start, and Debby exclaiming that this is exactly why she never takes trains. Oh, well. We'd rented (OK, I'd rented) a small apartment a short walk from the Termini station - a strange, dank, mildewy place smack in the middle of the courtyard of an apartment complex. It was like being in a big box in the centre of a cement yard. It was eerie but clean, although Debby felt the need to "boobytrap", as she calls it, the place before going to bed: chairs and cans in front of the door, bread knives under the mattress, and, before entering the building at night, loud discussions about our long-overdue holiday from the Police force. (For my paranoid part, I clutched the car door handle in panic and fought off nausea wherever we drove - while Debby multi-tasked and steered the car with her knee, on one occassion, fitting in like a Pro).
Rome was beautiful, historic, busy, and smelled like pee. I mean everywhere. We had to hold our breath to walk up the street to the main boulevard. And although I'd heard about driving in Italy, you honestly have to see it to believe it. There are aparently no rules, and that goes fourfold for scooters. People park everywhere, stop anywhere, cut in all over the place - but no one seems to get too upset. They simply (and I mean everyone) give what we called the "mah - what?" gesture: fingers of one hand pointed upward, in a bunch, and moved back and forth towards the chest. It was a flashback to our largely Italian highschool days.
We started with the Spanish steps, the Trevi fountain, a stop to eat, a gelato (gelAto - not juh-latto, if you please), some walking around, and finally supper. We also saw the Colisseum, where we met a guy from Calgary, travelling with his mother, and a guy from Dublin taking a side trip after attending his sister's wedding in Tuscany. We went to supper with them, and Debby (Italian and tri-lingual and having been to Italy before)introduced them to Mozarella di Buffallo - which was excusably mistaken for a plate of hard-bolied eggs and pecked at carefully. But oh, what mouth-watering cheese that is. (I think I can get it here, in Montreal's Little Italy, for some $15 for the tiniest bit. Dang.)
The next day, we booked a rediculously early (even for me) tour of the Vatican museums, and waited in the longest line I've ever seen (pushed and cajoled by a throng of middle-aged tourists - and they claim younger people are rude!). The tour was nice, if rushed and packed. I hate crowds - more specifically, I hate being touched and bumped into by strangers. It makes me cringe. One (middle-aged) lady even tried to bump me out of the way to see the Sistine Chapel first, and I had to grab Debby's hand not to tumble down the marble stairs. But, it was all very beautiful, very historic, and with that done, we took the car and drove - for 7 long hours (1 1/2 of which were spent, immobile, waiting for an accident to clear) to Venice.
What can I say - Venice is stunning. Packed with tourists (like us) so as to be just about farcical, but like nothing I'd ever seen. We arrived at night, almost 10, and the apartment owner met us at one of the Vaporetti stops to take us to our place. It was a strange walk: desolate, dark, and eerie - with strange people at every turn - yet clean, almost magical, and so quiet without the sound of cars. Such a difference from Rome. It was almost like stepping back in time. The apartment, called Ca'Maria, was beautiful: sparklingly new, with every amenity you can imagine, and a fridge full of food and drink for us. It was less that half the price of even the cheapest hotels, so we'd hit the jackpot. We went for a walk to the Ponte Rialto, had a quick look around, then stumbled onto the only remaining restaurant open at 11. They rushed us thorugh our meal, and the waiter tried to interest Debby in a night cap followed by who-knows-what, so we decided to call it a day.
I was up early the next morning, and made my way alone through the alleyways and sidestreets for a few hours. I love the look of a place in the morning - there's something so clean and promising about it. I crossed from one side of the Rialto bridge to the other, turning here and crossing another canal there, and finally made my way to our meeting point, where I waited a good while for Debby (a late sleeper if there ever was one) and was rudely and briskly felt-up by a middle-aged man in a suit. Instinctively, I gave him the "mah - what?" gesture and stared him down while secretly revelling in the fact that I'd been fondled in Italy - although I was hoping for someone a bit younger. We spent the day walking around, eating (one restaurant promised "Spaghetti with carpet shells" - a strange translation for clams - and we couldn't resist), splurging on a gondola ride (with the handsome and charming-without-being-pornographic Mauro as our guide), taking a quick look at San Marco, a Vaporetti drive to Maurano (where the glass was rediculously expensive), and eating again. I didn't want to leave Venice - although Tuscany wasn't a bad alternative.
After another long drive and plenty of getting lost (Italy has this thing about putting up road signs that say "X - straight ahead", and when you go straight ahead you find a four-forked crossroads with no further indications), we found our villa, just outside San Casciano, some 20 minutes from Florence. The villa is on a property owned by the Corsini family - a rediculously-large acred vineyard that was like something out of the Godfather. No kidding. We also had the place - I mean the whole place, enough for some 15 guests - all to ourselves for 4 nights. It was gorgeous, with our room facing the not-yet-budded vinyard and smelling of old wood, stone buildings and olive and grape fields. There were even fireflies at night - the first I've ever seen in my life. Such fascinating things, lighting up whole corners of paths and gathering in the small valleys between rows of trees. But supper awaited - and we went into San Casciano to the only restaurant still open and had the best meal yet.
We spent the next few days touring the cities around: Sienna, Florence, San Casciano. We spent a whole aftrnoon at the pool right next to the villa, feeling like the only people in the world. We also booked a tour of the villa, given by the extremely knowleagable Australian nanny, and had an absolute feast for lunch outside the cantina: capers the size of olives, marinated zuccini, home-made pasta with artichokes from the owner's garden, a cheese-fruit-and-jam plate, with biscotti and Vino Santo for dessert - all washed down with a bottle of their popular Corti wine and a half-bottle of their more exclusive Don Tomasso. Just as we were digging into dessert (well, trying to get it all to fit in), a car drove up - the only other car we'd seen there in 3 days, mind - and out came two Quebecers for a wine tasting. So we sat with them for an hour, and learned we were all on the same flight home. Small world!
From there we took a long, terrifying drive down to Praiano on the Amalfi coast. I say terrifying, but it was so stunningly beautiful you hardly noticed the sheer drop some several hundred feet down to the sea. Imagine a whole set of cities perched - and I mean perched - along the rock face of a set of gorgeous, steep mountains. There were lemon orchards everywhere - layed out in rows all down the side of the mountains. The roads were stupifying, winding around and around and around, so that you're able to see around the bend of a one-lane/two-vehicle road only by means of a mirror - IF said mirror was still in place. There were signs everywhere indicating that honking was strictly forbidden (although all road rules appear to be flexible), which we later realized was for the benefit of tour busses and trucks, who honked to indicate when they were coming round the bend lest they surprise (aka squish) some unsuspecting motorist or maniac on a scooter. At least the traffic flowed at a slowish pace, so I didn't feel like losing my lunch all too often. We stayed at the Hotel Margharita in Praiano, the village over from popular Positano. What a gorgeous hotel - something out of Florida, filled with couples in whte shorts and knee-socks-with-sandals, with walls painted pink-and-white and rooms that - thanks to a particularly high bed - gave you the most stunning view of the sea when you woke up. We walked down the steet (and I mean literally - you either walk straight up or straight down in the Amalfi) to a small pizarria, and I dragged Debby to a local bar to try to get her introduced to a local. There were slim pickings, though, and we stumbled back to the hotel and off to sleep.
The next day we took the bus to the beach - my preferred mode of transport, although Debby is a die-hard car fan. The water was gorgeous - all blues and greens - and we stung our eyes silly with salt water (the beaches around Montreal are mucky - not salty!) and worked up yet another appetite. Debby tried the next day to rent a scooter (there was no way, shape or form that I was getting on one of those things), but the rental guy (the most pretty Italian I'd ever seen) just about had an anyurism when he discovered she'd never ridden one before. So, in accordance to his vehemenant wishes, she decided to join me at the beach (I went on foot and she by car), which - as we were warned - was some 400 steps down the rock face. What a workout in 32 degree heat! At least, unlike Montreal in the summer, the shade provided some relief. It felt good to stretch my legs after too many days in the car, though, and we spent the day going from one beach to the next, eating in between and thinking about where to go for supper.
The day after, we went to Pompeii - my one concession to visit something death-related on the trip. Although I was disappointed that all the artifacts were at a seperate museaum - in Naples, I think it was - the remains of the city were fascinating and the audio-guide gave us lots of background. There were still beautiful paintings visible on the walls, and the sheer size of the city - and the way it was created (the road system, built deep for water and sewage to pass with stepping stones created for pedestrians and large enough for cart-wheels to fit through) - had me enthralled. Finally, the heat and the school groups getting too much, we once again headed out to eat, this time served by the most rude and surly waitress, I would venture to guess, in all of Italy. Her dialect was too much for even Debby to decipher, but a few well-placed "manage!"s made it clear to us that she wasn't a happy camper.
Afterwards, promped by a call from Debby's mother that morning, we headed out to Torre del Greco to try and find the house where she'd lived for a year when Debby's mother was 12. After asking some 400 people for directions, we finally found the street - a grassy, winding lane that took us, with sudden swiftness, from the busy city to a expanse of vineyards. We found the address, and a run-down but still beautiful - almost ruin-like - two-story place with a curious man peeking at us shyly. Steeling her nerve, Debby walked round to the back and called out to him, and discovered he was, indeed, her mother's first cousin and remembered the family's stay some 50 years before. It never ceases to fascinate me that, the more I travel, the smaller the world gets. We took some pictures, declined a very shy invitation for coffee, and headed back to Praiano. Like meeting the lovely woman who drove me to St. Aubin to see the beach my grandfather landed on, this unexpected bit of connection to the country - to parts of who you are - was the highlight of Debby's trip.
After the Amalfi, it was back to Rome for one more night. We arrived in the late afternoon, and I wanted to see St. Peter's - as the line up weeks before was rediculously long. As luck would have it, there were very few people there at all. We went right in, during a mass (at the front of the church - miles away from the front entrance, if that gives you an idea of how big it all is). The sunlight was streaming in the windows like a Rembrant painting, and the organ music was everywhere. It was so unexpectadly moving I had to fight away tears - here, in the church of all churches, I discovered that a lapsed Catholic is apparently always a Catholic. Even if I can't remember whole bits of the Nicean Creed anymore, it's still a part of who I am. I went to see the Grotto, where the bodies of past Popes are kept, and was severly disappointed at how museum-like and marble-y the place was. I was expecting a climb down some rickety stairs to a dank, dark catacomb-like place where they hand you a flashlight and claim they're not responsible for any mishaps. I then decided to climb to the Cupola - Debby had done that the last trip and claimed once was enough - and, after talking myself out of a panic attack in the winding steps that seemed to be going nowhere, I finally emerged at the very top of St. Peter's, able to see every side of Rome in all its glory. It was incredible. I was suddenly sorry to leave Rome, which was so dirty and smelly just a few weeks before. There was still so much left to see.
We later met up with one of the friends Debby met last time round. He took us for (our second) supper at this little out-of-the-way restaurant, where we sat eating chocolate-covered steak at 2 in the morning and trying desperately not to fall asleep in the semi-freddo. A quick wisk back to the hotel, a change, and it was off to the airport to catch our sardine flight home, where we slepped through the handing out of customs forms and probably snored away like the Dickens.
Grazie, Italia! But, moreover, arrivaderci!