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RCJ Column #8 Rome

(published in the Rapid City Journal on Sunday, June 28, 2009)

Dear readers,  Sorry about the temporary lack of photos to accompany the Rome column.  My crashed hard drive is being restored and I will have it (and all of my ‘lost’ photos!) sometime next week (Aug  25); I’ll insert photos then. 

Roma!

Aaaaah, Roma!!  The seven hills, the seven thousand atmospheric outdoor cafes, the seven million jostling, perspiring, tourists!  Che bella….. aroma!!! 

It’s June and it’s hot and it’s Rome.  Nothing I can say in my scribblings is going to add one iota to what has already been written/recorded/photographed about the gargantuan place in history held by sites like The Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, The Forum, The Pantheon; the list is nearly endless.  If you have a chance to visit this city and experience these wonders for yourself, grab it.  Unless you’ve been here, your notions of the ancient Roman Empire and the current Italian capital are surely diminished.  Herewith, instead of droning on about the obvious, I thought I would share a few travel hints for you to use when you finally do visit. 

First, if you come in the summer, insure that your hotel is air conditioned.  The whole hotel, not just the lobby.  Trust me.  Many hotels, museums and churches are not air-conditioned, so be forewarned.  For the most part, buildings heat up quickly in Rome’s hot, muggy climate (think Black Hills in July, then add 90% humidity), with the exception of the churches.  I can’t decide whether it’s because the stone buildings retain the cool naturally or whether it’s due to lack of body heat.  The Italians don’t attend regularly anymore; the churches (NOT St. Peter’s) will be relatively empty.  They’re cool, they contain some of the most important works of art in Rome and admission is free.  You can’t beat that combo. 

Second, if your hotel advertises a ‘romantic rooftop garden café’ named, for instance, Terrazo di Paradiso, and you’re planning to surprise your love with a dinner and a bauble, do check to see if the ‘Terrazo’ has actually ever been open.  In our 200 year old hotel, when we inquired, we were most indulgently informed that ‘the Terrazo is a work in progress’.  (I didn’t mention that, in America, we don’t really consider a 200 year schedule ‘progress’.) 

Third, pack an umbrella (or sunhat) and binoculars.  You will be standing in line in the scorching sun and unless you want to be endlessly pestered by vendors with overpriced, oversized paper cocktail umbrellas, you are advised to carry your own shade.  Unless, of course, you’ve packed a kimono, in which case the paper umbrella will charmingly complete your look.  Binoculars (or a good zoom lens) will expose detail you’ll otherwise miss.  

Fourth, the Sistine Chapel is not in St. Peter’s Basilica, so don’t wander around making a pest of yourself and asking silly questions of the Swiss Guard.  They have dead and living popes to attend to.  To see the Sistine Chapel, a little preparation will go a long way.  You will be walking a long and diverting obstacle course through the Vatican museums along with a hundred thousand other Michelangelo fans, who will suddenly stop for a photo of something you can’t see and a  Domino effect with occur.  Like train cars piling up at a derailment.  This will happen at least five or ten times in the hour it takes to go from the ticket office to the door of the Chapel.  Make sure your brake shoes are in good working order.  

Once you finally achieve the Chapel, you will stand (unless you stand rudely close to someone who has taken up residence on the tiny bench that hugs the perimeter of the chapel, causing them to leave), craning your neck to see the ceiling, because it is 68 feet high and the Chapel is not large. (see: binoculars, above.)  It is nearly impossible to see the entire ceiling from one vantage point, but you will be borne along by the throngs, so you’ll likely see most of it before you are whooshed out the exit.  Also, despite repeated taped and live warnings against talking and taking photos, nearly everyone is talking and taking photos in this sacred space.  You can easily tell who attended parochial school in their youth – they are quiet and taking no photos.  

Lastly, have a pizza in Rome.  You owe it to yourself.  But do not believe the guidebooks and rush off to Pizzeria Baffetto for what is claimed to be the best pizza in Rome.  No offense to Mr. Baffetto (well, maybe a little.  Signore Baffetto is rude to his servers and his customers because of the pedestal he has been on), but the BEST pizza in Rome is actually made by his children (who, I’m thinking, got fed up with his tantrums and their stingy allowances and opened their own place) at Pizzeria Montecarlo near the Piazza Navona.  You’ll be surrounded by animated Italian families enjoying the most divine combination of crispy, paper-thin crust, lightly singed edges, deliciously balanced toppings and the fastest service imaginable.  However, and consider yourself warned:  do not eat pizza in Rome if you ever plan to have pizza in the United States again.  They are not of the same species.  Being in St. Peter’s Basilica is probably the closest to heaven most Roman Catholics will ever feel; eating Montecarlo’s pizza will have to suffice for everyone else.

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RCJ Column #9 Tuscany and Umbria

(published in the Rapid City Journal on Sunday, July 5, 2009)

Typical Umbrian hill town

Typical Umbrian hill town

Tuscany and Umbria 

We arrived in Assisi late in the day after a speedy ride up the Autostrada from Rome.  (I believe “Autostrada” means “straddle all lanes with your auto”; passing requires squeezing your eyes shut and screaming a lot.)  Assisi is a picturesque Umbrian hill town dominated by the lovely and austere Basilica di San Francesco. 

The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

As St. Francis of Assisi is Italy’s patron saint; this town of 3000 is overtaken by up to 5 million tourists and pilgrims every year.  And without great accommodations, it will feel like you’re sharing the town with all 5 million at once. 

 

The central square in the town of Assisi

The central square in the town of Assisi

The Hotel de Umbria, secreted off the main square with its own cloistered and leafy outdoor café, was the perfect place to escape the crowds and still be within easy walking distance of most of Assisi’s attractions.  “Easy walking” is a misnomer:  with only a few portals into town and the tiniest of winding medieval lanes, you’ll be sharing the ‘streets’ with cars, trucks and that most noxious of transportation inventions: the two stroke scooter.  As you gaze at the façade of the Temple of Minerva, built at the time of Christ, the incessant whine of those infernal scooters will have you thinking rather pagan thoughts.  

Assisi is clean, beautiful and, thankfully, frozen in time.  The League of Graffiti Artists (the amount of graffiti in Europe is astounding and dismaying) have left Assisi unmarked; the difference is almost startling.   Most of the medieval buildings are constructed of a muted grey stone; boxes of red and pink geraniums spill from every window and peeking into jewel box courtyards is a tiny, thrilling glimpse into Italian home life.  The huge, spray-painted signatures of Big Rex and Ultimo 5 are not missed.  (Let’s hope there’s a special place in Hades for these defilers of Europe’s noble and historic structures!) 

A visit to St. Francis’ tomb is a deeply moving experience.  Because of warring families in Italy at the time of Francis’ death, his body was sealed in a rock tomb so that it could not be dug up or defiled.  The tomb today is still rock, encased in iron, deep in an underground chapel, almost jarring in its simplicity.  The solitude and serenity is palpable.  It is not to be missed. 

A few miles from Assisi is Cortona, the classic Tuscan town whose outskirts now resemble American suburbs.  I think we can thank Frances Mayes and “Under the Tuscan Sun” for this phenomenon.  If you have an interest in the thrills and follies of owning a second home in Italy and are the only literate person in America who hasn’t yet read this book, don’t miss it.  When you’re done, try to resist the urge to buy a home there.  Surely, a Walmart is soon to come.  

A market in Cortona - NOT in Walmart!

A market in Cortona - NOT in Walmart!

Cortona, itself, remains another perfect Tuscan hill town; the steep ascent to the town is matched only by the steeper ascent once you’ve achieved the town gates.  If you go, be prepared to climb.  One guidebook describes the lanes as ‘ladder-like’;  although they’re not quite that steep, anything other than flat shoes will easily pitch you onto your nose in most of the town.  Cortona has, by far, the best location for the passeggiatta, or, ‘little walk’, which is an Italian pre-dinner tradition, a daily walk from 5 to 7PM, in which the locals dress up and slowly amble down the loveliest lanes in town.  This would be a wonderful tradition to start in Rapid City; the downtown streets and parks around the Rapid River would be ideal – and then we’ll all go to dinner at one of our delicious downtown cafes.  See you there!  

Michelangelo's 'David' guarding the palace gates (replica)

Michelangelo's 'David' guarding the palace gates (replica)

And finally, Firenze!  Florence – the living work of art.  An example of what can be accomplished if everyone doesn’t sit around watching TV every night. Home to Michelangelo’s “David”, Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation”, Brunelleschi’s “Duomo” (or cathedral); there isn’t enough room on this page to list the famous works residing in this city.  Once saturated with masterpieces, you’ll be ready for a little cappuccino on the main square, the Piazza della Signoria.  Grab a fringe table, especially on Fridays and Saturdays and watch the brides come streaming out of the Palazzo (palace); even more entertaining: watch the brides endure the Italian tradition of being kissed (and I do mean kissed!) by any male who wishes.  Don’t forget to watch the faces of the grooms!  And all for the price of a cup of coffee!

The famously golden Ponte Vecchio over the River Arno in Florence

The famously golden Ponte Vecchio over the River Arno in Florence

Ciao, amici!

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L’incidente

It was definitely too good to last.  Despite mysterious international electricity suppliers, confounding network connections and Google in five different languages; my laptop soldiered through and allowed me to record our two month adventure without too much interruption – until the fateful evening in Cortona.  (And I’m pretty sure this is just the universe paying me back for asking a ‘gentleman’ at dinner if he was hard of hearing and asking him to tone down the volume.  Sigh.  I’ll never learn.  (Was EVERYONE in the restaurant annoyed?  Yes.  Was I the only one to speak up?  Yes.  Did everyone avoid me like the plague afterward?  Yes.  Did my laptop die that same evening?  Yes.  Surely an instance of cause and effect.)

 

We’ll be on our way to Paris on Tuesday, where I’m hoping to find a dedicated Apple store to find out whether my hard drive (with my 1064 photos from this trip along with a daily diary) will be salvageable.  I’m trying not to despair nor to be driven to drink (no one has yet offered to drive, however ‘drink’ is within easy walking distance here in Florence.)

 

All is not lost;  Rog has this little ‘pretend’ laptop that I’m using right now.  Perhaps it will even allow me to upload some photos, although I’m not convinced it’s that sophisticated.  (Typically, I returned to the hotel to explore the compatability of my camera and Roger’s laptop.  Predictably, he is currently roaming the streets of Florence with my camera in his pocket.  I’m sure he doesn’t realize it.  That’s the way we roll.)

 

In any case, Happy Anniversary to us – 12 years today (6/21).  Since we took our wedding party and guests to a rehearsal dinner at Café Luciano in Chicago the night before our wedding, we sought out the restaurant in Florence most like Café Luciano for dinner last night.  It was wonderful – especially since I was finally able to try some Ribollita and home-made pasta with truffles.  Ottimo!!

 

Ciao, tutti!

P.S.  We’re now in Paris where the Apple service department told me that my computer might not be recoverable.  I’m going to go throw myself in the Seine in a little while.  Right after I stop at the nearest patisserie.

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