It’s weird when a country meets all the cliches you’ve heard about it. There is all this ancient stuff lying about, people are fiesty and effusive and drink coffee in shots at all hours and there’s no such thing as bad food.
Unexpectedly, I loved Rome best. I loved being around ancient ruins and yet being in the midst of a bustling city where people are extremely stylish. I loved the 800 year old building we lived in, the oldies sitting around the sun-dappled courtyard, the cafe where you could get a perfectly made capucino and biscotti and while away the day. I loved the grand fountains and the cobbled alleyways where the best pizza places are to be found.
Favourite monument in Rome: Church of San Clemente, which contains layers of faith one on top of the other. There’s a 12th century church built over a 4th century church over an old Roman house which houses a room for worshipping the Persian god Mithra. Walking down into the excavations was spooky but I think what I liked best was the quiet and the lack of tourists. Many of the other more famous churches like St Peter’s and the Pantheon (which is pretty hard to think of as a church anyway) lose a lot of their atmosphere because of the throngs they attract. Ironic, I know, because I was one of those throngs but I do like to sit in churches and pray as well.
Favourite meal: Dinner down the road from our B&B in Cipro where I discovered the sensuality of food, starting with an appetiser of fried zucchini flowers and ending with tiramisu.
Most disappointing experience: The Sistine Chapel. Thought it was all rather lurid. Then again, maybe it was being packed into the gloomy place like sardines. Hard to imagine it as chapel.
Serendipity strikes experience: Mysteriously missing the tour guide for the Colosseum and having to run around in the rain trying to catch up with V who had decided to skip the tour and gone on ahead. Well, guess I was fated to not spend three hours of my birthday away from V but I did find the Forum really confusing after.
Best surprise: That all the water in the fountains is pure, the Roman acqueduct still doing its thing.
Surprisingly, I tired of Florence after a day or so. We were staying right next to the Duomo so the area was packed with tourists. V was tiring of the monument stalking and I had to drag him to some stuff, give up on others and go to some alone, which turned out to be the best plan.
Best dome of the holiday: Brunelleschi’s frescoed dome. The church itself is so impressive that I ended up being completely stunned when I landed up under the dome and looked up to see the detailed painting on it.
Loved also: the Uffizi and San Marco, this church and monastery which has frescoes in the monk’s cells by Fra Angelico. Something about the simplicity, and yet surrealism, of these paintings touched me. Weirdly, I’ve discovered I like those old gold-embelished Byzantine religious paintings rather than the Titian and Tinteretto stuff. Among the older stuff, I like sculpture. Totally enjoyed the outdoor sculpture space in Florence.
Another surprise was Venice which I was fully-prepared to be let down by. Instead, I loved it. I loved the crumbling buildings and the cutey canals and the little bridges and impressive palazzo facades appearing right next to more humble abodes and the water washing up on the steps and even the gondolas (though I didn’t go in one).
Best art-related museum of the whole holiday: Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. The collection is an extremely personal selection of artists who were living around the time that Peggy was and this intimacy pervades the arrangement of the rooms as well, because some of these works used to hang in her living room, bedroom etc in addition to the fact that she nurtured some of these artists herself and supported them when they were starving etc. And in the case of Max Ernst married him, though what an ungrateful wretch he turned out to be. Gorgeous work came out of his infidelity to Peggy though! The collection is housed in a palazzo on the Grand Canal but the ancient building is in stark contrast to its whitewashed interior and forward-looking art.
Also loved: the Doge’s Palace. Weird how they had the prison right next to the palace. Also weird how one simple door in one of the rooms meant you were going from hero to zero.
Eeriest quarter: the Jewish ghetto, the earliest ghetto in history. At some point apparently, the Venetians decided (way before Hitler) that the Jews should be sequestered in this quarter of the city and only leave with special permision wearing badges. Sound familiar? The area got so crowded that it has some of the highest buildings in Venice (only five storeys or so though). Now, however, it seems a perfectly regular locality (apparently very few Jews still live there but we still saw a group of them coming out from a synagogue and the square had an armed security guard) with kids playing ball in the piazza.
Most unpleasant person encountered in Italy: Rude taxi driver who I made the mistake of asking directions and who just stared at me blankly although he clearly knew. Hmph! But he was pretty much the only one.
Strangest experience: Sitting in this decrepit part in what is apparently the India-cum-Chinatown of Rome and watching unemployed Indian/Chinese men while away the hours.
Best shopping place: Rome. Though, because I expected Florence to be better, didn’t buy anything there. Unfortunately, Florence turned out to have shop after shop of the same kind of leather stuff. Not that I’m averse to leather, quite the contrary actually. But Rome had proper mid-range shops with interesting original designs while Florence had a lot fo the same thing. However, I finally got down to it and bought four bags and a pair of boots.
Irony of the trip1: All V’s purchases on the trip were food and cooking related stuff. Weirdly shopkeepers kept addressing all comments to me and I would nod wisely to humour them and then wander off. Net result – spending as much on cheese and salami as on bags and boots. With a coffee maker thrown in.
Irony of the trip2: Bought said boots in Bata! Hahahaha. Ironic not because I think Bata is an Indian company but because father-in-law owns a Bata store. However, his doesn’t sell boots so I guess its ok.
Craving I didn’t realise I had: Spicy food. Unleashed by kebab panini, so I didn’t feel like I was totally cheating on Italian food. Weird how little I missed other cuisines… thought I would have dim sum cravings but I didn’t. Encouraging to know.
Best thing I realised about Italians: They’re dog friendly. And proper dogs at that – large woofy mongrelly dogs. They bring them into cafes and on the train. Love it.
Regret of the holiday: Not staying in Venice itself but in neighbouring Mestre and then discovering there was a bus strike after waiting fruitlessly for a bus to take us to Venice for an hour. Also choice of hotel which, despite nice room, had stressed out staff and generally absolutely nothing about it to do. I like being off the beaten track but this was a little too much so.