Venice’s Last Laugh

Venice, as I may have mentioned, expects you to take it’s paths and bridges and meandering waterways in stride, hauling luggage over every uneven inch. When it was time to go the airport however, we were picked up directly in front of our hotel by water taxi. From there, it was an easy twenty minute race to the airport, each boat attempting to outrun the other, our captain taking the wakes in a rhythmic bump, bump, slam pattern.

I imagine a taxi ride in Rome would have felt the same.

Finally at the quiet dock, we stepped onto moving sidewalks that ushered us gently into the Venice airport. We waited at our gate, relaxing in the morning sunshine and sorry to see Italy go.

Of course, the minute boarding was called, everyone immediately stood up and crushed forward at the cattle chute. We were so Italian by this point.

The airline slowly and clearly called out each boarding zone and the restless passengers reluctantly took their turns moving through, flashing their tickets and dragging their carry-ons. Hubby inched one deliberate inch forward at a time, keeping an eye on a little old lady to his left and a businessman on his right, both of whom were preparing to jump the queue if he wasn’t diligent. I drafted behind him, playing word games on my phone, confident in his ability to blaze a path through the chaos.

We finally scanned our tickets through and headed briskly down the ramp, jostling our carry-ons and bags and the fluffy neck pillow that Hubbs so faithfully dragged all over Italy, knowing full well he was never going to use it. But it was from Costco. For all I know, he will attempt to return it.

What seat number was I again?

At the end of the ramp, it took a turn and instead of an airplane door, we were faced with a flight of stairs. Super confused but laughing, because this behavior is always what we will remember about Italy, we hauled our luggage down another, and another, until we were exiting the airport onto the tarmac.

Were we walking home?

There was a bus. Full of passengers, standing like cattle, holding onto handles from the ceiling. We squeezed on, trying not to step on the old lady’s foot. She looked ready to kick.

Everyone was shifting restlessly, eye-rolling, wondering which way they were going to stampede next, and preparing for all possibilities. Hubby flared his nostrils. Challenge accepted. “The first shall be last,” I whispered. But I knew better. This man had already extrapolated all pathways and exits. He was ready for the next Italian chess move.

The bus rumbled across the Venetian tarmac and vomited its passengers out in front of an airplane that had open doors at both ends, accessed by another set of stairs. I could see everyone mentally freaking out with the option.

The rush, I was told, is so that you have room in the overhead for your stuff. Worst case scenario? The nice stewardess takes your bag up front and hands it back to you as you casually exit at your destination. No overhead hoisting required. Less time sitting in a stifling plane, and a free valet. I’m sick of lugging luggage.

But honey, did I hustle with it.

I put some serious mileage on those poor little swivel wheels; cobbles, stairs, pavers, grills, bridges, escalators, curbs, moving sidewalks, ramps, rain, even an exploding water bottle. And it was always packed first and politely waiting for Hubby’s dastardly duo at the hotel door.

We finally sat in the plane, luggage at peace overhead. Hubby was in his seat, fluffing his shirt from his exertions and wrapped it up with his signature sigh. All was right in the world.

Goodby for now, Italy. Thanks for the memories!

We flew over the crispy alps of Austria, the farmland of Germany and the tidy dikes of Holland. Scotland, Greenland and the Hudson Bay brought us slowly back into America and home. So many more places to visit.

The world is bigger and smaller and more beautiful than you will ever discover in this lifetime.

But you should try.

Caio, bella Italia.

Romancing Venice

Italy wears its heart on its sleeve on the isle of Venice. A thoroughly romantic mix of museums, music, colors, history, and mystery, Venetia makes you want to wear a pink swirly dress and swoon on a balcony.

Venice, the home of Marco Polo, Casanova, Vivaldi, Goldoni, and Titian, begins with formal introductions in St Mark’s square, but will lean in when you least expect it and whisper sweet intimate nothings in your ear.

Venice has no other purpose than to delight you.

St Mark’s Square is to be toured in an orderly fashion. The “finest drawing room in Europe” as Napoleon christened it, invites loitering with the pigeons while your imagination takes flight.

First, step into the Basilica (a free but timed voucher). The cathedral glows from an overbearing amount of gold decor. It feels heavy, a facade so thick that you are sure the real church must be hiding in the back somewhere, but no. For an additional fee, you discover that St Mark lies beneath a sheet of gem-studded gold that seems just a little like he is trying too hard to impress.

Competition is tough for saints.

You are not supposed to take photos, so you didn’t see this:

Near the entrance, a tiny passageway leads straight up to the rooftop terrace. Pay your 5E at the top and you will be able to enjoy the views, indoor and out, as long as you like. The original copper horses are inside, and replicas are out. Sadly, I was not allowed to ride either set. But they are magnificent.

This photo is for Kim.

Back in the square, a trip to the top (another timed voucher) of the Campanile is not to be missed and to prove that chivalry is not dead…it has an elevator! The lift holds just 11 people at a time and you will have only 15 minutes up top. It’s a gorgeous arial view of the island and its surrounding neighbors. The bells overhead ring at high noon. You will have to decide for yourself whether this is an exhilarating experience or the fast road to deafness.

The clock tower bell-ringers across the way are far more decorous in their duties.

Enter the lacy pink marble Doge’s Palace and you will once again feel the weight of history. It settles around you as you move from grand staircases to spacious rooms, fat gilded ornamentation bordering heavily detailed paintings, scrolled metalwork, polished wood; symbols of wealth, government, and religion. Here, judgement was passed and here, beyond an extensive armory, the Bridge of Sighs led prisoners to the dungeons. Graffiti in the cells is intriguing, especially as Casanova himself scrawled some of it.

This kiss is for John.

To complete the Square, explore the elegant Correr Museum. You will simply run out of time to see all of this multi-level extensive collection of everything. I was reduced to taking a photo collection of chandeliers (12) and then another of rare and ancient books (a million or so). A giant foot statue and a mummy rounded it off nicely.

When we ventured away from St Marks Square, Venice decided to rain on our parade. Armed with our Roman umbrellas, we hopped the vaporetto south for a march along Via Guiseppe Garibaldi. We admired his monument then strolled slowly back along the waterfront. When the drips threatened to put a damper on our day, we stopped at a sidewalk cafe and ordered hot espresso and a banana nutella crepe with a puff of whipped cream.

Because, happiness.

The Rialto Market was right beside our hotel. Placed beneath a permanent roof, this sumptuous daily market is full of tourists taking photos and locals buying their groceries. Everything is shipped in on early morning boats and by afternoon, nothing is left but a lone man hosing down the empty pavement. The variety of seafood, flowers, fresh produce, and spices is glorious.

This is a hint for what your restaurant is going to put on your plate tonight. It’s time to dress for dinner.

The cloak of dusk swirls around the island. Venice dons a mask of deep purple with gold trim, water shining through like eyes of magic. The crowds are finally gone. The night is young. And you are so beautiful.

Venice moves from courtship to seduction.

On each side of St Mark’s Square, a little orchestra plays. To your right, you hear The Blue Danube, from the left comes the theme from Titanic. Should you sit for a moment and take some champagne from the bow-tied servers hovering along the edge of the pavement? Or perhaps you would prefer a creamy hot chocolate from the cafe, steaming like a sigh from its cup? The music begs your feet to move, and happily, Venice is entirely new at night.

The Grand Canal is rippling glass, reflecting lamplight, moonlight, and the stars in your eyes. Wander over the Rialto Bridge (take the gratuitous selfie), and on past glittering delights in small shop windows. Chocolates, high end luxury stores, fashion, bakeries, gelato, lace, leather, glass, jewelry, pubs, and restaurants tempt on all sides.

There are few straight lines in Venice. Follow the curves and dips, the paths that make you glance back over your shoulder wondering whether you missed something, on through the twirling shadows. Each little bridge is an invitation to pause and enjoy the swimming splendor of it all.

If you are wise, you brought your own Casanova for emergency purposes.

If you are smart, you brought your dancing shoes.

Welcome to Venice: Get in the Boat

After disembarking the train into Venice, a meandering cruise down the Grand Canal via bus (vaporetto) is a great way to get acquainted with one of Italy’s most popular destinations. Grab a seat in the front. Wear something warm. Never stand up. This blocks your pilot’s view and he will let you have it because – surprise! – the Italians are still driving like…Italians. I never saw James Bond fly by (although we watched a film cast drift past, complete with cameraman, equipment, and actors hiding in the bow) but when you get everyone on the water it’s crazy. This is why we didn’t take a gondola ride. The tourists didn’t scream out loud, but the gondolier paddled for his very life a few times…

Playing chicken on the Grand Canal.

The water in Venice is very green lagoon water; it smells exactly like the San Diego Bay, without the salty open-ocean undertones. It’s not something you want to swim in and although we saw a gull or two, I saw no sign of marine life. The buildings in Venice are beautiful and in a constant state of maintenance. As the waters slowly rise, lower stories are abandoned in some of them. Doorsteps go right down underwater.

Palazzo Dario Ca d’Oro and a glorious green building.

As you make the first big bend in the Canal, you pass the colorful daily Rialto Market, full of fish, produce, flowers, and spices and the Rialto Bridge that gives gondoliers wonderful acoustics and bus drivers terrible tempers.

The Rialto Market A gondola, a taxi, and a bus walked under a bridge…

The next bend has the only “traffic light” in Venice. It sits at the corner and is used exclusively to allow fireboats out of the station at top speed.

If you watch long enough, you will also see garbage collectors, polizia, construction crews, ambulenzas, and other services at work…all by boat.

Hotel laundry? Who knows? Go under the Accademia Bridge next.

As you curve back around and see La Salute, this is your sign that you are about to enter the lagoon on the south of Venice. The water opens up and St. Mark’s Square is coming up on your left. You have arrived at your destination.

And so has everyone else…who parked that here? Yikes! Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. St Mark’s symbol: lion of Venice. St Theodore and his Crocodile.

We are going to leave St. Mark’s Square for the next post (click here for a preview), but I will leave you with this story:

A long time ago, before Venice was on the map, their patron saint was Theodore, the dragon slayer. After the sack of Constantinople, Venetians brought home random pieces of statuary, which were put together to form this image and for a long time, it was good enough. His claim to fame was that he wrestled crocs could bring victory in battle.

As politics marched forward however, the founding fathers decided that a more glamorous (and less Byzantine) saint was needed. So they stole one. In 828, Venetian merchants took the mummy of St Mark from its sarcophagus in Alexandria Egypt, packed it in a chest with pork and cabbages, and thereby passed it through Muslim customs officers. (Don’t try this at home.) They hauled St Mark to Venice and began a new church for him. The church was destroyed, then rebuilt, St Mark was lost and rediscovered in the process, and finally in 1094AD, we have the basilica, square and etc.

They left Theodore on his post to watch the show go by.

But I’d love to see him take on that cruise ship.

Just another day on the Grand Canal.

Knocking About Italy

You need to know right up front that the title for this post was spun into every possible derivative involving the use of the word “knockers” and that – although we are in the middle of a holiday week surrounded by children and piles of food – common sense prevailed.

But we had fun with it. (While we’re at it, here is a link to some “knock knock” jokes to keep the kids happy while you cook, clean, and caper.)

What I love about Italy (there’s a list) is the way they put their cities together. The streets are narrow and they pack their homes into little apartment-type multi-story buildings.  Every square inch of space seems to be commandeered and cars are an afterthought. This design is possibly the result of centuries of building in the same footprint as ancient days, when everyone kept safe within a protective wall. In places like Cinque Terre and Venice, you only have so much land to work with as it is.

You party in the piazza.

Outer walls don’t feel exclusive, just focussed. We never got to go into an interior courtyard.

Regardless, we spent many hours cruising the streets of Italy and everywhere we went, Hubby had to drag me away from the doors. All you see from the street is a massive pair of doors (go big or go home) with an impressive set of knockers.

I did not just say that.

They are unique, fun, and probably never used for their intended job. Are they inherited from one’s ancestors or purchased by an individual? I know I wasn’t supposed to stare and it felt awkward taking pictures without their permission. But they were beautiful. And I’m only human. I do wish I’d gotten a photo of the mermaids. Just to prove they exist.

These knockers held mystique, they represented something going on in the heart of the home and as a result, I went about Italy guessing the story inside, judging each book by its cover.

Lions…maybe a little too obvious.

A pair of manly moustaches.

Yogis getting their Italian groove on.

When your house is a zoo inside and you’re done making excuses.

Only the delicate and pure may enter herein.

Yeah, Santa skips this house.

These knockers are boring.

But the little door cut into the big doors felt so right. Munchkins live here.

So tell me…if all that anyone was every going to know about you, if your life story was going to be represented by a pair of knockers…what would you put on your door?

Cinque Terre, A Pictorial

I would like to dedicate this next episode to Andrea, Barbara, Bettina, Abbie, and every one of our Tribe who has seen the colored-up filter-enhanced impossibly beautiful images of Cinque Terre on jigsaw puzzles and travel brochures and thought to herself, “Self, a place can’t really look like that and be real.”

You and your selves are wrong.

The five little villages of Cinque Terre, in the province of La Spezia, the region of Liguia, are connected by a local train, a local water bus, and a narrow hiking trail (each require a purchased ticket). They perch along the cliffs like tiny jewels. Throw on your sturdy shoes and grab a water bottle, because we are going exploring.

“New” Monterroso “Old” Monterroso

Monterosso al Mare, where we stayed, has an original section and a newer section, connected by a little tunnel. These are the views from that middle spot, looking both ways. The beach is what draws people to Monterosso, but it has a sculpture at the far west (under scaffolding during our visit) and a tiny castle to the east if you want to “see a thing”. You can walk the whole length in twenty minutes or so, which we will do, because this is the morning we are hiking the tiny, famously outrageous trail to the next town over: Vernazza.

So it begins… Along the cliffs, heading south in the morning mist. And straight up, stairs, ramps, boulders…just UP forever. But you are rewarded by beautiful surprises, ocean views, flowers, vineyards… Until you finally (an hour and a half later, ahem) find Vernazza.

Vernazza is a lovely hamlet, if you are a giraffe. I love Italy’s use of space. Vernazza has the only natural port of the Cinque Terres and was buried in a mudslide in 2011. 

Welcome to Vernazza. From the cliffs. And the train is a blip on their radar. Remember fountains? Who needs a water bottle?

We took the train for the rest of our adventures. (Whew!) When it stopped in Corniglia, the next town south, we discovered what makes this place extra-special:

Read it and weep. Looking back. Do not attempt this in the heat.

Once you reach the top, you must still climb through Corniglia and around the little chapel of St Catarina to the cliff for the view.

Could not decide who this is…but he guards the place. Corniglia is in the middle: two towns on either side…waaaay over there. Looking inland.

We treated ourselves to a fruit smoothie and headed back to the train. Our next stop was Manarola. This is the one featured on jigsaw puzzles, colorful homes perched at the water’s edge.

Main Street, Manarola. You share with the boats. You can walk left to the boat dock… Or you can walk right to get that village view. But what is THIS? You can swim here, too…

We hadn’t thought to bring our suits, but it’s just as well, we had one more village to find. Riomaggiore is the fifth stop and if you have any steps left in you, climb left and follow the path…

The little marina. Keep walking, the water color gets crazy beautiful. And here is the hidden end of the path. Just wow. You can go inland, but it’s also uphill!

To end this day just right, we took the train back to our hotel, got fancy and returned for the spectacular finale:

This one’s for you, ladies!

Vernazza at sunset is not to be missed. Everything changes color with the sky: you, the town, the water, the air. My friends, you must sit here some day.

Golden sunset from Vernazza.

Doing Absolutely Nothing in Cinque Terre

We sat at a table along the beach front next to another two random couples, in the true Italian way of forcing you to make eye contact and offer a word of introduction while you wait for your meal to be delivered.

I hate that.

I never know where to begin and I always worry there’s spinach in my teeth. Thankfully, Hubby thinks it’s great. He dove right in and told our life story to the four unfortunate souls.

Ahi, strawberries, basil…

All I can remember about them is that one of the ladies was from Santa Barbara and appeared to be trying to land a business deal with the uneasy elderly gentleman across from her and the other lady was super excited to hear about our plans for “doing absolutely nothing” that day.

Her companion and I kept busy with the wine.

“We’ve been running through Italy at high speed,” said Hubby, “so we planned for a day when we would do nothing but lounge on the beach,” he took a sip, “especially since we want to do some hiking here tomorrow.”

He paused and waited for the raised eyebrows. He was not disappointed.

Oh,” said the other lady, “You haven’t been hiking yet?” She leaned into Santa Barbara’s personal space, “Wait till you see the trails!”

Her companion took another drink.

We went on one of the trails,” she continued, “and the steps go absolutely straight up! They just go for ages and my legs are still aching!”

She nodded wisely.

“Give yourself plenty of time,” she finished, as the food was served.

Fresh fish is a big menu item everywhere in Italy. Who knew?

Hubby smiled into his glass. This challenge had been accepted, even before we left home. Hubby reckoned that if “regular” people had done a hike in an hour and a half, we could certainly accomplish it in forty-five minutes. He had done his math. I had rolled my eyes.

Thirty years of marriage: I had also calculated how this would end but kept my mouth busy eating pasta.

Which proved to be a challenge in itself.

See these?

I can remove the crawly legs. I can forgive the buggy eyes. I can work around the crunchy tail bits. But for the love, why must I spend my time fishing out stray antennae from around my noodles? These long hairs were the only frustrating part of a gorgeous day.

Grab your towel, let’s go. I’m giving you my beach chair.

Cinque Terre is where Italians go to unwind. When they are sick and tired of creating art, discovering ruins, and eating gelato, they toss their pizzas into the air and hop a train to Monterosso. And this is where we stayed.

We sauntered out to the beaches that morning like professionals. SoCal is not short on beaches. It’s a language we know.

This narrow strip of beaches runs west to east, as Monterosso al Mare sits in a little alcove before the coastline turns south and into cliffs for the rest of the “five terraces”. The beach is pebbly to rocky, shifting as you walk it, and not easy if your feet are tender. You can burrow a nice space in it with your shoulders, but by far a better way to go is to rent a couple of loungers and an umbrella from the guy running one of the private beach areas.

I’ll give you a minute to stop choking on your arugula.

You have a choice.

Yes, there are free beaches that people pack into during the day, and it’s really not a bad rap if you aren’t the fastidious type or you have an hour to kill. You can walk through the “private” beach areas with your feet in the wavelets.

But for twenty euro, you get comfy chaises, wide umbrella shade, and use of their showers, changing rooms, etc (these resemble porta-potties, don’t get excited) for the entire day. This is not a spa experience, but you can come and go as you please and your chairs will be right where you left them, unclaimed.

We did a fair bit of “coming and going” that day, to the boardwalk for lunch, to the tabacchi for post cards, to the trattoria for the outrageously good specialty of the area: deep fried seafood in a paper take-away cone.

This, this, all of this!! Sardines turned into french fries…

And when I say “we” I mean “Hubby” because once you are settled in that lounger with the gentle waves serenading you and the light breeze blowing by and the warm sun slowly melting away your troubles, everyone and everything else around you no longer exists.

I can watch these sparkles all day.

Well…the street vendors exist. They followed you to paradise and if you want to have a foot massage right there in your lounger, be my guest. If you must buy a sarong, go ahead. But if you aren’t interested, you can plop your hat over your face and feign death. They will pass by your chair and let the tassels of the sarong brush over your feet to get your attention.

And you will have to decide whether responding with a kick will get theirs.

After what happened in Rome, I decided to play nice. You never know.

Hubby enjoyed the Med, snorkeling and floating and wandering along the jetty. There were plenty of fish (although not the variety that you find in Hawaii or the Caribbean), and large, jagged rock formations. One just off the beach offered adventurous types a fifteen foot jump into the bright clear blue water.

Is it blue? Is it green?

All morning, we watched incoming waves of visitors arrive at the train station, doing Cinque Terre as a day trip. They flowed along the tiny main street and eddied into the public beach areas, wrestling luggage, eager to experience the area. They came and went and finally washed back out to the countryside. Those of us who had the great fortune to be staying overnight then strolled through the quiet dusk to enjoy the small community vibe, the splendiferous sky, and of course, a lovely meal with new friends-of-the-moment.

When you order seafood in a restaurant, you get the whole enchilada. When you order at a window, you do too, but it’s all deep fried and heavenly.

Pisa, Italy: Don’t Mess

Q: If your train departs Florence at 9:30am and arrives in Pisa at 10:30am and your second train departs Pisa at 1:40pm, how much time do you have in Pisa?

A: Plenty, if Hubby will just stop fretting.

Q: If you exit the train in Pisa and it takes ten minutes to run in a circle looking for the baggage lockers and another twenty minutes to deposit said luggage into said lockers, and another twenty to walk the length of Pisa to the leaning tower (thankfully, without your luggage), how much time do you have in Pisa?

A: Plenty, if Hubby will just stop fretting.

Q: If Hubby has tasked you with navigating the fastest way through Pisa to the leaning tower and you have located a short cut that NO OTHER TOURISTS appear to be taking, should you guide him that way?

A: No. Hubby will lose his mind. Place him squarely in the center of the lost tourists and let him work his way to the front of them so that he feels like he is making good time.

Q: Once you have located your leaning tower, should you take a dorky tourist photo of Hubby holding it up?

A: Yes. This is a good use of your time.

Q: You have a timed entry ticket for the leaning tower and must arrive by 11:45am. You have already placed Hubby’s manly fanny-pack into the security lockers nearby (aka: cloakroom). It’s 11:45am. Should you get in line?

A: No. Your tiny 3×5 purse is NOT ALLOWED in the tower. It is considered armed and dangerous. You must dash back to the line at the security lockers nearby and leave it there, too. Camera phone included.

Q: It is now high noon. You have been scanned by high security airport personnel, patted down, and watched closely by rifle-toting military dudes. Can you finally act hot and bothered?

A: No. This tower is all the fame Pisa has and they are not about to let some tourist like you tip it all the way over. They will take the key and lock you up.

Q: Is the climb worth it?

A: Yes, it’s all fun and games until you reach the top where the tilt is strongest. Galileo himself hung off the edge and experimented with the velocity of falling objects. Stop looking at Hubby like that.

Q: Now that you have accomplished your climb and retrieved your effects, do you have enough time to tour the Baptistry and Cathedral?

A: No. Your ticket is no good for the Baptistry. You can take a quick dash through the Cathedral if you will just stop taking so many pictures, because – this is true everywhere – church is free.

Q: Fine. I didn’t want to see it anyhow. If you ask me…the Baptistry is leaning too. Or maybe I am leaning. Is everyone leaning?

A: No. Just the Baptistry. We are sorry you noticed….

Q: If your train leaves Pisa at 1:40pm and it’s 1:15pm, did you have enough time to return to the train station, retrieve your luggage, locate your platform, and sit around people-watching?

A: Of course. Have a snack. You will be at the beach tonight and Hubby will take all of his frets and throw them into the sea. You’re welcome. Thank you for visiting and have a nice day.

(If you know my Hubby, you know he is a creative engineer. His brain works like a Rubik’s Cube combined with Mastermind and Statego. He had decided – through sheer will power – that the Italian train system was not going to throw a wrench into our stop in Pisa. He was in it to win it…)

 

Boom.

There is a moat around the tower.

Of course.

An intricate crown; Pisa baptistry.

Pretty, Pisa cathedral In the cathedral.

I don’t know who they are, but only two had any faith in us.

How to Ride Trains in Italy

A fellow passenger was struggling to put his luggage into the overhead bin on our train. The bin is adequate for airplane carry-on sized luggage. When you have a massive full size suitcase, or even a quite heavy smaller one, lifting it over your head on a shifting train is a dicey proposition. But we saw a few people attempt it.

Hubby had looked into “trani” before our trip and understood a few things.

“Here,” he called out to the struggling Aussie, “you just slide the suitcases between the seats like this, see?” And Hubby demonstrated.

“Oh!” exclaimed the tourist, “You’re a legend!”

And Hubby was.

Train seats are turned facing each other, creating a space between their backs that is exactly perfect for sliding your case between. The space keeps them from rolling around, unless a curve is taken a little too fast, then they all peek out from between seats, as if looking to make sure their owners are still close by.

Let’s take a moment to assume you are, and go over the finer points of riding a train in Italy.

If you are doing a little train-hopping in a single town, you won’t have luggage to lug. You may as well stand in the foyer and grab a handle. Once the train comes to a stop, you push the green button to open the doors. Sometimes, they open automatically. Don’t be that guy who stares at the door waiting for something to happen until a local leans over, pushes the button, and proceeds to lead a herd of buffalo over your head as payback for making them lose a precious two seconds of hustle time.

Perhaps the vicious rumor that Italian trains do not follow schedule has something to do with the restrained pandemonium. Perhaps it’s because the tourists don’t realize there are free bathrooms (aka toilettes, water closets, loo) on the train. Or perhaps you just have NO IDEA where you are going and all you have left is making good time.

If you are taking a train cross country, there is a definite plan of action.  You must get to the stazione early enough to find out whether your train is on time. Then you wait in a group huddle, watching the display until your train has a platform assigned to it. Once a number pops up, move through the gates – where they may or may not scan your ticket – and count platforms until you hit yours.

They hide trains, sometimes. Platforms 1 and 2 may have been moved around a corner or be three flights underground. They are funny, those staziones. You must be prepared at any moment to grab your suitcase by the scruff and haul it up steps and over gaps and around fellow cattle passengers. You have to want it. Get your bearings and keep an eye on that display because if, with two minutes to spare, your train decides to pull in to platform 3 instead of platform 7, you and everyone else who was standing at military attention on platform 7 will suddenly have to haul potatoes outta there.

Frantic people will stall in the stairwell, because while their feet got the message to run, their hands never actually grabbed their luggage by a handle. Don’t be that guy. Everyone is stacking up behind you and I will personally go gladiator and lift you and your effects up and out of that ant hill.

Turn onto your platform and stride purposefully down until you are standing beneath the car number assigned you on your ticket. If you are in a tiny town next to a train tunnel (and this works for the metro as well), you will feel the wind gusting ahead of the train first. Then you will see the headlight curve into view. Inch closer to the edge of the tracks, gripping your luggage and staring fiercely ahead. This indicates to others that you have every intention of – wait for it – boarding this train.

Wait for the train to pull up and stop right in your face.

Verify your car is actually the one in front of you and scramble aboard. Did you at least verify that this train is the right number? Does your ticket say “666” on it, but the train says “687” on it? While the Vatican approves this change up, you have two seconds to decide whether you are mass-boarding a train heading for Austria instead of Naples. The conductor waves you aboard, so you go.

And someone else has taken your window seats. And they are feigning death. You stare at your ticket wondering if you have enough gladiator left in you to argue, but the train begins to move, your luggage starts to roll down the aisle towards the snack car, and you just dive into a seat with a shrug.

Three hours next to a drooling tourist may seem a little tough. The other couple stares out the window and although Hubby sits facing you, your conversation will either be in mime or holler. Next time, order seats side-by-side. This is the moment you pop in those earbuds, relax, and listen to Rick Steves. Or maybe write a few lines in your journal:

“Dear Diary, Why must Hubby chat everyone up? He does it in restaurants, on trains, in lines, on duomos. He’s asking the trolley cart guy whether our train is on time when he should be buying crisps. We’ve missed lunch again. This time, specifically, the workers in charge of nothing else but feeding lunch to people on trains are striking. Striking. Here comes someone to check our tickets, finally.”

And this is as far as you go before you are leaning sideways, drooling in your sleep.

#onecasetorulethemall Maybe the red guy is just trying to help. Are you fast enough to catch a bullet train? Stampede. But act casual. Milan. Admire the stazione for a hot minute if you can. What do you mean, the train changed it’s mind? With a gust of hot air, your rippling shirt says the train is coming…. In a blur and a screeeeech, your train has arrived!

The Fresh Florence Air

After spending the morning inside museums, Hubby and I were ready for some fresh air, even if that meant cold fresh air that tried to lift your skirts. (Tell me again…why do grown men wear kilts in windy Ireland? It makes no sense.)

Leaving the Bargello, we wandered over to the Loggia dei Lanzi with: yep, more statues. You can circle Hercules as he wrestles a centaur. Admire the Medici lions. Wonder why women are cast as victims. (Until you remember “Florence Triumphant Over Pisa” and maintain constant respect for your hostess.) And yes – I told you so! – there is Perseus himself, holding the head of Medusa. No wonder this place is full of statues, she’s the beginning and the end of the whole place. Percy stands in the Loggia, at the edge of the Piazza della Signoria, where we decided to take our afternoon tea break.

Sitting in the terrace, I poured a proper cup of loose leaf darjeeling – it cost seven euros – while newlyweds passed us in a horse-drawn carriage. Neptune’s fountain was across the way, undergoing renovations. A tourist in a green-striped shirt walked by, wrestling with his gelato cone. A small child held his parent’s hand, toting a Mickey Mouse pack on his back.

If there’s one thing I know for certain, this was no fake Neverland.

Florence never faked a thing in her life, thank you very much.

To continue our stroll towards the Arno River, we passed between the Uffizi Galleries, a final set of museums that we would have no hope of seeing at this late hour. Inside, Florence kept her painters: Botticelli, Rembrandt, da Vinci, Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, the list goes on. It is, perhaps, the heart of Florence. Her poetry. I imagine I would be lost in the first frame, listening to the eloquent genius pulsing from it.

We emerged onto the glittering waterfront, shaking off the shadows of Uffizi and picking up the energetic  bustle of tourists heading towards the Ponte Vecchio. This famous bridge is not quite what I had imagined after all the hoopla, but it had it’s charm. Padlocks are strung along the railing, in the tradition of “love locks”: names of sweethearts and/or dates are etched onto the locks, the locks are attached to the bridge and the key thrown into the river. Apparently, this only began in the early 2000’s after a book depicted the idea and it spread world-wide. It represents an unbreakable love.

Where I come from, it represents vandalism. Good grief, get a tattoo and save the fish.

Florence threw out 5,500 love locks from the Ponte Vecchio in 2006 alone. There is a strict fine for attaching one, but let me just show you this:

Ahem, Benvenuto Cellini does not approve.

I’ve dubbed Ponte Vecchio the “Yellow Brick Road” because, per the1593 edict of the Medici Grand Dukes, all they sell is gold jewelry there. The windows glow. Let me just show you this:

But I wasn’t in the market. We grabbed a gelato and got going.

At the sun began to settle, we worked our way over the Arno and up a side street. We wanted to view the sunset on our last day in Florence from the Piazza Michelangelo, a large raised plateau. It was the first thing farther than we expected it to be and did not anticipate the amount of steep steps it took to reach the top.

We arrived hot and bothered but the view was worth it. I understand the sunset here changes all during the year, Florence turning this way and that, catching the light and playing it over her curves. Her mood tonight was subtle, blushing over the river, softening rooftops, reducing the wind to a soft warm sigh.

A bronze copy of David enjoyed the sight with us. It’s fitting that they surrounded him with permanent green groupies. After seeing the real deal, nothing less is interesting.

We bought souvenirs there on the piazza, because at this point, the street vendors seemed like old friends. A couple of T-shirts later, an apron, a scarf, we returned down the steps and back into town in search of pizza for dinner.

Hubby by now had strict pizza rules: ten flavors is not adequate, but twenty choices means business. It must say “Pizzeria” on the door and offer outside seating in an actual lane of traffic. The prices must be reasonable, using the Costco standard. It must have “atmosphere” if at all possible.

Florence knew just the place. Which was great, because by now I was ready to kill him.

I had a nice big glass of red wine when we were seated, which means I had a half a pizza in a take-away box when we left for our hotel. I can eat or I can drink, not both. We wandered down the first narrow street that headed in the right direction and ran smack into the college district.

All of Florence’s twenty-somethings were enjoying the pubs along this particular street, standing in groups, chatting and enjoying the evening. We walked at least a mile and never saw a single person drunk, rowdy, or raising a voice. Florence kept it cosmopolitan classy.

“We should have eaten here!” Hubby said.

“Well, considering that we have been married longer than these kids have been alive,” I pointed out, “I feel we chose wisely.”

I took his hand.

If I had to choose being single and twenty-anything in Florence, hanging out with the cool people, or being fabulous five-oh in Florence, hanging out with my beloved on the world’s most amazing 30th Anniversary trip to Actual Italy….there’s no competition.

I wouldn’t trade this night for anything.

Abridged Florence When you’re a pizza snob. Looking back towards the tea. Duck! That’s gotta hurt.

Exploring the Closets in Florence

Piazza di San Giovanni lies between the Santa Maria del Fiori, the third largest church in Europe, and it’s famous golden-doored Baptistry. We stood in this little piazza on our last day in Florence, Italy, wondering how she could be so sunshiny and yet blow with such a stiff, cold, steady wind.

It was first thing in the morning and Hubby and I were not prepared for it.

Brunelleschi’s massive egg-shaped duomo, the crown of Florence, was our immediate goal but this time, our luck did not hold. Timed entry tickets were sold out for the day. We shivered in the square and decided to attack the campanile instead.

This tower is only twenty feet shorter than the dome and as we circled around and up to each staircase level, small rectangular air shafts framed beautiful views of the city, the orange-tiled dome across the way, and the cathedral decked in stripes of green, white, and pink Tuscan marble. 414 steps later, we were treated to a view of Florence from atop her scepter.

The campanile empties out into the Piazza del Duomo. The endless line waiting to enter the cathedral on the west side meant there was almost no one in the square with us, enjoying the slowly-warming southern side. A small caffe on the corner winked at us, then gave us a peek at her pastry case, tucked discretely behind orchids. You guys. We are only human. We sat right in the front window and had a decadent breakfast.

Be still my heart.

I want to believe that if you fill someone up with enough sugar and espresso, the very next thing they see will appear as golden, floating, surrounded by alien aura. But probably the Baptistry really is. My photos indicate that we actually walked through gold doors, under a gold ceiling, and stood in sunbeams that gave us halos. The baptismal font sounds like an angel choir when you hold it up to your ear.

Once the caffeine wore off, we walked completely around the cathedral, hoping to find the end of the entry line. People were frozen, hunched resolutely against the cold, sculpted by the wind.

You can admire the statues or become the statues. Easy choice.

We bypassed it once again, heading instead into the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, a museum dedicated to the history of the duomo. It contains the original Baptistry doors. A great many statues, including Donatello’s St. John and another pieta by Michelangelo are in there, as well as paintings, mosaics, textiles, choir stalls and books, gold-work, and a display of tools and designs used by Brunelleschi for his dome.

St John, by Donatelli Abraham and Isaac Real deal doors.

The Museo Nazionale del Bargello is three blocks straight down Via del Proconsolo. I ask you: can you go into too many museums in one day? No you can’t, don’t be silly. And the Bargello is worthy of your time. There was plenty of sculpture for statue buffs like myself, and a frightening amount of ancient armor and weaponry, right down to hunting hawks’ hoods. Coins, cannon, cloth. No less than three different Davids with the head of Goliath rolling around their ankles.

Caught a fish. Heavy metal. My name is Inigo Montoya… Mercury says there’s more upstairs….

Sighing with contentment, I tucked my camera phone away and declared that it was, finally, tea time.

Legend says that when the contest for who would build the Duomo of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was held, a great many engineers and architects argued around the table about ways to accomplish it. Finally, it was Brunelleschi’s turn to speak. He passed an egg around the table and asked everyone to try standing it on it’s end. No one could. He took the egg back, and smashed it lightly onto the table. The end broke, the egg stood: a perfect dome.

“This,” he said, “is what we need to create.” He got the job.

The story of  Brunelleschi and the largest masonry dome in the world can be enjoyed here. It was an engineering nightmare that he pulled off seamlessly and he died without leaving a trace of notes explaining how he did it.