Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Whirlwind Italian Tour

I like to travel in a leisurely fashion, skipping breakfast if I feel like sleeping in, and often indulging in la dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing at a sidewalk café. While an organized tour has never appealed to me because of the regimentation, I’ve got to admit that my recent Trafalgar Tour to Italy exceeded my expectations.

My sister and I explored Rome a day before the tour began. Everywhere we turned, we saw ancient ruins sidling up to modern sidewalk cafes, flowers spilling over wrought iron railings, and fountains gracing every piazza. As we were walking down the main thoroughfare trying to find the Borghese Gardens, we spotted a meandering street where, at the very end, a wall of pink azaleas appeared to climb up to the sky.

We couldn’t resist the temptation, so we walked down the street past the Gucci and Prada stores, dodging the vendors selling roasted chestnuts, and finally reached the bottom of the flower wall. Huge tubs of pink azaleas bloomed in the middle and along the edges of the steps. When I asked the chestnut vendor beside me where we were, he exclaimed, “Spagna!” and that’s how we discovered the splendor of the Spanish Steps, named after the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See and built by the French.

We didn’t have much time for independent exploration once the tour officially began, but we still saw a great many places and learned quite a bit of history. Our guide took us to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Pantheon, but it was St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, which fascinated me the most.

Several centuries ago, the Pope did not think nude statuary was appropriate for the Vatican, so he ordered the most intimate parts removed from all the figures. The authorities couldn’t bear to throw away art, however, so all of the pieces were stored in a room deep within the enclave. In the Twentieth Century, the Pope decided his predecessor had been far too prudish and that the statuary should be restored to its original glory. But no one could figure out whose part belonged to whom. The missing parts are still stored in a room somewhere, giving a whole new meaning to the title, St. Peter’s.

If ancient Rome was circumspect, ancient Pompeii believed in the power of advertising. Phallic symbols, chiseled into stone paths, led patrons to the brothel. Once arriving at the rabbit warren of private rooms, the illiterate Pompeian could consult the frescoes atop the doorway of each room depicting the specialty of that particular prostitute. I don’t know if these figures reflected truth in advertising, but the variety of poses certainly would have intrigued Masters and Johnson.

Assisi is the home of St. Francis who was far more interested in animals than fleshly pursuits. This saint, born to a wealthy family, was given his own horse, a retinue of servants and a suit of the finest armor. Because his family forgot to give him any training, however, he was severely injured in his very first battle and decided that war was senseless. He devoted the rest of his life to living humbly and talking to birds. His tiny chapel looks like a miniature dollhouse in the basilica that stretches for blocks to enclose it.

Both Assisi and Venice are dominated by former inhabitants. On our nighttime boat ride down the Grand Canal, we used our imaginations to supply the three-story palazzos with lights and people. Ten thousand tourists visit Venice every day, but no one can afford to live there. The real estate lining the Canal is the most expensive in the world.

Venice was the town where the passeggiatas finally got the better of me. No matter how charmingly our guide used the Italian word for “walk,” the passeggiata had a way of turning into a seven or eight-hour daily hike. These passeggiatas had taken their toll. I had long ago found a new use for the bidet that graced every hotel room in Italy. I filled it up with cold water and soaked my feet every night. This is the only way to remain mobile on an organized tour!

On our last night we enjoyed a group dinner in the Trastevere section of Rome where the Chianti flowed, and we sang along with the musician. We had a last walk across the most romantic bridge in Rome and sadly went back to the hotel to pack.

Will I go to Italy again? I threw coins in the Trevi Fountain, twice, just to be sure. But the next time I go, I plan to travel independently with a lot more la dolce far niente and far fewer passeggiatas.

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  1. very good, informative, but not too wordy.

  2. I really loved this one, Dru, since we took a Trafalgar Tour ourselves in September 2007 and loved it. Our tour was somewhat different, since it was The Best of Italy and Greece. After touring Italy and Greece we added a three day Greek Isle Cruise. Our tourguide was the wonderful Federica Ercolani, and she was amazing, steering us through Rome, Venice, San Marino, Assisi, Sorrento, Capri, Pompeii, Amalfi Coast, Olympia, Delphi and Athens with wit, knowledge,and lots of love, not just for us but for her country. We had never taken a tour before but after that took one with Environmental Nature Company, and now I'm sold on tours. Thank you for your wonderful narrative; it brought back memories and was a delight to read.