Italia!

Dawn broke early, banishing night’s darkness with a gentle nudge. Kissed the glistening snow-capped peaks of the majestic Swiss Alps; then beamed her golden smile far and wide to light the morning sky. Our Alitalia jet had just crossed the Italian border where the scenery was so breathtaking; I was late noticing we’d begun our final descent into Milan’s Malpensa International Airport. It was Sunday May 6th. 2007; the air was cool and crisp as hundreds of us weary passengers disembarked our overnight flight from Toronto; and pausing to stretch our jet-lagged bodies, boarded the waiting shuttle buses for the short ride to the main terminal.

My wife Margaret and I were among a Canadian group of approximately forty nine seasoned travellers known as the.. “Globetrotters,”.. who were embarking with great anticipation on a two weeks holiday in beautiful Italy. And after surviving the retrieval of our bags and clearing Customs, we were met in the arrivals area by among others, the lovely Ms. Vanessa Nicol, our London-based Tour Manager. We’d no sooner settled into our comfortable air-conditioned coach when to our surprise, the svelte shoulder-length brunette extended her warm and melodious welcome in a combination of fluent Italian and English, tinged with a slight Scottish brogue.

She certainly captured our interest, so much so that on exiting the airport parking lot in route to our first destination of ‘Lake Como,’ Vanessa in answer to our queries, proudly shared her unique and interesting Scottish/Italian ancestry. Though tired, there was no sleeping on the coach for us, not with the volume of interesting information she continued providing during our relaxing Sunday morning drive down the un-crowded highway.

Who would want to sleep anyway, passing through such picturesque farm country, with its rolling green meadows and wide open checker-board fields with quaint little hamlets in between? In no time we were climbing a winding mountain passageway, with a narrow bridge to cross at the top. And just around the bend coming into sight was this enormous dark body of water, with rippling waves shimmering in the radiant sunshine.

Our spirits were all uplifted by the beauty of this massive lake, nestled there in a valley surrounded by low laying forested mountains. And since the rest of the morning was at our leisure to explore its many vistas and attractions, a scenic cruise on its fun-filled waters was our first preference. But after some deliberation, our immediate family group decided instead to ride the orange-coloured funicular train up the steep nearby mountain, for a panoramic view from its scenic lookout point.

Our cameras were clicking away on the way up, heartened by the splendour of the distant Swiss Alps; its white slopes glistening against clear blue skies. And looking down on the lake from our high perch, one could barely make out the foamy wake of tiny speed boats with water-skiers in tow, skimming the surface alongside pleasure crafts enjoying their Sunday sail. I had to restrain myself from taking too many photos, bearing in mind we’d just arrived and lots of equally beautiful sites were yet to come.

After a late lunch and walkabout, we boarded our coach at an appointed meeting place, for the short drive to our ‘Hotel Albavilla’ in the nearby Lake District town of Albavilla. When we arrived the porters were slow in coming, therefore exhausted and sleepy, some of us struggled with our luggage; almost causing a near traffic jam trudging down the narrow hallway to our rooms, anxious to catch up on much needed rest.

That evening before dinner, all spruced up and somewhat refreshed, our group gathered on the expansive hotel patio within clear view of the stunning Dolomite Mountains, whose gigantic undulating peaks nicely silhouetted against the copper-coloured sunset. Of course some of us couldn’t resist capturing its beauty in our lenses, and clicked away at will. It was here we celebrated with cocktails and finger foods our traditional ‘welcome’ party. And as we sipped and chatted in the cool evening breeze a hearty time was had by all, followed by a sumptuous dinner; bringing a fitting end to our first of many hectic days in Bella Italia.

This was a first for Margaret and me to the industrial city of Milan, even though we’d made two previous visits to Italy in the past fifteen years. So like the others, we were in high spirits boarding the coach after breakfast the following morning to begin our city tour. It was Monday, and no different to traffic back home, we got caught in the rush-hour crawl a few miles down the highway. Made me wonder what traffic was like back in 400 B.C. when the Gauls first settled here; and whether it was any different for the Romans who followed in 222 B.C., when they renamed the city Mediolanum.

Our first stop was a brief tour of the medieval ‘Castello Sforzesco,’ located just on the outskirts of downtown Milan. It’s an imposing city within a city enclosed in a red- bricked wall, and protected by a now empty moat which no doubt through time withstood many a siege. From there, accompanying our local city tour guide we took our lives in our hands, dodging on-coming traffic heading towards the lengthy shop-strewn pedestrian mall.

Our destination was the ‘Piazza del Duomo’ in the heart of the city, where in route we came across statues of brightly coloured bulls erected on a few street corners; quite similar to Toronto’s moose. I had to drag Margaret and the ladies away from window shopping though, hurrying them along a few more blocks. And when we emerged from a little side street, the magnificent ‘Duomo cathedral’ with its refurbished Gothic and Renaissance facade came into view. From its erection in 1386, thanks to the patronage of the ruling Visconti family, to today, it still commands an overwhelming presence as one stands in front of Milano’s towering icon, admired the world over.

To the left of the church sits the ‘Galleria,’ an ancient shopping mall built under a high glass ceiling. Today it houses some of the world’s most prominent high-fashion stores, long established in this bustling fashion capital. But since high-priced shopping wasn’t on my agenda, I avoided venturing into any store with names resembling ‘Prada,’ ‘Versace,’ or ‘Dolce & Gabbana.’ But a visit a mere block away where the prominent ‘La Scala Opera House’ stood since 1778, counted high on my list, and was indeed a dream come true.

To our regret the legendary theatre had no performances at the time. But in climbing the well-worn stairway of this operatic Mecca, I was intrigued by the colourful posters of yesteryear that draped its walls advertising among others such beloved performances as: “Madam Butterfly,” “La Boheme” and “The Barber of Seville.” I paused for a minute, sensing great arias from the distant voices of Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti still echoing through its hallowed hallways, to thunderous applause. But the impatient crowds soon moved me on.

Part of our visit included a tour of the La Scala Museum where on display were photos, mementos and artifacts of outstanding composers the likes of Verdi, Puccini, Tosca and the many who made their mark here. Before leaving we were led through the private balconies of the main theatre for a glimpse of the grand stage. And in the dimness, its towering red velvet curtains were now drawn on the altar upon which adoring worldwide opera lovers for centuries came to worship.

It was a delightful day indeed, and one in which we were witness to the rich history, culture and traditions of the industrious Milanese. But the day would’ve been incomplete without satisfying our appetites for their delicious multi-flavoured Gelato. To the locals, we must’ve looked like giddy-headed children licking our cones with ice cream dribbling down our cheeks, wandering back to the bus for our return to Albavilla that afternoon.

It was time to leave the picturesque Lombardi Lake District and head south in the brilliant Tuesday morning sunshine. And along the way, shimmering Lake Garda zipped by as our coach motored along the busy Autostrada Serenissima towards our next destination; the medieval city of Verona. We arrived a few hours later driving through its serene and orderly tree-lined streets, leading to the weather-beaten ‘Ponte Pietra’ Bridge which spanned the slow-flowing ‘Adige River.’

But that soon changed on disembarking to join our local tour guide on a walkabout through the crowded ‘Piazza dei Signori.’ Prominent in the square stood the statue of ‘Dante’ the celebrated poet of the “Divine Comedy”. And venturing a few blocks further was the bustling central marketplace of ‘Piazza Delle Arbe,’ where apart from street-side African huskers, were fruit and souvenir stalls with fading frescos and sculptures prominently displayed.

For a minute there, I thought we were standing outside the Coliseum in Rome; the façade was so similar. But the 2000 year old ‘Arena di Verona’ which seats 25, 000 patrons at its popular open-air concerts, was of a much smaller scale. Of course no tour of Verona is complete without a visit to Juliet’s house; the 13th. Century ‘La Casa de Giulietta.’

And like millions before us, we dutifully followed the throngs of tourists shuffling our feet down the narrow street towards the legendary balcony; long immortalized by the English playwright William Shakespeare in his popular romantic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.” Before long we arrived through a narrow alleyway leading into the main courtyard. The crowds were pressing and cameras flashing, but despite that I managed to stand my ground beneath the brown marbled balcony. Its then I tried visualizing love-struck Romeo on his bended knees allegedly calling up to Juliet professing his undying love. Fortunately, he didn’t have those crowds to contend with.

Nearby in the back of the courtyard stood a bronze statue of Juliet; the shiny left breast of which millions had rubbed for good luck. Needless to say apart from me and a few others, there were lines of giggling tourist including some from our group, shamelessly jostling one another to have their photos taken rubbing away.

That afternoon after a pleasant lunch under a sidewalk umbrella, we boarded our coach and headed out across the lush Venetian plains. Some snoozed as our affable guide Vanessa at times enlightened us with the language, culture and history of the region. And when not educating us in her intensive “interrogatione,” we were charmed by the lively music of her Italian C D’s. Sleep, was the furthest thing from my mind, watching the minutes and miles go by in anticipation of wonderful things to come. And while crossing the long causeway leading from the mainland, knowing we were nearing one of my favourite cities in the whole wide world; I didn’t want to miss any sights or sounds of the “city in the sea,”

To the left, a green commuter train raced alongside, gaining on us by the minute. And halfway across my wandering eyes were drawn to the distant coast, where the sparkling blue Adriatic Sea beckoned. My knees felt weak and throat dry stepping down from the coach in the crowded parking lot, so anxious was I to realize my dream of returning to enchanting Venezia after an absence of fifteen years.

A few steps further with Margaret trailing, and the famous waterway appeared over the bobbing heads of hurrying pedestrians. It seemed to take forever following along the sunny pathway towards a small bridge, where I stood transfixed watching the meandering Grand Canal appear a mere blur through teary eyes. It was there and then I knew for sure I’d indeed returned ‘home.’

Gondolas, Vaporettos and everything else floating, seemed to be on a collision course travelling up and down this legendary canal. Our group meanwhile joined the hustle and bustle, lugging our small bags across the crowded main bridge, past the adjacent train station in route to the ‘Hotel Nazionale.’ Little did Margaret and I realize how much of a home-coming awaited us until we entered the narrow door and climbed the old familiar stairs of the hotel we’d stayed in before? The other surprise was whether we’d be assigned our old room, but was satisfied with an upgrade instead.

Our ‘welcome’ dinner that evening was enjoyed at a nearby waterfront restaurant, after which we strolled at leisure savouring delicious gelatos before bed. We were early to rise the next morning, anxious to explore the “Queen of the Adriatic;” with her 150 canals and several hundred bridges. But officious Vanessa had to do a quick count of her charges before boarding our chartered boat for the exhilarating ride to the famous ‘St. Mark’s Square.’

The sun shone brilliantly upon clear blue skies, promising a wonderful day ahead as we pushed off from the dock, narrowly missing other vessels along the congested Grand Canal. Within minutes we were taking the wide left turn into open waters, where in the distance the magnificent skyline of Venezia was welcoming us. From closer range, its domed cathedrals and towering ‘Campanile’ Bell Tower bobbed beyond the choppy waves as if reaching eternally for the heavens. We were moving at a good pace now, sailing past several large berthed cruise ships disembarking streams of tourists, all heading like us, to world-renowned ‘Piazza San Marco;’ the cultural and historic centre of Venice.

Poor Vanessa, despite her height, had difficulty guiding her “little Chickadees” through the throngs of excited tourists and scurrying flocks of pigeons under foot. I volunteered my longer arms, holding aloft her short-stemmed yellow plastic daffodil, leading our group towards the imposing entrance of the pink-faced ‘Ducal (Doges) Palace.’ Its one of the largest of the two hundred palaces on this island, built around the second decade of the 9th. century during the Doge’s realm.

Equipped with hi-tech listening devices, we strolled through magnificent halls and stairways in the company of our knowledgeable local tour guide. All around were dazzling décors of rich tapestries and frescos at the hands of such leading painters of that period as Bellini, Tintoretto and Carpaccio. Then it was on to the hall of justice, its court rooms and dungeons.

It took an hour of cultural and historical enlightenment, before I found myself drifting back in time to the extravagant days of La dolce vita, when Grand Balls were held in this great hall. And from where I stood; ladies in long flowing gowns of white, yellow and pink, once sauntered around the room demurely shielding their charming faces behind ceremonial Carnival masks, as wigged gentlemen; the likes of the lecherous womanizer Giacomo Casanova, dressed in embroidered evening coats, asked for their hands in dance.

A hint of fragrant perfumes still lingered in the room, as we left the glitter of the Ball behind to enter a narrow passageway leading to the infamous ‘Bridge of Sighs.’ It’s a narrow gray-stoned enclosed bridge, built in the 17th. century over a canal connecting the courts to the prison. And legend has it, that offenders sentenced to life imprisonment, in marching to their cells and eventual death, took their last glimpse of the outside world through its latticed windows, giving off an anguished sigh as they were dragged away. It was indeed a somber and heartrending journey revisiting the ghosts of the wretched and condemned; in particular retracing their steps through the musty low-ceilinged dungeons within which its grey-walled prison existed.

Relief came when we escaped to the hubbub of the piazza, and stood in line under the ‘Clock Tower’ awaiting our turn to enter the much adorned ‘St. Mark’s Basilica.’ Consecrated in 1094, it houses the stolen remains of patron St. Mark. And one of its main highlights apart from its opulent décor is the golden altarpiece, known as the.. “Pala d’Oro. Seen as a singular unique example of Gothic jeweller’s art, its composed of over 80 emeralds set in a harmonious block of gold with a distribution of numerous precious stones; making for quite an impressive display of the wealth of the state treasury in those days.

Out in the sunshine again, where the ever enterprising Vanessa, in answer to our request, managed to negotiate with the Gondoliers reasonable group-rated Gondola rides. This is a dream come true for most tourists to this city of romance, but for far too many an expensive proposition. We assembled after lunch at a designated bridge near the canal, where of course I would’ve preferred an exclusive romantic ride with my darling Margaret; but six of us boarded the sleek black vessel instead, giggling nervously in fear of capsizing, before embarking on the ride of a lifetime.

Its remarkable how well balanced these handsomely crafted boats are. Ours like many others was decorated with a silver flower vase fastened on its bow, as well as the mascot of a miniature goal-plated horse erected on the left front, reflecting the sunlight as we rowed. I was impressed with the ease at which the skilled Gondoliers maneuvered their boats; ducking in time under low-laying bridges, as smiling people waved at us from on top. At other times, we were sure we’d scrape against the water-lined buildings, rounding the corners while passing within inches of one another along the narrow canals.

The pace was relaxing as we rowed, enhanced by the melodic renditions of singing Gondoliers;’ causing one to reflect on the grand old days when some of these ancient red-bricked edifices were former palaces of the nobility. All around, one could still see remnants of balconies once abounding with overhanging flower gardens, their vines covering the tops of large brass-ringed wooden doors dressed in hues of red, black and gold; with platforms leading out to the water’s edge where their private gondolas awaited.

Towards the end of our ride, we ventured out for a while along the two and a half mile winding Canal Grande in sight of the prominent ‘Rialto Bridge,’ located at the major bend in the river. We were overjoyed to be blessed with this wonderful opportunity, but thanks to our adept Gondolier, escaped in time to a side canal avoiding the larger boats chugging along the choppy surface of this major waterway.

Later that afternoon back on terra firma, the crowds were already thinning out in Piazza San Marco, owing in part to the departing cruise ships. This presented a good opportunity for our family and friends to join us in the short elevator ride up the towering red-bricked Campanile. From that lofty height, the splendor of Venice and beyond was at our disposal; made the more enjoyable by the warm breezes wafting through its large meshed windows.

Every direction presented a stunning photo opportunity; from the lagoon islands in the mist, to Saint Mark’s square below with the onion-domed rooftops of the Basilica and Ducal Palace. And across the way, beyond the bobbing Gondolas moored at pier-side, stood the ‘Monastery of San Giorgio,’ with its tall white columns casting shadows in the setting sun. Evening was fast approaching, causing those of us with tired feet to return to our hotel by the Vaporetto water taxi; while the hardy ones accompanied by the tireless Vanessa as their Shepherd, took a brisk walk through the labyrinth of Calles and Campos.

Thursday May 10th, was supposed to be our day of leisure for personal sightseeing and shopping, but we couldn’t resist our leader’s offer of a chartered boat ride to the two popular off-shore lagoon islands of ‘Murano’ and ‘Burano.’ It took a mere forty five minutes along the choppy channel guided by fixed buoys to reach Murano, the centuries-old glass-blowing centre. Apart from our group, the locals went about their business unhurried, as we paid a visit to their impressive cathedral, browsed their shops, and bought souvenirs of delicate glass works.

Back on the boat we hurried, heading across the channel this time to the sister island of Burano with its distinctive leaning Campanile, to see its highly valued decorative lace items. The ladies of course browsed and shopped while some of the guys stood dutifully outside, or sipped a drink at a sidewalk cafe. I walked along the banks of its narrow canals, admiring and photographing rows of interconnected houses; each painted in a patch-quilt of reds, yellows, greens and blues. And before we knew it, Venice was calling us back to savour her abundant charms in the dwindling hours remaining.

That evening at a canal-side restaurant, we again celebrated our good fortune with friends and family over a sumptuous pasta and seafood dinner, topped with litres of red and white wine to wet our appetites. And as we left, walking arm in arm along the crowded Calles with a cool breeze at our backs, our gaze was drawn to the planet ‘Venus;’ a sparkling diamond hovering low in the western sky. The more we gazed, the more she smiled down on us; bringing closure on an unforgettable visit to my favourite ‘Jewel of the Adriatic.’

My heart was heavy on leaving my beloved Venezia the following morning, heading towards the fertile Po River delta in route to Ravenna. Within minutes we had again crossed the lengthy causeway; but only the radiant sunshine managed to buoy my spirits. I turned just in time for one last glance at my city fast fading in the distance, wondering if and when I’d ever see her beautiful face again. “Arrivederci” I whispered, but in the blink of a teary eye, … she was gone.

Ravenna, the ‘Imperial City’ was a half day stop on the way to Florence. We took a short walk through the square, where we met our pregnant local tour guide, who arrived by bicycle to take us on a walking tour of her quaint city. We first visited the ‘Church of St. Francis’ located in a small piazza, with the unusual feature of a water-logged catacomb containing numerous fish situated under the main altar. This resulted from habitual flooding, and is now an attractive centerpiece.

To the right of the church, along tree-shaded avenues we arrived at the crypt where the tomb of Dante the celebrated poet is in fact buried; despite his rumoured burial at the church of ‘Santa Croce’ in Florence. Before lunch and our departure, we entered the ‘Church of St. Vitalis,’ famous for its Christian art and mosaics, where we received a detailed lecture on the origin of these handsome handcrafted artworks decorating its enormous dome.

So much art, history and culture leave one thirsting for other aspects of the Italian persona; … Vini ! And to our rescue came our female Knight in shining wine glass ...Vanessa, who with one phone call arranged an impromptu stop at a prominent winery in the valley of the Apennine Mountains. Sitting under a canopy, we were treated to an entertaining demonstration of proper wine tasting. And after imbibing in a variety of wines, truffle-flavoured olive oil and spicy balsamic vinegar; happy faces crawled aboard the coach to complete our journey through the beautiful Tuscany countryside to Florence, where we arrived hours later in the shadows of the setting sun.

Saturday May 11th. dawned with another brilliant sunrise, putting a spring in our legs for the lengthy walk from our ‘Hotel Columbus’ along the ‘Arno River’ to ‘Piazza Santa Croce;’ and just in time to witness an elaborate military parade. I wanted then to visit its famous church which entombed the remains of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo and Rossini, but shopping was on the agenda for most of our group. And the next thing I knew, I was being dragged into a leather goods store and along with other selected group members, was forced to model leather coats; much to the amusement of the rest.

From there we made our way across town to the city’s most handsome square, ‘Piazza Della Signoria,’ which in itself is an outdoor museum of marvelous statuary and fountains. To the left across the square as we entered, apart from tourists and Carabiniere, the ‘Biancone’ or the ‘Neptune Fountain’ was situated; and a few feet to its left a replica of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ stood tall. The ‘Loggia Dei Lanza’ next door, was built in 1376 during the reign of the Medici family. Its an open-aired gallery having on display the tarnished copper statue of heroic ‘Perseus’ holding aloft the severed head of the Medusa. And notable among other nearby statues was the ‘rape of the Sabine women.’

At the renowned ‘Uffizi Gallery,’ we were in for a day of amazing Florentine art and culture. It’s the oldest and one of the most important art galleries in the world, situated alongside the picturesque Arno River, and overlooking the 14th. century ‘Ponte Vecchio’ bridge. There we joined thousands of visitors from every corner of the globe walking its lengthy hallways catching glimpses of among others, masterpieces such as Botticelli’s ‘Spring’ and ‘The birth of Venus.’

Sore feet trudged along ancient cobblestone streets again, this time to the prominent icons of Firenze; the ‘Cathedral’ as well as the ‘Baptistery’ of ‘Piazza Del Duomo.’ This church was constructed of marble in the mid 1300’s by the renowned builder Giotto. And the addition by his successor Brunelleschi in 1420 of a cupola to its red-bricked dome made it the impressive feature still dominating the Florentine skyline today.

That afternoon we boarded our coach after lunch and headed out for the short drive to the attractive town of Pisa. A thriving Port city due to its location near the Arno River, where during the 7th. century it was ruled by the Longobards, enjoying the status of being one of the greatest maritime powers of the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, it was vanquished in 1284 during the ‘Battaglia della Meloria,’ marking its decline, until joining the Kingdom of Italy in 1860.

We were anxious to see the world-famous ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’ before it all fell down, and upon arrival transferred to a shuttle bus which took us to the outer gates of the enclosed ‘Piazza dei Miracoli.’ From the time we stepped off and walked down the main laneway, we were besieged by African and other ethnic venders, all willing to sell us their attractive artifacts and hand-crafted trinkets.

The tower was all I was interested in; shooing away the pesky entrepreneurs as I neared the main gate. But a high wall blocked my view from the laneway, heightening my anticipation. A few steps more and we were at the side entrance, where looking through its portals, to my relief the white marble tower was still standing; though as expected leaning perilously to the right.

We stood there dumbfounded for several minutes, realizing we were at long last witnessing this ‘wonder’ of the world. I started taking photos with some urgency, fearful that the image might not last; so much so that Margaret and I like millions before us, even tried our best to render it upright by pushing in the opposite direction,… but it wouldn’t budge.

From afar, the tower appeared as an elongated eight-layered wedding cake, slightly pushed over perhaps by an inebriated bridegroom. But in fact this 56.70 metre tall tower was built on the Romanesque style by Bonanno Pisano beginning in 1174, and because it was constructed on poor gradient, started tilting ever since. Through the centuries, measurements have been taken with the result of an increase in gradients of 1 millimetre a year, prompting the authorities in recent years to fortify the foundation with injected reinforced concrete and big steel tie-beams attached to the other side.

The tower’s tilt did come in handy when Pisa’s native son the brilliant scientist Galileo Galilei, conducted a series of experiments from its rooftop with regard to gravitational forces on falling bodies. But other than that, the tower has attracted millions like us from all over to view its magnificence; wondering with concern, how much longer it will stand.

While my party browsed the tourist shops along the main walkway, I visited the ‘Cathedral’ adjacent to the tower. Built by the architect Buschetto in 1063, its shape is that of a Latin cross with a huge apse and an imposing dome. Most impressive was its five aisles divided by tall columns and overhead its lacunar ceiling. Even the hexagonal pulpit located to the side of the first pillar caught my eye with its beautifully carved marble.

I didn’t have time to visit the nearby ‘Baptistery,’ which completes the trio of astonishing buildings contained in the ‘Piazza dei Miracoli,’ but as our group gathered at the front gates; we took a few more photos of these historic monuments, knowing that at least we left them intact for the enjoyment of countless generations of tourists to come.

Sunday May 13th. found us wandering the cobblestones of Firenze again, this time at our leisure. Most of the morning was spent at the ‘Straw Market,’ to the delight of our shoppers. But I was determined to visit the ‘Accademia Gallery’ to pay tribute to that majestic statue of ‘David’ by the gifted sculptor, painter, architect and writer Michelangelo Buonarroti; a ‘Renaissance man’ in every sense of the word.

Born in 1475 in a little town in Tuscany, from an early age Michelangelo showed promise as an artist, who in succeeding years of his lengthy life earned the praise and commission of the Medici nobility, as well as the church and state both in Rome and Florence. It was in 1501 he sculpted the magnificent figure of ‘David’ out of a spoilt block of marble, thereby giving to the world an everlasting gift of his many talents. When I arrived the line was at least a block long, but that didn’t discourage me, since I was rewarded an hour later on entering, to learn it was an “entry free day.”

Joined by Sonia our tour operator from STS, and the knowledgeable art critic Vanessa, we perused its crowded hallways under the watchful eyes of the museum guards; viewing some of Michelangelo’s earlier unfinished works such as the muscular ‘Prigioni’ figures, trapped in stone. And when we turned the corner and glanced up towards the main apse, there stood on his high pedestal the magnificent “David” in all his glory.

We soon joined the procession of admirers pacing the well-worn floor for a more detailed look at this impressive portrayal of the definitive masculine physique. And on my second go round his mammoth statue, my eyes were drawn to the bulging veins in his arms, almost expecting them to pulsate. He only needed to speak to be human; if not confined for centuries in this finely sculpted grey-marbled form. His gaze was focused to the left, undaunted by the legions of admirers at his feet. And with not a disturbed hair on his matted head, stood at the ready with sling over his left shoulder, perhaps in preparation for another assault on Goliath.

My mission in Florence was now accomplished, having set eyes on “David;” a goal which eluded me fifteen years earlier on our first visit. Therefore a celebration was in order, coming in the form of a hastily arranged banquet by Vanessa, at a local restaurant featuring Florentine steaks on the grill. Sated with meat and wine, and laughing our heads off, the walk back to our hotel that evening under the Tuscan moon was made the more enjoyable by the sparkling moonbeams reflecting off the waters of the Arno River.

Alas! It was time to leave again bright and early that Monday morning, with Assisi as our destination. But on the way a necessary stop was made at another of my favourite cities; that of Siena. A former military colony of Caesar’s called ‘Sena Julia,’ it was later ruled by the Longobards, and in the 12th. Century became a ‘free city.’ From the outskirts of the city its Cathedral’s stately bell tower could be seen dwarfing the surrounding buildings. And after a long walk along sloping laneways, our group arrived in the centre of this medieval city where the ‘Piazza del Campo’ with its ‘Pubblic Palace’ dominated.

It’s here the famous “Palio” barebacked horse race takes place twice a year, dating back to the 15th. century. Spawning intense rivalry between ten of the seventeen ‘Contrades’ or neighbourhoods; this major event celebrated in colourful costumes and waving flags, pits ten horses and riders against each other. Goaded on by the cheers of boisterous fans lining the centre and perimeter, they’re required to navigate three times around the Piazza in the span of one minute. And from the starting gun, sweaty horses mounted by determined riders with flailing whips jostle and spill out, until the winner, sometimes a rider-less horse crosses the finish line. From then on bragging rights to the victor ‘Contrades’ no doubt carries on for another year.

But today the only fans in the Piazza were tourists like us; whom we joined climbing the steep laneway to view my “Zebra-striped” Cathedral on the hill. The construction of this beautiful church lasted longer than two centuries from 1150 to 1376, interrupted by frequent regional wars. And because of the many delays, it was undertaken by succeeding architects in varying styles from the Romanesque to the Gothic and then Flowery Gothic.

But it’s the luxurious interior which impresses me the most, with its towering black and white striped descending columns suggestive of Zebra’s legs framing a magnificent high altar trimmed in gold leaf. And situated over the main door sits the big central rose-window representing the “Last Supper;” the natural light of which illuminates the 56 panels on the marble floor, including 40 busts of Prophets and Evangelists lining the top of the columns surrounding the church.

Lunch was enjoyed in a laneway coffee shop, after which we continued our journey south through the picturesque Umbrian countryside to the slopes of Monte Subasio where the town of Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis is located. The remarkable ‘Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels’ was seen on route, where we paused afterwards on the outskirts to take photos of Assisi nestled in the distant foothills.

It was an uphill climb along the aged cobblestone lanes to the main square outside of the ‘Basilica of St. Francis,’ where our local tour guide was an elderly gentleman. Walking in the beloved Saint Francis’s footsteps, we learned how after a divine encounter in 1209 he renounced his worldly possessions; later forming his Franciscan Friars Brotherhood. In the company of other converts, he travelled the countryside preaching the good word while giving aid to the poor. And judging from the many brown-robed Friars seen in the community, the foundations of his teachings and religious beliefs, including his legacy of “A simple Prayer” have indeed stood the test of time throughout the generations.

During our walkabout, and especially while we were in the Basilica observing his tomb, I was mindful of the earthquake which struck this region in September 1998, causing part of the massive ceiling to come crashing down on the heads of some worshippers. With an eye on the refurbished ceiling, I walked past the memorial plaque located by the main entrance, making a quick sign of the cross on leaving.

Margaret and I were fortunate in having our ‘Hotel San Pietro’ room furnished with a balcony, which overlooked a vast pastoral valley with grazing sheep, and far beyond to where the Topino and Chiascio rivers flow. To the envy of our family and friends, whom we allowed a quick peek, the Umbrian night sky with the sparkling jewel of ‘Venus’ hovering over a crimson sunset, was a scene my sleepy eyes won’t soon forget.

Assisi is a quaint and enthralling town which invites one’s soul to revel in the indulgencies of reflection and relaxation. And with our visit being just an overnight stay, one felt some reluctance to depart this spiritually uplifting environment. For that reason there was a collective sigh of regret among us ‘Pilgrims’ leaving so soon the following morning; that was until we made a brief stop to sample wines, cheeses and other tasty treats at a local winery. But Sorrento was calling, and with a long way to go before reaching its Campania Region, we headed out along the southern highway which ran parallel to a major north–south mountainous range forming the backbone of this beautiful country.

It was another good opportunity for Vanessa to update us on the history and culture of these southern parts; not only the local dialect, but related hand gestures as well. Time and miles marched on as did the view of fleeting hillside towns and farming communities in the valleys. This included the soaring white walls of war-ravaged ‘Monte Casino;’ once the sanctuary of Saint Benedict, which came into view high on the distant mountainside. Within a few hours, we were on the outskirts of the bustling seaport city of Naples, and looking beyond; imposing Mount Vesuvius partly hidden under cloud, loomed in the background.

But we didn’t stop in Napoli, skirting its periphery instead as numerous breathtaking views of the Bay of Naples were captured on film by our many photo enthusiasts. The road narrowed, climbing the mountainous coast nearing Sorrento, where along the way rows of sour orange and lemon trees lined our route on the left; while on the right, the wide expanse of the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea vied for our attention. A few more twists and turns in heavy traffic along narrow city streets and we arrived in front of ‘La Residneza Hotel,’ our home for the next two days, situated only a short walk from the plunging seacoast.

Mini-busses took our group to the port of Marina Piccola after breakfast the next morning, to commence our half day trip to the beautiful island of Capri. This time we shared a mid-size high-speed hydrofoil ferry with several hundred other tourists and locals on the half hour trip. Not wanting to sit inside and miss the real excitement, I joined Vanessa and a few other brave ladies from our group on the aft deck as our boat picked up speed.

Within minutes the sunny coastline of Sorrento was receding beyond the foamy wake of our jet propellers. We were in for a veritable rollercoaster ride as we neared top speed, and like giddy children caught up in the fun of it all we danced in rhythm with every bump and sway, laughing our heads off as the salty spray and gushing winds almost took our breath away. Most of the time we held on to the railings for dear life, while managing to take a few photos and videos highlighting this wonderful moment. But far too soon, when it was just getting real good, our fun ride slowed to almost a crawl taking the right turn into the port of Marina Grande.

It was a short funicular ride to the top of the rock where the town of Anacapri is located. From there the view of the endless blue sea and rugged coastline as well as ‘Villa Jorvis,’ the ancient home of Roman Emperor Tiberius could be seen. We had several hours free time to browse the many expensive shops and fancy restaurants of this picturesque island frequented by the rich and famous. But not being an ardent shopper, I opted instead to cruise around the island in quest of one of its main attractions, the ‘Blue Grotto.’

With Vanessa’s running commentary on the PA system, our mid-sized motorized launch started out from the busy port, sailing into a stiff wind as we hugged the rugged coast. The morning sun sparkled off the lapping waves, giving light to the many dark crevasses and grottos hidden in obscure corners of its rocky shoreline. It was exhilarating, bobbing along in the sunshine with fresh breezes in our faces while straining our necks looking up at the massive sheer cliffs where occasional multi-million dollar dream-homes jutted out precariously. Makes one envious of those waking up to this breathtaking seascape every morning.

The seas were getting quite rough now, prompting the suggestion of turning back. But we intrepid sailors would have none of it, preferring to sail on pass the lonely red-striped lighthouse, round the bend then back to port. With the harbour in sight, and as if leaving the best for last, the Captain next drew our attention way over to the right, where in the shadows of the cliff laid the ‘Grotta Azzura.’ We were disappointed though, since the high tides prevented us from sailing closer, settling instead for a brief glimpse of its narrow entrance intermittently veiled under soaring waves.

There was a last minute change to our itinerary caused by an international bicycle race along our original route. Therefore our afternoon was spent instead at the lost city of Pompeii. It’s a city that has known many conquerors, from the Etruscans, to the Saminites, and finally the Romans, who were the residents when on that fateful day August 24th. 79 A.D. nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted, ending the lives of its 20,000 citizens.

This was my third visit to this ancient site; finding me retracing my steps and those of millions along its rugged cobblestone streets, grey courtyards and lengthy temple hallways in view of the still active volcano. I paused, wondering what it must’ve been like during the eruption, and how best we would fare now, should it blow again. It was evident from the fossilized bodies displayed in the museum how unprepared they were. Like the others, I too entered the cramped quarters of one of their brothels, and seeing the fading wall frescos depicting the Kama Sutra-like specialties of the house, I chuckled, imagining how many frightening incidents of coitus-interruptus must’ve occurred at that critical moment.

Leave it to our patron of the arts Vanessa to make our last night in Sorrento a most memorable one, with an invite to the ‘Teatro Tasso’ for cocktails under the stars, followed by the ‘Sorrento Musical Tarantella.’ It’s a 75 minute song and dance show highlighting the daily life of southern Italians of yesteryear, played out in four scenes with a rousing finale involving the cheering audience.

The song says “Come back to Sorrento,” and I’m glad we did, for one never tires of it splendour and beauty. But it was time to leave this southern Italian paradise that Thursday morning May 17th. and head back north via one of the most scenic routes in the world; …. the magnificent Amalfi Coast.

Ours was a careful drive along the narrow serpentine road leading into Positano, where sheer cliffs and sheltered villas overlooked sparkling seas. Further along, farmers tended their tiered mountainside garden plots, in contrast to small fishing villages where fishermen mended their nets at the water’s edge. There were exclamations of “Ooos” and “Aaahs” around every bend as cameras clicked at the stunning land and seascapes. But for those sitting on the right side of the coach, the fear of heights no doubt brought some anxious moments, hoping the coach didn’t venture too close to the cliff’s edge; but I had every confidence in our driver.

Time didn’t permit a lengthy stay in Positano, but long enough for photo opportunities on a cliffside patio with the breathtaking scenery as our backdrop. And of course a little shopping at the roadside stalls came in handy. We made a few more twists and turns around treacherous mountain passes overlooking enclosed beaches way below and through narrow tunnels in the rock, before arriving in the vibrant town of Amalfi. Like Positano and many other coastal towns, Amalfi is a serious tourist location, as evidenced by the congesting tourist buses and large cruise ship anchored off shore.

For the first time on our sunny holiday, we encountered rain showers as our coach left the mountainous road for the major highway leading north to Rome. Perhaps it was Mother Nature’s symbolic tears on our leaving her beautiful country, but we had no choice than to follow the edict which stated; “All roads lead to Rome.” The rain did ease up a bit though bypassing Naples again, where Mount Vesuvius peeked out of the clouds long enough to say “Ciao. “ And after pulling in at a roadside rest stop, it was on to the ‘Eternal City,’ arriving at our ‘Hotel Regent’ by twilight.

It was good to be back in Rome after an absence of several years, where this ancient city, founded in 753 B.C. looked very much as we left it. Driving through its congested streets that Friday morning to meet our local guide a few blocks from the ‘Colosseum,’ we passed the ‘Castel Sant’Angelo’ along the Tiber River and the old familiar ‘wedding cake’ or ‘Victor Emmanuel 11 monument’ among others. He stood tall dark and handsome leading us across the busy street towards this legendary symbol of Roma; and as we went, our guide kept shooing away pick-pocketing Gypsies and their pitiful children hassling us in the long lineups.

Once named the ‘Flavian Amphitheatre,’ its origin dates back to 80 A.D., when it was erected where the Palatine, Caelian and Oppian hills meet; a spot which was formerly a swampy lake. And walking the dim corridors of this semicircular structure, the roar of the 50,000 excited spectators of its day could still be discerned, reveling in the killings of savage lions and hapless Christians at the hands of blood-thirsty Gladiators. From one of the mid-level tiers, I looked down on what used to be the floor of the arena, trying to visualize it being flooded for the enactment of great sea battles to entertain and amuse the ruling classes. Based on what it looks like today, one has to marvel the ingenuity of the ancient Romans.

From there it was a short walk past the ‘Arch of Constantine’ to the ‘Trajan’s Forum,’ where the ‘Ruins’ now rest. And after a hurried pasta lunch at a nearby road-side eatery, we joined the patient lines of visitors winding around several blocks leading to the celebrated ‘Vatican Museum.’ Security measures were stringent on entry, only to be caught up in a tide of milling tourists inching our way down the lengthy main hallway.

Like spectators at a tennis match, our heads pivoted from side to side as we walked admiring huge tapestries and statues adorning both sides of its walls. And as if that wasn’t impressive enough, further on we encountered to our surprise, an optical illusion when the eerie gaze from the eyes of one of the figures followed us all the way down the hall. But the high ceiling captured our attention as well since every square inch was replete with colourful frescoes depicting both historical and biblical events. The best was yet to come however, once we made a left turn at the end of the hall to enter the Sistine Chapel.

It was standing room only when we entered to a constant buzz from the excited crowd, who were constantly shushed by the guards to keep the noise down, as well as to admonish sneaky photo takers. Like hundreds in the Chapel, I craned my neck upwards, captivated by Michelangelo’s recently restored masterpiece, which was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508. And using the technology of the day and his gifted artistic and architectural skills, he painted the monumental 400 square metres ceiling, lying on his back on high scaffolding, enduring great hardships until its completion in 1512.

Although the genius of the man was in sculpture and architecture, he managed to depict in paint scenes from the Bible: more particularly, scenes from Genesis; from the Creation to the Drunkenness of Noah. And completing that, he then embarked on the mural of the ‘Last Judgement,’ situated on the great wall behind the altar. To fully appreciate the enormity and complexity of these paintings would take several prolonged visits, but time was running out on our guided tour that afternoon, and we still had the ‘Vatican’ to see.

Led by our tour guide through a few adjoining corridors, we soon arrived outside the massive bronze doors of St. Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest church. It was humbling to enter the vestibule of this enormous building, the construction of which commenced in 1506 under the direction of Bramante. Later modifications took place in 1547 when Michelangelo designed the apse and its 120 metres high dome. This was followed in time by Moderno in 1606, and in 1657 the majestic colonnade in St. Peter’s Square was completed by Bernini.

We ventured through the crowd to the right of the vestibule where the ever popular ‘Chapel of the Pieta’ is located. And as flashlights popped, there sat behind glass Michelangelo’s impressive marble statue of the crucified Christ prostrated in the lap of his grieving Mother Mary. A bit further down the main aisle we lined up in front of Bernini’s ‘Chair of St. Peter,’ where over time the bronze feet of his black statue had been rubbed to a smooth shine by the billions of praying devotees passing by.

For a while I stood transfixed under the dome at the crossroads of the two main aisles reveling in the sun beams streaming down from the heavens. And standing alone in the crowd, I looked up to admire the grand altar sitting above the catacombs, with its bronze canopy supported by four magnificent spiraling columns designed by Bernini. The longer I remained the more mindful I was of the many Popes I watched on TV through the years celebrating Christmas Eve midnight mass from the Vatican; and here I was today fortunate to stand again on its sacred ground.

Shadows were falling on the Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter’s Square as our flock gathered to take our traditional group picture. Regardless of ones religion, there was a collective sense of sharing something very special in being there; an event which no doubt will long be remembered. And when we left the sovereign state of Vatican City and filed onto our coach parked on Italian soil, all eyes were focused on the majestic façade of St. Peter’s Basilica silhouetted against the setting sun, knowing our day was a blessed one indeed.

But the night was still young, with our ‘farewell dinner’ awaiting us at ‘Ristorante Quo Vadis’ along the Appian Way. It was not only a feast of fine Italian cuisine and wines, but more importantly an expression of our appreciation to the superb organizers; and to crown it all, a heartfelt ‘love in’ for our wonderful Tour Manager the blushing Vanessa Angela Nicol.

The wine flowed, laughter resounded and everyone was feeling “multi bene;’ when singing voices arose to the accompaniment of the wandering in-house entertainers. A choral rendition of “Funiculi Funicular” “Volare” and “Arrivederci Roma” erupted to close the joint down. And out in the cool night air we spilled, to be greeted by ‘Venus’ winking at us from behind tall branches. But she couldn’t quite diminish our regret knowing our tour was fast coming to an end, with just one day left for sightseeing. Driving back across the “Eternal City,” admiring its wide promenades, flamboyant churches and historic monuments, left us each feeling “Belissimo,” knowing all too well that in setting foot on ‘Bella Italia, we became one with the legions for whom this corner of the world will long hold a special place in our hearts.

Ray Williams - Ray's Space

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“Holy cow!” I cried, looking out the car window as we drove away from Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. My wife Margaret and I were quite taken aback, not expecting this kind of a welcoming party, as their dusky images appeared all of a sudden in our headlights... full story