I am here, and have not fallen off the face of the earth as some of you might have suspected. I merely stepped off of North America to take a quick jaunt through Italy.
This trip has been on our bucket list for over a decade, the seed having been planted by Frances Mayes’ wonderful account of her move to Tuscany after her divorce, in Under The Tuscan Sun.
Two years of planning led my husband and I, with another couple, to leave our children at home (in capable hands), believing now is the time to travel, while we are still (relatively) young, and energetic, and not relegated to a Perillo bus, dropped off and picked up at every tourist site.
Of the four, two of us knew a handful of French words, one was fluent in Greek, and the fourth, who couldn’t stop speakinga likea thisa, quickly became versed in what we affectionately dubbed Italish. Still, we managed to work our way from Roma through Northern Italy.
Hand gestures and smiles are universal.
We hired a tour guide for our brief stay in Roma, an amazing city with history dating back two and a half thousand years, and listened to endless details only a native Italian with a true love of his culture could share. Immersed in Vatican City and then ancient Rome, we gorged on information, repeating what we learned over dinner, hoping we could remember everything, knowing we wouldn’t. We sent panoramic pictures of the Colosseum to our kids, who sent back texts, like “awesome! what is it?” and “kool!” (I’ll touch on our educational concerns another time.)
Gelato was a luxury we enjoyed daily, soothing ourselves with creamy goodness in the heat of the afternoons, as we rested our weary feet. I can still taste the cioccolato fondente, and stracciatella on my palette.
We left Roma for Tuscany, where we spent the bulk of our trip. Driven by an enthusiastic driver we found at the train station, we headed just outside of Florence to the address of our rental property, and trekked up a steep, coarse, hand-made (?), windy driveway. As we ascended – jostled back and forth roughly in our seats – our eyes shifted to each other nervously. Our driver’s enthusiasm quickly waned as he complained the entire way up, spewing Italian words I’m sure his mother would be ashamed of, his small van resisting the bumpy, gnarled road, and we couldn’t help but wonder, Did we make a huge mistake? When we finally reached the top and pulled up to our villa, our concerns and worries dissolved like sugar in water.
No one will come for you here. Too difficult. Our driver muttered, counting his money, and leaving us to make the tight journey back down the hill.
We didn’t care. We stood before a large, square, white house, that by itself, was magnificent and more than I could have hoped for, but when we turned around to see the view offered from the garden, we could do little more than stare wide-eyed, in awe and wonderment. Down below, across vast fields, lay Florence, in all of her splendor, the imposing Duomo reaching up over the city, as if to say, Welcome!
Inside, I climbed stone steps to explore each of the five floors, marveling over the gracious simplicity of the rooms, their prize being the large, open windows, where each portal delivered a view so rich, I had to stop and lean out of every one before I could move on. In the kitchen, the only modernized room in the house, the kind owner, Roberto, stocked the fridge with necessities; meats and cheeses, eggs, wine, and beer.
Over breakfast on the veranda, we drank in the view: rolling hills in shades of green, dotted with square, mustard-colored stone houses under terra cotta roofs that were warmed by the sun, and surrounded by trees abounding in olives, figs, lemons and grapes. And Florence, a quiet, regal backdrop, her low skyline allowing the sunsets and dawns to be enjoyed, unobstructed.
From our iPod docking station, we listened to Andrea Bocelli, born and raised in a small Tuscan village called La Sterza. Though I’ve always been a fan, I now appreciated the inspiration for this angelic tenor.
He is Tuscany’s voice. The land sings his songs.
Hours of meandering through Florence brought us up and down narrow, cobblestone streets, where we happened upon tiny shops selling leather, jewelry, icons and scarves. Shop owners struggled with their broken English, kind people used to tourists, waiting for us to pass over the colorful “funny money” with which we were so eager to part.
We crossed the famed Ponte Vecchio, the city’s most picturesque and oldest surviving bridge, and found a hidden restaurant, Il Cantinone, tucked in a side street, whose entrance seemed to say, Well, since you found us, come in… Down a set of stairs, we entered a charming and ancient wine cellar-turned dining room. We sat at a table and were greeted by a waiter who was just cordial enough to keep us from leaving.
We enjoyed our favorite meal of the trip here: homemade gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce that melted in our mouths. We ordered seconds, and our waiter almost smiled.
Smart cars, mini Coopers, and Vespas lined the streets. No SUV’s found here. I must have taken 100 pictures of these cars. I’d even thought, briefly, of fitting one into the overhead storage on the plane. I know we have these in the U.S., but really, wouldn’t one be a nice souvenir? Oh, I just picked this up in Italy.
With regret, we bid goodbye to Florence and stopped over in Venice for a day. We crossed half of the four hundred bridges in this floating city, ate and drank more, and left eleven hours after we arrived, our minds and cameras full of images of Piazza San Marco, the Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge, and gondoliers commandeering their long, ornate black boats, asking 80 Euros ($120) for the privilege of an hour-long ride along their canals.
We spent the last night of our journey in Milan, the fashion capital of the world, ogling Louis Vuitton and Prada shops at the gorgeous Galleria. Then we stepped into Teatre Alla Scala, and imagined one day we might see an opera like Tosca or La Boheme.
We had one last gelato, took one last picture. Ate one last meal.
We walked, touched, ingested and imbibed every corner of the cities we visited, absorbing the bountiful beauty, smells, and sounds of this gem of a country, a world so different from ours. We tried Tripa (calf stomach), cow cheek, and tongue (agreeing it’s odd to taste food that can taste you back), and devoured homemade pasta with porcini mushrooms and shaved truffles, tossing our inhibitions to the warm wind with bottle after bottle of local wine.
Unlike Francis Mayes, whose visit to the old world became a new life, we returned home to America, to our families and responsibilities. Twenty-four hours after a meal of tagliatelle with ragu alla bolognese and Chianti at an outdoor café, my husband and I sat eating chicken fingers with fries and soda at a hockey rink in Hauppauge.
Really? I said to him, in disbelief, to which he responded with a sigh. We need more ketchup.
Back on the hamster wheel, we forge ahead to work, sports, and meetings.
But, for a moment, the land with rolling green hills, fragrant with fruit, amidst cities bursting with history and love, under a brilliant blue Italian sky, was ours.