Italy in the City

“The Creator made Italy by designs from Michelangelo.” M. Twain

After leaving France we made our way to Italy, and if the waterfalls and forests of the Alps resembled Rivendell, then the cascading fields, castles, and horses of the Italian countryside would be reminiscent of Rohan. We noticed during our drive to the coast that the housing styles abruptly changed from cozy wooden cottages to terracotta farmhouses, but when we arrived we found that Riomaggiore had a culture and architecture all of its own. There were brightly colored houses stacked on each other like the favelas of Brazil, and it’s the varying cultures of ancient cities throughout Italy that make it unique, no two places are alike.

I won’t go into too much detail about Riomaggiore considering there is an entire section dedicated to the Cinque Terre hike, but I will say that staying in this cliffside village was an experience I won’t soon forget. 

My kids enjoyed climbing on the rocky beaches and the entire city could be viewed from our balcony. There was an endless game of soccer in the tiny concrete courtyard below, like we were spectators to some kind of Italian Sandlot. The games continued all day and night and were only deafened by the drum and bass accompanying the sunset, as the families closed their shutters and the beaches turned to sin. The bars on the coast lit up like streetlights and I watched as bachelors piled into them throughout the night like lizards clinging to a heat lamp.

That’s not to say I didn’t partake as well, Italy has some of the best mixed drinks and food I’ve ever tasted. It was nice to be able to eat a meal at 2:00 AM if we wanted after leaving the countryside of France, where everything closed by 9:00 PM. One of our bartenders actually had lived in the states for a short while and had a lot of to say about her time in Miami as she poured us complimentary drinks. She gave us all the leftover baked goods for free as she cleaned up around us. 

We offered to leave several times so she could close, but it actually felt like she’d be offended if we left, and she seemed to be enjoying our company. Our new friend pointed us in the direction of an open pizzeria and we arrived just in time to order a couple Margherita pizzas, we ate them on some stone steps prior to making the exhaustive climb back to our apartment. We learned that ordering a Margherita pizza anywhere in Italy will immediately tip them off to you being a tourist, but we didn’t care because they were delicious.

The people we met stumbling down the sole street of Riomaggiore would invite themselves to our table with a desire to share their story with anyone who would listen. They were expressive and curious about what brought us to their city, and we had some great conversations over shots of limoncello and espresso.

After leaving the coastal towns of Cinque Terre we made our way inland towards Tuscany, but along the way we stopped in the city of Pisa for some beach time and lunch. I found a great sandy beach close to Pisa called Marina di Vecchiano where we planned to eat, but we missed the cutoff time for lunch by a few minutes. Luckily we were able to buy some ice cream, coffee, and limoncello from a vendor on the beach to hold us over until we arrived at the Leaning Tower.

Additionally, make sure to ignore the gypsies walking around peddling blankets and other beach souvenirs to tourists. We bought a blanket, thinking it was a good deal, and it ended up being made in Vietnam along with staining most of our clothes blue when we washed it. 

This was a common theme in the more touristy locations, there were always groups of con artists loitering in these areas. These people were pros at extracting money from you both voluntarily, and through deception. 

They generally work in groups of two and will have a pretty woman distract you, or a man try to hand you something, while the other person rummages through your purse or lifts your cell phone from your pocket. Be vigilant of people close to your personal space and repeat a loud ‘no’ over and over to make them go away. We had fun taking a selfie in front of the Colosseum while all the gypsy-vendors tried to convince us we needed their services. It was like in Finding Nemo when the seagulls spot a piece of food, they would swarm you and be very pushy with their products. 

If you do end up purchasing something from one of these vendors make sure to give them exact change and NEVER give them your credit card, even if they claim to have a Square or other way to process it. I needed a phone charger one night and bartered a deal with an Indian man only to be taken advantage of when he gave me back the wrong change and refused to correct the problem with a smirk. Here are some other great tips for avoiding these common scams.

On the other hand, there were many honest street vendors and kind people in Italy too, so don't write someone off because they’re living on the streets and trying to provide a service for tourists. 

Parking in Italy was a major problem in every city we went and, following a parking ticket I received at the beach in Marina di Vecchiano, I struggled finding anywhere to park in Pisa as well. 

That was until a kind drifter, who spoke absolutely no English, jumped in front of my car and told me to follow him. I ignored him several times and compared him to the people in NYC that try to wash your windshield, but after several fruitless attempts to find anything I agreed to follow him.

He led me down to a side street with street parking available and waited as I parallel parked, after exiting my car I tried to thank him with a couple euros so we could be on our way, but he kept insisting I follow him further using hand gestures and nods. My fatherly instincts said that he was probably crazy and told me to pull my family away as quickly as possible, but my daughter began to follow him as he walked the other direction. 

I guess her intuition was better than mine because he led us to a far away parking meter and helped us translate the onscreen instructions. At this point he had spent over twenty minutes with my arrogance, but he pressed on because he knew that the meter maid would prey on out of town tourists not understanding their local parking laws. I gave him €10 for his help and then he bent down on one knee to tie a brightly colored bracelet he made to my daughters ankle. This simple gesture made my daughter light up with joy and taught me another valuable lesson about judging people based on their appearance, some people genuinely just want to help. It’s like Mr. Rogers said, no matter how much evil you encounter in the world you should always look for the helpers.

She is still wearing that bracelet today.

We snapped our cliched photos in front of the Leaning Tower and then had lunch on a patio nearby which had fantastic views. One thing I learned about the tower is that it requires constant maintenance to not collapse, so I kind of felt cheated.

Our next city in Italy was Siena, and I wasn’t even sure if I should consider it a city. We found it while exploring the many little villages in Tuscany and its enclosed walls and community atmosphere resembled a small college town more than a big city. We parked on the outside of the town walls in an attempt to avoid being locked in by the enormous gates, which resembled the fortifications of Westeros and must have been used in the past to deter invaders. 

My mission while in Siena was to find the location of a photo which my mother in law gave us at the beginning of our relationship when she was cleaning out her attic. It’s a framed etching of the Orto Botanico Garden that’s hanging in my wife's office, subconsciously calling me to Siena for over eight years. I thought it would make a nice Christmas gift to my mother in law if I got all three kids to stand on the steps for a photo.

We wandered through the city and discovered that the garden was affiliated with the local college, so we explored some old churches and passed through a completely empty park which was set up with tables and chairs for some kind of event, when we finally found the garden. 

We paid the entry fee of €15 and my excitement grew after noticing the signage above the gate matched the caption found on the etching perfectly. My kids and wife were happy to help me look for the stone stairs and statue depicted in the photo, but after running around the massive garden for over an hour, it was starting to look hopeless and they gave up one by one. I continued searching and even climbed to the top of a fire escape for a birds eye view of the garden, but there was nothing there that resembled the photo. 

I heard a faint noise of drumming in the distance which sounded like a parade, but ignored it because I was only focused on my scavenger hunt. Planning these itineraries is a gift, but also a curse, and when I don’t take my own advice of listening to the omens and seizing the moment, I end up anxious, depressed, and feeling like I failed.

I should have given up on my mission to find the source of the etching when I heard the parade, but I decided to press on, ignoring my family for another hour while I searched and the music slowly ceased in the distance. I asked the teenager at the ticket counter if they recognized the photo, but they had just started working there and couldn’t help me. Eventually the kids were getting eaten by mosquitos so I gave up and we left Orto Botanico Garden thinking the etching was a fake. I examined the entire campus and nothing on site resembled the etching at all.

We went back to the park full of catering tables which we found earlier, and we found hundreds of people dressed in blue and white Majorette uniforms resembling Shakespearean tunics. They ranged from young boys to retired men and all were carrying either a drum or a flag. They were celebrating with a massive party following a long-rehearsed debut performance in the square, and people were taking photos with family members similar to a graduation ceremony. If I hadn’t been so preoccupied with finding the source of the photo in the garden I could have collected my family and witnessed the parade of competitive flag twirlers, a once in a lifetime opportunity that we missed because I let my perseverance distract me from my true priorities.

To make up for my blunder I bought everyone gelato (the number one way to bribe your kids in Italy) and my wife and I stopped at a local wine shop for a drink. As some sort of cosmic joke, the same teenager who was selling tickets at Orto Botanico Garden walked in with his friend. He recognized me and after explaining to his friend what my mission was, we discovered that the original Orto Botanico Garden was located in the Santa Maria della Scala Hospital across from the Duomo in the city center. He gave me the GPS coordinates and the hunt was back on, but I wasn’t going to rush my family and run around in the heat this time so we leisurely finished our gelato and wine and sauntered over to the Duomo.

The square was mostly empty as the sun set over the stone archways and my kids danced on the stairs of the massive church. Unfortunately, Santa Maria della Scala was closed for the day and we missed it by just a few minutes. It was upsetting to never find the actual source of the photo, but hopefully my wife and kids saw me never give up and respected my determination. I think they were mostly confused about why I cared so much about something so insignificant, but when I set a goal that other people discourage it just makes me want to accomplish it more. 

Sometimes that personality trait drives me to insanity and I end up pushing my family too hard, but at least I know now we’ll someday return to the beautiful town of Siena.

The final city we visited was Rome, which required us to park in Florence where we caught the bullet train. As I explained earlier, driving in Florence was a nightmare and I needed to remain extremely vigilant of restricted neighborhoods and pedestrian traffic. We arrived at the train with barely enough time to board after giving ourselves an hour to find parking, but that apparently wasn’t enough. Google Maps is useless when you’re in the center of the city because it’s constantly rerouting you, so follow the signs and flow of traffic to figure out where the one way streets and parking garages are.

It was a pleasure to arrive in Rome and not have to drive anywhere, but the heat was almost unbearable. Our apartment, like many other buildings in Rome, didn’t have AC, so staying hydrated was extremely important. You can avoid the overpriced water sold by the gypsies by using the public fountains, which were abundant throughout the city. We found that historically, Rome was very similar to Paris, and when walking around you’ll find significant monuments around every corner. 

The buildings in Rome were more spread out and, though there were sections full of tourists with the typical spray-paint art vendors, the rushed business men in their silk suits and crowds of Cardinals made it feel more like a major hub for commerce and religion. 

I had to make sure to hold my daughters hand the entire time because the crosswalks weren’t very well defined and cab drivers constantly sped around us thinking they could time our pace. Having little children, it’s also important to know where the bathrooms are when you go to a new city, but contrary to Paris we had to pay to use public bathrooms in Rome. There was even an additional charge if we needed a toilet seat. However, if you can ignore the traffic, lack of toilet seats, and abundance of Maroon 5 music then you’re going to love Rome.

The people in Rome seemed to be less enthusiastic about travelers to their city as evidenced by the tourist tax, but also by their singling out of Americans. Multiple times after purchasing gelato we were told to leave and eat it outside after trying to sit in the AC in an empty restaurant, but even with three sweaty kids the answer was always “we’re closed.”  I believe the price at a restaurant changes depending on if you're going to sit inside or not. 

We also tried to purchase a souvenir Gladiator helmet and a couple t shirts from a shopkeeper, but we left when he tried to rush us and told my son he didn’t have anything that would fit him as a slight to his size.  

We were at the epicenter of fashion while in Italy, but we noticed that a lot of the city storefronts were hiking up the price of branded items you could purchase cheaper online. If you want to buy authentic clothes in Italy I’d recommend finding a local designer in a small town and having a dress, purse, or shoe custom made to avoid the expensive Roman stores. I lost count of the number of women in giant hats and Aviator glasses with their flowing dresses taking selfies in front of historical artifacts.

When we visited Vatican City it was very important to me that we respected the culture and dress in nice clothes, regardless of my views on organized religion. As a tourist, I wanted to reduce the degradation of these sacred sites as much as possible. I was in someone else's home and they were gracious enough to allow me to take a tour of their world renowned art, architecture, cartography, and scripture. The least I could do was respect their wishes to wear pants, not take photos, and remain silent while visiting their sacred spaces. 

I did find it ironic that the speaker constantly demanding silence in The Sistine Chapel was making more noise than the people were, but maybe the archdiocese just prefers to remind people to be submissive. However, the amount of people touching the walls and taking photos with flashes showed me that if tourists are continually let into these sites then they’re not going to be around forever. 

I was proud that my children were more well behaved than some adults, and we used games in the museums to keep them occupied. As a reward, I offered up extra scoops of gelato to the winners and we’d try to spot tags on items which were loaned to museums in America, or I’d see if they could find a place we visited during the trip on the giant tapestries and terracotta maps in the great halls leading up to The Sistine Chapel. Keeping them busy with audio guides and questions helped too, but sometimes you just had to let them sit on a bench until their boredom surpassed their exhaustion. Then they would eventually come find us to explore together again, and taking all their electronics for the trip forced them to spend time with us as well.

I noticed that outdoor spaces held the kid’s attention longer than indoor museums, and The Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and Colosseum were preferred over the Pantheon and Vatican City. However, it’s hard for even a cold-hearted teenager to be cynical when he’s standing under Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. 

Sitting on a piece of marble underneath The Column of Phocas you can’t help but feel connected to the families slaughtered in that same spot by Centurions 1400 years ago. Everywhere in Rome is like that and it will constantly send shivers down your spine the more you think about it.

Vatican City brought back memories of Sunday church as an Altar Boy in addition to reminding me of the beauty which spirituality can provide to those who can look past the politics of it. Seeing everyone dressed in black robes shuffling into the square during prayer service reminded me of the Council of Ricks, and watching a salesperson upsell a nun on a more expensive rosary wasn’t really what Jesus had in mind, but if you look past that and dissect the words of the saints inscribed throughout the buildings, then you’ll find peace in the message that our time here is limited and it’s up to us to be prudent with it through fidelity and union.

The lines in Vatican City resembled an amusement park ride that the whole world wanted to go on, so I was glad we purchased ‘skip the line’ tickets online beforehand. We met our guide at the tourist office outside the museum and followed a flag he was carrying to prevent anyone from getting lost in the thick crowd of people. We still needed to wait at the security line to be allowed entry into the museum area, and the line into the actual Sistine Chapel was the longest one we waited in throughout the entire trip, but the skip the line pass at least got us into the building so we didn’t have to sit outside for hours in the sun. The total cost for our passes to the Sistine Chapel was €126.69 and we purchased them through Ticketbar.

Saving the best for last, I still find myself daydreaming about the orange glow cast through the pillars from the lower depths of The Colosseum. 

My stepson and I had an argument prior to leaving for this experience, due to the general exhaustion of this being the last activity of the trip, and him being sick of museums. He threw a huge tantrum and demanded we leave him at the apartment while we went to The Colosseum, which led to everyone crying, and me personally convincing him that either we were all going or none of us were. 

Eventually he agreed to soldier through it, even though he was miserable and having withdrawals from his girlfriend and computer. We walked through the Pantheon, past the grave of Raphael, and stopped to eavesdrop on guides as we walked on the 'first roads' of The Roman Forum. My teenage stepson sulked the entire time and barely spoke a word, but then we started our descent down Palatine Hill towards The Colosseum.

We approached the gargantuan white stadium which walled off the rest of the city as birds circled above it, like a ship floating in a sea of stone. After we arrived on site for our private night tour, my stepson completely changed his attitude as he stared in amazement. He gave me a huge hug and thanked me for convincing him to come. 

To be standing on the arena stage in the same spot where thousands of similarly aged men historically fought, and died, was an experience that will cut through even the most jaded teenager. I saw him spin around and take in the landscape as he stared out at the empty stadium. He listened as our tour guide described that the sand made it easier to clean the blood for the next fight, and told me afterwards how the word arena was derived from Latin harena, meaning a fine sand used to absorb blood.

The sun set in the distance behind the Altare della Patria at the Piazza Venezia as our guide discussed the potential plan to complete the construction of the stage in The Colosseum. The current plan is to commercialize the site so they can reenact battles and charge admission. This caused a debate among the tour group and some argued for commerce, while others preferred preservation. Personally, it sounded like history was repeating itself and I pictured us soon using The Colosseum for its originally intended purpose. Entertainment will always be the opiate of the masses and it may have taken centuries, but it sounded like The Colosseum finally figured out how to convince people to pay for their distractions at the cost of exploiting their heritage and degrading their landmarks.

We booked our tour using Through Eternity and the tickets sold out months in advance, so make sure to put this booking at the top of your list. The 2.5 hour trip included both an interior and exterior tour of the grounds, including the underground holding cells. The walk afterwards took us through the city to Piazza del Campidoglio, a square designed by Michelangelo with the most beautiful views of Rome in the entire city. The entire cost for a family of five was $397.47 and it was the most amazing experience of my life.

No comments:

Post a Comment