When I was in high school, my friend Diane was working at the soda counter of a local swimming pool. I would ride out there occasionally and spend the day swimming and playing games in the recreation area. One day I met Tommy, he told me he was from Italy and had been in the area about three weeks. I could not believe that he spoke perfect English with no accent. Then he told me that he had learned English on the boat over from Italy. That impressed me. We dated for about six months. He started to get very serious and on top of that he really wanted to go back to Italy. He hated that his parents had forced him to move with them. I assumed that the family was from farm country and when he proposed I turned him down because I could not imagine myself as an Italian farm wife. I was only 16 and had no idea what my future held. I broke up with him and really never saw him again. Although I knew that he proposed to an acquaintance of mine shortly after we parted ways. And as near as I can remember that marriage did not last long. The most recent information was that he was still in the area running a bar.
This background really had no effect on my interest in seeing the Italian country side. When the opportunity to do a FAM (Familiarization trip) came up I jumped at the chance. This trip was sponsored by Citslinc, a company who had also run the China trip I went on several years ago. As with the China trip they have a whirlwind schedule. We started with a tour of Rome. To say the history of Rome is overwhelming would be an understatement. Here is a city/state that literally predates the birth of Christ. Many of the ruins also predate the assignation of Julius Cesar.
We started our visit to of this ancient city with a bus tour around the Coliseum, Piazza Romana, L’arco Trionfale di Constantino Plazza Venezia and Bocca Della Verita. Actual tours of the Coliseum would be offered the next day.
LUNCH DAY ONE
Then we stopped for lunch. Lunch was fettuccini noodles with minimal sauce topped by one of the biggest Prawns I have ever seen. Some people might have like it. I did not. The savior was very good lime sherbet. Which some people did not like. This was one of two lunches that I truly did not like. But as the saying goes “when in Rome….”
THE VATICAN MUSEUM AND THE SISTINE CHAPEL
Day two was a walking tour of the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, and St Peters Basilica that ended at St Peter’s Square. The Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel were, to say the least, overwhelming. Were it not for a pre-tour briefing by the guide, it was almost impossible to comprehend the massive Michelangelo works on the ceiling of the chapel. Our guide gave some historical data concerning why Michelangelo was tagged to paint the ceiling. She related that he was known as a sculptor and that the Pope sent to Florence (the art center of Italy) for him to do the painting. She claimed that Michelangelo claimed he was a sculptor, not a painter. The Pope insisted. He painted the ceiling under protest (he was in his 80s at the time) and as part of his protest he refused to hide the genital on his figures. It was after his death that the Pope brought in another artist to paint robes and drapes on the figures that were controversial.
Along the way to St Peters Square we walked through galleries of tapestries. Then we entered the amazing St Peters Basilica, the largest church in the world. The sides of the Basilica are lined with tapestries and small altars and alcoves. In the first alcove to the right as one enters the church is Michelangelo’s Pietà. It is significant for many reasons. It was commissioned by French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères, who was the French ambassador in Rome. The sculpture, in Carrera marble, was made for the cardinal's funeral monument, but has been moved to The Basilica. At one time the work was falsely attributed to another sculptor, Cristoforo Solari, Michelangelo was so enraged by this that he signed the piece. It is the only piece of art work that Michelangelo ever signed. Because of several attacks on this sculpture it now resides behind bullet proof glass.
ST PETERS SQUARE
Exiting St Peters we came out in St Peters Square. I did not really know what to expect there. When one sees newscasts of the thousands of people crowding the square for a Papal address, it seems to be huge. It was relatively small (in my opinion). And apparently in concession to an aging population the square was now filled with chairs. Previous scenes seem to show people standing.
A TRUE ITALIAN SUPPER EXPERIENCE
That evening we were treated to a true European style dining experience, this was a welcome dinner at Ristorante Papa Rex hosted by the Italy National Tourist Office. Apparently our bus was late for the start of the festivities where there were speeches and presentations made by the Italian National Tourist Office. We did not miss out on the awesome food and great musical entertainment. Although I do have to admit this is the first time I have ever heard the ballad “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down” sung as a jazz song. There was a very tasty seafood salad, then an anti-pasta plate followed by a pasta and risotto dish. And when I thought I could not eat any more we were served whole trout. This was followed by a delightful version of Italian Ice. Seriously a meal to remember.
ON TO TUSCANY
From Rome we had a bus trip to the Tuscany village of Siena. This medieval town is famous for a square that used to host horse races. Several of us enjoyed a light lunch overlooking the square before hailing taxis for a ride back to the bus parking lot. A word about busses. The fact that the tourist industry is big in Italy can be shown in the number of tourist busses and the vast parking lots devoted for these vehicles. The one in Siena was very similar to those we saw throughout our visit. There was actually an attendant controlling where the buses parked.
WINE TASTING EXTRAORDINAIRE
Following our visit to Siena we went to a “wine tasting” and full meal at Pierfuigi Girchi Winery. There the host put on a very entertaining and informative presentation of their wines, accompanied by anti-pasta plates, a delicious soup, followed by one of the best lasagna dishes I have ever tasted. Of course I bought the cookbook that contained the lasagna as well as the soup recipes. I was going to buy a bottle of very good olive oil, until a read the label and knew I could get the same product here in Delaware. I should mention the wine though. The first wine we tasted was an awesome Malbec. It was full bodied, fruity and had a wonderful finish. I loved it.
From Tuscany we went to Florence where we spent the night. (A word about the hotels that Citslinc books – they are always top rated with great staff and delightful restaurants.)
THE LEANING TOWER OF PISA
The next day there was a tour of Florence and then on to Pisa where the highlight was seeing the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. What stood out to me was that rarely if ever do photos of this bell tower show the basilica, for which it is the bell tower. The tower itself is quite small in contrast with the basilica. While walking through a tour of the grounds surrounding the basilica I remembered a play by Maurice Maeterlinck about the siege of Pisa by the City State of Florence. The army of Florence led by a “reputed outlaw” Prinzivalle had completely cut off Pisa. The citizens were in danger of starvation. Prinzivalle sent word to Guido, the commander of the forces at Pisa that if he would send his wife Giovanna (Mona) to him for one night, he would send wagon loads of food to Pisa. Thus saving the city from starvation. Guido at first says that his woman belongs to him, until the Mona argues that she is her own person and capable of making her own decisions. She agrees to the arrangement. She goes to Prinzivalle’s tent expecting to find a barbarian. Instead she finds a very cultured and well educated man. The man admits that he has been in love with her since they played together as very young children. They talk throughout the night. In the morning Prinzivalle kisses Mona on the forehead and sends her back to Pisa along with the wagon loads of food he had promised. Guido will not believe the story Mona tells him. She finds him impossible to deal with and leaves him to go to Prinzivalle. It is a good story and a great play, but I really can’t find any historical references to it. Historically though Pisa did fall to Florence.
VENICE AND MURANO
From Florence we went to Venice. Transportation to the Piazza San Marco in Venice was by boat (it is an island). The main attraction aside from gondola rides was St Marks Basilica and the Palazzo Del Dogi and the legendary Bridge of Sights. Once on San Marco we had a great deal of walking to get to the canal where gondola rides were offered. I did not make this trek, but instead found a very attractive water-side café where I enjoyed a delightful lunch. A highlight of that lunch was that I found a dessert that I had tasted once in France years ago and had been searching for ever since. It was described on their menu as Pannacotta and I found the recipe on line.
On the boat trip back to the mainland we had a stop at the island of Murano for a tour of a Venetian Glass Blowing factory. There was a demonstration of glass blowing and then an invitation to shop for glass wares in their extensive store. Then we had a boat ride back to a waterfront shopping area and a bus ride to our hotel for the night.
SUSHI IN ITALY - WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT
On the way from Florence to our final destination in Milan we had lunch at an awesome sushi bar (they served other food besides sushi, but I hardly noticed). Our guide told us that more sushi is eaten in Italy than in Japan.
When I was preparing for the trip to Italy I downloaded a Kindle book “Under a Scarlet Sky” by Mark Sullivan. It is based on a true story and set in Milan and the Italian Alps toward the end of World War II and follows the adventure of a young man who becomes part of the Italian resistance. From the descriptions in the novel about the extensive bombing of Milan by allied forces in 1943 through 1945 I did not know what to expect I would find in Milan. What I found was a totally modern city with extensive shopping areas featuring all of the famous brands. It was, we found out, also Fashion Week in Milan so the store fronts were posh with over the top displays. And several streets had been blocked off to accommodate over flow dining crowds. Our tour started at a partially reconstructed castle and parade grounds (which ironically had featured prominently in the novel I was reading). Because I opted out of a walking tour of Milan, I spend a great deal of time wandering the extensive grounds. People who know me are aware that I will literally strike up a conversation with complete strangers so this was no different. I walked from one park bench to another and started conversations while I listened to street musicians. One woman was an Au-par from Guatemala who was delighted to find someone who spoke English. I also spoke with a music student who was from London and another couple from London who were in town for a wedding. The man was a structural engineer and he commented on the issues with the Leaning Tower in Pisa. They told me that in the next month they would be headed to the United States to visit San Francisco, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. I passed along my time honored tip on how to drink for free in the Las Vegas Casinos. (Buy two rolls of nickels and play the nickel slots. The casino will bring you an endless supply of drinks).
FEE TIME IN MINAN
After visiting the castle we were dropped off by the bus for five hours of free time – but first we had to have a tour of a leather manufacturing facility and the ubiquitous sales presentation. The products were very impressive. I am past the stage of trying to impress people with leather goods, but a number of the people in our group did indulge. And several contributed to the Milan economy in other stores. I personally just enjoyed window shopping. When my daughter and I stopped for lunch we sat in front of a shop making gelato. Gelato is the Italian word for ice cream. It starts out with a similar custard base as ice cream, but has a higher proportion of milk and a lower proportion of cream and eggs (or no eggs at all). It is churned at a much slower rate, incorporating less air and leaving the gelato denser than ice cream. It was entertaining to watch the finished product spin out of the mixer.
After wandering the city of Milan for several hours we met our guide and were escorted to a restaurant for a final dinner with our group. This was another fabulous meal that everyone enjoyed, well except for the man who sat next to me (from another bus) who slept through the whole meal. It seems that all salads in Italy were served with just oil and vinegar dressing. For those who do not like that type of dressing, like my daughter, I suggested she order mayonnaise and mix it with the vinegar for a tasty substitution. She did, as did several others at our table.
FINAL NIGHT IN ITALY
After dinner, it was back to our hotel for a final night before we all headed to the airport for flights home. Our entire bus met in the cocktail lounge of the hotel and toasted our tour guides and more impressively our bus driver. Because many had different departure times the next morning we all said our good byes and promised to keep in touch through a Facebook site and two of the women had set up.
What a whirlwind trip Italy was. I did express one wish – a private tour of the Sistine chapel. (there must have been a hundred people in that small room) Like that is going to happen. Thanks to Citslinc and the tour guides and to Leo Liu who owns the company.
Foot Note: When I got home I sent an email to Mark Sullivan, the author of Beneath a Scarlet Sky. He graciously replied.