Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Europe By Train #12: Monumental Rome

Do I really have to go to Rome? Already planning how to return to Tuscany, I watch the Mediterranean fall away. Too soon, we reach Orbetello for our final European train journey. 

Wound down almost to a stop, I don't quite feel ready for the "big city." And Rome's Termini is big...mid-twentieth-century modern set against ancient stone walls. Already I feel the power of this monumental city. And we only have two and a half days to explore her.

Where shall we begin? I ask Alessandra, presiding in quiet elegance at the front desk of our gracious hotel, Albergo del Senato. "Walk," she replies firmly. I nod, as this is my favorite way of discovery. But I am not prepared for the majesty that surrounds me. Just outside our hotel's entrance is the Pantheon, stark and grand. 

Every turn of the corner is gasp-inducing. I can only marvel at the Piazza Navona, a vast space once constructed for foot races. People hang out around its Bernini fountains, everyone drawn by the square's quirky charm. 

Instead of feeling oppressive, though, Rome is welcoming, relaxed and easy. And her beautiful people, so dignified, so warm. (Even, I will see later, at airport security!) Is there another city that combines overpowering scale with such warm intimacy? 

Our first afternoon is spent wandering...mouth open in awe at the grandeur - the immense and tiny squares, fountains, churches. These great doors are inside St. Agnes' church at Piazza Navona, built as the family chapel of 16C Pope Innocent.

The next morning we head to the Coliseum, on the top of my companions' lists. Why? I'd asked. Isn't it just an amphitheater? Yes, it is. THE amphitheater. A place of such scope and power it takes your breath away.

Inside, there is a wonderful exhibit on libraries across the ages. I am struck by the reminder that we didn't always have punctuation and capital letters to point our reading way. The ancients had to roll and unroll long scrolls of handwritten, unseparated words. Then in the first century AD, the Romans invented the codex, the bound book as we know it...one of their greatest contributions to mankind.

Later we buy Hop On, Hop Off bus tickets from a charming Ethiopian vendor near the base of the original Arc de Triomphe.

Before boarding, we bargain for Roman fedoras, feeling a little silly, but who cares? It's a party atmosphere all over town.

Sitting on the open-air top level, we are glad for the sun protection. Here we get the most staggering views. Across the Tiber River...

To St. Peter's...

To the balcony where Mussolini would address the people. 

The evenings are lively, people strolling and hanging out, every square and corner spilling over with outdoor restaurants. We enjoy delicate thin-crust pizza - and more perfect pasta, made as only the Italians can. Divine.

Our last day it's back to the streets, more wandering, marveling, shopping - sandals and boots - and gelato-eating. This summer I've been favoring the fruit flavors, plum, peach, and berries. This time I have mango. My husband sticks with his tried and true chocolate and coffee. You can't go wrong.

That afternoon, we visit the spreading Borghese Gardens en route to the Borghese Galleria. Like the Medicis, the family grew rich during the Renaissance and built stupendous art collections, assisted by well-connected relatives in the Vatican. We must be grateful to the Cardinal Scipione Borghese, patron of Caravaggio and Bernini.

I marvel at the Bernini sculptures, each a little tableau that draws you in...characters of myth brought to life with such skill. The artist was only twenty-three when he completed the Rape of Prosperina. 

Look at the hands and how the flesh gives. 

And this Bernini foot, real toes.

I love this seductive Cleopatra, complete with snake. 

In this unusual Caravaggio work, young Jesus is shown subduing the serpent. He is pictured with his mother (in a revealing bodice) and grandmother, St. Anne (revered in Islam and the Eastern Orthodox church as Hannah).

And look at Jesus reaching out, so physical and real, such a need to connect.

The sumptuousness of the space stuns me...the immense rooms with marble and brocade walls, towering ceilings, frescoed domes...

Here is a close-up of the cute little angel flying his kite.

I am smitten with this woman, captured in a timeless floor mosaic from the Roman period. 

And how about this Canaletto painting of the Coliseum?

That night we celebrate my husband's birthday at an easy-going restaurant we've discovered near Piazza Navonna - Fattoincasa, a real local spot, a hotel staffer tells me approvingly. Of course the pasta is perfect, fresh broad tagliatelle with pepper and pecorino cheese - cacio e pepe - but so is the friendly atmosphere. Afterward, we stroll back through Navonna, where festive crowds continue to celebrate the joys of a warm Roman evening. As they have over the ages.

The centers of empire have shifted, but Rome endures. Italy endures, captivating our hearts and souls. Utterly seduced by this magical country, I am already planning my next visit.

With an early flight (no more trains, this time around), we wake up early to this...

Arrivederci, Roma. It's a date.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Europe By Train #11: Tuscany: Paradise

We had come to Europe for my youngest brother's big birthday bash in Maremma, a remote coastal area of Tuscany. After three weeks of train travel, we are ready to unwind - little knowing how dynamic the week will be! 

Following my online booking with Italia Rail, I receive only an unfamiliar PNR code, to be entered in a machine at the Florence railway station. We scurry around until my daughter saves the day, navigating the touchscreen like a champ. Next we have to find our departure platform and validate our ticket at another machine. Connecting through Pisa, we have fifteen minutes to repeat the procedure. One minute after we board, the train pulls out. Whew!

After skirting the Mediterranean for much of the trip, we reach the little pink Orbetello station. A causeway, bisecting two lagoons, leads to Maremma, a bulb of land protruding into the sea. The interior has vineyards and a national park, but our route takes us through Porto San Stefano.

Our taxi climbs the hills above the harbor. Then, with the Mediterranean far below, we follow a winding road to the 1920s villa where we will pass the next week. 

Not only a birthday, this gathering is also to be a merging of families, from Boulder to Australia. The miracle is that instead of getting on each others' nerves during such "forced" togetherness, we bond in a really deep way. 

The days are organized around wonderful meals, complete with tomatoes from the vine.

In between, we hike down to the rocky beach.

The bay is small and friendly, conducive to exploring.

We swim, snorkel, and kayak - meditative and calm until the wind rises and tips me over. We laugh and carry on. I conjure up stories around a mysterious cave.

After a steep climb back up the hill, we recuperate around the pool. Here, the lap-swimming contest heats up. We also have a treading water competition, singing crazy songs, and making it almost to one hour. 

My eldest niece and her new husband organize other competitions, a plank event (with the winner going three minutes!), a charade-like “bowl of nouns,” tennis, fuzeball, ping pong - and beer pong. A novice, my husband is the surprise victor, along with his teammate, the grad student groom.

Everyone competes with good humor and, despite the arduous schedule, we even have time to read. Although amid such beauty, it can be hard to focus on the page.

The high point is my brother's birthday blowout.

We toast him and each other, grateful for his generosity in bringing us all together. Including our new friends, Zeus...

And Signore and Signora Donkey.

The week passes too quickly. Filled with memories that will last a lifetime, we bid each other arrivederci. Then it is off to the Orbetello train station.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Europe By Train #10: Florence: City of Seduction

Masculine. Stark. This is my first impression as we arrive at Firenze's Santa Maria Novello railway station. One thing I've noticed as we travel Europe by train is I always prefer the place we've just left. It takes about a day to get into real time. Venice is so ethereal, so pastel, that I am especially struck by Firenze's brown and gray stone presence. Off-put, even. Where is the city that has seduced people over the ages?

Maybe it is our first dinner of celestial grilled porcini...

Or sunset over the Arno River...

Or the lyrical language flowing over me.

Or the shops!

Seduction accomplished, and it doesn't take 24 hours.

The next day at the Accademia, it is not so much Michelangelo's David that captivates...

As his unfinished sculptures, powerful creations emerging from marble...arms reaching, bodies twisting, ribs rising and falling before our eyes. 

My daughter tells me he was a notorious procrastinator, or maybe he couldn't say no and took on too many commissions. His half-created beings remind us of the physicality of the sculptor's art, the passion to wrest life from raw stone.

We will learn more about his career the following afternoon at the Uffizi Gallery, but that morning we walk across the Ponte Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti. 

The Medicis were the power players of Florence, but Eleonora di Toledo, wife of Cosimo I, was a wealthy, educated businesswoman in her own right, daughter of the Spanish King of Naples. Palazzo Vecchio was a citadel of power and majesty, yet she longed for a garden. And so, on the hills across the river, she built the Pitti.

By no means a simple country getaway, the brown stone palace has its own imposing majesty, with grand marble halls and lavish frescoes that display thrilling feats of perspective. Look at these columns - painted, not architectural.

The Pitti's terraced gardens offer breathtaking views of the surrounding hillsides, red-tiled roofs and greenery, the famous dome of a city that has now become soft and gentle before my eyes.

Once sacred relics were the status symbols of the day. Inside the Chapel of Relics, an ornate silver casket contains the skeleton of St. Cesonius, dug up in Rome and shipped to Maria Maddalena, a Hapsburg, and later royal wife. (This is a view from the figure's feet toward his crowned skull.)

The dizzying costume exhibit ends in the modern era with a wink at Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld.

Because we didn't book in advance, our only way to visit the Uffizi is by tour. We are lucky to have a delightful guide, Katia, who makes history come alive with her art insider stories. A promising twelve-year-old, Michelangelo was brought into the Medici court and trained for greatness. He changed the color palette, now luminous and bright, and with his sculptor's eye, brought in molded figures. A nativity painting commissioned by a prominent figure was deemed shocking for its representation of a flesh and blood Mary, and the man offered a lower price. Michelangelo said never mind, he'd keep it himself. Later when the man decided he wanted it after all, the artist demanded a higher price. A shrewd businessman, confident of his worth, he got it.

Also developed in the apprentice system, Leonardo was assigned to work on two little angels while his master painted Jesus and John the Baptist. A country boy and keen naturalist, da Vinci created lifelike cherubs with wings of individual feathers, so birdlike they might take off and fly. He also painted the clear river waters Jesus and John are standing in, ripply and filled with light. The story is that his master, seeing this work, said he would never paint again.

In another painting, Leonardo was criticized for making Mary's arm too long when viewed straight-on. However he knew the corner in which it was to hang, and when viewed from a right side angle, the perspective is perfect.

The Uffizi was opened to the public, a revolutionary decision to bring what had been private art to the people. I can imagine the awe this must have inspired, akin to what we feel in the great Italian churches. Here is a glorious dome of seashells.

And aren't these cherubs cute?

Summer in Italy is hot, but the evenings are grand. Like everyone we wander the cobbled lanes eating gelato...pausing in lively herb-scented squares. The air caresses, the river reflecting ancient bridges under an almost-full moon. 

Our last night is filled with aching beauty. I feel Florence slipping from my grasp...I need more time.

Arrivederci, Firenze.