Italy: architecture, food and history

For years the Tuscany region in Italy sat at the top of my bucket travel list. Photos, articles, books, movies continued to feed this desire. And when “Under the Tuscan Sun” was released in book form, and then in an incredibly enticing video depiction in movie form, I was hooked. To date, I have only had the pleasure of visiting Italy once, and sadly never made it to the Tuscany region – but I will get there one day!

Happily, my years have been filled with travel that has fulfilled my travel interests and desires, if not always my exact bucket list. This world we live in is full of hidden gems that deserve equal narration in comparison to the major highlight destinations like Paris, Rome, London, Montreal, Dubai and so many more. But there is a reason, many reasons, these major destinations have earned the reputation of becoming must see places.

Several years ago my mother, daughter and I took off on a 14-day European excursion with Trafalgar Tours via train and bus, that took us through many of Europe’s iconic locations. We started in London, and made our way through Brussels, Cologne, Zurich, Venice, Florence, Rome, Pisa, Monaco, Nice, Lyon and finished up in Paris. A great experience and way to see lots of places in a short amount of time, to help you decide where you might want to go back for longer visits.

Six of those days were spent in Italy. The diversity from northern Italy to southern Italy is as diverse as northern California to southern California. The diversity begins with food: creamier/buttery pasta sauces with some tomatoes in the north, to spicier red pasta sauces in the south. The myriad of the Venice canals sit in stark contrast to the Umbria countryside rolling with ancient grape vines and groves of olive trees, to the free-flowing Mediterranean along the rocky coast of Naples. The inland cities of Milan and Florence exude a higher fashion sense to go with their more formal attitudes, stand in contrast to the more laid back attitudes and lax fashion sense along the Mediterranean cities. The architecturally used colorful natural stones stand strong along with the robust fashion of the north country, in contrast to the earthy subdued limestone and travertine architecture of the south where so many more buildings stand in ruin.

A spicy red sauce pasta served up in a southern Italian town.

A spicy red sauce pasta served up in a southern Italian town.

But even these ruins stand as examples of historical architecture that is seen very little anywhere else in the world. Architecture that has stood the test of wars, environmental decay, man’s negligence, lack of funding – but yet they still stand strong and continue to be a major tourism pull. And a highly coveted design style. The rustic elegance that is achieved by not forcing perfection into what nature made, and honed only slightly by man’s manual tools, are looks that are heavily sought after, and hard to replicate.

Our first induction into Italy was Venice. Not a bad way to start! We began encamped at St. Marks Square where we took in the views of the expansive canals jutting out in every direction, with gondolas lined up to take you to one of the 117 islands. Or down one of the narrow inland canals bringing you nose to nose with amazing architecture like the Bridge of Sighs. Creativity reigns in Venice with visionary mask makers and master glass blowers. I display examples of both in my home today.

The Bridge of Sighs, in the background, spans one of the inland canals in Venice.

The Bridge of Sighs, in the background, spans one of the inland canals in Venice.

Our introduction into Italian cooking was a full-on experience. We took a large gondola over to Burano Island, which is lined with brightly colored pastel houses, to enjoy a seven-course lunch of fresh seafoods, homemade pastas and breads, olives and everything else you think of when craving Italian food. Upon our return to St. Mark’s Square we saw all the outdoor tables in the square had been removed and walking risers installed. Feeling perplexed, we stood with other tourists waiting for the show – the show was high tide that comes in and covers St. Mark’s Square for minimal time and then recedes and life resumes like nothing had ever happened.

Next it was on to Florence. Ah, Florence – land of exquisite leather goods at amazing prices – I think I bought 8 pairs of gloves – red, blue, black, brown, lined, unlined, zippered, unzippered. I stood with mouth agape for eons looking at the colorful architecture of the Duomo (Florence Cathedral) – stones of lush forest greens, soft mint greens, with deep blood reds infused into graying whites make up the structure. Michelangelo’s David, one of the world’s most reproduced and famous statues, stands in all its nude glory in the Accadamia Gallery. And what a treat to watch most every Italian dressed to the nines, going to work, going shopping, stopping for an espresso, heading to lunch or dinner. No occasion was too small or too big to “be seen.”

The Duomo in Florence, showcasing the locally mined stone used to build this beautiful cathedral.

The Duomo in Florence, showcasing the locally mined stone used to build this beautiful cathedral.

No trip to Italy would be complete without a visit to the iconic city of Rome. We needed two full days to tour structures that make Rome exactly that – iconic:

Colosseum – replete with costumed gladiators standing guard at the gates and more than ready to take a picture with you for a few euros; a structure so massive you stand in awe to think of how it was built, so many centuries ago. Close your eyes and imagine the stands filled with patrons watching gladiators fight or the chariot races – kings and queens on one side, peasants on the other.

Trevi Fountain – It was here I finally understood the energy level of our tour guide, Eliana, who speaks 5 languages and herded her 32 charges from multiple countries through 9 countries in 14 days with such fortitude. She grabbed my arm and we ran across the street from the highly ornate marble Trevi fountain to her favorite Italian espresso caffe’. As I began to sip my espresso Eliana giggled and said,”No, slam it like a shot of whisky!” After that boost we took our coin change and she showed me how you stand with your back to the fountain, throw a coin over your left shoulder with your right hand and make a wish.

Tucked in the middle of residential and retail buildings, the Trevi Fountain has not lost its lustre as a tourist draw.

Tucked in the middle of residential and retail buildings, the Trevi Fountain has not lost its lustre as a tourist draw.

Catacombs – definitely not for the faint of heart (or tall people), but an amazing site to see the size of these ancient people and intellectual engineering of these unending funeral tunnels. We visited the Catacombs of Domatilla, built beyond the only subterranean basilica, are the oldest (2nd century), largest (9 miles of tunnels) and the only catacombs to still hold bones.

The Vatican – this independent state within Rome encapsulates everything that is Italian culture – architecture, art and Catholicism. We spent a full day on the grounds: standing in a 3-hour line to bare witness to Michelangelo’s iconic ceiling murals in the Sistine Chapel; tried to absorb the immensity of St. Peter’s Basilica – the anchor of Vatican City; and finish up with an Italian gelato on the Spanish Steps.

St. Peter's Basilica bathed in the light from the setting sun.

St. Peter’s Basilica bathed in the light from the setting sun.

Our final stop in Italy landed us in Pisa. There are no words or pictures that can truly convey this anomaly of architecture finished in 1372. It defies all logic how this tower not only was built with this much tilt (where were the inspectors?) – because of being built on ground that was softer on one side; but that it never fell over prior to being stabilized in the 20th century. The 4 degrees of lean may not sound like much, but I didn’t step up to the front of the line to check out the view from the top.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa. What else is there to say.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa. What else is there to say.

Betwixt and between these amazing cities lay the Tuscan hillsides, with their long cypress lined driveways leading up to magnificent villas just waiting for visitors to come sit on their verandas to relax with a glass of Barolo, nibble on estate grown olives and almonds, while reading a favorite book. Hopefully my next trip to Italy those visions will come to fruition.

(A special thank you for the use of pictures from “A Portrait of Italy” by Dwight V. Gast)

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