“All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street and the closed doors of the small shops, the herb sellers, the stationary and newspaper shops, the midwife— second class—and the hotel where Verlaine had died where I had a room on the top floor where I worked.” -Ernest Hemingway
What is it about Paris that moves it to the top of so many travel wish lists? I confess it is on mine, but I doubt I’ll be getting there very soon.
Paris has many of those essential elements to be a romantic and rewarding city. It’s located on the water, the river Seine, which you’ll find is a common prerequisite for many capital cities. Paris also has art, architecture, rich history, and a smattering of green space: all the important necessities that a poet or a painter might desire.
For me, of course, the allure is literary. One of my favorite books is Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. It is probably the book that has given me unreachable expectations about life as both a writer and ex-pat; a life ruining sort of book, if you will. It’s one of the finest memoirs and pieces of travel writing I’ve ever read. I can’t help but harbor romantic ideas about writing a masterpiece in a Parisian cafe.
One must wonder if there are certain places that are inherently inspirational. There are places where artists over the years have found a haven where they can congregate and work. I hope someday to test this theory in Paris for myself. Among my peer group of English students and writers, I find I am not the only one who has these hopes for Paris. Perhaps someday we’ll see if it lives up to our expectations, see if it inspires our greatest words.
On a Friday morning we packed our umbrellas and piled in a hired van, setting off for Sienna. At this point in our trip, I had been overcome with an attack of allergies. I was sneezing frequently and plagued with sinus pressure and a headache. I would not be deterred from going, however. I had not come to Italy to sit in a hotel room drinking tea and blowing my nose. No, I would come along and make everyone else miserable.
It was pouring with rain as we walked along the streets of Sienna. We went to the Monte dei Paschi di Siena– a bank currently at the center of a large scandal. While standing by the bank, we were actually caught by a news camera and later that evening, saw ourselves on the Italian news. Mostly it was just our umbrellas, but we recognized ourselves. It was a big moment.
We moved on to Santa Maria Assunta, Sienna’s duomo. It has a pretty amazing facade. The building wasn’t completed however. The original portion that was intended to be inside the structure is outside. In fact, what would have been the central congregating area is now a parking lot for the building next door. The baptistry is located under the dome instead of being housed separately as in many basilicas. We climbed the tower and had a great view of the town before the rain started driving in even heavier.
After our drenching time in Sienna we clambered back into our van and found ourselves being twisted and turned along narrow roads in the hills. I quietly moaned that I was dying, as my head lolled against the back seat of the van. “I don’t think you’re dying,” one of my fellow travelers said. I disagreed. The pressure in my head, the post nasal drip, and the ocean like movement of the van all spelled a rare case of motion sickness for me.
When we finally arrived at the vineyard, Stefano, our charming local guide held his umbrella over me as we ran ahead to meet with the vineyard owner. I was just happy to be out of the van, the heights of my ambition for the afternoon had been reached by this alone. When we stepped out of the rain and into the dining room where we were having lunch, everything changed. Our bedraggled party was overcome with the scene before us. A long, polished wooden table with seating for twelve was placed in the center of the room. Candle holders made of iron twisted to look like grape vines decorated the table. Suspended above was a matching chandelier about three feet in diameter. The white candles were lit. On the walls were black and white photographs. The atmosphere was incredibly cozy and welcoming. We settled in, trying to take photos to capture the experience of earthiness and peace around us.
After an incredible lunch of three courses (one of which was wild boar– surprisingly nice), each complemented by wine, we found that the rain had stopped for the moment. We were shown to the cellar where the wine sat in great barrels, patiently fermenting. We found the little chapel on the grounds as well. Perhaps it was due to our desperation for dryness and food, but we were greatly charmed by the whole setting and proclaimed it an excellent spot for a wedding.
We put our tipsy selves back in the van once more, the wine making us laugh at things that weren’t that funny in some cases, while others of our party dozed.
We then arrived at our final destination of the day: San Gimignano. The tiny town is within the walls of a medieval fortress with steep towers sprinkled across the skyline with a large well in the one of the main centers (Piazza della Cisterna as it would happen). It was one of my favorite spots on our trip to Italy. There was something so quaint about the way modern homes and businesses fit into medieval brick.
Stefano took us down an alley and we ended up at what he described as one of the best outlooks around Sienna. I don’t doubt it. As we stood, looking out over the wall, we could see the Tuscan countryside sprawling languorously before us. Waves of green hills, little clustered houses, and the cloudy sky that had finally stopped spewing on us at last. “This is Italy,” I murmured dramatically through my stuffed nose.
We were all a bit wearied by the day’s excursion. Between moaning and sneezing, I had made an enemy of our entire group. I tried to refrain from both as the sun set and we returned to Florence. It was worth the physical discomfort, however. If I ever become a famous and reclusive writer, you’ll probably be able to find me hiding out in a tower in San Gimignano.
I have been back home a week now, reluctantly settled back in to my hectic final semester at college. I feel I only just sipped from the glass of Italy, there is so much I didn’t see or experience. If I ever have the chance, I’d like to drink more deeply.
Between finishing midterms and figuring out post graduate life, I’m preparing some pitches for travel articles about Italy. I took tons of notes and am currently working on how to frame my experiences in a focused and interesting way that someone might pay me for. (My article about Oxford for medieval history buffs is slotted for issue 91 of Renaissance Magazine by the way.)
So I’m trying to synthesize and gain perspective on everything I saw and felt in Italy. Beyond just looking back through my notes and photos, I’m doing some additional research and scoping out travel journals that may be right for the kind of article I want to write.
My summer is feeling more up in the air than I’d like. With the end of the peace pact with North Korea, my visit to South Korea may be in danger. Let’s face it: South Korea may be in danger. Such unrest may make travel in Asia much more difficult. I have an invitation from my brother to visit him in Taiwan after I’m through in South Korea and a few other scattered invitations in Australia and England. Even if South Korea is cancelled, I intend to travel.
I’d really like to go to Prague, Budapest, or Vilnius to network and apply for jobs teaching English as a second language. South Korea is an excellent place to do that as well, but as I said, politically precarious at the moment.
It’s so difficult judging which programs are dodgy and which really take care of their teachers. Moving to another country (especially one where you don’t speak the language) for a year is a big step. I want to be able to put my trust in the company I work for. I’m also not sure if I’ll have to go for a TEFL or TESL this summer or if my BA in English will be enough, it varies between countries and programs.
Florence is the birth place of romance, the home of Dante, the seat of Medici power. It’s a beautiful town with narrow medieval street and broad squares housing decorative basilicas. It also the home to some early-blooming plant that left me constantly sneezing for the last three days in the country. Being someone with very pale, sensitive skin, an allergy attack leaves my entire nose red and peeley. Attractive. Other than the perils of being sick while travelling, I found it very enjoyable. It was easier to navigate than Rome. There were fewer towering religious monuments and fountains and more small, secular decorations. By one of the outdoor markets there is a bronze boar. Like the tradition of throwing coins in the Trevi Fontain, you are supposed to rub his nose/face to ensure you will return to Florence again.
The markets in town were, on the whole, very nice. Of course there are some depressing shops selling t-shirts and hats for tourists splayed with “Italy” and “Florence,” or for the more discerning souvenir buyer, “Firenze” (the Italian name for Florence). The region is known for its leather, so with some care taken with your shopping, you can purchase some very nice leather at a decent price. I indulged in a new journal wrapped in turquoise stained leather and stamped with a fleur de lis, a symbol of Florence.
Curiously enough, the reproduction models of Michelangelo’s David (which I saw at the Accademia in Florence– a stunning presence that cannot be captured by photos), and Botticelli’s Venus (seen at the Uffizi one afternoon), are often “improved.” Especially Venus. In Botticelli’s painting she has sloping shoulders and a rather boyish figure. Our local guide, Florinda tells us it is believed Botticelli had to use an adolescent male as model for the painting and simply added the breasts on from imagination. Many reproductions on sale for the tourists attempt to make her more feminine. Better posture in her shoulders, a more feminine hip-to-waist ratio.
The Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of the Medici family and Florentine power was a major highlight of the trip. We were able to take a special tour to some of the private rooms through hidden doors and narrow private passages. Truly amazing. Our guide was an architect, so he took us to his favorite part of the building: the ceiling. Above the gilded paintings are a delicate collection of beams and structures that have held the building up for hundreds of years.
Outside the Palazzo (in the photo above) there is an impressive collection of statues. Some of the originals have been removed for preservation, but the copies are very good. It is worth walking through the pavilion to admire– especially on a rainy afternoon like we had. The David was originally located outside the Palazzo, his determined gaze fixed south toward the Goliath that was Rome. Now a decent copy stands in his place, but I highly recommend seeing the real one at the Accademia. Standing before him was one of the most sublime moments I had in Italy. I could have stared at his hands alone for an hour.
I’ll post later about our day’s excursion into the Tuscan countryside as well.
The sublime and the slum: that’s how I see Rome. It seems to me to be polarized between a Mecca of art and history, and a dirty, dangerous city. When wandering in the ruins of the Colloseum and the Forum I saw ancient graffiti mingled among the grandeur of the Capitol. Perhaps things haven’t changed so much after all.
Being with a group from the college has its benefits, but also its disadvantages. Fortunately it is a small group, so we don’t have the demeaning experience of following a tour guide holding a scarf on a stick, nor do we have to wear a silly yellow neckerchief as many I’ve seen. Groups like that make you an immediate target. Though, speaking English and taking photos can be a signal as well.
We were followed by gypsies one afternoon. There were three teenage girls, I saw the leader in front of us, looking us over. I looked at our local guide who nodded to me, confirming my suspicion. When I looked back, two other gypsy girls were coming up behind us, close to two of my friends who were lagging. We stepped aside and regrouped, letting them pass us by.
We were quite rushed to see all those essential monuments of Rome: the Palatine, the Trevi Fountain, the Parthenon. It was a bit overwhelming. Perhaps that it is why I found our unscheduled excursions the most rewarding. We went to the Protestant Cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried. It was like the eye in the center of the storm that is Rome. It contains the only pyramid in Rome and is home to a feral cat colony.
After a customary massive dinner one night, we walked down to the Victor Emmanuel Monument, all lit at night. Beyond it we could see the glow of the Coliseum, lit in the middle distance.
Those were fine moments. I’m not sure if I’ll come back to Rome. I’m glad to have had the experience of the art and the history, but it’s not the kind of place I could see myself living.
We’re in Florence now, which is more my speed. It is small and medieval in layout. It lacks the extreme bustle of Rome, which suits this country girl. There is also something inherently romantic about its quaintness. My professor took us to the street corner where Dante is said to have first glimpsed Beatrice while he was trying to tell us the story of proposing to his wife we were nearly hit by a car. I intend to write more fully about Florence after I’ve been here longer.
Maybe it’s my own fault for packing so far in advance, but I have almost two hours to kill before I can even think about making a move. That’s when I’m meeting with the small collective of classmates also attending the trip, then heading to the airport.
I suppose that’s the difficult thing about strict travel schedules; the waiting in between. I don’t have time to really do anything, so here I am updating my travel blog about the unbearable anticipation before travel. There aren’t even any photos in this post. Who wants to read a post with no photos?
So instead, I’m going to give you my playlist for the day, “Songs for Travelers:”
This is just a sampling of course. The first of many journey-related playlists, I’m sure. Music has always been very important to me. It’s something I always correlate to emotions and experience. And I promise that my next post will be very exciting and probably full of gorgeous photos from Italy.