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Rome, Venice, Florence and Sicily...

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Roger in Rome When I was in Rome, in June 1988, it was good to be in the warm Italian climate, and see the famous Roman ruins such as the Colosseum and Forum. Also, the Trevi Fountain, Vatican, and Tivoli Gardens. There is a big contrast between Northern Europe and Italy. I would have liked to stay longer. The night I went to Tivoli for the planned excursion, my co-worker Randall decided to stay in Rome to look around some more. He ended up seeing the Pope at some coronation service for some Cardinals.

Here I am in St. Mark's Square, Venice. With a whole day to spend wandering around, we did it with relish. One of the high-points of the day was going to the top of the Bell Tower in St. Marks Square and looking down at a sea of orange rooftops. We also toured the Doge Palace, St. Mark's Basilica, Rialto Bridge, the Church of Santa Maria di Salute, a glass blowing factory, rode the water buses, and explored a lot of the dense pathways of hidden Venice. Roger in Venice

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Italy is one of those countries that I wish I could have spent more time submerging myself in the cultural abundance. I've been to Italy twice and to Sicily once, but all told I spent a little less than seven days there, total. Those were days packed with sightseeing, picture taking, and spaghetti eating, to be sure, but I wish I could have had a few months to do it properly. That's the trouble with packaged tours; they're short, exhausting, and leave you wanting more of that particular culture. But since there were so many tantalizing cultures pulling at me, I had precious little time to devote to Italy. What a shame! One thing that sticks out in my mind was the campy music that we heard over and over on the tour bus and at some of the restaurants--"Volare," "Lonely is the man without Love," "O Solo Mio," and "Roll out the Barrel!" We heard these songs so many times that it became comical, but it was also a lot of fun.

The aforementioned coach tours covered a lot of northern and central Italy, stopping for periods of time at Venice, Ravenna, Perugia, Rome, Tivoli, Florence, Lugano, and the Italian Lake District, including Lake Como, and the town of Caddinabbia. I'll never forget walking up the hill town of Perugia in the rain, and searching for a simple place to eat lunch. We managed to become separated from the rest of the tour group and ate lunch in a dingy little local dive, with a pulled curtain for an entrance. It was a feat that we felt proud of for accomplishing on our own. We had a similar experience in Caddinabbia once before, on Lake Como. When I say we, I mean Randall (my co-worker) and myself. We roomed together in the hotels, and were virtually always together, except when we occasionally separated sightseeing.

Visiting Venice was a dream come true. It is a uniquely quaint, lived-in museum, built on a lagoon forming an "S" shaped river called the Grand Canal. Sure, it can get crowded, but who cares! Just being there to partake in the charming atmosphere and elegant decay is wonderful. I kept wanting to pause, look around at the architectural detail, and just take it all in. We saw about as much as we could in one evening and a day. It was nice to see it at night and in the daytime. I bought two watercolor paintings of Venice (that I still have) the first evening that we were there, and we went to a grotto (a touristy night club) with our tour group. We spent the night at the Da Poppi Hotel on the mainland, for economy, and then spent the next day exploring Venice by ourselves. About the only thing we didn't do that I wanted to do was go for a gondola ride, but when we asked a gondola man about the cost, we thought about it, and decided we couldn't afford to stretch our budget that much!

In Rome we didn't have enough time to, "do as the Romans do," because we were just trying to see everything as fast as we could and stay on schedule. We stayed two nights at the Eden House Hotel, which had a laundry room to wash clothes (a rare amenity, in my experience), and was across the road from a gypsy encampment. Even though we were carried around mostly by our tour bus, I was surprised the traffic was not as bad as I thought it would be. We were never held up in traffic for very long, and we saw a lot of the city. We went to most of the major sights such as the Colosseum, the Forum, Trevi fountain, Piazza Navona, and the Vatican. St. Peter's and the Sistine Chapel were just as remarkable as I expected. How Michelangelo painted it all is beyond me! But one of my most memorable visits was to the town of Tivoli, just east of Rome, in the mountains. There, I went with a group to the beautiful gardens and fountains of Villa d'Este, where we had the most relaxing walks and a fine dinner alfresco. This was tranquility at its best, and the fountains are still marvels of ingenuity, for they are stream-fed from the mountains by gravity.

A few days later in Florence, we would have given anything just to have more time. The walking tour was great, but such a plethora of history and art to see in a few hours!! Our tour began with the obligatory stop at the park on the hill overlooking the Florentine landscape. What a magnificent view of the city and the mountains in the distant background! When we entered the city and walked to the Piazza Della Signoria, we were surprised to see that the whole square was under excavation. Each cobblestone was being removed as archaeologists searched for Etruscan/Roman artifacts. The dig was covered by a temporary roof of sheet metal and surrounded by a wire fence, right in the middle of the square. Our tour included the Duomo, San Croce Church (where we saw the tombs of Galileo and Michelangelo), and the Museum of the Opera del Duomo (not the Accademia or the Uffizi, unfortunately), where we saw wonderful sculptures such as Donatello's Mary Magdalene, and Michelangelo's Pieta, which were all unforgettable. In our spare time, Randall and I visited the Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno River, which has to be one of the most famous bridges in Europe. All we had was an afternoon, dinner, and one night at the Auto Park Hotel. It just doesn't seem fair to go to Florence and have so little would be better if the powers that be allowed us more time for travel.

What never failed to impress me about Italy is the way they eat! Eating Italian food at any hotel or restaurant is an elaborate affair that takes time. At first I thought I was getting extra fancy service, with so many courses and dishes being set before me, and with live music being performed by guitar and violin. Usually, a dish would be whisked away by an attending waiter and replaced with another, before I could finish the whole plate. I had no idea there were so many courses to a meal, but it was like that with every full-course meal! It was the normal Italian way, and usually by the eighth course, you were very stuffed, and the music was about to lull you to sleep. This was the best example of Italian efficiency, because there was no other recognizable equivalent. Just about everything else is the exact opposite of efficient!

Roger at Greek/Roman amphiteater

In March 1991, I visited the island of Sicily, on a bus tour right across the middle of the island, coming from Malta by catamaran. The scenic countryside was dotted with innumerable orange groves and olive trees. The half-full bus was led by a tour guide, a thirty-something British lady, who seemed to enjoy her job and liked telling jokes about the Carabinieri (a division of the police that is not always taken very seriously). Overall, the tour was a good investment because we got to see a lot of Sicily in a short amount of time. The tour included a visit to Mt. Etna, an 11,000 foot high volcano, which was capped in snow and still in skiing season, though strewn with lava remains everywhere which gave it a dirty appearance. We went as high as the snow line to a level where there were shops, a restaurant, and ski lifts. It was cold up there, but back down on the mainland of Sicily the temperature was a comfortable 70-75 degrees F.

Next, we visited the chic coastal town of Taormina, the former haunt of wealthy northerner's, where there is an authentic Greek/Roman amphitheater perched on a seaside cliff. Driving into Taormina was like entering an exclusive community with its singularly curvy road, tunnels, toll booths and elevation above the beaches. It was quite a thrill to explore the amphitheater on foot and to take in the view. Further inland, you could see Mt. Etna, with its permanent wisp of smoke at the cone, but I don't think you could see Italy across the strait of Messina because of haze. Feeling hungary, we then lunched on personal pizzas at a typical outdoor cafe table, and people watched, as I attempted to write a postcard to my parents.

From nearby, our tour group re-assembled and we made a slow walk back to the bus. Our tour bus then drove down the east coast to Catania, a crowded city full of old Mediterranean architecture, near dusk, and then back down to the Port of Ragusa for the boat back to Malta. This was actually a daytrip from Malta that I made with a friend of mine named Robert (an American who was working in Northampton, England at the time). We were picked up by a Virtu Ferry Express van near our flat in Malta at 5:30 a.m. and returned a little after 12:00 midnight, so it was quite a long daytrip. The only close call we had all day was at Port of Ragusa Customs, as we were about to board the catamaran to go back to Malta. Robert, in a momentary lapse of discretion, tried to act smart-alecky in front of the Mafioso-looking customs men--a bad idea--but luckily nothing happened. I could have slapped him for that! But instead, I gently told him in no uncertain terms, to never do that again!

Each of my trips to Italy and Sicily were eye-opening glimpses into the wonderful richness that is Italian culture. I wish I had more time to spend there, of course. To be able to spend more time there and indulge one's self would really be fantastico!

"The air of this place seems to penetrate the draws you, raises you, excites you." --Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writing about Tuscany

"She is the Shakespeare of cities--unchallenged, incomparable, and beyond envy." --John Addington Symonds, describing Venice

"Rome was a poem pressed into service as a city." --Anatole Broyard

"The Romans park their cars the way I would if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap." --Bill Bryson, in Neither Here Nor There

Florence tourist information
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