Debra Darvickenhance your now in word and image
Of all the places we visited, Florence was the most familiar and brought back the most memories from prior visits — once during college and then with friends in the mid-nineties. We arrived late in the evening and took a quick walk to the Piazza del Duomo before walking back to our hotel. To the left is Giotto’s Bell Tower a freestanding tower that is part of the Florence Cathedral.
Pandemic restrictions meant that when we visited the Galleria dell’Academia, we could see the David right up close. No tourists ringed five deep jostling for a view and a photo. What can one say about this magnificent sculpture that hasn’t been said before? I think no words at all. I will simply offer awe and gratitude that Michaelangelo Buonarotti was born and answered an unceasing call to create. That at the age of 26, he turned the world of sculpture on its head when his chisel met a new block of marble. That he lived to the age of 88 and up until nearly his final breath labored to wrench meaning and narrative from stone.
Our three hours in the Uffizi passed quicker than the Arno flows beneath the Ponte Vecchio. The collections have been reorganized in such a way that a visitor can move through the entire museum methodically and easily. It also helped that, as with viewing the David, there were many fewer people than normal. The most poignant moment was watching a docent describe a statue to a sightless man who moved his (archivist gloved) hands over the statue as the docent spoke. There are many ways to appreciate works of art.
I spent a lot of time in the portrait galleries, taking in the reality that the artists’ subjects had all lived once upon a time. I’ll share these two by the Italian artist Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo, 1503 – 1572). Centuries later, the subjects’ faces are still luminous; their clothes look as if they’ve just been taken from the wardrobe.
Little Bia (Bianca) de Medici, the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I de’Medici, died soon after her portrait was painted. The use of the deep blue against her white dress takes my breath away. This shade of blue was often requested by those commissioning portraits and other paintings. The paint, made from crushed lapis lazuli, was quite costly, a detail recognized by the Joneses of the day and those trying to keep up with them.
In contrast to little Bia’s portrait, Bronzino placed his subject, Lucrezia Panciatichi, against a barely discernable background. To my eye, this choice “disembodies” her. She doesn’t seem anchored. But oh those sleeves…
In Florence, as everywhere else, we spent much of our days walking through history, crossing ancient bridges, passing under arches and marveling at how much that was old was also completely contemporary.
Now let’s head to the Amalfi Coast!
Photo of Giotto’s Belltower courtesy of Martin Darvick.
Others on this page courtesy of Debra Darvick.
A nighttime gondola ride from the train station. The Bridge of Sighs. Getting lost from one canal to another. Gondoliers dressed in their striped shirts. Getting lost crossing another bridge. Watching a graduation ceremony in St. Mark’s Square. Bumping into graduates, still wearing crowns of flowers and leaves, all day and congratulatingthem. The Basilica of Saint Mark. Venice was magical. Venice was sensuous, all those feathered masks and mystery. A quick visit to Murano and then on to Burano, an island in the Venetian Lagoon.
Burano was delightful. Every house is painted a different color, and now two neighboring homes can be the same color. With its pinks, blues, oranges, reds, violets, yellows, Burano resembles a child’s drawing come to life. It’s also a dream come true to a color swooner like me. We walked round and round this island village sighing, exclaiming and smiling in delight.
As I photographed yet another irrestible scene, a man called out to me from his window. “Buon giorno!” he said. “Buon giorno!” I replied. He launched into an explanation of his town. “There is no crime here because everyone is so happy.” I’m not sure if that’s what I really heard, but it sure makes sense. How could anyone be nefarious in such an effervescent place?
Here are a few more. Enjoy!
On to Florence!
All photos courtesy of Debra Darvick.
Milan felt quite sophisticated, as one might expect from a city known as a center for finances, couture and opera. The men and the women were spectacularly dressed. It was as if every sidewalk was a runway.
A highpoint of Milan was our climb to the top of the roof of the Duomo di Milano, the Milan Cathedral. Begun in 1368, the catyhedral took six centuries to complete. It was a surprisingly easy climb considering we ascended 250 feet to reach the parapet. There is no better view of Milan. Martin and I circled the multiple levels again and agin and still there was no way to take in the 3,300 statues, gargoyles and spires
This sculpture by Michaelangelo, his last, moved me greatly. He worked on it up until his dying days. This is the third iteration, Michelangelo having hacked at the marble block until nothing remained of the origial sculpture but Christ’s (disembodied) right arm. This is such a departure from others of his work. This was haunting. The facial features are blurry. It feel like a piece in progress, unfinished, hazy.
Naturally, one assumes that Mary is mourning her dead son’s body, and undoubtedly this is what inspired Michaelangelo. But what if she is being carried on her son’s back? What if she is so bereft she cannot manage to walk another step? It got me thinking how, in one way or another, we all carry upon our backs the pain and tragedy of those who have come before us.
Photos courtesy of Debra Darvick
Or should one say, “How were Cinque Terre?”
Here’s what I knew from friends’ descriptions of Cinque Terre — it was a string of utterly charming villages perched high above the Mediterranean and connected by a terrifying, heart-stopping, non-insurable unguardrailed narrow path. Having now visited tre of the cinque, I utterly agree with the charming part and was thrilled that the paths were closed for repairs.
With the paths closed, we traveled between the villages by train and boat. There are no roads connection them. Thankfully, wise heads prevailed to preserve Cinque Terre’s unique charms. The entire area has been declared a national park as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We visited Montarosso al Mare, Vernazza and Manarola. Montarossa, the largest of the villages was my favorite. Like its neighbors, Montarosso is built into a series of hills planted with olives, lemons and grapevines. Still today, the olives are harvested by hand (hands belong to sixty-, seventy- and eighty-year-olds!) and walked down the hills in large baskets where they are processed. Laundry hung from windows to dry. Fishing boats lined the quai and even in October plenty of sunbathers soaked up the rays and dashed into the crystal clear aqua water to cool off. Montarossa, has the only sizable sand beach of the five villages, earning it the nickname of the Ligurian Riviera.
The pastel-colored houses lining Montarosso’s medieval stone streets snake up the hills like lines of dominos. Hundreds of years ago, Montarossa and the other villages were regularly targeted by pirates. Up until the raids began, the homes had only a front door. In defense, backdoors were cut into the homes giving villagers an escape route by weaving front to back through the houses all the way up the hills and into hiding. Our guide grew up in Liguria where the houses follow much the same configuration. She told us that she and her friends would play hide and seek, going from house to house all the way up the mountain, in much the same way their ancestors ran from the pirates.
And now, on to Milan!
Photos courtesy of Martin Darvick
You cannot have a bad meal in Italy. Period. From small cafes to the fanciest restaurant, every meal was prepared with fresh ingredients and was a delight to consume The house wines were smooth. The pasta dishes had body, a great “mouth feel.” The desserts were delizioso. Keeping kosher meant I stayed on the fish, pasta and vegetable side of the menu. Pure heaven.
Martin, while not hewing to the rules of kashrut, went to town enjoying the incredible seafood dishes Italy is known for.
We had some great pizzas, amazing parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmesan) and my newfound fave — pepe e cacio, which is an Italian take on mac’n’cheese. Saying that, however, is akin to saying Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is a painting of a naked woman standing in a seashell. The pasta was light, the four cheeses (cacio) were smooth and the pepper (pepe) gave the dish a memorable kick. We tried each region’s specialty — trofie al pesto (from Liguria’s twists of handmade pasta) to carciofo alla guidia (artichoke the Jewish way) in Rome. It was good but not as rave worthy as we’d been told.
In Amalfi, we sampled the region’s beloved dessert Delizia al Limone — a mound-shaped spongecake filled with lemon cream, dolloped with limoncello-infused whipped cream and topped with a strawberry. I challenge you to look at a tray of these Delizia’s and not see breasts. This is not accidental as the cakes are a tribute to Saint Agatha. Hers was a pretty grim story but her suffering is celebrated with this delicious anatomical confection. (I don’t know what it is about Europeans and their penchant for creating desserts to honor nuns and their bodily parts and functions but there you have it. The French serve pets de nonne, nuns’ farts, akin to a beignet but smaller. )
Italian hotel breaksfasts were surprisingly ample and varied. They reminded me of Israeli breakfasts — fresh fruits and vegetables, salads, wonderful breads and cheeses — with the bonus of Italian pastries. I even had a daily cappucino. (Those who know me well, know that I don’t drink coffee. But when in Rome…And Naples and Florence and Venice and Sorrento!)
As you will read elsewhere we enjoyed a daily gelato and sampled tiramisu from region to region. You can’t go to Italy and not indulge in the country’s gustatory pleasures. Besides, we were clocking close to seven miles each day. Surely that worked off a strand or two of pasta.
Ready for some sightseeing? Next up…Rome.
All photos courtesy of Martin Darvick.
Fabulous. Amazing. Wonderful. I’m not given to sports analogies, but Martin knocked it out of the park. And then some. I won’t give you a day by day description, but will offer somewhat ordered stream-of-conscious impressions and memories. In the Bookshelf, Martin mentioned Firebird Tours who provided the tour. They get huge shouts out from me as well. This was our third attempt to take a trip that had been in the planning since early 2019. They went above and beyond; every staff member responded to our concerns patiently and with good information. I cannot recommend Firebird highly enough.
Traveling during a pandemic
What was planned for a spring 2020 40th anniversary celebration finally happened in the fall of 2021. There was a lull in Covid cases. Italy’s vax stats were much better than those in the U.S. We set off with some trepidation and yet once we arrived we felt more at ease than in the States. Entry into the country required proof of two vaccinations and negative Covid test results no more than 72 hours before arrival. Proof of vaccinations were requested in restaurants, shops, and museums. In addition to verifying our vax status, the hotels also took a quick temp check before we could register. Mask compliance inside any building was universal.
Everywhere we went, we were thanked for coming to Italy. The country was hit hard, fast, and early in the pandemic. Tourism evaporated. During our three weeks, we encountered no other Americans save for those on our trip and two couples in Como. As I write today, the overseas travel situation has changed. We hit a sweet spot for which we are eternally grateful.
Language was no barrier. Everyone spoke English and with my French and Spanish I was able to decode what was written. I could understand directions, order in restaurants and even make out bits and pieces of conversations. My attempts at speaking Italian were appreciated even when I guessed at a cognate from French or Spanish. One of our guides complemented my Italian accent, saying that most Americans she encountered couldn’t manage it. Made me feel like a million Euros.
All I can say is that is was flawless. Sunny nearly every day. Two hours of rain one day. Warm to cool needing only a sweater. Perfetto!
Italians are delightful. When they speak it sounds like champagne bubbles. They are warm, welcoming, and their joie de vivre is contagious. We clicked nearly immediately with one couple on the tour. Randy and Katrina, who were close to our ages, were on their honeymoon. They were as enthusiastic about walking and exploring as we were. Enjoyment is always multiplied when shared with others and the two of them added so very much to our experience.
Like the hotels, the trains were first class. Never crowded, complimentary treats (sweet, savory, and wine if you like), and fast! My ears popped a time or two. If only we could do this in America.
Read on — How Was the Food?
Photos courtesy of Martin Darvick