Italy Part 2: Florence and Rome

I reluctantly left Venice and the three of us travelled on to Florence – Firenze to give it its Italian name – and aside from a slight hiccup involving getting off the last train a stop to early, we found our hotel. We didn’t have time to do more than check in and drop of our bags in our deliciously spacious room before we went out again. The train ride from Florence to Pisa was made that much more interesting by the train being double decker. Why such trains aren’t common place in England I don’t know. I spent most of the journey wriggling in excitement over being upstairs. On a train. Upstairs!

The Leaning Tower of Pisa did not disappoint. The ‘keep off the grass signs’ were, however, a waste of paint. The grass was being trampled by crowds of excitable tourists. Until eventually someone had the clever idea to turn the sprinklers on. Arlo suspects that they overhead him suggesting it. We climbed the narrow, slanting steps to the top of the tower and peered over the railings. Because of the tilt, it gives the uncomfortable sensation of falling, even while your feet are firmly planted on the ground. After descending from the tower, Arlo fulfilled his dream of eating pizza in Pisa. I think for him that was the best day of the holiday.

Arlo spent the following day in the hotel room while Narnie and I explored Florence. Our hotel was by the river Arno, close to the historic town centre, so it was easy to follow the river down to Ponte Vecchio – a medieval bridge with shops still built along it. Back in Medieval times, butchers shops lined the bridge, but the tendency for carcasses to be tossed into the river, and the smell, meant that these were later replaced by jewellers.

From Ponte Vecchio we walked through the Gardens and up a steep climb to Piazza Michelangelo where a bronze casting of the statue of David stood proudly. For Narnie it was love at first sight. The view from our perch on the hill was stunning. The city surrounded by the hills of the Tuscan countryside.
The casting of the Statue of David outside the Uffizi gallery

That was the day Arlo decided he’d had enough. Not even the most incredibly thick hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted could persuade him to stay. He booked a flight home for the following evening.

Arlo’s last day was spent at the Galileo museum. The Medici family’s collection of medical and scientific equipment, including Galileo’s telescope was fascinating to see. Although, as a biochemist not a physicist, my favourite part was seeing all the old vials, test tubes and thermometers, not to mention the preserved lab bench. In some ways I’m rather jealous of those long ago scientists, their playthings were so much prettier than their modern day counterparts.

With Arlo gone, Narnie and I visited the gothic city of Sienna. It was stunning. Their version of gothic architecture still so much more colourful than anything I’d seen before. On exploring one of the churches, and bemoaning the lack of angled mirrors to look at the ceilings without getting neck strain, I was most amused to find that one of the names left scrawled in the rock was dated 1901. Graffiti is hardly a new thing.

Before we left Florence, we took a tour of the Uffizi gallery. For me, whose knowledge of Renaissance artists came from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it was a lot to take in. I’m now cultured enough to know the difference between Byzantine, Renaissance and Baroque styles of art….sort of anyway. It helped having Narnie and her knowledge of Art History to explain things too me. We saw the Birth of Venus, which I’m told is a particularly famous painting. From looking at it, I can see why.

From Florence we went to Rome and spent the first night in the one hotel Arlo picked out. A very posh one in ancient Rome. The bed was four poster and the sofa I slept on was bigger and more comfortable than a single bed. We were brought breakfast in the morning, pastries, fruit and yogurt, washed down by a tasty cappuccino. We kept the bread rolls and lemon cake for lunch and, after checking out and stowing away our bags, went to the Coliseum.

The scale was quite incredible. Made all the more so when an information plaque told us only a third was intact. Now it is awe inspiring, in Roman times, covered in white marble, it must have been something else entirely. From the Coliseum we bypassed the long queue in the baking sun at the entrance to Roman Forums and went instead to the far quieter Palatine Hill entrance. Wandering among the ruins it was easy for my imagination to spring to live in an unusually visual way; rebuilding the ruins and turning tourists in crop tops and shorts to Romans in togas and sandals. The cobbled streets were the same ones that those Romans walked on two thousand years ago. From the top of the hill, we got a bird’s eye view of the Roman Forums and decided that for us, that was more enjoyable than actually walking through those ruins too.

The View from Palatine Hill

Those weren’t the only ruins we paid a visit to. We took a high speed train to Naples, then an overcrowded, rickety local one to Pompeii. Like Venice, Pompeii is somewhere I’ve been dreaming of visiting for a long time. It didn’t disappoint. There are stepping stones across the paths where the streets used to flood when the tide came in. Between the stepping stones and up over the stones are deep ruts from chariot wheels. Unlike the ruins in Rome, these never fell into decay, Pompeii was cut off in its prime and somehow felt more alive because of that. Incredibly detailed mosaics still stood intact. Pieces of pottery had been collected and kept in one of the buildings in the main square. Huge vases for carrying cool liquid lined the shelves. Between those shelves stood the things that had attracted me to Pompeii in the first place, the plaster casts. A child, spread-eagled, as if it had been caught asleep. A dog, its limbs horribly twisted, its spine curved, its head turned away, trying desperately to escape the falling ash. It was still more fascinating than disturbing.

Equally fascinating, although in an entirely different way was the Capuchin crypt. An ossuary on the grounds of a museum dedicated to the strange order of Franciscan monks. The walls and ceilings were decorated with the bones of over 3000 long dead friars. In niches built from skulls full skeletons dressed in the simple brown habit the monks wore either stood or lay. It was strange, but not frightening or macabre. The air was cool and still down there. Everything was still, calm, peaceful, certain. Morbid wouldn’t be the right word, there was nothing dark or threatening about it, yet still it stood as a reminder that death is the only certainty there is.

As we came to our last few days in Rome, we paid a visit to the tiny Kadampa Buddhist centre in Trastevere. The resident teacher, Kelsang Cho was very welcoming and showed us into the small meditation hall at the top of a spiral staircase. The sense of calm and peace was exactly what we needed after a day of exploring.

On our last day in Rome, we visited Vatican City. While the Vatican museum is, even including the Uffizi gallery, the most confusing building I’ve ever tried to navigate, it was a fascinating experience. Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ in particular was quite incredible. That tour of course ended up in the Sistine Chapel. Fortunately, being the geek that I am, I read up about it first so I could at least understand what I was looking at. It was about as mindboggling as it was beautiful. 

St Peters Basilica

After the Sistine Chapel we snuck out a back door and took a short cut to St Peters Basilica. Once in there we turned at once for the Pietà.  It’s hard to explain what it was like for me, because even for an atheist, Michelangelo’s Pietà is more than just a stunningly beautiful sculpture. It captured the emotion and the meaning of the moment on so many levels. On one level, there is Mary the mother losing her child, but then at the same time there are these two angelic beings who know that this is the way it has to be and that ultimately it’s for good. Then there is that both Mary and Jesus are young and old at once, that there is purity and wisdom at the same time. It was so perfect it made me cry.

As much as it wasn’t quite the trip I’d imagined it would be, it was wonderful. I came home feeling inspired and far more alive than when I left. I hope that now the Library will be a place I only visit rather than a place I trap myself in. 

Italy Part 1: Milan and Venice

I did promise an Italy post. This is it. I have been home for just over a week and barely had time to catch my breath. That is no bad thing though. Why? Because I’ve been wanting to do things. Because I’ve been getting up in the morning and getting out of bed. Because I’ve managed to somehow, over the course of three weeks in Italy, meander my way out of the Library to find that the walls around my snow globe are much more fragile than the last time I looked.  

The morning we left for Milan, my first thought on waking was ‘I can’t do this.’ I barely said a word in the car. I don’t think I stopped trembling until we were on the plane. In my mind everything was broken down into steps: get to the airport, get through to departures, board the plane, land, passport check, find the bus into Milan and finally, find the hotel. I didn’t let myself think past the next step, it was the only way to keep the wave of panic in check. It was like walking in a dream, everything going so much more easily than I had expected it to, with only a minor hiccup when we reached Milan Central Station and had to find out where to get metro tickets and then find the right platform. We checked in at the hotel, I was still wound so tightly I could barely breathe. As much as I handled the travelling far better than I had expected, the real challenge was finding dinner. I’m uncomfortable eating in public anyway. I’m pathetically awful at talking to people even in English. Arlo isn’t much better.

Hence it took until our third night in Italy before we got a really good pizza.

View of the Duomo in Milan, from the place we ate our first real pizza.

 Arlo, despite all the complaints I have about him, was an expert at navigating the Metro. He got us to the Science museum on our last day in Milan, where oddly enough, we learned about the Netherlands contribution to the global market (apparently mostly potatoes). We also learned how to recycle hairdryers.

The journey from Milan to Venice – via Bologna – was beautiful. There was a lot of graffiti, much of it colourful tagging, but some more artistic. At one station between Milan and Bologna three tumble-down old buildings were made over into mad old men. Further into the journey, after changing at Bologna, the landscape was simply incredible, flat planes of agricultural land then, quite suddenly, huge, tree covered hills. On one a church peaked out like a faery castle. On another, dotted between the trees were ruins of castles of old. Another still fell away sharply leaving a bare cliff face. Stunning.

Then there was Venice – Venezia – itself. I thought, as I wondered over a tiny wooden bridge over one of the smaller canals, that I must have survived my suicide attempt in November so that I could see Venice. For the first time in so, so long, I felt alive. I felt like there was no snow globe, there was only Venice and I was a part of it.

When I was 9 or 10, I read a book – the Thief Lord – set in Venice. ‘Read’ in this context can read as ‘became obsessed with’. I would dream for hours of the floating city of masks. I would wander the streets, cross the canals and chase the pigeons in San Marco in my imagination. Being in Venice gave me the strangest sense of déjà vu. It was exactly the way I had pictured it. The narrow streets. The tall old buildings with crumbling brick work. The golden lions of San Marco. The Vaporetti. Even down to the American tourists in Gondolas. For five days I was walking in a waking dream.

Arlo wasn’t nearly as happy or excited. It is very difficult to be an enthusiastic ball of energy by yourself. For the first couple of days in Venice awe and frustration were at war in my head. On the one hand, I was in Venice, I felt alive; I wanted to spin in circles just so I could stare at everything and smile. On the other hand, there was Arlo, silent and staring at the ground. He gave me so little to go on. When asked what he wanted to do, what time he wanted to get up, if there was anything he wanted to see, he gave me nothing but grunts. Yes I felt alive, but I didn’t have an inexhaustible source of energy. For a change I had enough for myself, but I didn’t have enough to carry the both of us. I didn’t mind that I had sorted out the booking of hotels or that I was the one who worked out the travel plans, but I couldn’t be responsible for him, I wasn’t prepared to make all the decisions and he clearly wasn’t ready to be an independent adult. We were both ready to give in and fly home when, as is her way, Narnie swooped in and fixed things.

With Narnie there to gasp and stare with, it didn’t matter as much that Arlo spent most of the day in non-communicative slumps. He did tend to perk up in the evenings, or when boats were involved. We took a Vaporetto down the Grand Canal from San Marco in the dark. It was beautiful, the lights glittered off the water, the buildings shadowy silhouettes, the night air still warm.

Nothing compared to Venice, as incredible as the rest of the trip was, that city, for all of its tourism – and all the people offering me selfie sticks – stole my heart.