How to Even Start with Italy?

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Not so many weeks ago I called my best friend Mary and told her I’d discovered my bucket list and was relieved to find it had only one item: Go To Italy With Mary.

She keeps asking me whether I thought she’d say yes – let alone say YES! immediately. But who could say no to Italy?

As to how to even talk about Italy, all I can think to do is go in roughly chronological order. I could do houses, flowers, churches, ruins, food, people; but every place and every day held a multitude of those. Might as well meander just as Mary and I did.

[Full, if pathetic, disclosure: I have no sponsors. No one wants to pay me anything or send me freebies. When I mention products or enterprises it is because I’ve used them and they’ve made me happy. If unhappy, well, you know me well enough to know I’ll be telling you about that too. This does not mean I cannot be bought, and anyone who wants to use me for product promotion should give me a try. My eight fans will be a huge boost to your sales.]

We decided to go with a company my spouse’s Uncle Dan has raved about: Untours. We thought it might be nice to have a bedroom and bath for each of us, and the idea of living in apartments in neighborhoods was very appealing. Not to mention stoves, refrigerators, and washing machines.

Untours helps you find a place, become oriented to the city, learn from your guide all manner of interesting trivia you might not otherwise learn about, have the support of staff one cell phone call away (an Untours phone, by the way) and feel like you have a tour guide but no obligation to travel around in a little gaggle of tourists. That kind of plan suited Mary and me just fine. To cut right to the bottom line: we would definitely travel this way again. (In Florence we met a couple on their 17th Untours trip, if that tells you anything.)

I won’t bore you with our decision-making process about exactly where to go in Italy; this part of a trip can be the most fun and the most heart-wrenching when you only have two weeks and there are so many perfect choices. It would be Rome and Florence for us. This time.

I didn’t want to have to decide on a new cell phone before the trip, and I certainly didn’t want one with an installment plan. But I needed a new phone and what can you do? The great thing was that I could travel without a camera and bring you the best images your Unruly Gardener could capture. So thanks, iPhone X and yeah, Apple, you all can sponsor me any time.

Somehow (here the mind casts a merciful veil) we acquired all the reservations we would need to meet at DFW (that’s the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, for those of you unfamiliar with this city-within-a-city) and fly to Rome together. We bought a few museum and train tickets before we left home as well.

Here’s a funny little aside from the very last day of our trip: Mary and I met our top candidates for Greatest Couple in the World while standing in one of the numerous lines required in order to get from one part of the world to another. They mentioned how the name “Rick Steves” had kind of been an eye-rolling experience in the past. You know, like your mother telling you to wear nice underwear in case you’re hit by a bus. Until they read one of his guidebooks.  So there’s some validation for you: when traveling, see what Rick Steves has to say and trust him.

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Our Rome apartment was located in Centro Storico, the area within the old city walls where just about anything you’d want to see on your first visit to Rome is located. This was my second visit and I still wanted to see all the things located here. Maybe after 20 visits I’ll change that; meanwhile I will happily accept all donations toward discovering at which point The Unruly Gardener becomes sick of Centro Storico.

Mary and I hit the ground walking and managed 8-10 miles every day. This was good because with all that walking we only consumed approximately 30,000 extra calories daily. For advice on staying slim while on vacation, this is not your blog.

Over the course of the two weeks, we wandered into and out of many churches. This is an excellent way to view an amazing amount of art for free in Italy. No matter what you think about churches, temples, mosques, or religion in general, they are in part vast texts about human beings. Always of at least two minds about such structures and the institutions they reflect, I managed to be blown away by the art even as but what about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked ran through my mind like a screaming ticker-tape.

In any event, just up Via Vente Settembre from our apartment stands a rather unremarkable-looking church, Santa Maria della Vittoria:

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Well, unremarkable as Rome churches go. And, as so often happens, the interior is remarkable indeed:

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It can be a little overwhelming.

Up in front on your right you will find an interesting installation piece

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involving, as often happens, an angel and an individual who appears to be on the brink of sainthood. Nothing remarkable about that for someone who spent 13 years in Catholic school. What I found captivating was the use of those bronze elements and the window above, creating impressive beams of light.

Now turn around 180 degrees and see a piece (unfortunately swathed in scaffolding for this visit, but it will be worth it for future viewers, I’m sure) by one of my favorite artists of all time, Gian Lorenzo Bernini – whose full name I use because there were an array of very talented Berninis:

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Here is St. Teresa in all her ecstatic glory. This piece also features bronze sunbeams and a well-placed window, and another feature about which I would have known nothing without a Rick Steves guidebook (remind me to take a course in the history of Italian sculpture): on either side of the statue are depicted members of the family who commissioned the piece. This turns out to be a rather common trope that I would see everywhere once I knew to look. A number of artists would include themselves among the viewers. Take that, you selfie shooters who seem to find yourselves so clever and amazing.

All I will say about this statue is: facial expressions, fingers, fabric. There’s an easy mnemonic for you as you try to formulate an essay about Things Some People Could Do With Marble.

I’m not sure how to top having a Bernini three blocks from your apartment, so I’ll merely proceed as a calm neutral even-tempered narrator who only occasionally bursts into tears while walking around Italy. On our first day of meandering in the general direction of the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon, we walked by the Quirinale Palace, a little 110,500 square meter house where a number of notables have resided or hoped to reside (Napoleon never got to move in). As we rounded the corner of the building to go across the – what, the front patio? – I got my first glimpse of Rome in 2018 and couldn’t really breathe for a few seconds.

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I think one of the excellent things about travel is having those moments that surprise you with overwhelming emotion for no particular reason and utterly without warning.

Down the wide steps we walked, downward through streets and alleyways, past the Trevi Fountain where approximately seven million highly original tourists were shooting selfies; into and out of little shops, right on down to the Pantheon – a site that ought to stop you in your tracks no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

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With every intention of stopping back at a beautifully arranged little shop for some dinner supplies, we made the mistake of trusting Google Maps and ended up off course just as the rain started. Free of such miserable constraints as rain jackets or umbrellas, we walked & walked & somehow ended up at the bottom of the Spanish Steps. This was a good thing because we more or less knew our way home from there, and because Keats.

If I tell you that this was precisely when we saw our first rainbow in Rome, you might not believe me and that’s ok. I didn’t take a photo because the rain was still pretty intense and I was too fearful of getting my phone wet, so there are no data other than the ones still planted in my head. More about Keats later.

There’s nothing like having a bathroom for everyone in the party when you arrive home soaked to the skin and definitely on the chilly side. Hot showers, no waiting. And a washing machine to handle the sopping clothes – although I would suggest to all Untours home owners: please anchor a couple of things around the home from which travelers might suspend a travel clothes line without being afraid of causing structural damage. We are very sorry you generally do not have clothes driers, but help us out a little here.

This may have been the evening we ate at Eataly in the Piazza de la Republica. The food was okay; we have a preference for small local spots (more about them later) but we were cold and starving and it wasn’t officially dinner hour yet. Many restaurants in Italy serve lunch 12:30-3:00 or so and then close up until 7 or 7:30 pm.

Anyway, the piazza is one thing that helped us orient ourselves as we explored. Not to mention the Victor Emmanuel Monument sailing into the air on horses’ wings.

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Located in this piazza is the church Santa Maria degli Angeli, built around 300 AD by Diocletian as a massive bath, housing pools, gyms, and all that good stuff. Large enough to handle 3,000 health-seekers at a time, according to Rick Steves. A section of the ruins now houses the church.

I thought I had taken a photo of the exterior, but no such luck. Just believe me when I say it looks absolutely like a ruin: massive, crumbly, dirty brick red. On the inside, a different story. I’ve left a few perfect strangers for scale, because otherwise it would be very difficult to convey:

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I think that may be the main altar, but there are others, all watched over by impressively large saints and angels. Human-sized chairs included this time for scale:

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You wouldn’t have to know how to read in order to get the message: act right or we’ll know about it.

I’d have loved to hear the organ, but visitors are encouraged to remember that worship times are for real worshippers, and I respect that. Maybe on my next visit there will be a conveniently scheduled concert. In this shot you can barely even see the bench on the left of the organ, just in case my assertions about scale have slipped from your memory by now:

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It would be worth all those unpleasant airplane hours just to hear that music pour down from those distant ceilings and reverberate from all those square yards of marble.

A feature of an Untours tour is spending time with your local guide who takes you to an interesting place (places, really) and procures for you a wonderful meal. Our guides were wonderful, filling us in on what life is like in the neighborhood where we were staying, offering lots of local color and making sure we knew what highlights we shouldn’t miss.

Mary our Rome Untour person met with us for a leisurely stroll to Castle Sant’ Angelo so we could have, among other things, a great view of the city. En route we encountered an elderly man who was making pendants out of old coins by cutting them with what looked like a coping saw with a very thin blade. When Mary told him she hadn’t seen him there before, he told her that was because the police keep throwing him out. So I bought one.

We also stopped by one of Mary’s favorite little Rome shops, a place where artisans create tassels. I know, right? But tassels for popes and people who live in Brunei and artists like Versace. He showed us tassels his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had made, still hanging among the samples, barely even faded after all these years.

Finally we found ourselves at the Ponte Sant Angelo.

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I don’t know whether it’s ironic or what, but this is just one of those sure-enough castles (cannons, catapults, chutes for sending burning oil down onto your enemies) that has also served as a papal hideaway during times of upheaval. Every time I try to fit war and religion into the same space I end up walking around in circles in a daze. Trying to make a tomb (Emperor Hadrian’s self-designed tomb, btw) into a fortress into a safe space for popes is more than The Unruly Gardener can manage.

I can handle ancient and massive:

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I’m sure there are video games with locations that look very much like this:

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And of course you would expect finery in a castle:

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I just don’t know what to say about this papal reception space, except I like Pope Francis’s bathrooms for the homeless a whole lot more, just on principle. We’re told such a reception space was necessary for impressing visitors with your wealthstatuspower. Um yeah, ok.

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Here’s where that feed the hungry clothe the naked litany starts running through my head making my ears ring worse than usual. But if you’re going to study history, you’re going to encounter the nature of humanity, so be prepared.

The papal bedroom was an obvious move toward minimalism and humility.

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At least there’s no denying that the castle offers excellent views of Rome, and tour guide Mary had arranged a multi-course “snack” that made me question my solid belief that you cannot have good food and a great view in the same place. In Rome you certainly can.

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Bookmark the Tiber: at some point I’m going to write about an ancient “house” that was abandoned evidently because the river flooded it on the regular. Although this would have been a difficult place to leave behind, just picturing what you’d find in your living room after a river ran through it a couple of millennia ago might clarify your thinking. And we rest assured that the poor displaced family found suitable quarters on higher ground. More on that later.

I’m going to close out this Rome chapter here, since people are no doubt eager to hear whether (not-tour-guide) Mary and I survived our trip and actually made it to Europe and back intact. I will give a happy shout-out to Pacsafe, whose products help me navigate potentially risky locations without becoming pickpocket phobic. On this trip I took a Pacsafe purse and my handy camera backpack; and while there’s no guarantee that no cutpurse will spoil your vacation, it’s nice to have the deterrent aspects of steel mesh, RFID protection, and zippers that lock.

As a last word I want to say that a big theme in my photo-taking this trip was looking for motifs to add to my garden post decorating hobby. Strip away politics, religion, conspicuous consumption and my crabby attitude toward such enterprises and you can still find a virtually endless supply of lovely images to bring home and put to use. Like just a few inches of painted wall at the Castel Sant’ Angelo.

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There’ll be an entire post dedicated to these gems in the near future, perhaps even including a little bit about what I started doing with them on the apparently endless flight home.

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One thought on “How to Even Start with Italy?

  1. Dana says:

    I really enjoyed this blog—interesting and breathtaking pics. I’m glad you and Mary had an interesting—-and safe trip! Love you!

    Like

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