When I was in college in the 80’s many of my fellow students were taking a semester to study abroad. They returned with amazing stories of living in places like Rome, Florence, Paris and Barcelona.
The experiences they shared about their trips to Italy especially resonated with me – art museums filled with the work of some of the world’s great masters, ancient and rich history, natural beauty, incredible food, and gracious Italian hospitality. I was so envious, because as a science major none of the classes would transfer and fulfill the requirements of my degree. Unfortunately, my own trip to Italy, and travel in general would have to wait.
Even though I had every intention to “get to it later,” my life took twists and turns that kept travel to Europe out of my reach. When travel would have been feasible, I let responsibilities and work commitments take precedence.
Finally, I reached an age that afforded me a greater perspective and an awareness that you don’t have all the time in the world, so I planned the long-awaited trip to Italy this past May. My younger son Kevin was excited to travel with me and I paid the deposit for the tour as quickly as I could to savor every moment of anticipation.
Our adventure started in Rome for 2 days with the requisite visits to the Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Pantheon. Our tour guide made a point of showing us a former building site in the middle of bustling Rome where the remnants of four ancient temples were unearthed when digging the foundation for a high-rise apartment building.
Whenever you dig in Rome you find layers and layers of history largely as a result of the regular flooding of the Tiber River. The floods deposited silt and debris into the damaged stone buildings that were then used as foundations for new construction.
As ruins have been discovered and excavated, the old and the new coexist as a daily reminder of those who came before and the role they played in present-day history. Our guide made more than one reference to the layers of architecture in Rome being like a lasagna – an analogy that transcends any language barriers.
Then we were off to Tuscany to spend a day in Lucca and on to Volterra for two nights. Our guide in Lucca was especially passionate about Italian history and reminded us that Italy voted to become a republic only in 1946 as a statement against their monarchy, which had supported the fascist dictator Mussolini. The history of Italy is intertwined with constant conflict over an imbalance of wealth, power, taxation, and the use of natural resources – which all sounded so eerily familiar and current.
Before the formation of the Italian republic, average citizens faced outbreaks of disease, scarcity of food, corrupt politicians, crowded housing, lack of access to education, and an unrelenting desire to better their lives. One shared theme in our world history is the universal struggle of people seeking to claim ownership of their own destiny.
Getting off the bus in the ancient Etruscan town of Volterra was a surreal experience as it felt stepping into a movie set filming a Romeo and Juliet movie. We had to keep reminding ourselves that we were in a real place. Volterra is home to people who are somewhat blissfully unaware that not everyone lives in an area with so much history, beauty, and architecture that has survived virtually intact for centuries.
My son was fascinated with the huge wooden doors on the buildings and he took quite a few photos of the distressed wood and the patina of the metal door knockers and handles. The locals seemed a bit amused at the “Americanos” who wanted photos of their front doors. I will remember Volterra as having the most delicious pesto, the creamiest gelato, and as the place that I tasted “Super Tuscan” wines in an underground cave.
It also wouldn’t be the last time that Italians expressed their confusion about some of our ways. The most common observation we heard was the disbelief that Americans think it’s acceptable to walk and drink coffee at the same time. Italians drink small cups (very small – their cups are the size of a child’s tea set) of strong coffee in the morning either sitting down or standing at a counter – but they stay still.
Several Italians explained to us that their morning coffee is a time to take a few deep breaths or to think about their day – not a time to rush off to work gripping a huge coffee in a disposable cup. I laughed and agreed with them – and then told them that if that is their biggest complaint about Americans, I think they’re being incredibly gracious. Then it was their turn to chuckle politely.
After 2 days in magical Volterra, we drove the winding roads to the Cinque Terre and stayed in Monterosso. I’m not sure that there are words capable of doing justice to this area. No trip to Italy would be complete without experiencing the towns of the Cinque Terre.
We planned to hike on the famous Sentiero Azzurro or “Blue Trail” along the coast. We had no real plan about how far we would go, but we ended up hiking the entire path from Vernazza back to Monterosso. The hike was both delightful (Italians playing the accordion and selling fresh orange juice along the way and small waterfalls appearing seemingly out of nowhere) and incredibly challenging (narrow paths with dizzying drop-offs and times that we had to literally crawl over large rocks) but we can forever say that we completed the longest and most difficult part of the trail. I was passed a few times by incredibly fit Swedish grandmothers, but I attributed it to their incredibly long legs and their use of hiking poles – two things I lack.
When I think of the Cinque Terre, I will always remember how the sun sets into the Mediterranean Sea as it laps along the rocky beaches, fishing boats bobbing in the water, eating simple but incredibly delicious food in outdoor cafes, and the peaceful sound of church bells in the late afternoon.
We ended our trip to Italy in Florence to enjoy the Renaissance art of the Accademia, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, and the Uffizi Gallery. The breathtaking moment of your first glimpse of the David when you can truly appreciate the size and scale of what is indisputably Michelangelo’s magnum opus.
The magnificent bronzes, the impressive public fountains, and the doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni aptly named the “Gates of Paradise.” Our hotel had been a 12th century palace near the Ponte Vecchio with one of the few remaining towers and a rooftop terrace offering dramatic 360 views of the city.
The history in Florence made me reflect back on the wisdom of our tour guide in Lucca when he expressed his views that our differences as individuals and as communities challenge us to grow and to become more accepting of others. Looking back to our history is not just seeking solace in wistful nostalgia. You don’t want or need to stay tethered to the past, but re-examining history shows us where we faced similar struggles – and how we overcame them.
Maybe the fact that younger generations have no first-hand memories of intense hunger, seeing places they love and cherish reduced to rubble, and the fear of not having basic things like fresh water or medical care has distanced us from the realities of both homeland and global conflict.
Perhaps the most timely and profound sentiment of the entire trip was an Italian saying we heard in Lucca: “We all live under the same sun.” It’s easy to see differences in people and to give in to judgmental feelings. It’s harder to try to understand other people and cultures and to find the ways in which we are similar. Thinking about us all waking to the same sun and closing our eyes under the same moon distills it to its most basic level. Italy is a remarkable place that makes it a bit easier to find our common ground as citizens of a complex world we all share.