Where's Sam the Man

48 countries, 12 months, one man, half a brain

Name: Samuel Hathaway
Location: Roaming..., Germany

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Italia

Italy is difficult to generalize about. I was told that Italians identify more closely with their region rather than with their country as a whole, with distinct traditions and languages creating clear boundaries. My 2 and half week blast through Italy didn't allow me to savor each difference as I should have, but I did notice the changes as I traveled. So, rather than try to sum up the trip, I have tried to explain the different characters of the places I visited.

Venezia, or Venice -- It lived up to every ballad, poem, or fairy tale written about it. Wandering its streets, you can't believe that humans actually conceived a city as magical as this; it must have been elves, or some people with an otherworldly sense of romance and beauty. As soon as you leave the train station, industry and cold reality are lost in an enchanted labyrinth. Buildings start, stop, connect, separate, grow, shrink, leap, and crouch in a completely random manner, creating a pastel-colored, cobblestone maze that continually delights you with strange twists and hidden treasures. You cannot come to a disappointed end in this maze, however. The dead-ends are marble gondola moorings, hidden courtyards, an ancient fish market, a tiny pink chapel wedged between two homes, an miniature opera house...

What really adds the magic, though, are the canals. They drift throughout the city, scattering light on the ancient stone walls and wafting the perfume of sea water into the narrow alleys. The truth is, these liquid streets are actually the only way to get around. There are the elegant, touristy gondolas, of course, but there are also vaporetti (public water buses), elegant water taxis, delivery boats, private boats, etc. Hundreds of little docks are scattered throughout the city for this traffic. It's fantastic to see the romantic of idea of getting around by boat actually to be true.

Milano, or Milan -- Although we left it pleasantly surprised, initially it was a disappointment. The city is famous for being the center of fashion, but I found the main shopping drags to be rather humble in comparison to other elite cities such as London or Zürich. To be fair, though, I saw stores selling such things as designer baby carriages, so for sheer diversity of luxury Milano was impressive. Perhaps it's famous for being a design center, and not a retail center?

What really impressed us, though, was a completely unexpected trip to the duomo (cathedral). The outside was incredible enough. Instead of the typical dead, grey stone I had been seeing on major buildings up to that point, the duomo was made of a glowing white stone that fountained up into brilliant spires. It had real life. Nothing prepared for the inside, though. Walking into the belly of the third largest church in the world, I was actually awed into silence. The sheer immensity of the building must be seen to be believed. Columns the size of redwoods silently rear up in rows on either side, disappearing into the black void above your head, making you feel as small as you ever will. The decoration was simple, but any elaboration would have cheapened it, I think. It's starkness added to its majesty. As many churches as I've seen up to this point, this one takes the cake.

Cinque Terre -- It was a delicious breath of sea air after the cities. The name actually refers to an area on Italy's western coast, now protected as a national park. It's a coast of exceptional natural beauty. Hills lush with cactus, pines, lemon trees, herbs, olive orchards, and wildflowers rise up steeply to dive dramatically into the vivid blue of the Mediterranean. Sheltered along the coast are five (cinque) tiny, pastel-colored villages of plaster and stone, which are either cosily nestled into small harbours on the water or breathtakingly perched on a cliff edge. The tradition is to hike from village to village along the coast, on small dirt paths which lead you past romantically crumbling chapels, ancient stone farmhouses, forgotten shrines to the Madonna, and magnificent sea views. And although the towns are becoming more "discovered" by tourists, there is still a strong sense of community. Unlike Venezia, you actually felt like you were experiencing the country. The locals loved sharing their town with you -- especially then during Holy Week, when everyone was excitedly preparing for the local festivities. A wonderful stop.

Roma, or Rome -- It wasn't so much grand as...a grand disappointment. Not much has changed since Roman times; the ruins have just grown. There is none of the cleanliness I found in Berlin; instead, every public space was defiled by layer after layer of graffiti and grunge. There is none of the color that I found in Prague; instead, the buildings alternate between dirty browns and pea-yellows. There is none of the harmony with nature that I found in Stockholm; instead, a weary Tiber River pushes plastic bottles up and down the banks. The shops were boarded up, the streets were loud, and the only impressive buildings were the ancient ones -- and even they weren't in great shape. And expensive! What am I paying for, exactly?

Admittedly, the ruins were cool. I had seen the ruins of Efes (Ephesus) in Turkey, but the sheer scale of these buildings put them in a different league. If the remains are this awesome, then I can only imagine what it would feel to wander the streets of Roma in its glory days.

Città del Vaticano, or Vatican City -- To be politically correct, I suppose I should put the it in a separate paragraph, seeing as it is an autonomous state.

After what I had seen of Roma, I wasn't prepared to be impressed, but within a few minutes of touring the Vatican I was excited. A few minutes later, I was amazed. Not long after, I was floored. Peterhof is a magnificent palace, the Hofburg is an incredible treasury, and the Prada has a priceless art collection, but they are all public displays and separate, public institutions. The Vatican City unites the rooms, gold, and the art of these three behemoths into one private collection! Incredible! Elaborately, intricately gilded hallways house row after row of gigantic mosaics, then tapestries, then ancient sculptures (the greatest collection in the world), then gold crucifixes, then artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia, then costumes...and that's before you see the Rafael-frescoed apartments, the Michelangelo-painted Sistine Chapel, and the glittering tomb of Saint Peter. You have to see it to believe it. An that was only a fraction of the Vatican's hoard! We never saw the museums dedicated to Egypt, the Roman Empire, the Etruscans, the Pope's carriages, modern Christian art...to name but a few.

The basilica itself was impressive, though more for it's opulence than for it's size (after seeing Milano's duomo). It was interesting to see St. Peter's supposed resting place and Michelangelo's Pieta (yup, that's here too).

No wonder the Vatican City wanted to be seperate from Roma. It definitely justified the trip the area.

Napoli, or Naples -- I have read in every guide book up to this point about the incredible energy here. Now that I've been there, I'm still not sure if it's energy or chaos.
It's Italy's third largest city, bit it has none of the sprawling parks, spacious plazas, or wide boulevards that allow the other cities to stretch out and relax. This city is an ants nest of chaos and activity. The streets of Napoli are tiny alleys that condense all of the energy into such a small space that everybody and everything is ricocheting off each other. Balconies, laundry lines, ancient scaffolding, and bird cages pile on top of the streets, turning them into narrow tunnels which cut between the crumbling stone buildings. These dark passageways gave me the most trouble to navigate out of any city yet. They spiral everywhere, branching apart, swooping up, coming together, diving down, and dead-ending in a most impossible manner.

And then there are the ants in the tunnels. Cars run bumper to bumper all day, while Vespas zip around them. Vespas have the real advantage, because if the going gets slow they can just hop up onto the sidewalk and swerve through the pedestrians (I saw this happen). Traffic lights blare vainly to control the steady flow, but the crowd seems not to notice. Neopolitans never wait for a pedestrian crossing, but just dive into the flow and press on resolutely in front of the vehicles. The drivers, thankfully, show remarkable courtesy for this, and always stop.

Overall, it was an incredible tour through one of the cultural giants of the world. To see the tombs of such intellectual giants as Machiavelli and Galileo, architectural masterpieces such as the cathedrals in Firenze (Florence) and Milano, and cities with such global influence as Roma and Milano was a real thrill. Few countries seem to have excelled and influenced the world in so many different fields as Italy, and it was fascinating to see it from the inside out.

That said, it definitely was not the place of beauty and romance that I had heard about. Perhaps at one time it was, but that place is back in the history books with Romulus and Remus. The grunge, disorganization, and poverty made it seem more like an Eastern European country than a Western one. At least the ones in the East have the excuse of Communist oppression -- what's Italy's? Admittedly, things like bitter cold and rain on Easter Sunday at the Vatican might give a more negative impression. But when a train leaves half of its cars at the train station (including the ones we were on), with only a passerby gesturing madly to alert everyone, something must be off.

But I still love my Vivaldi.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was listening to "Cieco, Cieco Barber" and thought of you. Was your Euro-chic haircut well received by the natives? I find it interesting to hear that Italy, especially Rome, isn't as exciting as I envision it to be (Alyssa wasn't so impressed when she went either). However, the fine Italian wine isn't lacking, I'm sure, along with the nightlife.
I can't begin to conceive of the life you've lived the past 9-10months and eagerly await your return with all of the captivating stories you'll have accrued. I hope it's been all you've imagined and more, and if you feel so moved, do tell -- my e-mail is precious_friend329@hotmail.com.
~Abby Smith

April 20, 2008 2:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vlad, also a Vivaldi lover, continues to mourn the dearth of current information from this far more than half a man blogger. It is now more than 52 days since the last post, a veritable lifetime of events, sensations and experiences difficult to chronicle after the passage of this much time. Tho this delay may result in a greater clarity of perspectives, those hungry for your insights still wait .

May 20, 2008 7:41 AM  
Blogger Keith Olson said...

Yeah, what anonymous said...

May 28, 2008 7:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vlad is concerned about the absence of your posted positively pleasant perceptive perspectives, more than two months after the last terrific one...did you fall in love or something?

June 10, 2008 8:00 AM  
Blogger Dijana said...

I see you left out Croatia out of your European tour, or am I wrong? BTW, do you remember me?;)

October 11, 2009 4:28 PM  
Blogger Samuel said...

Dijana??? How great to hear from you! Of course I remember you! :-D You're the brilliant Crotian girl who could speak English like a native, was on the Speech Team in the Informative Speaking catagory (I think...or was it another one?...), and was a great friend of mine. How are you, my dear? Shoot me an e-mail when you have the chance: hathaway.samuel@gmail.com I hope you're well :-)

October 12, 2009 4:53 AM  
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January 29, 2010 3:42 AM  

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