We ate, we drank, we stood, open-mouthed, in front of some of the world’s greatest monuments.
We saw dressed chickens that still had their claws, and skinned rabbits intact from head to toe at the local markets. We heard street corner singers deliver full-throated arias — across the piazza from peddlers coaxing in shoppers with boombox Michael Jackson hits.
The beauty of Michelangelo’s “David” left us close to tears. So did the exchange rate — 10 euros, or more than $13, for two Cokes.
Such are the memories we have of our recent visit to Italy — a kaleidoscope of a country brimming with beauty and what must be the liveliest people on the planet. No Italian merely talks, let alone murmurs. Every conversation is a crescendo. Little wonder Italy is the birthplace of opera.
Our visit began in Venice after a wild boat ride from the airport to our hotel. Approaching the city, our boat slowed, gliding down the canals to our hotel, midmorning sunlight bouncing off the ancient buildings.
The next day we walked to St. Mark’s Square, overrun with tourists and high-tide waters 4 to 6 inches deep. Ever resourceful, the orchestra played on along the dry side of the square, while tourists clambered onto low-rise tables set out to keep them dry as they shuffled into the museums and churches lining the square.
Venice is where I tasted my first gelato — delicious — and ate the best pizza I’ve ever had. It’s also where I caught a cold that would hang with me the rest of the trip. Alas, no gondola ride along those damp canals.
On our fifth morning in Venice, we traveled by train to Florence. Say what you will about Italian efficiency — when it comes to trains, they’ve got it down. Fast, clean, and right on time.
It was raining when we got to Florence, and after a few wrong turns, we and our roll-along luggage staggered into our hotel. Later on, umbrellas no longer needed, we emerged and were greeted with the sight of the enormous Duomo, the Gothic cathedral that dominates all of Florence. We woke to its bell every morning and dined al fresco every evening next to its illuminated marble walls.
After three days of sightseeing — “David,” more museums, the markets — we traveled once again by train: Ninety minutes from Florence to Rome, with the Tuscany vineyards flashing by outside our window.
Outside the train station, we got caught up in the cacophony that is Rome, with taxi drivers jostling for our business. Soon, we were hurtling through traffic, with cars, buses and Vespas seemingly avoiding each other by mere millimeters. Forget “Grand Theft Auto V.” Someone needs to make a Rome traffic survival game.
Soon after checking in, we walked to the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, clogged with tourists but still impressive. On a later visit I would actually get close enough to toss my three coins in the fountain.
On our first full day in Rome, we trudged through the Colosseum with all its brutal undertones, finishing the day with burgers at a Hard Rock Café. (Man does not live by pasta and vino alone.) There, we were served by a trilingual waitress (English, Italian, Spanish) who called me “Hon,” and called Brownsville, Texas, home. Imagine.
The Vatican we did via tour guide, 30 or so of us dutifully following our leader like ducklings through those gilded hallways toward the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” Magnificent all.
Girding up for the long flight home, we spent Sunday, our last day in Rome, as many Italians do: relaxing at the Villa Borghese Gardens, a three-square-mile public park filled with families, young lovers, gelato stands, and the inevitable political rally of one sort or another.
At the park’s highest point, we could see much of the city spread beneath us — a jumble of ancient ruins and Renaissance beauty set inside the modern-day tumult of Rome and its 3 million souls.
Ciao, Roma. Ciao, Italy.