Saturday, October 2, 2010

When in Rome (and Venice and Florence and Siena).

For almost as long as I can remember, I've had a yearning to go to Italy.  Thanks to my dedicated teacher in elementary school who first introduced me to art (yes, in elementary school!) and movies like Roman Holiday, A Room With a View, even Ben Hur, Italy took on something of a mystique--with the sprawling countryside, ancient ruins and the beginning of the RenaissanceIn my mind, Italy was a magical land of beauty and culture, rich in history and creativity.  It was a dream, and I almost wanted to save my first trip to Italy for something really special, maybe even something like a honeymoon.  But this year, this was going to be the year for me to finally make the trip I've always wanted to make--and it had nothing to do with Eat Pray Love (which I've never read nor have I seen the movie).  Going to Italy in and of itself is pretty special, and really, what was I waiting for?

Three of my girlfriends and I embarked on our own Italian adventure.  Given work schedules and time restraints, we had seven days to tackle four cities: Venice, Florence, Siena and Rome.  We plotted out each day in advance to maximize our limited time, visiting churches, museums, historical sites--all the while making sure we also ate the best Italy had to offer.  And we were able to get in some valuable shopping time.

Our time in Venice was cloudy and cold, which was a little unexpected for the time of year, but it didn't detract from the beauty of the city and its old-world charm.  Making our way through the winding alleyways and taking the vaporetto, I could almost envision Venetians going about their daily lives, transporting their goods on gondolas.  I don't think they were always used to serenade tourists.  Going to the fish market early in the morning, a Venetian merchant befriended us and gave us each a kiss (on the cheek).

I remembered the picturesque cinematography of A Room With a View and how Sandra Bullock's character in While You Were Sleeping longed to get her passport stamped with "Florence", which made me anxious for what was in store for us when we reached the city.  This was the city of the David, after all.  Seeing the Duomo for the first time literally knocked the wind out of me.  I was in complete awe of the detailed work, size and beauty of the structure.  Visiting the Duomo Museum, Academia and Uffizi made me acutely aware that I was in the company of incomparable brilliance.

Our one day jaunt to Siena proved to be an escape into yet another bygone time and era.  Upon entering the streets of Siena, with the high castle-like walls and medieval flags, I could picture myself wearing a corseted gown, perhaps walking among knights?  Yet the streets were dotted with modern, anachronistic boutiques like Max Mara and Benetton.  We chanced upon a hidden bakery that had incredible ricciarelli (almond cookies, a local favorite, that I'm hoping to replicate some day), and had lunch at a quaint restaurant that still hand-wrote their menus.  Admittedly, though, we spent some of the afternoon helping the Siena economy by paying a visit to the (anachronistic) shops.

Energetic and vast, Rome encapsulated thousands of years of civilizations.  We could catch the masses of tourists by the iconic Trevi Fountain or walk along excavations of ruins surrounding the imposing Colosseum, and a few blocks away, visit the galleria with the latest Italian fashion.  Vatican City (especially St. Peter's and the Sistine Chapel), the Roman Forum, the Villa Borghese, and so many other sights were awe-inspiring, but discovering Trastavere became a welcome reprieve to the bustling activity and sensory overload of Ancient Rome.

Did I come away from my Italian adventure with any revelations or epiphanies (a la Eat Pray Love)?  With all the sightseeing, I wasn't left with much time to ponder my existence or the meaning of life--and maybe that was a good thing, because this life isn't just about me, and maybe I needed to simply soak in centuries of history and the legacy they've left behind.  Returning from a trip like this is always something of a let-down, going back to the everyday routine of work and errands, where the most exciting thing in the neighborhood might be the opening of a Pinkberry in a nearby mini-mall.  I didn't mention much about the food (which could be a whole other post on its own)--I miss all the pasta, paninis, pizza, gelato already.  But this is the life I'm given, which has plenty that I am grateful for.  Every so often, escaping to any foreign land is a good idea, if anything to remind us that there is a world beyond our own existence and to inspire our imagination.

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