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Doru's Italian Notebook - Sept 2003 (Venice, Veneto, Tuscany, Florence)


100+ Posts
By Doru from Toronto, Canada, Fall 2003. Venice, then up the River Po from Venice to Cremona (...or so we thought...), with day excursions to Murano and Burano, Padova, Ferrara, Mantova, Parma and Cremona, then on to Castellina in Chianti and parts of the Chiantigiana, ending in Florence.

Fair Warning To The Reader

What follows is quite detailed. We document our trip impressions in this manner mainly for ourselves: time can and indeed erases details, allowing only the thick brush strokes to remain. We wish to remember the details as well, insignificant as they seem at times, hence this Notebook format. Also, it seems to us to be a reasonable manner in which to note curiosities encountered, things learned, deep personal emotions felt during trips and prompted by events, people and places, architecture and art, or things, people and events which amused us, or bemused us.

There are also reviews of hotels and restaurants, with names and addresses provided, car rental and driving experiences, airline and Customs stories, encounters in shops, cafés, and public places.

If the above is not a deterrent, please read on.

Table of Contents
September 1, 2003 (Monday) - Ritorno a Venezia

Somewhere above the Atlantic the date changed. The Air Canada 747 is cramp-inducing, with knees stuck into the seat in front, whose temporary occupant reclined it all the way. Tough to read in this situation so, in over 40 years of frequent flying across the ocean, for the first time I watch both films. Can’t even remember what they were, but time passes mercifully helped by the attentions of a very good crew and, after a short and very busy connecting time in Frankfurt, we board the Lufthansa plane to Venice. Happiness is an hour and change away.

On arrival we are somewhat surprised to see that both suitcases indeed made it together with us to Venice and, with the self-assuredness of veterans, we make our way to the Alilaguna cashier, then to the shuttle bus, finally on to the Alilaguna dock.

The day is grey, the waves are agitated, the dock swings with them. For the return to my beloved Venice I had counted on a sunny day, a quiet harbour, a stable dock. Well, at least we are here, one year after we have left, result of my intense lobbying with Josette.

The Alilaguna Linea Blu fights bravely the waves, docks with the stability of a groggy boxer and, minutes later, passengers and luggage safely aboard, turns towards the Lagoon. Maybe because the mood of the day is such, maybe because I look at the panorama opening behind me with the more critical look of one familiar with the view, I notice things to which I didn’t pay any attention one year ago.

Through the tears of rain and spray splashing against the boat’s windows, I survey the parade of rusting structures, brownish industrial buildings peering blindly through broken shutters and windows, the motionless construction cranes, the dredging boats, the rotting posts and buoys. Against my nature, I become philosophical and think of cycles, and what will be the future of this city.

But as if preordained, all gloomy thoughts are banished just as Alilaguna turns away from Lido and faces the Bacino: rays of sun penetrate the heavy cloud and highlight, like in a Caravaggio painting, the cherished sights: the tall columns, with San Teodoro atop one and the Lion of San Marco on the other, a partial sighting of the Piazzetta and then the luminous façade of the Palazzo, Bacino-side, one half recently cleaned to gleaming brightness, including the entrance from the Bacino which a year ago was still hidden by ugly scaffolding, and to the right the noble classical structure of Santa Maria della Pietà to which we paid scant attention last year, now draped in a white haze. To its right is Petrarca’s “house”, a place of pilgrimage as soon as feasible.


Heavy traffic

Satisfied that they all seem to be in place exactly as we left them, and as they have been for a few hundred years preceding our arrival, we direct our attention to the luggage. With assistance from kindly mariners, we touch ground at San Zaccaria, right in front of Hotel Paganelli, our friendly home for the next five days.

As we make our way through the tourists always to be found here, we reconfirm that all is well. A few minutes later we are in our so familiar room, huge beam supporting the ceiling, some of the wallpaper still in need of attention. I get Mario to add to the room’s furniture a comfortable armchair I noticed in the hall a year ago. Mario pulls aside with a flourish the drapes and then, with a kind of religious feeling, I approach the double window and look outside: more of the cloud is gone, Santa Maria della Salute is still there and, in order, in the familiar panoramic view, so are the Redentore and its two Campanile, the San Giorgio Maggiore, the Bacino busy with Venetian life: boats, vaporetti, gondole, a big cruise ship. This is one part of the Venice we love: tumultuous, pulsing with life at the surface, but waiting for us to explore its other sides, the quiet and mysterious ones.

Some fussing with the luggage, but my feet have grown little wings which flutter discretely to remind me where I am and my brain keeps demanding: ”doppio, doppio!”. Josette is beyond will for motion, and she decides she needs rest first. I load a film in the camera and I’m off, to the right on the Riva degli Schiavoni, towards the Piazza San Marco.

As I cut through the souvenir photographers on Ponte dei Sospiri, I notice on my left the gondolas bobbing up and down, higher than the pavement of the Molo: water pushed by winds has reached pretty far into the shore, about halfway to the columns of the Palazzo and on to the rest of the Molo. Not too many people here, although a young couple seem to be very busy peering into each other’s eyes. Beyond them, though, life is teeming.

One of the first sights is a beautiful little girl, arms spread wide, pigeons standing on her wrists, another girls walking with bliss on her face among the hundreds of pigeons surrounding her, a little boy running with arms spread wing-like and pretending to be a pigeon. Kids, parents with kids, a carpet of imperturbable pigeons covering the pavement.

Camera working, on to the San Marco. The usual lineup is there but snaking around the Basilica, towards the entrance from the Piazzetta dei Leoncini, all this for a good reason: water blocks the San Marco from the front.

Around the block, on to Campo San Zaccaria, by Campo SS. Filippo e Giacomo (notice an Internet café on the way), watching the customers of Aciugheta on my left, then Alla Rivetta on my right, back on the Riva figuring that Josette may not be ready yet. I stop at Savoia & Yolanda, next door from Paganelli, for a coffee doppio and water. The coffee is very good; I ask for another. The waiter: “ 'Arrivat’ ora?”. Me: “Si, poco fa!”. He smiles, I wink. We’re now both into this big conspiracy named Venice.


Bacino, view from Paganelli, on a sunny day

At the hotel, Mario asks me to wait for a couple of minutes, disappears and returns quickly, hosting triumphantly a sealed package. “Your book!” I open the package; this is the book I ordered from Internet Bookshop Italia (www.ibs.it) to be delivered to the hotel. In it, the first book in Italian I have ever bought: the first volume of Primo Levi's works, which includes “Se questo è un uomo”, “La tregua”, “Il sistema periodico” and “I sommersi e i salvati”.

I thank Mario and go upstairs, where Josette is now ready for a walk. I place the nicely bound book next to its two companions for the following three weeks: a pocket Italian-English Dictionary and the Oxford Italian Grammar and Verbs.

[Off on a tangent: during the last summer and in preparation for this trip I have taken 12 lessons of Italian with a private teacher, a Toronto resident originally from Verona, and I have started reading in Italian as the lessons were still going on. I started with a couple of books I remembered from childhood and which are in the family repertoire in a number of languages, but not in Italian: Cuore and Pinocchio. I then, prompted by Paolo, an Internet pal, attempted Primo Levi’s book “Se non ora, quando?”. I discovered that I can understand in broad strokes what I read and then developed the same method I will use during the entire Italian trip, for which, on purpose, I did not bring with me any books in English: first, I would read one full phrase and try to understand it. Then, I would get the dictionary and clarify words critical to understanding the phrase. The third time I would read the phrase end to end, at which point I would start to get a sense of the language, its beauty, its flexibility and flow. After the first 50-60 pages I graduated from phrases to paragraphs, then to pages. Before leaving for Venice I had completed reading “Se non ora, quando?” and I was ready for more. By the end of the ensuing three weeks of the trip, I had finished reading “Il sistema periodico”. One can say I have read each of the books three times! Later on how I “progressed” with the spoken Italian…]

When both of us leave the hotel to look for something to eat, I count 28 hours gone by without sleep.

We amble quite aimlessly through the narrow streets running behind the Palazzo as I try to locate again the Internet cafè. We are in fact right in front of Aciugheta and we sit outside for a very late lunch after going inside and glancing at the front counter which didn't have much of a choice in terms of cicheti. Josette orders a mixed vegetables salad con polpettine, I take the spaghetti con le cozze (mussels) e vongole (clams).

The result is very mixed: the salad is some deep fried slices of eggplant and zucchini over a bed of cabbage and lettuce, the polpettine a few small meatballs really, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried, kind of a meet falafel. My spaghetti are a surprise: the clams are presently engaged in a Houdini act and nowhere to be seen, absence seemingly compensated by a huge mountain of mussels. A closer examination reveals that there are two types of mussel shells on the plate: from about half of them the mussels have gone probably where the clams are and therefore not on my plate, while the other half of the shells bear the most miniscule mussels I have ever seen. In fact, I would have thought these were mussel embryos if not for the size of the shells covering the spaghetti below. I carefully scoop the tiny mussels the size of shirt-buttons and discard the profusion of shells and discover that all is not lost, because the spaghetti are bathing in a delicate and delightful sauce and so, after not being tempted by Josette's leftovers from the salad, I clean the last drops of sauce with lots of bread and shine the plate.

With my Nastro Azzuro, water and two espresso, one of them a great doppio lungo, we leave Aciugheta after 40 Euro and ask ourselves for what. Now, I know that Aciugheta's reputation is as bacaro, but I thought the usual meals would be quite acceptable in quality. Not so. I should have read Fodor's, which says, I will find later: "A mediocre pizzeria-trattoria, Aciugheta (Tiny Anchovy) leads a secret life as an enoteca, with some of the best bottles in town. Show up in the late afternoon and let wine expert Gianni Bonaccorsi guide you. Cicheti and a variety of other tasty bites -- including tiny pizzas, stuffed red peppers, and a fine selection of cheeses -- will keep you from going hungry between sips." I am sure this is true, particularly because I've also heard this opinion from other sources, but I should have read it before deciding to have there a regular meal. Or, I should have showed up at the right time of day.

Filing the experience under a mental folder called…"Experience", we decide to check on the progress at La Fenice. Passing by San Moisë, we recall Josette's ambitious night photography attempt a year ago when, braving the Senegalese lining up the adjoining street intent on selling us a bunch of purses at mid-night, we tried to figure out how to photograph the entire rococo/schmaltz façade so that it could be later assembled in a photo-montage. We will never know, because all the resulting photos were some faint blur, a nice surrealistic effect with no future.

A year ago, La Fenice was hidden from mortal sight by a huge veil of scaffold and canvas. This year, La Fenice appears to us hidden from mortal sight by a huge veil of scaffold and canvas (where did I read this already?). Sky-scraping cranes dwarf the veiled structure. We are baffled: from what we know, the opening will be on the 14th of December and some tryout events are scheduled for October. Well, on we go and find ourselves in Campo San Anzolo, dominated by an enormous poster, the width of the square, announcing "IL RITORNO DELLA FENICE". Now we know; we'll have to come back next year!


Il Ritorno della Fenice

Campo San Anzolo houses a few architectural gems, amongst them the one bearing the marble plaque "Qui habitò é morì Cimarosa". From the Campo, through annoying drizzle, we return to the hotel, not before stopping at the tempting Pasticceria (forgot the name…) about three buildings from Aciugheta, where we load on cookies and chocolate "da portar' via". There is only standing room there anyway.

Speaking of room, we go back to the hotel for some rest. Around 9 p.m. we look at each other, tacitly agree to skip the obligatory walk to Piazza San Marco to listen to the bands; it is raining anyway. On TV, optimism reigns: for tomorrow: SUNNY!

32 hours after I last slept a wink, I close the notebook, rifle through Primo Levi without any serious intention to start reading, just enjoying the feel of the bound cover and the lightness of the book. Josette is already fast asleep. I follow. Day 1.
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September 2, 2003 (Tuesday) - Venice

"God, did we sleep with the lights on all night?" No, since when I turn I can see through the windows the bright light of day and a blue sky. I open the windows wide and with this come into the room a breeze and the typical noises of the Riva: people, chairs being dragged at the restaurants below just to right and left of the hotel, the buzz of motor boats. The Meteo was right last night: This is a SUNNY day! Just what we would have ordered, if anybody had bothered to ask us.

The breakfast in Hotel Paganelli's Annex is a pleasant surprise: this is now a full buffet, as opposed to last year's continental which, by the way, was enough anyway.

Today is a catch up day: at the top of our list are Campo San Polo and the Frari, which we managed to miss a year ago. We are fresh enough not to jump on a vaporetto and retrace on foot the well known path to the Rialto, with the intention to cross and walk along Fondamenta del Vin and cut to San Polo through San Silvestro and Aponal. Of course, once on the bridge, we get caught into the milling multitudes and drop on the other side of the bridge and into the market, "just to look".

We know, though, from so many guides and stories that prices for Murano glass objects are lower in Venice than in Murano itself. Well, we look and stop here and there, and Josette notices in one of the stalls a beautiful plate, just like the one she coveted the evening before at a store around Campo SS. Filippo and Giacomo, but visibly larger, and with the reddish tint she really wanted.

We enter into a desultory conversation with the young woman minding the place but she doesn't seem to get on with our English, and surely not with my Italian, which is primed more for basic necessities of life, not for purchasing works of art. Deus ex machina: the owner appears: very attractive older gentleman, good English, easy reassuring manner; it is clear he is not there to sell, just to show us the glass beads, to explain the technique, to assure that what we just now hold is really one of the best pieces of its kind to come out of Moretti in the last 50 years or so, but if we wish, there are others, somewhat smaller pieces, maybe less expensive, surely not Moretti, do we wish him to bring them up to the front of the store?

Sure enough, after a feeble attempt at a discount and appropriate gesticulation, and assurances of friendship forever, we depart with the plate, appropriately certified with a certificate of authenticity pulled from a box full of its kind. (The plate, at the time these lines are being written, graces our living room on an appropriate stand and it is indeed beautiful company to the adjacent Hutschereuther.)

As we trace back our steps towards Fondamenta del Vin and San Silvestro, the plate safely packed and tucked in my shoulder bag, I remind Josette gently that I have also noticed a plate, a different type of plate, true, but maybe, on the way back, you know, we may stop at the Trevisan store and take a second look at it? Agreement secured, we return purposefully to our initial plan: we cut inland, towards San Polo.

The Campo is large, much larger than we expected. After admiring Palazzo Tiepolo with the façade embellished with masks, we go into the church, mainly to see Tintoretto's astonishing, totally unconventional Last Supper. We then press on, deciding on a detour: first San Rocco, then Frari.

The story of San Rocco has all the ingredients we like: a young medical student, dedication and sacrifice in times of plague, and the life-saving and devoted stray dog who stands by, feeds and watches over the young and deadly sick doctor till recovery. It is to be noticed that the only one sanctified was the human. Well, I better stay out of this…

As we reach the small Campo, the first thing we see is the elegant façade of the church, an harmonious blend of classic lines and over-the-top decoration, blinding white in the direct sunlight. When our retinas return to normal vision, the second thing we notice is a good looking, nattily dressed young man, hair in a neat ponytail, a sort of pamphlet in hand. Pointing to a tag with the word LAUTARI on it, together with a name too small to read, a number, etc., the young man pushes himself in our faces and wants us to participate in the fight against drugs. He speaks Italian, he speaks English, I look at the tag and ask: "Lautari? Isn't this a Romanian word for band of musicians playing folk music?" "Yes, indeed! You know the word?" "Yes," I say, but now we just want to enter the Scuola, "we'll talk later".

I just hate being accosted on the street, particularly when I have just regained my eyesight after being blinded by the sun. I walk around the young man, around his partner standing by a table with a bunch of pamphlets and trying to stop other passers by, and enter the wonderful world of Tintoretto… through the wrong door. Out again, by the two now less than engaging young men, and to the correct door.

For the following hour we walk, starting from the Sala dell'Albergo down to the ground floor hall, engrossed into one of the greatest cycles of pictorial work, from the Glory of San Rocco to the dramatic, almost frenetic Crucifixion, and the works of late maturity downstairs, in which nature scenes are given as much importance as the scenes of the Old and New Testament which these landscapes host.

We rest on a bench, and jet lag wins one over me: I fall asleep for a few minutes in Tintoretto’s temple! When I come back to, I think I am in Paradise, and we remember and talk about Tintoretto's own Paradise, that in the Doge's Palace, another enormous and frenetic work. Where did he take the energy and vision to start, and to finish, such enormous projects, still leaving behind so many other exceptional works? A Titan, of the same stature as a Michelangelo.

We would like to come back to the Scuola, maybe for a concert but, alas, nothing going for the days we will be in Venice. On to the Chiesa di San Rocco,

As we step out, we are accosted again, this time by the other of the two young men. He is even more insistent. By now I am irritated by their manner, and somewhat suspicious, but I have nothing against the fight against drugs and I pick up the proffered pen, to add my signature to the many already on the current page of an otherwise quite thick register.

As I start writing my name, I notice that the last column in the register, next to the signature, indicates sums of money, from 10 Euro to 50 Euro, each signature and an amount of money. Well, I am not going to give a bunch of cash to people I know nothing about and so, I just sign and put a "tick" sign where the amount would have been, return the pen and walk away wondering at the many people who left their money there, cash, to a couple of individuals they know absolutely nothing about. Am I heartless, or stingy (I am not, by nature) or are all these people naïve beyond belief?

[Off, on a tangent: To give Caesar his due, upon my return home I googled "lautari". Indeed, there is a cooperative with this name, registered in Pozzolengo in the Province of Brescia (BS), with regular articles of association, the first articles of association I have ever seen made of Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 19. Quote: " L'oggetto sociale della Cooperativa è la creazione di una comunità residenziale psicoergoterapica per il recupero dei tossicodipendenti mediante attività di recupero psicofisico e psicosociale, attività artigianali, agricole e di qualificazione professionale". End of quote. The means by which these objectives are to be reached are further listed in detail, but none includes aggressive fund-raising on the streets of Italian cities. Maybe I am indeed a heartless guy. By the way, when googling "lautari", the first two entries refer to this cooperative; the other 2918 refer to Romanian folk music…]

The church itself has balanced proportions, and the cool air is a welcome change from the hot sun outside. Here Tintoretto toiled some more, depicting the story of San Rocco in a number of powerfully expressive paintings.

Back into the sun, walking in a wide circle around the "lautari", and on towards the Frari. It is time for lunch and we stop at a small café next to the Campo dei Frari and order a couple of sandwiches and coffee. The sandwiches arrive soon, both displaying Canadian flags on toothpicks stuck in sandwiches. How did they know? We ask the waitress how did she know we were from Canada and we share with her a good laugh as she shows us a box full with a variety of national flags, from which she picks them at random and sticks them in sandwiches. She readily agrees she has magic if she was capable of picking not one, but both Canadian flags.

We move on to another kind of magic, that of the Basilica dei Frari. From the outside, the weathered brick structure with its startlingly white door frame, the three similarly white framed rose windows and "wedding cake" turrets and the graceful but somewhat standoffish Campanile crowned by a Moorish balcony with the same white accents, give the visitor little notice of what can be expected inside.

But then, nothing could have prepared me for the majesty of this enormous airy space, and for the richness of the art inside. The first impression is the seemingly floating forest of wooden beams supporting the nave, a perspective of beams and arches, a tri-dimensional abstract floral motive. (As I write these lines, I look at a picture taken in the Basilica and it appears as if an infinite number of mirrors repeat the pointed semicircle formed by the straight beams and the Gothic arches. I am running out of words now, as then.)


Frari, Nave

Once I am able to tear my eyes away from the ceiling I run into the Tizian festival, with the swirling Assumption at the centre of the high altar and Madona di Ca' Pesaro, while Tizian himself watches over them from his final rest place, to the right of the entrance. We move from altar to altar, all 17 of them, sit from time to time to absorb what we see: the warm brown and white brick and stone work, the tombs, simple or ornate, bearing resounding names and with them much of the history of Venice. We stop to admire the wonderful coro, itself a capo d'opera, and look again towards the high altar, where, above and around Tizian's Assumption, four rows of long arched windows let light in, and to its sides rest two Doges, Foscari and Tron.

Elsewhere, we practically step on, and stop in front of Claudio Monteverdi's tomb, as it rests just at our feet. The sacristy houses Giovanni Bellini's triptych of The Madonna, Child and Saints, surrounded by the same kind of Gothic windows as in the Basilica behind the high altar, but with light more gradated here, from the darker bottom to the full light from the higher windows, creating a natural spot light, large enough to illuminate the entire work.

We turn toward the sunlight of the peaceful cloister, again bright white framing of brown walls and arcades, walk around, and out, and leave Frari, which I think just became my preferred church and museum in all of Venice. Well, the competition is not closed as yet; five more days to go.

With the vaporetto back to San Zaccaria, we return to our room for a well-deserved rest and collection of thoughts.

Towards late afternoon we take a shortcut through Via delle Rasse and enter the Trevisan shop after making sure that the plate I want is still in the window. A few minutes later, with the plate well packed and in my shoulder bag, and with it another certificate of authenticity of the same variety, i.e. pulled from a box full with similar cards, attesting that the plate, itself more like a scooped boat shape with golden and red highlights, is the product of Vetreria Accaeffe. The certificate assures me that "slight variations in thickness, height, colour, (etc.) are unavoidable. In fact, they increase the value of each glass (sic!)…” Well, my plate must be extremely valuable, because I wanted it exactly for the variations in colour, so I am content with the acquisition. As we leave the shop we stop at "Alla Rivetta" and make a reservation for dinner tomorrow night, when our friend R. from Milano will join us for a day. The Italians have never any trouble spelling my name, I notice again. Particularly if I rrrroll the rs and oooopen the o’s and the i’s.

Our plan for the rest of the day is quite simple: we will retrace the easy way we used a year ago to get to the Arsenale and then go on to Sette Martiri where, from our room, we were able to see a couple of rather long, double-deck ships, with the typical elongated profile of flat-bottom river cruisers. We figure "MS Venezia", the ship we will board on Saturday for a cruise up the River Po, may be already docked and are curious to see it.

Well, the best laid plans… We snake in and out of Castello, over this bridge or the other, and wherever we turn everything looks awfully familiar but the road does not lead to the Arsenale. Frustrated, we decide to return to the Riva and first walk towards Sette Martiri. A long, gorgeous walk on the wide street devoid of tourists, or any other souls for this matter, all quiet in the golden afternoon. As usual, as I pass by his “house”, I pay silent respects to Petrarca.

At the Sette Martiri we find not "Venezia" but "Michelangelo", the ship on which our friends went up the river three years ago. We take for them a couple of pictures of the ship and turn back, with a stop at a cash machine.

Just to our right, opens the only real street of Venice, Via Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Hardly one step on the street and to the right a building reveals a marble plaque commemorating Giovanni Caboto. This will stop a Canadian in his tracks, because Giovanni Caboto is better known in English and Canadian history as John Cabot, the valiant explorer who sailed with the permit and support of King Henry VII to discover the maritime route to India. The idea Caboto/Cabot sold successfully to the King of England, after being rebuked by Spanish and Portuguese monarchs, was that a voyage to India must follow a Northern route which, in the event, turned out to be much farther North than the routes attempted by Columbus, Vespucci and Magellan.

The King armed for him a modest, smallish vessel, probably because it was considered a rather iffy investment, but John Cabot and his crew sailed and sailed and finally touched shore in the summer of 1497 in a spectacular place, which he called, imaginatively, “New Found Land”, today’s Newfoundland. While he was convinced this land was lying just off the coast of India, he in fact had just opened to the world one of the greatest resources of ethnic jokes, the Newfy jokes, familiar to any Canadian. He never knew, and it will not be known for about another 500 years, that this land was already discovered by the Norse, who probably called it Vinland, but not because in it grew grapes (to this day what grows there in terms of stronger beverage is called screech, after the howl one looses after having a first taste of the famous rum, locally distilled by Newfoundlanders in stills hidden deep into the woods and away from the eye of the state controlled liquor boards).

But back to Venice, what I didn’t know was that Caboto, although born in Genova, sold his soul to Venetians, at the time the fiercest rivals to the Genovese, and became a Venetian citizen before defecting to the English. Hence the afore mentioned plaque.

After this unexpected Venetian encounter with a Canadian icon, we walk down Via Garibaldi, an unusually wide street in any Italian context (imagine Via dei Calzaiuoli in Florence around the Piazza della Republica), long from Riva San Biagio to Fondamenta Sant’Anna and from there on to Calle Quintavalle and to Isola di San Pietro. Via Garibaldi, and much of the surrounding residential area, was built in fact on the Fondamenta, hence its totally un-Venetian dimensions. The street is full of shops, restaurants and cafés, and owns one of the entrances to the famous Giardini Publicci of Venice.

Along the street, at this early evening hour, the school is closed, people are out in groups, kids beat the heck out of a football, men sit in cafés having a smoke, women mostly standing in groups in animated discussion, some still carrying their shopping bags, basically life as you could have seen anywhere else in Venice if… Venice would have had another street this size. Together with the adjacent smaller and narrower streets, Via Garibaldi is like a little town in itself and yet to be discovered by tourism, a Venetian well kept secret. A future visit to Venice will definitely see me return to Via Garibaldi and taking the leisurely walk to Isola di San Pietro where, it was suggested recently by a friend, the Chiesa di San Pietro in Castello is a must see place.

Reaching the farther end of Via Garibaldi, we debate whether to sit down and have dinner at one of the modest restaurants along the street but we make a mistake and decide against it. Instead, we meander through the path to the left of the Museo Storico Navale, towards the Arsenale, where we recall having spent last year just as nice an evening as this one at one of the restaurant-cafés facing the gate of the Arsenale.

Evidence of a lot of work is going on along the path, as it was a year ago and as it will probably be for many more years, but once up at the apex of the bridge crossing over the canal and into the piazzetta in front of the entrance to Arsenale we forget the mess because a wide vista of the Arsenale opens and one could easily imagine the hustle and bustle that went on when this was the site of the largest shipbuilding yards in the world. Today, the only hustle is done by a girl who seems to have opened a yard sale, with little toys for sale displayed on an impeccably white sheet of linen spread on the pavement. And there is no bustle. Nor food. One of the restaurants, which we liked before, has run out of cicheti and of anything else (!) except coffee and water, which we order. The other restaurant, for some unexplained reason, I don’t like.


Arsenale, view from the bridge

And so, for the second mistake this evening, we finish our coffee and decide to look for dinner “in town”, around the hotel. After eyeballing an obvious tourist grab, we sit but, once presented with the menu which has about 8 choices in all, printed with letters one inch high, we just leave and end up right across, at Da Ninno’s, where I have a passable meal of sarde saór and tagliatelle con fungheti but Josette’s grilled salmon, she will tell me only later, is really bad, and she leaves most of it on the plate. With ½ l. of house white, two espresso and water, it all comes up to 40 Euro, which wouldn’t have been too bad if the food would have been better. Da Nino looks a bit like a tourist trap; judging by the food, it may be one indeed. The mediocre meal is saved somewhat by the grace of an itinerant guitarist who belts out all the French, Italian and American “restaurant songs” and canzonette one could think of, and gets from us a couple of Euros and an A for volume and F for the rest of his talents.

Somewhat later, we have one of the most wonderful nights in Piazza San Marco, where the three bands at Florian, Quadri and Lavena are dishing out magical musical fare, particularly at Florian, where tonight the orchestra is in great form. It is almost impossible, even with artificial hips, not to want to dance, and so we take a turn with a tango and nearby a small group of Japanese dance up a storm, ballroom-dancing style, really good ballroom dancing, with the requisite turns and complex steps and flourishes. Two of them go on demonstrating their foxtrot and passo doble, with bystanders applauding enthusiastically, and the dancers bowing with grace.

After a while, I approach them, congratulate them and tell them how much they remind me of a beautiful Japanese film, whose title I forgot, about a Japanese man who falls in love with ballroom dancing and with a dance teacher. “Shall we dance?”, the Japanese man refreshes my memory. “Yes”, I say, "this is it!" And I ask in my best Canadian English: “Where in Japan are you from?” And they smile and answer in a chorus: “Oh, we are from L.A.!” They enjoy my surprise look.


Tan-go alla Piazza San Marco

The music starts again and, after another set at Florian, we go to check out the other two bands, but they seem to be stuck at the Phantom of the Opera and the like, so we walk slowly home, through the Piazzetta, where at Café Chioggia a forlorn saxophone moans in front of two people at a table, to show that nothing is new under the moon in Venice. Day 2.
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September 3, 2003 (Wednesday) - Venice

This is a big day: R., our friend from Milano will arrive in the evening by train and stay overnight at Paganelli, so that the three of us may visit tomorrow Murano, Burano and Torcello and just spend a day together.

But for this morning and a good part of the afternoon we are all planned out. As we leave the hotel at about 9 a.m., we notice a change from the Riva of a year ago: at this hour it is quite empty. Sure, commuters come and go around the vaporetto stations, waiters have dragged tables and chairs out and opened awnings, the traffic on the water goes on with the usual audio cues, kiosks are open. But we don’t see the crowds, which usually filled this area by 9 a.m., with tour and group guides shaking frenetically colourful umbrellas or flags and people sleepwalking after them, to get to some place they know little about and may know just as much after the tour is over. And above anything else: where are the Japanese? Where are their disciplined columns bristling with the latest digital optical implements and the chatter of a totally foreign language? With the exception of the small group of Japanese Americans we met last night in Piazza San Marco, there is nary a Japanese to be seen, individual or in group.

The Riva, and the Piazza, when so quiet, are a bit out of character. While this may warm the hearts of purists, who always complain about too many tourists forgetting that they themselves are just that, we like the life crowds bring to these surroundings and miss the masses. What we do find, and it will be consistent everywhere we will go over these three weeks, is that we can suddenly notice the Italians, old and young and children, short and tall, blond and dark haired, couples and groups. We see them, we hear them, when otherwise they would have melted within the masses of foreign tourists. And the Italian tourists do what all tourists do: gawk, and take pictures, and line up to go into the Basilica, and fill the vaporetti. This is quite nice!


Vincero, Vin-ce-ro!, on the Riva

Stopping by the kiosk to buy The Corriere and the International Herald Tribune, I am pleasantly surprised when the vendor digs from somewhere inside and hands to me a beautiful book about Caravaggio, all in Italian. With hesitant Italian on my part and a somewhat too fast Venetian on his, I understand that The Corriere will publish over the next couple of months a series of books on great painters, Caravaggio being the first, and this first one comes for free. Why, Thank You, Corriere!

From here, using a map given to us by Mario at the hotel, we cut into the Via dei Greci to Calle Leon, through a few back Rios and bridges to drop off a shirt for laundering at Grazia Di Paola, Pulitura a Secco, on Via Zambelli. A nice reception and assurances the shirt will be ready by tomorrow at the same hour of the morning, all for 4 Euro, which we pay in advance and leave with a profusion of Grazie Mille and Buon Giornos on all sides.

One place in Piazza San Marco where nobody lines up this morning seems to be the Campanile of San Marco where lineups were always interminable the previous September. All we have to do is walk to the cashier where we are handed the tickets and directed to the elevator. Quickly we find ourselves at the top, where astounding views are opened to us in all directions. I go into a bit of overload with the camera; I will discover later that I made two full tours of the terrace taking shots, luckily most from sufficiently different angles to escape the admonishment that I always take too many pictures of the one and the same thing.

From up here nothing is one and the same: San Giorgio from here looks rather more complete than from our windows at Paganelli or from a vaporetto, the wide surface of water has a deeper colour, the trails left behind by boats seem longer, the domes of the Basilica appear more Byzantine than can be seen from the Piazza, the sprawl of built up Venice towards Castello and Arsenale on one side and Cannaregio on the other makes these areas look like a regular city, the Piazza is a geometrical perfection, its rectangular shape dotted with impeccably aligned colourful tables in front of Quadri and Lavenna, La Salute is in full blown view not possible from any other point in the city, the Palazzo with only a tantalizing glimpse of the interior courtyard, and there is Chiesa di San Zaccaria and further on the two towers at the gate of the Arsenale. Second full circle.

As I did after the first visit of the Alhambra in Granada, I push the camera deep into the shoulder bag and take my time to see it all once more, but with the naked eye: all Venice from above, with my own eyes, not through the viewfinder of the camera. But I know that, back home, what will refresh and superimpose what I see now, and what will remain until I return to Venice once again, will be the photos.


The five domes of the San Marco

Down by elevator, back in the Piazza, we turn towards Museo Correr, another “not to miss next time” from the list we made in 2002. Above the entrance to the museum there is a huge banner: ”La Vita nei Libri Edizioni illustrate a stampa del Quattro and Cinquecento dalla Fondazione Giorgio Cini 13 giugno-30 settembre 2003”. We realise we may have come upon something very special and possibly unique and start out with this special exhibition.

Up the interminable stairs to the Biblioteca Nazionale, but once inside we don’t want to leave. Ever. Both of us love books and bought and collected books and sheet music since very early youth. We’ve dragged and shipped our books from country to country to country, never leaving one behind. One of our sons even got these genes passed on. Now, we are in book heaven: not only are these print incunabula rare and some of them even unique copies, but the illuminations on some of these books, the engraved wooden binding, are on their own incredible works of art.

The 140 books in this treasure cover the gamut of subjects, many still so actual: education, religion, love, war, politics and management, the classics, time, space, medicine, etc. Among them the first illustrated edition of Boccaccio’s “Il Decamerone”, Petrarca’s “Trionphi”, including “Trionpho dello Amore” where I can read the first lines, starting:

“Al tempo che rinnova I miei sospiri per la dolce memoria di quell giorno…”

and Dante’s “ La Commedia” alongside “Favole di Esopo” and Ovid, “L’Amore Le rime di M. Lodovico Ariosto … Sonetti, Madrigali, Canzoni, Stanze, Capitoli”, then “La Medicina Dificio di Ricepte “ with a visible Moorish influence down to the arabesque decoration, another medical book “Questo è il modo da guarir del mal francioso” (hm, hm!), an annual summary of the phases of the moon, and to top it all “L’Arte di bien morire” or “Ars Moriendi” subtitled “Questa Operetta Tracta Bellarte Del Benmorire Cioè in Gratia di Dio”, an anonymous work, first circulated in manuscript, then in print, which was famous and started a fashion in the 14th century, but lost its popularity when the Renaissance brought forward the idea of “ben vivere” instead of “ben morire”. This book is counterpointed by another anonymous work with the very specific title “L’Amore-Amaestramento de una vechia che impare a un Guvenni inamorarse”, a medieval version, I guess, of “In praise of older women”!

Times passes quickly and I am so fascinated, I don’t feel the usual “museum fatigue”. We debate whether to continue in the museum or walk out to light and sun. We opt for continuing into the museum. We move somewhat too quickly through the formal rooms to get to the collection, and spend much of the time with…Flemish and German painters; Cranach, Bruegel, but also with the Bellinis, Gentile, but in particular Giovanni, then Carpaccio and Lotto.

Through some stroke of luck, two windows are open, if I recall correctly in rooms 32 and 35, and they allow a full and unobstructed view of the Piazza San Marco from the "other" end. The shade of Procuratie Nuove covers the length of the area in front of Florian just about to the Campanile, but the rest of the Piazza bathes in glorious sun, and I gain full frontal view of the Basilica from about the level of the horses of San Marco at the other end of the Piazza. Magnificent, and the pictures, which I was allowed to take by the kind attendant, make justice to the view.


San Marco from Museo Correr, Room 33

At this point we have taken as much as could take of a good thing and done all the viewing we could do. We stop for sandwiches and coffee and then hop on vaporetto no. 1 for Ca’ Rezzonico, where we want to buy tickets for …the opera! We noticed on arrival in the hotel a flyer indicating that a music and opera festival goes on at Ca’ Rezzonico and the only date fitting our schedule is Thursday, October 4th, when the show will be “Il Signor Bruschino”, an opera farce by Rossini. At the Ca’ Rezzonico ticket box, without even being asked, we are handed two tickets for “anziani”, 13 Euro each instead of 18, and we don’t take exception to being identified as being from the European Union by the breathtakingly beautiful fashion model who masquerades as a breathtakingly beautiful cashier!

On the way back to the hotel we see the first signs of the approaching Regatta Storica, which takes place each year of the first Sunday in September. There are standards, and a huge floating stage, and signs announcing the Regatta, hung from one side of the Canal to the other. I also take some more photos of the Palazzi along the Canal, to add to the too many I already have from this year and last year, when disaster strikes: my Olympus Stylus mysteriously decides on its own to rewind after six frames as I watch it with dismay. It will happen again next day, even after inserting a new battery, at which point I will decide to use only Josette’s Olympus, which had less gadgets and no zoom and this will be the camera we will use for the rest of the trip. (Once back in Toronto, I checked the camera again, ran a full film through it and it worked just fine. Traditore!)

We stop to check on our email at the Internet Café on Calle della Sacrestia, just off Campo SS. Filippo e Giacomo and agree that some rest is called for. We rest, and read, and try to put some order in all the stuff strewn around, old or newly accumulated, and then go down to wait for R. who said he will be arriving around quarter to six, which in his case means exactly 5:45 p.m. with Northern Italian precision.

Indeed, later as I glance at my watch and start worrying because it was 5:47, R. makes his entrance, little travel bag in hand. Hugs all around, with Josette's nose flattened against R.'s chest and mine against his shoulder because he is a pretty tall man who could have made a career in the Vatican Guard if he wouldn't have chosen International Banking, where he made a brilliant career. I met R. in 1982 at an international banking conference and since then we have served together in many committees and working groups in this field. We struck a beautiful friendship right away, further strengthened by common love for music of the three of us.

Mario gives R. an upgraded room as a graceful gesture to us, and we wait while he is taken upstairs.

One of the rituals of our encounters is the exchange of gifts. R. has travelled the world and collects statuettes and figurines and our contribution to this collection is an increasing number of Canadian native art: Inuit and Native stone carvings. A year ago we heard the tragic story of one of our earlier contributions, a stone mask whose nose was broken when the cleaning maid dropped the carving, and we got to see the damaged piece while visiting R.'s apartment in Milano. This year, to make up somewhat for the loss, we brought him a carving displaying not one, but two ritual masks, back to back, in the same piece. As we give him the nicely packed gift box together with the sheet provided by the Guild Shop in Toronto which explains the motive of the carving and gives details on his creator, as well as a Marc-André Hamelin CD bought for him by Josette, R. proves that he has very high ambitions for my modest aspirations to learn Italian as he presents me with two books: "Le parole tra noi leggere" by an acquintance of his, he explains, Lalla Romano, and oh! but crush me!, Manzoni's "I promessi sposi". Never one to forget business, he hands me also documents currently under discussion in one of the UN committees, with a request if I may take the time and see if I can support his position as developed in the attached 40 page document… Could I send an email this week to M.de W. in this regard?

We arrive at Alla Rivetta at 7:30 p.m. sharp, the reservation made yesterday, as recommended in "Chow! Venice", the very useful guide to "savouring the food and wine in La Serenissima", written by Shannon Essa and Ruth Edenbaum, a must have book for visitors to Venice. The restaurant is packed and people wait in the door and outside. Although we have the prenotazzione, we have to wait until a table is freed. In the meantime, as we stand by the bar, we are offered glasses of prosecco and generous tidbits: cold grilled scampi, deep fried fungheti, crostini, to make our wait more… palatable. Finally, a table is available and we sit down for an excellent meal:

Josette limits herself to the great grilled mixed vegetables, lauded elsewhere by Shannon Essa (see above). Her dish receives an unqualified Bravo! R. orders sarde saòr and spaghetti neri, I take melanzane alla pizzaiola and fegato alla veneziana with a side dish of patate fritte. Around us the restaurant is in full swing, all tables taken, all covered by the pleasant din of cutlery and happy voices.

The service is precise, though somewhat cool, until we make eye contact with the waiter, who then mellows visibly. The three of us chat, we go slowly through the liter of house white, and end with a round of coffees. All of the above, including water and a good tip, add up to 75 Euro, which seems like an excellent price for the quality, quantity and correct service, and the apologetic sheepishness displayed by the restaurant for not having the table ready on time. On the way out we make a reservation for dinner on Friday, because we really liked just about everything about Alla Rivetta.

Now we make our way slowly towards the Piazza San Marco, through Campo SS. Filippo and Giacomo, where R. must stop at Biasutti, to buy some presents for his niece. It turns out the very simpatico young man minding the shop, his name Davide, can talk up a storm and so can R., and while Josette and I stay by the side and amuse ourselves trying to figure out the torrents of words, R. picks up a very elegant glass cormorant which Davide packs in an enormous package taped all around with great care. As we wait, we notice Biasutti has a great display of vases (on this later) and we decide not to be tempted since tomorrow we go to Murano anyway.

We end the evening in Piazza San Marco, where R. insists that we must sit at Florian's, and for three coffees at 7 Euro per we sit there until mid-night, listening to the beautiful music, watching people and talking some more. On the way back to the hotel, by the Molo, the sky displays Mars with incredible brightness. Day 3.


Us, in Piazza San Marco
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September 4, 2003 (Thursday) - Murano, Burano, Torcello

Since visits to Murano and Burano are also included in the river cruise itinerary on which we will embark two days from today, Josette and I debated at length whether it makes any sense to do these visits twice within a few days of each other.

Since I have heard so much about the picturesque beauty of Burano and the uniqueness of Torcello, I'd say let's skip Murano. Since she wants so much to see the glassworks of Murano, she'd say let's skip Torcello.

With R., as referee, we decide to take short acquaintance visits to all three, starting in Murano, followed by a stop in between at Torcello, and have a late afternoon meal in Burano, then back to Venice. This way, when the cruise will take us to Murano and Burano, we will be better prepared and also free to pursue whatever interests us on these islands instead of going following the group.

We decide to take linea 13 from Fondamenta Nuove, the shortest vaporetto route to Murano in terms of time. The morning is gorgeous and the walk to Fondamenta Nuove from Campo San Zaccaria, which R. contends he remembers very well from a previous visit, is a bit longer than expected (most of R.'s short cuts tend to err to optimism, but he always gets us there…).

Soon enough, the vaporetto deposes us at Faro on Murano and before we have time to look around we, together with others who have disembarked here, are being hustled into a vetreria, I forget the name, with a fornace, and we are treated with a demonstration by an older worker on how to turn a lump of molten glass into a graceful running horse. The obligatory tour of the show room follows, but without any pressing sale tactics, and indeed the various show rooms are chockfull with beautiful and diverse pieces, but we know we will be back in Murano, so we just enjoy the exhibition, although the subject of a certain vase (on this, more later on…) does come up.

With this, we consider the first base with Murano duly touched and walk back to the Faro station to go on to Torcello. We are fortunate to catch linea LN, which leaves twice each hour of the morning to Torcello and indeed, we are in Torcello about 45 minutes later.

Here, we find ourselves soon enough somewhat miffed as to the reason Torcello is so celebrated. The long path from the vaporetto station reveals little life; the place is wild and neglected. The only way to understand its attraction is possibly through its history, so very rich for an island so small, but also so difficult to grasp in the absence of life and commerce today.

At the end of the long path, past a canal overgrown by vegetation, past a very large restaurant all locked up, onto and over a bridge, we arrive at the island's centre, where two remarkable structures make the visit worthwhile. One is the Chiesa di Santa Fosca, a small church over 1000 years old, although later renovations intervened to change its walls but not its medieval cylindrical dome. Just nearby is the famous Chair of Attila, presumably the throne of the terrible barbarian invader, the Torcello equivalent in tourist photography to Venice's Ponte dei Sospiri. How the throne got here, and why, is left to the visitor's imagination.

The most remarkable edifice on Torcello is the Cathedral, Basilica di Santa Maria, testimony to the glory that was once Torcello's before silt and malaria drove the regional centre of power to a developing Venice. There are still in the Basilica, which otherwise shows evident signs of age and neglect, wonderful mosaics, of which the most striking are an icon of the Madonna in the best tradition of the Byzantine art, the pavement, the spectacular Apotheosis and Last Judgement, and delicate marble columns.

We retrace our steps along the path to the vaporetto to catch the ride to Burano with linea T. We wait a while for the boat but, once on, we are in Burano after only a few minutes.


Waiting for the boat in Torcello, with RP

Burano justifies to a great degree its fame of a little island with colourfully painted houses lining up narrow canals, and lots of shops directed to the visitor, leading with the famous lace products of the island. We take first a camera tour, noticing how the bright colours help separate the long rows of houses into individual properties, each getting a specific character. Not all are so bright though, and some are quite decrepit and many up for sale. To call Burano a miniature Venice is a bit of the stretch, just as it would be to call it a miniature Pisa because it has a leaning Campanile. But one can get an idea as to how Venice would have looked if it had remained as small as Burano. Which Venice didn't.

After a quick look around, we decide to start with lunch at one of the numerous trattoria vying with the wall-to-wall lace shops for the domination of Via Galuppi, the main street of Burano. We are fortunate to step into Trattoria Al Raspo de Ua (loosely translates, we are told, as The Grapevine Stalk), a place with an incongruous Germanic decoration, and very good food and service. To my chagrin, I can't remember quite everything the three of us had, but I recall the spaghetti ai frutti di mare and Josette’s frittura di pesce. In general I have a very positive memory of the place, its food and service.

Then we go towards Piazza Galuppi and the Burano Cathedral, Chiesa di San Martino, whose crazily leaning Campanile can be noticed from afar. There is a bronze bust of Baldassare Galuppi in the Piazza; this son of Burano was a noted organist, choirmaster and composer in Venice of the 18th century. In the church there is a Crucifixion by Giambattista Tiepolo, the great Venetian painter of the 18th century who went on to paint not only in Italy, but in many European cities for their Royal houses, including the Royal Court in Madrid, where he lived the last period of his life.

In Piazza Galuppi is also the lace (merletti) shop Dalla Olga, which has a reputation for variety and quality and is one of the few places that still host elderly Buranese women who demonstrate their traditional mastery in this delicate art. Alas, if one spends a bit more time in the store, as we did, one can notice that practically nobody takes any interest in the old woman bowed over her work, as people look for interesting pieces, or bargains, or just browse. Josette finds here a few attractive items for the long list of presents to buy and a fine gorgeous piece for one of our daughters-in-law, and so we consider this part accomplished successfully. We take a few steps into the quaint back alleys opening from the Piazza and find to our surprise quite a few very modern houses and rich gardens. We note to return that way when coming back to Burano with the cruise group.


Colours of Burano

Another stop for gelatto and we walk towards the Burano vaporetto station, from where it will take us almost 90 minutes to arrive back at San Zaccaria, after a change in Murano. In fact, we arrive just in time for R. to pick up his bag and the huge Biasetti package, checkout, and accompanied by us, to walk to the vaporetto 1 station, from where he will continue to the train station and head back home to Milano. The two of us watch the vaporetto go, then turn into Via delle Rasse, and have coffees, then pick up some fruits and pastries for a light dinner in the room, because tonight we go to the Opera!

The Luoghi di Baldassare at Ca’ Rezzonico is a festival in the name of Baldassare Galuppi, whom we have just met this morning, in Burano, embodied by a bronze bust. The festival goes on from August to October, and it was started by a "dramma giocoso in musica” by Baldassare Galuppi himself, interestingly named "Il Caffé di Campania". This in the 18th century, but not quite as quick to celebrate the coffee drink as Bach and his "Coffee Cantata".

Our fare tonight will be a farsa giocosa by Rossini, with a title longer than the opera itself: "Il Signor Bruschino Ossia Il Figlio per Azzardo". So that sums up the plot. Later, back in Toronto, I will find from a recently published book on Rossini by Gaia Servadio, that many of Rossini’s pieces written as a student found their way later in some of his operas, including Il Signor Bruschino. The opera was commissioned by the Teatro San Moisé in Venice, one of the numerous small opera companies in Venice at that time, and it brought Rossini to the attention of La Fenice, where Rossini’s first opera seria, Tancredi, was presented in February 1813.

One year ago Ca’ Rezzonico was for us the background to the splendid exhibition of the Settecento Veneziano, underscored by the sounds of alarm systems every time visitors came too close to some of the items exhibited, particularly jewelry. Tonight, as we cross the bridge from the vaporetto station and walk first to the ground floor court, then up the grand stairs that lead on to the piano nobile ballroom, there is festivity in the air. The public lines up for the entrance, since the seating is "grab as you can". Dignified gentlemen, elegant ladies, lively chat all around. When the cord obstructing the last landing is lifted, we all move politely forward, no pushing, no shoving. We note that the first two rows are reserved for a lot of people whose names are preceded by the title Dottore or Professore, and find excellent seats towards the outside of the 6th or 7th row. Now, we have time to raise our eyes to the ceiling and walls covered with frescoes, the hall bright with the light of magnificent chandeliers, no doubt made in Murano (!). Up front, space is left for a small chamber orchestra and a high stage with minimal décor of elegant salon furniture, all in whites and pinks.

As we wait, we notice a conflict going on between two very tall, very elegant, very blond ladies and somebody who could have been an usher if not for being in black tie. It turns out these ladies were sitting in seats reserved for dignitaries and after much protest they are removed and they slunk towards the last rows of chairs in great embarrassment. I am sure next day they sold in protest their Palazzi and moved to seclusion in a monastery on Mount Athos. Or something to this effect.

Finally, the ballroom is full (I estimate about 400 spectators) and through the side hall and down the stairs the Orchestra Symphonia Veneziana makes its entrance, then the conductor Mario Merigo and the farsa starts with the overture in which Rossini used for the first time one of his innovations: the strings in the orchestra tapping the music stands with their bows. Hard to think of a better setting than this enchanting hall, although some of the action supposedly is at an inn, which couldn't be farther from the sumptuous ballroom even if it were Fondaco dei Tedeschi down the (water) road by the Rialto. The singers are good, the voices rounded and softened by the hall. The only one better known is the soprano singing the lead female role of Sofia; her name is Oriana Kurteshi, but really they are all good, the orchestra plays well and staging gets very little in the way of the sometime frenetic action, and all is well that ends well and they will love each other ever after.


Opera evening at Ca' Rezzonico

Applause, and the spectators make their way sedately towards the imposing staircase and somehow dissipate. When, a few minutes later, we arrive at the Ca' Rezzonico vaporetto station, there are no more that 10-15 people waiting with us. Where have they all gone?

Waiting for transportation, we admire once again the deep blue Venetian night sky, and just above us the scintillating Mars, so close to Earth this season. We beg it to keep peace, catch the vaporetto, get off at Vallaresso and take the usual night tour of the Piazza San Marco to check on the orchestras. Tonight the bands play to a deserted Piazza, which makes the entire setting of the Basilica, with the music, and the deep dark blue sky, somewhat disconcerting. Day 4.
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September 5, 2003 (Friday) - Venice

We had some unfinished business at the Accademia, where last year some of the rooms were closed. Since the time left to stay in Venice is getting shorter, we will dedicate the morning to this great Gallery.

This time, the museum is practically empty. We have probably hit one of those lulls in attendance that may happen from time to time, or it is simply still very early in the day. But the pattern matches our general observation that Venice seems emptier of visitors this year.

As we walk from hall to hall and room to room, we try to spend more time with the works that take a distance from strictly ecclesiastical scenes and embody aspects of life and humanity as documented by the great artists whose works populate the museum.

Thus we stop at Georgione’s La Vecchia, portrait of a woman probably not so old by our current standards, ruddy face, tired eyes which have seen everything, high forehead, tight mouth, beautifully captured hand. The La Tempesta, with a woman breastfeeding while, in the background, dark cloud and lightning symbolise either a prophecy for the future of the child or the frailty but also the eternal value of simple human gestures versus and, maybe, despite the unlimited power of nature.

Lorenzo Lotto’s Ritratto di giovanne gentiluomo nel suo studio attracts us next. Lotto, an artist overshadowed by his contemporaries, such as Raphael and particularly in Venice, by Tizian. The Ritratto is an utterly modern work executed with High Renaissance means, and somehow it puts together 16th century painting with 21st century literature, for the serious and studious young man, facing us as he takes his eyes away from a heavy tome, embodies for me Baudolino, Umberto Eco’s hero as he would have looked in his young years studying in Paris where he was sent by Frederick Barbarossa. A leap of imagination this may be, but what a way to put a name to a face! I wonder whether Eco would agree with this association… Or Lotto!

Follows Convito in casa di Simone, by Strozzi, a huge canvas with a complex composition. But if one pays attention to details, there are a dog and a cat there, more interested in what may fall beneath the table than in the feast above and looking quite offended for being chased away by a youngster, no doubt on orders from Simon, the master of the house!

There are always exceptions to the rule and so I must override the profane character of this visit to stop at Carpaccio’s fascinating Leggenda di Sant’Orsola. Like a year ago, I am still captivated by this series of documentary cartoons which, together with the story of devotion and martyrdom, allows us glimpses in a diversity of mundane moments of life, in the colours, fashions and architecture of the time.

More of such scenes, without beatification and martyrs, come from the brush of Pietro Longhi, family scenes from Venetian bourgeois life, with a touch of irony and a lot of realism: Il Concertino, Il Sarto, Il Farmacista, La Toilette della Dama, La Lezione di Danza, L’Indovino, all to be enjoyed with some readiness to overlook technique.

And so on, from Giuseppe Nogari’s Vecchia con ciotola, Alesandro Longhi’s La Pittura e Il Merito, and on to the teleri, large formal paintings by Gentile Bellini and Vittore Carpaccio, which provide great views of the Piazza and Basilica di San Marco, the old Rialto, together with faces, fashions and attitudes of the time in Venice.

There comes a time, in our case after about a couple of hours, when a museum asks to be left alone to rest and pushes the visitors out the doors, and we agree and step outside, in the bright sun, and attempt to reorient ourselves in Venice of today. The best way we know for such moments is to stop over a cup of coffee and a couple of sandwiches, which we do. We decide that we still have the legs to go, and walk over to the Rialto and from there back towards the hotel.


Palazzo Barbarigo a San Vio

With only a day or so remaining in our sojourn in Venice, we know the time has come to face the really serious issues: from every trip we return home with some “thematic” gifts for our grandchildren. Monedeiros from Cordoba, T-shirts from Milano and Pinocchios from Colodi via Siena have done the trick last year. This year, with an eye ahead to Halloween, we figured masks from Venice would do very fine. And so, for the last couple of days, we have kept alert to opportunities. After much hesitation, we decide upon one of the vending carts in Campo SS. Filippo e Giacomo, for selection and prices. With some help from the salesman, we settle for four masks, two Arlechino kinds for the boys, two sequined, with silver and gold sparklers dazzlers for the girls. The little one, born in June, will get something else.

For dinner, we return to Alla Rivetta. By now we are somewhat familiar faces, and are greeted accordingly. Tonight the restaurant is less busy than on Wednesday, and we are seated immediately. A delightful meal follows: gnocchi alla granchio and spaghetti alla nero di sepia for me, mixed vegetable salad and spaghetti ragù for Josette. The service is attentive, not rushed. I decide to throw a mental challenge to the restaurant and I order a panna cotta to close the meal. I get it, with frutti di bosco, and it is good but not to the level of the Panna Cotta Temple (capitals intended) served by that Tuscan cooking Priestess, Adila Solomon, owner and chef of Tutti Matti in Toronto, formerly of Boccon di Vino in Montalcino.

But back to Venice: this was a wonderful dinner. With ½ l. of house white, water and two excellent coffees, one of them a creamy doppio, we leave, nice tip included, a very acceptable 55 Euro behind and depart with handshakes all around and promises on my part to be back again sometime. I know that Josette thinks that two years in a row in Venice call for change in itinerary, but for me hope springs eternal.

As we take the now almost ritual walk towards Piazza San Marco, we decide to take a second look at the vases displayed at Biasutti.

[Off on a tangent: Many years ago Josette received as a gift from a friend and colleague a very beautiful Murano vase, a token of appreciation for the piano lessons Josette gave to that friend’s daughter. Josette had a sentimental attachment to the vase, which was displayed in our living room. The vase survived even an imigration, and two subsequent house moving, without damage. But one day, our older son, in one of his visits with his daughters, got caught into being chased by them around the house and somehow the vase fell and one of its extruded petals broke. The disaster was somehow brushed over without tears and incriminations, and our son, probably half jokingly, said to Josette that if she can buy a replacement he will pay for it. As we stepped into Biasutti’s, this was surely on Josette’s mind]

It is still Davide who minds the shop tonight. There are a few vases on display which please Josette, but I am intimidated by their weight: the thought that we are only on our fifth day of a three weeks trip and that we will have to mind this weight as we move from point to point does not appeal to me at all. Josette narrows down her choices to two items with potential, while I urge her to go on with the initial direction and take a walk to nearby Piazza San Marco, as we intended, for a “cooling period”, hoping that more pondering will prevail.

We have a great time in the Piazza as usual, and stay a bit longer since we are not sure whether and when we will return here. We breath in the night air, take long and longing looks in all directions trying to fix in our minds as many details as possible, try a few dancing steps and turns, and I start back to the hotel by the Piazzetta.

“No!” says Josette, “we return by Biasetti. I’d like to take another look at those vases”. Knowing this fight is lost, I tag along into Biasetti’s, where Davide, sure we will return, has already prepared the two vases for a final selection. I ask him how heavy they are; “3 to 3 ½ kilo”, is the answer. I ask how much would it cost to have it shipped to Toronto, and he says “about 55-60 Euro”. Since my going assumption is that our son will pay for the vase (see paragraph above!), I say “OK!” “No way!” says Josette, “I’ll carry it in my bag!”. “And what will we do with the other things you have in the bag?” “We’ll see; I’ll carry it”.


The smile was before we paid...

And just so, one of the two vases is chosen, and packed well in lots of protective layers of bubble wrapping, the Visa card is used to pay for the vase, we chat a bit longer with Davide about his intentions to return to work in the family glass factory, say “Farewell” and walk out into the night with the heavy load, for the time being me the one carrying it, although I have to say that Josette will keep her end of the bargain on two counts: she will carry it during the rest of the trip and, once back home, she will tell our son how much it cost and he would pay for it without blinking. Day 5.
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September 6, 2003 (Saturday) - Venice, and boarding “MS Venezia”

After breakfast it is time to organize and pack our luggage and to call Marco to help us with it. The plan for the day is to leave the luggage at the hotel and spend the day visiting areas of Cannaregio and Castello, the main interest concentrated on Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Campo Santa Maria Nova and Campiello dei Miracoli.

With the vaporetto to Ca’ d’Oro, we zigzag our way towards Campo SS. Giovanni and Paolo, where we arrive at a major disappointment: the doors of the church have just closed for the siesta and will not reopen until 3:30 p.m., too late for us since by 3 p.m. we should be back at the hotel to pick up our luggage and head to the cruise ship.


SS Giovanni e Paolo, Entrance

We take in visually as much as we can of the imposing Basilica’s exterior and sit down at a café in the Campo, looking with some feelings of being betrayed by the magnificent structure, its famed interior now closed to us. After a short stop, we continue our way through the often-confusing calle and rios, toward Campo Santa Maria Nova and Campiello dei Miracoli.

The church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, narrowly encased by a Calle on one side and a Rio on another, cannot be seen with a full perspective, but one can feel more than see the perfect proportions of this splendid creation of the Venetian Renaissance.

When approaching the beautiful little church we see first the rear of the church with the bell tower in one corner, then walk along the deserted Calle, eyes drawn to the exquisite and harmonious polychromatic marble which covers the church exterior from top to bottom, with a dominating semi-circular pediment crowning the front, in all a far more beautiful marble creation than even that of San Marco’s façade, although tradition says that Santa Maria dei Miracoli was built from San Marco’s own “leftovers”.

The area around the church is deserted. In the Campo, a café sets for lunch, the only noise that of chairs and tables being arranged in the square. On a little bridge, just beside the entrance to the church on the Rio side, a young couple of backpackers have stopped for a smoke and manage to keep smoking while holding hands and the girl is also multi-tasking by taking a few pictures with a fancy digital camera.

We step into the church, where the marble theme continues the motives of the exterior, wall-to-wall, pavement to ceiling, with carved and inlaid marble in charcoal grays, pinks and whites. The nave leads to the imposing (and quite difficult to climb) stairs to the altar, with the icon of Madonna and Child, the Santa Maria dei Miracoli icon that gave the name and the raison d’être to the church, behind it the graceful altar cross with its inlaid gray and brown marble. Raising the sights to the vault, one can see dozens of paintings of saints and prophets. Lowering the sight rewards with reliefs of a variety of flora and fauna that surround the entire church. (Stepping down from the altar, one is well advised to watch one’s steps: it is a steep staircase, with little to hang on for support). All around inlaid marble disks give continuity to this marvelous testimony of simplicity and harmony, the work of Pietro Lombardo and his Bottega.

As we leave the church, the last impression is that of the soft glow and serenity conferred by the light streaming into it and reflected off the luminous marble. Santa Maria dei Miracoli is not the largest church that we have ever seen, nor the richest, but it surely is the most exquisitely beautiful and perfectly proportioned.

For lunch we head to Osteria Alla Vedova, (tel: 041 528 5324), very nearly across from the vaporetto station Ca' d’Oro.. At this rather late lunch hour the osteria is not quite busy. We share a table with a couple of local gentlemen. Although we try hard not to appear as if we listen to their conversation, it is inevitable and it seems they discuss a real estate transaction, apparently a lawyer and a local bureaucrat.

Alla Vedova, a venerable Venetian establishment, is one of those places where menus are not offered, a traditional spot where staff and clients seem to know each other very well. While our neighbours are served antipasti without having ordered any, we make decisions. We will share a selection of crostini and Josette will have grilled vegetables while I ask the waiter to help me for a decision on a selection of sea food from the bar, which arrives as a heaped plate of marinated and grilled squid, polpetti, scallops, a paste of bacalá, clams, sardines, a cornucopia framed with a few slices of sausage. It pays to ask the locals what to eat! And so, the food lives up to the expectations, and we also use the time to observe the surrounding and the happy patrons. The above lunch, including wine, water and coffees sets us back only 40 Euro, which includes a nice tip.

It is time to return to the hotel and get our luggage and move on to the second stage of our trip: the long awaited cruise on the River Po, aboard the river cruise ship “MS Venezia”. But first, we need to get to the ship.
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The cruise up the River Po, or so we thought …

The idea of this cruise was inspired by friends of ours who have been on it a few years back and returned quite happy with the choice.

The itinerary, which included two days in Venice, with Venice walking tours, Murano and Burano visits, and then, as the boat left Venice and progressed up the river, excursions to Chioggia, Padova, Ferrara, Revere, Mantova, Parma and ending in Cremona, made it most attractive, since it would give us an opportunity to get a first look at all those important cities, full of treasures of art and architecture, and maybe help us decide on future itineraries on our own in Italy.

We were also tempted by the idea of visiting these places without having to change hotels for eight nights, rent, drive and daily find parking for a car, worry about meals, what to eat and drink and where or when, thus travelling in the best Slow Travel tradition as the boat slowly moved overnight from port to port and the crew waited for our every wish.

And we were curious about conducted and guided tours, since we have never been on one such tour, whether by bus or boat, with the exception of a few day trips. We were quite aware of the fact that gaining some experience in this type of travel may be useful, as we will approach the time of life when 100% do-it-yourself trips will not always be a realistic option.

We did have some concerns, and we discussed them at length with the knowledgeable travel agent at Merit Travel in Toronto. The main concern was related to the fact that tours as such are usually booked well in advance, and must also be paid well in advance. This brought up the matter of cancellation insurance for reasons not usually covered in regular policies. In the end we took insurance for peace of mind, which would have allowed us to cancel the trip for any reason, but at substantial additional expense.

Choosing the cabin was also an issue. The boat had only six or eight cabins at the lowest cost level, and we were assured that these are available mostly “for the show”, to give the impression that the traveller has more options. In fact, I was told, there would be no difference in terms of size between the Category III, Category II and Category I cabins, but in their location on the ship (This will turn out to be true, but also the root of one of our main problems during our stay on the ship - more on this later).

Category Deluxe were three mini-suites, and we knew we would not be taking a suite anyway. So, in order to make sure that we had the reservation for one of the least expensive cabins which, as we were told, knowledgeable travellers snap first, we had to book as early as October 2002, for a cruise which would not start until September 6, 2003!

Well, we reasoned all this stuff through and through, and since we really wanted to give this trip a shot, and since we decided to pay for the “any reason” cancellation insurance, we hibernated through the entire long Toronto winter dreaming of sun and breeze aboard “MS Venezia”. The cost for the 8 days, 7 nights cruise, per person, insurance and airfare not included, was approximately CAD2,800, or USD1,900 at the then going rate.

From the beginning I will have to put to rest the question whether it was worth it. The answer is a reserved yes, for the places we’ve seen and for the service received and essentially for the experience, although we have no doubts that in some respects this experience could have been a better one.

A couple of months before the scheduled departure, news about the heat and drought in Europe in general and in Italy in particular started making headlines. I couldn’t avoid the connection between severe drought and water level in rivers and I started checking various Italian web sites. I found those of Autorità di Bacino del Fiume Po and of Fiume Po Tour Operator and was able from there on to follow almost daily the water levels. It became obvious that they reached historical lows and I started worrying about the cruise: without water in the river, what will become of our trip?

I then contacted the agent, trying to obtain information on what are their options, if they have considered any, in case the river is not navigable. I was also concerned with respect to my car rental: based on the projected itinerary, which would have ended in Cremona, I have arranged through Auto Europe to have a car delivered in Cremona, at Hotel Ibis, by 10 a.m. on Saturday, September 13th. If the ship will not get as far as Cremona, what are my options? It took some time for the agent to get a clear answer from Uniworld: an emailed commitment that in case the cruise itinerary will change, they will transport us to Cremona somehow, in time to pick up the car.

And so, by 3 p.m. on September 6th we return to Hotel Paganelli, say Goodbye to Marco and ask him to pass on our thanks to Mario, and take our luggage over to the San Zaccaria station to board vaporetto linea 82, which will take us to San Basilio where, as we were advised, the ship will dock today from 4 p.m. until 10 p.m.
September 6, 2003 (Saturday) - still in Venice, on board “MS Venezia”

The 40 minutes ride takes us close by San Giorgio Maggiore, the Redentore, and along the Giudecca on one side and Zattere on the other. As the vaporetto turns towards San Basilio, we can see a number of ships anchored farther away from the station, and I notice with some alarm a pretty long wooden bridge between the station and what looks from a distance like a port or quay of sorts. We get off at San Basilio with two 22” suitcases and two bags (Josette’s carrying a 3 ½ kg. Murano vase) and face the bridge. Pretty high! Well, we lift the suitcases, whose wheels wouldn’t do very well over the corrugated surface, and the bags, but this seems to be too much.

We consider the option of moving items piece by piece, but we face the problem with the sheep which need to be taken to the other shore of a river without being left alone with the wolf: at both ends of the bridge play or hang around pretty grown up kids, not very well dressed, or clean. Finally, with no choice, we trudge with the luggage, step-by-step and, drenched in sweat (30 degrees Celsius that day in Venice…), we make it to the other side of the bridge still owning the entire luggage.

A bit further down there is a warehouse building with a big sign: “Autorità Portuale di Venezia”. As we pull the luggage through the sliding door, we face a busy port terminal, just like a railway station, without the trains. A big sign details the various ships now anchored and we look up for the “MS Venezia” but it does not appear there. “Are we in the right place?” is the first thought that occurs to me. “Well, there is enough time until 10 p.m.”, is the second.

I go to one of the Customs agents and ask whether the ship Venezia is anchored there. He doesn’t know, but his colleague gestures vaguely over his shoulder to the left. We look in that general direction and see a door. I leave Josette with the luggage and go to take a look: there is a wide paved road and in the distance, at least about ½ a mile away, a few ships, probably those we observed from the vaporetto when approaching San Basilio.

We must make a decision because, at this point, in the 30 degrees Celsius plus, we are already tired and there is no help in sight, whether carts, or a porter, nothing. Rather than leave one of us in the Port Authority building while the other goes to see whether Venezia is one of the docked ships, we decide to take the risk of going together, luggage and all.

After a long and very exhausting walk, marked by blasphemous thoughts and imprecations in a variety of languages, we make it to the ships, and one of them sports the name “River Cloud II” and a placard with the same name in front of it. No sign whatsoever of the name of the second ship, anchored on the waterside of “River Cloud II”. A couple of people smoke just outside “River Cloud II” and we ask whether they know where is “Venezia” anchored. “Zer!”, answers one of the man pointing over his shoulder to the farther away ship.

While Josette waits with the luggage, I walk up the plank of “River Cloud II” and through the doors to its main deck and on the other side I find indeed “Venezia”. Quite unhappy at this point, I ask whether there is any help for the luggage and two young, healthy looking people get up, extinguish their cigarettes and make their way back to the shore to help us with the luggage. Thus we have arrived on board “MS Venezia”, after one of the most difficult and frustrating experiences we can remember.

We will find out later that we were not the only ones: a large group of passengers from the States, who arrived by plane, were picked up by bus from the airport but dropped off at the next station after San Basilio, where their luggage was then taken off the bus, dropped on the tarmac, and the bus left without any word of explanation and without anybody waiting for them from the company.

Later, a half-hearted apology for the lack of organization in the reception will be made, too little, too late for the many older people who were assured, as were we, that we will embark on a cruise whose staff will make sure that all needs would be met. But it is not the staff; it is the cruise management that failed.

We make our way to Cabin 115 following the people carrying our luggage. One of them comes with us into the room to point to us the various appliances and how they work. We have left Paganelli around 3:30 p.m. expecting a 40 minutes vaporetto ride and it is now 6 p.m. and we have come “home”, of sorts.


View from Cabin 115 on MS Venezia

Let’s explore the ship. But first, let’s get out of the way some general notes on life, booze and food on our cruise ship:
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General notes on life, booze and food on “MS Venezia”

With the exception of the sorely lacking reception on arrival to the ship, the cruise Tour Director and the crew were really were good: attentive, responsive and sensitive to special needs, of which there were plenty in our group.

We were astonished to see how many people well advanced in years, and beset with a variety of disabilities, were ready to take the risk and go on a tour which involved very much physical effort: getting on and off the ship a few times daily, on and off buses, touring cities, museums and other points of interest at the brisk pace required in order to keep up with the rest of the group.

We had one very old Canadian lady who was being handed over from Tour Director to guides and back like a precious asset, which she indeed was, with specific instructions not to loose her along the way. This lady was quite extraordinary: she left the town of Brampton, Ontario sometime in July and since then has been wondering from cruise to cruise, all over Europe. Her tall, gaunt silhouette would always be the last one to appear from behind some columns and descend carefully on the usually very long staircases. But we never lost her; she never skipped any sortie and she didn’t seem to be worse for the wear at the end of the day.

We had quite a few people depending on canes, or with Parkinson tremors, or recovering from a stroke, and one could not but admire and envy the determination of these people to go on, do what we all did, enjoy it all, manage in difficult circumstances.

They never were an impediment and the rest of us would not have seen more or done better without them. I have all the admiration for them and I wish I would have their courage and fortitude and joie de vivre was I in their situation.

Then, there was the “happy hour”, when booze (which was not included in the price of the cruise) went at half price. Since I don’t drink much, and when I do it is usually wine or beer, I was amazed to see from close quarters how much hard liquor people can imbibe in such a short time. And we had a group who seem to be on a reunion of some kind, who usually started drinking before lunch and never stopped till late at night. About twelve in total, tipsy by early afternoon when not on a city tour, they became quite a problem and caused a lot of inconvenience to us all and to the crew, with total disregard for their fellow passengers. It was all pretty disgusting, so much so that it was arranged for them to always eat together in a more secluded area. At the end of the cruise, when the Captain gave us his farewell speech, even he, who was supposed to tell us how wonderful passengers we all were, could not stop making reference, too mildly and diplomatically in fact, to the “too happy group which has entertained us with their non-stop reveling antics throughout the seven days we were together”.


MS Venezia-Lounge

Travelling with a group implies at least some interaction with the other travellers. The two of us are not much for “small talk”, which was never really within our personal skills, but small talk is inevitable when you sit next to strangers on the deck, or on the bus, or at the three daily meals or in the bar for coffee breaks. “Small talk” is hard to do particularly when your table partners change every day and you have to answer daily prying questions such as “Where are you from?” (We have a bit of an East European leftover accent), and when we answer “From Canada” to be reciprocated with “But where are you really from?" After a while, it gets a bit tiring to talk about Dracula, which seems to be the only information some people, from North America in particular, have about Romania. Oh, yes, and Ceausescu… Alàs, Comaneci was forgotten.

One day we sat at the table with a Presbyterian minister and his wife, next day with a Methodist minister and his wife, and we were given in both cases crash courses in small talk; these gentlemen seem to be able to talk about anything and everything, including their personal lives, which is not really within our repertoire.

But we have also found people very much like us, and were fortunate to meet them early in the cruise and so the two of us and the two of them (J. and F.) spent a lot of time together, found we have similar interests and made sure we are in the same groups during the day tours or at the table.

The crew was very good: the Captain was Dutch, the incredibly resourceful Trish, the Tour Director was from New Zealand, the rest mostly from Croatia, Slovenia and Bulgaria, young people who needed jobs and who were at the same time respectful and protective, without intruding. The front desk staff was very cooperative: when I needed to unlock my new GSM phone (something I should have done before leaving Toronto…), they offered me their cellular phone to call Canada and charged me a symbolic amount for the cost, and only after I insisted.

The food was in all good and plentiful, not quite at gourmet level, but well prepared, fresh and happily served. The breakfast and lunch were buffet-style and this, regrettably, means I ate too much… Wine, beer, or other drinks had to be paid but were priced reasonably.

The ship was not in... ship-shape. The minuscule bathroom in our cabin was in need of repairs, and we had to complain about an unpleasant smell just outside of our cabin. Repairs were done, but the problem kept recurring.

The cabin, at about 110 sq. ft. (including the bathroom?) was small, but it had plenty of storage space, a large picture window, and two berths that turned to sofas during the day. I was fine with my bed, Josette felt a bit claustrophobic with hers: for some reason, one of the beds was encased into a frame with a bigger overhang and we resolved the problem by changing beds.

The advertised colour TV was there, but all channels with one exception (CNN) were German. No Italian channel while cruising in Italy? We received an explanation of sorts from the Purser: the ship is owned by Swiss owners. So?

At departure, all passengers were handed a sheet with requests for suggestions and comments. I sent the reply to the Uniworld Head Office in Los Angeles but never received a reaction from them, nor did I expect one.

In conclusion: would we take another cruise in the future? Probably yes, but I think we would bite the bullet and try a cruise with services of a level above those offered on this specific trip. In other words, we will not take the lowest priced cruise if others are available and, of course, if we can afford it. If not, we would rather look for alternatives.
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“MS Venezia” - still September 6, 2003, still in Venice

After dropping off the luggage in our cabin, despite being dead tired, we decide to take a first tour of the ship, starting with the lounge and then the upper deck. It all seems clean, smiling crew faces greeting us. In the lounge cold water and juice, coffee, tea and cakes are waiting for us, comfortable armchairs are spread around coffee tables, passengers filing in one by one, two by two. The Daily Program on the announcements board said that at 6:30 p.m. there will be a welcome cocktail, and the introduction of the crew.

Indeed, at 6:30 sharp our Captain, a pleasant man with a sweet Dutch accent, talks to us about matters referring mostly to security, and introduces the crew, starting with Trish, the young woman from New Zealand who would do a yeoman’s job over the next few days, always on top of situations, aware of the needs and requirements of every one of us, seemingly never sleeping a wink and still smiling and being not only charming but effective [Off on a tangent: in the last day of the trip, on the bus back from Parma, I said to Trish: “If I were 20 years younger…” “What would you do?” Trish asked under the suspicious looks coming from Josette. “Trish, I would offer you a job as Project Manager for any of our bigger projects and would never have to worry, since I know that you always will find a way!”]

The rest of the crew is from Germany and Holland (the two other officers) and the Balkans: Croatians, Bulgarians and Slovenians.

Trish explains that there will be a few changes to the original program: because of low water levels (surprise?), there will be no trip to Chioggia. On the other hand, tomorrow, Sunday, we will be offered a free morning in Venice and then we will all be able to follow in the afternoon the Regatta Storica, a great event which takes place annually, on the first Sunday in September. The planned tour of the Basilica San Marco and of the Doge’s Palace were moved to Monday morning and the Murano/Burano excursion will happen on Monday afternoon.

With glasses of prosecco in hand, we all descend for the first dinner on board, while the ship slowly starts moving away from the San Basilio dock to the one at Riva dei Sette Màrtiri. The dinner is over in time to see from the deck “Venice by evening”, the ship gliding soundlessly towards Santa Maria della Salute on one side, the Molo and then the Riva on the other. It is quite beautiful and for me, emotional. I stand on the deck, the sun setting behind us, golden light bathing buildings, boats, gondolas and, finally, the Giardini. By the time we stop alongside another ship, “Michelangelo”, it is dark.

Since the evening is free, at dinner we have been talking about walking back to the Piazza San Marco for a second farewell. A., a nice lady from New Jersey who sat at our table, said she has never been in Venice before and asked if she could join, at which we said yes, of course.

We leave the ship at around 9 in the evening and the three of us walk along the not so busy Riva, us pointing to A. the various places of interest –Via Garibaldi, the Museo Navale, Petrarca’s house, La Pietà, Paganelli, Danieli, Ponte dei Sospiri, Ponte di Paglia, etc.- while A. tells us the story of her life, and we have no idea if any of our explanations even register.

In the Piazza we introduce A. to the three bands, then the three of us take the road back, this time through back streets. We make it to the ship late enough to use the door code given to us by the Captain, listen to Karol, The Piano Man, in the lounge for a short while, and go to sleep. Day 6.
September 7, 2003 (Sunday) - still Venice, or how to miss the Regatta Storica

After breakfast we head to the Basilica di San Marco. We have never been in Venice on a Sunday, and we were told by Trish, the Tour Director, that one could use the side entrance from the Piazzetta dei Leoncini and enter the chapel for Mass. We are not much for Mass, but want to hear the liturgical music and the Gregorian chants, a Venice discovery indeed, not to be missed when in Venice on a Sunday. As we sit quietly and listen to the harmonious voices echoing in the Basilica, more and more people file in, most coming in for prayer, but also many recognizable faces from our group.

After some time, we return into the bright sun and walk back to the Riva to arrive at the ship in time for lunch, some rest and then on to the deck, where a little polite game is going on with disguised firmness and gritted teeth as people try to assume the best viewpoints for the upcoming Regatta. Protected by the shade of the deck, we loaf: the sun is glorious today, some haze forms afar, out to the sea, an ideal day for a Regatta.

Since we knew that on the day of the Regatta we will be on board the ship and the original cruise itinerary called for a free day, Josette and I have been trying to figure out where would be the best place to watch this extraordinary event. I remembered Paula Weidegger’s description of this pageant in her “Venetian dreaming” and I was looking so much forward to finding a good spot from which to witness the sumptuous, colourful extravaganza!

It was, therefore, with great enthusiasm, that we greeted Trish’s announcement that we will be able to see the Regatta from the deck of “Venezia”. What an unexpected stroke of luck!


Tribuna, ready for La Regata Storica

Trish is well prepared: we receive sheets explaining the background and history of the Regatta, including the full program, which starts with the words: “Programme of the Regatta: 4:30 Historical procession coming down the Grand Canal to arrive at the Gardens”, followed by the schedule of the various “sfide”, challenges between gondoliers, from young men races, to young women’s, crew races; descriptions of the various types of boats we were going to see are also provided, with detailed pictures and explanatory text, and so on.

As the hour approaches, I am somewhat surprised that we do not move further towards the Molo, but I have talked to Trish and her information was that the Regatta will end right in front of us, at the Giardini. And so, I wait, first with impatience, then with alarm, and finally with resignation, as time passes and nothing shows up from the far side, where La Salute marks the mouth of the Canal.

In the meantime, we are entertained by gondoliers, some single, some in crews ranging from two to four or eight, who are rowing up and down right in front of us as they warm up for their races.

At around 5 p.m. the races start, from the Giardini Pubblici to the Gardens, we are told. Now I understand and am I ever incensed: we have missed the procession, the main Regatta event, because while indeed it ends at the Giardini, the intent was the Giardini Reali, not Giardini Pubblici.

The disappointment caused by the missed glorious opportunity marks the rest of the day. After dinner, we take the long walk to Piazza San Marco again, our traditional last curtain.

When we return to the ship we meet one of the passengers, a young designer from Los Angeles, and she tells us that she was robbed in Venice: she had a back-pack in which unwisely she kept her money, passport, credit cards and plane tickets. All gone! She has already called the credit companies and now, with Trish, goes over the list of “things to do” next day, in order to replace the tickets, arrange for travel documents, etc. Day 7.
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September 8, 2003 (Monday) - Venice, Excursion to Murano and Burano

Rain! Rain! Rain! Pouring relentlessly! Trish has two themes at her morning briefing: (a) watch your step on planks, stairs and deck (why would anybody go on the deck in this weather?), and (b) this morning, rain permitting, we go to the Palazzo Ducale and the Basilica San Marco, with time to walk around, shop, etc.

While Piazza San Marco has been practically our backyard for 12 days in the past two years, we join the group out of solidarity. Umbrellas ahoy, we walk briskly towards the Piazza. Once there, local guides wait for us and the intent is to split in smaller groups for the duration of the tours, then everybody will make their way individually back to the ship, by foot or vaporetto. The visit of the Palazzo is rushed and as to the Basilica there is just one small problem: the lineup is all the way to the center of the Piazza, all sneaking in rows of two or four, and there is no way I would wait so long.

We decide to return to the ship, and rest, read, and yes!, I need to test my new GSM phone.

With the phone, the idea is to call the Europcar agency in Cremona, to reconfirm the car rental pickup. As I turn on the phone, the logos of local cellular phone networks pop up on the screen, together with welcoming messages. I delete these and dial the Europcar’s Cremona number, and the call is answered by a gentleman who doesn’t speak English, but whom I understand reasonably well: there is no Cremona Europcar agency, he just has a cell phone and no office and would I per favore call Europcar in Piacenza, at the so and so number, and they will have all the details. I thank him and try the Piacenza number, which rings and rings, but there is no answer. At this point, I allow myself to panic and am sufficiently worried to try my GSM phone’s transatlantic capabilities. There is just one small problem: there is no service, says the voice in my ear.

Time for reasoning: one option is not to worry about the car and assume it will be there; the other is to understand why there is no service for my GSM phone. I fixate on the latter and have an idea: I will ask to use the ship’s cellular phone to contact my GSM telephone provider in Toronto. Astrid, the First Lieutenant, is grace and kindness personified: she dials the 800 number I give her and hands me her phone when the operator answers at the other end. I explain the problem and I am asked to try again my phone while the operator will watch the circuit. Then I should call back. I ask her to call me and she agrees. A few minutes later Astrid’s phone rings and I am told that my phone was not unlocked due to a clerical error and now all is ready for me to use the phone, with their apologies for the misunderstanding.

I try again Auto Europe in U.S. and this time all works to perfection, with crystal clear reception. As usual, the Auto Europe staff are just great: they find for me a supervisor who specialises in Italian rentals, she comes to the phone and explains to me the Cremona/Piacenza imbroglio: no Europcar office in Cremona, larger agency in Piacenza, she will call them, not to worry, all will be ready just as contracted! I thank her and then Astrid, and ask Astrid to charge me for the calls and am now assured that the phone works as advertised.

By now, the lunch is ready, due to the early departure to Murano. The rain has stopped but the sky is still gray; passengers return to the ship and I find out that some of them even went out on gondolas, in rain and high waves and, not surprisingly, none look too happy about the experience and some faces look quite green...


Come, Lady, have no fear, stormy weather...

The departure to Murano is by vaporetto. We are told that the Captain, aware of the many passengers being disappointed by cancellations and changes in itinerary, and by the mournful weather, has decided to offer us a special treat by moving the ship in the evening and coming to pick us up from Burano.

This is our second time in Murano and Burano and for me the return is mostly an occasion for photography. On arrival in Murano we are predictably greeted by a representative of a Vetreria and are directed to a demonstration of glass working. We stand on podiums, while before us an elderly gentleman, a twin if not the clone of the one who gave us a similar demo only five days ago, proceeds to work with a ball of molten glass and presto!, with an eerie feeling for me, produces a graceful horse in flight! Secretly, I decide that in fact on whole of Murano there only one elderly worker, who knows how to make horses, and he runs from vetreria to vetreria all day to give demonstrations to tourists…

Some free time is available for browsing in the many show rooms of the vetreria as well as in the many smaller shops along the water. We buy a few more necklaces and other trinkets. I ask about Museo Vetrario and about Chiesa Santa Maria e Donato, but I am told there will be no time for additional visits; we go on to Burano.

As planned after the first trip to Burano, we take some time for polychromatic photography and turn from Piazza Galuppi into the back streets, where we are surprised to find modern villas with beautiful gardens, which give away a completely different aspect, much less commercial, of Burano.

Returning to the main square, Josette browses some more at Dalla Olga and I go into the Chiesa di San Martino for a re-acquaintance with Tiepolo’s magnificent Crucifixion, and then wait at one of the cafés along Via Galuppi, the main thoroughfare of the little island. A few more people from our group join me, whether for coffee or beer, a very pleasant afternoon now that the clouds have lifted and the late day sun makes its presence felt.

The ship meets us as promised and we return to Sette Màrtiri just in time for dinner. In the evening, there is dancing in the lounge, I read Primo Levi’s “Il sistema periodico”, Josette watches a movie. Tomorrow we leave Venice and go on to Padova. Day 8.
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September 9, 2003 (Tuesday) - Excursion to Padova

An interesting day: first, the return of the ship to San Basilio, where coaches will wait for us for a trip to Padova, then farewell to Venice as the ship moves on to Taglio di Po, where will stay overnight. A safety drill is planned for the afternoon; the rest of the day will be on board, the ship detouring for a while onto the Adriatic Sea, before turning back inland. So that we won't feel totally cooped up, there will be professional entertainment tonight: an “operatic evening”.

Soon after an early breakfast we all board buses which take us to Padova, where we stop at a huge parking lot, which turns out to be not far from Prato della Valle, an enormous elliptic Piazza built on the site of a Roman theatre. The Piazza is in fact a park surrounded by a moat and is home to an amazing collection of statues, about 80 of them, celebrating some of the most famous Padovans: teachers, medics, philosophers. The tall statues frame the sidewalks around the moat, and two huge alleys cut through the piazza, with graceful bridges over the moat, the alleys finally crossing in the middle of the area, thus splitting this amazing open space into slices, much like those of a cosmic-sized cake. Traffic is quite light around Prato della Valle, and on the four sides of the square which encase the park there are small buildings, with shops mostly, or at least this is all we can see from a distance.

I would like to circle the Piazza and check on the many statues, to see their names, by what were these people distinguished, but there is no time for more than a few minutes and a few rushed photographs. At one corner of the square there is an impressive church, with many domes and I assume this is the Saint’s Basilica but I am told by the local guide that this is “only” the Basilica di Santa Giustina, and that we will go to the Basilica di Sant’Antonio next; no time for poor Santa Giustina.

As we walk towards Sant’Antonio, we ask the guide about the Scrovegni Chapel, which houses the recently restored Giotto fresco masterpiece. The guide tells us that we will have some free time after visiting the Basilica and suggests two options: a walk into the University area or, if we feel adventurous, a trip to the Scrovegni Chapel, the latter by using a free municipal shuttle bus route serviced by electrical buses. The only thing to remember, she tells us, is that you will have only about 90 minutes to get there and back, and we will not be able to wait for you. Moreover, the visits at the Chapel are regulated much like the viewing of Leonardo’s Last Supper: here there is a strict limit of 15 minutes (compared with the 20 minutes available at the Cenacolo) for each group, and advance reservation of tickets is required.

I don’t feel adventurous enough to throw myself into an unknown city to look for a place were we may not even be admitted, but J. and F., who also were interested in this visit, try to challenge and also encourage me using flattery: they need “my” Italian, J. explains; hers is not good enough. Feeling like the Emperor with no clothes, sorry: with no Italian, I look at Josette but she is game and I say: “what the h..l; we'll try”.

But first to the Basilica del Santo, because in Padova Sant’Antonio is so much part of the fabric of the city’s history that it is not necessary to name him: “The Saint” here means no Roger Moore but Sant’ Antonio and also the Basilica dedicated to him, so if you say you go to Il Santo it is clear you do not plan to meet him personally but rather visit the beautiful church.

We arrive very soon at the Piazza del Santo and the Basilica. At this hour the Piazza is quite deserted and we seem to be the only visitors. While the guide tells the story of Sant’Antonio, I take in the simple but elegant façade, with a long, graceful gallery bridging over the entire front, the capital with the rose window, and above a hint of the domes and minarets, which give the Basilica a distinct oriental air.

Inside the main point of interest is the chapel containing the Arca del Santo, where Sant'Antonio is entombed. Donatello’s works distinguish both the interior, with the a crucifix, bronze statues and reliefs of the high altar, among them the famous Man of Sorrows, and the exterior, with the imposing riding statue of Gattamelata, the renowned Venetian mercenary and Condottiere, whose tomb is in one of the chapels of the Basilica. We end the visit with the two peaceful cloisters, one of them offering a very good view of the Basilica.

As we all meet back in Piazza del Santo, the four of us get again careful instructions from the guide, directions where to get on the electrical shuttle bus and where to get off in order to meet the rest of the group.

We go towards our adventure to the corner of the Piazza, from where we can see the station of the shuttle, with two of the buses in the station. The first question is which one should we take and in my best Italian I ask “Per la Cappella degli Scrovegni, per piacere?”. The “Si” is a signal to get on the bus, which is quite small, with about 8 or 10 seats and a space in the middle for the daring or for those we have no other choice. For one has to be daring or bereft of choices to stand in the little bus when the driver starts his route as if he drives a Formula 1 car.

The bus sways this way and that, and F., who uses a cane to ease on a painful knee, and myself, owner of two invisible but very real artificial hips, hang on for dear life. Finally, some people get off and I get to sit close to the driver, watching his every move and hoping that he will tell us where to get off, or otherwise we will go ‘round and round' the center of Padova to eternity. But no, he didn’t forget us and as at one of the stops he gesticulates vaguely and announces: “Eco Piazza Eremitani per la cappella!”.

We get off the shuttle dazed by the ride, and find ourselves in front of the building of a church and face to face with a gypsy beggar. As we try at the same time to avoid her insistence and to figure out where we are, we notice a sign directing to the Cappella degli Scrovegni; later, looking at a map, I will figure out that the first building was that of the Chiesa degli Eremitani, whose recent history is closely tied to that of the Cappella, since both were heavily damaged during the Second World War; the church was since restored, but the section of the Cappella which was destroyed could not be restored. Fortunately for the world, Giotto’s frescoes were in a sector of the Cappella, which, miraculously, was not damaged at all. The Scrovegni name comes from a family of money lenders, one of them infamous enough in Padova of its time to be mentioned by Dante, who condemned him to Hell.

Following the sign, we stop at a modest building and enter what appears to be the entrance to the museum. Here we are stopped by a nice gentleman, who explains to us in great details, but way too fast, that we cannot go immediately into the Cappella, but have to obtain tickets for a specific hour. The first available time slot would be 11:15 and the visit lasts 15 minutes.

We check our watches and figure that we should be able to get back to Prato della Valle in time to catch our bus and not be stranded in Padova. But it will be tight. We plunge and buy the 12 Euro tickets and are directed to another part of the building, where others are already lined up.

It is 11 o’clock and an attendant is waving the queue in. We advance with the queue and are allowed to proceed! We just gained 15 minutes!

The air-conditioned waiting room in which we are assembled is surrounded by glass on three sides and this allows us to admire the beautiful garden while we wait, not for long, since on a screen a slide and sound show starts. This is a comprehensive presentation of the history of the chapel, followed by an analysis of Giotto’s masterpiece. The frescoes have undergone recent restorations resulting in a stable state and this has allowed further work to be done. This work continues.

We are finally allowed into the chapel. The first impression is that of disorientation: the walls of the single nave are literally covered from floor to ceiling by paintings, each delineating a specific scene from the lives of Mary and Jesus, all organized meticulously, following a clear programme: the story of the New Testament is told in three continuous horizontal leyers of paintings, the top layer dedicated on one side to the life of Joachim and on the other on the life of Mary, each contained in six panels, Mary’s continuing into the chancel.

The life of Jesus is depicted in the following two layers, the last scenes of his life on the lowest layer, the closest to the viewer. As the visitor turns towards the entrance, the powerful Last Judgement leaves the final and everlasting impression.

Significant figures from the Old Testament, the Seven Virtues and the Seven Sins, saints and angels, all complete and frame the story. Every available surface is used and it is quite easy to see the powerful educational meaning of this work in times in which few knew how to read and most came by their knowledge of the Bible only through such expressive images.

Up, above our heads, dominates the blue expanse of the ceiling, decorated with shining stars.

15 minutes are not nearly enough to look at and understand the extraordinary power of Giotto’s talent, the realism and drama of the panels in which each scene and moment are staged to perfection, logical conclusion to the previous painting, lead into the following. So what is left to the visitor is to absorb as much as possible from the general impression left by the superlative art and thinking of Giotto, a genius two hundred years ahead of the Sistine Chapel. Once the general impression was captured, then attention can be given to details, to individual scenes, to the emotion encapsulated in some or the force of destiny expressed in others.

We leave the chapel only when reminded by the staff that the 15 minutes have passed. There is much left behind to see, with regrets that the time allowance is so miserly strict. There weren’t many people behind us and there could have been a more generous allotment of time, but this is only wishful thinking, or possibly an incentive to return, since we have left much to see in Padova and should come back some day.

Return to reality faces us with the practical question as to where the shuttle bus is. Finally, after a couple of anxious minutes, we find the station and are on the way back to Prato della Valle, where buses wait to return us all back to the ship.

The afternoon is more at less at leisure. First, at about 3 p.m. the “alarm” sounds the beginning of the safety drill. Warned well in advance, we find easily our life vests, strap them on and walk towards the assembly point in the lounge. In about 10 minutes, all passengers are in the lounge, wearing funny faces and looking just as funny with the life vests on. It turns out emergency does not account for dignity: some vests are strapped upside down, some face to back, some cannot go around a few more rotond passengers. Nonetheless, the Captain declares himself satisfied with this first (!) training session and then warns us that, as the ship will go into the Adriatic for a few hours later in the afternoon, we will be well advised not only to remember where we left the life vests, but also to limit our traffic on the ship because high waves are expected due to the windy weather.

I spend much of the afternoon in the lounge, reading some more from “Il sistema periodico”, dictionary and pencil at the ready. I enjoy more and more reading in Italian; what I don’t understand directly I try to figure out based on vocabulary from sister languages, although I am sure this is at best a “hit and miss” method. Still, referring too much to the dictionary is a disincentive and I now try to use it only when absolutely necessary.

Trish, our Tour Director, who hails from New Zealand and retained all the charm of the typical New Zealand accent (I suspect she is even kind of overplaying it a bit, just to add to the exotic of her persona), has taken a microphone and draws the attention of those staying in the lounge to various points of interest as we pass them by. One of the most memorable is her pointing towards the shore and saying something like “…and there you can see the fishermen and the nits…” and it takes me a few moments of confusion as I consider what she meant to say, what and where are the “nits” and then I figure out that she really said and meant “nets”, but it just came out as “nits”. I’ll never forget this!

The exit into the Adriatic is indeed marked, as we were advised by our Captain, by pretty high waves and the ship, a flat bottomed, overgrown river boat really, handles the situation with reasonable aplomb but also with some alarming leaning from port to starboard and back, like a drunken…sailor? Since it is coffee time, and the coffee is being served only about 10 steps away from me, I hesitate before taking my chances with my titanium hips and go to the table to help myself. The crew member minding the coffee and the cakes reproaches me kindly that he could have brought the coffee to my table, and I indeed ask him to do so with a refill or two.

The evening is dedicated to opera, or so we were advised. In truth, the mezzo-soprano who joined us for the evening, we assume from Padova, has a large and populist repertoire and sprinkles a few arias in between canzonette and Italian pop, all very entertaining for us all but not for the accompanist, we seems always surprised by the numbers chosen by the diva and rifles desperately through his music to find the right sheets, not always successfully it must be said, and then he improvises with aplomb, a beat or two behind the singer.

The evening ends with passengers, crew and Diva singing at the top of our lungs “Volare” for which the text was thoughtfully provided on paper with the logo of “La Certosa, antico ristorante, Firenze"(!). Did they come both all the way from Florence? Anyway, “Volare” won the first prize at the San Remo Festival in the year in which Josette and I were married and caries a heavy load of memories, so this is quite nice and touching. Probably because of the emotion I manage to turn over the candle on our table and start a small fire which I myself rapidly extinguish before drawing attention and suffering huge embarrassment, but the paper with the words of “Volare” is burnt a bit in one of the corners and, as I write these lines and I look at it, it reminds me of a very special moment. To Josette: “Ma io continuo a sognare negli occhi tuoi belli, che sono blu come un cielo trapunto di stelle”. Day 9.
September 10, 2003 (Wednesday) - Excursion to Ferrara

This morning the ship will sail from Taglio di Po to Polesella. Little did we know: Polesella will turn out to become our final destination and port of call for the rest of the trip because, as I suspected all along and kept asking the Tour Director every day, there is not enough water in the Po to accommodate our ship and, it will turn out, any other ship following the same route. But all this will transpire only on Thursday. For the time being we sail peacefully and we spend some time on the upper deck, enjoying the view, reading, drinking coffee.

The arrival in Polesella, like in all ports of call for a Po river cruise, is uneventful: there is a very high bank in front of us, a dam of sorts whose purpose is to impede the tendency of the Po to flood (alàs, not this summer…), and behind the dam a little town, about 10-15 minutes away on foot. Polesella is a town of fishermen and sailors and its proud slogan is: “Roma è la città dei setti Colli, Polesella è il paese dei sette moli”. And this is how I found out that “molo” means jetty or wharf…

One of the architectural gems of Polesella, but not the only one, since the city is distinguished by a number of such outstanding structures, is the Villa Morosini Mantovani, right at the edge of the road which leads from the dock of “Venezia” into the town itself. The Villa, which cannot be visited and seems deserted, will tempt us daily, with its melancholic air of dereliction, lonely in the midst of the open plain, on the other side of the not so busy strada. The name Morosini evokes the great Venetian admiral who fought the Ottoman empire, the name Mantovani evokes, well, the famous orchestra and great Christmas melodies… I am sure there must be a connection; it just escapes me right now.

But for today, only a fugitive look at the Villa, and at the town over in the shallow valley since, after an early lunch, we all board buses for the trip to Ferrara. After difficult maneuvering on the narrow roadway at the top of the dam, when reversing we get to see the ship, and moving forward the Villa, we are finally on the way to Ferrara, the fortress of the D’Este family for more than 300 years.

The d’Este rivalry with the princes of Milan, Venice and Mantova gave high prominence to Ferrara, which was also the home of Ariosto and Tasso and, in fact, after a spectacular view of the walls which surround the city, we enter the Largo of the massive and dour D’Este Castle, passing Via Ariosto where the house in which the poet lived is still preserved.

Some of us would have liked to have the option of visiting Pallazo Schifanoia, the playground of the long reigning D’Este family, but it is not going to happen: Schifanoia, with its delights, is not included in the excursion. Instead, after the Castle, we will visit the Cathedral (Duomo) and, following that, there will be some leisure time when guides will take those interested to the Ghetto area, while others may elect to relax over a coffee or drink, or do some shopping.

Castello Estense took over two hundred years to complete. Surrounded as it is today by a heavy residential and commercial area, it is difficult to project its immense proportions. It is a really formidable and forbidding medieval castle, with moat and drawbridges, towers and turrets, quite gloomy and cold. No wonder the D’Este felt the need to seek refuge and change of décor at Schifanoia.

The tour of the castle starts in the grim Prigioni, but we move on mercifully fast which brings us up the stairs, to the Sala and the Saletta dei Giocchi, with their wonderful frescoes of games and competitions in sports long forgotten and in some still alive and well in our times: swimming, wrestling, weightlifting, discus throwing and something that looks like basketball played with hoops, as well as children playing ball or bowling. The Saletta has also a beautiful Circle of the Seasons; all these expressive frescoes cover walls and ceilings, but we are not allowed the time for more than a quick look, as we must move on.

We go through Sala dell’Aurora, with mythological figures and scenes, then the appropriately named Salla dei Baccanali, and we all find ourselves on the terrace of the Giardino degli Aranci where, indeed, there are still orange trees, with real oranges, enjoying the heat of the sun outside. Ladies and gentlemen, cameras please!

Back down in the Largo we start the short walk to the Duomo with a stop in Piazza Savonarola, in front of the domineering statue of one of Ferrara’s famous (infamous?) sons, Girolamo Savonarola, in Dominican monk habit, spreading his arms to include us and looking threateningly to us, sinners.

The Cathedral of Ferrara is a jewel of marble lace, with its three levels of galleries and the graceful Campanile, blinding white in the blinding sun which aims straight on the façade. It is all arches and ornaments and rose windows, with a capital busy with a profusion of sculptures of saints. We are told it has undergone many additions and changes, some by Biaggio Rosetti, who has left his mark everywhere in the city, with churches and pallazi, including the eluding Schifanoia. The short time at our disposal and the quiet insistence of the guides bring us back into the street. La visita è finìta! We ask our guide whether she would be ready to walk with a few of us towards the Ghetto, others ask about the best shopping area; it turns out they are both in the same place, and so we all walk towards the Ghetto, with the window shoppers peeling off as we go along.

Ferrara and the D’Este had a great tradition of welcoming the Jewish medics, chemists and merchants and protecting them. With its center around Via Mazzini, Via delle Volte, Via Vignatagliata and Via Vittoria, the Jewish community of Ferrara thrived from the 14th century, only to be confined to the Ghetto by the third decade of the 17th century, locked in by five portals which will shut at dusk and reopen at dawn. The community was later freed from these confines, probably as result of the Napoleonic reforms.

Many community members perished in the Holocaust, and are commemorated by marble plaques on the two sides of the Synagogue’s doors. On one side a commemorative plaque mentions the date of September 8, 1943 when thousands of Jewish Italians were rounded up and deported; on the other side of the doors there is the plaque with the names of those who never returned.

And yet a third plaque celebrates the enlightment displayed by the D’Este, as attested by the photograph now in front of me, as I write, in which I can read with a magnifying lens: “Il 20 Nov. 1492 Il Duca Ercole D’Este proteso a trasformare mirabilmente il volto della sua capitale onde farse la prima cità Europea. Invitò gli Ebrei esuli dalla Spagna a trovare in Ferrara una nuova ospitale Patria…”. To the side of this inscription, formidable iron grille gates protect the Synagogue and the Museo Ebraico above it from the perils of our own, “more civilised”, times…

The improvised tour continues through narrow streets, back alleys and dark passages and ends with the deep perspective of the arcades of Via delle Volte, which melt into each other, a bit like a giant, deep set of Russian Babushkas.

We thank our guide appropriately for this incursion into past and present. On the way back to the Castelo Estense, where buses wait for us, we get a glimpse, not more, of the Palazzo Comunale, initially the residence of the ducal family of Ferrara. A quick stop for coffees, a few more pictures, the last stragglers arrive, and we are on the way back to Polesella and the ship.

During the long bus drive I go over the promised itinerary for the day; we were supposed to make a stop in Revere, dock in Revere for the night and visit the Po Museum. Alas, the Po is down today, literally and figuratively, and the ship will not budge anymore from Polesella for the rest of the trip…

For the evening we are promised a “talent show” presented by the ship’s crew. We have our doubts about amateur talent shows, but there is little else to do on the ship after dinner, unless one wants to venture 15 or 20 minutes on foot into Polesella. And so, we take our seats in the lounge and decide to have open minds. It wouldn’t be necessary: it turns out the “talent show” is indeed funny and engaging. Most of the crew are still working on their English and so the show is mostly pantomime, starting with a hilarious depiction of the life in their probably extremely tight quarters on the ship, where every time one turns in sleep the others have to move in turn, going on with scenes at Customs, the mariner returning home after a long trip and searching for his long gone wife, even a dance, a magic show, prestidigitation. The star of the show is Marco, the barman cum waiter cum porter, a really funny guy, with a feel for dry humour. It turns out to be a very entertaining evening. The show over, actors and public return to reality and to their usual roles, and the bar reopens, since the night is still young. Day 10.
September 11, 2003 (Thursday) - Excursion to Mantova

At breakfast the “news” break into the open: because the waters of the Po are so low, the Captain has decided that the ship will stay for the rest of the cruise in Polesella. This will mean some very long bus trips: to Mantova today and to Parma and Cremona tomorrow, with lunches in the respective towns. Instead of ending in Cremona as planned, the tour will close in Parma; from there, the bulk of the passenger will be taken by bus the following morning to Milano and on to their flights, mostly to U.S. The tour director will approach others, with special arrangements, us and J. and F. among them, individually.

I look at Trish, her face ashen but mouth still smiling, and I think how many hours on the telephone she must have had to invest in order to make all these new arrangements: hotels for 50-60 people, two lunches for about 70-75 people, special arrangements for some of us. But Trish is brave and does not let off any sign of being tired; just her New Zealander accent betrays her by being a tad more audible.

Trish misses nothing: she notices our eyebrows raised in question and comes by our table to tell us that all has been taken care off and she will talk to us on the bus, on the way to Mantova.

Am I by now just tired of all this busing around or is Mantova much farther? I don’t enjoy the long ride and I pass the time reading about Mantova (his Mantua) in H.V. Morton’s “A traveller in Italy”, my Italian Bible. Trish makes her way to our seats and announces that she has arranged for us, as we have suggested, remaining tomorrow night in Cremona, instead of returning with the rest of the group to Parma. Arrangements were made for the four of us to stay tomorrow night at Hotel Continental in the center of Cremona, a 4-star hotel. I ask Trish whether we could stay the night at Hotel Ibis, where we will pick up our rental car on Saturday, but the answer is that she has already scouted both hotels and Continental is by far the better and only a few Euro worth of taxi ride from Ibis. She will prove to have been both right and wrong: the taxi will cost only a few Euro indeed, but the hotel… on this later.

Among the cities towards and within which we were constantly rushed throughout this tour, and of course with Venice excepted, it is a toss up whether we liked most Mantova or Parma. I wouldn’t try to make a decision, but I suspect Mantova would have taken the top spot if not for the fact that we arrived there on the best, or worst day possible, depending on one’s perspective. It was market day in Mantova and, once in town after visiting the Palazzo del Té, we literally had to elbow our way through the crowds in order to keep in touch with the group, the older people in our group being the most affected. All of us were forewarned, and rightfully so, to watch purses, camera bags and pockets for this is a fair day and all are fair targets for pickpockets (pun intended…).

But it all starts with a wonderful tour in the Palazzo del Té, home to spectacular and sophisticated fresco and stucco works of art, housed in an architectural masterpiece built by Giulio Romano, a student of Raphael, as a restful retreat for Federico II Gonzaga.

The Palazzo is in fact an opulent, gigantically overgrown Palladian Villa. Gigantism, opulence and eroticism are the themes throughout the Palazzo where, thankfully, photography is permitted and so I would not have to rely on memory or illustrated cards. Unusually, each room has information sheets in English, which completed the explanations given by the guide and allowed for some individual wandering without the concern of missing important details.

If we had to choose, we loved the most the Sala dei Cavalli, which is far from being the most spectacular. But, since seeing in Venice for the first time the original four bronze horses in the Basilica, we became more interested in these noble animals, an unexpected by-product, I must say, of a visit in a House of God.

Here, in Palazzo del Té, the six Gonzaga Berberi, the race horses so beloved by the Gonzagas, jump at you from the walls, powerful, proud, life-like, painted in front of imaginary landscapes and made to seem as if they come right out of them, ready to step-dance into life, all that is missing being the magical wand to set them off. The Gonzagas were well known throughout Europe for the magnificent products of their stud farm, and the animals portrayed here are their testimony for posterity.

Of the erotic frescoes, the most suggestive and attractive are in the Sala di Amore è Psiché, depicting the story of Psiché. The center frescoes on both longitudinal walls present Cupid and Psiché, surrounded by suggestive bacchanalian excesses, natural and “unnatural”, an orgy of colour, motion and… orgiastic attitudes. These are complemented by smaller panels and by ceiling paintings of drunken gods, rapacious goddesses, sultry beauties, mythological monsters. Rating: for adults only, age 25 and above!

We learn that this was a banquet hall in those days of Gonzaga glory, and wonder on what the guests’ eyes would rather rest: the scenes on the walls surrounding them, or the food on their plates. Maybe some even elected to starve!

Another exceptional room is the Sala dei Giganti, in which the theme is the demolition and destruction mercilessly carried on by Gods over the rebelling Giants, till the latter are not only vanquished but also annihilated. There is shocking gore, and mute screams, and enormous faces filled with despair, monumental figures with heroic musculature enthralled in eternal fights without mercy. The crumbling structures, broken pillars, falling ceiling and walls, could well represent the destruction of the Temple by Samson, it is so powerful.

We end the visit walking into the garden through the Loggia di Davide, but only for a quick look, and we are on the way, back to buses, which take us as close as possible towards the Cathedral.

Off the bus, we suddenly find ourselves in the medieval town, in Piazza Sordello, where the Gonzagas staged the coup that brought them to power: narrow streets, close walls, and an endless multitude of people: Market Day in Mantova. As we contemplate having to fight our way through so many people and still keep contact with the group, the guide stops and directs our attention to a house on the right: Casa di Rigoletto!

Tradition holds that here lived the tragic Rigoletto with his daughter Gilda, before Luciano Pavarotti, oh!, sorry, the Duke of Mantua, probably fresh from ogling the Psiché frescoes in his pleasure palace, went on the town to look for new conquests. Thus he found Verdi, who was looking for a subject for a new opera, etc., etc.

A small house, now housing a service of Tourist Information and temporary exhibitions, a little garden obscured from the street by a high brick and stucco wall, a narrow dark loggia, with a commemorative plaque dedicated to Rigoletto: ”Questa antica casa del Capitolo della Catedrale dalla scenografia del celebre melodrama prescelta a dimora del Leggendario Rigoletto… restaurava nel ricordo del genio universale di Giuseppe Verdi…” There is a statue of a sad, dejected Rigoletto in the garden only partially touched by the sun. As we leave, we can see the balcony from which Gilda was abducted.

From this place, in which legend and reality are entwined, we enter the old center of Mantova, through the busy crowds, and find ourselves in front of the Cathedral of San Pietro, the Duomo of Mantova. The Piazza is all overflowing with market stalls, but there is just enough breathing room for the Cathedral to show off its beautiful baroque façade, as redone in the 17th century, so that little really remains of the original. However, the original structure itself, and the Campanile, the latter built almost a millennium ago, remain. The Palazzo Ducale with Castello di San Giorgio complete the area but are not included in this trip.

We meet the rest of the group for lunch and are guided through narrow side streets to a small house, but it turns out, the narrow entrance leads into very large rooms, sufficient to host the 70-80 people in our group. One can doubt the food prepared for such large group, but obviously this is not a problem here: the food served, with antipasti, primi and secondi, dolci, wine and water, is excellent. Some people have special requirements and these, together with second helpings, opening more bottles of wine, etc., are being handled to perfection. The food is all fresh, the waiting staff are efficient and smiling and ready to respond to every request. I am sorry I didn’t retain the name of the restaurant, nor will I ever be able to retrace the way to it, but it will remain a pleasant memory, no doubt glossed over by the grappa and the double espresso that finished it.

Back in the fresher air, a nap would have done just fine, but instead, we walk towards the very beautiful Piazza delle Erbe, a square bursting with market stalls, sellers hawking their wares, buyers picking among the incredibly diverse displays of merchandise, trying on “al fresco” sweaters, shoes, overcoats. Full as it is right now with people, the Piazza is still dominated by the astrological Clock Tower and the Palazzo della Ragione. Two smaller buildings attract the eye: the San Lorenzo, a little church, and the tiny two-stories Casa del Mercante, an architectural landmark, its terracotta ornaments reflecting in pastel the sunlight. And another house, this one a much larger and more opulent house, probably the home of a noble family or of a richer merchant, with flowing stucco decorations, a medieval Dali impression…

The last stop in Mantova is at the Chiesa di San Andrea, its entrance under a enormous arch, the impression of a triumphal arch topped by an antique capital which, in turn, is topped by another, smaller arch. The size of the interior is astonishing, the weight of its ceiling supported with a technique probably similar to that used in the Pantheon in Rome, and by enormous pillasters. The overall feeling is quite gloomy. Here we find as we enter the tomb of the painter Andrea Mantegna, who worked for the Gonzagas in the later part of his life. In front of the main altar there is a protected crypt, said to house the blood of Jesus.

Another long bus ride will bring us to the ship. This will be the last night on board, and I can’t say that I will regret the somewhat cramped cabin, and its much more cramped shower room, whose taps have left their imprint on my scalp each time I had to bend and pick up the soap and the soap dish, which kept falling every time I touched it. But it is an ending, and all endings carry the weight of melancholia, so I will allow myself to bit a bit melancholic tonight.

As we enter our cabin, we find a number of documents on the little table: an invitation to the Captain’s Dinner tonight (black tie, which I don’t carry, encouraged), a “Comments and Suggestions” sheets, and envelopes marked “Crew” and “Trish”. There is also a discreet note with suggestions with respect to the tips we are supposed to either leave in envelopes or have them charged to credit cards. We knew about the suggested tips since they were openly mentioned in the cruise documentation. And we didn’t have anything against these tips since we knew well that crews rely heavily on them to complement their usually low incomes. Besides, they were young, willing, polite, charming and deserved it. And so we fill the envelopes with the tips, the suggested amounts plus, in Euro as opposed to the recommended USD, a small additional bonus. For hard-working, ever resourceful Trish, it is even simpler: we just double the surprisingly modest suggested amount.

As to “Comments and Suggestions”, we will complete them from home and send them to the Uniworld President, at their Los Angeles Headquarters. We will never get a reply. Nor did we seriously expect any.

Envelopes in hand, we make our way to the lounge, for the cocktail, which precedes Captain’s Dinner. At the door, to welcome us, we are greeted by the Captain, in a splendid royal blue uniform, and next to him Trish in a pretty blouse and pants. We are handed glasses with champagne and join fellow passengers for a last lounge chat. The flash of cameras indicates that all do what we do: take farewell photos, maybe exchange addresses or email IDs.

The dinner menu is great, the wine is free, and so is the brandy. Since most of our luggage is done, we linger a bit longer. Day 11.
September 12, 2003 (Friday) - Excursions to Parma, Cremona, what else?

Breakfast is served at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. We thought we would be first, but as we walk along the lower deck corridor, everybody had already aligned their luggage by the door of their cabin. Our luggage is additionally identified with (supplied) yellow ribbons, since it should be dropped off at our hotel in Cremona, while all others will have their luggage taken to Parma before proceeding to Cremona.

Since we travel in two buses and some may elect not to even go on to Cremona, we seek those with whom we didn’t manage to exchange farewells last night, after the Captain’s Dinner (now it sounds so pretentious, but this is what they called it!)

On to the buses and the long ride to Parma. On the way, we stop to drop off luggage and get a quick look at the Parma hotel where the rest of the group will stay overnight. Forgot the name, but the place was more than nice: elegant marble, airy lobby, a beautiful garden in front.

We are already in Parma, therefore it doesn’t take long to get to the meeting point, where we will split in a few small groups and go on with local guides. This point is Parma’s most famous Opera House, Teatro Regio; couldn’t be better, first because Josette gets to exercise her hobby and read every single poster, second because it is the geographical center of everything we will see today.

Teatro Regio is a classical European Opera House, but somewhat crowded by the narrow streets surrounding it. A bit further on, on Strada Garibaldi, open the impressive Piazza Pilotta and Piazza della Pace, the former with the view of Palazzo della Pilotta, which we will visit later, the latter dominated by a monument dedicated to the Italian Resistance and another to Giuseppe Verdi. Here the vista opens wider and we get the first “taste” of Parma, not the culinary one but that of the city with the great history.

Most of what I knew about Parma came from Stendhal’s “La Chartreuse de Parme” and from the film based on it, seen in a summer al fresco garden theater in Bucharest, oh!, so many millennia ago, from which all I can remember is the noble figure of Gerard Philipe, the unforgettable great French actor, all those hardly thorough sources for today’s visit. Well, I did some reading of H.V. Morton, but Parma still waits to be discovered.

The tour begins with an easy walk towards the Duomo and the Battistero. Along a few narrow streets, with book and map shops and cafés, and suddenly in front of us appears a tower with a clock, to its right an angular vision in pink. As we move on, the sight becomes more defined: a large piazza, the clock tower identifies itself as the Campanile, to its left the Duomo, to its right the vision in pink, the Battistero.

The façade of the Duomo, much in the style and tradition of the many other cathedrals we have seen on this tour, is somewhat dwarfed by the dominating Campanile or, maybe, it is indeed smaller, or it seems so through the airy impression given by the three elegant galleries and by the triple stacked portals. We enter the Duomo to find that the view from the piazza can indeed be deceiving, since the interior is much larger than expected. The theme of “three of each” is carried here by the nave and aisles, supported by giant pillars. While the entire Cathedral is richly decorated, we are directed towards the cupola, where we find the astonishing, almost surrealist currents and swirls of Correggio’s Assumption of the Virgin.

Back into the piazza, the Battistero draws attention, much more so than the Duomo itself that the latter looks almost modest. An octagonal shape, clothed in red-pink marble, vertically elongated by rows of loggias supported by delicate pillars, horizontally extended on the eight sides decorated with reliefs of fantastic and real animals and fish, everywhere niches housing statues and portals decorated with more figures, it all gives a feeling of motion and elevation, much like the feeling given by Correggio’s Assumption next door, in the Duomo. I don’t remember ever having seen a building so seemingly alive.

But the marvel waits for us inside. Mercifully, there are chairs provided for the visitors, and so we can take our time observing while the guide explains. The ribbed cupola, with its 16 elegant pink marble arches, which start at the level of the lower loggia, then dissolve into a small circle at the top, is a miracle of design. The geometrically divided spaces resulting from these arches as they cross the two levels of loggias, are filled with frescoes which strikingly remind somehow of Greek Orthodox naïve icons and paintings which embellish the walls of Romanian churches and monasteries, so very Byzantine in style.

The lower loggia houses statues of saints and laic sculptures and reliefs: the seasons, the twelve months, zodiac signs, more presentations of domestic animals. The walls are covered with frescoes depicting scenes from the New Testament, practically from the top of the cupola to the floor. Generations upon generations of people have leaned and rubbed their shoulders and backs against these walls, which were never protected, are not even now, and whatever was painted on them, up to the height of a human being, was irretrievably lost, worn off to the base.

In the center of the Battistero there is a puzzling double font: it is so enormous, huge monolithic blocs of marble, that it is hard to imagine how anybody could have been lowered into it without some ancillary steps, now gone.

Sitting, head turned up towards the extraordinary ceiling, I take in a much as I can. Like in the Duomo, photography is permitted in the Battistero, and so I use the last available minutes to shoot as many photos as I can. Back at home, and as I write now, I will discover they all came out very well and I am thankful for the more relaxed attitude towards photography displayed by the Comune di Parma.

As we leave, with a last longing look at the marvel which is the Battistero, we retrace our steps towards Strada Garibaldi and go on through Piazza della Pace to Pallazo della Pilotta. We walk along a pleasant park, water in a sleepy basin reflecting trees, young people sitting all around talking or reading. Parma is a big university city and young people are everywhere, a refreshing sight.

The Palazzo della Pilotta, whose name comes form the game of pelota which used to be played in its inner court, houses the Galleria Nazionale, the Archeological Museum and the Biblioteca Palatina, but none of the above are our target today, because time is short. However, we are guided up the monumental stairs of the Galleria towards an unexpected, totally unique treat: the Teatro Farnese.

We step into the enormous space without knowing what to expect. Once inside the surprise is complete: a beautiful theatre hall, built entirely in wood, part painted in faux marble and part left natural, an enormous stage from which we can turn towards the hall and see what the actors would have seen: its original 4500 seats (reduced now to “only” circa 3000) would have made the Teatro Farnese the largest covered amphitheatre in the world of its time. And it is said to have been the first theatre in the then known world to have a revolving stage. What is truly extraordinary is that, despite the visual evidence of its size, the theatre still manages to look and feel fragile and intimate, the two rows of loges reducing somewhat the visual impact of the open rows of seats.

We are told that in the long gone times of dukes and princes, theatres like this were routinely built just to house one spectacle, then torn down and rebuilt after new styles and fashions, again and again. Fortunately this one survived, marvel that fire didn’t touch it over the four centuries it existed. Second World War bombs damaged it but, like many other treasures destroyed by war all over Europe, it was reconstituted, using and restoring the remained decrepit structure, choosing carefully the same kinds of wood, carving it lovingly into the features of the destroyed parts, returning it to the people of Parma, and to us all, the fortunate ones, who get to se it.

At this hour, there is a warm glow to the immense space, light streaming from the windows behind the left loges, leaving part of the hall in semi-obscurity and bringing to life its right half. An unforgettable closing to a too short visit of Parma, since we all now file out to meet the rest of the group in front of the Teatro Regio and go for lunch.

One last occasion for a walk through medieval streets, on to Trattoria Corrieri, where we are greeted by a handful of smiling faces and shown upstairs in a very large vaulted room which manages to sit us all. Like the day before in Mantova, we are in for a treat: lots of hardworking waitresses and waiters are at our side, bringing plate after plate, platter after platter, asking for any want, replacing empty plates with full ones, taking care of the few who had special dietary requests or restrictions, all through chunks of parmigiano and slices of prosciutto waiting on tables, replaced soon by antipasti, primi, secondi, even terzi and repeats for those still capable, coffee, dolci, grappa; a feast!

Some leave to go on for a short shopping tour from which many will return heavy with packages laden with parmigiano cheese or prosciutto (how will they ever run these through Customs? What will happen to the cheese? Will it ripen and betray them?)

We linger over grappa and feel heavy and mellow. Walk slowly towards the Teatro Regio, wander through Piazza della Pace and back and the time has come to board the buses. We drop off most of the passengers at their hotel in Parma, while only a few have the energy to join us towards Cremona. Now one single bus is left.

We are dropped off close to Piazza del Comune, where and in whose vicinity we will spend the too short visit in Cremona. As we enter the Piazza, we notice first what a community kind of place it is: elderly on benches, moms chatting and kids playing on the steps of the Cathedral, two cafes with tables and chairs spread generously. The elderly nod as we pass by and wish them Buon giorno. The Piazza is elegant in its simplicity, and harmoniously and within a seemingly small square, manages to include the classic Italian quartet: cathedral, battistero, campanile and the civil administration city hall.

The Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta reminds us of its namesake in Parma, but it is more impressive. The marble is white. Above the loggia, which rests on the statues decorating the main portal, there is a huge rose window, and the whole is more impressive, as is the Torazzo, the Campanile with its astrological clock.

In the interior it is surprising to find Belgian tapestries, some depicting the life and death of Samson, other scenes from the New Testament. Every little available space is covered by frescoes by the local Boccaccino, by Pordenone and others.

Next stop takes us into town, not very far. All shops are closed at this hour and we peer curiously through the windows of Liuterie, violin makers’ shops and the guide stops us in front of one of them, as one groups exits and we enter, to be offered a demonstration in the art of the violin makers. Artisans from all over the world come to learn, then stay on to work and make violins, violas, cellos etc., here in Cremona.

Our Liutai host is French. As the guide slips him, not too discretely, a 20 Euro bill, the violinmaker runs us through the various phases in the process, from wood selection to lacquer finish. All seems a bit contrite, the recitation monotone, the guide having to promp the artisan to give more details. The wonderful part is that we are passed on to handle the samples of violins at various stages of completion, and we can touch and weigh and wonder at the delicacy of touch required to create such an instrument, delicacy equaled only by the touch of the violin player who will give it life.

Since we couldn’t visit the Museo Stradivariano because of the same time crisis by which we were followed throughout this trip, Josette and I remember the four Stradivari we have seen in the Palaçio Real in Madrid.

We relax sitting at a table with J. and F. outside one of the cafés in Piazza del Comune. I fantasise that this is the same café from which H.V. Morton contemplated the façade of the cathedral and planned his research in the history and creations of the fine liutieri of Cremona, whose violins still enchant us, and will ply their charm for centuries in the future.

It all comes to an end: the demonstration, the visit of Cremona and, effectively, our eight days trip up the River Po and in the wonderful towns which we have seen along its course.

The bus takes us to the front of Hotel Continental, our 4-star hotel in Cremona. Hugs for Trish, more farewells and the four of us descend. Our luggage is already here. The first impression is that this is a grubby place. A sullen desk clerk has some trouble finding our names on the reservation list, until I point it out to him reading it upside down. Now he can see it. Up the elevator, and on towards the third floor, where we find bad news and good news: the bad news are that the room is dark, wallpaper peeling off, and stifling hot, the good news that the bathroom is huge and full of light.

J. and F. have met friends here, and we do not wish to intrude. We go downstairs to take a look at “downtown” Cremona and find ourselves in a huge, deserted piazza, and it is getting dark and there is nothing to see.

Back in the hotel, we see a sign advertising an Internet access card at 5 Euro. I buy one and ask the clerk where is the computer. He points to a bizarre contraption, much like a pinball machine, with huge buttons instead of keyboard. I return to the clerk and ask him whether he can show how me to work it, and he answers that he doesn’t know. I fiddle around with it, I find the basic access but the card works on a timer and no sooner am I finally logging on to Hotmail, that I realize that if I don’t manage to log off I will leave the account on, together with my name and password and so I spend the final 30-40 seconds frantically trying to delete them, which I manage to do.

At this point I’ve had enough of Hotel Continental, but this is where we will have to spend the night and we are resigned to this reality.

We say farewell to J. and F. and return to our room, which it is terribly hot. Opening all windows does nothing to cool it. I try the thermostat, set it on cool and wait hopefully, but nothing happens. I call the desk and ask how to use the thermostat but I am told that the air conditioning was turned off in the entire hotel for the season (it is the 12th of September!). This is, of course, hogwash since the lobby is very well cooled, but I accept the offer of a fan, over which Josette and I will spend some time arguing, one that is it too strong, the other that it is not enough. We end up placing the fan close to the door of the bathroom, where the resulting stream of air is acceptable for both of us. We skip dinner, after the gargantuan feast in Parma, and call it a day. Day 12.
Post-cruise musings

First, some people are made for cruises and long bus tours: they socialize easily, ask questions and answer few or are always ready and needing to pour out their entire life story or selected parts thereof to anybody available to listen. They may be easy with a drink or five by the bar. These are perfect candidates for such events.

There are the others: timid, retired onto themselves, uncomfortable talking about themselves or being caught into a sharper conversation. And then, there are those somewhere in the middle, like us. We cherish our privacy, are very self-supportive and self-sufficient, have our ways, which we prefer to follow undisturbed by the public routine of other. I believe we can adjust, and cruises and group tours have their advantages.

I think we will try again, giving credit to those who enjoy such escapades. Because there are always the funny or the strange, which one can’t encounter unless one travels in a larger group:

Like the elderly couple who somehow always worked their way to the best front seats in the bus. They did it so well, one had to admire them because all the others were soon trained in certain acceptance of the fact that those were always their seats and there is that.

Like the same couple on the day of the Regatta Storica in Venice. When we went to the deck to wait for the start of the Regatta, there was some jostling for the front row seats. In the best two seats in the middle of the front row, there were two pairs of bathroom slippers, left as a sign that these seats were already taken. Everybody coming on the deck would walk straight to these seats, see the slippers placed there, and look for other seats meekly. Until our Los Angelena clothes designer with her mother arrived. Being from a place where one had to work or fight for privileges, she knew what to do: she coolly placed the two pairs of slippers on chairs in the second row, and sat down. Somewhat later, the owners of the slippers arrived, astonished to find that their careful reservation was denied. The owners of the slippers were, by the way, the same couple that always grabbed the front seats in the bus.

Like the couple living in our town, kind of around the corner from us, with whom we would have expected to strike a nice friendship. This only until the second day of the cruise, when we sat together in the lounge, and heard her talking nonstop for an hour about… herself, her accomplished life, her accomplished family, her accomplished work. I must admit we avoided her thereafter.

And then, there were J. and F., an American couple with whom we just got along from first contact and we whom we still are in touch, exchanging emails and ideas.

We were impressed everywhere with the quality of the guides provided by the cruise company, all young or middle aged Italian women, well prepared, well informed, competent in the handling of such a diversity of people, ages and interests.

If, other than the incredible richness and beauty of the Italian cities we have visited, I have to choose two moments which define this trip for me, one is:

Trish’s sound bite: I mentioned it already when she told us, as the ship was fighting its way into a disturbed Adriatic Sea, to watch the fishermen and their “nits” (also known in non-New Zealand English as “nets”), and the other one is visual:

I will remember forever, as we were waiting at the bottom of the stairs of the Palazzo della Pilotta stairs, the worry of the guide when she discovered that one of us is missing and we had to go. I looked around, since I thought I knew who was missing and I told the guide not to worry, just to wait a minute or two. And indeed, at the far top of the stairs, still coming out of the Teatro Farnese, there was the slightly bent silhouette of the 81 year old lady who had told Josette a couple of days earlier that she had left her apartment in the Ontario town of Brampton since July (this happened in mid-September!) and was already on her third consecutive tour or cruise since. I knew she would make it, because she always made it, slowly but surely, and we couldn’t have left her there anyway.

Even if not for any of the enriching and of the bizarre, this foreshortened cruise was an appetiser: it left us with this long list of things, sights and sites we have missed because we were always on the run, and with the decision to return for the main course, most probably on our own.
September 13, 2003 (Saturday) - from Cremona to Castellina

After a very uncomfortable night, we are very ready to leave the Hotel Continental far behind us as soon as possible. The hotel having been prepaid by the cruise organizers, all we have to do is take advantage of the included breakfast and bring our luggage downstairs since there is no staff available to help us, we are told. Even calling for us a taxi seems to be a problem, but this is finally done and we leave Hotel Continental in Cremona without looking back.

As Trish has told us, we arrive very quickly at Hotel Ibis, which turns out to be a very nice place, a modern hotel, probably much into the convention business. We regret we didn’t insist on staying here instead of the Continental. The front desk calls immediately the Europcar representative who, it turns out, has just arrived with our car. He even helps Josette with the luggage and leads us to a Mercedes C230 Kompressor, again one of Europcar’s ever-present upgrades to the “booked” Nissan Primera. This is the fourth time we get a Mercedes instead of the Nissan in a span of twelve months, and we suspect that, in fact, Nissan Primeras don’t even exist; they are just a nom de guerre for the ubiquitous Mercedes rental upgrades.

The Europcar agent presents us with the keys and pointedly and proudly says: “New!”, and “Nuove!”, just to make sure we are clear on this point. Indeed, the car gleams silvery and the wonderful smell of a new car is present. The odometer shows a few hundred kilometers. If it were my car, I would have driven it sedately at a stately pace for the first 500-600 k’s, but this is not going to happen on the Italian autostrade and the Chiantigiana roads.

Having already had the experience with the unfamiliar controls of these cars, which seem to change drastically from model to model and year to year, we ask for and get easy directions out of town and then spend some time checking the steering, the manumatic shift, lights, air conditioning and radio controls, wipers, blinkers. I just don’t want to have to guess where they are once we hit the autostrada.

It is a three hours ride, or about 300 km. between Cremona and Castellina and we will do it non-stop, if nature doesn’t impose on us otherwise. We use Mappy’s driving directions printout, since our experience is that Mappy provides the closest indicators to the actual signs one has to follow on the roads.

[Off on a tangent: We use as much as possible Mappy Driving Directions; we found over time that they are the closest to the signs posted on Autostradas and Stradas. Our frustration starts when driving directions, and maps, indicate the "road no.", i.e. SS222, SS345, etc. The thing is, these numbers as a norm do not appear on the signs with locality names and you find them only after you have already committed to a road, and this frustratingly happens quite further down that road. There is a specific gas station close to Castellina, across from Osteria Il Tinello, where they got to know us pretty well and I thought were cheering when we appeared again, trying to figure out whether we were going to Radda or to Greve, etc. It happened about three times in the first couple of days; after that we figured it out but kept going to the gas station in sign of gratitude for their patience with us, silly tourists] All is well along A21 and A1, but once on the Raccordo Firenze things get dicey, because the highway is extremely busy and the signage less certain and I have little time to react. As I get confused at the sign Certosa Firenze, Josette manages to get my attention and make me understand that this is the point at which we need to exit. In the last second I take the turn and follow the sign to Poggibonsi.

Here we get the first taste of how winding are the winding roads that define driving in Northern Tuscany and I thank the gods of travellers for the good brakes of the car. I also become more acquainted with and start using in earnest the manumatic.

Finally, the first Castellina in Chianti sign appears, then we are suddenly in town. The instructions received from Miss Targioni on how to arrive at Albergo Squarcialupi were quite simple: “Enter the town and stop at the Carabinieri station, since Saturday is a market day in Castellina and you will not be able to get directly to the hotel. Walk to the hotel from the Carabinieri and we will take care of you from there.”

Well enough; it is just that we have no idea where the Carabinieri are. Although we arrive quite late and the market seems to be over, we try to find the station and get into one of our typical small Italian town driving-in-loops adventures. We in fact expect them to happen. It seems the smaller the town, the more difficult it is for us to find the correct directions. We follow one-way signs and do the merry-go’round a couple of times, once barging into a “no motorized traffic” pedestrian mall, reminiscences of similar proud feats in Lucca and Siena a year ago. But the lucky stars still protect us since, as we are ready to give up, we stare straight at the Carabinieri station!

We take deep breaths, descend and look around, and what do I see if not a street sign indicating Via Ferruccio! We have arrived! The station seems to be closed, so we park in a spot reserved for the Carabinieri vehicles, hoping that they will be good with us if we get going quickly. Besides, it is Saturday; maybe the Carabinieri do regular office hours…

Josette stays with the car, while I go and look for Via Ferruccio no. 26, which turns out to be just a few buildings away. I ring the bell at the front desk, and I find Sonia. First, she provides me with a parking permit and with instructions on how to find the hotel parking, and then she gets a cart and we set to go over the stone pavement to the car and load the luggage. She will take the luggage to the hotel, for Josette, with sufficient experience by now both with how “simple” it is for me find directions in these towns, and more likely with how adept I am at missing them all, is set to come with me.

With directions on the dash and prayers in our hearts, we turn again towards town streets with which we will become very familiar over the next five days. Following the instructions we end up again in the same pedestrian mall, where horrified locals look as we drive straight-through the non-entry zone. I flaunt triumphantly the permit because the locals don’t appear to cooperate and don’t get out of the way, and I don’t want to drive over bodies, at least not yet. Then to my left, there is an abrupt turn and I fleetingly read something that looks like “Via della Ghiacciaia”. I launch the car into a vile descent onto a terrible country road, which twists and turns and tests tires and suspension, and our chattering teeth, and ends in what is indeed a parking area, complete with covered parking stalls, all occupied. I wipe imaginary sweat off my very real brow and stop near an abrupt end to the road. To our left lie the Chianti hills, soaking in the sunlight, a farm or two down in the valley, a tractor stirring clouds of dust among silvery-green olive trees, disciplined rows of vines as the eye can see. To the right: Palazzo cum Albergo Squarcialupi, rising from the rock, like the medieval castle it is, somewhere up in the clouds.

We have arrived close enough to Paradise.

But first, we must be tested through the Purgatory, because we are down in the valley, and the Palazzo is up a few terraces and many stairs.

We congratulate ourselves on having left Sonia with the luggage; dragging it up from here would have been the equivalent of the travails of Sisyphus.

Up the stairs we go and make it into the reception area, where Sonia waits for us with the luggage. Together we go up to our room, on the second floor, by elevator of course, since we figure that by now we have done our share of stair climbing for the day.

And so we step into our pretty suite: a living room and bathroom downstairs, the airy and spacious bedroom upstairs. We have seen this suite on the Palazzo Squarcialupi web site and immediately decided we must have and dreamt about it all winter. Now, we have it.

But the highest prize for all our efforts is still to come: a double door in the living room opens to a terrace and (after three more stairs…) we find ourselves on our own private balcony overlooking the valley, hills following hills, play of light and shade, vineyards and olive trees as far as the hills allow the eye to go. On the terrace, a round table and a few chairs hold the promise of evenings with a glass of wine and chunks of pecorino and of the freshness of local fruits. Folded easy chairs are also at the ready. Paradise, you are merciful with the worthy tourists! And you have found us worthy!

With five days of stay at Squarcialupi ahead of us, we decide to leave the luggage and attend first to necessities of life: get some coffee and a bottle of wine. We catch the café right across from the hotel just as it was preparing to close. But coffee is not refused to us, and so comes a second coffee when the first doesn’t seem to complete the job. It is getting a bit cooler, the metal table and chairs carry the cold, and so we pay and start exploring Castellina.

Depending on one’s horizon, the exploration of Castellina can be simple or extended. For a first and any later explorations, we stayed with the simple:

If one starts from the Carabinieri station at the end of Via Ferruccio, a straight line would take the explorer all the way to one of the most important local sites, the Gelateria Artigianale L’Antica Delizia, in the process passing by all that is required for survival: a café, a restaurant pizzeria (Il Fondaccio), a few little shops with what we would call delicatessen for want of a better word, a number of wine shops abundantly supplied with local wines, olive oil and a variety of odds and ends related to the consumption of these products, Duccio’s cart with magical herbs, a few small but interesting stores with anything from hats and scarves all the way down to shoes and everything in between, another café, a couple of fresh produce stores, a church, a newspaper kiosk, a pharmacy (here Via Ferruccio becomes Via Trento è Trieste), a restaurant (Tre Porte), more shops, the ceramics temple of PEP Bizzarrie, the Coop, in which one can meet all expats and renters in the region coming to Castellina for resupplies and brush up on the English Kent accent, a café for boys and girls, another exclusive for the town men, finally on the left a home for the aged and ahead, like a beacon, Gelateria Artigianale L’Antica Delizia, home of the superlative gelati. And a best kept secret: a little pizzeria with the most delicious fresh pizza sold by the slice, including a first seen and tasted here pizza with blackberries, to which Josette took a great fancy, which suited me just fine: she would get her blackberry pizza and I will get my gelato.

That is the linear heart of Castellina.

There are two possible circles. The first would take us from Palazzo Squarcialupi to the left and under the vaults of the old medieval walls, on Via delle Volte. There one can find an Internet café, a few art shops and the famous Gallopapa, the restaurant for people with lots of money or on an expense account. Coming out from under the vaulted walls at the other end of Via Feruccio, by the photo shop, the circle would continue into the higher part of town, by the church, on Via Rocca with the Rocca, or the castle keep tower, then in Piazza del Comune and by Antica Trattoria La Torre, and down back into Via Ferruccio, for a well-deserved rest and coffee.

The second circle would take the visitor out from the heart of the town, to the plentiful vineyards, olive plantations, Etruscan tombs, to the pretty localities with wonderfully sonorous names of, not necessarily in this order, Fonterutoli, Casafrassi, Tenuta di Ricavo, Croce Fiorentina, Pestello, Piazza, Pietrafitta, etc., and end, hopefully, for a generous lunch or dinner, at Il Tinello, on Via IV Novembre, at the exit towards Siena.

Historically, Castellina was a member of the tri-partite alliance of Radda, Gaiole and Castellina in the Lega del Chianti. The flag of the league carried proudly the symbol of the Gallo Nero, the black cock.

Which brings us roundly to Chianti wine, of which I buy a bottle of the local Riserva at the Fattoria Enoteca La Castellina, the shop so conveniently placed in the caves of Palazzo Squarcialupi.

Back into the room, getting organized for the stay, arranging the various implements so that we wouldn’t need to go up and down the stairs too often; the suite is indeed spectacular but after a certain age one has to spare one’s knees and hips! Rest, reading, a glass of wine. Out for dinner, we don’t really have a specific target and end up at Ristorante Pizzeria Le Tre Porte, on Via Trento è Trieste (tel. 0577 741163, closed Tuesdays).

It is relatively early and we get a nice table. This allows us to follow people coming in, the restaurant filling up pretty quickly. We have a very pleasant dinner, Josette keeping with the insalata mista but sharing in my plate of crostini, and a lombatina di vitello alla brace with patate arroste for me. Delicious, with half a bottle of a local Riserva red. I can’t resist and order a panna cotta; not bad, but nothing like Alida Solomon’s panna cotta at her Tutti Matti restaurant in Toronto. Well, can’t have everything. With coffees and water, the cover and a nice tip, it all amounts to 55 Euro, a bit expensive for the offering, as we will have another day an opportunity to compare it with La Torre.

A walk at night, in a Castellina romantically lit by the moon. It is getting breezy and cold though, so we hold tight and go to tuck in. A long day!

During the night I wake to shrieks and whistles. Josette remains fast asleep but I can’t fall asleep again until I figure the reason for the noise: the wind has picked up considerably, from the light breeze to what sounds now like a gale. As it comes from the valley, the wind hits first the base of the old medieval walls and is then diverted up, towards the walls of the Palazzo and further up into the roof, where the old clay roofing tiles provide a wonderful conduit, each little piece of mortar that is missing transforming the tile into a flute, or more likely a tuba by the sounds I hear. And there are lots of flutes and tubas up there right now…

Now, that I have identified the source of the witch-like noise, I can fall asleep again (with ear plugs…) as I think how romantic life must have been in the old castles of the area in the good old times.

During the night, I dream. I dream often, but never manage to remember what the dream was all about. Not tonight: I dream that the wind has lifted our beautiful Mercedes Kompressor from its parking spot at the edge of the hill and has thrown it in the valley below. I wake up again, and I would like to go out on the terrace for a peek whether the car is still there, but I don’t dare to wake up Josette with such a feeble excuse.

Back to sleep, promising myself that I will check on the car first thing in the morning. To the sounds of Ducas’ Sorcerer Apprentice in a Reality Show setting, Morpheus takes mercy on me. Day 13.
September 14, 2003 (Sunday) - Castellina, San Gimignano

Once washed and up, my first thought is to check whether the car is still where I left it yesterday on arrival. It is! Whew!

The breakfast at Albergo Squarcialupi is nice! Only the cappuccinos, which are being made in the restaurant, arrive a bit cold, but hey! we are in a castle: everything is so spacious, the dining sets and cutlery are elegant, the service quietly efficient by the evidently local people. On the way to the breakfast room we have already explored the library and the reading room and the many other rooms available to guests, which I will never see used in the five days spent at Squarcialupi.

The plan for the day calls for a drive to San Gimignano and Volterra. As we descend, we finally meet Monica Targioni and have a little chat with her. She asks about the directions to the hotel and how was the drive and we tell her that we found the drive from Poggibonsi to Castellina somewhat challenging. “Oh!”, exclaims Signora Targioni, “you should have come through San Donato! It is so much easier!” We promise we will do this next time around and ask about today’s drive and how to get out of town.

Signora Targioni gets on to Via Michelin and prints driving directions for us, supported by a map showing how to get out of town.

At this point in our lives, we are resigned and know that we will definitely miss a sign or an exit, which we indeed manage to do. Instead of turning left out of town in the direction of San Gimignano, we turn right and soon enough the signs show that we are going to Radda. But Radda is planned for another day, so we turn back.

A stop at a deserted gas station of Via IV Novembre reminds us that we were forewarned on the scarcity of open gas stations on Sundays, but figure we will find one further on, closer to San Gimignano, which we do.

The delay may have been fortunate. As we drive along, we are met by what will prove to be a most astonishing rally of Volkswagens: there must have been a procession of hundreds of them, bugs and beetles and the original minivans, and motorbikes, all sneaking for kilometers along SS429 in the opposite direction. It is seemingly endless and quite extraordinary! From Poggibonsi we take this time the correct arm of the fork in the road and arrive sooner than expected in San Gimignano, where the quest for parking takes us up and down the main road. One can’t complain that there aren’t enough parking areas along the main road; the problem is that there are too many visitors…

Finally, we note a sign indicating that parking is still available near Porta San Giovanni. We just came from there, but didn’t notice the parking, preoccupied as we were to find a parking spot. No, it will turn out that we missed the parking while staring at the Porta, which rises on the other side of the road. Anyway, here we are, and there is plenty of parking, and cheap too, at 3 Euro for the entire day. A bargain by North American standards.

By the time we park, with plenty of available space all around, nature demands it tribute. We have no idea how long it will take until we find a W.C. in town, and so we stop at an automated washroom. The instructions, in four languages, are challenging because, while they tell you clearly enough what to do with the money, they don’t tell you or prepare you for what will happen once inside.

As we read cautiously the instructions, a little crowd assembles around us: sonorous British accents, well up the nose, but very nice people, full of good will and humour, visitors like us, baffled like us. I have never been in a situation in which I am trying to read instructions on how to use an automatic toilet with a crowd depending on every word I utter: because I was the first, I am assumed the expert. A few gentlemen with the British group are probably in just as much a hurry as I am and so we need a “tester”, better said a sacrificial lamb, and Josette is the designated… whatever. As I push the 1 Euro into the required slot, a door opens slowly with a suite of metallic bangs, knocks and screeches. We look inside and see what seems to be a toilet seat and lots of pipes and bars. While Josette hesitates half way in, the door starts closing and she disappears inside the contraption. Tense moments follow as we hear more banging and crashing, and waterfalls drowning all other noises. A crazy thought goes through my mind: Could it be that I pushed Josette into a compactor? Will I ever see her again?

Infinity goes and comes back, and suddenly the steel door rattles and starts opening with the now familiar metallic rasping noise, and there is Josette, dazed but entire. I ask her how it was and she says: “For the life of me, I couldn’t find how to flush. Then I think I stepped on something and the door opened!”

I politely invite ladies from the waiting crowd to go in ahead of me, but the group is just as well educated, and they push me towards the door. Josette pushes the 1 Euro in the slot, it seems to me with some crazed satisfaction, and the door opens and then closes behind me. The usual part is clear to me; I have been doing this for over 60 years, accounting for the fact that my saintly Mom helped me at the beginning of the road. Once I am done, the problem is what follows. What do I have to do to get out? I decide to do nothing. Time passes interminably. Nothing happens. It seems people outside become alarmed too. Or impatient. I look for the button in the floor mentioned by Josette, but can’t find it. All of a sudden Niagara drops in the toilet in one bellowing waterfall. Startled, I turn and there is a big button in the wall marked Uscita.

I return to the light of day with an expectant public in attendance. I stay cool, I tell the others “No problem! Have a good day!” and walk with Josette away leaving behind the admiring public. I think they all decide to follow us in town rather than use the auto-toilet. Tough!

The ascent to the Porta San Giovanni brings us quickly in and out of the mostly commercial part of town, but not before a short stop on Via San Giovanni for coffee and water. After being ignored for a while, we figure we are now rested and get up and go.

Walking in San Gimignano is a hazard, since one tends to look all the time up, towards the famous towers, and knocks into people who are doing just the same thing. After a few such encounters, a compromise is reached: when I want to look up, I first stop. This results in quite a few good photographs, as I try to include as many of the famous towers as possible in the picture. Somehow, I will never be able to include more then four in the same picture; maybe I would have done better with a fish-eye lens!

Under the Arco dei Becci, by the old Etruscan vault and walls, and into the famous Piazza della Cisterna, with the well and the subterranean reservoir, around which, at any time, one can find half of the tourists visiting San Gimignano jostling for the best photo angle and trying to make sure undesirables, such as all other visitors, are not within the frame of the picture. Mission impossible!

Lunch beckons and we walk on towards Piazzetta Buonaccorsi, where we find a nice and relaxed café and stop for a light lunch.

Now, we become serious visitors and take the time to absorb what the town has to offer and to try to imagine what life would have been here, in San Gimignano, within the narrow streets and light-obscuring walls, when seventy or so families would have locked themselves in the so many towers, either to protect themselves from others or to run away after doing harm. The Cappeletti and the Montecchi, or their San Gimignano cousins, chasing each other from tower to tower…

We like Piazza del Duomo, defined by the Collegiatta, the main church, and by a number of palaces and towers: Palazzo del Podestà with its own tower, then Palazzo del Popolo and the Torre Grossa, where climbing is permitted but we don’t. Climb. Towers. Unless they have elevators.

We enter the Collegiatta, where fine Old Testament paintings cover the walls, some too expressive in their crudity, others, particularly the representation of the Chaos before Creation, the making of and blowing of life into Adam, and the making of Eve are very impressive. We also spend some time with Ghirlandaio’s depiction of the life, martiry and miracles of Santa Fina, a medieval tale of pain and redemption as so many others we meet everywhere in Italy. At the Museo Civico paintings by Pinturicchio and Lippi are displayed but the everlasting fame of the Palazzo del Popolo, which is home to the museum, is due to having been the stage from which Dante delivered his oration when sent here as an ambassador of the Florence Guelphs, in the times of the wars between the Guelfi and the Ghibellini.

Coffee and desserts in Piazza della Cisterna, then back to the car, this time stopping at the various souvenirs and local produce shops, with no purchases concluded.

On the way back to the car, I remember the auto-toilet from Hell and decide to stop at the parking reserved for tour buses, where the only hazard is that of finding an adequate coin to place in the door lock and another for the cup watched with authority by an old man with a mop in hand.

To Volterra or not? At this point, we are quite happy with the day. The idea of driving another 40 minutes or so to Volterra, rush through the town, then drive another hour back to Castellina doesn’t find takers. The two of us vote unanimously to return to Castellina for a quiet evening, what with the promise of rest and a glass of wine on our beautiful terrace. On the way we get some pecorino cheese and grapes. We sit on the terrace, endless ondulating hills half in the sun and half already bluish in the falling shadows. Birds fly around us, at sonic speed, from just below the terrace and up into the clear sky, chasing, seeking partners, separating in flight, an evening dance.

We debate whether to drive to the Prada outlet in Montevarchi tomorrow or a day later. We do not debate the “whether” but the “when”, since we have already promised one of our daughters-in-law to bring her a Prada purse from there, if we can. The debate occurs on the terrace and continues later, over a few slices of pizza and a beer, siting by the bar at the little pizzeria, Pizzeria Chiantigiana, on Via Chiantigiana no. 7, around the corner from Antica Delizia.

At Antica Delizia, only I take a double cone of melone and amaretto; Josette is lactose intolerant, so she can’t have ice cream unless accompanied by massive dozes of Lactaid pills. However, I notice that one of their gelati is made with soya and I tell Josette; maybe another day?

We go back to the hotel to get some warmer coats and return outside for this evening is the closing of the Settimana Musicale in Castellina, at the Chiesa di San Salvatore. Choirs from Castellina, Casole d’Elba, Siena and Tavarnelle Val di Pesa will conduct a friendly traditional competition.

Liturgical choirs and Gregorian chanting dominate the programme. These may not be first echelon musical groups, but it is remarkable to see these groups made of young students and older people alike, moved by the same desire and love for music that moves us too. We do not wait for results of the competition and leave the church together with other town people.

The night is quiet; the winds have died down. At the front desk of the hotel we chat with Alberto, who has the night watch. I ask Alberto what does Squarcialupi means. He speaks good English but this is a bit too specific for him, although we both agree it has something to do with wolves. He does explain that the name has also something to do with hunting.

I promise Alberto to look it up in my dictionary upstairs, where it turns our that squarciare means to tear apart, to rip. So Squarcialupi was a kind of medieval hobby of tearing wolves to pieces, or probably skinning them. As the ancestors of the squarcialupers used to say: “De gustibus non disputandum est.” Day 14.

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