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Doru's Italian Notebook - Summer 2002 (Lakes, Venice, Tuscany, Milan)


100+ Posts
By Doru from Toronto, Canada, Summer 2002. Doru & Josette on a three week adventure in the Italian Lakes, Venice, Tuscany, and Milan.

Preface and Departure
Sometime in December 2001, with the spring 2002 trip to Spain all planned out and committed, I became antsy again. It was a funny kind of winter; not very cold but still gray and depressing and thoughts about sun started crowding me. I knew I had a lot of unfinished business in Italy, and with this is mind, I approached my two bosses, at home and at work, to try to obtain from them a travel window within which I could then start dreaming.

What follows is the result of this antsy ness, which grabs travellers when nothing definite is on the horizon or as soon as they return home from their latest trip.

Sunday, September 8, 2002, Toronto I am trying to sleep in, in order to gain some time on the expected change of time clock, but at 7 a.m. I am all ready for the day, and in due course I awaken Josette too. The first item of the day is taking Frasier, our sweet standard poodle, to Mavis and Bill, up in Newmarket, Ont. Frasier loves Mavis and she loves him, so our guilt feelings are somewhat tempered. We load the car with Frasier's stuff and off we go. Mavis has a few other dogs under her care at this time, so Frasier will have some good company.

Back home for last preparations. Since through the kindness of my boss we have passes for the Air Canada lounge, we arrive at the airport a bit early. I use the time for a last call to my father and then pull out the Berlitz Italian phrase dictionary and start marking the most important sections with Post-it notes and go through some refreshing. My Italian is rudimentary to the extreme. Since my mother tongue, Romanian, is also a derivative of Latin, one would think it would be easier for me to switch to Italian. But I am thinking in English and I live with my personal Tower of Babel. For some strange reason, Spanish seemed to be easier. Maybe I should try Portuguese…

The flight is uneventful, except that, as usual, I don't sleep even a minute but, unusually, I have a tough time reading. Morton's "A Traveller to Italy" stays for most of the time in the pouch in front of me and I watch the forgettable movies. Josette and I spend some time with routing directions printed out off Via Michelin, Mappy and Mapquest. As usual, I have overdone things and I have too many print-outs. We compare these with a map of Lombardy, obtained from the Italian Consulate in Toronto. Josette, as the navigator, is inclined for the simplest of the formats, which is Mappy's, and over the next three weeks she will prove right.
Milano Malpensa - Menaggio

Monday, September 9, 2002 a.k.a The Longest Day The plane arrives at Malpensa on time. I have rented through Autoeurope, whose staff was always impeccably courteous, a Nissan Primera, with automatic, 4 doors and a/c. I haven't driven a manual shift for almost 30 years and I don't think the time to reawaken lost reflexes is when arriving to an airport after a long flight and with the prospect of driving on unknown roads and with different rules.

Around 8 a.m. we find the Europcar desk in the terminal and, while Josette watches the baggage, I advance to the available clerk. She tells me that a Nissan Primera is not available but that I will receive an upgrade in the shape of a Mercedes. I have no reason to refuse and, contract in hand, we proceed to the airport garage where the various rental car companies release and receive back cars, Europcar amongst them. A sullen clerk at the desk tells me that the car is being prepared and it will arrive in 5 minutes. I remain standing; their office does not cater to the needs of waiting customers. The wait extends to 10 minutes, then to 15 minutes, then to 30 minutes. At this time I am, like all transatlantic air passengers, at about 20 hours without sleep and facing a two hours drive from Malpensa to Menaggio, on unfamiliar highways.

To my inquiry, a young woman (they do not wear nametags, which is no surprise to me now) replies very impatiently and irritated that the car is on its way. Nobody offers an explanation, or an apology for the delay, or a chair. The two or three people working there just try very hard not to meet my eyes.

In the meantime, Josette is waiting with the luggage in the cavernous, dark area of the garage, with cars zipping by, in noise and gasoline fumes. At one point, an older American (it turns out) couple arrive in a Mercedes 220 if I recall correctly. They are extremely upset and the lady tells Josette about their tribulations with the rental from Europcar of a Mercedes C180 car whose brakes failed somewhere North of Milan. Josette does ask for details but the gist of the complaints includes a total lack of interest and understanding on the part of the Europcar staff. The couple is literally furious with the indifference displayed by Europcar staff and with the fact that they had to waste an entire precious day of their vacation through no fault of theirs. Apparently, the couple had to arrange towing the car back to Malpensa (!) to obtain a replacement from Europcar. As the American couple leaves not even wishing to talk to the Europcar staff there, Josette comes in and tells me the story and stresses that I should be very careful what car we receive. My reply, which I thought was reasonable at the time, is that if the car had problems with the brakes undoubtedly it would have been repaired and, besides, what is the likelihood that lightning will strike twice in the same spot?

Finely, one hour after the first promised five minutes expired, I am told that the car has arrived and it is ready. As we push the luggage towards the car, it turns out it is a Mercedes C180. I immediately return to the office and say that I am aware of the fact that a Mercedes C180 had previously critical brake problems and was returned to them and I want to be sure that the car was checked carefully. I am in turn assured that all cars in general, and this car in particular, are checked carefully. We proceed to load the luggage and to examine the car. I am told not to worry, but the clerk immediately starts to mark the various little bangs and scratches on the usual chart, which it is kind of surprising since, with Autoeurope one has CDW, therefore these scratches would be irrelevant. When he finishes and leaves, I start looking at the controls of the car, with which I am not familiar. While I can figure out most of the obvious ones, there are a few which I could not associate with other cars I have driven. I return again to the office and coax a young man to come with me to the car. He looks; he appears very puzzled, and shrugs. At this point I had enough of the ineptitude of Europcar's staff and decide do leave. (N.B. Later I was able to figure out most of the stuff, including the totally useless -in Italy- cruise control).

At this point we proceed onto the roundabout outside the terminal and off we go towards Como and Menaggio.

Although not totally happy with the vague steering, I have met such condition in other cars and so I just say to myself never to buy a Mercedes C180 and so go on for approximately 70 or 80 km., when I notice that the brakes of the car become mushy. Since I do not know the car, I cannot say whether this is normal or not when, all of a sudden, a message starts flashing on the dashboard in a few languages, until finally I can read in English something like: "Power brakes failing; take car to service" or words to this effect.

As this happens, we are on A4, a multi-lane highway, surrounded by cars driving much faster than me on one side and by an endless lane of trucks on the other side. With the risk of loosing any ability to read the signage on the road, I ease off the gas, touch carefully the brakes to reduce the speed and insert the car on the right-most lane, looking for a place to stop. I cannot take the risk of stopping the car on the road shoulder, and so, I drive further on until I see a sign indicating an approaching service area. Thus we arrive, close to Fino Mormasco, at the Service Area Lario Est, where I am able to stop the car whose brakes by then have become giving to the extent that I have to push all the way to the floor in order to stop.

At this point our ordeal only starts. The four available payphones in the Service Area do not accept coins or credit cards. The Autogrill staff tells me quite rudely that they ran out of Telecom cards and would not allow me to use one of their phones. The local gas station refuses me any access to one of their telephones. We are stranded in the middle of nowhere, without any ability to communicate with anybody. I think of approaching drivers of other cars in the Service Area, but I make a last attempt of asking about a telephone card at a little "Tourist Market" shop adjacent to the Autogrill.

To prove that there are still some good people to help those in need, the lady at the counter of this little shop understands my mumbling in desperate Italian and my gesticulations and asks to see what telephone number I have to call. When she sees the 800 number of Europcar, she calls me behind the counter and in their little office, dials the number herself and when an answer is received she hands me the phone, locks securely the cabinet in which I assume she had some money and then leaves me with the phone in the office.

The first person with whom I speak does not speak English, but understands enough from my explanations and me from his, that I was to remain on the line and somebody who speaks English will talk to me momentarily. This momentarily extends to approximately 10 minutes (I am in the private office of some good souls but total strangers who obviously need the telephone for their business and check back on me from time to time) and then a lady comes on and asks in English details about the problem and the car and finally the car's license. Another 10-15 minutes wait on the line ensues, upon which the same voice comes on and, very cheerfully, outlines the following plan:

1. A tow truck will be sent and will arrive within 20 minutes. 2. The car will be loaded and will be taken, together with us, at a nearby repair shop. 3. If the car can be repaired, we will have to wait until it is ready and then drive the car. 4. If the car cannot be repaired, we will have to call a taxi (?) and go to the nearest (!) town where Europcar has an agency.

The voice then tells me that we should wait for the tow truck and, if there are any problems, to call back. When I explain to her that it is not likely I will be able to call again as I had access to a telephone only through the merci of strangers, she says that then my only option is to wait for the tow truck.

I must add that throughout these events Josette and I loose track of each other as I am running frantically from telephone to telephone and store to store and the resulting anxiety levels can be easily understood. Finally, I come out, meet her by the car and we settle to wait for the tow truck which, indeed, arrives within the 20 minutes.

We receive the driver like a saviour. He checks the car, nods mournfully, and we understand that he will take us to a repair shop. When we ask where, he says in Como, at a local Mercedes Benz dealership.

We count this as good news as at least competent specialists will attend to the car.

With the arrival of the tow truck and with us not depending anymore on Europecar, our fortunes start to change, although the hours just go on, with us more and more tired, at this time at almost 22 hours without sleep.

At the Mercedes Benz dealership in Como the truck driver passes us on to Mr. Armando Lamarina, a very compassionate but extraordinarily busy young man who seemed to be talking into three telephones at the same time. It takes some time but he finally brings an engineer who uses a bunch of diagnosis instruments, upon which the engineer turns to Mr. Lamarina and to us and makes the internationally recognisable gesture of a knife across the throat. The car is Kaput!

Continuing to come through for us, Mr. Lamarina tells us that he has already advised the Como agency of Europcar and that a replacement car will be there, ready for us. Mr. Lamarina also tells us that, by chance, a taxi from Como is in the shop for some repairs and that he already talked to the owner, who is ready to take us to Europcar in Como as soon as his car is ready. Thus we are introduced to another wonderful Italian person, the fourth such person by then, who made things easier for us just through their sympathy and good services. Mr. Davide Guerrera is the owner of a taxi and tourist services business in Como, speaking impeccable English and with an easy manner and sincere smile. When I ask him whether the Europcar agency in Como may not close for lunch (because we were approaching the holly out of 12 noon, when any self-respecting business in Italy closes for 2 or 3 hours), Mr. Guerrera immediately uses his cell phone to call Europcar and lets them know that we will soon be on our way and asks them to wait for us.

Indeed, approximately 10 minutes past noon we are in Como, at the Europcar agency on via Innocenzo. No sooner a Europcar clerk hands me a new contract for a replacement car, which I sign, and she and a young gentlemen who also works there pick up their purse and, respectively, knapsack and motorbike and head up the ramp. I didn't even see the replacement car by then! To my protestations and with the continued assistance of Mr. Guerrera, the young man puts his knapsack down and goes to bring the car from somewhere at the back of the parking area. To my dismay, but without chance to appeal, I see that it is another Mercedes C180!!. Once the car there, with keys on hand I ask for directions, Mr. Guererra helps us to load the baggage, and before I could say "Como" the two young people are hurrying up the ramp.

The drive from Como to Menaggio is, to say the least, interesting and bracing... The driving is fast, the lanes narrow. With all these hairpin turns, I imagine SS340 as a very hairy road… Tunnel after tunnel, trucks zipping in the opposite direction, drivers passing me at each opportunity. I somehow find myself always at the head of a column of cars, the first of which seems velcroed to my rear bumper. I learn to ignore honking, a great and necessary skill, it turns out. This is the famous Via Regina, cut into the mountain side by the Romans and later enlarged under the reign of Teodolinda, the Lombardy Queen with the most sonorous name. The latest addition is the 2.4 km. tunnel which took seven year to complete, in the 1980's. I drive on history and remember the Roman bridge of Cordoba, for some reason of association.

It is still Monday, September 9, when, none too soon, we finally reach the Grand Hotel Menaggio (E260/night, B&B), "somewhat tired" by the events of the day and thankful that we are still alive. Of course, I miss the first sign for the hotel entrance and, with a convoy of upset Italian drivers behind me for the last 15-20 km., I don't even think of turning around. I signal and pull to the right into what looks like another entrance to the hotel's parking lot. The sidewalk is narrow and about half of the car is sticking out onto the just as narrow road. It turns out there is a barrier in front of me, and for good reason as this is the exit from the lot. No way will I back out further! Josette descends, goes to the hotel's reception desk and returns with a token which she places in the required slot, but the barrier remains stubbornly in place. Another trip to the desk and Josette returns with a porter, who gesticulates (over the next 21 days there will be a lot of gesticulating in our lives). I finally get it: I was blocking the light beam which, of course, locks the barrier. I back off (very carefully!) into the busy main artery of Menaggio, the barrier lifts and I park and turn off the car. Life is good again!

Our room not being ready, we take a stroll in the garden, which opens on to Lake Como. A breathtaking view opens in front of us. We decide it was all worth it and sit down to have the first two of what will become a steady stream of coffees and cappuccinos.

Finally, the room is done. We are on the fourth floor and the room has a terrace. We open the door, step onto the terrace and enjoy again the stunning view: the lake, the mountains, clusters of houses on the opposite bank as if built into the mountain, wide vistas to right and left, boats, a ferryboat; we are in heaven. We sit down and watch, suitcases unattended. The day is somewhat cloudy and the light changes, with the mountain crests golden or gray in and out of light. A pang of hunger reminds us that the mountains and the lake will stay where they are while we deal with more practical matters. First the suitcases. In the process, we discover the bathroom includes a Jacuzzi. Wow!

A short walk in town uncovers an Internet café (closed) right across from the hotel, the docks for vaporettos and ferries about 200 m. away from us, a beautiful promenade along the lake shore, some impressive houses and gardens, the attractive Piazza Garibaldi with restaurants, cafes and ice cream stores, where we stop for some sandwiches and coffee, then back to the hotel. We're done! But no: a short rest, then out again for a walk in the falling evening, by the fishermen's pier and on until we find a small café bar and I get the first "Gelato Of The Day": a Variegato Amarena. Yummy!

Back again, to the room's terrace. The mountains all around fade into the blue of night. Clouds gather and, first the mountains, and then the lake, are gone and a violent storm erupts. How lucky we returned about 30 minutes ago; otherwise, we would have been drenched.

I wonder what tomorrow will look like, as the rain outside drums on the chairs out on the terrace and drowns out the rumblings of the Jacuzzi in which Josette indulges. We later discover that for a boy with two artificial hips like me, the Jacuzzi is not an option (can't get down and then up without holding bars…) and I'll have to stick with the shower. Oh, shoot!

We go to sleep at the end of this longest day and the rain and lightning go on as the thunder rolls over the lake. But by then we're so completely exhausted, it doesn't matter!

[N.B.: Upon return to Toronto, we have brought our car rental experience with Europcar to the attention of Autoeurope, who answered promptly and assured us that our complaint will be dealt with without delay. A few days later, the Customer Service Manager, Europe of Autoeurope advised us of a complimentary full refund of the rental costs in recognition of the circumstances, and of the fact that measures will be taken to ensure Autoeurope customers don't have to go through kind of problems in the future. The Europcar investigation continues.) As I said, Autoeurope have been extremely understanding and supportive throughout my contacts with them, at all levels and we will not hesitate to use their services again in the future.]
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Menaggio - Bellagio

Tuesday, September 10, 2002
The sun is blazing; the unfamiliar room in which I wake up is bathed in light. We didn't shutter the doors last night and from across the hills, in straight laser line, the sun streams through the double French doors and tells us to get up and not waste more time. I open the doors, breath in the fresh air and sit down on a chair still wet from last night's rain. This wakes me up pronto!

A while later we are in the breakfast room, a busy affair, with lots of waiters and helpers. This is a large hotel and it seems to be sold out. Most of the guests appear to be English, septuagenarians and octogenarians and we feel quite young in this company. There are also some younger people, including a man who looks astonishingly like Tom Cruise. It isn't him! The breakfast fare is abundant and it will be like this for the next five days of stay at this hotel.

Later on, we remember Davide Guerrera's advise to forget the car at the hotel and to use the Lake Como fleet of boats to visit the various towns sprouting around the lake every few kilometers or so.

Down at the dock we obtain an excellent orario and sit on a bench to figure out what we want to do. It is almost inevitable that the first destination will be Bellagio, a town we were able to see far away from our room. The name Bellagio is so musical, and its position so unique that starting from there is a foregone conclusion.

Some reading reveals that the name Bellagio is not derived from "bella" but rather from the Latin equivalent of "entre deux lacs", as Bellagio sits on land placed between the west branch, Lago di Como itself and its east branch, Lago di Lecco. We also wish to visit today Villa Carlotta and approach the ticket office with the plan of buying the two sets of tickets. The young clerk explains to us very politely that we should buy day tickets which cost less and will allow us to hop on any boats today at no additional cost.

Soon, we find ourselves crossing the lake towards Bellagio. A first stop for coffee on the terrace of the Nuovo Hotel Metropole and then off to discover the town. Bellagio turns out to be a beautiful and peaceful town, with a promenade bordered by pleasant cafes and restaurants, cut in two by an abrupt shopping street named Via Serbelloni by the name of the famous villa and gardens which we plan to visit. The street is more like a mountain goat path as it climbs up quite dizzyingly on stairs leading to the upper town. I manage to negotiate the climb quite well, thinking that going down is going to be more "interesting". Alas, we find that we have missed the 11 a.m. visit to Villa Serbelloni since registration must be made one hour before the tour starts. The next tour is at 4 p.m. Disappointed, we step into the cool of the San Giacomo church, a Lombardian Romanesque structure built about a millennium ago, rebuilt since but still retaining two original apses.

Back into the lower town, we decide to have lunch and then to cross the lake over to Villa Carlotta. A walk up and down the promenade and we choose for lunch an attractive café-bar, with wide shading umbrellas. As on the boats and elsewhere, it seems English reigns supreme. The waiters are very gracious with the older guests and speak patiently and charmingly in English, here and there aiding discreetly somebody getting in or out of a chair. Obviously, there is a link between these guests and their young Italian servers. We have our excellent gnocchi and frittatas, great coffee, and then go to sit on the lake side, waiting for the next boat across to Tremezzo and Via Carlotta.

The civic planners of Bellagio seem to have conceived the abundant benches along the lakeshore so that only three people of average size would be able to sit on one bench or, as a gentleman from Norfolk, England astutely observed, maybe for a young couple and a chaperone… So, if there are two couples, one person has to stand. This results in interesting human contact, as people offer their seats and thus start impromptu conversations with tourists from Leeds, Manchester, Norfolk, etc. Like in the boats, everybody is eager to strike a conversation and, unfailingly, we are asked from where we are. As they expect to hear that we are from some place called Slobodenia or Bulgarodia, or other such exotic places, there is usually a short perplexed silence as we reply that we are from Canada. People familiar with the "colonies" nod knowingly, as this appears to explain our accents. Thus we could travel from place to place in the world, making people believe that our accents are Canadian, which would be quite inaccurate, in fact. This puts on us the onus to clarify that we were born in Eastern Europe and this seems to satisfy everybody.

As the boat to Tremezzo appears, we say goodbye to the elegant couple from Norfolk with whom we were deep in conversation about music and musicians, and board.

Approaching Villa Carlotta from the lake is a thing of beauty. As the sun starts its way down to the west, the façade of the Villa is alight, the angled stairs accentuating a building which seems to be made of meringue. Once inside the court, a wonderful garden opens. Inside, the Villa is populated with remarkable sculptures and paintings, gorgeous fireplaces and furniture, while outside waterfalls and fountains appear between rhododendrons and azaleas. Hidden paths, inviting benches meet one at each turn and the fragrance of flowers is everywhere, almost solid, as if one could collect it and walk away with it. A corner of Paradise, with strict operating hours…

Back by boat to Menaggio, we walk across the street from the hotel where this time the Internet café is open and we spend some time sending e-mails to our sons and their families, to the office and to our friend Renato in Milano. Some rest and out in search of dinner. We opt for a lighter one and stop at La Creperie, quite close to the hotel. Once inside, we discover a patio open to the lake, great vista and a pleasant service. As the place fills with mostly young locals and two American girls obviously on a budget since they anxiously query prices and portion sizes, Josette and I share some salad and two different types of dolce crepes, I have my quartino di rosso, and the world is at peace. We join the modest passeggiata along the lakeshore. A few couples walk or sit and gaze at the amazing spectacle of lights coming on from across the lake, from Varenna, Bellagio, and Bellano. We stop in Piazza Garibaldi and I have my "Gelato of the Day": Anice. Forgettable.

Back in the room and on to the terrace, a slice of moon tells us that it isn't going to rain tonight. We read and plan for tomorrow.
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Menaggio - San Mamete

Wednesday, September 11, 2002 [New York] It hurts to write the date. I remember everything about this day only a year ago. I can understand the person who wrote to a newspaper that September 11 is his birthday and he will never celebrate it again.

In this part of the world, the lake sky offers us today a different view, a balancing act of cloud and sun, gray and gold. The lake seems a bit agitated, but outside it is warm. Today we won’t load on breakfast; today we will drive for lunch to San Mamete, a little town west of Mennagio.

The drive to San Mamete meanders along 30 km. or so of hairpin turns and narrow tunnels. We drive along the road where Mussolini and Claretta were captured by partisans or given away by the retreating German troops, depending on whose history book one reads. Along the way, we drive by Grandola, through Porlezza, a long one-house-deep town.

At my right, Josette exclaims frequently “beautiful”, “what a view”. “Extraordinary” as the view opens over the lake. I believe her but I don’t take my eyes of the road. Behind our car the usual caravan of impatient drivers collects but I’d rather we arrive in San Mamete in one piece and so I mind my own business, driving carefully, ergo slowly. At the mouth of one of the chain of tunnels I must stop suddenly, as a truck emerges from the tunnel occupying about 80% of the road width available. I back off and crowd the hillside retaining wall. I am sure at this time telepathic and cell phone messages are being sent all over the region declaring me the scourge of the Lombardy roads. I develop a complex related to the side mirrors, as I fear they will be torn away by the oncoming traffic (left) or the hillside (right).

Suddenly, we are in San Mamete. We find immediately the hotel Stella d’Italia, whose restaurant is our destination for lunch. One of the only three parking spots is being cleared as we arrive, and so we are settled for a few hours. The hotel has a spectacular view over Lake Lugano and, from the hotel’s terrace, life seems to slow down. A couple hug by the dock. Some ducks keep busy in the water, no doubt conditioned and expecting the offerings from guests of the restaurant. We are early and so we ask for coffees. We get our pick of the 7 or 8 tables, which fill later with hotel guests or visitors for the day, mostly German, or more probably German-speaking Swiss from across the border, which is nearby.

The lake in front of us is totally still, a mirror for the small town across, for the trees covering the hills all around, and for the couple on the dock. It reminds me of Lake Moraine in the Banff area of the Canadian Rockies, but Moraine is much smaller and its shores are wilder. And Canadians are less likely to hug in public.

A Californian couple hear us speaking English and we start a pleasant conversation. They have “done” all the other lakes, Maggiore, Garda and Como, and so they stay at Stella d’Italia and enjoy Lake Lugano for a change. The conversation revolves mostly around food (we help them make choices with our Herbach-Dillon Italian food dictionary…) and dogs (they have also left theirs in somebody else’s care). Peace and tranquility broken by the din of forks and knives and the kids at the table next to us, a beautiful family of three generations. The local bus honks its horn advising arrival.

We have risotto ai fungi porcini, an insalata mista, spada alla marinara, costolette d’agnello alle erbe, tartufo, cestino di meringa. Only un quartino di rosso, as I have to drive back. All delicious. The final tally, including the coffees upon arrival, € 58.50.

Returning to the car, we cross the road and admire the very beautiful little square facing the lake and the town hall, modestly named in times past "Magnifico Sovrano Consiglio" and from where the entire valley used to be governed.

Back from San Mamete, from an equally hair-pinned and hair-raising drive, in our room just in time for the moment of silence from New York and the reading of the names. We watch through most of the coverage, with pain. We reflect how fortunate we are to be where we are and I wonder whether the sketch of the Statue of Liberty which I taped to the wall of our family-room still sheds tears as it did for the past year and whether through this reading it has found peace. And I think not.

Later in the day, we feel the need to do something else. The proximity of the dock ensures we have choices and it will be Varenna, which is right across the lake, always in our sight from our terrace.

I hate to admit it, but the visit to Varenna proves that Rick Steves can be right sometimes. In this case, we find Varenna a most charming little town, radiating intimacy, variety and character. We access the lower part of the town by starting from the dock and leading around the side of the mountain, on a path protected in places with guardrails, since the waters of the lake are just beneath us. Little coves create mysterious alcoves, then the path disappears around a corner and, as you round the corner, appears again. We are not the only visitors, but there are no crowds. This path reminds me somewhat of the path around the Stanley Park in Vancouver, on a smaller scale. Varenna feels petite. There are two famous villas to be visited in Varenna, Villa Monastero and Villa Cipressi, both on their own right and because of their famous gardens. After a walk through the medieval streets of the lower town, we reach finally the upper town and stop first at Villa Cipressi, which, we discover, has become also a sort of convention centre. Anyway, tickets for both villas must be bought at Villa Monastero and so, we head in that direction.

We find Monastero to be a real gem, both botanical and architectural. The paths meander up and down, and there are statuaries, a temple, small altars, a fountain just in front of the 12th century convent dedicated to St. Maria Magdalena, a terrace paved with medieval ceramics which survived and are now being restored, and …very few benches. In its time, the convent became quite notorious for the libertine view its dedicated inhabitants took of the idea and facts of love, to the extent that one of Lombardy's most militant Cardinals, Carlo Borromeo, himself owner of quite a turbulent youth, had to dissolve the community and the convent was closed. Today, the convent building houses a modern research institute of hydrobiology and the Monastero Park is famous for its collection of tropical and Mediterranean flora. As we read tags, we find ourselves in front of Goethe’s palm, a unique palm species and would like to know why Goethe’s name is associated with it. The number of palm varieties and shapes is astonishing. We find cedars of Lebanon (we have at home a cedar of Lebanon cone fallen from the cedar in the United Nations garden in Geneva), myrtles which remind us of Alhambra and the Patio de Los Arrayanes, an endless parade of cypresses, palms, cedars, some of these of enormous proportions, a collection of citrus trees, eucalyptus trees, magnolias, bowers of creeping roses. One can spend days in this place. The views opening at each turn are stunning and walking along the western path keeps us along the lake and the reflections of the setting sun in the waters of the lake throw my camera into a frenzy. In its time, it must have been an extraordinarily fit place for meditation and contemplation. Or for love. It still is.

It is getting late and we must catch the last boat across. We leave the visit incomplete (sans Villa Cipressi) and marked for a return in a future trip. On the way to the dock, we stop to admire two precious structures: the 12th century Oratorio di San Giovanni and the 13th century San Giorgio church, the latter’s exterior decorated with a splendid fresco dedicated to St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers and we ask him for good luck and to guard us from car rental problems. Further down we arrive at a little piazza, and a few steps on the way out of town there is a Gelateria Artigianale where I get my "Gelato of the Day": Stracciatella (not the soup, the chocolate ice cream…). Very good.

With Villa Cipressi and with Castello Vezio up the hill not visited, we resolve that, should we decide to come back to the Lake Como area, we would like to stay in Varenna. Oh, how I hate to concede this, Mr. Steves!

We return to Menaggio with the hydrofoil. For a light dinner of sandwiches, a mixed salad, a quartino and no desert, we stop at the café of Hotel du Lac, in Piazza Garibaldi. The usual walk at night along the shore. Quite deserted tonight, no passeggiata, and there is a chill in the air.

At the hotel, waiting for the elevator, we chat with an American lady, the mother of the Tom Cruise look-alike. I tell her; she smiles. She’s heard this before. They celebrate her son’s first wedding anniversary with this trip. To the inevitable question, we answer that we are from Toronto. She smiles again and tells us that she had studied at the University of Toronto and used to live in Yorkville (N.B. now, a fancy shopping and restaurant area in downtown Toronto) before “it got nice” (read: while it was occupied by hippies in the 50's and 60’s. So now we know how the lady spent her youth.). A small world.
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Menaggio - Lenno

Thursday, September 12, 2002 In Mexico, I would have called it Montezuma’s. Here, it is probably Plinius's. But, “a la guerre come a la guerre”: the plan calls for Lenno today so, somewhat later in the day, Lenno it is.

At the dock I am by now a sufficiently familiar face to be charged for two tickets for “anziani”. Well, you win some and you loose some and I voice no protest.

We arrive at Lenno and I wouldn’t mind checking for a late lunch. The recommended spot, the Trattoria di San Stefano, in front of the church with the same name, is not open for lunch. There are no other restaurants that we can see in Piazza San Stefano. Since we are already there, and on the way to visit Villa Balbianello, we stop to visit the church. It has a long history as ruins of one of the many villas Plinius the Younger owned around the Lake Como have been found under the church's floor. Around here must have been his Villa Comaedia, where Plinius in one of his letters describes how he fished from his bedroom window. In the church we go down into the 11th century crypt, in whose vaults elements of a previous, 8th century structure, are incorporated. A group of ladies listen intently to a priest. Conversation stops as we descend into the crypt and murmurs start again as we climb up the stairs, back into the church. I don't pay attention and I smarten up when I knock my head into a stone which has been waiting 13 centuries to meet my head. Remains of 14th and 16th centuries frescoes are still visible in the church, but the light is dim and we go back out into the blinding sun.

Right ahead of us is the outer gate of the road to Villa Balbaniello. Alas, today the Villa can only be visited between 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. and one must wait for a motorboat for access to the gardens. We sit at a café next to the little dock and order some sandwiches and coffee. A sign advises that all crossings to the Villa must be pre-booked. There is a telephone number to be called. We wonder why can't we just talk to the chap on the boat but a large group of French ladies with a guide are already waiting there and the motorboat is quite small. The boat leaves and another group, smaller, assembles and waits. This becomes interesting to watch, since the little boat doesn't return from around the promontory. Hydroplanes land and take off close to the opposite shore, some kids jump in the water and make a lot of fracas, the coffee and sandwiches are quite good. Finally, a small boat at the horizon. For some reason, it stops in the middle of the lake. It seems people in the boat are fishing!? More time passes, and the real motorboat shuttle appears. The sun starts setting, we look at watches: it gets too late to wait for the other round.

And so, we gaze for a while at the promontory of Balbaniello from across the lake and turn towards the dock to wait for the boat which will take us back to Menaggio via Varenna and finally leave with the promise to better research our targets next time around. This trip turns into a series of missed Villas; first the Serbelloni, then, the Cipressi and now the Balbaniello.

Light dinner in the café in the Piazza Garibaldi, followed by a stroll and including the "Gelato of the Day": Tiramisu. OK.
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Menaggio - Como

Friday, September 13, 2002 It is the last day before we leave for Venice, and we decide to spend it in Como. It will also allow me to retrieve a cap forgotten at the Mercedes-Benz dealership where we left the Europcar rental on Monday. Since the regular boat takes about two hours to get to Como, we take the hydrofoil and are in Como 50 minutes later. The dock is very near Como's famous Duomo. Instead of stopping there, we take a taxi and go to the dealership. Of course, for the cost of the taxi I could have bought a new cap right there in Como, but as everybody who was in a similar situation knows, retrieving the cap is a matter of principle, not of financial gain or loss. I also want to know what happened to "our" C180. We find Mr. Lamarina, who has the cap and hands it graciously to me. I ask about the car and find our car is there still (finger across the throat of Mr. Lamarina follows, same gesture I saw on Monday). We take our farewell from the Mercedes dealership determined not to have to be there ever again, and back in Como we return to being tourists by walking over to the Piazza Duomo. But the past is not relenting and in front of Hotel Metropole we meet no other than Mr. Guererra, now on duty and so the conversation is short as the three of us muse on how small the world (or, in this case, Como) is.

But we have a date with the two Plini, whose foot prints we have found all around Lake Como. In this particular place Plinius the Elder and his nephew, predictably The Younger, stand on guard from the two sides the main door to the Duomo. It seems the civic conscience in the Città di Como is not sufficiently appreciative of the presence of two pagans where saints are normally expected to be found, and so the two Romans, sons of Como, who left us The Natural History and the Letters, respectively, have to be protected from the plebe with chicken wire. Which makes for very bad photography.

The Duomo and the entire complex linked to it, with the Torre del Comune and the Broletto (city hall), are an unusual combination of styles, having been erected in different periods, about four centuries in total. But there is harmony in this diversity, in which the Duomo late-Gothic façade and its decorations does not compete with but completes the Romanesque Broletto. The best way to admire this magnificent view is from one of the cafes in the Piazza, right across the street. We do just this, then follow Davide's recommendation not to ignore the older part of the town, a charming labyrinth of narrow streets, filled with pretty shops. Back, we enter the cathedral and admire the aisles and the choir, the reliefs and canvasses covering the walls, Gothic and Romanesque competing again. Among the builders and the artists who worked to erect and beautify the Duomo stands out the Rodari family, father and three sons. To two of the sons, Tomasso and Jacopo, we owe most of the sculptures, including the two Plinis outside, produced one each by the two brothers. There is an austerity to the Duomo and the golden cupola adds a touch of elegance to the monumental structure. Unusually, tapestries hang along the nave and this also mellows the severity of the stark pillars.

As we step out of the Cathedral and walk underneath the colonnade of the Broletto and around the Duomo, we find ourselves in front of the Teatro Sociale, the Como Opera. In 1944, when the La Scala was bombed, this is where the celebrated opera house continued its productions until repairs in Milan were completed. There is still a burgeoning opera schedule in Como, as we found elsewhere as well, as we continued our trip.

Another colonnade continues from the façade of the Teatro Sociale towards the Broletto. As we contemplate where to turn, I spot a restaurant somewhat hidden by the arcade. Thus we find by chance the Restauranto Sociale. The entrance is not inspiring, with huge posters of vaudeville and opera shows. The kitchen is an extension of the dining room and at the other end there is a café-bar. We are greeted graciously, shown to a very nice table and have an excellent meal, surrounded by local patrons and treated just like them. We have consommé, persico fritto, gnocchi al burro e salvia, carpaccio di vitello con fritto di verdura, the usual quartino di rosso, coffee and tisana, all for €32, service and extra tip included.

We take a last walk around Piazza Cavour and the lake shore and board the hydrofoil back to Menaggio.

Preparing the baggage for the next leg of the trip, sorting through notes, checking the maps and the driving directions in the hotel’s café fills the late afternoon. We take a last walking grand tour of downtown Menaggio, stop for a light dinner, then for "Gelato Of The Day" back to where I first had the Variegato Amarena and launch a repeat performance, just as satisfying as the premiere. It seems the Variegato Amarena won the Lake Como leg of this Gelato tour of Italy. Gelato cone in hand, we walk on towards the end of the lakeside promenade. A quiet, starry night. The lake is calm. Lights from Bellagio and Varenna are like gems on a bracelet. As we go on, we find that the promenade has an end. Beyond, a playground where parents and children play despite the late hour. In front of us, looms from the darkness a machine which looks like an ATM. An ATM in the middle of nowhere, next to a playground? This warrants further investigations and, reading carefully the instructions in Italian, we decipher the purpose of the machine: for 50 eurocents, one can drop in the machine the bag with their dog's poo. Indeed, this is civilised and, as we are being dog owned, would much appreciate such amenities in our home town. With this lasting image of technology in the service of humanity, we return to the hotel. Our minds’ eyes are already turned towards Venice.
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Menaggio to Venice

Saturday, September 14, 2002 Breakfast done and all packed, we check out. Before leaving the hotel, we align side by side Claudio and Aramis, the two twins who are porters at the hotel, and take a picture of the two, promising them to send it as soon as we get back to Toronto (N.B.: done!). There are many things one can remember about a hotel: a nice room, a beautiful view, good service, etc. We will remember Grand Hotel Menaggio for all of the above plus the funny, always seemingly bent on mischief porters Claudio and Aramis, who every time they met us in the lobby, café, corridors, garden, etc., will trumpet for all to hear: “Oh, Torooonto! Ontaaario!” like heralds announcing ambassades from strange countries. Or like Begnini when he is a little excited… At first it was quite embarrassing, as everyone around would turn to look at “Torooonto! Ontaaario!” but after a while we saw the humour in it and started going along with their enthusiasm.

Anyway, baggage loaded, we take off on SS340, ready for the relatively long drive to Venice. We decide to stop on the way only for gasoline, coffee or some sandwiches and bypass the many opportunities for stopovers because we can’t wait to arrive in Venice and we don’t want to get there late in the evening.

The drive is quite uneventful, although the vague steering of my Mercedes “upgrade” continues to bother me. Mappy.com driving directions help a lot and some hours later, after a couple of stops for refreshment, we arrive at the Marco Polo International Airport. This sounds a lot simpler that it was, in particular because at one point the Strada offers a white sign reading “Airport” and an arrow to the right, which luckily we did not follow.

After two or three wrong turns, we finally find the rental car return area. We get our luggage out, lock the car and look around for assistance or directions. Of course, nothing on the horizon, no signage whatsoever. We notice people milling around and approach them. It turns out these people have just picked up the keys to their rented cars and are trying to find them somewhere on the lot. We strike a conversation with an English trio who are looking a bit perplexed to a Passat and walk around it. Their problem: the car has lots of scratches. I ask them whether they have rented the car directly from Europcar or through Autoeurope. It was Autoeurope and then I tell them to relax and explain why (“CDW included”, etc). They load their luggage and give us directions to the terminal. I ask if we could use the cart that they just dropped off to the side. The answer is “Yes, and it will be one Euro!” I pay the Euro and go to the terminal where returning the car is quite uneventful.

On to Alilaguna. The day is very warm; I guess above 30 degrees C. There is no boat docked, but one is coming. As we wait, from terminal emerges a group of people, behind them others, more and more. All are dressed and coifed beautifully, women wearing long dresses, with elegant purses and shoes, men all in dark suits despite the heat, all very formal and yet all very happy. As this cortege approaches, a water bus docks, but we are told to wait for the next one. Back to watching the column of people, a bride emerges from the terminal, and then we realize that the agitated young man talking to the captain of the waterbus is probably the groom. A wedding party! Our reception in Venice starts with a wedding party, a good omen, we hope. The party files on to the dock and into the waiting waterbus, the bride carefully aided by her bride’s maids who lift carefully the hem of the long dress. In no time, we hear some glasses clicking, some pops (champagne?) and as their boat leaves the dock and ours arrives. A few minutes later, we are departing as well, eyes wide, not wanting to miss anything. As we enter the lagoon, we start detecting and pointing to landmarks we’ve seen so many times in pictures and photographs, in friends’ albums and now waiting for us. Our instructions are to get off at San Zaccaria and before we know it, we’re there. We look around and right in front of us is our destination: Albergo Paganelli (€192, including continental breakfast). This is great relief for me as I was somewhat worried about dragging luggage over bridges and narrow alleys. I notice that, unlike what I was told, there are no porters in sight. Fortunately, we do not need them and a minute later we are in the small lobby.

At this time it doesn’t yet set in my mind that we are in Venice. We follow Marco and our suitcases to the nice room, in what is obviously a very old building. The first impression is the furniture, doubtfully authentic antique Venetian, with golden trim, the bed covered by a golden spread, the long beam under the ceiling, the window. A few steps and I open the window and find myself on the Riva degli Schiavoni, or rather on top of it. The din of the crowds fills the little room together with the sound of water lapping against the shore, the motorboats. We are at the widest part of the Grand Canal, right across from San Giorgio Maggiore, followed by what I know from staring so long at all maps and guides to be Giudecca, and to the right Santa Maria della Salute. It is sunny, water plays with light, we are overwhelmed by emotion. I feel Venice will be a good place for us. I get all the right vibes. Including some vibration in the floor of the room, as if I am unstable on my feet. I resolve to clear this up with Marco at the front desk, but it will turn out that in my enthusiasm for everything around me, I will forget.

In these few first hours neither of us feels the need to tend to suitcases, or to rest. As soon as we can, we’re out of the hotel, turn to the right and cross two bridges (later we’ll find out that one of them is the famous Ponte dei Sospiri). For the moment it looks to us strange to have to fight our way to get on the other side of this bridge) and we’re in the Piazzetta in front of the Doge’s Palace. So far, today I haven't had anything to drink other than water but there is a buzz in my head and a dizziness and a giddiness as we walk, through the Piazzetta, on to the Piazza, without a clear plan as to where to look first, just letting it all soak in. Why did we wait all these years?

We take some note of our surroundings, the sounds of the crowd, the coos of the pigeons, the lineups in front of the Basilica and the Campanile, the music at Café Florian, the vendors, the people milling to and fro and, without even exchanging a word, we plunge through the arcades and exit the Piazza into a sort of bay or canal, where gondolas are parked (is parking the correct word for stationary gondolas?), gondolieri cleaning their barcas, about 15 gondolas crowded within a small space. There is a hotel there (Cavaletto), then a restaurant (Goldoni). Further on, a sign indicates To Rialto with an arrow and we follow without keeping track of our route. With my "Gelato Of The Day", Melone (very good) in hand, we suddenly are at the Rialto!

At some point, we return to our moderate senses and slow down. From the top of the Rialto we gaze on both sides of the Grand Canal, absorb the water traffic, start noticing details, the world returns to a normal spin. We also notice that this has been a long day indeed, and that we are hungry. And so we walk back, inventing a new way of getting back to the Piazza, improvising a route, as we will be doing for the next four days. We said that it is difficult to find your way in Venice?

There must be somebody up there, maybe San Christopher from his fresco in Varenna, who compensates the travellers for their love of travel because, as we step back into Piazza San Marco, the sun is lower in the sky and hits frontally the façade of the Basilica. A golden fire haloes the façade, the four horses above prance on bright flames. It is magic and this word doesn’t even do the sight justice. I get a camera rush.

On the way back to the hotel, we walk through the Piazzetta dei Leoni (Leonini?), where children play, young people with ubiquitous water bottles lounge with their heads resting on their knapsacks and pigeons drink water and bathe in the bird bath so thoughtfully provided by the architects of the Basilica. Further on, on Calle delle Rasse, we discover that eating in a café-bar in Venice is no different from the same experience in Madrid or elsewhere is Spain, or in Italy for this matter. A €3.20 sandwich in the window becomes gourmet fare as soon as we sit down. But we don’t begrudge it because (a) we are very hungry, and (b) we are dead tired and need to sit down anyway. Three sandwiches, a Guinness and a tisana later, we are out of pocket €24 but settled. Later on, we will sometimes drink coffee standing at a bar, but really, the fun is not the same and so we will return to using tables without any remorse. (Another thing we will not quite master will be to find good food for our lactose intolerant navigator “senza burro, senza panna, senza formaggio, senza latte, per piacere!”, a litany which will raise eyebrows everywhere and give pause and cause much wondering and head scratching by all waiters, wherever we went. But in most cases, a solution was found).

Some rest and it is evening. We wish to see the San Marco area at night and so, back on the Riva, over the two bridges (Ponte dei Sospiri still a mob of people taking pictures, as it will be for the length of our stay), into the Piazzetta. From the Palazzo's Porta Della Carta, from under the lion holding an open book with the words "Pax tibi Marce") very elegant ladies and men with black tie stream out, many carrying little bags, most probably with some souvenirs. Reminds me of my days of conferences and congresses and I’m happy for my current freedom.

As this very distinguished party dissipates into the large Piazzetta and into the Piazza, they mix with the touring crowds, making for a funny amalgam of people dressed “a quatre epingles” and tourists, dressed in just about anything. Pralines and crème...

In the meantime, in the Piazza, a battle is going on. Instead of a tournoi of medieval knights, in mail shirts and carrying lances, we have musicians in a variety of evening formals, carrying violins and clarinets. It is the Battle of the Bands. The first on the right is at Café Lavena. Further on the same side is Café Quadri. Across is the one that started it all, Café Florian. The Florians fight with Phantom of the Opera and Carmen, the Lavenians counter with Italian canzonette, while the Quadrians unleash Viennese waltzes. Lavena seems to lead in the count of people seated at the tables, obviously the best measurement of success in this merciless battle, and of the opportunists, like us, saving their Euros by standing around and floating from one orchestra to another. As one band takes time out and another starts, the crowd and us show no commitment or allegiance and gravitate from cafe to cafe, a slow dance across and around the immense field.

We feel mellow and hang around, hand in hand. After a while, we realize that this has been a very long and wonderful day indeed and walk slowly back to the hotel. On the way, on the right side is Café Chioggia, where a trio of piano, sax and clarinet lament into the night in front of two seated customers, with people passing by indifferently. They play jazz and they play well and we feel for them, and so we stop and thus increase their audience by 100%! We applaud with the rest of the “crowd” and call it a day and a night.

Sunday, September 15, 2002 Our first time on the famous No. 1! Intent on feeling the occasion at its full extent, I squeeze into one of the precious few spots on the open deck, camera at the ready. Was I right to remain at the starboard or should I have chosen the portside for the best pictures? I am consumed by doubt as the vaporetto plunges into the waters and one by one those beautiful facades, with arches and columns and little docks and bricole parade in front of me. I sneak a look at portside: is the proverbial grass greener there? But I console myself with the thought that over the next four days there will be many opportunities to check on both sides. With camera aclicking, we’re soon at our destination, the Accademia stop, in front of the Gallerie dell'Accademia.

Off the boat and first onto the bridge, for a general view. Deep breath; the temptation is to go down to any of the sides and step into the narrow streets, but we will be back there and so, we turn towards the Accademia and enter. A note announces that the Tintoretto and Tizian rooms will be closed today. We know we will return, if not in this incarnation, then in another, so just plough in.

About the Accademia and its treasures entire libraries have been written. On a personal note, we are addicted to the art and at the same time have human weaknesses, such as limited ability to focus on all the offerings of the great museums. In most cases, we need more than one visit. In this case, we will have no time for a second visit during this trip. We have one more reason to return to Venice, as if we really need one more.

But as we start, we know our limitations. From the start we observe the dominance of the Madonna with Child theme, from Veneziano's Madonna col Bambino to that of Giovanni Bellini, Madonna in trono con Bambino. We stop at Georgione's Tempesta and La Vecchia. We notice Hans Memling's Ritratto de un Giovane and find for it further a counterpoint in Lorenzo Lotto's Ritratto de un Giovane Gentiluomo. But most of all we love the works that evoke Venice, where details hint to Venice of today. And so, we stop longest at Gentile Bellini's Procession in Piazza San Marco, where each detail reminds us that we were standing in the very same place only a few hours ago and the brightness of the sparkling Basilica is just as we have seen it a day before. In his Miracle of the Cross on San Lorenzo Bridge other parts of Venice appear and the intriguing sight of the uniquely Venetian chimney pots about whose purpose we were wondering yesterday. Of these we will find many more in Carpaccio's Miracle of the Relic of the Holly Cross, although this one is located at what seems to be an earlier version the Rialto Bridge. In one of the rooms I observe an incongruous oversight: Tizian's St. John The Baptist is reproduced reversed in the guide sheet, probably from a negative or slide turned on the wrong side. Either nobody observed it, or it would have been too costly to reprint the guide. I make, discretely, a note on the guide sheet, for posterity. No doubt, a conscientious civil servant will erase my arrow and there goes my posterity. Just because guides mention it, we stop at the Veronese's Madonna dei Sartori, look up "sarto" in my pocket dictionary, find out that it means "tailor" and a bulb goes off in my brain as this explains the expression "sartorially dressed"! We love Pietro Longhi, whose work we see for the first time, for the real life scenes: a concert, a tailor's family, a dancing lesson, the pharmacist and his shop, no saints. Back to Veronese, his Madonna col Bambino has an amazing depth of field; it unfolds as one looks higher and higher, with elements of 3-D. Still with Veronese, the amazing Convito in Casa di Levi, in which the characters populating the standard Last Supper stage look as ordinary humans can be: drunk, tired, bored, no weighty matters, apparently, on their minds. And the dog is waiting patiently for a (fish?) bone. Nothing like Leonardo's Last Supper which I will face two weeks hence, in Milano. And we love the story of Sant’Ursola, as depicted by Carpaccio in what used to be painting story-telling and looks today like a super-cartoon in nine frames.

As we leave the museum, back into the brightness of the noon sun, we talk some about what we believe to be the difference between the Italian and the Spanish painters of the period. On one side, the play of light and shade, the attention to detail, the elegance and lightness of the brush, the deep involvement with movement, the theatricality of the scenes. On the other, the drama, the darkness, the tension in movement, the wide brush, the dominance of powerful human faces. We are not quite sure where this observation is taking us, but are fully aware of how fortunate we are to have been able to visit both Spain and Italy in the very same year, with so many impressions still fresh in our minds.

Alas, many an artist have discovered that art does not a stomach fill and we are hungry after the hours spent at the Accademia, and so we set in the path opened by Shannon, the renowned Slow Traveller. The list, as inspired by her for the Dorsoduro/Accademia area, included Taverna San Trovaso, Pizzeria Accademia, Vini al Bottegon Cantinone and Casin dei Nobili, all religiously and carefully jotted down on a Post-it note before we left the hotel. Pizzeria Accademia is easy to find but we feel that for our first decent meal in Venice we would like something more whatever, but not this. Alas, Shannon forgot to mention on which side of the Accademia to turn in order to get to the other targets and so, being in front of the Pizzeria and, therefore, at the left of the Accademia, we continue unknowingly into uncharted restaurant territory. (We will discover the correct turn later. For the time being we are on “the wrong side”). A few steps and we are on the Dorsoduro, facing Giudecca. Walking along Dorsoduro we find a few places at which to stop for lunch, realize that San Trovaso is not going to happen today and go on looking for a place with the best view and the most shading umbrellas. We settle on Gianni’s, at a table at the edge of the water and with an unchallenged view. We have a decent enough meal, my seppia col nero alla veneziana (con polenta) in particular, although anybody who would have had seppia alla veneziana in Toronto, at Joso’s, as I did, would consider the Toronto version superior. With Josette's vegetarian pizza, 1/2 bottle of wine, water, coffees and cover charge, we pay €48, service and tip included. We ate better in many places for this kind of money, but the gorgeous view and the leisure taken watching Venice life go by make it all worth it. It is Sunday and people from the neighbourhood are out for a stroll, dogs everywhere, even on Gianni's patio, which is as it should be by our reckoning. In fact, the dogs are quite active and aggressive and their owners extremely unhappy with each other when their dogs get into scraps, which inspires me for the following immortal maxim: "Dogs like people but don't like other dogs; people like dogs but don't like other people". There it is, black on white.

By 1:30 p.m. the Gianni patio is packed and the service gets sloppy. It is time to leave. We return along Dorsoduro but round behind and on the other side of the Accademia building and so, dear Shannon, we discover, one by one, the locations of the Casin, the Bottegon (the door discretely half open, probably because it is a Sunday), and finally, Taverna San Trovaso, where else but right across from San Trovaso the Church, a bit further up from the "squero" where gondolas are being repaired. We mark the location for future options and go on towards the bridge. With Frommer's Venice Walking Tours (highly recommended!) on hand, we identify Palazzo Franchetti, now under renovation, Palazzo Barbaro where Monet and Sargent had studios, the beautiful garden of Palazzo Marcello, one of the few visions of garden in full growth along the Canal, then walk on to Campo San Stefano, whose Tintorettos we mark for next year's visit, Pallazo Morosini, the same Morosini who blew up the Parthenon as the 17th century was drawing to a close, and San Vidal. We admire Ca' Rezzonico from across the water and promise to be there soon, since the traghetto service does not operate on Sunday. We walk back all the way to the hotel, which we left at 8:30 in the morning. Not bad for a guy with two artificial hips… On the way, we pick the "Gelato Of The Day": Mora. Pretty good; I wonder how do they get the flavour so fragrant.

In the afternoon after some rest, we head towards La Fenice, although we know there will be little to see of the building because of the renovations. We also wish to scout the Scala del Bovolo area for apartment rental potential. The La Fenice is indeed hidden by construction work. The new Fenice was supposed to be completed in 2001, then in 2002; hopefully, it will be ready by September 2003 when we hope to be back here. Palazzo Cantorini del Bovolo with the dazzling Scala del Bovolo and the loggia are beautiful, the area great for a longer stay, but we have some doubts as to our ability to drag luggage all the way there. This will require more thought. We turn back through Campo Manin and then Campo San Zaccaria. On the way, a stop since Josette finds a beautiful little mask, with a musical theme, which could replace the one "retired" accidentally. Josette thinks it is too expensive. As we leave, I tell the gentleman in the shop that, undoubtedly, we will be back. Indeed, sober consideration allows us to return to the shop and buy the mask. By now, we became "regulars" and the gentleman, who resembles astonishingly Omar Sharif, really a potential double, and who had a few aperitifs it seems, offers us a discount. Packing the delicate object causes some more conversation during which somehow I get to show off and ask the shop keeper whether he knows the origin of the name Calle delle Rasse given to the street opening just in front of the store. He confesses ignorance and so I tell him the story from Morton, who actually lived on Calle delle Rasse. Rasse was a strong black canvas-like material used to cover the gondolas when the gondolas were all still brightly painted and adorned with precious furniture. The entire street was dedicated to the commerce in this fabric: import, sale, fitting, etc. As a result, like in many other cases, the name of the function becomes the name of the street. Of course, today Calle delle Rasse is all cafes, little souvenir and jewelry stores, a small market. Nothing remains from the time of the colourful, happy looking gondolas. The gentleman confesses interest, although I doubt he really cares, and so I don't tell him why Venetian blinds are called "Venetian". His loss…

In the room, I get a chair, place myself in front of the large window, and rest taking in the incredible view in front of me: starting with the open lagoon at my left, eyes panning slowly towards Isola San Giorgio Maggiore with the Church at 45 degrees and the soaring Campanile, further over to Il Redentore-the landmark in Giudecca with the two bell towers, over more to include Punta della Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute. I have never seen a more glorious view and I wonder why I deserve it. I shiver. (…and I shiver as I assemble these notes, a month later…). I take picture after picture and I know none will do justice, but will at least be a reminder of what I feel now.

The life on the water opening in front of us is amazing: passenger boats and taxies, ferries, cruise ships, gondolas, little boats used for deliveries or bringing repairmen where they're needed, a brazen power boat or two, crane boats, a firemen's boat, private boats, a courier's delivery boat. Below me, at this hour of the day the Riva degli Schiavoni is in full swing: restaurants and cafes are open with umbrellas offering protection to those sitting at tables, tourists in small or large groups milling in each direction, the San Zaccaria vaporetto landing, then the Alilaguna dock, vendors of T-shirts and souvenirs, buskers setting up but checking carefully for the Carabinieri since, unlike on the Ramblas in Barcelona, buskers do not seem to be welcome in Venice.

We will do this many times over the following days, watching life on and along the water, as it unfolds at various hours of the day with the web and flow of the crowds. All this has a rhythm: the opening of the cafes with their colorful umbrellas early in the morning and the setting of the tables, workers coming into town, then the tourists in agitated and frenetic pursuit of their guides, the sparkling waters, and as the day goes on, with the sun slipping towards sunset, the shades of the evening set, music starts at a nearby restaurant, the Riva empties slowly and so do the Canal and the lagoon and the cycle of daily life closes with umbrellas and table covers being collected, tables and chairs stacked, all closing for just a few hours, waiting to start again. A group of kids with a guitar would make some noise but even they will feel that it is time to close for the day.

But for us, the evening included a few more special moments. In Piazzetta dei Leoni, while "next door", in Piazza San Marco, The Battle of The Bands continues, a group of Italian tourists start singing, clapping, dancing. It is beautiful sight: they are of all ages, coming forward one by one to sing another couplet, then they go around in the circle and select a dance partner. It is very much like the Romanian dance Perinitza, where the chosen partner also gets a kiss to boot. But, behold: three Carabinieri approach and stop the joy: apparently, such public unauthorized displays of joy are not permitted. Some discussion, some protests from people who were watching from the side, all to no avail. They must disperse. In my mind I send an angry rebuke to Pink Floyd, whose 1989 concert left the Piazza San Marco trashed and the Venetian authorities traumatized to the extent that even benign displays such as that we have just witnessed are shooed away. We walk along the Riva, towards the Arsenale, but not quite that far. We pass Petrarca's house. At Santa Maria della Pieta there is a concert going; chamber music by the sound. We sit for a while in front of a café already closed. Somehow, the conversation drifts toward the churches we have seen so far in the Como region and particularly in Venice, versus their Spanish counterparts. The theory emerges that the latter were built for the glory not only of God but also for that of the absolute Spanish monarchs under whose reign they were built and their magnificence expresses and supports this intention. We find the Italian churches more peaceful, somewhat introverted. This may reflect the deep division of the dukedoms of Italy and in Venice, with the obvious exception of San Marco, which was built for the glory of one Republic and the use of a single person, the rest of the churches are community-based, dedicated to a great variety of saints, for the use of the population of the Campi. We decide not to write a doctorate on the subject and go back to the hotel where RAI Uno presents "Eugene Oneghin". And we wanted to go earlier to sleep because tomorrow we must get up to watch the feeding of the pigeons in Piazza San Marco. Forget it. It is almost midnight when the show ends.

Monday, September 16, 2002 Before leaving for Italy, we read in H.V. Morton’s “A Traveller in Italy” a beautiful story about the pigeons of Piazza San Marco. The story revolves around the process of feeding the pigeons and, since this happened according to Morton’s 1964 experience at 9 a.m., we perk up early, have our cappuccinos and excellent continental breakfast and head to the Piazza. Today, we will concentrate on the Piazza: first, we will to watch the feeding, then we will join "The Secrets of the Palazzo Ducale" tour, which we found excellently described by Cat Bauer in ItalyDaily.it and for which we have already tickets reserved telephonically. The afternoon will be for the Basilica.

At about 8:30 in the morning the Riva is a different place. People disembark from vaporettos and waterbuses heading to their work in Venice. No tourists in sight except those hurrying with luggage and displaying that lost stare typical for people leaving one place with their mind already onto the next. I imagine them all as being very sad for leaving Venice, already thinking of coming back sometime soon. There is another highly visible exception: large groups of Japanese, whisked early from their hotels, armed with fashionable knapsacks, cameras and videocams, following with a purposeful step and determined glint in their eyes their guides wave umbrellas or little flags. They already line up at the entrances of the Doge’s Palace, the Basilica and the Campanile, which will only open in about half an hour.

Back to the pigeons, who seem to have reached in Venice a status similar to that of the cows in India: Morton was intrigued by the pigeon feeding ritual. According to his story, at 9 a.m. a man would come out of the Assicurazioni Generali building carrying two bags of birdfeed. At this time, the Piazza would be still empty of its bird and human population. The man would then slowly walk with his bags, creating from the birdfeed a giant A and a giant G, the initials of the company which underwrites the costs of the feeding, and at this precise moment, as the clock in the Piazza shows 9 and the bells of the Basilica still ring, the entire pigeondom will descend from their rest places between the nooks and crannies of San Marco's façade and land with a mighty flutter of wings onto the Piazza, some covering the “AG” man from head to toe, others already pecking intently at the waiting food.

We wait for this incredible sight, cameras at ready. We sit on the stone bench at the base of the Campanile and wait, watching the colonnade of the “AG” wing of the Piazza. At 9 the bells start ringing, but nobody comes out from under the colonnade. Five minutes go by and the first threads of doubt cross our minds: Morton saw this in the 1960’s; what if this is not being done anymore? In fact, Morton did mention that in the summer, fed abundantly by tourists, the birds are less interested in the daily feeding routine. Maybe it was cancelled? And then the finally chilling thought: If this would have still gone on, it would have been in all travel guides and millions of people would have crowded the Piazza to watch it! We don’t remember coming across this story anywhere except in Morton’s…

We wait a few more minutes and, disappointed by having missed on such a big scoop (pardon the pun), we still appreciate the silver lining in this little story for, without expecting this event, we probably would have never seen Piazza San Marco so early in the morning, practically empty, all ours.

We stop for cafes and then, at 10 a.m. present ourselves underneath the scaffolding framing the Porta del Fromento, the older Palazzo gate, where the tickets are waiting for us, together with name tags and a group of about 20 people. This is one of the two English language daily tours. The idea of the tour is to take visitors behind the scene, in areas which are not only closed to the large public today, but which were hardly known to Venetians themselves in the times of the Republic. We receive some explanations of what to expect, conduct, some background in the administration of the Republic and the forces at play at the time. The secretive ways of the administration are symbolised by the lone "bocca di leone" left in existence after the Republic submitted to Napoleon. The bocca di leone was in fact a mail slot, in which anonymous denunciations were left, much like in the times of the communists and Securitate in our native country, now thing of the past as well. The guide then presents to us with a flourish a heavy key with which, dramatically, she opens a heavy door. We enter the part of the palace in which the secret work took place. With the rooms of the Chief Notary of the Senate, then the room of the equivalent of the CIA and of the FBI together, that of the secretaries of the Council of Ten. The room of the Grand Chancellor follows. We are struck by the starkness of all these rooms; their occupants were all business, no pleasure as they were dedicated to the safety and power of the Republic, all under the Grand-Chancellor-for-life, himself a counterweight to the power of the visible politicians. Obviously catering to the need to make the tour more "interesting", the guide refers extensively to Casanova and his exploits during his adventurous life which brought him up against the power of the Republic and led to his incarceration in the palace, then his daring escape, etc. We visit the carcere where prisoners were held pending preliminary hearings, the questioning room where above and around those being interrogated were cells filled with moaning prisoners and a hangman's noose was subtly hanging low from above, as an encouragement to confession. We then climb to a most extraordinary place: the attic of the palace, where one can see the intricate lattice of petrified wooden beams, nailed at what appear to be crazy angles, but probably carefully calculated as they allow the building the necessary balance of rigidity and flexibility to withstand the hidden tensions to which it is exposed by the natural movement of the base below. The foundation itself is locked with thousands of huge petrified wooden beams hammered into the unstable earth and which constitutes the foundation of the palace.

Beneath are the room of Tre Capi, the most powerful of the Council of Ten, and that of the Inquisitors, all components of the intricate checks and balances which controlled the power in the Republic of Venice.

As we return down the Scala d'Oro and through the portico to the large courtyard, with the imposing but strangely angled Giants' staircase and the bronze wells, we return our name tags, thank the competent guide and are left to our own devices, free to visit the public quarters of the Palace which are open to the general visit. Thus we have access to parts of the Doge's apartments, the Sala degli Scarlatti with the extraordinary fireplace, the Maps Room with its with its maps dating from a later period and the two Earth globes, the Sala delle Quatro Porte where supplicants were accepted or dismissed in its four anterooms, the Anticollegio and then the Sala del Collegio, Sala del Bussola secretly connected with that of the Tre Capi, Sala del Senato, Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci and, finally, Sala del Maggiore Consiglio. As we go along, a gallery of treasures unfolds: Tizian's St. Christopher, the good Protector of travellers, Giovanni Bellini's Pieta, Bassano's Noah's Ark, Veronese's Rape of Europa and his Triumph of Venice, another Veronese Triumph of Venice in the High Council Hall, the almost documentary Bassano view of the Piazzetta and at the end, when one can't absorb anymore, the stunning Paradise by Tintoretto, covering an immense full width of the Hall. We look all around the room, as were told, to find the portraits of the 76 Doges who reigned in a span of over 700 years, and we find the blanked out spot of Martino Faller, the only Doge executed for treason. Benches at the other end of the huge Hall are available and we sit down for a while, without talking much. What an experience!

For lunch, we stay within the Palace, at the Bar Palazzo Ducale. Nice sandwiches and salads, good coffee, a bit expensive, like all museum cafes but offering a direct view to the Rio di Palazzo and the iron bars of the lower prison, where criminals less notorious than Casanova were dying forgotten and whose cries gave its name to the Ponte dei Sospiri just to the right of the one-piece glass door of the café! From time to time, benign gondolas float in front of us with their touring loads and disappear.

Because we wish to wait out the touring masses and then go into Basilica di San Marco, we have time in the afternoon for a return walk to the Rialto. We stop at Berreria Lowenbrau, say Hello, Shannon!, and sit for a Lowenbrau and, respectively, coffee and for a while watch the world go by.

In the late afternoon, the crowds getting into the Basilica have diminished. Before entering this “Chiesa d’Oro”, we take a walk of the exterior, with its rich ornaments and unique asymmetry of the diverse marble panels and columns, the doors, with carved arches and above them more arches and their rich mosaics, and then the upper section where is the "quadriga", the sculpted likeness of a team of horses preserved from Greek and Roman times, the South façade whose arches are embellished in Moorish style, the North facade with its Moorish arches descending towards the Piazzetta dei Leoni. So, now we're ready. There is no line up at the entrance, just 10-15 people subjected, like all visitors, to the vigilant scrutiny of the decency police: shorts and visible navels are rejected, deep neck lines are frowned upon but pass. We're decent, so we pass too. Inside the first impressions are "Bysantium", "Gold", "Mosaic". Then, as the eye soars, the gold and the mosaic combine, the mosaics cover every available surface, turning the light inside the Basilica to a diffuse golden haze. The place is vast, much more so than the exterior would suggest. It is difficult to assess the entire space from one point and moving along the "corso obligato" imposed by the path defined with two ropes makes it even more difficult. Innumerable marble and porphyry columns support the cupolas which are a riot of mosaic and colour. Difficult to get a good view of the floor and pavement.

Below is the High Altar and its Pala d'Oro in which gold and enamel are studded with precious stones and which was only partly spared from the grubbiness of Napoleon, who returned to Paris with many of Pala d’Oro’s original precious stones.

We are near the entrance to the Tesoro and decide to take a look but we are very disappointed: small groups of people are being almost pushed into the small rooms, everything is too far away. After the Tesoros of the Mezquita in Cordoba and of the Cathedrals of Seville and Toledo, this is a disappointment. We go up to the Galeria and finally get a unified view of the small universe at our feet. It all comes together in a wonderful way. This gives us the push to the outside Galeria, with its amazing view of the Piazza and the Piazzetta, the columns on top of which are the statues of the Lion of San Marco and San Teodore, the original patron saint of Venice, later relegated to the role of an also ran. Beyond is the water, Isola San Georgio Maggiore, the world. Back looking at the Piazza I can finally take a measure of the immensity of this space which from down below feels more intimate then from this height. The sun is falling towards Museo Correr and the Piazza is shining back, spotted with little dots, which are the pigeons, people's shadows elongated. Later, this view will somehow turn in the pictures I take.

Once outside one also comes face to face with the famous four horses, close and personal. But there is no point in trying to get too cozy with them, because the real "quadriga" is inside, in the Loggia dei Cavalli. There stand the originals, immense horses which travelled in 1204 all the way from Constantinople to Venice (I can't even imagine by what feat of transportation, with the technology available hundreds of years ago) when the Doge Enrico Dandolo sacked Constantinople. About 700 years later the horses were adjudicated by Napoleon and transported to Paris and finally back here, to what seems to be their final stable. They are magnificent, proudly unbridled. What a beauty! Josette falls in love with them and I remember to take some more pictures.

We've had our fill. On the way back I get my "Gelato Of The Day": Malaga. Pretty good. We buy the requisites for a few sandwiches, some fruit and return to the hotel through Campo San Zaccaria, for some rest.

In the evening, back to The Battle of The Bands. There are very few people in the Piazza. I ask the waiters at Café Lavena if I can use one of their empty tables for my camera and small tripod, as I want some night photograph of the Basilica. I am refused, and I find a table at another café, across the Piazza, now closed. The pictures will turn out pretty good. A young lady who noticed us taking pictures asks whether we would like a picture together. We thank her gratefully and we now have a nice souvenir, albeit the lower parts of the legs are missing. Quibbling.

In the Piazza, an old couple dances and I take a picture. They'll be remembered in our album.

Tuesday, September 17, 2002 Today we will go to Cannaregio and also visit the Ghetto. The vaporetto takes us to the San Marsuola stop and from there we walk without a specific plan, through the little residential streets. After coffees at a small bar in Rio Terra San Leonardo, we loose ourselves through the narrow streets made for wandering, cross over to Fondamenta degli Ormesini and back, until we reach the quiet of Campo do Ghetto Nuovo. Here is the Museo Ebraico, the starting point of a tour of the old quarter. From here, after a short wait, a guide takes us through streets in which the sun is being blocked by multi-story buildings, on to the surviving structures of old Synagogues, the German (Scuola Grande Tedesca), and Scuola Canton in the Ghetto Nuovo area, the Spanish (Scuola Spagnola) and the Oriental (Scuola Levantina) in the Ghetto Vecchio. The simplicity of these temples and their rite-based diversity are striking. The thought of thousands of people cooped up in this small area under severe restrictions gives pause, and then further on Calle di Ghetto Vecchio there is the plaque interdicting the reverse route, into the Ghetto, to any Jew who has converted to Catholicism.

As we make our way out of the Ghetto towards Strada Nova we find a little souvenir store on Ca' Gio, David's Shop. We spend quite some time, and not too much money, in this store where the pressure to buy is not as in the more tourist areas. We find bracelets and necklaces, in beautiful glass work and delicate colouring. On Strada Nova we decide it is time for lunch and stop at Enoteca La Cantina, a café-bar and restaurant in Campo San Felice. They already ran out of tramezzini and we order one sandwich and two mixed salads. Probably clued by my disappointment that they are out of tramezzini, we are presented with a complimentary platter of chichetti, which go very well with my beer. The salads arrive after a short while and they are marvelous, the best we have had anywhere, and we mean anywhere: a variety of mushrooms fresh and marinated, cabbage, baby arugula, carrots, yellow peppers, tuna, marinated olives, marinated artichokes, lettuce, and all types of cheeses: a smoked cheese I can't identify, assiago, bocconcini and a chunk of parmesan. All are arranged tastefully and I get also the cheeses off Josette's plate. All sprinkled by us with olive oil and vinegar and we are in salad heaven and all well worth the €25 which includes the above, plus water, coffees and tip. Highly recommended stop.

A couple of Venetian blocks down and to the right is Ca' d'Oro which houses Galleria Franchetti. We walk down to the Canal as it offers a different view from any spot and then enter the Galleria.

Among the tapestries, sculptures and paintings by Carpaccio and Tizian I find another cartoon-like story, that of Sesto Tarquinius and his rape of Lucretia, her suicide and her funeral, all complete with names of the players of this antique tragedy: Tarquinius, Lucretia, Lucretio, only the cartoon bubbles missing. It is a work by Biagio d'Antonio, a less known Florentine painter who straddled the 15th and the 16th centuries.

Great attractions of Ca' d'Oro are also the two vast and flamboyant loggias running parallel to the Grand Canal. They offer unique views of the Canal and camera opportunities for photographs.

On the way back to the hotel, an opportunity for the "Gelato Of The Day". I make my own concoction: Cioccolata Crocante e Vaniglia Giullia. Good idea!

Late afternoon walk to the Arsenale, using the back streets running behind the Riva degli Schiavoni, on Rio dei Greci into Campo San Giovanni in Bragora, on by Calle del Morte (brrr!), a turn on Pescaria, then to the lions of the Campo Arsenale. There are two bars side by side in the Campo Arsenale. The sun is coming down, it is getting a bit cooler. Josette has her bottle of water, I have my bottle of wine, we watch the lions and the passers-by, I am as happy as I can be.

In the evening we go out yet again, walking through Campo San Zaccaria and Campo San Provolo, on to the Piazzetta dei Leoni. Crossing the Piazza, we walk along Frezzeria and Largo XXII Marzo and stop at the rococo-like San Moise. Josette must take some photos of the cheesy façade. It is quite dark; interesting what will come out with her 800 ASA film, which Josette uses mainly because she is responsible with the interiors.

In Piazza San Marco The Battle of The Bands continues, with Lavena at a definite advantage. Florian has changed the format: now they have two bands, one earlier with Viennese and Hungarian music, another with a semi-classical repertoire, but they still can't get more crowds. Desperation?

As we listen, we also notice stacks of passarelle, the boardwalks, have appeared all around the Piazza and in front of the Basilica and the Palazzo. We also find them along the shore, all the way to the hotel. Do they expect rain? Is the gravity pull of the near full moon going to cause the water levels to rise? I guess we'll find out tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 18, 2002 The vaporetto takes us across to Santa Maria della Salute, who has been watching us for the past four days, and has been probably waiting for us. There are just a few people at this extreme part of the Dorsoduro sestiere. A few seem to have slept overnight on the stairs of Santa Maria. From close, the church does not appear as bright as when seen from the other side of the Canal and the interior appears stark and forbidding despite the light flooding it. On the ceiling Tizian frescos remind us that, after all, this is a Venetian church. Unfortunately, the sacristy is closed and we can't find anybody to ask how to get access to it, so we won't see the Tizian and Tintorettos hidden there. From the stairs of Santa Maria we look over the water at Palazzo Contarini-Fasan where tradition says that Desdemona was born, later to be married to a Moro, not to a Moor! We dedicate a thought to Desdemona, and turn on Fondamenta Zattere and zigzag on the way to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum.

Although not as rich as the large museums, the Peggy Guggenheim is a captivating collection of modern art. The museum creates an atmosphere of intimacy through its labyrinthine layout and the closeness of the paintings and sculptures, the inner garden and the terrace onto the Canal. An exuberant collection of modern works, the Peggy Guggenheim returns us to our times, with the works of Picasso, Chagall, Braque, Pollock, Kandinsky (a Josette favourite), Brancusi (from the old country), Giacometti, Moore. All are and feel very close and reachable, both literally and figuratively. What this museum achieves at its smaller scale, is to bring closer disparate and extreme developments and styles and give them integration and coherence. I am not sure this is what Peggy Guggenheim hoped to achieve when he acquired these works from all over the modern painting map, but the museum, as it is, does it.

We're close to our lunch destination, the Taverna San Trovaso. It is a bit early, and only a few people already sit at tables. We are met with manifest pleasure, shown to a comfortable table, and with the service not rushed at all, we have our best meal in Venice: the ubiquitous insalata mista and branzino alla griglia for Josette, zuppa di pesce and ossobuco alla cacciatore and polenta for me, half a liter of rosso and topped with excellent coffee. As our meal progresses, the Taverna fills with patrons, many evidently familiar to the staff who greet everybody with a handshake but mostly with embraces. Families with kids, a few tourists like us, a pleasant atmosphere. All of the above plus water, cover charge, service and additional tip, add up to a round €50. Quite unbeatable and highly confirming Shannon's recommendation.

Rested and content, we continue on to Ca’ Rezzonico, its exterior so much admired daily as we passed by in the vaporettos. Inside, a museum is dedicated to Venetian life in times past, with decorative objects, furniture, jewelry, evocative mockups, dining tables all set and waiting for their guests. From time to time, alarms sound as visitors get to close to the precious jewelry. Guards watch the visitors on every room. There are many great rooms in which took place balls, masquerades and even games, all dwarfed by the huge ballroom.

After organising ourselves for tomorrow’s departure, we’re back along the Riva, in the Piazza, for a farewell look and for a decision which will settle the Battle of the Bands. It seems it is Café Lavena, hands down by popular (crowds) vote. We sit on the readied passarelle and, under tables at Café Lavena, we notice a slowly enlarging dark stain. We get closer: it is water! We check the rest of the Piazza and, indeed, there are many such spots in the lower parts of the pavement, water seeping up, visibly becoming higher. It is the “acqua alta” which is driven by tides and probably aggravated this year by the torrential rains further North. (N.B.: A week later, while in Siena, Josette points out to the Italian supplement of the International Herald Tribune we bought that day. On the second page, a photograph of Piazza San Marco on September 24th, with lines of people walking in more than one foot of water, pants and skirts rolled up. We cut the photograph for the section of our albums dedicated to Venice.) .

The sight of the rising waters and the thought of having to leave tomorrow probably prompt Josette to voice the melancholy realisation that in five days in Venice we have heard only one gondolier sing, and he a bit out of tune. My depressed contribution is that I missed the Gelato Of The Day.
Leaving Venice

Thursday, September 19, 2002 Fog all over the lagoon. We say “We’ll be back” to everything around us, board Numero Uno and, through the murky light, end up at the equally murky Piazzale Roma.

At the Europcar office, where we present ourselves to pick up our Nissan Primera, we are told (what else?) that they don’t have a Nissan Primera available, but we will get an upgrade. I anticipate the clerk and say: “I hope it isn’t a Mercedes C180!” The predictable answer is that it is indeed a C180, and that they don’t have another car with automatic. The clerk further wonders why would anybody refuse a Mercedes, but I choose not to tell him the story (see this Notebook, Part 1, September 9, 2002 a.k.a. as The Longest Day).

The car is parked away from the office, somewhere along the road, dirty, covered with a variety of stains, windshield fogged with flattened dead insect bodies, a serious dent and nobody to talk to because we are quite away from the office. Obviously, it was never cleaned after the last rental, but all that matters to us now is if the brakes will work.

Josette pulls the map and the Mappy directions from her travel bag and we’re hitting the road to Tuscany.

Thursday, September 19, 2002 The drive from Venice to Lucca is, thankfully, uneventful. As we approach Lucca, we concentrate on making sure we don't miss the correct entrance. In our email exchanges the hotel did not mention any potential difficulty: we were to enter the city through Porta San Pietro and, once at the hotel, we will receive a permit and will then be able to park the car in the yellow marked areas reserved for permit parking. The only thing not mentioned, and it is our fault we didn't ask, was how to get from Porta San Pietro to the hotel using the one-way streets in that part of town.

Needless to say, very soon we are lost in the midst of the narrow medieval streets of Lucca and have to ask directions a number of times. At one point we are stuck at the intersection of two extremely tight streets, a very small piazzetta in front of us. Whatever direction we choose, we will need a 5- or 6-point turn to move onwards. As we ponder, a municipal garbage truck appears in the piazzetta and blocks us completely. Decided to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, I stop the car and approach the two municipal workers and ask them how to get to Hotel Universo in Piazza del Giglio. After a lot of "destra" and "sinistra" which I repeat carefully so as not to forget, I return to the car and pass on the instructions to the navigator. We feel a bit dumbfound, instructions or not. I set the car in reverse to start the multi-point turn maneuver, when I hear a knock on the window: one of the two young workers gesticulates emphatically, first to himself, then to the garbage truck, then with two hands tracing parallel tracks, making clear to me that we are to follow the garbage truck. Thus we make out triumphal entrance in Piazza XX settembre, where one of the two helpful young people gets off the truck and, saying loudly "Piazza del Giglio" a few times to make sure I get it, points straight ahead. Before we manage to say even thanks, the truck is gone and we have between us and Piazza del Giglio the small matter of negotiating a pedestrian mall, clearly marked as closed to traffic. At this point, I would drive through anything to get to the hotel and so, amongst stupefied pedestrians and shoppers in the mall, I go on driving through and to the end of the closed area and, after a smart little left turn, we arrive right at the doors of Hotel Universo (€135, buffet breakfast included).

I approach the desk, give our name and tell the young lady at the desk that we have a reservation. To my surprise, the young lady comes around, gives me a hug and a kiss and says: "Oh, Oh! Signor Midroni! We were waiting for you! We have a very nice room prepared for you because, you know, you were the first person to make a booking with us for year 2002!" (N.B. The reservation was made sometime in 2001!).

Thus, we get our very nice room indeed, with two large windows, one opening towards Piazza del Giglio and right across from the building of Teatro del Giglio, the other to the pedestrian mall through which we were driving only a few minutes ago.

A few minutes later, parking permit on the dashboard, we have to drive out (!) of Lucca through Porta Santa Anna and back into Lucca through the now "familiar" Porta San Pietro, to locate the yellow permit parking area. This time around we are luckier and we get out and back into town without problems. With some brazen driving through one "no entry" street, we find what is probably the best parking spot in the Cittá di Lucca, a couple of minutes away from the hotel and find very easily our way back, in Piazza del Giglio, where we check on the repertory of Opera di Lucca. “Aida” is on the board for Saturday night but we will skip “Aida”. We are content to know that Rossini’s “Guillermo Tell” premiered here 170 years ago, with no other than Niccolo Paganini as a member of the orchestra. We have a light lunch and coffees at the café-bar in the Piazza, and try to figure out the local map.

We know that Lucca is a beautiful city from the guided tour made by Josette in 1996, from the various guides and from the SlowTrav board. We will spend three days here, basking in the peaceful beauty of this charming and well preserved medieval fortress, and using one of these days to go to Pisa, another town visited by Josette but not by me.

With a bit of rest watching the nearly empty piazza, we decide to take a first view of the Lucca historic centre. Ignoring suggested routes because we know that Lucca is set tight enough for us to be able to get everywhere in due course, we head through the pedestrian mall and in parallel to Piazza Napoleone with its imposing Palazzo Ducale which houses the civic centre of the town, on to Via Beccheria and into Piazza San Michele, which turns out to be a very active place. On one side is the Church of San Michele in Foro, on the other a Loggia where local products are being offered for tasting, and in the middle, an open market, with the most diverse products and produce, all surrounded by cafés, restaurants and shops. And so, we meander between the vendors' tables, checking out the goods and just enjoying the beautiful day. San Michele the Church, with its ornate facade and towering imposingly over the Piazza, is very impressive. In fact, we find out the church is somewhat unfinished as the fathers of Lucca have never found the funds to finish the nave. Inside the church are interesting paintings by Filippino Lippi, and the façade, among saints and angels, houses busts of Garibaldi and Cavour while above them the Archangel Michael watches the piazza, a dove resting at this moment on his head, immortalised, or at least captured, in a picture promptly snapped.

Off the Piazza, we find the highly recommended restaurant Da' Leo and plan on returning in the evening for dinner. For the time being, we need some rest.

In the evening we retrace our steps and arrive at Da' Leo about 10 minutes before opening. There are a few tables outside and some of them are already occupied although the restaurant is still closed! This bodes well, but on the other hand, the little street smells dank and the tables are rickety and we think that maybe we take a table inside. As we wait, we change our minds and decide to be a bit more adventurous and walk instead towards Porta San Donato where, almost under the ramparts, is Da'Giulio in Pelleria, a restaurant warmly recommended by our friend Renato from Milano. This also gives us the opportunity of walking along the narrow streets of this purely residential neighbourhood, with appetising smells wafting from kitchens and onto the street, sounds of kids playing, TV or radio blasting. Accompanied by these aromas and sounds, we arrive at Da Giulio in just a few minutes.

We do not regret the decision. As we drop in without a reservation, we find Da' Giulio's a large, bright, well lit, comfortable restaurant. It has three large dining rooms, all connected, with tables well spaced, nice tablecloth, nimble waiters who pay attention, seem to anticipate and respond quickly.

There is leisure in this big place. The service is well orchestrated and supervised, a well-oiled machine, with that appearance of effortlessness which costs so much work to produce. Orders are not rushed, and in the special case of a frozen dessert, I will be politely advised to let it sit for 10 minutes, not left up to me to discover.

The patrons are solidly locals, couples, groups small and large. These patrons are obviously loyal as they seem to be immediately recognised, seated and antipasti and wine are brought to their tables before they start ordering; it is clear their preferences are known. Not too many tourists; maybe another couple or two, and us.

The food and presentation are simple. There is no unnecessary fuss since the stress is on the food quality, all based on simple and fresh ingredients.

We have farinata, polenta with vegetables and beans, acquacotta con funghi, tagliatelle alla contadina, with fresh tomatoes, basil and oregano, sprinkled with olive oil, salsicce con fagioli all'ucelletto with beans in seasonal tomato sauce and sage, patate arrosto, merengata (an heroic slice of meringue layered with white chocolate and vanilla ice cream), 1/2 l. rosso ordered in two quartinos but not charged for the second, one Vin Santo and cantucci, water, coffees, cover, service charge and tip all included: €35!!! I would dare anybody to beat this.

If I were back in Lucca, this is where I would go first for lunch and for dinner.

It is late, time to go back to the hotel, but in the way we make a small detour and check on the Duomo, with the Battistero and Campanile, all hidden away in a piazza, a square sharing two sides with bank buildings, at the other end a bar, with young people in animated conversation enjoying the sweet night.

No “Gelato of the Day”; the merengata at Da Giulio was plenty enough.

Friday, September 20, 2002 We had tickets for the Tower of Pisa booked via Internet a few months in advance (more on this later). And so, after breakfast we head to the permit parking area to drive out of Lucca and on to Pisa. This part is quite simple, but the narrow strada requires attention. As we enter Pisa, an accident at an intersection is being investigated by Carabinieri, the only accident we will actually see in three weeks of travel. A woman holds her baby tight and talks into a cell phone, there is a damaged car and a smashed motorbike, but there are no signs of people having been hurt. We proceed, even more carefully and remind ourselves to rent a cell phone in future trips.

In Pisa the main problem is the parking. Since I am trying to limit how much I have to walk from parking to Campo dei Miracoli, I keep advancing until I leave the visible Duomo and leaning Campanile behind me. I end up in the parking lot of a supermarket, not a bad choice, it turns out. The attendant is very polite, I pay in advance for a few hours, receive a receipt and I am asked to move the car so that he can keep an eye on it, underscored by suggestive gestures from his right eye to the car, back and forth. A nice man.

From there, walking towards the Campo dei Miracoli through a gauntlet of vendors. It makes me sick. It is all tasteless, cheap and a bit threatening. The gauntlet continues after we walk within the walls, the entire right side being loaded with stands full of ugly, cheap representations of the leaning tower. One can find elsewhere commercialism with some restraint, but restraint is not a word applicable here. The smart thing is not to look to the right, but to the left and then rises in front of us the incredible sight of the leaning tower halfway hidden behind the Duomo and, a bit closer to us, the Battistero. If I can keep out the crowds and their noise, I can take in an image of unsurpassed beauty, bright vertical, and not quite vertical, all three basking in the morning sun. We take the time to take it all in since the climb up the tower is not due until 5 p.m.

The leaning tower is a mystery to me. I have seen it probably hundreds of times, in pictures, postcards, new papers, movies, documentaries, travel guides. I have seen two or three times the 1999 documentary about the successful effort that resulted in a reduction of the lean by 50 cm. Despite it all, it is still a surprise, and the effect is magical. The mind has trouble processing this vision, a delicate lace-like structure of columns and arches, a fragile jewel of great height, defying certainties I have developed in a life time about how gravity and structure work together towards stability. The thought that this splendid sight may not last forever, that the gravity may finally claim its dues at some almost certain but still unknown time in the future and despite all efforts to delay it, replaces the kitsch and the circus and the banality of its too much advertised image with a kind of dread. It has been here for 900 hundred years, defying odds. It is the architectural equivalent of nature’s endangered species.

On through the throngs of people to the office where we need to pick up the tickets, which we find and do promptly. As we come out from the office, the tower is very, very close. I walk around it as if around a sculpture, much the same circular walk I take around Rodin’s Le Baiser each time I am in Paris. I also notice that I was, in fact, very naïve: I always assumed that if one were to walk up the tower this would happen on the outside loggia, all a very sweet and easy climb. My plan was to go up as much as I am capable and then stop. But what I notice as I look at the tower is that nobody walks on the outside. Indeed, it becomes obvious that the climb is within the tower, on interior spiral steps. We find later that there are 300 of these steps. The only place I can see people outside is on the terrace at the top of the tower. This doesn’t bode good at all for me. I look at Josette and see how skeptical she is of my ability to do this climb, but she is kind and lets me figure it out all by myself. I decide to leave the mater and the €34 paid for the tickets for later on.

At this time, the heat is intense. We take in a semi-circular view of the Campo and of these three magnificent monuments, of which each individually would make any town a goal of pilgrimage. The three together, sharing and yet claiming boldly their own position in this common space, surpass anything I have ever experienced and grasped.

We seek refuge from the heat in the Duomo. We bought inclusive tickets and they will keep us busy for a few hours, from site to site. Inside the Duomo, for the moment, it is cool. The eyes adjust to the sudden change in light. Most of what is being revealed to us was created by masters of Pisa. No import of knowledge here. We admire the soaring pillars, which open to us the rich ceiling. Funerary monuments, sculptures, frescoes, mostly by Pisan masters of whom we know little, but here is a Ghirlandaio restored above an arch, and a Cimabue mosaic, and Beccafumi's Sacrifice. Around we go until we find ourselves in front of the magical pulpit, the creation of Giovanni Pisano, all carvings and restful lions and symbolic reliefs whose meaning escape us, the six priceless porphyry columns supporting it all. .

We leave the hospitality of the Duomo to walk around it and admire its marvelous façade, its lightness and grace and try to find in the marble and sculptures traces of the oriental palaces torn down 11 centuries ago so that the materials be used to the glory of Pisa.

Next destination is the Battisterro. Under its majestic dome, with light flooding the interior, we find some benches. There is a group of French tourist with a guide and we listen and rest. The guide brings then forward a portly gentleman, dressed in a civil servant's uniform. He positions himself at a specific spot, obviously well known and rehearsed, opens his mouth and suddenly the most angelic sounds fill the huge volume of the Battistero. Using the extraordinary echo of this space, the singer emits successions of three sounds of consonant chords, one after the other, a cascade of pure sounds, a phenomenon akin with the music of the spheres. We listen in rapture and understand how such an experience may bring one closer to supreme faith. When the singing ends, everybody remains quiet until the last sound is absorbed somewhere high, under the dome.

The rest of visit of the Battistero, with the beautiful pulpit by Nicola Pisano, the father of Giovanni, and the graceful octagonal font, by one of the few non-Pisan masters, in this case Guido Bigarelli da Como, it is all an anti-climax. The song has embellished all and erased the rest. As we walk through the door, we are face to face with the angel who sang the consonant chords: he is the chap checking the tickets at the door! Only in Italia!!!

We make our way in the commercial part of the old town for lunch. It is all geared to serve tourists, and quickly, and one is well advised to view with suspicion any of the offerings. Since we have no expectations, and are on Via Santa Maria, we think it would be a good omen if we would sit down at the Ristorante Santa Maria. I count on divine protection, particularly when, unchacteristically, I give in to temptation and order a risotto a frutti di mare in a highly tourist place I should have viewed with suspicion and questioned the freshness of the seafood, while Josette, more cool-headed, chooses an innocuous pasta. As I fret, I remember that Pisa was once one of the great naval powers of the Mediterranean, rival of Genoa. That it was once settled on a lagoon, just as Venice. These guys can't be too bad with the seafood, I try to convince myself, and with the high turnover that I witness, for the place hums with activity and patrons come and go, should have fresh ingredients. And indeed, the risotto was rich, and adequately al dente and the light sauce quite pleasant and the various shells and morsels really good. Although 90% of the patrons are "once in a life time customer" and the place is really busy since this is the hour tour groups get their free time to eat and/or shop, the service is solicitous, orders delivered promptly. Very, very nice! And so I remember my Mom teaching me ages ago that "appearances deceive". Indeed!

After coffees (two secondi, one beer, water and coffees cost €18 at Ristorante Santa Maria), we leave refreshed and enter the almost next door Museo dell'Opera del Duomo di Pisa, a mouthful but a wonderful museum, also part of the inclusive ticket. It is rich in archeological and historical objects, but the most extraordinary are those pieces which once adorned the façades of the Duomo, Battistero and Campanile and are now protected inside from destruction by pollution: a capital of the Campanile, heads and Gothic statues from the Battistero exterior, all by Pisano pere and fils. There is a Tesoro here, which includes a splendid ivory carving as well as jewelry by Giovanni, an endless parade of unusual displays, topped irrevocably by the Portico on the way to the exit of the museum, where one is confronted by gigantic statues of prophets and evangelists staring down at the passers-by, all plucked from the exterior of the same Battistero. Extraordinary!

From the beautiful and shaded courtyard of the museum, we have a view of the Campanile from an angle not available from anywhere else. One can play with this: from here, it is almost straight; from there, it is leaning but in a somewhat awkward way, not as graceful a lean as that visible from the Campo dei Miracoli. We have some fun with this and take a few pictures and then confront the inevitable: to climb or not to climb?

From the museum courtyard details are clearer. The climbers can look outside from little square windows cuts in the wall of the tower, all protected with chicken wire. Only at the top one can really be outside. I look at Josette and I don’t get much sympathy: I will have to make my own decision. Which I make; a person with twin artificial hips may choose more profitable ways to dislodge the titanium heads from their sockets.

We walk back to the ticket window and ask whether I can return the tickets. I am told that there is no refund, but I could try to sell them to any of the people in the long lineup waiting to buy tickets.

And so, in the very busy hall, I raise my voice and declaim: ” Ladies and gentlemen! I have two tickets for the Leaning Tower climb at 10 minutes past 5. Unfortunately, I just realised that 300 steps to climb will be too much for me and I wish to sell the tickets. I have two tickets; anybody interested?” Frankly, I am quite embarrassed and I never looked for a career as a town crier. People turn to me and examine me. Is my fly open? Most of them turn away. I am ready to swallow the €34 and start walking a way, when a tall guy, with an obvious Danish accent says that he is interested in the tickets. He pays €30, I ask him whether he wishes me to hang around until the entry time, he asks what for, I say so that you’re sure these are valid tickets, he says I’m sure, I conclude by telling him to be at the assembly point just outside 10 minutes before the climb. I love these Danish people. I mean, I loved them anyway and so I now love them even more.

Our financial future solidified by the recovery of the €30, we turn to Camposanto, a cemetery which, by tradition, was started in the 13th century with soil brought from the Holly Land. Now, anybody who has been to the Holly Land would know that the local Pisan soil is way more fertile and the expense of transporting shiploads of earth from the arid area around Jerusalem could have been spared. But really, I think they may have thrown a few handfuls of Holly Land soil, a symbolical gesture. Regardless, the Camposanto is populated with a great collection of sarcophagi dating from early Christian Roman times, back from the first centuries of the new era: statues, frescoes and sarcophagi. The Pisan times are marked with wall monuments, niches, columns and more frescoes. For the initiated, there is a lifetime worth of interest to be spent there. But we are not that initiated and we are spent by this dazzling day and decide to return to the Campo dei Miracoli for a final look.

Outside, the crowds have thinned a bit. From the beautifully green lawn, which does not seem to be affected by the multitudes walking on it every day (another miracolo?), we take in the sparkling Battistero and the columns and the arches of the Duomo, behind which peeks subtly the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The incredible Pisan light in the early afternoon of a sunny day bathes the gleaming structures and places little hallos everywhere there is a reflection. We really look, in order to see, so that we may remember. Unlikely we will be back soon.

We go to retrieve our car from the supermarket parking lot trying not to sully the last images with the sights of the vending booths.

The drive to Lucca is fine, but at the entrance to town I am not sure I am in the right direction. I decide to take a left turn in a side street and ask somebody. As I return to the stoplight, there is a chap there, talking apparently with the driver of the car just in front of us. I open the window and he comes around to the passenger side. I ask for direction and suddenly he thrusts his right hand in the cabin, holding a little plastic plate. He is not a local: he is a beggar. He asks in broken Italian for money for his three bambini... I recognise the accent: this guy is a Romanian gypsy! Since his hand, and the plate, are right in Josette’s face, I give him half a Euro and get to close the window, but it is not over: he insists to give us directions and slowly, with great conviction and a wide smile, unleashes a torrent of swearing in Romanian. A remarkable collection; some of them I forgot, other I never knew. But this is not the time to take information for an anthology of Romanian Gypsy Swearing, nor to talk to him in the mother-tongue; I get the window closed and start away, making sure I don’t follow his instructions: I take a chance on a left turn and over the bridge and I find the right approach to Lucca, through Porta San Pietro and on to the yellow permit parking area.

In the evening, after the hustle and bustle of the day, we just want some peace and we find it in Piazza San Michele, at Café Turandot (what else in Puccini’s town…). Sandwiches, a beer, water, have “The Gelato of the Day" (Amarena) and then we walk around a bit, to locate Puccini’s house for a visit tomorrow and to make a reservation for lunch next day at Buca di Sant’Antonio. We linger a bit at a table in front of the hotel, take the short walk to see the Duomo lit for the night and call it a day, a very good day. Tomorrow we will explore Lucca more thoroughly.

Since it isn’t outrageously late, we call our friend Renato in Milan. We have two tickets for La Scala and Renato was trying to obtain a third. Mission completed: Renato has a third ticket, in a much better section, and we agree that Josette will sit in the better seat while Renato and I will slum it in the Galleria. Renato further clarifies triumphantly that these are “anziani” tickets, which will save us some major money. Since Renato will be our guest at La Scala, we show moderate restraint in our enthusiasm for the “anziani” ticket prices, least he thinks we are cheap. But then, he further announces that he also bought for us tickets for the “Giuseppe Verdi” Philharmonic Orchestra of Milan, with Ricardo Chailly conducting and Helene Grimaux at the piano in an all-Brahms programme. He also reserved for us tickets for visiting the “Last Supper”, Leonardo’s work, at Santa Maria delle Grazie, which turns out to be right across from our hotel in Milano. Wow! It is certain our stay there will be very exciting! Mille grazie, Renato!

Saturday, September 21, 2002 We start by walking to the Duomo, which is literally around the corner from the hotel. We try to start early but a couple of groups are already there. Still, the Piazza is not too busy and we can take in the delightful façade, typical for the Luccan and Pisan architecture, but the Campanile is a neglected structure and so is the Battistero. Like with the unfinished Church of San Michele, the Duomo’s Campanile and Battistero need restoration and completion. Inside, the Duomo provides refuge to the statue of St. Martin, its patron. The statue used to adorn the façade, where it is now replaced by a copy. There is a wonderful inlaid floor in the Cathedral, announcing the splendour we were to see a few days later in Siena. The “pièces de resistance” of the Cathedral of Lucca are two tombs: that of Pietro da Noceto, the powerful secretary to Pope Nicolo 5th and, in the Sacristy, the famous tomb of Ilaria del Carretto Guinigi, the beautiful Pisan aristocrat who died very young giving birth to a son. In her memory her husband, Paolo Guinigi, scion of the famous Guinigi family of silk merchants, commissioned this exceptional sarcophagus from Jacopo della Quercia. The smooth, almost transparent texture of the marble gives noble Ilaria an angelic expression and her clothes “fall” in elegant folds carved in the same marble, all the way to her feet. Her faithful dog guards Ilaria’s restful serenity. I have no idea how many more marriages Paolo Guinigi contracted after Ilaria’s death, but his love for her in life is all so evident in every single detail of this work that it still touches 600 years later.

Back outside, we head towards Fillungo, the long and narrow shopping street that divides Lucca in two. Indeed, in Lucca one can get an address with the added explanation that it is to the east or the west of Fillungo. As shopping streets go, Fillungo does not impress. But Fillungo takes us to a lesser-known jewel of Lucca, the Piazza Anfiteatro, a Campo in miniature, which is accessed through deep arches and is surrounded by medieval buildings. This is a good place to stop for a coffee and bask in the soft September sun. Only yesterday we were baking in Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa and here in Lucca, today we enjoy the light breeze.

Reluctantly, we leave the Anfiteatro but look forward to the visit to the house in which was born Giacomo Puccini. The 500 years old house is now a modest but pleasant museum, filled with mementos from Puccini’s artistic life: manuscripts, programmes of opera premieres, letters to editors and publishers, his notes written after he lost the use of his vocal chords to a fateful illness. One can see Puccini’s study and is asked not to touch the piano on which Puccini played and composed his first two operas, both premiered at Teatro del Giglio, a bit up the road from here across from our hotel. There is another piano, the Steinway on which he composed much later his last opera, Turandot.

We come out of the museum to thunder and a light rain. Things get serious soon but we are only steps away from Buca di Sant’Antonio and my much awaited culinary enjoyment there.

At arrival, we are led to a salon downstairs. Nobody seems to worry or ask whether we have a reservation or not. On the way down we note upstairs another salon, from where happy voices sounds. I will pay more attention on the way out and notice a big sign "Salon de pranzo" above a rather large door, and tables full of people, families, simpler tablecloth, bright light, etc.

Downstairs, we have a nice table, in a line of about 6 or 7 tables. The greeting and the query on what we would like augur a good meal ahead. Unfortunately, once we order, things get a bit precipitated and we are somewhat rushed through the first part of the meal, for no apparent reason, because they wouldn't have been able to turn the table over that afternoon again. As well, we are attended by two different waiters, one of them possibly an apprentice or helper and it is quite possible things get mixed up between the two and the kitchen. Another sign of indifferent service will become evident when the Vin Santo will be served at our table without biscotti or cantucci. At a table next to us sit two Californian (we will find out later) women, one of whom, it seems, is involved in the hosting industry and with the Gourmet magazine. We develop with them a lively conversation across the short distance between our tables and I can’t help but note that they are served with more leisure and, in due course, are presented with the Vin Santo together with a nice jar of cantucci and other nibbles. Since the restaurant had no reason to treat us differently, I would lower significantly my evaluation of Buca, if not for something else but for uneven service level.

But then the food makes us forgive the service! It is from excellent and higher. We start with carpaccio di trota salmonata su rughette, beautiful thin slices of marinated trout over rocket salad, and with risotto ai fungi porcini, respectively. The trout is absolutely sensational, the risotto al dente and as good as I can ask. Josette follows with filetto di S. Pietro all'isolana with potatoes, fresh tomatoes and basil, and I order bacala al carbone con ceci, both excellent. Finally, while Josette indulges with a mouth-watering fresh pineapple with maraschino, I splurge with frutta caramellata al forno (apple, grapes, orange, ananas, all caramelised to almost crisp) e gelato di cannella, wonderful combination and one of the best desserts I have ever-ever-ever had. If I weren’t embarrassed, I would have asked for a piece of bread, to clean the sauce off the plate. I convince our Californian table neighbours to order the sensational frutta caramellata desert and adequate confirmation of the suggestion comes through prolonged noises of appreciation. With a half bottle of Ca' del Vispo 2001 Vernacia di San Gimignano, coffees, Vin Santo (but no cantucci!), cover and service, and no charge for water, the bill for this excellent meal added up to €72.50, all worth it. We added a nice tip, but that was for the joy of the food rather than for the service in the dining room. The chef surely deserved it!

While we were inside at Buca, a real storm developed over Lucca. A respite in the rain allows us to return to the hotel dry, through the glistening and fresh smelling streets. We take a longer detour, back to where our car is parked, to plot how to get the car from the yellow permit area to Piazza del Giglio in front of the hotel tomorrow morning. I am flabbergasted as I find the front doors unlocked and the two windows of the rear doors are open while the doors themselves are locked! First thought is that somebody broke into the car, but there are no signs of forced entry and there was nothing really in the car to attract attention. The second thought is that I am an idiot and have forgotten the windows down yesterday, when we came back from Pisa. The third thought is that it rained cats and dogs overnight and some more today and the car must be flooded. We walk back to the hotel to get the car keys. Back again, I start the car. Everything seems to be in order: the car is dry, nothing is missing or damaged and so we are thankful and I am determined to check the car better from now on.

A stop at the Internet café located in the Palazzo Ducale, an enormous building housing the local governing body and the police, a welcome and information office for tourists and temporary exhibitions. It sits on the site of an even bigger structure, a castle which used to cover a good part of the whole town and which was destroyed in a popular revolt against the Pisan occupants, sometime in the second part of the 14th century.

Alas, we need to pack. For the evening, we do our passegiatta through almost deserted streets. No way am I going to have a “Gelato of the Day” today: after the frutta caramellata dessert at Buca di Sant’Antonio it would be a sacrilege! We are still so full, we just stop again at Café Turandot in Piazza San Michele, just for light drinks and the Luccan version of cichetti.

In front of the hotel, we notice a great gathering of Carabinieri and Polizia, some with marked cars, others seem to be undercover. Of course, they all know each other and have a jolly good time while waiting for the public to arrive. Finally, one of the front doors of the neo-classical Teatro del Giglio opens and what appear to be the notables are allowed in through this door. The populace uses a side-door. Strange customs. Since we haven’t seen any elephants or dung thereof on the streets of Lucca in the past three days, we assume this will be a more restrained production of Aida.

Overnight, an enormous storm erupts over the town: lightning, thunder, rain beating in the windows for a long time. We call our friends Toli and Lucian, who are in Bucine. We were planning to meet in Siena, but they have made some changes to their itinerary and will leave back to Toronto on Monday. Too bad. As the storm rumbles on, Josette studies the directions for tomorrow’s drive to Siena. I read my Morton late into the night since I can’t fall asleep. I hope tomorrow will see the end of the rain.
Lucca - Siena

Sunday, September 22, 2002 We wake up to pouring rain. Since we are not in a hurry, we take out time going downstairs, to the daily chaotic breakfast scene. This is one aspect of the Hotel Universo which puzzles us: while the exceptionally well located hotel is elegant and the rooms are large and airy, the breakfast room seems always to be on the verge of disaster, with only one person left to take care of a quite large number of guests and scrambling unsuccessfully to clear tables, re-supply the buffet, replenish the coffee pots. We feel sorry for the guy and leave a large tip. This morning we also don’t have much of an appetite: we left some unfinished business in Lucca, among which a walk on the ramparts and a meal at Da’ Leo, visits to Palazzo Pfanner and Museo Guinigi. As we go out to check on the rain, we find that it still didn’t stop. Piazza del Giglio is flooded, a little lake, and the water comes all the way up to the stairs of the hotel. The water is too shallow to swim, too high to walk. Is this Venice, somehow?

We bring our luggage downstairs, determined to make a dash for the car as soon as the rain slows down a bit. After a while, we get the break we were hoping for, the rain slows down and the water level recedes. I make a “dash” in tempo adagio and pickup the car without getting drenched. We load the luggage, say Good By and hug Laura at the front desk, and we are on the road again. As we get out of town through Porta Santa Anna, the rain intensifies again. As soon as we are on A11 it is in torrents, sheets and sheets of water thrown against the windshield. Being early on a Sunday, the traffic is very light. On the other hand, maybe others are smarter than we are… I slow down to about 40 km./hr. because of the risk of hydroplaning. I plan to stop, if necessary at a service area, but the rain plays guessing with us, as periods of relative calm alternate with fury. The 1½ hours drive become more than two hours but SS2 brings us finally to the gates of Siena.

The instructions from the hotel are very clear: “exit the highway at Siena Ovest, then follow signs to Porta San Marco. Go through the old gate and turn right, then follow the signals (sic!) to Hotel Duomo, Via Stalloreggi. When you will arrive at the hotel, we will explain you how to get our parking area which is located 500 meters far from the hotel”. Too good to be true, particularly after the experience with entering Lucca, but hopeful. I am due for a break!

Indeed we find the Porta San Marco after some guesswork around a few roundabouts. On the way in town, we pass Hotel Athena, which has its own parking garage on site. When I made the bookings about a year ago, I dismissed Hotel Athena because of its distance from the centre, element extremely important to me in order to cut unnecessary extra walking. It will turn out that I did well. But, for the moment, I drive up a narrow street, following the signs proclaiming “Hotel Duomo”. That’s good! A short drive on, I find again a “Hotel Duomo” sign, at an intersection: straight ahead there is a “no entry” sign. The “Hotel Duomo” sign gives no indication in which direction to go. I take the only logical option, which seems to fit the guidance from the hotel, and turn onto a street to the right, looking for more hotel signs. Tough luck; the signs have disappeared! At some point I stop and ask a gentleman for directions to Hotel Duomo or Via Stalloreggi. He indicates I should turn back and go to the right. I do and arrive at the same spot where I made the right turn. No sign of more signs. A left turn brings me in another small piazzetta where I spot a Carabinieri officer. I stop the car and ask for directions again. First, he says, you are not allowed with the car in that part of the town. Secondly, your car is too big, he says, and gesticulates demonstratively how narrow the street are with two palms held in parallel about 43 cm. apart. In a flash, I remember Monsieur Calomel, the famous comic character immortalised by the great French actor Louis de Funès. I explain to the officer that we need to get to the hotel just to unload the baggage, which seems to satisfy him. As to directions, he continues to hold the two hands the 43 cm. apart, nods doubtfully from side to side (he obviously doesn’t know about our garbage truck trick in Lucca…), and turns us back again. At this point we are not even upset, but probably would have considered calling a tow truck, if we would have had a telephone… Around and around we go, to find ourselves in front of a monumental flight of steps, rounding to the left and there is a noble building with a few wide stairs towering over us. I park the car against the steps, get off and look around. A street sign says “Piazza San Giovanni”. There is a policewoman there and she looks at me with an unhappy frown. I don’t blame her, but I am ready for a frowning competition with anybody right now. But she is kind. As I ask her, map in hand, how to get to the hotel. She explains that we have parked against the Battistero(!), which is not nice, and she gives us clear instructions how to drive around to Arco di Due Porte and then straight up to Via Stalloreggi. It turns out that things would have been a lot simpler if not for the extensive renovation work at the home of the Pantera Contrada, which blocked the road straight up to the hotel.

Finally, we are at Hotel Duomo on Via Stalloreggi (€130, including continental breakfast which is in fact a full buffet-breakfast). We leave the luggage and drive the car down to the parking garage, which includes driving out of town and around ring roads only to re-enter through another gate, a more than 30 minutes adventure in guessing. It would have been nice if the hotel clerk would have given us more details, since this is quite a long drive. Finally, we overshoot a bit the ill-marked parking garage where hotel guests park for free, reverse and find inside a parking spot easily enough. We walk back uphill, which takes indeed less than 10 minutes, as advertised. On the way, in light rain, we cross through a piazza in front of the house of Contrada Pantera. The piazza is blocked to all motorised traffic, except excavators, the source of all our in-town driving troubles, which the hotel again omitted to advise. (N.B.: In retrospect, we were lucky we arrived in Siena on a Sunday, with very little local traffic on the streets. I shudder to think how we would have “managed” on a week day.)

Our room at Hotel Duomo is in the Annex, a good enough room, comfortable, with high ceiling and very tall windows. A funny smell in the washroom; we will need to ask Reception.

We eat some sandwiches we picked up on the way together with some water, unpack and look outside. The rain is very light, we are very wound up after the driving adventures of the day and so we decide to get out and get our bearings. Left from the hotel, we bypass without knowing the Piazza del Duomo. After the Loggia della Mercanzia, through a gate in the wall, we get a first peek into the famous Campo. Going down carefully on the slippery steps, we find the Campo quite deserted, as if the rain has driven away the tourists who always fill this space. We make a slow tour around the entire piazza. Josette was here before, on a guided tour while I was on business in Firenze, but for me this is the first time. As we walk, we recognise features I have seen mostly in documentary movies: the tower Torre del Mangia, the Palazzo Pubblico, the reddish hue of the old buildings which define the eliptical shape of the Campo, the red brick of the pavement, the Fonta Gaia. I can almost visualise the Palio track, but not the excitement and roar of the crowds.

Just below Torre del Mangia I take a few steps in the alley and locate La Torre, the restaurant. I’ll get back to this later on.

We exit the Campo and walk along Banchi di Sopra, all the way to Piazza Matteotti. Since we had given ourselves the challenge of finding as many Contrada symbols as possible, we score a hit: we have already located Pantera and Acquila and now we have found Drago. We note in Piazza Matteotti a nice store (Consorzio Agrario Provinciale Siena) with local produce, a rich choice of cheeses and pastas, herbs and sausages, oils and vinegars, wines and sweets. A place to which we will have to return.

Back down towards Banchi di Sopra through via Montanini and in front of Palazzo Constantini we find the Lupa (Contrada no. 4) and stop at Nannini, a wondeful pasticceria/café/bar/restaurant. We get our coffee fix and order a mixture of ricciarelli and cantucci. Both kinds are sensational. Some I polish then and there, while the rest are kept for extended delight back at the hotel. Josette decides that next time she will also get some panforte. We also note Nannini serves daily a buffet-lunch for €10 per person and decide to try it tomorrow.

Finally, the sun gets through for the first time today. Suddenly, the gloom of the old walls and narrow streets is replaced by light and colour, more like the Siena we were hoping for. The Campo, basking in the sun, has more vibrant colours and people have come out from wherever they have been avoiding the rain and fill the enormous space. A large group of kids crowd Fonta Gaia. We turn for the Duomo and arrive there as the sun starts coming down over the Ospedale and strikes the rich façade of the Duomo straight on. It is the perfect time to be there: the white marble surfaces are gleaming, the gold is scintillating, the round window reflects light in pinkish hues. The two columns bearing the Lupe, the symbol of Siena, frame the great Cathedral and define its space. To the back, part of the dome is visible, shining in the light and to the right soars the elegant and supple Campanile, with the “trompe l’oeil” effect of the window openings, from one window opening on the lower story and growing to two, three, up to the final six windows which make the Campanile appear more and more imposing as the eye goes upwards. The entire complex has a harmony derived not from mass but from unity. We sit for a few minutes, spend some time trying to capture what we see on film, and return to the banal by stopping at the souvenir shops in Via del Capitano and Via di Cittá. Josette likes the Sienese ceramics and we started a small collection with first modest purchases about 6 years ago, in Firenze. Our daughters-in-law have therefore also been included into this and so there is much to see, select, hesitate, and decide to come back. Maybe there are more beautiful things in San Gimignano (which was not going to happen for reasons of too much rain, as it will become evident further down).

We have to choose between looking for a spot to have dinner or go the nearby supermarket to scrounge some sandwiches and fruits. We do just this, I get my “Gelato of the Day” which is called enticingly Bacio Bianco, a wonderful concoction of crunchy white chocolate, finely chopped almonds and panna and more panna, panna! My cholesterol will have a fiesta today!

As we enter the room of the hotel, a bad odor greets us. Investigations reveal nothing but the direction from which this ugly odor comes: the bathroom. I call the front desk and I receive a convoluted explanation as to how this is a natural phenomenon in Siena when it rains a lot”…see, this is a very old town and the sewage… But we will see what can be done, we will put some acid”. Acid? I close the door to the bath, open the windows and this helps temporarily.

As usual, we close the day with a walk recapitulating most of the sights of the day. When we come back to the hotel, the smell is gone.
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Monday, September 23, 2002 It rained again overnight and the smell from the bathroom is felt again. The “acid” worked, for just a few hours. After breakfast in the hotel, a good one with cappuccino and practically a full buffet despite its ”continental” denomination, we stop by the front desk as we wish to ask what can be done to address the problem. The clerk says that this is indeed a problem and that it will go away if the rain stops: ”You know, this is a problem in Siena, a medieval town, etc.” I remark that the washroom of the hotel lobby a few steps down from where we stand right now does not have any smell and that, as far as I can estimate it, it is also in Siena. At this, an elderly gentleman, with a splendid head of white hair, elegantly dressed in suit and tie, explodes. He gets up (he looked much taller sitting) and with gestures which would have been bold enough to conduct Verdi’s Requiem, launches a dramatic tirade in Italian, in which I can pick up words such as “finestra”. “Siena”, “casa”, Tutti gli Sienesi”, etc. I think he means to throw me through the windows of his house so that all Sienese do something or another to me, but I am wrong. He finishes what he had to say and goes back to the seat behind the counter. I look puzzled at him and at the clerk. As my grandchildren would say, he huffs and he puffs and the clerk next to him says: “Senior (so and so), the owner, says that even in his house, when it rains he has to open all the windows wide like this (gesture….) because it smells very bad. All the people in Siena suffer from this problem!”. I dare ask about the miraculous “acid” which eliminated the smell the evening before and I am told that they will see what they can do. The gentleman behind the desk is still congested and looks at me as if I had just plugged all the sewers of Siena. I feel like a Larry David in “Curb your enthusiasm”. We manage a tactical retreat, say sufficient “mille grazie” to deserve a discount, and get out where the light is gray and the sky more so.

Today is the Duomo and company. Despite the dark skies, the Duomo still manages to sparkle. Thanks to the dark skies, the black striations in the white marble façade and sides are more pronounced, the Moorish influence in evidence. It is even more evident on the Campanile.

At the entrance, I have an inspiration and buy a three-day ticket which covers entrances to the Duomo, the Libreria Piccolomini and Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana. In due course, this will prove a great inspiration, since over the following three days it will keep raining in Siena and, we find out from friends in Bocine, in Firenze and at an agro-tourism near Siena; it is raining everywhere. We will cancel our plans to drive out around Siena because there is no point driving in the rain and getting somewhere where it is still raining hard. The great thing about being in Siena when it rains is that one doesn’t run out of places to visit and things to do. At least not in three days. The bad thing about being in Siena when it rains three-four days in a row is, well, the smell in our bathroom…

As we buy the tickets for the Duomo visit, we are proffered a beautiful print out which is, in fact, a guide to the famous Pavimento. It turns out that the extraordinary and uniquely precious floor of the Cathedral is being kept covered most of the year, but is being uncovered for about two months, from August to October and it is our good fortune to be here at the right time.

The interest in the Pavimento carries with it the seed of a problem: one is so fascinated by the story of its creation and by the diversity of the remarkable images and scenes carved in it that one almost forgets to raise to the sight to the beauty of the Cathedral itself. And so, Josette and I will be in the Cathedral two more times in the following rainy days, all to view and enjoy these masterpieces.

Continuing to keep our eyes down, at the floor and at the descriptive sheet we were handed, we make our way slowly from floor panel to floor panel There are over 50 of them and we will find out that two or three of them are at such a stage of deterioration from the centuries people have been stepping on them that they are never uncovered. The panels are mostly presenting two techniques: One is white marble as a background, with images deep painted in them with black. Others are worked in the marble with carving or inlays. Many artists worked over the centuries to complete these marvelous but somewhat quirky creations, among them being Pinturicchio and in particular the ubiquitous Beccafumi, whose work we will meet everywhere in Siena and who is the author of more than half of the panels. Most of the Pavimento puzzle dates to the 14th century and is in black on white. A few panels, completed 200 years later, have some colour. Many are only faint remains of what once were glorious art works.

There are ten Sybills in various incarnations, there are symbols of Virtues, there are portraits of biblical heroes, there are mass scenes such as, not necessarily in any order: The Massacre of the Innocents, a whole suite of scenes dedicated to Prophet Elija, another to Moses, and I could go on and on, but I won’t.

The route for viewing the flooring is restricted by continuous ropes and so today’s visitors cannot inflict further damage to what, 700 years ago, was just a regular floor on which people walked as a matter of fact, without thoughts of posterity. As I said, we kept returning to the Cathedral to find more ways to look at this floor and to discover every time new angles, details and nuances. A fascinating experience.

But the Duomo has also splendor from the ground up. As the eye rises, there are immense columns in alternating black and white, oriental motifs in a Gothic structure, leading the way into the nave. All around, carvings, reliefs, sculptures and frescoes overwhelm the eye. Beccafumi is present again with frescoes and so are Pinturicchio and Bernini, who designed the organ and the small Capella Chigi which also houses two of his statues, Duccio who is represented with his design of stained glass forming the round window. And then, there is Nicola Pisano’s other Pulpit masterpiece, in the creation of which Pisano competed with himself and his own Pulpit from the Battistero of Pisa, completed a few years earlier.

At this point, we decide not to continue on to the Libreria Piccolomini and the Tesoro. We know we will come back. After so much food for the soul and feast for eye, we have to attend to the prosaic needs for some rest and food. We come down Via del Capitano, make a left in Via di Cittá where we admire but cannot visit the Musical Academy housed in the splendid Palazzo Saracini and enter Pasticceria Nannini where lunch beckons. An excellent buffet, with both cold and hot dishes, an array of choices and we like it and enjoy it. The buffet-lunch is €10 per person; the final tally with water, coffees and an order of ricciarelli amounts to a fair €26, to which we add the tip. We buy in the pasticceria panforte for Josette, an assortment of cantucci and of almond and marzipan ricciarelli for me and head back to the hotel for some rest.

On the way, I ponder as to why, somehow, I can’t warm up to Siena the city, as opposed to the admiration for its architectural edifices and artistic treasures. May be because it is wet and cold, as the rain continues to come and go. May be it’s the paving stones, slippery everywhere, again because of the rain. It is a sharp contrast: wonderful inside, dreary outside. Much like the famous definition of the character of the Israeli Sabra (those born in Israel) who is compared with the cactus fruit: needle-sharp on the outside, sweet inside,

I am sure with sun shining Siena would look different but what we see is what we get!

For the afternoon we go to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Here the old Sienese masters reign supreme and amongst them Duccio is the King. His Maestá is majestic indeed, even after some of his panels went to adorn other museum or were lost. What is left is sufficient to confirm Duccio’s greatness and also imparts some longing for the masterpiece, as it was whole and complete in 1311. Here is also Lorenzetti’s triptych Birth of the Virgin which for the first time uses the three panels to present a continuous scene, rather than the three unrelated scenes in the traditional triptych.

After moving from masterpiece to masterpiece we arrive finally to what is the most astonishing part of the museum: a suite of sculptures and ornaments once part of the Duomo façade but which had to be removed because of their continuing deterioration. Here it is all Giovanni Pisano: lions on their pedestals greet us, gargoyles stare menacing and high at about 4 or 5 meters above, tall statues rest on original columns, looking down on us just as they were looking down on Siena’s citizenry for centuries. At a closer inspection, there is something strange about this collection of oversize saints and apostles and then it all becomes clear: they all have elongated necks, angled just so, so that people looking up would see these faces looking back down at them. It is an eerie sensation and an image that follows you for a very long time. Finally, if one does not climb up the Campanile or Torre del Mangia, the Museo, from its upper floor, provides interesting views and photograph opportunities of the spectacular roofs of Siena.

A stroll after the Museo is welcome. The rain has petered off. We go towards the Campo, by the Loggia della Mercanzia. Kids and adults carrying contrada flags pass by, probably back from flag twirling and throwing training. Under the gate, stairs and stone are less slippery and down we go to the field full of people. We walk around and exit towards Banchi di Sopra and Palazzo Salimbeni. Alas, the Pallazo is not open for public visit. Hurray, right across the Palazzo is Gelateria La Cascina, and so I get my “Gelato of the Day”: a concoction of Caramello and Malaga, very tasty but too soft.

We have a light dinner with sandwiches and coffee in a café-bar next to the Loggia. The café sports an Illy sign outside, but what attracts us more is the fact that one can see from the street the back glass door, which should open on the side of the Campo. We figured that we would open the door and look outside and try to imagine the same place a day of the Palio, crowds screaming, horses racing, flags waving, etc., etc. Unfortunately, La Padrona is a tough woman and at specifically this moment she is very upset over something or another. The sandwiches are cold and she frowns when we ask her to put them a bit in the grill. As to the doors, “No, mi dispiace, no possibile” is the terse reply. I put the breaks on my imagination, forget the Palio and we help a couple of elderly tourists (how do they see us?) to order their sandwiches and coffees. We stroll some more, buy a bunch of gifts, with me being always worried about space and weight, Josette just sure all will sort out in due course. We decide that we will have dinner tomorrow at La Torre and on this note return to the hotel, where I have a few ricciarelli left to polish. It rains again, lightning, thunder; we made it just in time and I am not going to say anything about our bathroom anymore.

Tuesday, September 24, 2002 Still raining! The weather dictates our day: it’s got to be all inside and we use our multi-entry tickets and profit from the lack of a line-up at the entrance to the Duomo to go and admire some more the Cathedral pavement and to visit Libreria Piccolomini. About the Pavimento we have gathered by now some expertise and so we pick and choose, concentrating on the composition of the larger pieces. From there to the Libreria, which is astounding, with a large fresco by Pintiricchio depicting the investiture of Cardinal Piccolomini as Pope Pius III. More Pinturicchios and Atelier have covered the room and its high ceilings with extra-large frescoes, a symphony of colours bright and rich and saturated, all scenes in the life of Pope Pius II, the uncle of Cardinal Piccolomini. From one of them, Rafael seems to be staring at us, sharply dressed and a bit amused. While I admire the ceiling, Josette inspects the illuminated chant books and hums discretely in hushed Gregorian tones.

Outside, we stop for coffee and then turn through the Campo to the Palazzo Pubblico. This is another incredible place in a town so small, but with such an extraordinary history. It is a beautiful, austere building which probably contrasts intensely with the riot of colour during Palios, events which take place right in front of the Palazzo. The elegant, svelte Torre del Mangia to the left of the Pallazo is the most distinctive feature in the Campo and the view from its loggia must be quite thrilling, but these climbs are is not in the cards for me anymore! Instead, we head into the building, which contains many museums in one, part dedicated to Sienese painters and sculptors, as well as to artifacts lifted from other Sienese building now gone, a remarkable fresco by Sodoma among them. Another hall is dedicated to the life of Vittorio Emmanuelle II, with some of the over enthusiastic results one can find in the Piazza with the same name, in Rome. Again, artifacts are present, such as parts of the first iteration of the Fonte Gaia by Jacopo della Quercia. A good friend, St. Christopher, patron of all travellers slow and fast, greets us among frescoes and later, a Maestá by Guido da Siena.

We are at a stage in our trip when we may become museum-shy. Moreover, the pallazzo's treasures are mainly introspective, an area of Italian art with which we are less familiar, and so we absorb as much as we can without forcing the note, just moving slowly from room to room.

The Torre del Mangia can be accessed from the Palazzo, but we head for the exit and, out in the Campo, discover that the rain has stopped and some sky blue shows between the clouds. We first turn in the little alley to the left of the Torre and move aside the curtain barring the entrance of La Torre, the restaurant. We ask whether we can make a reservation for dinner for tonight. The woman who greets us turns to a gentleman and I repeat the question. The man says "bene, bene" and turns away. Not one ready to leave without closure, I ask whether they want our name. The man turns back, points eloquently to his eyes and says: "ti conosco, ti conosco!". Oh, well, it is obviously the rule of the house, to remember by sight every single stranger who lurks trough the doorframe, and we go.

Eager for some good weather, we want to walk. This takes us over to Banchi de Sotto, Palazzo Piccolomini where we skip the opportunity to see the archives of Siena and the old manuscripts and account-books, Logge del Papa, the Chiesa di San Martino in which we enter just for a few minutes and enjoy the harmony of proportions, the Synagogue in Vicolo delle Scotte where the door is locked, on to the Basilica of Santa Maria dei Servi in the neighbourhood of the Contrada della Torre, then to Porta Romana. A stop for a modest lunch and coffee, in expectation of the more substantial fare which waits for us tonight at La Torre.

The one good thing about Hotel Duomo is that it is right in the centre of everything, and we need some rest.

In the afternoon, rain starts again. This is the third time we decide to drive to San Gimignano "mañana". If it continues to rain, we would have been for four days just close to San Jimmy, but not ready to go from one rainy spot to another, not to mention the drive on wet roads.

Instead, we head to the Pinacoteca Nazionale. Unfortunately, we are totally out-iconed by now and what is probably the most interesting of the Siena art galleries does not really do it for us today. We concentrate on Duccio and Guido and Beccafumi, so that we may leave Siena with a better understanding of these great but less known masters.

Umbrella at the ready, we walk down Via di Cittá but, being a bit early, take a small detour in the hope that the lights are up in the Piazza del Duomo. Nope, so on we go and by 7: 15 we are in front of La Torre. I hate the thought of being the first customer in a restaurant, but it happens so often to me that we just go in, for better or for worse. But, hooray, there is already a couple at the table. The Padrone who said he would know us is not in sight but a hunk of a guy, tall, supple but muscular, long hair down his shoulders, greets us with large gestures and shows us that we can pick our table. Nobody asks whether we had a reservation. As we sit, not far from us is an open kitchen, whose two occupants attract our attention immediately. One of them, a young (it seems) woman, with short, blond hair sticking from under the front of her cap, is working some pots and pans, surrounded by a cloud of steam. The other, a man, eyes shot as if after a really bad night and badly needing a shave, cap askew, fingers and tastes through some other pots. As we enjoy the view, the fourth character comes in, the Padrone. We expect a glance of recognition but, nothing. Oh, we are legitimately seated and let's enjoy the food. Bread, water and a half litter of red appear magically on the table. A few more customers appear. The young man who greeted us, by now obviously the cameriere, comes to our table to ask what would we like. Fortunately we were forewarned, for there is no menu in sight and he recites what is obviously the menu in a wonderful cascade of open vowels and double consonants and we think he talks about pasta but we are not about to take any chances and, as he starts over the repetition of the “Aria della Carta”, we laugh with delight and so does he, because this is obviously what in Brooklyn would be called a "shtick". And so he gestures to a table up front. On which an incredible collection of pastas is available for personalised orders! We get up, we go together with him to the table and choose our pastas. As we come back, he starts the second aria of the first act, by reciting the available sauces. At this point, we kind of get into the act, he probably slows down the flood of Italian to molto largo and without incident or menu to read, the pastas are decided, and the kitchen also gets into the act, and I must say it is quite fascinating to see that in the very same moment they actually cook for you! Under our watchful supervision, the pastas arrive: Josette's gnocchi ai fungi porcini, and my tagliatelle verde alla capriolo. The portions are large; a look at Josette and I know that this is it for her and that I'll have to finish her order too. I enjoy the tagliatelle, with a sharp and gamy sauce. As we start, others get the benefit of the Pasta Recitativi. I am sure the guy knows English, but the act is wonderful, because it is all dedicated to our food enjoyment. By now, the restaurant is, literally, cooking. It is full, some tourists, some locals, noisy, alive. The Padrone, the Cameriere, The Chef (capocuoco?) The Sous-Chef (Cuoca?) are all characters in a delightful Commedia d'Arte in which we are spectators and participants. When The Padrone disappears in the back, The Chef comes out of the kitchen and serves platters to a table next of ours, drying his hands on his apron. Josette notices that, when The Padrone is around, he discretely turns with the back to the room and takes a sip or more from a glass with red from under the counter. The Cameriere follows with a shot from a clear fluid. Now, the little restaurant is really rocking. People order, the Padrone and Cameriere recite, orders are being delivered, a couple of tables of locals create energy.

For secondi Josette declares herself looser by a technical knockout, as I expected, although throughout the evening the Padrone, obviously taking pity on her, will tirelessly try to make Josette eat some more by coming to our table from time to time and gently admonishing her: ”Dovete mangiare più, mangiate, mangiate!”

For me it will be arrosto d'agnello with patate arrosto. The lamb arrives, in a little bath of consomme, potatoes on a separate plate. I taste the sauce with a bit of bread and it is delicious. I take a first bite of the lamb and it catches my breath, as the most divine flavours explode in my mouth. I have been looking for this roast of lamb for at least 40 years, since the last time my mother made it for me! Through an unexplainable coincidence, these are exactly the same flavours I remember from childhood and youth. Since then, I have had roast of lamb in tens of disguises, but this is the real thing and I savour it fibre by fibre, little bite by little bite, willing it to last longer. When it is over, I look longingly at the empty plate and I polish meticulously every drop left on the plate. 20 years ago, I would have ordered another round. Today, it is only a wish. So is the request for Torta della Nonna: they ran out of it! Still, sated and at peace with the world, I settle for a nice evening show, with Vin Santo and cantucci to while the evening away, observing the action and interaction around me "… and I say to myself: What a wonderful place!".

I read elsewhere that at La Torre they don't serve coffee. I discover this is incorrect: they don't make it but they serve it indeed, as they bring it from a bar a bit further down Via Salicotto. The ordered coffee is presented with a flourish and it is still steaming in the humid evening; you wouldn't know it was carried outside, on the rainy street.

Alas, the best is yet to come, as our little Commedia has an epilogue. That comes when I ask The cameriere for the bill. He points to The Padrone. We repeat the request using the local lingua franca, i.e. mimicking writing with a pen across a sheet of paper and then wait, expecting The Padrone to present us with the bill. It won't happen! We wait some more, because it is probably raining outside anyway. Finally, we get up and go to the counter. The Padrone, who by now has mellowed considerably, takes a piece of paper and starts jotting slowly down a 6000 and another 6000, then a 30000, then turns to us and asks what did we have? And so I tell him: "Due paste, un agnello, un patate, acqua, mezzo di rosso, Vin Santo, cantucci" and he ticks off numbers already written or adds new ones. A total is arrived at: something like 87000. I know it is Lire: I was a foreign exchange trader. A calculator is then produced and the amount on the little screen is 43.90. I know it is Euro. We leave a very nice tip on top of that, thank you! We thank them profusely for a most wonderful evening and then I ask for a receipt, not for the receipt itself since this is a pleasure, not business trip, but because we kind of collect them for the album of photographs, the exact address and sometimes as a prompter on what we had at the restaurant. This doesn't unphase the imperturbable Padrone, who takes out of a drawer a book of official receipts and write generously "2 paste a prezo fisso 42.90"! The most expensive paste in the universe! Frankly, if we would have had to pay twice as much we would have done it without hesitation!

We all have a good laugh and depart with much "grazie" and handshakes and a bit of a backslap from the Padrone, who was obviously happy with our performance.

And so, with the memories of one of the most wonderful, tasty and entertaining dinners we have ever had, and probably will ever have unless we come back next year, we say Good Bye to La Torre, its wonderful food and its unique cast of characters, and we go out into the…rain.

Umbrella open, we talk with animation about the experience and, on the way to the hotel, stop to admire the Duomo illuminated in the pouring rain!

Wednesday, September 25, 2002 Still raining in Siena This was our last chance to drive out of town. Forget it, as we wake up to rain again! We linger in the room, then at breakfast. Finally, we decide to get the umbrella and walk towards the Duomo.

On the way, we complete some shopping of ceramics on Via del Capitano, leave the ceramic pieces there for pickup later and enter the Duomo with one thought in mind: the puzzle of the Pavimento resolved, we will look up. The huge pillars remind us of an enormously stretched Mezquita interior. From around the walls figures of Popes look down at us, light penetrates through the huge stained glass window of Duccio’s design, the oldest stained glass anywhere in Italy. We are glad we took the three-day ticket, as we could come back freely any time we wanted.

Next stop at the Battistero with its incomplete façade, a meaningful place for us as we used the bottom of the stairs for our first (illegal!) parking spot in Siena. Inside, there is the marvelous traditional font and more treasures of frescoes and statues.

For lunch we arrange a picnic: at the Bottega SMA down the street we buy fresh rolls, a respectable chunk of pecorino di Pienza, some mortadella, pancetta arrotolata and prosciutto, buy next door grapes and apples. With the ricciarelli and panforte we still have left over, this makes a wonderful meal. We decide to rest as later we will have to prepare our luggage and we have about one million pieces of ceramics of a variety of sizes and weight which must be fitted securely in the already overflowing suitcases. Josette doesn't seem to feel any anxiety; she is sure we will find room for everything. As usual, I fret.

As we settle down books in hand, the telephone rings. "Hello! We are waiting for you in the lobby!" This is the voice of Judy, our friendly neighbourhood librarian. We knew that Judy will be at a farm near Siena for a few weeks and arranged to meet in Siena if our respective schedules permit. But we didn't expect her today; in fact, we were planning to drive to San Gimignano and only the rain stopped us. We're happy to hear they are here and find Judy and her husband David a few minutes later in the lobby. It turns out Judy called yesterday evening but nobody passed on to us her message. Worse, they say there was no message! Oh, well, all turned out to the better and we spend the next couple of hours with Judy and David, first trying to get into Nannini for coffee and desserts but being told that they haven't finished the buffet-lunch hours although there are empty tables, then settling for coffee at a café in the Campo. A wonderful break in what was looming as a long, dreary afternoon.

We take our leave not before passing on to Judy and David our much-used tickets to the Duomo and go up the Banchi di Sopra towards the beautiful store of the Consorzio Agrario Provinziale where we stock up on herbs and dry pasta ingredients for ourselves and for our daughters-in-law.

Now it is serious: we take a last walk around our favourite places in the city and go packing. Tomorrow we drive to Milano.

N.B.: One last word about Hotel Duomo: They made absolutely no effort to ease the situation with the bad odour in the bathroom. They had to be prodded every day, even twice a day, and when they finally did something, it was done with ill will. In retrospect, we should have bought a deodoriser ourselves, but didn’t know how to ask for it. As well, they never passed on that Judy left a message and denied ever receiving it. Finally, the directions they gave us for in and out of town were never sufficient or complete. However, the location of this hotel is exceptional and this may redeem the poor service, but not justify it.
Siena - Milano

Thursday, September 26, 2002 In the morning we leave Hotel Duomo in Siena by taxi. Our concern is carrying the luggage down the steep and slippery streets to the car park. The taxi arrives and the driver is very unhappy when he hears we need to get to the car park; apparently, even the locals have some trouble navigating by car what is otherwise a ten minutes walk, because of the extensive road repairs. Now, I don’t feel so bad for my own bumbling by car around Siena. The driver mumbles unhappily all the way manipulating our guilt feelings, which earns him an extra tip so that he will not be so miserable for the rest of the day.

The drive from Siena to Milano, with the exception of traffic being stopped for half an hour just before Bergamo because of a major accident (we hear on a local station), is quite uneventful. We had good advise since, instead of driving into town we return the car to the Europcar office at Linate airport. As we became used by now, indications of where to leave the car are totally wrong. The contract, confirmed verbally by the clerk at Piazzale Roma in Venice when we picked up the car, indicated to leave the keys in the key box at the Linate rental car park. Sure enough, there is no key box anywhere to see and so we go into the terminal where we find a Europcar office and return the keys. From there, a taxi (€20) takes us to Milano, at Hotel Palazzo delle Stelline on Corso Magenta.

Hotel Palazzo delle Stelline (Junior Suite €182, buffet breakfast included) is exceptionally located for our needs. It is in a residential neighbourhood, Santa Maria delle Grazie with Leonardo’s Cenacolo is literally across the street and the La Scala temporary museum less than 100 m. away. Castello Sforzesco, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, the Leonardo da Vinci Science and Technology Museum, are all within very short walking distances and the Duomo, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and other landmarks in central Milano are all within 15 minutes walk or a couple of tram stations. I stumbled upon this hotel doing an Internet search and when I booked I decided that at this end of a long trip we can treat ourselves to some leisure and space for the difference of €30/night between a double room opening towards the ever busy Corso Magenta and a junior suite on the inside of a 17th century cloister. We find the hotel tastefully furnished, extremely private and the room, or rather rooms, has no one but two balconies opening towards the interior, guaranteeing in the 21st century was it was intended to provide some 400 years ago: peace and quiet.

The general view on Milano is that this is a serious, staid city of three-piece suited bankers interspersed with shark-like modeling agents. In previous, short stays, we didn’t have a real chance to figure Milano out but felt that, at a minimum, it deserves the benefit of the doubt. The fact of the matter is that the following two and a half days proved nothing to be further from the truth than this picture of a boring, unexciting city.

Much of the credit for this belongs to our good friend Renato. A self-proclaimed “mother hen” with endless energy and generosity, Renato picks us up at the hotel about half an hour after arrival and will never let go. With his tall stature and long legs, Renato is a prototypical walker. Together, with my shorter legs a clear handicap, we have walked over the years in which we dabbed in international banking business on the streets of many cities, from Toronto to Paris, from San Francisco to Copenhagen, from Washington to Florence, from Berlin to Nice, from Rome to Charlotte, always in search of interesting places to visit and good food to be had. One of our most vivid memories is that of a group of exhausted bankers and their spouses trailing Renato, all strung along Via di Corso in Roma, as he was trying to locate a famous Bolognese restaurant someplace near Piazza del Popolo. But locate it he did, and the adventure and the food were unforgettable.

So this was our guide in Milano. We embrace and… off we go!

On the way, we receive immediately our first lesson on how to walk and talk in Milano, with its busy, narrow sidewalks: Renato is in front, trailed by Josette and with me closing the single file group, Renato turned half-way towards us while keeping an eye on the oncoming pedestrians or cars, or buses or trams, as the case is. This also requires a stentorian voice and ample gesticulation, but it works.

Without further ado, and most adequately, I must recognise, Renato decides that our Milanese education should start from the horse’s mouth, or more politely said, from the home of St. Ambrose, the patron saint of Milano, the great Bishop and probably the most important personage in the long history of Milano, at the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. After the magnificently ornate structures we visited in Como, Venice, Pisa and Siena, the Sant’ Ambrogio is a return to earth, with clean, straight and stark lines, simple atrium and arcades, a minimum of showy decorations. Two Campanile do not distract the view of the main body of the Basilica. The first Basilica, built by Saint’Ambrogio in the 4th century, was dedicated to two 3rd century martyrs, Gervasio and Protasio. The greatest treasure of Sant’ Ambrogio is inside, in the crypt, where the remains of Sant’Ambrogio himself lie, flanked by those of two other, less known saints, San Gervasio and San Protasio, in glass cases under the main altar. The existing structure was completed in the 12th century and is a perfect presentation of the Lombardy Romanesque style, itself drawing from the ancient Roman architectural tradition. Elements from the 4th century basilica founded by Sant'Ambrosio, fragments, medallions, mosaics, were recovered and reset haphazardly in walls, outside as well as inside. We ask permission and penetrate further into the crypt, through the unfinished Portico of Bramante and into the Museum.

Back outside, we continue into the evening, with Renato guiding us through central Milano and a light dinner and drinks at Il Salotto, in the Galleria.
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Friday, September 27, 2002 As we go out onto Corso Magenta, we are first greeted by Bramante’s graceful Santa Maria delle Grazie, with its beautiful two-level dome and symmetrical semi-circular closed loggias, all fully lit by the sun. I could wake up to this sight every single day of my life.

As we leave the hotel after a very good buffet breakfast, we go on to the left and are in about two minutes at Palazzo Busca, the temporary location of the La Scala Museum. The tour of the museum is also shorter than expected, although rewarding. The current, temporary location does not accommodate all the exhibits so fascinating for an opera buff which were housed in the permanent museum, now under extended renovations together with the La Scala itself. But the little we get to see as we go through the four floors is interesting. The most impressive is the selection of costumes which were worn by famous opera singers. The realism of the costumes is amazing and it is clear that no expense is being spared in their execution: the materials are of the highest quality and the colours are wonderful. Just as interesting is the collection of stage sets but, in general, we are somewhat disappointed with the much smaller than expected quantity of exhibits.

A 15 minutes walk through the busy streets takes us from the La Scala Museum to the Piazza del Duomo and the front of the extraordinary structure that greets us is totally covered with scaffolding. We have seen the Duomo in various stages of renovation, the last when the Piazza itself was being totally resurfaced. Now it is the turn of the façade. On the other hand, the rest of the exterior of the Duomo is now clear of any scaffolding and cleaned of soot and other polluting elements and so we start by walking all around the Cathedral, admiring the forest of sculptures enshrined in the wall, the buttresses and the spires.

The enormous interior, second in size only to Saint Peter’s, is dominated by the equally enormous columns and illuminated by light piercing obliquely the space above through the tall stained glass windows. Statues and medallions, monuments, tombs and altar pieces everywhere, amongst the statues a disturbing, flayed San Bartolomeo, carrying his skin like a mantle… The whole of the Cathedral is overwhelming. It is hard to grasp how this extraordinary structure was built in only 13 years with the technology available at the end of the 14th century, that the motivation of Gian Galeazzo Visconti was as much to raise a monument to the glory of the Mother of God, as it was a sort of bribe to the powers above to grant him a son and thus perpetuate the glory of Gian Galeazzo Visconti and the Viscontis. The son was a disappointment, the Viscontis are since gone, and the glory is now that of Milano.

Beneath the floor of the Cathedral another episode in the history of Milano is open to visitors: the remains of Sant’Ambrogio’s 4th century Paleochristian Battistero complete with the remnants of the original baptismal font.

As I am trying to find a common thread between the initial dedication of this site to our days, I draw a triangle on a Post-it note: at one corner the 4th century Baptistry, at the other the 14th century Cathedral, at the peak the 21st century scaffolding covering the face of the Cathedral in an effort to delay the destruction caused by pollution and to return it to its 14th century white marble splendor.

With this thought, the next stop is at the base of the Cathedral, where an elevator takes us to the unbelievable sight of the Cathedral roof and of Milano itself seen from that height. Unfortunately this is a hazy day, not unusual in Milano, and so the vista is somewhat limited. Walking on and around the roof, however, offers an endless change of views as one moves so close by pinnacles, buttresses, turrets, spires, gargoyles and statues in what seems an endless succession. Beyond these appears the roof of the Galleria, mercifully not too many tall buildings, but no mountains for us today.

The sun becomes oppressively hot on the roof and we descend to turn onto Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and the cafés which line it. Here, a well deserved stop refreshes us and we then go on toward the junction of the Corso with Montenapoleone, not because of the attraction of shopping on the latter but rather because at that point is the Church of St. Babila, another typical example of Lombard Romanesque architecture. Disappointment, as the church cannot be visited.

It is early afternoon and we walk along Montenapoleone. The famous shopping street is devoid of passers-by at this hour. The shops are empty. A quick passage to Via Manzoni and then we turn, through the Galleria, towards the hotel, but not before going to check on the progress of the La Scala renovations. As we go around the Teatro, two things become clear: the foot print of the La Scala is absolutely enormous, although this is hidden by the relatively small frontage and the narrow streets surrounding it. The second is that it will be a few more years, at least two or three, until the public is allowed again in the hallowed hall.

Because we need to rest and have no desire to go looking for a place for lunch, we stop at the "Le Stelline", a self-service cafeteria located within the Palazzo delle Stelline complex. Never again! The food is cold, overpriced, with minimal portions and a complicated system of cost add-ons which further increase the already swollen cost. It is embarrassing to confess that two experienced travellers like us ended up paying about €20 for one small mixed salad, about two slices of cold cooked ham called “two servings”, a small bottle of water and two rolls. But such things happen and this time it was our turn to refresh lessons on how to beware of rip-offs.

In the afternoon we meet Renato in the lobby and cross the street over to Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church which hosts Leonardo’s Last Supper. This is a pilgrimage long planned and we take it with some concern that reality may not measure up to imagination and expectations. After all, so many times this experiment by Leonardo to use tempera and oil on wet plaster was “repaired”, analysed, disputed, discussed and mainly reproduced in an endless procession of posters and post cards! As Renato picks up the pre-reserved tickets from the cashier, we line up for the appointed hour of the visit. Every 20 minutes or so groups of 20 to 30 people are allowed, through a series of electronically controlled gates, into the Sancta Sanctum, the former refectory of the Church.

I have tried not to attempt to “see” anything before I will make the visual contact. The light is dim; to my right is the fresco. The first impression is size: it is very large, longer and higher than anything I expected. Coming through the door, I am at just the right distance to be able to encompass it in one image. Incongruously, I think that it is just as big as the floor of our family room, about 15 feet by 30 feet. I free myself from such silly thoughts and concentrate. Immediately, I conclude that those who say that this painting on plaster, repaired and restored so many times in desperate attempts to preserve it, is only a shadow of its initial beauty are both right and terribly wrong. Right, because the colours in front of me are shadows of what would have been their initial brightness and vividness. Terribly wrong, because I don’t think the greatness of this creation is in the colour but in the movement, composition and detail. The grouping of the apostles, the dark image of Judas as if trying to sneak onto a plane not his, the dynamism of bodies and expression of faces, the pale, almost insubstantial face of Jesus, the sweeping movement of the apostles towards him from left and right, all speak with enormous power.

Despite the feeling that getting too close to the painting will diminish from its impact, I get closer and closer, attracted as if by a magnet and start picking up details: fish served on plates, panini, the wine glasses on the table very much glass work as one would expect in Leonardo’s times, the table cloth with each accurate square fold and embroidery visible, the wonderful perspective of walls and ceiling, the latter so very much like ceilings we’ve seen all through palaces and churches during this trip almost everywhere we’ve been. Beneath the table, feet in sandals, bare feet, the floor in great detail. Through the far windows images of hills in a blue haze, so unlike any Judeean hill.

Time passes quickly. An alarm sounds and we’re all herded out, because the next group has to enter the Refectory. As we walk out, I envy them. I’d like to go back; I am sure there is more to be seen and understood.

After the semi-darkness of the Refectory, the light outside, in the cloister of Santa Maria delle Grazie, is almost blinding. The Cloister is a peaceful place, as we step on, towards the street. We stop nearby for coffees and sweets and then take some time to visit the nearby Castello Sforzesco, with the clear proviso that I am not going to any exhibition or museum, just a photograph opportunity and walking around a bit. Sure enough, as soon as we are within the walls of this immense and surprisingly bland brick fortress, Josette and Renato decide they wish to see at least the museum's old musical instruments exhibits. I take a look at the tens of stairs I'll have to negotiate to get there and opt for waiting for them outside, where a huge stack of archeological remains wait for somebody to figure out their puzzle and return them to the old glory. But soon my attention is attracted by the present day owners and the only permanent inhabitants of the Castello Sforzesco: the cats. In the court, they are everywhere. It is evident they are well taken care of since there are cardboard boxes everywhere for them to sleep in and plates along the wall for food. The cats move freely, unconcerned by my presence or anybody else's for this matter. Since part of the court was fenced to allow for renovations, it is very clear the cats were taken into consideration: little square gates were cut into the corrugated aluminum, to allow the pretty things free access to whatever is left of mice and rats on the other side of the fence. As I take a few pictures, a gentlemen approaches with some food in hand. Thus I find out that the cats have been given names and they respond to them. It is almost 5 p.m. by now and staff working in various areas of the museum's ground floor lock the doors behind them and, on the way out, stop to leave food and water in the waiting plates, thus paying tribute to the owners of the castle. It is all rather charming and touching and I don't regret having avoided the stairs to the museum.

We meet again later in the evening for the long way to the Auditorio di Milano. We get acquainted with both the metro and the buses of Milano and arrive at Largo Gustavo Mahler well ahead of time. We are Renato’s guests all the way this evening: Renato has a season subscription to the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano “Giuseppe Verdi” and he used his privilege to buy two tickets for us. We are quite enthusiastic since, for some reason and against all our antecedents, we managed to spend almost three weeks by now in Italy and didn’t hit any musical event.

Tonight’s program is all Brahms, and oui, nous aimons Brahms, to paraphrase the title of a now forgotten novel by Francoise Sagan and of the movie based on this book, with Ingrid Bergman, Yves Montand and Anthony Perkins. The stars tonight are Riccardo Chailly, the temperamental musical director and conductor of the Orchestra and the equally temperamental French pianist Helene Grimaux. As we take our seats and the orchestra members file on stage, I am thoroughly confused: is this The Orchestra? It appears to me more probable that this long line of beautiful, tall, raven haired young women, all dressed in sleeveless low-neck black evening gowns, holding violins delicately nested to their bosoms, are part of the Fashion Week currently underway in Milano. But no! The conductor appears, the blonde pianist sits by the piano, the baton is raised, and these models play! Wow! This must be the most beautiful orchestra in the entire world, face for face, body for body! Luckily, Brahms takes me away from this reality into another, and I can concentrate on the music, but not without following throughout the concert the synchronized movement of white biceps and triceps and white arms and white hands braced above the violins, up and down as the bowing dictates. Quite something! And the concert is excellent too!

At the end of the concert, we do as the Milanese do, line up for the tram and are delivered some time later at the Galleria, where we go for some late drinks and say “Good night” and "Grazie" to Renato and “See you tomorrow!”

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