For as long as I can remember, I have loved all things Italian. In school, it was the history lessons that awakened that passion. The Renaissance with the great Italian masters Michelangelo, Botticelli, Titian (Tiziano Vecelli), Raphael, Donatello—classical art was discovered at an early age. I remember spending hours looking at the glossy pictures in books and wondering what it would be like to actually see paintings like The Birth of Venus or sculpture like Michelangelo’s Pieta. As time flew by, the Italian obsession moved from art to football and cars and bikes (really, can one deny the beauty of a Vespa or a Ducati or a Lamborghini?) and fashion and music and films and literature and wine and FOOD! From dreaming of sitting in the Sistine Chapel, it grew to throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain or even risking a dip in it like Anita Ekberg in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. And so, during my college years, Karma decided to throw my way, a lovely Italian exchange student who would become a dear friend and open a door that I was perhaps still scared to go through.
E, (let’s call her that), hailed from the city of Modena and invited me to come visit her. Coming from a middle-class household of a single mother, international travel was something of distant dream. But after much planning and convincing, at the end of a September night, I found myself aboard a Swiss Air flight heading to Roma. I was finally going to a place which had captured my imagination for years.
For what the movies tell you, reality is so much more beautiful and surprising. I took a Eurostar from Rome to Bologna, which took me 4 hours. The Italian landscape whizzing by was almost exactly how I had imagined it. My great adventure was just starting and the excitement kept me awake even though my body begged me to calm down and take a nap. Word of caution, if you are a first time traveller to a non-English speaking nation, do your research thoroughly. I got hoodwinked into taking a rather expensive train ride where I could have just taken a local train (or regionale, as they call it) for 1/3 the price. Needless to say, I got wiser with each passing hour. From Bologna, which is a beautiful university town, we took the regionale to Modena which would be my base for the next month.
Modena is known to be the original home of Ferrari, Pagani, Maserati, Lamborghini and De Tomaso. So in the lovely hill-like weather, don’t be surprised if you see the familiar logos all around you. The crisp winter mornings with a bright sun and air so clean, you wonder what you had been breathing all your life. Modena also is the seat of the famous balsamic vinegar which E’s family also made at home. The people on the streets are few, so if you are expecting the hustle bustle of Delhi, you will be disappointed. Personally, I avoid crowded places like the plague, so for me this was bliss.
The plan was to stay in Modena and travel from there. The first stop after recovering sufficiently from jet lag was back to Bologna. This university town was where E had graduated from (in Sanskrit!) and so obviously, being the Indian, I was taken there. And it just happened to be my birthday! Bologna, is mostly populated by students. A place of learning, culture, heritage and nightlife. Where you have students, you have beer…or in the case of Italians, wine! Most of the town is made of corridor and arches. Legend goes that these were considerately built so that during sudden showers, no one needs to get drenched unless they want to. A funny landmark of Bologna is the two towers of Asinelli and Garisenda. The funny thing is that like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Garisenda, too, is leaning. I couldn’t help but think that Italians really couldn’t build straight things. Maybe it was all the wine and limoncello! The towers have found their way into literature as Dante has written about Garisenda in the Divine Comedy.
The thing I noticed was there were very few vehicles on the road. Mostly pedestrians and cyclists, though you did catch a fleeting glimpse and roaring sound of superbikes. The biggest square there, Piazza Maggiore, hosts a number of cultural events. I was lucky enough to catch a show of whirling Dervishes there. Cross culture at its best. The piazza is surrounded by a government building and the church of San Petronio. The beauty of these small Italian towns is that they are steeped in history and architecture. Churches were everywhere. Another interesting church was the Church of Santo Stefano, which holds 7 small churches within its walls.Every other bylane has cobbled roads and buildings that have stood there for centuries. With an imagination as vivid as mine, it doesn’t take long to feel like you are travelling through time. Exploring the area around the piazza, you will stumble onto a street called Pratello. This street has pubs running on one side and residences on the other. I learnt that a university game was to walk the length of that street, while stopping at every pub of course, and emerge victorious if you could still walk straight. Needless to say, I realized by the fourth pub that that street was suddenly looking too long. It was at one of these pubs that I encountered another of Bologna’s treasures—Milania. While nursing drink number…(?), a lady walked in dressed in a black gown, with a rose in her hair. She must have been close to 75. One could tell she was a victim of circumstance and was once upon a time beautiful. She sauntered in for a drink and there was a sense of familiarity with the people there. She saw me, came over and kissed my cheek. To the others there, this did not seem strange but for me, I was rather taken aback. Once she left, E shed some light. The story goes that she was once a contessa and fell in love with a man on whom she showered her riches and then he abandoned her. The grief had driven her to insanity. And now she wanders the length of Pratello, hugging and kissing the girls and hitting and yelling at the boys. Don’t know how much of this story is true, but in a setting such as that, it seemed rather tragically plausible.
[Church of Santo Stefano]
One of the best ways to enjoy a trip is to live it like the locals. Not like the DSLR totting crowd who have a checklist and insist on following a guided tour or visit only the famous places. Don’t get me wrong, I love lists. There is a lot that can be said in favour of lists but it depends entirely on what your list might contain. You will never know the flavour of a place unless you have, perhaps literally, broken bread with the locals. G. K. Chesterton once said, ‘The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.’
[Piamaggio] Apart from living life like my Italian friends, which meant waking up late, enjoying coffee in the sun in the mountains of Pia Maggio, running a fever while rolling down a hill, reading Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ under a tree, eating till you drop dead and rounding off the day with some music and wine, while my self-appointed guide, E, had to get back to her studies, I took it upon myself to do things solo. Hand gestures and smiles go a long way to make travel comfortable. I do know a smattering of Italian which I cannot deny was helpful but having a phrasebook at hand doesn’t harm either. Chances of getting lost are slim because the maps are superbly accurate and each road, street, bylane, bylane of a bylane, is marked at intervals. Yes, as a solo woman traveller you must keep alert and your wits about you, but on no occasion did I feel threatened or unsafe. Trick is to know which parts of the town/city are dodgy and avoid venturing there alone or at night. And don’t look like you’re a fish out of water. Confidence is a great weapon at your disposal but beware of overconfidence. But this is just common sense. The people are warm and helpful even though I did get my pocket picked and lost 50 Euros but even then strangers came forward to help. I spent my last few days in Bologna, ambling along and I can confidently say if you put me back there, I can most certainly find my way around. That to me is travel. When you leave a place knowing that when you come back, you are no longer a stranger to those parts but are one with the stones under your feet, the smells wafting to your nostrils and the direction of the wind. I had spent a good couple of weeks shuttling back and forth around Modena and Bologna when it struck me that it would be unforgivable if I didn’t do some touristy things, albeit touristy defined by my standards.
I took a local train from Bologna to Firenze (Florence) to finally see the art I had grown up loving. I put up at a hostel called B&B Maison, which is place I would keep going back to as the stay there was beyond fantastic. It is very affordable, they offer free breakfast every day and dinners on alternate nights, Wi-Fi is free, Lorenzo the host will be most helpful with the maps and the tea. The icing on the cake, for the likes of me, is Fiona, their boxer. She is most friendly and used to people but if you are not a dog person, it would be best if you didn’t book there. The owners themselves say so. After all, Fiona is family. The hostel is very well located as the museums and Duomo are all just an hour’s distance away. Hostels are always the best way to go as you encounter so many people from various cultures and go on to make great connections. If for nothing else, at least to fuel further travel plans. I shared the room with 5 other people and I cannot remember the last time I felt that giddy with laughter while being proud of my roots. India, for the foreign masses, is a land of wonder. It is not a lie that there are people who ask silly questions about snake charmers and elephants and wonder at how good your English is. Makes you feel so much wiser while putting the record straight. That national pride burst forth on many occasions and perhaps my words have changed the views of some people flung in the corners of the world.
The routine was to wake up early, play with Fiona, yap with Lorenzo over breakfast and then head out for a long day. Word of advice, invest in good, comfortable walking shoes because if you are not walking, then you miss out on quite a lot. I used to walk a good 12-15 hours a days. Somehow the weather and the place itself are conducive to walking. On the first day I walked to Piazza San Marco and sat there for a while taking in the sounds of the birds and shivering a little in the cold. Florence being a very tourist-friendly city meant that there would be people everywhere. Although this is unfortunate, one must live with it if one chooses to be there. The weather was playing foul with it being cloudy and cold. I walked to the Baptistery and the Duomo. The Duomo is Florence’s main church built in the Gothic style which took 140 years to build. The architecture and artistry is such that the church and its gilded doors still gleam in the sunlight as beautifully now as it must have done in the 1400s. The sheer scale of the architecture is humbling. To think of the effort and thought that had gone into it. Quite outstanding!
[At the Baptistery--apologies for picture quality. Phone photo, sigh]
From there to the Medici Residence. The rooms and furniture are exquisite and still in very good condition. Ah how the rich and noble lived! With wealth like that, why wouldn’t you have the time and leisure to be a patron of the arts? For the final stop of the day, I had reserved the best. Galleria dell'Accademia. Walking along the corridors of endless paintings, with a photo exhibit on to boot, I made my way to the highlight of the day. Michelangelo’s David. Words and pictures do not do it justice. Supposed to be the perfect example of androgyny. Words fail me here. I sat in silence for two hours in front of it, dumbstruck, while the crowds milled about around me. In the presence of greatness, one cannot help but acknowledge one’s insignificance. And that is what travel and exposure to the world does to you. You realize you are but a speck in the universe. To see such beauty and be amazed. Travelling allows you to be constantly amazed and that is what makes it so beautiful and addictive.
The next day involved more museums like the Duomo Museum, Dante’s house, Michelangelo’s house, Palazzo Vecchio and finally the Uffizi. The Uffizi is purely for the love of oil paintings on canvas. Few hours of being swept with the flow of the crowd are enough to see the whole museum. A beautiful bridge lies nearby, Ponte Vecchio, near the Vecchio Palace. Another must see is the Santa Croche Church. Pack all this is a day and it is enough to keep you tired yet satisfied.
[At the Duomo Museum]
The last day saw me battling rain, a headache and hurting eyes. I had little more to cover before I went back to Modena. I saw the Basilica of San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapel. After David, everything paled in comparison till I went down to the Medici tombs. Once again, Michelangelo swept me away. Even in death, the Medici family ensured they would be interred with art around them. From there, after haggling and succeeding in procuring a cheap umbrella, I made my way to the station and back to Modena.
My trip to Florence taught me that language is never a barrier; that travelling alone is a humbling experience. Yes, it helps if money is not an issue but there are ways around that. Hostels are a lovely way to cut cost. I got lucky to have friends there, so stay wasn’t too expensive but then isn’t that the exciting thing? Make friends! It is healthy cross-culturally and reduces travel expenses by at least a third if not more. There is much joy in travelling and making new friends. I went thanks to the invitation of a friend but came back with many more homes to stay at, at any point in my life.
For all the time spent in Italy, I can say with conviction that I lived there as opposed to just having stayed or visited. That is to me is the core of travelling. To have truly lived a place. We get caught in our daily lives and spend too much time worrying about money or leaves or whatever else. Sometimes it helps to go on really long vacations to places that you put on your wishlist under ‘Someday’.