Europe

This is what it was all about: Mark, me, Todd, Chris, and Mary Beth in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria

This is going to be a quick summary of a two-week trip through Florence, Tuscany, and Rome. They’re all places we’ve spent time in recently and, unlike nearly all our travels, the purpose was not to see stuff or explore anew or even just to luxuriate in familiar surroundings. In this case the purpose was to introduce friends to part of the Italy we love.

It all started last summer when Mark and his old college friend Mary Beth spent a month in Lucca, Italy, to study Italian. Mary Beth explained how the plans of our mutual friends Chris & Todd (Chris was another old college friend; Todd his partner) to go to Italy had fallen through. As Todd has been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), a degenerative muscle disease, it would be impossible for them to travel on their own. So we thought, “Heck, you can never spend too much time in Italy. We’ll be their support group.”

And so we made it work. Four days in Florence, five in a hillside villa in Tuscany, and five in Rome. As we’d discovered in our brief two-night stop in Rome before meeting them, October is a fabulous time to travel in Italy. The crowds are somewhat reduced – a distinctly relative notion in intensely touristy Florence – and the weather is perfect.

Gorgeous views on a beautiful evening along the Arno River

Traveling in a group like that – Mary Beth was part of the support group, too, so there were five of us – introduces challenges. Getting from the airport in Rome to catch the train up to Florence was a little sample of what we would face; we’ll just say that our friends travel with more luggage than we do. And with extra chores like scoping out restaurants to make sure they were not just places we wanted to eat, but that they would have room for five and were accessible for Todd’s wheelchair, I decided to leave the blogging for later and just enjoy the time we had with friends.

Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge was maneuvering a wheelchair through the ancient streets of Italy. For me, it was a distinct learning experience. I remember having a friend back in the early 1980s who was an advocate for people with disabilities and the need for public accommodations, long before Tom Harkin succeeded in pushing the Americans with Disability Act through Congress. While there have been huge strides in the U.S. since then, much of Italy is still difficult. Lack of curb cuts, impassable sidewalks, inaccessible restaurants, elevator doors that are too narrow, limited sensitivity in even large institutions like the Uffizi Gallery and the Papal Museums.

Not surprisingly, great meals were always a highlight

Notwithstanding a variety of obstacles, we made it work. In Florence we saw David in the Academia, toured the Duomo, and went through the Uffizi on Mark’s guided “Here are the Highlights” tour. Chris & Todd & Mary Beth loved shopping for souvenirs, something utterly alien to nomads like me and Mark who live out of their suitcases. The best parts, for me at least, were just watching Chris & Todd see it all for the first time.

From Florence we rented cars – two to accommodate five people, luggage, and wheelchair were cheaper and much easier than one huge van – and drove maybe two hours to a villa not too far from the town of Cortona, made famous by the book and movie Under the Tuscan Sun. The three-bedroom place was very comfortable, isolated on a hill with views of vineyards and wineries off in the distant. Close enough to Siena, Cortona, and Castiglione del Lago for entertaining day trips. A perfect place to slow down, relax, and just drink in fall in Tuscany, except for one problem: the host.

Before we get to our crazy host in Tuscany, I figured I would emphasize the beautiful views and serenity of the place

It was a little crazy. From the start Marguerite was a little hostile, ridiculing the amount of luggage we had. Maybe it was excessive but that’s for us to decide, right? The real weirdness started our first day, when the four of them drove to Siena while I stayed home to read, rest, and do laundry. She showed me how to use the washing machine and then, while I was hanging the clean clothes out to dry, suggested that if we had a lot of laundry we might be happier taking it all into the laundromat and doing it all at once. Well actually, I was happier doing it at the house and hanging it to dry while I enjoyed lunch and my book.

I didn’t think more about it until the next day when Chris went to do laundry and again she said that perhaps we should take our laundry into town. As I learned to say in the software business, this was a feature not a bug; the website from which we rented the villa explicitly said we would have access to a washing machine, and from the start we had planned on arriving with dirty clothes and leaving with clean clothes. Well, fast forward two days and I have another load to do, then Chris has another load and she is furious. She goes on and on about how we’re using too much water and it was costing more than we had paid and that she had told us to go into the laundromat.

In happier moments this was my lunch while the rest of them were exploring Siena: meat, cheese, an egg, rosé wine, and views to die for

Now, I don’t feel remotely bad about having done five or even six loads of laundry for five people over five days. If the washing machine had been off-limits I suspect we would have found a different villa. But the conflict left a really bad taste in our mouths; she lived in half the building and was demonstrably hostile until we left the next day. Including pushing us to get out by 11:00 AM, despite the fact that her website said checkout was at noon. Combined with our experience in Paris where our hosts falsely accused us of breaking their bed – and charged us $800 to replace it – it makes us more reluctant than ever to use these quirky sharing-economy options where they just make shit up.

Finally it was time to leave Tuscany for the drive to Rome. As was our experience in Florence this was a place we’ve spent a fair amount of time. Our stay wasn’t about seeing new things but rather helping Chris & Todd experience as much as they could given the time and Todd’s physical limitations. The Vatican, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, Spanish Steps, Sistine Chapel, Roman Forum – we did it all. And of course most of it washed down with abundant wine and good food.

Chris, Todd, & Mark in front of Trevi Fountain. They all threw coins in so they’ll all be coming back.

All in all it was a big success. Chris & Todd saw the Italian highlights and Mark & I got to spend genuinely quality time with great friends. They were so appreciative to the three of us for making it all happen, but in all honesty it often felt as though we were the ones who were thankful for the opportunity to share it with them. And thus the two weeks came to an end; they headed back to Chicago and we’re off to Israel. A whole new adventure for us!

The Baptistry, Duomo, and Bell Tower in Florence. We were just in awe every time we saw it.

Mary Beth & Chris in Siena

Todd & Chris on the Arno

I’ve always been intrigued by this portrait of the toddler Giovanni de’ Medici by Bronzino in the Uffizi, though I couldn’t exactly put my finger on why. Then it occurred to me: that bird he’s holding looks like a cigar. Why does it look like a cigar? Because little Giovanni is the spitting image of Winston Churchill!

And the happy couple in Siena

Chris & Mary Beth during a wine tour.

The wine tour included a blow-out lunch with lots and lots of wine sampling. Fortunately the winery was close to our villa, literally within view, so there wasn’t far to drive after the tastings.

My favorite activity in Tuscany: sitting under an olive tree reading a biography of Gorbachev that Mary Beth had brought for Mark. He’ll get his chance to read it someday.

Chris has a fancy iPhone that took this great picture

Before we left the villa we had lunch with a bunch of friends. Our old graduate school classmate Eric lives just a few miles across the border in Umbria and took a break from his olive harvest to come into nearby Castiglione del Lago for lunch

And the same day Mark’s old campaign friend Kate was traveling from Rome to Florence, so they joined us for lunch too. Who knew the Tuscan hills could be so social? The only downside was that while backing up in our driveway John accidentally knocked into one of our host’s flower plants. Detracted a bit from our moral authority while arguing about how much water we were using…

Chris & Mary Beth made some great meals at the villa, but breakfast on the last day was a boffo success. Sauted vegetables, cheese, and eggs baked then sprinkled with fresh truffles. Pretty fancy, eh?

And then there was Rome. Here are Mary Beth and Mark in the Colosseum.

Gelato was a big deal in Rome. In this case Todd met his match.

Another happy couple. Not only did Todd & I both celebrate our birthdays in Italy but Mark & I celebrated our 30th anniversary. Wow!

The Julian Forum with the remnants of the Temple of Venus – Julius Caesar’s ancestor, the family insisted – with the massive monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a united Italy

I’d seen this chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo and admired the Caravaggio on the right. What I didn’t realize until recently when I read a biography of the artist was that he used this painting of the conversion of St. Paul to insult Annibale Carracci, who painted the altarpiece seen here. He thought Carracci’s work was unimaginative – a conclusion art historians agree on – and so had Paul’s horse’s ass prominently facing the painting of the Assumption. Who said art can’t be fun?

And speaking of fun, restaurants and cafés the world over struggle with ensuring that only customers take advantage of the facilities. This place was pretty creative with their message.

We stayed right next to the Campo de’ Fiori, perhaps the perfect location in Rome. During the day it’s filled with market stalls but at night they’re cleared away and instead the square is full of cafés (one of which, rumor has it, serves fabulous Negronis) and this great statue of Giordano Bruno a noted apostate and pantheist burned at the stake at this spot in 1600.

We love Rome. In fact, I’ve loved Rome since I first came here in 1975. Yet surprisingly we never spend much time in Rome. This was just a two-night stop to meet our friends coming from the States before we head north to Florence. Fortunately, we’ll be back at the end of their trip for five nights so this was just a little teaser.

It was a great teaser, though. The first thing we noticed as we got off the plane was that the weather was perfect, low 70s and sunny. Perfect and it stayed that way our for the brief visit. If this is what the weather is like in Rome in October we’re going to spend a lot of Octobers in Rome.

The other thing that we noticed as soon as we got to Rome was that the United States of America was well represented at the airport. Typically one would assume that some senior Cabinet member was in Rome, like maybe the Secretary of Defense. In this administration, though, it could have been some Deputy Assistant Secretary of HUD who commissioned the flight.

There’s not a lot you can do in such a brief stop, particularly when you’ve been here before and don’t need to do much of anything. I bought a new fleece jacket, a big deal when you live out of a suitcase and only buy a new jacket maybe once every two years on average. We thought we were going to spend one morning at Borghese Museum, one of the great art museums in Rome, but after walking there discovered that the first available tickets were for six days hence. Six days! We thought that coming in October we’d avoid the big crowds and to some extent we did, but apparently that’s a really popular museum. And I give them good points for limiting the number of people who can go in at any one time. Fortunately we’re going back in 10 days so we can reserve tickets this time and do it right.

The beautiful gardens of Villa Borghese

Instead we wandered around the Villa Borghese Gardens for a while and then sat to read. The weather was fabulous and the park beautiful; it’s strange that as far as we know neither of us have ever been there before. Later I walked out to St. John Lateran Basilica, the oldest and “premier” of the four papal basilicas; it has the title of “mother church” of the Roman Catholic faithful. The name comes from the Laterani family, ancient Romans who lived here back in the day. They lost the property when the family patriarch was accused of conspiring against Emperor Nero. Emperor Constantine later acquired the property through marriage and had a basilica built on the site and gave it to the Bishop of Rome (i.e., the Pope).

Today it’s not a particularly impressive church, at least to those who’ve become blasé about grand cathedrals. There are some entertaining pieces nearby, though, particularly the Holy Stairs across a street from the cathedral. The Holy Stairs are pretty cool, the very stairs that Jesus walked on to be tried by Pontius Pilate. Emperor Constantine’s mother St. Helena – who also managed to find the true cross – found the steps in Jerusalem and brought them back to Rome. Today they are encased in marble and lead to the Holy of Holies, the personal chapel of early popes so named because of all the relics (i.e., bones) there.

The faithful climbing the Holy Stairs on their knees

To its credit, the Catholic Church does not explicitly claim that the wooden stairs under marble are genuinely the same stairs Christ walked on, but, just in case, one is allowed to climb the steps only on one’s knees. Fortunately for the less faithful there is a staircase right next to it that allows feet so you can still get up to see the old papal chapel.

And that was our brief stop in Rome. We’ll pick up our friends at the airport and then head up to Florence by train, our third stop there in three years. You can never get too much of Florence.

The view from the rooftop of our hotel where I sat to read one afternoon

In October both the temperatures and the crowds are greatly reduced from their summer extremes. You wouldn’t know that at the Trevi Fountain, though, where apparently there is always a crowd.

The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the Mother Church for Roman Catholics

Not really that impressive inside

The cloisters next door aren’t that interesting either, but this intrigued me. It is said that Roman soldiers threw dice for Jesus’ robe on the red porphyry slab you see on the wall. Meanwhile the four columns supporting a marble slab are supposed to be the precise height of Christ. I’d always wondered….

And finally, a bridge over the Tiber River as evening in Rome moves in

Usually I like to put pretty pictures up here, but this is really more representative of Chisinau

We spent four nights in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova (and pronounced something like “Kishinev” which I found really confusing, as though there was some roving “h” that appears where it doesn’t belong and doesn’t appear where it does belong). We had two nights there before Transnistria and two nights after, before flying on to Rome. We didn’t have any massive interest in Moldova but the stop had a couple of things going for it:

1) It’s right next door to Romania and if not now how often are you going to be in the neighborhood?

2) We both are interested in the various former Soviet Republics. I’ve now been to nine of the 15 exes, while Mark has been to seven. We definitely need to get to Central Asia and the Caucusus to get those numbers up.

3) And strangely, there was a direct flight on Wizz Air – a Hungarian discount airline – from Chisinau to Rome. When we got on the flight I found myself wondering, “Who flies from Chisinau to Rome? How many Italians need to vacation in Moldova?” But there it was and we needed to get from somewhere in the region to Rome so why not go to Chisinau (which, as I said, is pronounced something like Kishinev and I’m still confused every time I write it).

The weather for our four days here was a total mix of sun, gloom, and rain. All in all, though, we’ve had fabulous fall weather for this portion of our adventure.

What’s there to say about Chisinau? Not much, really. It’s the biggest city in Moldova and both the cultural and economic hub, but that’s not really saying much. Moldova is, after all, the poorest country in Europe and the least touristed. Still, with a metropolitan population of something over 800,000 people it felt like a metropolis after our two days in Tiraspol.

The city suffered substantially during World War II and it shows today. In the early part of the century Chisinau had had a significant Jewish population; those fleeing the Russian pogroms ballooned the Jewish population in Chisinau to over 40 percent of the total, one of the highest percentages in all of Europe. As the city fell first to the Soviets at the start of the war – it had been part of Romania – and then the Germans and then again the Soviets, the city was ruined and the Jewish population decimated. While in cities around the Balkans that we were in had substantial areas that felt like you would expect old European cities to feel like, that was not really the case in Chisinau. Today as you walk around you are surrounded by ugly Soviet-era blocks, sad and crumbling relics to a sad and crumbled economic experiment.

Soviet apartment blocks

There were a couple of not-all-bad parks near the city center and we found good Greek, Ukrainian, and Russian restaurants to enjoy. We stayed in two different hotels for our brief two-night stops and both were quite nice. Our first stop was a Radisson Blu that was perfectly comfortable and in a great location, while the second was in a local boutique hotel that, as Mark said, felt as though it had been built with the money of a Russian oligarch who needed someplace to stash his cash. Though the location wasn’t great – it was a 20-minute walk to anything we wanted to see or anywhere we wanted to eat – it was honestly one of the nicest rooms we have stayed at in months. What was strange about the hotel situation was how full they were; for both of our brief stops in Chisinau Mark had to really struggle to find available rooms. Given that it was October in a notably under-touristed city, we were surprised.

Much of the city felt more like a developing country, more like Guatemala than Europe. Markets like this were certainly attractive, though.

The good thing about being somewhere where there’s not a lot to do is that we got other stuff done. I nearly finished a biography of Caesar Augustus I was reading (perfect timing for our onward journey to Rome) and Mark made big progress on future travel plans. One thing that was reinforced for us on this swing through the Balkans and Moldova is that without advance planning you may well not get the hotels you want. From here we’re off to Italy for two weeks with friends and that’s all planned, but after that we’re going to Israel and Jordan and then down into some of the safe Arabian emirates. So he spent his free time (i.e., his time not eating) sketching that out and starting to make reservations. We’re excited about heading to Italy, really our favorite country, but now we’re getting pretty excited about Israel, Jordan, and the Arabian Peninsula, too.

The parks weren’t spectacular, but some were nice enough

Even if they weren’t stunning, at least Chisinau can keep the fountains going better than Boston can

By now it is distinctly autumnal in the region

Another park with cute duckies

Our return to Chisinau after Transnistria coincided with the annual wine festival. Moldovan wine was surprisingly good but sadly the festival was on the a day with absolutely terrible weather – cold and steady rain. Mark’s raincoat brightened things up some, but it was a grim day.

Chisinau’s triumphal arch

The Stephan the Great monument, in homage to Moldavia’s greatest leader, at the entrance to the Stephan the Great Park

The perfect start to a Ukrainian meal: pickled vegetables and ice-cold vodka

A church

A statue

And finally, lunch at Propaganda, a wonderful kind-of-Russian restaurant in the diplomatic area of Chisinau. The food was good and it felt cozy like a grandmother’s parlor, even though my grandmother was a lousy cook and didn’t have a parlor.