Italian Honeymoon Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak-Day 1
Di and I were married on 2/22/20. Finally! We had also planned a two-week honeymoon in Italy and Sicily. Simultaneously, the corona virus, which began in China, had made its way to Italy. We had a choice to make. Both, Di, a laboratory scientist, and I, a nurse, both knew the pros and cons of cancelling the trip or going forward.
We knew that the virus would spread and no amount of running (short of hiding in a cave somewhere) would protect us until an immunization became available. Also, as two sixty-something adults, we faced higher risks than younger people. Still, both having had much experience working in hospitals, we knew how to protect ourselves. So, we made a decision. We were going to go for it.
We flew out of Melbourne, FL on 2/24/20, a Monday, and arrived in Venice on 2/25/20. We connected in Amsterdam and the sunrise was beautiful.
We landed in Venice on 2/25/20 to an almost empty airport. Immediately, I was in love with this beautiful land. The Carnival gowns displayed in the baggage claim area were amazing. As a seamstress/quilter, I know the hours of work required to make such a garment and marveled at the rich fabrics.
We took a water taxi to our hotel, Palazzo Giovanelli, on the Grand Canal. Our room was not large, but the view made up for it. The Palace, overlooking the right bank of the Grand Canal, between the Church of San Stae and Ca' Pesaro (another Venetian palace), has witnessed several centuries of history. The ceiling of our room still had the original painted beams of the palace. As well, at one time in history, the palace had secret corridors, which are now part of one of the suites in the hotel. If you plan to visit Venice, we recommend this hotel. Go to the link in the name and you can see the gallery of images from the hotel rooms and grounds. Below, the stunning Mirano glass chandelier hangs in a sitting area on the 2nd floor.
Erected in the 1500s as a residence of the Coccina Family, it passed into the hands of the Foscarini and Giovanelli families, hosting a series of well-known persons. In the 1700s it was the home of Marco Foscarini, future Doge of the Republic of Venice. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, while visiting Venice, and Frederik Christian IV, King of Denmark lodged there.
Outside our window was San Stae Church and the water taxi stop named after it. San Stae is an abbreviation for Saint Eustachius, patron saint of Hunters and Firefighters. The church of San Stae was founded at the beginning of the 11th century and reconstructed in the 17th century. The front faces the Grand Canal and the façade was constructed by Domenico Rossi, and adorned with statuary by Giuseppe Torretto, Antonio Tarsia, Pietro Baratta, and Antonio Corradini. The interior holds tombs for the Mocenigo family. Today it is a museum, but due to the virus, it was closed as was all municipal tourist sites in the city.
Though there was traffic on the water buses and taxis, along with deliveries of goods up and down the waterway, it was strangely quiet for the day that Carnival should have begun and the city would normally been overflowing with visitors from around the world.
Tired from our travels, we decided to rest that first night and plan a day of sightseeing the next day.
Italian Honeymoon Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak-Day 2
We awakened the next day, rested and ready to explore Venice. Sounds from outside always captured our attention. It was a new experience to hear a water ambulance or police unit racing down the canal. So, we were driven to throw open the window of our room and just enjoy the sights and sounds.
At the water bus stop below, we watched the hustle and bustle of locals and others coming and going, as well as deliveries at the stop. Boxes, laden with fresh fruits and vegetables, were stacked on the supply boats. Delivery persons stacked them on hand trucks and rolled them down the narrow streets out of our site to their customers.
At our first breakfast in the hotel, I discovered the amazing Italian breakfast offerings. Freshly squeezed juices, which included what would become my favorite—orange and beet juice, was offered. There were fresh meats, fruits, and cheeses, granola with yogurt, and of course, amazing pastry and breads. The single-serving Nutella pods called my name, but ultimately, I could not resist. The Italkaan coffee was nectar, strong and served with small pitchers of hot milk, it is referred to as “café latte” and I can still taste them. Yum.
Over breakfast, we discussed our plans for the day and decided to start at St. Mark’s Basilica. To use the water bus, we needed day passes, so we wandered into the neighborhood near the hotel and found a Venetian version of a convenience store. Di purchased the tickets while I checked out the Carnival masks
Soon, we were on the water bus, heading down the Grand Canal under a sunny, clear sky. It was cool, however, and we wore coats, especially along the waterway. Venice is a beautiful and unique city. Moorish influences can be seen in much of the architectural details of the buildings. One of the stops along the way was at San Georgio Maggiore.
This church as it now stands was started in the 16th century and was completed in the early 17th century. It faces St. Mark’s across the Grand Canal on the island for which it is named. Again, it was closed, but there are some beautiful pictures of its interior on the Internet. Also, Claude Monet painted this church calling it, “San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk.” A man, either mentally ill or full of alcohol, was singing loudly on the church’s step as passersby gave him a wide berth.
Upon arrival at the St. Mark’s stop on the water-bus line, we wandered along the first street we found, following GPS directions for the piazza at St. Marks. Along the way, I drooled at the designer fashion stores: Giorgio Armani, Dolce and Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, Valentino, Tiffany’s, Chanel, Gucci, Versace, etc. I’m not sure there are better fashion designers than Italians.
St. Mark’s piazza was strangely quiet, the church closed and barricaded. A large stage in the center of the piazza, set up for Carnival, was being dismantled. We explored the square, getting some pictures of the architectural details of the church’s exterior, which is best known as an example of Italo-Byzantine architecture. The church lies at the eastern end of the Piazza San Marco, adjacent and connected to the Doge's Palace.
Originally it was the chapel of the Doge himself and has been the city's cathedral only since 1807. The original church was built next to the Doge's Palace in 828 C.E. Over the centuries it grew to a profusion of domes and over 8,000 sq. meters in size, with world-famous mosaics. As it stands, today, it was founded in the 9th century to house St Mark’s remains. According to Wikipedia, Venetian merchants smuggled his body out of Egypt in a barrel of pork fat.
After enjoying the morning sun, we meandered to the water’s edge and noted the gondolas were parked with very few folks enjoying a ride on this cold, clear day. After exploring the area, we returned to the piazza and walked, window shopping. Di bought me a beautiful Italian-made, cashmere scarf and we decided to warm up with a hot beverage.
A tearoom called our name. The maître‘d led us to a back room inhabited only by Asian females, some in medical face masks. It saddened us, but we understood, finding a sea that was a safe distance from them. Di enjoyed a liqueur coffee and I had hot tea.
Afterward, we walked the back streets and enjoyed shop windows. It was there I spotted a typewriter in Tiffany’s window with gemstone keys. During our walk, we found a small pizzeria and enjoyed a slice of pizza and coffee.
We returned to the hotel. On the water bus, a pre-school age child sat across from us, facing us. We thought it was a girl because of his beautiful head of dark curls. Wrong! It was a little boy and he was decorated in chocolate gelato. During the ride, he fell asleep.
We returned to the hotel and watched Italian television for a bit. It was odd seeing American films dubbed with Italian voices, including an abundance of Westerns. Ending the day watching the news became a bit of our evening routine while in Italy. We would find an English-speaking channel and check the news for what was happening with Covid-19.
It was our own special honeymoon bubble. Little did we know what would await for America and those beautiful Italian citizens in the weeks to come.
Italian Honeymoon Amid the Corona Virus Outbreak--Day 3
We slept in on the last day before leaving Venice. It was colder than the other days and those walking around at the water-bus stop below our window were bundled well. After another healthy breakfast in our hotel, we walked around the neighborhood near the hotel. We saw some potential dinner spots, found a gelato shop, and in general, got a feel for this area.
I marveled at how this city was born. Originally, the first settlers of this city were escaping invaders. The original building site was on a boggy, watery group of 118 islands in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon. Need is often the mother of invention, so they found a way to build in this somewhat hostile spot. They dug hundreds of canals and used wooden pilings to support the walls of these canals.
Then going one step further, they drove pilings into the earth along the canals. In fact, hundreds of them, so close that they touched. Over that, they laid wooden platforms, then placed stone on the wooden decking. This became the foundation for their homes. Since wood does not oxidize in water, it eventually became petrified over the centuries. Many of the homes and buildings stand on pilings that are over 1,000 years old.
Combined with the natural compacting of the seabed (due to the weight of the homes) and rising sea levels, Venice has sunk nine inches in the past century. If global warming is not abated, it will be unlivable at some point in the future, at least on the lower levels. In fact, Di and I watched the flooding situation closely in the weeks before the wedding, wondering if we should cancel our plans to see Venice. We could not see the wisdom of having to trek in rain boots around a flooded city. Thankfully, it receded by the time we got married.
So, on our walk that 3rd morning, we just absorbed the Old-World ambiance. Eventually, we went back to the hotel and took a nap. Di was fighting an upper respiratory infection that she had acquired before leaving Florida and we needed the rest. When we got up, we escaped the room, and took another walk. Forgetting that the restaurants don’t open until about 7 PM after closing for the afternoon, we found a wine and tapas shop to get a snack and wait for the restaurants to open.
The young Somalian man running the shop was a delight. We tried his tapas and it hit the spot. In the window, there were smoked hams and a beautiful, antique, red-enameled meat slicer. The back wall held a floor-to-ceiling wine collection. However, sitting there and watching the pedestrian traffic, it was so very quiet and subdued. Only one customer came in while we were there, an older gentleman who had a glass of wine and chatted with the shopkeeper for a bit before heading out.
Eventually, we meandered further back into the neighborhood and found a piazza. As the children were not in school, it was full of kids playing: skateboarding, skating, soccer, etc. All of this was happening under the watchful eyes of parents and grandparents. It was a lovely place to take a seat on a bench and enjoy the afternoon.
I was disappointed that the local museums were closed. We passed a textile museum and I was especially sad that I could not see their collection. I love textiles. In fact, before retiring, I closed my longarm quilting business. When not writing, I am a quilter and seamstress. There’s something about the tactile sensations, colors, and monotonous hum of a sewing machine that soothes my soul, while writing is cathartic on many levels.
So, we rested in the piazza, enjoying the pure delight of children laughing and playing. It was bittersweet as this was taking place in the midst of a pandemic blooming in their homeland. Did they know, in all their innocence, what was going on in their country? I hope not. Children grow up far too soon.
Eventually, time passed, and we walked back past a restaurant eyed earlier during our walk. They were opening for the evening. We ate there as we were leaving the next morning for Florence.
Passing the waterbus stop at the hotel, Di asked if I wanted to ride on it and go all the way around their route. It was cold, but I wanted to see Venice. So, we jumped on the next waterbus and rode it around the city. There’s a special sharpness to lights when it is cold and something about it reminded me of riding in a car to see holiday lights. I was sad to leave as we only touched the surface of exploring this remarkable city and never made it to the Murano glass factory area of the city.
The ride ended and we returned to the hotel and prepped our suitcases for our excursion to the train station the next morning and the next leg of our adventure.
Italian Honeymoon in Italy Amid Corona Virus—Back Home Footnote
I was driving to the pharmacy this morning and began thinking about the lack of toilet paper available everywhere. Di and I did not stock up. We’ve bought what we need as before. However, we are finding from those delivering our groceries, that it is available only as the trucks come in to local stores and it sells out quickly. Since Di and I are over 60 and I have some medical issues, going out scavenger hunting for tissue is not going to happen.
When I lived in Greece homes had bidets in their bathrooms. So, I was pleased to find that all the hotel rooms in Italy has them as well: Venice, Florence, Rome, Taormina, and Palermo. They all had towel warmers, something that is a great way to hand wash personals and allow them to dry overnight if you aren’t using it for towels.
The earliest written reference to a bidet was in Italy in 1726. A porcelain appliance with a water source and a drain, it is much like a toilet bowl in appearance (without the holding tank). It is designed for the person to essentially straddle it, facing the wall behind it. Then, using water and soap, they can clean themselves after voiding. Voila! No paper needed. Towel are nearby for drying. Thus, a paperless way to maintain genital hygiene.
This device is virtually unknown to most Americans. I have seen several “do it yourself” models and plumbing work arounds on Amazon. However, I predict that after this virus is part of our history as a culture, we will start seeing more homes built with them and more bidets being installed in existing homes during renovation. We can stop cutting down so many trees and all of us with benefit from use of this most handy hygiene tool.
Anyway, I will stop rambling about personal hygiene. I will begin Day 1 in Florence tomorrow, but for today please stay safe, rest, eat healthfully, play, and be grateful for all you have, especially your loved ones and friends.
Italian Honeymoon Amid the Corona Virus Outbreak--Day 4
On Friday, 2/28/20, Di and I started our day by dressing and completing out packing. We dropped our luggage at the concierge and had breakfast. Soon, we were on a waterbus headed to the landing to find a taxi to the train station.
The station was busy, many travelers wearing masks. We were fortunate to find small pocket-sized hand sanitizers at the pharmacy in the train station. With a bit of time before our train arrived, we grabbed a café latte and waited for the update on which track our train would depart. (It seems all the trains were running late.) I must admit; I was a bad girl. The coffee shop had Nutella muffins (a rich vanilla muffin with Nutella filling). That is just wrong!
When we boarded our car, which was practically empty, it felt bizarre, but nice in that we were not crowded with potential Covid carriers. There were less than ten people on our car, so we found a seat away from others and had the conductor change our seat numbers.
It saddened us to be leaving Venice, but we knew many new, wonderful memories would be made on the upcoming legs of our trip. After wiping down our seating area, we plugged our phones into chargers and settled back. Soon, the automated announcement alerted us that our train would be leaving.
We were on our way to Florence. Venice disappeared behind us and the Western side of the Veneto region whizzed by. Looking back wistfully, I hoped we would someday be able to return and fully enjoy the sights and sounds of a Venice free from a Covid-19 lockdown. Through our window, we could see the southern peaks of the Alps beyond the Lombardia region, an area hard hit by this pandemic. Farmland, vineyards, and tiny communities whizzed past us.
A couple of stops later, we had sped through the Emilia-Romagna region, then into the northeastern area of Toscana. As we traveled, I wished the United States would use its resources to build rail lines like this. It would make travel across the states more earth-friendly and reduce the carbon footprint from automobiles on our planet. Besides, sitting back with no traffic concerns was a wonderful way to travel.
All too soon, we eased into the train station in Florence. After gathering our luggage, we found a taxi and headed for our hotel, the Hotel Degli Orafi. Once again, our accommodations were wonderful. The Italian culture rules in the art of hospitality.
The hotel’s history, as in our Venetian hotel, was rich. The building incorporates an ancient tower, presumably part of the clique of the Importuni family, which owned properties in this neighborhood on the River Arno, a short block to the Uffizi.
It was destroyed in 1260 by the Ghibellini faction who supported the Holy Roman Emperor versus the Papacy. However, it was later rebuilt. A painted wall from the original structure was saved and is visible in the library of the current hotel. In 1515 the building was bought by the Augustinians, who settled in the nearby church of Santo Stefano al Ponte and managed the property until 1783. By the 19th century, it became a boarding house (Quisisana) popular with Anglo-Saxon intellectuals and artists.
Italian Honeymoon Amid the Corona Virus Outbreak--Day 5
Florence Day 2
On Saturday morning 2/29/20, we started our day by enjoying the beautiful ambiance of the dining room at Hotel Degli Orafi. The ceiling makes dining there worth it, but then you add in another healthy and amazing Italian breakfast and you are in heaven. Starting with strong, fresh Italian latte, there were cheeses, meats, fresh fruit and juices, granola and yogurt, breads and pastries. It was all made even more sinful with Nutella (again!), and freshly cooked eggs, you have no problems fueling up for a busy day of exploring Florence.
Our goal for the day was to see the Uffizi. This gallery is one of the most important Italian museums and most visited. It holds the largest collections of priceless works, particularly from the Italian Renaissance.
After the ruling house of Medici died out, Anna Maria Luisa, the last Medici heiress, gifted their art collections to the city of Florence. This family became a powerful European force in the Middle Ages as bankers. Their donated legacy became one of the first modern museums.
The Uffizi heralds as one of the most popular tourist attractions of Florence and one of the most visited art museums in the world with good reason. It holds works by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, among many other masters.
Only one block from our hotel, as we rounded the corner and saw the central courtyard of the museum, an Italian Army Humvee was parked with two armed soldiers wearing sidearms and automatic rifles. Although Covid and the early season kept the crowds at bay, the line was already gathering, waiting for entrance into the museum. The long central courtyard of the museum faces the Arno River.
An interesting note: On May 27, 1993, the Sicilian Mafia set off a bomb in Via dei Georgofili and damaged parts of the palace, killing five people, including a small child. The blast destroyed five pieces of art and damaged another 30. Some of the paintings were protected by bulletproof glass.
Security getting into the museum was as one would expect—thorough. However, once we cleared the security area, I was overwhelmed, knowing I could spend weeks in this amazing gallery. The collection is massive with sculptures, paintings, and religious art over the ages. However, even with minimal crowding due to Covid, it was difficult getting space to adequately photograph the pieces that caught my eye. You can take a virtual tour of its work at the Uffizi’s website.
After ambling through the museum, we went to the rooftop terrace and enjoyed a creamy vanilla gelato with a thick, syrupy, coffee sauce. The cafe offers a few light meals but is more of a snack shop than a restaurant. It worked for us, however. The sun was shining and the temperature mild; it was a perfect day for an outdoor respite. The view is lovely with the Tower of Palazzo Vecchio towering over you and in the near distance a clear view of the Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence’s Duomo, which is the third church to sit on that site. The original was built in 393 C.E.
After our refreshment, we continued through the remainder of the museum and of course the gift shops. As Di already owned a complete catalog book of the Uffizi, I made no purchases. After leaving the museum we made our way to the Santa Maria del Fiore. It was open for tourists and we explored this beautiful church.
Its construction was begun in 1296 in the Gothic style to a design of Arnolfo di Cambio and was structurally completed by 1436. It has the largest brick dome ever constructed. Containing the crypts of several persons, it is beleived, but has not been proven, that the church contains the remains of two popes.
Horse-drawn carriages waited in the piazza in front of the church. Of course, despite the magnificence of the architecture I was drawn to a toddler watching the horses. The drivers pacified the horses by tying bags of hay to their harnesses so that they had a ready snack while waiting for a fare.
We walked back to the hotel and relaxed until time for dinner. Di made reservations for us at Parione. It was our “one week” anniversary and she wanted it to be special. We dressed up for the occasion and I was able to wear the beautiful cashmere floral shawl she purchased for me in Venice.
As I wore pumps, we took a taxi to the restaurant. Much of the old cities in Italy are paved with cobblestone and walking in heels is not wise. Dropped off at the door, our maître de seated us. The dining room was painted a bright tangerine and the ceiling was a spray of twinkling lights on a night-sky background. I enjoyed lamb chops and Di had osso buco. The food was fabulous. We declined dessert.
After returning to the hotel, we made preliminary preparation for our train ride to Rome the next morning. As with ever place we visited in Italy, I hated leaving.
Italian Honeymoon Amid the Corona Virus Outbreak--Day 6
The next morning after breakfast in the breathtaking dining room of Hotel Degli Orafi, we took a taxi to the train station to begin the next leg of our honeymoon. Looking back now, after weeks of staying home due to Covid, it's with joy and sadness. Our days in Italy and Sicily were magical and truthfully, I cannot wait to get back to Italy.
The train station bustled, masked travelers everywhere, especially Asians. We bought our tickets, checked the schedule, and realized (happily) we had time for a coffee. In Italy, coffee is really a "thing", but different than in America. Often, coffee bars are just that. Customers sip (or gulp) an espresso standing at the bar, then go on their way. Cappuccino is only served in the mornings, except in cases where the establishment is attempting to accommodate Americans.
We ordered our favorite—latte—and waited. As we sat there in the train station, in that frozen moment, we were shielded from the chaos evolving in the Northern cities in Italy. We knew the virus was spreading, but as a nurse, I would only see the chaos and suffering on news outlets (MSNBC, BBC, etc.) after coming home. My heart broke. Italy is a country with a large older population and the wisdom those dear souls took with them is lost. It’s gut-wrenching, to say the least. As I write this there are almost two million confirmed cases of Covid in American and almost 200,000 deaths and the Trump administration had essentially dismantled the task force, which was more of a joke with the exception of Dr. Falce.
When it was time to board, we gathered our suitcases and rolled them to the platform. We were disappointed that our car did not have USB outlets as did the first train. (It was an ongoing struggle to keep our phones charged in Italy despite having an outlet adapter.) We settled in for the ride from Florence through part of Tuscany and into Rome, which is the Lazio region. As with the train ride, our time in Italy was passing far too quickly. Knowing we could only scratch the surface of things to see in Rome, we decided to make our first goal to see the Vatican via a private tour.
Arriving in Rome, we almost created a fight between two taxi drivers. A driver approached us and we followed him to his vehicle parked among many other taxis. Due to the reduced tourism because of Covid, we inadvertently took some income from another driver and were thankful it did not come to blows. The offended driver approached our driver and said things to him in Italian. I’m glad I didn’t understand. Welcome to Roma!
Our hotel, Romanico Palace, is not obvious as you approach it. Of course, I was enjoying the view as we rode the short distance from the train station. The hotel is near the Borghese estate, home of a once-powerful family known for intrigues, scandals, and disputes that would make Real Housewives look boring. The most infamous was Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Callixtus III. Yes, you read it correctly. It was not uncommon for “men of the cloth” to father children. Callixtus is believed to have fathered eight children. Unfortunately, we were unable to visit so many places while in Italy and that estate was one of them.
Arriving at the hotel, we checked in. The lobby was quite different than previous hotels. I was not prepared for marble floors, frescoes, antique furniture, with a Roman-style jetted tub with a rain shower in our room that looked out over our room’s terrace and the city beyond. Because we were only on the third floor, the view was lacking, only allowing us to see rooftops and one church steeple, but we were still excited to be in the Eternal City. Part of the reason for that is that no roof can built higher thant the dome of St.. Petere's. The hotel's lobby is unique, decorated in antique furniture.
Rome’s history began 28 centuries ago, with Roman myths dating its founding to about 753 B.C.E. Archeology dates the site inhabited for much longer, thus making it Europe’s oldest, continuously occupied city, becoming the capitol of the Roman Kingdom, Republic, and Empire. The poet Tibullus called it “The Eternal City.” After the fall of the Roman Empire, the city fell under the control of the Papacy during the Middle Ages. In 1871, Rome became the capital of what is now Italy.
The famous myth of Romulus and Remus, the twins who were suckled by a she-wolf, is the most famous legend in mythology of how Rome came into existence. It seem Romulus killed his brother after an argument and the city took his name. Other legends report the city was founded by Greeks. The photo of Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf is infamous in Roman art.
The room's bath was unique and quite "Roman." The decorations frankly made me feel like we were staying in a 1950’s Hollywood mansion with a Romanesque décor, but hey, when in Rome…. After relaxing for a bit and settling in, we went downstairs and enjoyed a latte and a pastry as we waited for nearby restaurants to open for dinner.
Most of our time in Rome the weather remained rainy and cool. That first night was no exception. The concierge directed us to the street behind the hotel and we walked a couple of blocks before finding an interesting dining spot.
The two restaurants where we dined in Rome were below street level. This one on our first night was decorated in a modern, sleek flair. After reviewing the menu, we decided to have pizza. However, unless you’ve been to Italy, pizza in Italy is not like American. Even when considering the amazing food, the service is impeccable, quite a shift from American mentality. As for the customers, no one is in a hurry when dining. There is a sense of just being, enjoying the company, ambiance, and food.
With satisfied tummies, we walked back to the hotel under a cool and light misting rain. After a shower, we settled onto the bed and caught up on the news. It amused me to see the large number of older western movies played on the local channels. I would like to think their attitude toward Americans is a bit off, but with all the killings on the streets of America, they are not wrong. By this time, the Covid bloom and deaths in Northern Italy were beginning to feel very frightening, so the humor of watching old western movies in Italian gave us a break from the reports on the news. We remained vigilant about handwashing, avoiding close contact with people in crowds, etc.
Italian Honeymoon Amid the Corona Virus Outbreak--Day 7
Monday, March 2nd, we rose eager to start our day. We were going on a tour of the Vatican, a city within a city. Di had already been there in years past and knew it would be an all-day trip. Dressed we hurried to the roof-top dining area, eager to try the hotel’s breakfast offerings. Looking back, the food in Italy and Sicily was wonderful, but our most memorable meals were the breakfasts and, of course, the coffee.
We were disappointed in the Romanico Palace’s breakfast buffet. The food could not compare to that of the hotels in Venic and Florencee. The service was probably the worst we had in Italy. My pet peeve was having to go get coffee in small European cups, then walk all the way across the rooftop dining area. I spilled coffee in my saucer and dripped some onto the marble floor, which is a definite fall hazard, so I had to alert the staff. Please do not misunderstand. The food was not bad, we were just spoiled. The offerings were not the same quality of those in Florence and Venice and the service was lacking.
Despite our disappointment, we ate, enjoyed the rich Italian latte, and hurried down to the concierge’s desk. We made arrangements for the tour and then waited for our taxi to arrive. In a bit, a van arrived with two gentlemen in it. Weaving through the streets of Rome, we passed the Borgia gardens.
The Borgias family originated in Venice. They arrived in Rome prominently in 1455, when Cardinal Alfonso de Borgia was named Pope Callixtus III. This era in Italian history was filled with complicated family dramas over many generations, murder, and sexual exploits. One family that stands at the top of that list was the Borgia family. Probably the most well-known entity in that family was Lucrezia, who was wed three times and the subject of much historical debate.
The estate sprawls across many acres, which we viewed in our swiftly moving taxi. Still, we could get an idea of the estate’s size as we passed it. Unfortunately, we did not get to visit it in our short time in Rome.
Arriving at the tour agency, we got out and I promptly fell. The sidewalk was going slightly downhill and in combination with irregular sidewalks and my distraction (I was looking at the sights on the street), I fell. Fortunately, other than a slightly skinned knee and palm, I was extremely fortunate. I could have literally “bit the dust” as I fell downhill a bit and if my mouth had made contact with the sidewalk, it would not have been good, to say the least.
Inside the tour agency, after we arrived our tour guide approached us and introduced herself. She explained that due to Covid, we the only ones in our “group.” Thus, we began our private tour of the Vatican. Back into the van, we lumbered and off we sped. The Holy See is essentially the jurisdiction of Rome’s Bishop of Rome of the Catholic Church, also known as the pope.
Volumes could be written about the history of papal affairs, intrigues, and evolution, but our goal on this day was not centered on the church history. As a new visitor to this historical site, I was overwhelmed by the art as we progressed through our day there.
Approaching the Vatican, I was taken back centuries upon seeing the almost forty-foot-high walls surrounding it. Completed in 852 C.E., it is impressive and speaks of a historical period busy with the likes of Charlemagne and Vikings on the move. The Catholic Church was powerful and art in Europe reflects this period.
Our tour started in the welcoming area. Despite Covid, it was busy. Fortunately, our guide knew the ropes (as well as the guards and staff) and we were fast-tracked through the throngs waiting for tickets and clearing security. We were also informed by our guide that Pope Francis was ill, suffering from the flu. I was saddened to hear that.
I am a bit of an enigma, religiously speaking. I was raised Christian. However, in 2003, my youngest son and I finalized our conversion to Judaism. Since, I have evolved to see what we describe as “god” to be more of a loving, creative energy in the universe and since energy is nothing more than an infinite number of arrangements of atoms and sub-atomic particle, I see how Eastern faiths often recognize the god in others and how all is interconnected.
Also, as I have aged, I am more spiritual, though not necessarily religious, though I do observe my Judaic traditions and observations. In viewing the art of this period, I am convinced that the halos around the heads of saints were the artists’ attempt to create what we identify as an aura. The white or clear aura is that of the soaring spirit, of humans that have a unique life path and make a difference in the world. It can be used for healing. Considered a highly evolved color, it is believed it denotes a high level of consciousness, pure intention, and a search for things of greatest worth (not material things). Yet, I digress.
Soon we were enjoying the sights and sounds of the Vatican. We soon found ourselves in the Courtyard of the Pinecone (Cortile Della Pigna). On the way, we caught a glimpse of some of the vast gardens inside the Vatican. In the recent (and most excellent) movie The Popes, with Anthony Hopkins, they show future Pope Francis walking in those gardens. At the center of the Courtyard, there is a huge bronze globe designed by Arnaldo Pomodoro for the Vatican in 1990. It rests on a spindle, which I did not know until our guide walked over to it and pushed it. It began to turn slowly, not an easy feat given that it is about 12 feet in diameter.
I’m going to be honest. The Vatican is vast and contains many public and non-public areas. I was essentially lost, simply following our guide, listening to her describe the many structures and art throughout the complex. I gaped in awe at the rich variety of art and architectural details. The carvings, sculptures, tapestries, paintings, floors, ceilings, and arches were overwhelming in their size, complexity, and beauty.
Despite Covid, there were plenty of people in the Sistine Chapel. However, due to Covid, I did not feel safe lingering there too long. Also, it felt like a space that deserved quiet and intense contemplation. The many stories of the Bible are reflected in Michelangelo’s work there.
My little bit of knowledge about the chapel came from Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy. Many don’t know but Stone lived in Italy for years, researching in Florence and Rome. He worked in marble quarries and studied with a marble sculptor. He studied Speroni’s letters, which he had translated from Italian and published in 1962. For those readers who have not discovered this remarkable writer, know that his book may be fictional, but the historical accuracy of them is unquestioned.
The chapel’s ceiling contains essentially eons from creation to the prophets, as well as the ancestors of Jesus in paint. The backdrop of the altar is the saga of the last judgment.
As I said, winding through the Vatican, I was lost, amazed, and in awe. I will not attempt to describe or name every photo taken in this enormous art collection within the Vatican. The area that most impressed me was the ceilings in the museum halls. The tile mosaics are so detailed, with such a master’s understanding of light in art, that from below, the images of humans/angels appear as carved reliefs. Furthermore, the art in St. Peter’s contains mosaics, rather than paintings. This far-sighted decision allows us, centuries later, to enjoy the beauty, unfaded or affected by candle soot.
Though, I have no religious reasons for wanting to return to this amazing city, I do want to return someday and take my time exploring the art.
The day ended in early afternoon, but not before our guide took us to the gift shop. She got us special admission to the art of mosaics for sale .The mosaics in this shop were beautiful.
I regret I did not purchase two Shabbat candlesticks in a rosy Murano glass, which were about eighty dollars each. However, the showstopper (to me) was a small mosaic of Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer in mosaic. She was about 8 by 10 inches. Her price? Two thousand American dollars! We did not purchase anything there.
Afterward, we walked outside the walls and took the train to the Spanish Steps, where locals and tourists gather in the evenings to socialize, though sitting on them has been curtailed of late and there was no gathering at all when we visited due to Covid. By that time, it was misting rain and they were empty. We walked around a bit and made our way to the train station.
After returning to the hotel, we rested. Later, we checked with the concierge and got recommendations for dinner. We found a restaurant on a back street behind the hotel and decided to give it a try. It was a small, local establishment, below street level, narrow and busy. Di and I both enjoyed pasta and as expected, the food was fresh, delicious, and warming.
Walking back to the hotel in the chilly, misting rain, we ended our second day in Rome. In our room, we continued our habit of ending the day, watching Italian television. Covid was spreading and people were dying, overwhelming the Italian healthcare system. Little did we know, thinking we were seeing the worse, that months later, we would be at 176,000 deaths and counting in the U.S.
Italian Honeymoon Amid the Corona Virus Outbreak--Day 8
Palermo to Taormina
The next morning, we were almost completely packed and after showering, dressing, and having breakfast, we had the concierge call a taxi. Sadly, our time in Rome had been far too short, but despite what seemed like too little time there, it was still perfect. The ride from the hotel to the airport seemed long, but it was an opportunity to see the suburbs of Rome. I made a silent vow that on our next trip, I would spend a day in the "Ghetto." (This is the Jewish section of Rome established by Pope Paul IV in 1555.) Arriving at Falcome-Borsellino Airport, we checked our large bags and headed to our gate.
The coffee bars in Italy are always bustling. In the airports and around town, men and women stand and enjoy a quick espresso, latte, or cappuccino, then dart away to whatever is on their schedule. There are tables, but they are mostly utilized by guests who are wanting to leisurely sit, talk, or watch the passersby.
Since our hotel coffee was long gone, we grabbed a latte and took a seat, waiting for our boarding call. When it came, we boarded, departing Rome at ten in the morning. As the plane rose over the Eternal City, the cupola of St. Marks in Vatican City gleamed in the morning sun and we said, "Later.”
Our flight took us quickly over the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was a quick seventy-minute flight, so we chatted about plans for the last leg of our too-short and amazing two weeks in Italy. As we approached the island, Montagna Longa came into view. This mountain is typical of Sicilian terrain and is part of the Monti di Palermo range. Rocky in appearance and reality, it stands majestic and solid near the sea.
The mountain is the site of a historic plane crash on May 5, 1972, the cause still being debated fifty years later. As with anything Sicilian, when something violent happens, it’s not uncommon for the word “mafia” to arise. Regardless of the cause, the DC-8 was reported to have been on fire, skidded across the mountain’s crest, spreading debris and kerosene for two and a half miles before hitting a group of rocks which completed breaking the craft apart. One hundred and twelve passengers were killed, including four on the ground.
Many of the passengers were returning from the mainland voting in the national election. Film director, Franco Indovina, was killed on the flight. To date, it is the second deadliest air disaster in Italy’s history. The crash occurred on the 26th anniversary of Alitalia’s beginnings. Their first flight was in a single Fiat G.12 on loan from the Italian air force in 1946. A memorial rests on the mountain’s crest today in memory of the lives lost.
Upon landing, we found our way to baggage claim, but I wanted so badly to stop in the gift shop. What caught my eye was what has come to symbolize Sicilian pottery. Later, walking around Taormina, the Moorish Heads or Teste di Moro; were in many of the shops, on balconies, and at doorways of the homes in that beautiful town.
The legend of the Moorish head goes back to the eleventh century, when the Moors dominated Sicily. Like many things Italian, love is involved. It is said that a maiden from Kalsa, the Arabic section of Palermo, was caring for plants and flowers on her balcony. Suddenly, a Moorish merchant passed by and they fell instantly in love. Their love affair ended when she discovered he already had a wife and children back home. She lost her mind and one night, while he was sleeping, she thought of a way to keep him forever.
So, she cut off his head and decided to use it as a vase for basil. (Well, she was a practical murderer.) Those walking by her balcony were so jealous of the clever vase, they began making similar clay pots themselves, hoping their own plants would flourish as well as hers.
We didn’t buy one in Sicily because shipping something that fragile and large to the U.S. is dreadfully expensive, but I do want one. When we go back, that will be at the top of my “wish list.”
The baggage claim area was essentially empty when we arrived. Beyond other than a few vendors at the car rental kiosks, we had the area to ourselves. We picked up the rental car, a compact, Volkswagen SUV. In the vehicle, we spent a while trying to get our phones to sync to the car, but after surrendering to defeat, Di put our destination into her phone and we were off.
The drive through Palermo was like most American interstates. Businesses and homes grew fewer apart as we left the city, heading east on SS113 and hugging the northern coast of the island. It was hilly, winding, and required attention to the road and traffic. We would, before reaching Taormina, pass through at least two dozen tunnels before reaching Taormina. Regardless, the drive was worth it.
On the way, we needed a break and it was after lunch, so we decided to stop in Cefalù. This small seaside town is a tourist hotspot. It has a rich history and a cathedral that we didn’t have time to explore. We stopped at a small café for a bite to eat. I am sorry I did not write down the name of the establishment. It was almost like a Sicilian cafeteria with a wide selection of ready-to-go entrée items, salads, and pastries in a glass case. There was a coffee bar as well. We fueled up with latte and ordered arancini (a Sicilian rice ball).
Arancini is lunch in a ball, literally. The sticky arborio rice is cooked with wine, broth, saffron, onion, and garlic (or a variety of the above), using much the same method as risotto preparation. Once cooled, this sticky mixture is wrapped around a filling of meat, cheese, and fresh peas. It’s then dipped into an egg bath, floured, egged again, then roll generously in breadcrumbs. These treats are fried, resulting in a crispy ball of delicious flavor surprises that are savory, gooey, and rich in stick-to-your-ribs goodness.
Despite my attempts to make a detour at the pastry case (can you say “cannoli?), Di pushed me out the door and we made our way to Taormina along the same highway. The view as we neared Messina is amazing. Before reaching this portal to the mainland via ferry, we turned south on SS114 toward Taormina. This highway hugs the eastern coast of Sicily, which borders the Ionian Sea. It’s a beautiful ride.
Soon, we reached our destination and it was so very worth the drive. However, it was a bit of an adventure finding the hotel. The streets of this hillside town are narrow, winding, up and down, and crowded. We soon learned that unless you have a resident’s permit, parking on the street is not allowed. As we attempted to follow the GPS to the hotel, we inadvertently passed it, as the driveway was slightly hidden and down a short, steep driveway that immediately formed an “L” into the hotel’s tiny parking area. The signage was not obvious, which didn’t help.
Realizing we had missed the hotel, we decide to circle around and look for it in another pass. Well, that is where the fun really began. We laugh now, but at the time, we were more than frustrated.
Taking a right turn into a narrow road, we were met by a young man who told us that it was a “no outlet” road and ended at a private home. There was no place to turn around! Too tight to risk backing up, we took advantage of a short, widened area in front of someone’s home that would allow some serious three-point turning. Well, let me just say that about thirty minutes later (Yes, thirty minutes!) of doing minuscule three-point turns, one or two inches at a time, with Di directing, we finally got turned around with a scratched passenger mirror. Yikes!
I was a mess. Thankfully, a local young man took mercy on us and offered to drive us out to the main road. We gladly accepted. Soon, we were at the hotel and realized how we had missed it. As it turns out, the concierge must park guests as the parking lot is so small, it only holds a handful of cars. I assume he/she plays car shuffle during the season. Thankfully, we did not use the car again until our departure, so we didn’t have to deal with that.
The Hotel Villa Belvedere is an oasis. Sitting over a steep cliff, our room offered an amazing view of the Ionian Sea to the east and Mt. Etna in all her magnificence to the southwest. The hotel has always been owned and managed by the Bambara-Pècaut family and welcomed its first guests in 1902. Their staff is attentive, accommodating, and always available. Upon arrival, we were gifted with a glass of Prosecco and biscotti. We immediately swung open the doors and walked out onto the balcony and just breathed. The pictures we took do not do the hotel or its view justice. We highly recommend this lodging if you are ever in Taormina. I’d forgotten how wonderful it is to be able to keep a window open with no screens and enjoy the fresh air, even with cooler nights. I'd not been able to enjoy that since living in Greece in 1973.
After our exhausting experience trapped in a street not much more than one foot wider than the car’s width, we needed this respite. If our time there hadn’t been so short, I literally could have spent an entire day on the balcony, enjoying the awe-inspiring view.
Later, after resting, we dressed for dinner and made our way up the hill from the hotel. The concierge recommended a seafood restaurant nearby. We dined on fresh fish, poached and de-boned at the table for us by our server. It was a small, family-owned establishment. Whether by miscommunication or trying to make up for an ultra-slow economy due to Covid, the cook prepared double what we ordered and the bill was a bit of a shock considering our modest order. At any rate, the food was delicious and a beautiful way to end our evening.
Returning to the hotel, we enjoyed the quiet streets, storefronts, homes, and winding lanes. In our room, we opened the balcony doors and were wowed once more as we watched twinkling stars and lights across the cove on this cool March night. We kept the windows open that night. It was quiet, not too nippy, and restful.
I do love Italy, but I have to say that Taormina is special. That’s a quandary, however. I say that about every town we visited. I love Venice, Florence, Rome, and Taormina. Even our last stop, Aliminusa, Di’s grandfather’s hometown in central Sicily, left an impression.
Unfortunately, by that time, Di’s immune system was screaming at her and she was getting sick again. She coughed a lot and thankfully, I had been able to secure some cough drops for her at a pharmacy in Rome.
Taormina Hotel Room
Room With a View!
View from our balcony
View of the Pool from Room
Cascade of Flowers from Patio
Sea from the Patio
A Place for Every Taste
Dusk in Taormina
Bench in Hotel
Painting in Hotel villa Belvedere
Unnamed Painting in Foyer to Patio
Italian Honeymoon Amid the Corona Virus Outbreak--Day 9
The next morning, we rose to a cool, but beautifully clear day. It was a day to relax and go with the flow and enjoy these last hours on this beautiful island. We made coffee in the room and sat out on the terrace, looking at the beauty of Mt. Etna. I took a telescopic photo of her peak. As always, my focus was more grounded on the sea.
Below us, along the coast to the south and to our left (eastward), the Ionian Sea sparkled like a moonstone as morning sun shone down on her. One small fishing boat rocked quietly with the small disturbances in the water’s surface.
Di was still under the weather and I know she struggled with needing rest, but being Di, she refused to slow down She wanted to get out and explore. Our time was short here in this paradise.
The breakfast buffet was amazing. The offerings were fresh, whole foods, and prepared to perfection. I enjoyed my Italian favorite, a mixture of orange and beet juice. As well, ricotta fresca, roasted vegetables, something sweet, and that amazing Italian latte. The dining room was quiet and only a few guests dined there. Outside, called, so we didn’t delay too long, but it was wonderful just being together in this special place as we started our lives together.