The Duomo — the main cathedral in Florence — seemed to glow at night.

Florence was warm in July. Very warm. But it didn’t matter. It was a relief to escape the tourist frenzy of Venice and arrive in this Tuscan city of amazing architecture and food. Today’s post marvels at the architecture.

Atop Duomo with all of Florence below us.

My brothers-in-law Jimmy and Peter and I climbed to the top of the Duomo, the main cathedral in central Florence.

There was no warning when we bought our entrance ticket as to how steep a climb it would be the top of the cuppola.

Everest, I thought at the time, might be easier. Ha. But it certainly was not a journey for the faint of heart.

More than 400 narrow winding steps later, we walked out into the fresh air, all of Florence below us.

It was truly magnificent under a cloudless sky, the Tuscan hills beyond us.

Ponte Vecchio.

It was equally interesting to cross the Ponte Vecchio, the medieval stone arch bridge over the narrowest part of the Arno River.

A central Florence market.

Once the shops on the bridge were all occupied by butchers. These days, it’s a dazzling array of gold and jewelry shops, art dealers and stalls hawking souvenirs for tourists.

We strolled the Piazza della Signoria, the main plaza in Florence, teeming with larger-than-life statues including Michaelangelo’s David — the original is in the Galleria dell’Academia.

Every street and plaza in Florence offered visitors something to gaze at, something to wonder about. We stopped and peered into shops that sold incredible Florentine leather nd handcrafted paper.

And coming up in my next post: the food. Heaven to be in Tuscany, I think. Incredibly fresh food and bottles of Chianti.

Why did i return to Atlanta?

The main plaza.

A new world

On a gondola with Lynn (far left), Jim and Jean.

Lynn and Jean had never been to Europe before this summer. Britain, France, Italy. A whole new world opened to them, vastly different from East Aurora, a suburb of Buffalo.

Lynn at Piazza San Marco.

From food to dress to language, everything was unfamiliar. The girls took it all in stride.

I caught up with them and their father (my husband’s brother, Jim) in Venice. 

At first, Venice doesn’t seem the most kid-friendly place. But Lynn and Jean were enamored with the world of gelatos, pizzas and yes, cappuccinos (yes, the girls love their coffee, especially with lots of sugar).

Animals at a mask shop.

We took two gondola rides but it was more fascinating to walk the back streets of Venice — winding alleys and lanes connected by small bridges over the canals. We wondered about the lives of people who lived there — it was such a different way of life.

There are no cars, of course, in Venice. Only boats. The fisherman bring in their fresh catch from the sea. People get around by water taxi and private boats. The garbage man hauls trash by hand-pulled cart and takes it to a barge that transports it out. You probably don’t ever want to fall into the water here. Who knows what’s in it. 

The beauty of Venice charmed the girls. They were thrilled to sit at canalside trattorias and bars and return to America with memories of a lifetime.

A Venice mailbox.
The charms of outdoor trattorias.
Discovering Venice with nieces.


Magnificent and unexpected

Piazza San Marco.

I continue in this post my journey through Italy. Too quick, too hurried, but fascinating all the same.

(I dream of the day when I am not beholden to an employer any more and I can travel at will.)

The train ferried me from Verona back to Venice on a warm Sunday afternoon. I was curious to see, at last, the city of palaces built on a mosquito-infested swamp. What were they thinking?

Along the Grand Canal.
The train rolled into the Santa Lucia station and when I stepped out, I finally saw what Venice’s founders envisioned. What they built is truly magnificent, no other city in the world can compare. In fact, the entire city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Next, I boarded a water taxi at Ferrovia and 14 stops later along the Grand Canal, I’d reached my destination: San Marco. My hotel was a step away and just around the corner from the main plaza in Venice.

I was meeting two of Kevin’s brother’s here. Yes, I know. A strange thing to go on vacation with your husband’s brothers. But their trip was planned and how easy was it just to tag along? Kevin did not have enough vacation time to make it work.
More about the family in my next post.
Chatting with John and Sue Maso at dinner.

The first night, my brother-in-law Peter and I found a cute trattoria not far from the hotel. We were tired and hungry and filled up on spaghetti with seafood.

Next to us was a couple from Perth, Australia. She’d asked us if our food was good before ordering.
“Delicious,” I said. “Where are you from?”
“Oh, really?” I said. I lived there for a bit way back in the seventies.”
John and Sue Maso, it turns out, were on a multi-nation adventure. Their days in Italywere to be extra special. John’s parents were from Vittoria Veneto. But the family moved to Australiaafter World War II.
Johns’s father returned four times from Australia. On each of his first three visits, the pope died. It was an omen. The fourth time, he died. That was in 1991.
Veneto was on John’s bucket list. He had to go back to see it, meet family, he explained.
Bangladeshi Shipu Mollah served us our dinner.

I could see he was excited and nervous all at once. He savored his steak as did Sue her spaghetti and seafood.

We laughed and talked some more about Italy. They had enjoyed their day trip to the island of Murano, where glass blowing is an art honed to perfection.
Then it was time to pay the bill. Our waiter Shipu Mollah was young, handsome and I could tell from his speech, very Bengali.

He’d come to Venice from Bangladesh, looking for work.

What I did not know at that moment was that in the three days I was to spend in Venice, I would speak more Bengali than I have in six months in Atlanta.

All the men who sold gimmicks and toys and souvenirs to the tourists were Bangladeshi, as were many of the waiters and shopkeepers. Syad Shamim Ali told me he arrived only a year ago in March — from Libya.
Of course, I thought. I remembered when I had written about Bangladeshi laborers clamoring to get out once Moammar Gadhafi’s rule seemed uncertain.
They’d been transported to the borders at Tunisia and Egypt. Many spent days and nights in the open before they were able to board a ship to take them away.
Life was different in Venice, they told me. Of course it would be after war in Libya and the abject poverty of home. But they did not speak of cathedrals, palaces or aquamarine lagoons.
All they saw were the thousands and thousands of tourists. They were lifeblood.
The Bangladeshis missed their families, their homes — some had not returned in years. But it was possible to make a few dollars. There were a few possibilities here.
Their words would hang over me during my time in Venice.
In between the pricey gondola rides and bottles of Valpolicella, I thought of them, trying to just make it. Life in Venice was certainly no vacation. Not for them.
The basilica and tower at San Marco.


Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou? At the arena in Verona, of course

The Arena in Verona’s Piazza Bra
I’d been up for many, many hours – too many to count, I think, after a day of work at CNN, a trans-Atlantic flight and a train ride from Venice.
But when I finally stepped foot in Verona and realized I could watch Romeo and Juliet performed at the Arena di Verona, perhaps the most famous outdoor opera venue, I felt a second wind.
Dinner with Mary Foster Batten

Before heading out, I had dinner with Mary Foster Batten, a fellow visitor from Ireland whom I’d met at the lobby of the Hotel Novo Rossi. 

We shared pizza with prosciutto and funghi and glasses of fine Valpolicella. And fine conversation. And then I was off to the Arena.
I took my seat, high above the stage, under fragments of columns that have stood since AD 30. It’s a remnant of Roman glory, like the Coliseum in Rome. Except the Verona Arena is still vibrant, still a place where thousands go to watch.
I took my seat high above the stage in a Roman
arena that was 2,000 years old.

No more gladiators and fights to the death. But mellifluous music.

As in the voice of Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak in the role of Juliet and American tenor John Osborn as Romeo.  And so it began. Lucky for me that I knew so many lines of Shakespeare’s tragedy. “Oh Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love. And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
A bust of Shakespeare
in central Verona

There were no translations offered at the Verona Arena, no sub-titling. I might have been lost had it not been for a story so familiar. A couple in front of me bought a libretto. But as the sun faded, darkness befell our seats, the only lights reflecting off the stage and from the stars above.

Juliet’s statue
at the real house of
I was told that the opera’s start depends on the sun’s timetable. On this magnificent July evening, the first notes sounded at 9:15 p.m. It ended at near 1 a.m., by which time I was awake purely on the fumes of excitement.
The next morning, after a breakfast of prosciutto e meloni, I ventured out into Verona, eager to see the house of the real-life Capulets and the famous verandah where Romeo and Juliette’s love for one another was sealed.
At an old castle overlooking the river in Verona
It is, of course, somewhat of a tourist trap. But I looked at Juliet’s statue and gazed upward at the walls of the massive house and began to understand why Shakespeare was inspired to write his tale.
Next stop: Venice


Viva l’Italia

I never wanted Italy to win until today. But it’s my top pick in the World Cup pool this year. So…

… at 2:30 this afternoon, I gathered with friends at Fritti, a neighborhood restaurant, to watch Italy versus Paraguay.
In the end, my friend Jack said he’d buy me another glass of fine Italian Pinot Grigio if I donned his tricolor shorts. So I did. And said a Hail Mary. It didn’t quite work. Score: 1-1.

That’s really a loss for the fine talians.

But the Pinot Grigio was fine-r.

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