A grand tour of Italy, October 1999

Bomarzo, Bagnaia and Caprarola called. Christie Stephenson had been planning a trip to Rome, etc. for some time. As we talked about her plans, she said: you can come along, you know. Such an invitation one doesnít turn down. Our agenda before leaving was to see some of the Renaissance gardens North of Rome. Orvieto was also on the list. The joyous business of this trip were the special things that spontaneously got added to the itinerary.

We left New York on Wednesday, October 20th on separate flights though we overlapped at JFK airport. My American Airlines flight to Frankfurt started to leave on time but then was delayed more than two hours as the generator was repaired. I walked through the Frankfurt airport and right onto my connecting Lufthansa flight to Rome. Unfortunately, my suitcase walked a bit more slowly and didnít get to Rome on the 21st. Christie and I quickly decided that we could stare at baggage claim officers or we could go see Italy. Guess what won? And without paying much for it, I got a lesson in travelling light with a little help from a department storeís underwear section.

We rented a car and took off up the coast toward Civitavecchia during a break in the rain. We stopped at Pyrgi which has bits of Etruscan, Roman, medieval, etc. architecture. The Tyrrhenian Sea was abroil and there were some surfers in wet suits. We arrived in Civitavecchia after dark but found a hotel with the help of a couple at a newsstand.

Christie had made the rental car reservation and started driving. I enjoy navigating and we just kept at it. I didnít end up driving at all.

Next morning (Friday), we took off for Tarquinia. After wandering around the city a while, we visited the Etruscan necropoli with its wonderful painted tombs. Each of the open tombs was covered by a little shed and there was a staircase down to the burial chamber. Some of the painted decoration was in very good condition. The Italian travel office in New York had given me a good guide to archeological sites in Lazio (the province around Rome) and it had a great map. We also had a wonderful road atlas Iíd found at Hagstrom on 43rd Street. (Itís a lot more fun navigating with the right tools.)

Next goal was Viterbo where we planned to stay for a bit while we circled around doing the Renaissance gardens. A few kilometers out of Tarquinia near the ruins of an aquaduct, we saw a sign for ďacropoli etrusca.Ē We stopped so I could take a picture of the aquaduct, and cars and little trucks kept coming down the dirt road. We wondered what it could be: didnít look like touristic traffic. It turned out that with the rain of the day before that the mushrooms were flourishing and that folks were out gathering them. What a wonderful little surprise. A day or two later, we saw a poster of mushrooms in one of the city tourist information offices.

We got to Viterbo midday and found a nice modest hotel with a parking garage. After checking in and taking a deep breath, we drove to Caprarola for our first Renaissance villa and garden -- the Villa Farnese, a wonderful pentagonal villa with wall paintings. The guide needed to be coaxed to take us up to the casino garden which has a glorious box garden and waterworks. On the way back to Viterbo, we drove around part of the volcanic Lago di Vico, with a wonderful view over the lake toward the setting sun. After strolling about town and eating supper, I finally got through to the baggage service at the Rome airport and discovered that my suitcase had been received and was being stored in the baggage room. Since they wouldnít deliver the bag to Viterbo and the airport was at least an hourís expressway drive away, we decided not to go fetch it.

Saturday morning was devoted to visiting the Villa Lante in Bagnaia with one of the great Renaissance gardens. Christie had worked with University of Virginia students on a gardens project so she knew well the original layouts and walking-about schemes. The gardens again were stupendous and we had them to ourselves. Another wonderful watercourse and great water table ... oh, and great river gods in a fountain and a grotto and the four Moors in the fountain. We also walked around Bagnaia before taking off for the Parco dei Mostri (park of the monsters) at Bomarzo. What a crazy place with its oversized figures, grotesque masks and leaning house. We again walked around the town too and saw a rainbow as we left town. The day before, weíd seen a very picturesque postcard of Civita di Bagnoregio which was not too far away. Itís an incredibly picturesque town that was abandoned for several centuries. You had to walk across a bridge to get there. The wind was blowing and there was rain as we crossed the walkway. The surrounding countryside was odd sharp mountains of tufa.

On the way back to Viterbo, we stopped at a Roman theater in Ferento, now just a bit of ruins on a dirt road. The couple necking in the car didnít seem too excited that these tourists had found their ruin. It was raining hard as we got back to Viterbo. Our evening stroll was pretty wet but wonderful. We didnít make it to the medieval San Pellegrino quarter so thereís something to go back for.

We left Viterbo the next morning (Sunday) and drove to Capodimonte where we were supposed to get a ferry to the Isola Bisentina for another garden. The ferryman wasnít there so we drove the rest of the way around Bolsena Lake and then on to Orvieto. As you approach Orvieto from the West, you begin to see the city as you do hairpin curves. Orvieto is splendid. The Gothic cathedral is a mosaic delight, brightly lit in the afternoon sun. We drove back up into the hilltop city and followed the signs to the cathedral. All of a sudden, there it was at the end of the vista, down the narrow street. We dumped the car in a parking lot, found a hotel, and then shlepped the suitcases to the Hotel Duomo. We could see the cathedral from our hotel window. Again, the evening strolling and supper were splendid. We ate at a restaurant on the piazza of the Palazzo del Popolo (palace of the people), a quirky, almost deco/functionalist though medieval palace. The next morning, we visited the archeological museum and the chapel decorated by Luca Signorelli. And we climbed down into the Renaissance cistern that was built as a water source in case of a siege. It has a great double spiral staircase so that downward traffic is separated from upward.

Christie suggested the morning that we were leaving Orvieto that we might go to see Santa Maria della Consolazione in Todi which was off toward the East Northeast. S.M. della Consolazione is a classic Greek-cross Renaissance church, and it is just incredible. A textbook example of Renaissance rationalism. The wind was blowing vigorously as we went in and it just swept through the huge and mostly empty space. We left Todi late in the afternoon in strong light -- another great photo opportunity. (If I were Lucrezia Herman, Iíd have a full pictorial version of this travelogue up on the Internet; Iím not Lucrezia though I am envious of her digital camera. Iím still using the Pentax I bought in 1967 before my first trip to Europe.) Though we loved the church, we decided to keep going rather than stay overnight in Todi.

One of the standing jokes with Christie had been a studentís identification of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, now in the Louvre, as the Winged Vippy of Narni. Well, gosh, there was Narni a few kilometers down the road toward Rome from Todi. We decided to stay there Monday night. The drive from Todi to Narni is partly along the Tiber and the river was muddy and flowing fast. We arrived in Narni just after dark and it seemed like a million motorbikes (Barberini bees) were buzzing as we tried to find a place to park the car so we could look for a hotel. We did eventually find a parking spot and then, with the help of a policeman, find a hotel -- maybe the only hotel in town. After taking a room, we found the city parking garage so that we wouldnít have to worry about the car until we were ready to leave town the next morning. Supper was at the hotelís dining room where Christie had ravioli with mushrooms and truffles -- fabulous. We walked around Narni, a picturesque hilltown, before leaving for the airport.

Between Narni and the airport was our only significant time on the autostrada. It was not nearly as much fun as the back roads but it did get us to the airport pretty quickly. After turning in the car, we fetched my suitcase and took the train into Rome. We got to the hotel in Trastevere and called Chris Huemer at the American Academy. She was fortunately available for dinner so we went to the wonderful codfish place near the Campo deí Fiori where you get fillets of cod and wrapping paper as eating utensil. The young waiters were all flirting with Chris and trying to get her to agree that William Shatner had been in a samurai movie. Chris has lived in Italy for 15 years or so, so her Italian is fluent but it was fun to hear the difference between the waitersí Italian and Chrisí, especially in a colloquial and flirtatious conversation.

Wednesday was my only day in Rome so we crammed as much as possible into the day: Palazzo Altemps (a national museum of Roman art, mostly sculpture); San Luigi dei Francesi (Caravaggio!!); Pantheon; San Ignazio (great trompe-líoeil ceiling partly obscured by scaffolding); San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (interior not open); Galleria comunale díarte moderna e contemporanea (a new museum in a renovated Peroni brewery and a show on Duilio Cambelloti recommended by Chris); San Clemente (fabulous apse mosaics and floor tiles, with a Mithraic shrine under the Christian church); San Giovanni in Laterano (another of the great papal churches, along with St. Peterís); Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (a late work by Michelangelo); Palazzo Massimo delle Terme (another national museum of Roman art, with some great painted rooms retrieved from Liviaís House and other sites); Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona. By then, weíd worked up an appetite and had a lovely dinner, again near the Campo. We watched a lovely postprandial drink being delivered to tables with Italians so we asked the waiter for them too. I didnít get the name but it was lemon sherbet with vodka and champagne -- wonderful and buzzy.

Though there was a lot of construction going on for the Jubileo, it was not a problem, mostly because I just wanted to do something during my 36 hours in Rome. If the scaffolding or cranes got in our way, we just went on to the next thing. (Christie stayed a couple more days and actually got into San Ivo, one of Borrominiís great churches, and into the Domus Aurea. She however didnít get the attention of waiters so readily as we had together.)

Thursday morning I got up at 4 a.m. to get to the airport for a 7:00 departure. No trams so I walked fast to the Trastevere Station. No conductor on the train from whom to buy a ticket and no coffee shops open yet at the airport, so the 30,000 lire Iíd saved (gave the rest of my Italian money to Christie) was unneeded.

Lufthansa boarded the flight and then we didnít take off for a couple hours since Frankfurt was fogged in. We got to Frankfurt at about the same time I was supposed to take off on American for New York. Since it was a frequent traveller ticket and American Airlines had no more flights that day, I got to spend an afternoon and overnight in Frankfurt. The show at the Stadel museum was on the neoclassical eighteenth century, including a Kunstkammer painting of sites in Rome. It was very strange to see the painted Colisseum in Frankfurt the day after seeing the building in Rome. ďThe geographerĒ by Vermeer is at the Stadel; what a wonderful painting. Also a wonderful triptych by the Master of Flemalle. The Schirn Kunsthalle had a special show of paintings from the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, again full of great Italian masterpieces.

Since I missed the Thursday flight, so did my suitcase of course. I was not surprised when it was not on the Friday flight either and one day without a suitcase was easy in Frankfurt. Another visit to the baggage claim at JFK. Of course, now I was almost home and could maybe find clean things at home. But I did get a surprise: the suitcase was already at my apartment building -- apparently sent along by Lufthansa when they realized that Iíd missed the Frankfurt connection, and then delivered from the airport.

All in all, a fabulous trip because of the planned itinerary and the surprises like mushroom hunters, Bagnoregio, Todi, Narni, San Clemente, and Palazzo Massimo. Christie came to New York for Thanksgiving and we had a fabulous time reliving the trip and exchanging photographs.

... go to Sherman's miscellany ...