AN ITALIAN TRAVELOGUE
by Noel Rubinton 43
It all began early in 1990 when my son Noel gave me a present 10 Italian lessons at Parliamo Italiano on East 65th Street. I had been in Italy during the war as a weather observer in the Air Force and when I retired in mid-1991 I thought, how marvelous it would be to study Italian in Rome for a month and then travel in Italy for a few weeks. March and April would be good months. Spring and longer daylight would be coming, such a hopeful time. I would be 69 and totally on my own. My wife, Phyllis, had passed away in 1985. My language skill was weak, my familiarity with Rome slight and my knowledge of Italian ways almost zero. But I am an incorrigible optimist and was excited by this challenge.
Things worked out unbelievably well over the next five years. My school, Italiaidea, was in the most interesting part of old Rome. It is just off the Campo de Fiori, with the best and most colorful outdoor neighborhood market in Rome and a few moments from the endlessly entertaining Piazza Navona.
The author and his daughter Sarah Laditka 74 inside the Colosseum on the second level
I was completely accepted by the students, mostly in their early 20s and from all over the world. There were nine or 10 in my class. I remember "Enrico" from 1994, a gentle Polish doctor of about 50, who spoke beautiful French. He was working in a country he enjoyed, a country I had barely heard of Rwanda in its capital Kigali, a city I had never heard of. I hope he is okay. Classes were three hours a day, five days a week. Homework was real. I worked hard. It was intense and moved rapidly. We all got to know each other quickly.
My hotel, Teatro di Pompeo, was on Largo del Pallaro, barely a five-minute walk from school. It is superbly located, charming and tiny 12 rooms, all with private bath, clean, comfortable and reasonable. My room had a large window on the piazza.
I walked all over Rome, learned it well and came to love it. I had dinner in many restaurants, my daily entertainment. I soon became recognized as a steady at four or five places I enjoyed particularly and was rewarded with small perks a choice table or a complimentary sambuca.
One night about 9:30 I sat enthralled at Pierluigi when Mara Venier, a star of a very popular Sunday television variety show, entered. Known as Domenica (Sunday) she is 40ish, vivacious, large, very blond and very bosomy. Domenica brought with her a large contingent from the cast singers, dancers, a magician and her leading man, a good-humored sportscaster. I stayed until 11 watching them unwind.
Weekends, I planned little trips. One took me to the glorious and beautifully restored Abbey of Montecassino. The last time I had seen it, from the back of a British army truck passing through Cassino as I hitchhiked to Rome about a month after it was liberated, the Abbey was pulverized.
I read the Herald Tribune every day. Never was English so sweet. I also read carefully chosen books in English. Pure pleasure. The first was one of the best, William Manchesters Goodbye Darkness, his own war memoir.
When class ended, at the beginning of April, I traveled throughout Italy. What great adventures I had. What follows is my version of two delightful weeks in Italy.
Fly to Rome arrive downtown about 9 a.m. Saturday.
Arrive Rome stay at Hotel Teatro di Pompeo (Largo del Pallaro 8 Rome 00186, tel from USA 011-39-6-68300170; fax from USA 011-39-6-68805531) right behind Campo de Fiori. Ask for a room facing on piazza. Rest most of day. If you are able, explore Campo de Fiori and its very attractive outdoor neighborhood market. Saturday is the biggest market day. Look at some bordering stores, especially the butcher and bakery. See adjacent Piazza Farnese and exterior of Palazzo Farnese and bustling neighborhood shops on Via Guibbonari; also the little stores and small furniture restoration shops on nearby Via Capellari and Via Pellegrino. If up to it, wander over to nearby Piazza Navona, always lively. Evening, dine at Ar Galleto, also called Da Giovanni, no more than a 10-minute walk in the corner of Piaz. Farnese (tel 6861714), typical Roman trattoria, good food, reasonably priced, lively, cheery try involtini.
On pleasant days tables at Da Giovanni are moved to a corner of the Piazza Farnese so the Romans, who love to eat outdoors, can dine al fresco.
A good morning to visit churches, since all are open. Taxi to Piazza del Popolo, stroll across note its grandeur and symmetry. Also look for the twin churches between three streets Ripetta, Del Corso and Babuino all converging on an obelisk in the center of the piazza. Be sure to enter Santa Maria del Popolo, which houses two magnificent Caravaggios and other art. Rosati or Canova in nice weather are great spots to stop in the piazza for tea, coffee, dolce and to watch the scene.
Then walk along Babuino to Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps. Enjoy the fountain and view up the steps toward TrinitÓ dei Monti, a lovely church. Behind Trinitß is the Borghese Gardens, Romes park. There is a charming outdoor restaurant Ciampini about 250 yards to the left of TrinitÓ opposite Villa Medici. Great for lunch.
Nourished, turn onto Via Condotti, the best shopping street in Rome. Adjacent streets such as Borgognona are terrific, too. You will pass CafŔ Greco on Condotti, which is often crowded but worth a quick look. When you reach Via del Corso, turn left and walk along it towards Piazza Venezia and then left again at Via di Muratte for a short distance to the spectacular Trevi Fountain.
Retrace your steps along Muratte just across del Corso and onto Via di Pietra, then veer into Piazza San Ignazio. Pause with your back to the church of San Ignazio to admire this piazza and buildings around it with their beautiful baroque symmetry and the resemblance to a stage setting.
Briefly visit San Ignazio, then make your way to the Pantheon and Piazza della Rotunda. Visit the Pantheon as well as the nearby Santa Maria Sopra Minerva with its wonderful Bernini outdoor statue of an elephant bearing an obelisk. Just off the Piazza della Rotunda is La Tazza DOro, a famous coffee spot, and Della Palma, which has great gelato.
Head over to Sant Ivo della Sapienza near Piazza Sant Eustachio, a Boromini baroque masterpiece, and enter. In the piazza there is Sant Eustachio, one of Romes best coffee shops. If you can squeeze in a visit to the nearby French church San Luigi Dei Francesi, between Pantheon and Piazza Navona, see more beautiful Caravaggios. Then work your way over to Piazza Navona, a beehive of activity. Pick out a nice outdoor restaurant for a leisurely lunch Tre Scalini is good, as are others around the piazza.
Return to the hotel to rest. By 8 or 8:30 youll be ready for dinner at Pierluigi on Via Monserato at Piazza De Ricci a few blocks off the Piaz. Farnese, about a 10-12 minute walk (tel 686-1302).
This is a huge first day, so just do what you feel comfortably up to.
Take a taxi to the Vatican Museum, maybe a 20-minute ride. Plan to get there by 8:45, even though the doors do not open until 9. Go directly to Sistine Chapel to beat crowds. You will have to be a little pushy with the guards, who will try to direct you to a long winding line but will let you in if you persist. Next, see the Raphael rooms and then spend whatever time you like in the Vatican museums. They are vast. Vast. Also take in the Pinocoteca, a separate building within the Vatican Museum enclave. Be sure to see the Raphaels. Also, there is a nice cafeteria near Pinocoteca.
You can walk or take a bus to Piazza San Pietro and St. Peters itself. Spend plenty of time inside St. Peters. If you feel energetic and adventuresome, go way up into the cupola on top of St. Peters for fantastic views of Rome. This is best in afternoon when the sun is behind you. Walk back to hotel by the Tiber, or taxi and rest up.
Before dinner drinks at Hassler Bar, at the top of Spanish Steps. There is piano music and it is only a nice five-minute walk down the steps to Ninos. Taxi to Hassler and back.
Have dinner at Ninos near Piazza di Spagna, Florentine style everything is good and the artichokes are the best in Rome (Via Borgognona 11, tel 6795676). Make reservations for 8 or 8:30 and specify a table in the first room but not near the main door.
Walk along Corso Vittorio Emanuele past Largo Argentina, Area Sacra and the Church of the Gesu, to Piazza Venezia and its little balcony where Mussolini hammed it up and boasted to huge crowds. Straight ahead is the gleaming white Vittorio Emanuele monument. Pass by on the right side of the monument to the broad steps leading up to Piazza del Campidoglio. This piazza and the building fašades to the right and left were designed by Michelangelo. Climb the steps to Pallazzo Comune (City Hall) at rear of the piazza to better appreciate Michelangelos design.
Visit the Capitoline Museums on both sides of the piazza. The northerly building contains the famous Marcus Aurelio statue on horseback and the "Dying Gaul" plus many, many more statues. Dont get lost in it. The museum to the south has the original she-wolf feeding Romulus and Remus plus "Boy with Thorn," many paintings including a nice Caravaggio and lots more stuff. Careful not to get lost in here, either.
The ancient Roman Forum, as seen from behind Rome City Hall, with the Colosseum in the background
From the museums, walk behind City Hall to the right and to the left, where there are two great viewing spots of the Foro Romano. You may want to tour on foot. Just beyond and very visible is the must-be-visited Colosseum. Go up to the second level and be sure to see the impressive nearby Arch of Constantine.
Just north of the Colosseum, across the street and up a flight of outdoor steps, you will pass through a small university district and come to the church San Pietro in Vicoli, which houses Michel-angelos masterpiece Moses. Legend has it that the sculpture looked so alive Michelangelo banged it on the knee and commanded it to speak.
If you have any strength left, continue on to Santa Maria Maggiore, one of four major Roman basilicas and Papacy territory. The mosaics are marvelous. Taxi back to the hotel and rest. Dine at moderately expensive Vecchia Roma on the edge of the ghetto (Piazza Campitelli 18, tel 6864604). Cab there and back. Reservations at 8 or 8:30.
Start in Campo de Fiori and follow Via Guibbonari to the ghetto and synagogue (opens at 10). Tour the small museum and synagogue. Walk through the ghetto, where the main street is Via del Portico dOttavia with its small Jewish bakery, shops, restaurants and small side streets that are little more than alleys. There are many apartment-type buildings in the area dating back to medieval times, and they are supported by Roman temple columns. Note the church Sant Angelo in Pescharia built inside the columns; Fontana delle Tartarughe in the Piazza Mattei; and the rear of Teatro di Marcello, with expensive modern coops built into upper stories visible from the front facing the Tiber.
Visit briefly Isola Tiburina, a quaint island in the Tiber, with its hospital, interesting old church and small restaurant. The bridge to it is the oldest circa 62 B.C. original span over the river. If its a nice warm day, lunch outside in the ghetto at Giggetto (21/A Via del Portico dOttavia, tel 6861105) or, for a pricier meal, at Piperno (9 Monte de Cenci, tel 6542772).
After lunch, if you want more strolling, take in the area near Piazza Bocca della Veritß, including a very old church, S. Maria in Cosmodin, Bocca Della Verita (mouth of truth), located in the outer court. This area is just downstream from the ghetto.
Return to the hotel to rest for dinner at Ristorante Sant Eustachio near the Pantheon, a 15-minute walk away (Piazza Dei Caprettari 63, tel 6875216). Ask to sit in the first room. The food and decor are excellent and it is reasonably priced. Risotto pescatore is a favorite of mine. If you can, visit any of the fine antique shops along Via Giulia, an interesting street behind Piaz. Farnese and along Via dei Coronari behind the far end of Piaz. Navona.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday
Take an early train (1st class) to Venice. I believe there is a fast train that leaves Stazione Termine Rome at 9 a.m. and arrives in Venice, Stazione Santa Lucia, shortly after 1 p.m. A good complimentary breakfast is served aboard. Vaporetto or water-taxi to hotel. The taxi is $40-$50 compared to $3-$4 but is much less hassle. Youll want to stay in the San Marco area. Gritti Palace and Danieli are both excellent and expensive; Do Pozzi, Flora and La Fenice cost much less, are well-located and the quarters are adequate though a bit cramped.
Must-dos: Piazza San Marco and the Basilica San Marco with its matchless mosaics and horses and much more. This one stop is worth at least an hour by itself. Be sure to go upstairs to see the mosaics better and the original horses in an exhibition room. Also, upstairs, go outside to examine the fašade and view the Piazza.
Plan on another hour or more at the Doges Palace and then the entire area around Piaz. San Marco, including Piazzetta, Campanile and the clocktower. Do not miss the world-class museum Academia, Scola di San Rocco with its magnificent, unsurpassed Tintorettos produced over 18 years. See the Guggenheim Museum, charming but not in a class with Academia. On the small island San Giorgio Maggiore, ascend (by elevator) the church tower for fantastic views of Venice. Stop by Florians Cafe for lunch, tea, coffee, hot chocolate. Harrys Dolci on Giudecca is a real sleeper and great for lunch and dinner.
Exploring on foot almost anywhere you will see many picturesque spots, interesting shops and something of Venetian life. For example: Walk back to San Marco from the interesting early a.m. fish market near Rialto Bridge. Sadly, La Fenice, the delightful opera house, burned. Still, there many concerts available to compensate.
The ghetto tour is excellent. It begins at 10 or 10:30 and runs every half- hour from the small but good Jewish museum. Opposite the museum is a small shop where a true artist/craftsman does exquisite authentic Jewish themed work on glass. It is a pleasure to see, even without buying.
On a nice day, take the speedboat from the front of Danieli to Torcello for a great outdoor lunch at Locanda Cipriani or Ponte del Diavolo. Once fortified, visit Torcellos cathedral (1000 A.D.) and the Byzantine church.
In the La Fenice area I ate at Antico Martini and La Colomba both are excellent, though a bit pricey. La Fenice is more moderate and very good. Also moderately priced is Da Raffaele, which adjoins Hotel Do Pozzi. Very good. Dining at Hotel Monaco with a window table facing the Grand Canal is enjoyable but again a little pricey. Ive heard Harrys Bar is excellent.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday
Take the train to Florence and settle in at Brunelleschi near Duomo or the more moderate and well-located Loggiato dei Serviti (Piaz. SS. Annunziata).
My ranking of the sights: Uffizi, Duomo, Campanile and Baptistry. The real "Gates of Paradise" are in Duomos museum. The Academia contains Michelangelos David, San Marco is dominated by Fra Angelicos and at Palazzo Vecchio and Piazza Signoria there is nothing finer than to sit outside at Rivoires lunching or snacking and watching the scene in this magnificent piazza, looking at the spectacular Palazzo. At Santa Croce, again, sit outside in a cafe bordering the Piazza and just enjoy the scene.
Piazzale Michelangelo and San Miniato offer fabulous views of Florence and provide a great outdoor spot for lunch. Bargello is an excellent museum. Pitti Palace is filled with paintings and Boboli Gardens adjoin San Lorenzo. The Medici Chapels are worthwhile and theres shopping in the San Lorenzo area. Dont miss Santa Maria Novella and the cloisters, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi has spectacular rooms with brilliant frescoes. Fiesole, Santo Spirito, Forte Belvedere and, not the least, Ponte Vecchio are all worth the time. Of course, this is more than you will be able to do in one visit.
You must one day hire a car and a driver and go to Siena and San Gimignano. Siena is much larger, with much more to see, though both are wonderfully medieval. In Siena, lunch at La Speranza is great. It borders right on the magnificent Campo where the famed Palio is run, and commands a superb view. You cant eat better pizza.
Florence has wonderful restaurants. For fun try Il Latini (6r Via Palchetti, tel 210916), where the downstairs is preferable but upstairs is very cheery, too, Mama Gina (borgo Sant Jacobo 37r, tel 2396009), Cibreo (118r Via de Macci, tel 2341100), La Sostanza (25r Vial del Porcellena, tel 212691), Cammillo (borgo Sant Jacobo 57r, tel 212427) and the modest and quaint Buca dell Orafo near Ponte Vecchio are all terrific. Youll find great gelato at Vivoli (7r Via dell Isola delle Stinche near Santa Croce).
Remember, Florence is great for shopping and walk, walk, walking.
Take the train back to Rome. Stay at Teatro di Pompeo, and, depending on when you return, visit some convenient places you missed the first time. Ninos for dinner.
Return to U.S.A. The hotel will help you arrange a car to the airport.