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From Italy, With Love

A non-tourist approach to exploring the country’s unbridled — and seductive — charms



Houses glow in the late afternoon sun along the Grand Canal in Venice near the Rialto Bridge.

Photos by Tim Porter

If you must leave Italy after one of the best vacations of your life — and, honestly, I say don’t do it unless you really need that paycheck back home — then the only fitting way to say ciao is what I’m doing right now: Standing at dawn in the open stern of a wooden speedboat caroming at 35 mph across the choppy water of the Laguna Veneta en route from Venice to Marco Polo Airport.

Warm spray kicks over the mahogany side panels of the 30-foot water taxi, landing on the lens of my Nikon as I try to capture the city’s receding profile. I don’t care. My mind, revved hard by all the incoming stimuli, is a-churn with a wild, reckless idea, one that is, yes, crazy, but really no more weird than any other fundamental, life-changing realization, a true Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment.

I look across the boat to my wife. She is leaning outward over the windscreen, her face full into the breeze, her hair arrowed straight back. If she were a dog (and I can tell you this is not a metaphor she will care for) then she would be in canine nirvana, you know what I mean, head-out-the-car-window-on-the-road-to-Stinson happiness.

“Hey,” I yell to her. She turns. “Let’s sell everything, move here and buy one of these.”

That’s my idea: Get back to Marin and get rid of it all — the over-priced house on the under-sized lot, the cushy cars, the techie toys. Sell it, sell it, sell it, and then say “see ya” to the relatives, book a pair of lie-back seats one-way to Venice, and buy one of these gorgeous, gleaming boats — which at about $200k go for less than a few hundred square feet of rancher in Novato. After that, we’re in the water taxi business, shuttling sunburned Brits and other tourists to and from the mainland for 100 Euros a scoot.

“Whaddya think?” I say to my wife. The wind has eaten most of my words, but I can see she’s gotten the gist. Her smile broadens. She nods. Oh, yes, such a good idea.

That’s Amore

Until this trip, France had been my favorite place in the world. I adore Paris with its cafes, its architecture and its gardens — the Luxembourg and the Tuileries especially — and I love the rest of the country as well, from the stout breezes of Normandy to the impressionistic villages of Provence, all of it accessible by fast, efficient and inexpensive trains.

But, je suis désolé France, Italy has stolen my affection. Of you, I shall always be fond, but my heart now races at the thought of your eastern, more Mediterranean neighbor. If I indulge my DNA for a moment — I am man, hear me wonder! — then France is the smart, cool girl you dated in high school: well-read, intellectual, but still fun. Italy, though, is that woman you met in college, maybe while studying Spanish on an intercambio in Argentina. Fiery, fierce and dangerously destructive to any ambitions you might have held for a “normal” life. You know who I mean; the one you didn’t take home to mama.

Italy is a seductress. She entices with simple food, powerfully flavored: olives bitter; tomatoes sweet; pulpo still squirming, just pulled from the sea. She caresses with wine: tempestuous Barolos, taunting Tuscans and tart Pinot Grigios. She induces languorous dreams about beautiful people with golden skin, dark eyes and lives lived at a pace designed for enjoyment, not labor. She lures you into the sensuous embrace of la dolce vita, but then proves to be a commanding mistress by planting her renowned (and Prada-clad) Sicilian boot solidly on your keester, kicking you homeward with memories that will divide your days into those of anno Italia and those that came, much more prosaically, before.

Too What for What?

I tell you these things for one reason: So you can ignore the advice of family, friends and travel writers, all of whom will counsel you that Italy in the summer is too hot, too crowded, too expensive and too touristy — especially Venice. After traversing central and northern Italy, from the polished escalade of the Spanish Steps to the hanging villages of Cinque Terre to the labyrinthine passages of the Venetian isles, I have these answers to those hollow admonitions:

Too hot? Too hot for what? Certainly not to sit in the cobblestoned coolness of the Piazza di San Simeone on a warm Roman evening and spoon down sponge cake drenched in Bavarian crème, just the right nourishment for a midnight walk back to the Hotel Eden, a stately refuge perched on the edge of the Villa Borghese.

Too crowded? Too crowded for what? Certainly not to claim a pair of lounges on the sandy arc of a beach in Sestri Levante, the northern gateway to Cinque Terre, and slake my thirst with fresh limonatas until it is late enough in the afternoon to justify switching to a spritz — the prosecco, soda and Aperol concoction whose sparkly orange presence is the signature summer libation of Italy.

Too expensive? Too expensive for what? Certainly not to enter Caffe Di Sino in the walled Tuscan city of Lucca, order an abundant platter of crostone laden with mounds of Spanish pata negra ham and chopped tomatoes, then leave sustained for a lengthy walkabout and pay no more than the price of a designer pizza in Mill Valley. Besides, at $1.40 to a Euro, if you want cheap then choose Indiana over Italy.

Too touristy? Venice? This was the most bogus advice of all. To all the naysayers who warned of Venice as a tourist trap, I ask: Too touristy for what? Certainly not to stand atop the Rialto Bridge and be transfixed by the nocturnal cinema playing below on the Grand Canal — lumbering water buses (valporetti), the sleek water taxis I want to own, and, yes, tourist-laden gondolas bobbing on the wakes as their oarsmen balance high astern, rowing, smoking and chatting on their cells. A cacophony of colored light, streaming raucously from canal-side restaurants, frames all this.

If you want to avoid tourists, then don’t be one. Rise early and walk to the expanse of San Marco Square, which does teem with humanity later when cruise ships disgorge their tranches of well-fed passengers but at this hour is yours alone. Face east along the water, breathe deep the salted scent of the Venetian centuries and marvel as the red rays of the new day’s sun strike the intricately styled walls of the Doge’s Palace.

Your Very Own Italy

True, the road to Venice, like that to many of Italy’s other landmark attractions such as the Forum in Rome or the towered city of San Gimignano in Tuscany, is well trod, but that is the case of most of the world’s wonders. Have you climbed the Eiffel Tower, trod the Great Wall or, for that matter, strolled the Golden Gate Bridge on a mid-summer day? Crowded? Indeed. Wondrous? Even more so. The beaten path has many exits. If you take one in Italy, you may get just lost enough to find something special.

Here’s what I mean: You may find yourself in Vernazzo, the second-most-northern of the Cinque Terre towns strung along the Ligurian hills of the Italian Riviera. You arrive from Sestri Levante via the milk train — so-called because delivering latte was once its main function — make the short walk to the pocket-size harbor and spread a towel (one you borrowed from your hotel) along the large stone breakwater, just as the locals do. All afternoon you read a little, people-watch a lot, and glass by glass finish a bottle of cool white wine made from the vineyards you see hanging on the cliffs above town, fields so steep that their workers need ladders to climb between the rows of grapes. As you leave, you stop for a last look. You take in the Mediterranean, blue and gray; the buildings, painted colorfully and crammed into the mouth of harbor; and the people, baked brown or burned red and speaking in a Babel of languages, their nationalities betrayed by their clothing — Americans and English in shorts and T-shirts; Italians and French in bikinis and Speedos (they’ve got it, and they’re flaunting it). There is one more thing. Directly below you is a boy. He’s maybe 10, and he’s buried up to his neck in the sand. He raises his head toward you, turtle-like, and your eyes meet. He smiles. You take his picture, say “ciao” and wave. He can’t wave back.

Or, you may find yourself in a car, a rented diesel with a stick, and you may be lost high in the Tuscan hills. Somewhere a turn was missed, and now here you are driving on a winding unnamed nightmare through a darkening forest. You’re not even looking for your hotel — the promised land of the luscious Villa Bordoni and its ample wine cellar — but for the city where its located, Greve in Chianti, a name that has yet to appear on any road sign you’ve passed. Your wife is being patient. You are not. Your anxiety rises with the road as it climbs and climbs and climbs some more, until finally signs appear on the shoulder warning of … neve. Neve? Snow? This is August. It’s already been raining. Now this? The next curve brings a new surprise. Ahead in the gloaming, two silhouettes emerge from the trees and cross the road. The shape of the creatures is familiar — squat, rounded bodies, large heads and short, quick legs. They turn their faces toward your car, the headlights fall on them and you see a pair of pigs — with tusks. “Not pigs!” says your wife, laughing. “Boars. Wild boars.” Congratulations, Tuscany’s found you.

Or, you may find yourself in Rome counterbalancing a long day of ruin-trekking — the city is falling apart! — with a restorative spritz (or two) and fresh-fruit gelato at Bar Frattina, a gelateria two blocks from the Piazza di Spagna. As the streetlights brighten and you begin thinking, wearily, of the climb to your hotel, you hear music. Opera. Around the corner you see all 138 of the Spanish Steps filled with people, as is the plaza beneath them. In between is a stage, on which a tall blond woman with a big rich voice is singing one of Puccini’s most famous arias, “Un Bel di Vedremo” from Madame Butterfly.

Above you, the sunset chars the square Renaissance façade of the church of the Trinità dei Monti. Around you, the souls of a thousand people, strangers all, silently share the yearning, haunting rapture of the aria. On you, alone in your own private Italy, a tear falls.

Clearly, I am taken. These few hundred words, hardly enough, are a love letter, a mash note to that wild, fierce girl I didn’t take home to mama years ago. Luckily, this time I brought her back to California. Ciao bella!

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