An Italian Adventure

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An example of the architectural style featured on many ancient buildings in Rome.
Tourists photographing in the St. Peter’s Basilica.
An overlook in Capri, looking down on the harbor.
Gondolas are the most relaxing form of transportation in Venice. They compete with speedboats, water taxis and Vaporettos for space on the Grand Canal — Venice’s super highway.
A gondola pier is right in front of this highly ornamented Venice cathedral.
M.J. Van Deventer-Shelton and Tom Shelton in St. Mark’s Square at noontime in Venice.
A view of the Campo in Siena. Behind the large buildings are numerous tiny streets and alleyways creating a web of interesting sights for tourists.

An Italian Adventure

BY M. J. VAN DEVENTER

I have wanted to go to Italy ever since I saw Three Coins in the Fountain in 1954 with my childhood sweetheart Tommy Shelton.

It was one of the first movies we saw together and it seemed only natural that when Rev. William Thomas Shelton and I reconnected 52 years later, we should spend our honeymoon in Italy.

I did some homework before our July 10 departure by reviewing the Internet daily about Italy and studying the traditional tour guides by Rick Steves and Fodor. These are practical guides that help you become a better international traveler.

But I’m a romantic, so I also read all three of Frances Mayes’ books on Italy, especially Under the Tuscan Sun, a much better read than the movie loosely based on her book. She writes so eloquently of Tuscany and the house she and her husband, Edward, renovated in Cortona that I almost felt like I was in Italy while reading her books.

I also read The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt, which is a wonderful read about Venice, based on his three years there as a journalist. While in Italy, I read Don Brown’s Inferno, mostly set in Florence, and a true thriller.

See related Inferno review as published by ion Oklahoma

Our 12-day Italy odyssey covered more than 2,000 miles of breathtaking terrain. We hop-scotched, on a deluxe Trafalgar tour bus, over and around beautiful territory in southern Italy – Rome, Venice, Florence, the Isle of Capri, Ana Capri and the smaller cities of Assisi, Montecatini Terme, Sienna, Sorrento, Pisa, the ruins at Pompeii.

There were 42 people on the Trafalgar tour from across the United States, Canada, Newfoundland, Australia and Panama, including our Scottish-born Italian tour guide.

We marveled at the lush hillsides of Italy, and we were enchanted by the symmetrical beauty of the fields growing wheat, maize, corn and tobacco. The round hay bales dotting now-harvested wheat fields were plentiful – a reminder of farms at home and a sight that is now a universal symbol of agriculture.

The villas and farmhouses that grace the terraced fields look like places out of a children’s storybook.

The vineyards are beautifully groomed, as are the olive and lemon groves. The many fields of giant sunflowers were a surprise. Their round, fat faces always faced south, looking upward toward the sun, – or was it the heavens – creating blankets of shimmering gold across the landscape. Were these the same sunflowers that Van Gogh painted so beautifully?

We basked in the beauty of the rolling hills of Tuscany, and found a familiarity with the Appennine Mountains that reminded us of the American West’s great, majestic Tetons.

The canals of Venice were intriguing and we loved the sea journeys, hopping aboard tourist water taxis, and vaporettos to transport us to exotic and exciting locales. A gondola ride on the Grand Canal was memorable as it glided in and out of Venice neighborhoods. Our tour guide had purposely invited an accordion player and an opera singer to entertain us in our gondola as her special honeymoon gift to us. How thoughtful and romantic!

We adored the magic of Venice. It truly is a perpetual carnival. We saw more characters in one day – especially mimes and grand costumed ladies – than we could have ever seen in a lifetime. An early morning water taxi trip to the island of Murano revealed the most beautiful blown glass art in the world.

The midnight blue of the ocean on a water cruise from Naples to Sorrento and later the Isle of Capri, glistened in the sun like a million sapphires. We fell in love with Capri, our elegant hotel with a view of the hillside villas and Anacapri, the upper village with its interesting museum, fabulous gardens and spectacular view of the ocean below.

In Capri, we were enchanted with the beautiful people who came on Friday afternoon from neighboring cities – Sorrento, Amalfi, Pompeii, Salerno – to stroll in the piazza on Saturday night , looking like fashion models from the runways in Milan. By Sunday afternoon they were gone – vanished on the late afternoon ferry to the mainland.

We still remember our last night in Capri. We opened the shutters and stood on the balcony of our room, basking in the warm night. The white villas were luminous from the glow of an almost full moon. The insects were singing their lullabies. Capri had been a grand part of this tour.

Three experiences took us to poderes, which our tour guide described as “small working farms similar to those in America that would provide a bed and breakfast or dining experience.” All had their own vineyards and made and served their own wine. They all had their own olive and lemon groves.

At one, in Sorrento, we enjoyed a lunch of sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, quiche, fresh olives and lemoncello cake for dessert. Then we had the luxury to watch a lady named Maria make mozzarella right before our eyes.

In Montecatini Terme, just 60 miles from Florence, we dined, family style, in rustic luxury at a hilltop podere that was also a bed and breakfast. The view of the valley below was worth an oil painting and our night there included a sudden shower and an amazing sunset.

In Montecatini, we truly saw the importance of the piazza to this small spa and resort community. It was late when we returned from the hilltop dinner but we were restless. We walked the block from the hotel to the piazza and happened upon a free concert with a 95-member girls choir and orchestra from England. We heard music by some of our favorite composers – Dvorak, Mendelssohn, and Vivaldi, whose home we saw along a Venice canal.

Then we found a neighborhood bistro, enjoyed a cappuccino and danced in the street to the music of a magnificent street singer. We closed the day by shopping at midnight in one of the town’s bargain shops. We felt like teenagers who had missed their curfew. It felt wonderful.

All of the paintings and photographs we viewed about Italy, before arriving there, became reality as we walked through mysterious side streets, traversed hillsides and climbed over more ancient cobblestones than we could have imagined.

To say the scenery was breathtaking at every turn doesn’t do justice to the unbelievable beauty of the fertile and verdant Italian landscape.

Hourly, we were entrenched in the history of this ancient country. No travel guide can prepare tourists for understanding the events that shaped Italy until you see, in person, the complex, well-planned architecture of such historical sites as St. Peter’s Basilica in The Vatican Museum, Pompeii, the Colisseum, the Pantheon, the elaborate stone and marble palaces and sprawling villas on hillsides and mountain tops.

The Cathedrals are the anchors in even the smallest villages. One can only marvel at the amazing architecture, the stained glass windows, the gold leaf and jewels found in historic mosaics that tell the story of Christianity. heir tall spires beckon visitors.

Their chapels draw worshippers seeking solace in a busy world. It was emotionally moving to tour the immense basilica in Assissi, which honors the life work of St. Francis.

Nothing could have prepared us for the immense beauty of the Sistine Chapel and the story-telling ceiling frescoes, created by Michelangelo, under incredibly arduous conditions.

Sculptures abound in every setting throughout Italy. They pay homage to figures from history, literature and myth.

But the larger than life sculpture of David, created by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, is the cornerstone work of High Renaissance art. Viewing it in a Florence museum makes one realize what a treasure David is in both the history and contemporary life of Italy.

In every city, large or small, we see how the piazza is truly the heartbeat of an Italian village, or city like Rome, Florence or Venice, Capri, Assisi or Montecatini. It is here that people gather in the center of a city, often after siesta, for food, for fun, for fellowship.

The piazza is the home of gossip central and reveals the pulse of daily Italian life. Often, older gentlemen gather in the piazzas in early evening, drinking coffee or cappuccino and share memories with their friends. We enjoyed some of our greatest adventures in the piazzas of Italy, especially in Montecatini and in St. Mark’s Square at the 700-year-old Caffe Florian in Venice.

We shopped, not seriously, but found small treasures for friends or family in unexpected places.

We coveted supple leathers in Florence, marveled at unusual shells and jewelry in Capri and admired couture silks and shoes in Rome windows along the Via Veneto, a fabled street that rivals New York’s Fifth Avenue and Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive.

Several times, we even gave in to the panhandlers and street vendors, purchasing decorative scarves, an exotic ladies fan, a souvenir umbrella when rain threatened at Pisa and a painting reproduction while browsing among street artists in front of Florence’s Uffuzi

We marveled at the age-old skill of the maestro glass artisans in Murano. It was hard to fathom the immense diversity of the shimmering work they created. So fragile in its beauty; so sturdy in reality. We longed to bring an exquisite chandelier home.

As our tour came to a close, all too soon, our guide asked us to share our favorite experiences. Predictably our answers were varied – Capri, Anacapri, The Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica, the farm houses where we dined, the seductive, romantic charm of Venice and the gondolas, the magnificent beauty of Rome and yes, Michaelangelo’s David – so hauntingly memorable.

We all followed tradition and joined the throngs of tourists who each threw a euro or two into the famed Trevi Fountain in Rome. More than 3,000 coins are tossed each day into this historic sculpture.

Tom and I could not resist the tradition. We each properly tossed a coin backward over our left shoulder. That singular toss, according to legend, insures us a return visit to Rome and hopefully, the next trip, a sojourn in Milan and other ports of call we missed on this fabulous Italian journey.

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