My feet have declared repeatedly that they were not meant for shoes, and they are finally beginning to make their point. At least my thick head is finally starting to pay attention. Even sandals worn dozens of times and soft flats have me running for the band-aids on an almost daily basis. Moments like this bring back fond memories of going barefoot all summer as a child and the next best thing – flip flops on warm summer days, which reminds me that I haven’t written of our adventures in Italy yet…
My husband and I just celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary in July and since we weren’t sure at that time when we would be back in Europe together, we decided to visit Italy, a dream destination on both of our lists. Rather than stay in one of the hotspots – Rome, Venice, Florence, etc. – we chose a small town on Lake Garda (shown above). Apparently, it’s a common destination for Europeans, but it’s a little known location in the States. The Europeans are on to something! It is a huge inland lake in northern Italy – more than 17 miles from top to bottom and 10 across and surrounded by Alpine mountains. We stayed in Desenzano (pictures to the right and below) on the southern coast of the lake, which provided easy access to Sirmione across the lake and was a beautiful town in its own right.
The castle to the left dates back to the middle ages when it was used as a refuge in case of attack and likely sits on the ruins of a Roman castrum (for military defense). Mike and I found it on our first evening when we hiked up to the grocery store nearly two miles from our hotel. Since it was closed at that time, we returned to tour it on our last day and discovered they were setting up for a concert in the interior open-air auditorium. Restoration continues on this ancient building, and only the tower is open for tours, but one can easily imagine the local nobility comfortably situated to keep an eye on one another while tucked safely away from impending invasions in homes originally surrounded by fortifications.
After our busy spring and summer, we took a couple of days to relax by the pool, meander through the town, and enjoy swimming in the fresh water lake. Venice was just a bus-ride away, so we joined one of the guided
excursions to get a taste of the city and promptly decided we would return and spend several days, time and budget provided! Venice is a beautiful, magical city but hot and crowded in the summer. The thousands of tourists who descend on the city each day by the bus and boat-loads must annoy the residents terribly. It was quite literally wall-to-wall people when we arrived. Nevertheless, our brief stay was enjoyable, albeit sticky. As we stepped off the boat, the first site that awaited us were the masked couple to the right, paying homage to the Venetian Carnevale, which is said to date back to the celebration of a military victory in 1162 and became institutionalized in the Renaissance.
Canals in Venice provide the main means of transportation, and as a result, bridges are equally important for pedestrian traffic. This is the Rialto bridge, which crosses the Grand Canal and is large enough that shops were built along it to entice visitors with a number of local crafts and wares. It also attracts pickpockets because of the large number of gawking tourists, so keep an eye on your belongings! The next bridge, the Bridge of Sighs (shown below), connects the Ducal Palace (aka the Doge’s Palace) the prisons. There are two windows in this bridge that provided prisoners with their last views of sunlight and freedom, thus the sighs as they crossed it.
Since we had little time to explore, we spent much of it in St. Mark’s Square, touring the magnificent cathedral, taking in the grand Ducal Palace as well as the live music in surrounding cafés. The first church on the site of the basilica was built in 828 AD, rebuilt in 832, destroyed in 976 during a rebellion, and rebuilt again in 978 and 1063 to form the foundation of the present building. It’s origins date to Venetian merchants’ theft of antiquities thought to have belonged to St. Mark, and ever since, scarcely a commercial venture returned from trading in the East without something to add to the cathedral. Stepping inside, one is nearly blinded by the gilded ceilings and walls despite the dim lighting.
It is also one of the few cathedrals that insists on proper dress – shoulders and knees must be covered, and if they are not, they provide cheap shawls and skirts to preserve the sense of respect and reverence of this sacred space. It certainly inspires awe at the time and care that hundreds of men and an unknown number of women dedicated to its creation and maintenance as an act of worship. It is ostentatious, yes, but because it is so over-the-top stunning, it makes me think of it as a representation of its various creators’ visions of heaven. Of course, the artists and craftsmen probably had numerous motives, not least of which may have been devotion and the opportunity to employ their God-given talents.
After our whirlwind tour of the small portion of St. Mark’s Cathedral that you are now allowed in (due to the hordes of tourists), we joined our tour group for a gondola ride. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were between 8,000 and 10,000 gondolas in operation! There are now just over 400 today for the tourists, and with the motorized boat taxis, the canals are very crowded. While it was a fun and somewhat surreal voyage, it was also very toasty in the narrow canals between buildings. Not a whisper of wind stirred the heavy lagoon air, and we had to peel ourselves off the seat after the short 30-minute ride. However, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for any number of air-conditioned cafés.
Once we had recovered from our Venice outing, we decided to tour a bit of Lake Garda, visiting several of the towns around the southern coast the next two days. Our favorite was Sirmione, which has an impressive castle, complete with mote and the memorable name of Scaliger, which still makes me think of ‘scalawag’ and ‘scavenger.’ It has long been a resort town – at least since the first century BC. In the 13th c. AD, the Scaliger took possession of this pennisular city and built the castle (shown on the left and below right) as part of its defense. Between 1405 and 1797, Sirmione was part of the Venetian Republic and was then acquired by the Hapsburg Empire. It didn’t become a part of the Italian kingdom until 1860.
The castle remained an important defense post and was garrisoned into the 19th century. It was one of the best and most complete castles Mike had seen (compared to the English castles he had toured up to this point), and it was the first one I had ever seen, so it definitely topped our list of favorites (apart from Venice as a whole, which is in a category by itself).
In a close second was the other gem of Sirmione: the “Grotto of Catullus” (Grotte di Catullo), the ruins of an ancient and enormous Roman villa, the largest discovered in northern Italy. However, it should be noted that the Roman poet Catullus (d. 54 BC) lived long before the villa was erected (about 150 AD), but his family did own a villa near this location during his lifetime. Hopefully, the pictures below provide some sense of the enormity of the original structure and the fun we had exploring it.
We still have much of Italy to explore – all of the aforementioned cities, Milano, and several others as well – but this was an incredible introduction to this beautiful country. (For those wondering why I haven’t mentioned the food – I can’t eat wheat or much dairy, so, in the words of a friend, Italy “is wasted on me” – at least its cuisine. However, I can attest to the delicious salads, soups, and seafood to be had, and my husband can tell you how wonderful the pizza and pasta are.)
Well, the memories of the warm Italian sun have driven away the chills of my Paris apartment for the night, and my feet are thanking me for setting them free from their tormentors. It’s time to get some sleep before another day spent in the Bibliothèque Nationale studying the origins of “civilization”.