Rising Tides and the Renaissance: Italy, Part II

You can find Italy part I here.

Amalfi Coast

Rome—Positano, 170 miles

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The Amalfi Coast is everything great and terrible about Italy in one place, and it’s essentially just a slightly different version of Portofino. It’s a region whose very name is a stand-in for dramatic coastlines and shimmering blue waters and again, the scenery does not disappoint.

Several towns make up the Amalfi Coast region, an amped up version of Cinque Terre. Ravello, Amalfi, and Positano are the big ones right along the coast, but there are dozens of fishing villages that barely register as villages and a smattering of towns higher up on the hillsides.

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Positano
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Positano

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As Italy was not a unified country until 1861, the Duchy of Amalfi was its own autonomous thing for a bit, before coming under the control of the various other city-states in the area—Salerno, Pisa, etc. Culturally, this area is noticeably different from northern and central Italy. Obviously it’s more of a maritime culture and it has fewer Continental European influences than in the northern part of the country.

Food-wise, I didn’t have quite as many “Omg this is the best meal of my life” moments, but that’s probably not indicative of the entire area. The cuisine is certainly different, with a lot more seafood involved, and because it’s a little more saturated with tourists, prices and menus reflect that. But overall, this is still Italy and still a great place to eat.

So queue my now very tired complaint about crowds. I, for one, am getting bored of this observation, but it’s just impossible not to feel frustrated by this. It was only April and already the writing was on the wall for the chaos that is to come in the next several months. It’s not so much that I hate seeing other tourists, which I do, but that you’re seeing all these other Americans in a place that, while technically in another country, is so tailored to the perceived desires of American travelers that we might as well just go to The Venetian and call it a day.

This is, obviously, a slight exaggeration and the Amalfi Coast definitely has it moments. I had lunch at an awesome place in Conca dei Marini, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village between Amalfi and Positano. Of course I was not the only tourist at the restaurant, but it still felt like real Italy. When the sun is out and you have a rare moment of no traffic on the gorgeous seaside coastal highway, it’s awesome. Another night, I was killing time before dinner and I was wandering through the ridiculously steep neighborhoods in Positano, and at one point, I came around a corner and was instantly hit with that unmistakably sea smell. The sun was setting over the water, there was no one around, and it was spectacular. But you have to work hard to find those moments, and even then it’s usually only by chance.

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Conca dei Marini
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Positano
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Amalfi
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Positano

The big, glaring, unavoidable problem with the Amalfi Coast is there is literally no good way to get there. Having a car in Cinque Terre was a major hassle, but there is a good train system that connects the towns to each other, and to Rome. And if you bring a car into central time Rome like I did, then you get what you damn well deserve. But unless you want to come by boat, there is one road into the Amalfi Coast, and it is a goddamn nightmare. Again, I can’t even begin to imagine what the traffic looks like here on a weekend in June if it was this bad in mid-April. There’s no good solution to this either. This area is inherently difficult to access, perched as it is on these ridiculously steep cliffs, so it’s not like you can just build a giant highway and fix the problem.

So, is it worth the headache? Yes, but only just.

Tuscany

Positano—Pompeii—Pienza, 273 miles

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Monastero di Sant’Anna in Camprena

On my way back north from Positano en route to Tuscany, I stopped in Pompeii. Modern-day Pompei (spelled mysteriously with one ‘i’) is what might kindly be referred to as a dump, but of course you go for the ruins.

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At least for me, Pompeii was definitely not what I expected. Everyone knows the story of this area, but if you arrived in Pompeii with no knowledge of the Mount Vesuvius eruption situation, you would have no idea that this isn’t just another ancient Roman city. Compared to other Roman ruins, elsewhere in Italy and around the Mediterranean, it’s well-preserved, but not exceptionally. Ephesus in Turkey is equally in-tact and some of the floor mosaics and wall decorations are still there even without the protective shielding of the ash.

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Excavations in Pompeii began in the 18th century and have continued almost nonstop since, so the area is completely uncovered, something I was not expecting. What makes Pompeii unique, to me, is the preservation of the urban layout. You really get a sense of the neighborhoods and districts in an ancient city, and you appreciate just how annoying those cobblestone streets are. As for the buildings themselves, there are obviously far too many to properly restore, but they’ve selected dozens that they’ve spruced up in a way that’s historically accurate without going over the top (installing working fountains, planting flowers, etc., but walls have not been rebuilt extensively).

As far as ancient Roman archeological sites go, I would say this is definitely up there but nothing about it is terribly unique, at least to the uneducated eye. The fact that so much drama and myth surrounds it doesn’t in any way come through at the site itself. An interesting monument of ancient Roman civilization to be sure, but not radically different from the Forum in Rome or Ephesus or any of the countless sites all over the region.

It’s hard to say that Tuscany is overrated but after visiting Emilia-Romagna, I think that is what most people actually think of when they think of Tuscany. The two regions are very near one another, so you get the same kind of rustic, cypress-tree-lined roads vibe happening, but Emilia-Romagna has been kept off the tourist circuit for longer.

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Castelmuzio
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Monastero di Sant’Anna in Camprena
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Monastero di Sant’Anna in Camprena

What Tuscany has that Emilia-Romagna doesn’t is interesting towns, dating back to the Romans and the Etruscans. Montalcino, Montepulciano, San Gimignano, Pienza, Siena–there are countless of these medieval villages scattered all over the area and they’re all very similar. Many date back more than 1,000 years and have connections to the region’s wine, cheese, and cured meats production. As with seemingly every small town in Italy, the whole layout of the place is geared for tourists. Every other store is hawking free wine and olive oil tastings (all of which are excellent) and all the signage is in English. If you arrive before 10 am, the places are deserted and after a leisurely breakfast, the crowds start to roll in. As with Cinque Terre and Positano, I’m sure staying in these towns gives you the opportunity to see them at off-hours, but I didn’t find the crowds to be stifling.

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Duomo di Siena
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Palazzo Pubblico, Siena
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Siena
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Siena
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Montepulciano
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Montepulciano
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San Gimignano
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San Gimignano
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San Gimignano

I would never dissuade anyone from visiting Tuscany. The towns are interesting and different than other Italian villages, and the food and scenery will live up to your expectations. That said, if you’re not hung up on going to *Tuscany*, I think Emilia-Romagna is actually better for enjoying the Italian countryside and all that comes with it. It doesn’t have the cache of Tuscany, but I think it does the Tuscan experience better.

Florence

Pienza—Florence, 72 miles

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Ponte Vecchio

Rome may be one of the birthplaces of civilization, but we have Florence to thank for pulling us out of the Dark Ages. Every big Italian name in any way associated with the Renaissance was born here, lived here, and/or worked here—the Medicis, Dante Alighieri, Boccaccio, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Donatello, Galileo, Giotto, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Machiavelli, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci. Amerigo Vespucci was also a Florentine in addition to several modern-day Italian designers—Roberto Cavalli, Salvatore Ferragamo, Guccio Gucci. So, Florence is not a place lacking in style or cultural sophistication.

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Piazzale degli Uffizi

Despite such an illustrious cast, Florence is a very laid-back city, and Florentines have struck a good balance in terms of pace of life. There’s big-city efficiency without the urgency, and small-town leisureliness without being languid. It’s not an intimidating city despite its credentials, and I think Florence has managed its popularity perhaps better than any other city I’ve visited. For a place that sees almost 2 million visitors a year, Florence has somehow managed to not feel touristy. I can’t put my finger on why this is or what their secret is, but somehow it’s retained its dignity. I’m truly mystified by this. Florence is a not a huge city and could be easily overwhelmed by its tourism. Even the most popular areas in town, around the Duomo and the Uffizi, still feel authentically Florentine, not like some circus act, performative version of Florence.

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Duomo
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Details on the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
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Palazzo Vecchio, taken from the Loggia dei Lanzi

You could spend a week in Florence and stand in line the whole time if you wanted to hit all the major sites—the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria dell’Academia di Firenza, where David is housed—and this would genuinely be well worth your time. Florence is a place for sightseeing, and the city has so much historical texture that it doesn’t feel like you’re missing the “real” Florence by doing this. The south side of the Arno River is the place to experience the more modern, local flavor of the city, and an area definitely worth checking out, but in my mind, it’s not any more authentic than the rest of the city.

Florence’s trump card is that you could skip every major attraction in the city and still have a long list of museums and other sights to see. It’s a sign of the city’s amazing art collections that the Bargello gallery is practically an afterthought, a former military barracks that showcases a collection of sculptures from no-names like Michelangelo and Donatello, and the line is nothing compared to the city’s other museums—I have twice waited outside the Galleria dell’Academia di Firenza for more than three hours, perhaps an odd choice when you consider there is an exact replica of David on full display in the Piazza della Signoria (where the original was installed before it was moved inside). The adjacent Loggia dei Lanzi is an open-air museum, with some of the city’s most famous works on display for free in the square.

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Courtyard at the Bargello

Along the river near the Uffizi is the Museo Galileo, a pretty self-explanatory affair with a huge collection of scientific instruments dating back to the Renaissance and earlier. Save the incredibly creepy presentation of Galileo’s decayed middle finger in a glass jar (seriously), it’s an interesting and approachable science museum in a way that only museums centered around Galileo or da Vinci can be.

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Armillary Sphere at Museo Galileo

This is hardly off the beaten track, but Piazzale Michelangelo doesn’t get nearly the press it deserves in normal write-ups of Florence. As its name suggests, this is just a giant plaza with an unmemorable café tucked away in one corner, but it offers unquestionably the best view of the city, and it’s enormous, so it can absorb a ton of people without feeling crowded. Sunset is definitely the time to be here, and a moment to take advantage of Italy’s lack of open container laws.

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Piazzale Michelangelo
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Piazzale Michelangelo

Florence is a city for everyone: locals, tourists, history buffs, fashion mavens, foodies, fuddy duddies. It’s such a historic city that you almost don’t notice the modernity that’s worked its way in. Looking at an overview photograph, you’d practically never know whether it’s 1516 or 2016. But Florence does not cling to its history to an absurd degree. This is a living city with people in it who want to conduct business and live their lives in 2016, and they’ve certainly made concessions to that. Preserving history is only valuable if you can move forward at the same time.

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Venice

Florence—Venice, 158 Miles

You can accuse Venice of a lot of things; lack of originality is not one of them.

Venice is like the person who always shows up somewhere totally overdressed. There’s a certain grandiosity to Venice that seems kind of ridiculous. They have tuxedoed, five-piece orchestras playing out in the Piazza San Marco, entertaining a crowd of people who are seriously considering having dinner at the Hard Rock Café. The pomp and circumstance of the whole city can seem sort of bombastic and out-of-keeping with the day-trippers and swarms of underdressed tourists, but you have to love them for trying. There are more waiters in Venice wearing white tuxes than in the whole of Europe, but this was once such a powerful and important cultural center in Italy, and the Venetians are not about to let that former glory go gentle into that good night.

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Grand Canal

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Its maritime capabilities and strategic positioning near Istanbul made Venice one of the most powerful cities in Europe in the 13th century, lead by the doge who lived and ruled in an expansive, waterfront palace that’s still there today. When the rest of Europe headed west and began to colonize North America, Venice stayed behind and watched its empire begin a slow decline. The plague later wiped out one third of the city’s population, which didn’t help. Culturally Venice experienced a bit of a renaissance in the 18th century, but its role for the last few centuries has been more as a ceremonial showpiece than as an important political actor.

If ever the term “faded grandeur” was appropriate, it’s in Venice. Practically every building is falling apart—peeling paint, weather-worn wooden doors, broken antique windows–and as most people know, the entire place is in the process of literally sinking into the ocean. Maybe it’s because of that that the High Renaissance ambiance is still so alive. It feels like no one has painted a building since 1600.

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Evidence of Venice’s golden age is everywhere. St. Mark’s Basilica today functions as the epicenter of the city’s activity, and has stood on the spot with various reconstructions and additions since 828. St. Mark’s is fairly distinct from the many of the other 10,000 churches you’ll inevitably encounter in Italy thanks to its Byzantine design and intricate mosaics. If the lines outside are dauntingly long, take solace in knowing that the exterior is the best part. Inside is a bit of a mess, as they’ve created this bizarre queue formation around the nave that makes it impossible to get anywhere, and they strictly enforce a no talking policy. I would understand that in most churches, but in a place like this that’s so popular and open to the public, at some point you just have to accept defeat.

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St. Mark’s Basilica

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View of Piazza San Marco from the Basilica

Next to St. Mark’s is the Doge’s Palace, so close that it’s practically built on top of the it. Like everything else in Venice, it caught on fire multiple times and has been rebuilt and modified countless times in its 1,200 years. The living quarters and governmental rooms of the palace are now a museum and it’s the usual line-up of gilded ceilings with enormous frescoes, and stately rooms with wood-paneled walls and huge windows facing the Grand Canal.

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Looking down one side of the palace toward the Grand Canal

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Columns of San Marco and San Todaro, looking toward the Grand Canal outside the palace
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Bridge of Sighs, connecting the Doge’s Palace to the prison. So named because prisoners would sigh as they got their final glimpse of the outside world before entering their cells.

Like in the Amalfi Coast, when you catch a rare moment of solitude in Venice, it’s utterly bewitching; you can so easily picture Casanova or the doge or masked Carnival revelers flitting through the impossible narrow corridors and over the tiny bridges through the city. At night, Venice quiets down significantly. This is a long way to come for a day trip, just given the logistics of getting into the city, but apparently it’s a popular thing to do. So when the crowds thin after dark, you get to see the magic of Venice a little more clearly.

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The ubiquitous Carnival masks, sold literally everywhere

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One thing Venice cannot deliver on is food. Everything here is ridiculously expensive—not terribly surprising given the effort that has to go into getting everything into the city—and food tends toward ubiquitous, interchangeable tourist menus. The genuinely good restaurants are few and far between, and hard to spot. My experience was, if you want to sit somewhere and enjoy the Venetian atmosphere, you’re going to pay a ridiculous amount for average food. If you want a good meal, that can be arranged, but it’s still going to be expensive and the atmosphere of these restaurants tend to be nice, if not unique. I had a great dinner one night dangerously close to Piazza San Marco and if I showed you a picture of the interior, you would have no idea this wasn’t in New York or London or any other city. So there’s something to be said for sucking it up and paying way too much for a cappuccino to sit in Piazza San Marco; obviously you’re not paying for the food.

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So you can appreciate how small a 14 euro cappuccino is at Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco

I find it almost impossible to imagine who lives here. The logistics of doing business and everyday life are complicated enough that I have a hard time seeing why anyone would set up shop here if not in response to tourism. When the city was built, the fact that you had to take a boat everywhere didn’t matter, but in the age of cars and delivery vehicles and paved streets and highways, it’s a total throwback that has its charms and its limitations. Venice is not a place where I would want to have to go to the hospital or have a couch delivered or move or do any of the many things that while inconvenient in crowded, congested cities, seem infinitely more complicated here.

Venice is so totally unique that it’s worth preserving as a living museum if nothing else, even if that means tourism takes over. It’s not a very big city and if you keep crossing bridges and getting further and further away from Piazza San Marco, you’ll easily find a side of Venice that feels more “real,” but somehow, less authentic. The paradox of Venice is that the everyday, uncrowded parts of the city are not particularly interesting and lose all of the city’s charm.

Venice is great precisely because it doesn’t feel real, more like a very elaborate and detailed Renaissance dream sequence, or a highly convincing movie set. Disney World for Old-World nostalgics. You have to be willing to overlook the omnipresent souvenir shops to see the magic, but it’s still thoroughly enjoyable.

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No matter how much or how little you’ve traveled, you probably have a sentimentalized idea of Italy. Even though we all know this is the work of travel writing fluff and cinematic flourish, it persists: images of Gatsby-esque glamour along the Amalfi Coast; spectacular yellow and green Tuscan hillsides at sunset dotted with cypress trees; the sights and the lights of Rome after dark; Venice in all its atmospheric splendor. I don’t know that many countries have undergone such a thorough image scrubbing by an American audience.

This is real; we haven’t been sold a false idea of Italia by anyone, but these Hollywood-ready snapshots of Italy are rare and elusive, and you have to be patient enough to find them. Italy is a one-size fits all kind of place. You can visit briefly and stick to the main sights, and you won’t be disappointed in the least. You can do nothing but eat, and it will deliver on every food fantasy. You can just hang out and enjoy the atmosphere, and you’ll get to know Italy that way too. For Americans, Italy is never going to be an exotic location, and the ease and familiarity of traveling here is part of the appeal, but there is still plenty to surprise you.

After a ridiculously gluttonous three weeks in Italy, I had to leave to end the food fest. Next up is Eastern-ish Europe, beginning in Slovenia—I can pretty much guarantee this is nothing like what you’re expecting—and continuing into Croatia. Manage your expectations for the latter.

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