I’ve just returned from a three-week trip to Italy, and I here begin a retrospective look at our travels, which were only minimally impeded by COVID regulations.
It’s been a while since I’ve issued a full-length episode, for I’ve been busy touring Italy and have limited myself in recent weeks to publishing Mini Pods that I’d prepared before I left home a month ago. Now that I’m back, I’d like to share a few thoughts on the trip. Doing so will be good at least for me, since it is important not only to get ready before going to Rome but also to collect one’s thoughts on returning. It would have been even better if I’d kept a journal, but we were too busy for me to do this. Leisure, a usual feature of my life, was non-existent for a month.
My travels reminded me of the simple point that all travel, and especially international travel, entails annoyances and wasted time. We must arrange for housing and transportation, endure airport security lines, and pack and unpack our suitcases in small rooms. Travel to Italy now, in the time of COVID, comes with additional concerns, for flights from the US require documentation of a negative test, and throughout our time in Italy, we must be ready to show proof that we have been vaccinated. Since the American CDC card that documents vaccination is a little different from the Italian Green Pass that does the same thing, the worry always remains that some authority will not accept the American version—whether this authority is the waiter at the entrance to a restaurant, a guard at the Vatican Museums, or an official at the Rome Airport. This array of uncertainties led me to purchase trip insurance for the first time in my life.
Such annoyances had me thinking often of Emily Dickinson’s eight-line poem recommending that we travel through books, with our souls, not physically. And yet, in the case of my recent return to Italy, my worries proved exaggerated, and the hassles were far exceeded by the pleasures, excitement, and perhaps also by the learning that travel can bring. I even managed to lose my CDC vaccination card before getting to Rome, but all authorities accepted the version I carried on my phone. It was a great trip, only mildly marred by anti-COVID procedures. I’m happy to be back at my desk, but I confess that I’m already daydreaming about how best to manage a return in the next year or two.
COVID restrictions even bring the advantage that visitors must now schedule their visits to the Vatican Museums, Colosseum, and other major sites. The abandonment of the old “first come, first served” approach means that less time is wasted standing in line, and it also appears that fewer people are allowed to enter major sites at any one time. The result was that our visit to the Vatican Museums was uncharacteristically efficient and free of crowds. I was even alone for a few minutes in the Stanza della Segnatura, home of Raphael’s “School of Athens”; and I was never prevented by crowds from getting a good look at whatever I wanted to see. In the past, I would sometimes take students to the Sistine Chapel more out of a sense of obligation than because I wanted to go, for the Chapel was always jam packed with tourists, as well as with guards constantly shouting, “Silenzio!” and “No foto!” Far from being inspiring, such visits were distinctly unpleasant. But on my recent visit the crowd was smaller, and I was able to pause over and admire the main sections of Michelangelo’s vast frescos, as well as take a good look at the frescos on the side walls, which receive less attention than they deserve.
My wife and I were in Italy for over three weeks, and our trip was divided unequally into three main parts: first, some fast-paced sightseeing in Rome, which we did together with family members, including a two-year old whose parents had met in Rome. Second, a bike ride of nine days that began near the Austrian border and ended up in Venice. And third, a little relaxed tourism first in Bellagio on Lake Como and later in Castelgandolfo on Lake Albano, just south of Rome. This turned out to be a very pleasant way of putting the trip together. A variation that would also have worked well would have been to substitute public transportation or a rental car for our pedaling from one town to the next.
After facing the hustle and bustle of the big city for a week, it was good to get out and see other parts of Italy, both the beautiful countryside and several very charming cities and towns. Our bike trip gave us a chance to visit Bolzano, Trento, Desenzano del Garda, Verona, Vicenza, Padua, and Venice. We did not choose this part of our trip primarily for educational reasons: we wanted a route that kept us mostly on bike paths rather than on busy highways and one that went downhill, though we learned again that even a net decline in elevation may be accompanied by steep ascents along the way. Only after seeking these biking essentials did we look for charming and interesting places to stay, and we were not disappointed. We also stumbled upon other places that were unexpectedly wonderful, such as the walled town of Soave, while two of Italy’s great lakes of the north, Garda and Como, were every bit as wonderful as we expected.
We did not plan it for this reason, but our route closely followed that of the dramatist, thinker, artist, and novelist Johann Wolfgang Goethe when he descended with such excitement from the Brenner Pass down into Italy. This is what he said about what was the first stage of our bike ride:
From Bolzano to Trento one travels for nine miles through a country which grows ever more fertile. Everything which, higher up in the mountains, must struggle to grow, flourishes here in vigor and health, the sun is bright and hot, and one can believe again in a God. (Italian Journey [1786-88])
Since Goethe did not hesitate to express his excitement on entering Italy, I won’t apologize for having felt a similar emotion. Although his underreporting of the distance between Bolzano and Trento suggests he was sleeping most of the way, not pedaling, he is right that you can see and even feel the increasing fertility as you move south toward Lago di Garda and down from the mountains. Vineyards lined our bike path for miles, and palm trees grow in the towns along the coast of the lake. We were even surprised to see some healthy Bougainvillea plants, which are more characteristic of southern Italy.
Republic of Venice before Napoleon, with its territory stretching up toward Trento
Goethe adds that his enthusiasm for entering Italy was enhanced by the need to speak Italian, which he describes as “a language [he has] always loved,” and on this point too it is easy to agree with him. But let’s be clear that although he entered geographical Italy, political Italy did not yet exist: after coming south from Trento, most of the territory Goethe traveled though was part of the Venetian Republic, which had added a land-based empire to it older maritime empire. Napoleon changed this about a decade after Goethe’s journey, when he took Venice and ended the independence it had enjoyed for over a thousand years.
It adds to the excitement of reaching the lake that you first see it from high above, for its northern end is surrounded by mountains. While enjoying this breathtaking panorama, Goethe commented that he would have enjoyed it even more if his friends had been with him, and it is true that who we travel with is even more important than where we travel. I was lucky in this respect as well as in others.
Now over, our bike ride continues to give me a good chance to think more about two wars that were hotly contested in this area. Italy’s long border with Austria was an important front in World War I, and like the Western Front that ran through France, the Italian Front in the Dolomite Mountains saw a lot of trench warfare. Known as the Guerra Bianca, or “White War,” this war was often fought in frigid winter conditions and even entailed using avalanches as weapons.
Further south, we pedaled along the Piave River and near Monte Grappa, both of which were geographical features that helped
Fortifications on Monte Grappa
Italy avoid disaster in World War I. Italy did well to fortify Monte Grappa, which served as the strongpoint from which they managed, though barely, to make a successful last stand against the advances of the German and Austrian armies in late 1917. To remind of its importance, Monte Grappa is often called “Italy’s Thermopylae,” and there is a tomb on its summit with the remains of 25,000 Italian and Austrian soldiers, about half of those killed on the mountain. Unsurprisingly many of the towns in the area have public plaques that remember those killed in this sector of the war.
The “Third War” of Italian Independence took place in the summer of 1866, about a half century before the White War and the battles of Monte Grappa. This was the first war fought by the Italian nation, now just five years old. The Second War of Independence had in 1859 driven Austria out of Lombardy, the area around Milan, and helped make it possible for King Victor Emmanuel to declare Italy into existence; but Austria remained in possession of Venice and its surroundings. The goal of the Third War was to drive Austria out the Veneto, and most of the action took place from Lago di Garda east to Venice, so we biked right through the middle of this former war zone, which is dotted with memorials to those who risked and often lost their lives here. Our man Garibaldi, at this point just shy of 60 years old, also led about 40,000 volunteers in the war. Though Italy lost her most important battles, she gained the Veneto anyway, thanks to the victories of Prussia, her ally against Austria.
There were also frequent markers indicating that immediately after Italy gained Venice, Garibaldi traveled from city to city to stir up support in this area for still another war to complete the unification of Italy, namely a war that would seize political power from the popes and make Rome the capital of the young nation. As we saw long ago, Garibaldi was tireless in his attacks on the papacy and its control of Rome. He got his wish in 1870, though it was less a war than a single battle.
In short, we had a wonderful time in Rome, as I will document later, but many parts of Italy have much to offer, so if you can find the time, you might want to add a stop or two outside of Rome for the sake of variety. I would only add this caution, that moving from one place to another always takes longer that you expect, so if your time is limited, it’s usually better to stay put and save yourself an extra move. You don’t go to Rome to pack and unpack your suitcase or stand in line for trains.
Here are a few more impressions while they are still fresh.
Italy is back as an exciting tourist destination. I don’t know what COVID has in store for us in the months and years to come, but as for now, Italy is hopping and is filled with the vitality that helped to make it such a popular destination in recent decades. I had expected to see many scars from the hard year when COVID closed so many restaurants and tourist attractions, but it seems rather that Rome is even busier and more buoyant than it was before. My impression, untested by careful research, is that there are many fewer visitors from the United States and Asia than there were two years ago, but that the Germans, other Europeans, and the Italians themselves are enjoying Rome in large numbers.
My visit to Rome also has me thinking about a point connected to the main theme of this podcast series. I have suggested several times that Rome and Italy are part of the modern West and so share the same general political principles and moral ideas that prevail in Paris, London, and Washington. I call these the principles of classical liberalism. They stress the primacy of the rights and liberty of individuals, and they were advanced in the French and American Revolutions and in the Glorious Revolution in Great Britain. I think this is true and important, for it helps us see how different modern Rome is from the Rome that was ruled by the popes, as well as from the Rome that was ruled by the Caesars. This idea also helps us American use a visit to Rome as an occasion to reflect on our own political principles, for we and the modern Romans are united in, for example, our rejection of the political claims of religious authorities. We call rather for a separation of Church and State.
But this is not the whole story, and I was struck again by the ways Rome is different from any city I know in the United States. Rome’s antiquity, and the richness of her antiquity, are the main sources of this difference: even the new St. Peter’s is older than the United States, and we have no native tradition of Classical, Renaissance, or Baroque art and architecture. Rome also contains reminders of the rule of both Caesars and popes, who would have considered the modern liberal attempt to separate politics from religion to be wrongheaded, so Rome can also help us reconsider the road we have rejected.
Rome also struck me as being different from American cities is this more minor way: it was visibly packed with people enjoying one another’s company. I associate this with a characteristic architectural feature of Rome, which I don’t see here in the US, namely, the piazza.
Modern Rome’s visible vitality comes to a great extent from its staggering number of cafés and restaurants, whose tables fill outdoor and public spaces. The large number of tourists in Rome must have something to do with this, for tourists for the most part dine out at every meal, whereas locals can eat at home, but it seemed to me that many of the patrons at the cafés, wine bars, and restaurants were Italians, not foreign tourists. The mild climate also helps, for outdoor dining is often a pleasant option in Italy. Further, a high population density supplies the people, a key ingredient for the atmosphere of a piazza today. The general result is energy, joy, and liveliness on the streets. We saw this not only in Rome but in the other nine towns in which we spent an evening.
Beyond the effects of tourists, warm weather, and lots of people, I wonder if we should also see here the effect of architecture on the way we live. There are about 100 spaces in Rome that are called piazzas, but some of these are just intersections of roads and don’t have the effect I have in mind. I’m thinking of the mostly open public spaces that are of moderate size, free of most traffic, and graced by a public building, a church or two, and monuments such as a fountain, obelisk, major statue, or all of the above. Generally speaking, they also have a few shops and may host a market in the morning. The most famous such piazzas in Rome are Piazza Navona and the piazza in front of the Pantheon, but there are many, many others. A lesser-known favorite of mine is Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina, near the midpoint of the Via del Corso. On this trip, we had Piazza Madonna dei Monti just a few steps away from our apartment, and it was always a joy to visit. The benches surrounding its fountain were usually occupied, as were the tables of its cafés and restaurants; and children were always at play, often kicking a lightweight soccer ball against the flat façade of the church, oblivious and perhaps indifferent to the dangers they posed to dog-walkers and the elderly. And, to exaggerate only a little, everyone was always talking, usually with considerable animation and at a high volume.
Architecturally speaking, Italian piazzas are unlike American public squares and shopping malls. People may sit down and talk with their friends and neighbors at a mall, but malls are built mostly to serve the private interest of shoppers, who disappear from one another while searching for bargains in the many separated stores grouped in a mall. Unlike malls, piazzas have a center, and most of a piazza is visible from all its points. Nor do people come to piazzas mostly to shop: they come to eat, drink, relax, and talk to one another. Piazzas are also different from the town squares of most of our small towns, which are attractive to look at but don’t tend to provide gathering spaces for friends, neighbors, and strangers. Since there are many piazzas in Rome, they are not special destinations but just pop up as we wander the city.
I don’t say that sitting at a café on an attractive piazza for a morning cappuccino or afternoon aperativo is likely to solve life’s challenges or carry us to the greatest achievements. It may even be that the pleasures of the piazza encourage a few too many aperativi—though the main Italian options tend to be lighter than American cocktails. I only report that the piazzas of Rome, Verona, Vicenza, and the other towns we visited showed a kind of public energy and open pleasure I don’t see as much in American cities. I enjoyed this, and I wonder whether the architecture of Italy’s piazzas is among the reasons that people congregate and enjoy one another’s company, even though there was less time in former ages for such relaxed activity, and some piazzas were even used as places of public execution. Perhaps piazzas show both the effect architecture can have on our lives, as well as the limits of this effect.
So, this is a review of some of the main impressions from our recent return to Rome. There are others, so I will probably continue with this subject next week, but I’ve also got one more Mini Pod ready to go for Thursday. It offers a review of the main sites that are just outside of central Rome.