Days in Italy

Remember that time I went to Italy and it took me five months to write about it? The funny part is I saved Italy for last because, though I know it’s cliche, Italy was, in fact, the place that grabbed me most.

Sixteen-euro, thimble-sized Hemingway Bellinis, authentic food at establishments that may or may not have been restaurants until we walked through the doors, good espresso any time of day or night everywhere from the oasis-like Autogrill at 2 a.m. to the parking garage where we stashed our rental to train into Venice.

Our base for exploration was Vicenza – east of Verona, west of Venice – and we came at it from the north, through the Austrian Alps and the Dolomites. The kind of scenery that, when put to film, makes a movie look bigger than life. The kind of scenery that, as you are moving through it, makes you feel as if the world is just too big for you. The kind of scenery that makes you cry, because it’s as if you transcended the real world, because nothing of this Earth, with its perpetual violence and day-to-day mundanity, actually looks like that.

After checking into Italy the first night, we drove a little further and took the train into Venice. A maze of canals and walking streets, Venice was a place to get lost, to buy a map, and to get lost some more. And it was good that it was a good place to get lost, because the narrow passages and convoluted ways between islands was mind-boggling. Four hours that night we wandered without direction, and came upon St. Mark’s Square for the first time at night when it was strangely empty, barely another person to encounter.

The shoes were wrong, and there were blisters, but they were well-earned and well worth it.

The next day was my birthday. We lunched by Lake Garda at this little local place that was so off the beaten path it was nearly impossible to find. The final turn was onto an ‘Is this a road? road that was really just a dirt path wide enough for our tiny rental. With no other turns until we were almost on top of the restaurant and had a beach sitting a hundred yards before us, we pulled into the parking lot that wasn’t a parking lot at all, but an olive grove where the spaces were the openings between trees. It was here that I ate amazing veggie pasta and looked out at the lake and the mountains and used a squat toilet just to say I did it.

That night was the opera in Verona. It’s held in an arena straight out of antiquity, uncomfortable as hell, but worth the pain just to see and hear. Then, there was a late dinner in an outdoor cafe staring out at the arena, and the return to the parking garage, where I squeezed back into the driver’s seat before making way down the insanely narrow floors to the exit.

The next day we sought out the biggest surprise of the trip, mainly because we had no idea it was there until we passed it driving into Vicenza. And then on the way to Lake Garda. And then back to Vicenza. And then to Verona. And then again to Vicenza.

Each time, day or night, we looked at it from a distance, and knew it was a place we needed to go.

The walled town of Soave lies just off a major roadway, and yet it’s off the beaten path because it’s more difficult to get to by public transit than the more well-known tourist destinations. In Soave, we encountered no English, but people willing to talk to us anyway, a quiet walk up and down cobbled roads, a hot climb to a perfect castle with a drawbridge, a moat and an amazing view, fantastic gelato, and a bakery where we came away with both sweet treats and olive bread for the equivalent of about $3 US.

Driving into Vicenza for lunch, we had what may be the most stereotypically Italian moment ever experienced in Italy when we went into the place that may or may not have been a restaurant, and I told the man inside, in my limited Italian, that I didn’t speak Italian. To which he replied, “Try me” in the most Italian possible way.

As there was-a no-a menu-a, he told-a us-a what-a he-a could-a make-a us-a.

He had the roast-a beef-a, he had the spaghetti bolognese-a, he had the tuna. And that was pretty much it-a. Luckily, it was all we required.

That evening, it was back into Venice for another go-round with its stunning buildings and its everywhere canals and its legend of masquerade and its twisty-turny pathways. And as we made our way out of the city for the last time this trip, there was only one thing I could say –

“Dove è il treno?”

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