Barbara and I spent the first week in June with thirty-two other sightseers in sun-bathed Tuscany, three hours from the Fumicino Airport in Rome. The flights on Lufthansa took a total of twelve hours in and sixteen hours back; but the food was superior and the inflight movies tolerable. Altitude and lack of exercise made my ankles bloat like I was pregnant. But the chance to see places we had only read about or seen movies of was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Our Hotel and Room. We stayed the week in San Luca Hotel in Cortona. Cortona is situated on a hill over the Chiana valley with Lake Trasimeno visible in the distance. Cortona (Core-TONE-ah) has Etruscan beginnings, a Roman overlay, a papal state history, and a modern Italian present. The main street is mostly level, but navigating the other byways requires a strong heart and stable knees. I have the one but not the other. Barbara explored, I sat on the veranda admiring the tile roofs and stuccoed exteriors of the houses below our hillside perch, surrounded as the homes were with olive trees and candle cypress, just like postcard pictures or any one of a score of movies (e. g., Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing). The weather was most accommodating. We needed no air-conditioning and, for cool breezes, left the shutters slightly ajar. Breakfast, sweets and meats, was served each morning on the aforesaid veranda. Dinners at the hotel were served in a special dining room on the third floor. (An interesting feature of the hotel was its numbering of the floors top to bottom, with the top, at street level, being #1, with #6 down the steep hillside. Our bedroom was on #4. ) And, yes, I had the use of a computer in the hotel and managed to do correspondence and banking four thousand miles from home.
Bus Tours. Everyday the thirty-four of us, our guide, Natascia, and the driver piled into a modern bus and sped through the Chiana Valley to another Tuscan hill town: Montepulciano, Perugia, Assisi, Siena, and Firenze (Florence, which is really in the Arno River valley).NB We visited churches... boy, did we visit churches, about which I shall have more to say down the page. We spent a hazy afternoon (referring to the sun, not the wine) at and in a winery, sampling the product, and (especially pleasing to me) the cheeses and hams of the region. We were guided through the Uffizi Gallery in Florence where Michelangelo's statue of David is kept but not on view. I bought an overpriced gelato from an indifferent purveyor in a store just off Piazza Michelangelo. The schedule left most of us on the verge of exhaustion at the end of the seventh day, an exhaustion made angry by Lufthansa's cancellation of our flight home, necessitating taking an earlier flight that got us up at 1:30 AM on the day of departure.
Fellow Travelers. The trip was sponsored by Williams College and everyone who went had some connection with the college. Most of us were retired, and those who weren't could have been. The youngest couple were in their mid-forties and showed it by hiking up and down every challenging hill. I was envious. We shared life histories with each other. There were a handful of lawyers, one psychiatrist, an economics professor, a chemistry professor, a college dean, a book publisher, two kindergarten teachers, three financiers, a cosmetologist, an artist, an inventor, and one clergyperson. As is my wont, I gathered sufficient personal information from my tour companions to write a short bio about each one. But that's what I've always done, collected people... not stamps, not old autos, not even baseball cards... people.
Churches. Several for every Tuscan town, most of them adorned with precious works of art by famous painters, like Giotto, Fra Angelica, Michelangelo, and Botticelli. Inside the cavernous zebra-striped cathedral in Siena, a small cluster of movable wooden chairs was cordoned off in the middle of the nave. A hundred worshipers would fill that small space; but the guide reported not all the chairs would be filled on a Sunday morning. Yet the people with whom we spoke gladly shared the stories of faith, like the oxen in Cortona who refused to pass a church without kneeling because a vision of the Virgin graced that place. The religious sensibility emphasizes the magical. Only the faithful call it the miraculous. Not this Protestant's cup of tea... or should I say, Welch's Grape Juice. I had forgotten about Garibaldi's revolution for unification and its strong anti-clerical flavor. So there are churches everywhere, but the priests and religious are accorded benign indifference. The Christian faith seems heavily infused with notions of the supernatural this Methodist finds difficult to swallow.
Tour Guides. Barbara and I signed up for the trip because it was led by an art history professor from Williams College with whom we had earlier enjoyed greatly a visit to the art treasures of Holland. Zirka Filipczak did not disappoint. She provided three slide-illustrated lectures on the art and architecture of Tuscany, with particular reference to the artifacts we would be seeing. She clearly devoted much time to the preparation of her lectures which were informative and, every bit as important, engaging... even to my inartistic eyes. I'm the one who confessed that, while Barbara took the trip for the fine arts, I took the trip for the fine food. Zirka was accompanied by her husband John, each of them first generation Ukranian immigrants, with a humble and down-to-earth approach, despite their high academic achievement.
Our Alumni Campus Abroad tour director, Natascia LaValle, was preternaturally ebullient. My how she loved to roll her "R's"! If it weren't Corrrrtona, I would have thought I was in Glasgow. She was unfailingly polite with us, but sometimes when we thought we needed her most she simply could not be found. And, boy, did she inherit a hornet's nest of complaints from us about the early morning departure.
The tour guide at the winery was a young apprentice in winemaking, a woman of Danish origin, who spoke impeccable American. Our tour guide through Florence and the Uffizi, the woman with her hand upraised in an accompanying photo, is an English expatriate, Annabelle, who spoke impeccable Oxford English. The woman selected as our window onto modern Italy is English by birth and education. She married an Italian noble and presides over charitable works in Tuscany. Do you see a pattern developing here? Tuscany apparently entices women of the north to the sunshine and warmth of Italia.
Moments and Scenes That Will Endure
* the painting of the severed head of Medusa, on a shield, by Caravaggio, in the Uffizi Gallery as arresting in its realism as alarming in its death stare.
* our Siena tour guide's rapture in describing the Palio, a brutal horserace around the open square pictured here, with 50,000 people squeezed into a limited space in the broiling sun of a July day, packed like sardines, no room to sit, only to stand, as saddleless jockeys careen around the piazza to champion the honor of municipalities.
* a half hour's hurried limp along the Arno in the late afternoon to meet the bus about which it had been hinted it would leave without us if we weren't on time.
* ATM's everywhere, even in Cortona, obviating the need for Traveler's Cheques.
* swallows every morning and evening twilight, swooping hither and yon, eating the mosquitoes that might otherwise eat us.
* the golden door, the Gate of Paradise, to the Baptistry for the cathedral in Florence.
* olive trees everywhere, valleys and hillsides, and especially on terraced land which must make harvesting a grueling chore.
* the feeling walking along the streets of Tuscany that, except for the scenery, I really was in New York City.
* relief when finally back home in my own bed, that my ankles had returned to their original shape.
* a sense of fulfillment, that, at long last, I had actually visited that "Sunny Italy" about which I raved in a long illustrated report for my Burdick Junior High School seventh grade teacher, Miss Fahey.
NB: Barbara, the first to read this report, adds about thebus rides: "I thought the drives through the countryside of vineyards, olive trees, candle cypress, undulating wheat fields, and hills with distant monasteries were beautiful."