Italy — A Feast for the Senses

A 13-day vacation to Italy. It’s my tenth trip here and I still can’t get enough. Returning allows me to savor the sensual yet again, and more slowly. I know how good it will be!

  

TOUCH

Touch is at the forefront of my experience as I climb the 463 steps to the lantern atop Il Duomo di Firenze. Yeah, I know … climbing to the top of monuments is so touristy, but I came across a photograph online taken from this vantage point and felt I needed to experience it for myself. The stairway up is narrow and steep, and the physical space irregular. The stone walls are cold – smooth in some areas, textured in others. I can touch them on either side without much effort. It’s impossible for folks to climb up and down at the same time; when space permits, I step aside, my body bending forward as it touches the curved wall behind me. For the first time in my life, I am grateful for being short.

Between 1420 and 1436, this space was initially used by workers during the construction of Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome. Today, the same space is now so cramped with tourists that without any effort, I can reach forward to touch someone’s back, butt or calves. This experience is not for the claustrophobic.

Once out on the lantern, I take it all in. The city below is a sea of red-tiles roofs. The late-day sun feels good on my skin, as does the cool breeze. I hold my camera in both hands, comforted by its weight and optimistic about the memories it will allow me to record. My index finger caresses the shutter button; a half press allows me to focus on the scene below, depressing fully commits the scene to visual memory. The shutter sound is comforting.

  

HEAR

I sit at a bar and stare at selfie sticks attached to Japanese tourists. Women behind me chat in Italian, but I have no idea what they are saying. I can navigate their native tongue if my stomach or bladder is involved, but that’s about it. And that’s OK. I love to hear them speak in Italian … the pronunciation of every single letter … the tempo and cadence, the subtle passion behind every single word. Maybe it resonates because Italian can sound like Spanish, which itself is not lacking for passion. Spanish was my first language until I started school at age 4, so its resonance must be deep. I also love to hear Italians speak in English. I read on the internet that Italian is spoken exactly as it is written. Every vowel in Italian gets equal treatment, so naturally it must be so in English.

We are at a tiny restaurant in Florence called Verrazano. A brief history of Giovanni di Verrazano is on the back of the menu. It mentions the bridge in New York with the same name. The 20-something cutie with a smile for days comes over and asks if we want dessert. Wanting to practice my Italian, I ask what dessert he likes. His response is in English, and as expected, each vowel gets its due: “I like the peh-are tart-a.” Translation: Pear Tart.

That “a” at the end of “tart” is a cross between eh, uh and ah. English words that end in hard consonants appear to be a challenge for Italians. Some native Spanish speakers have a similar issue with, and do the same thing to, English words that begin with the letter “s.” I mention to the cutie that I live in New York where the Verazzano Bridge is located. “It’s an amazing-a story!” he says with pride, as if Giovanni was a distant relative. Maybe he was.

The background music changes and a new song comes on. An obscure 70s-era soul song by The Philadelphia International All-Stars called “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto.” I smile. This experience is very international.

  

SMELL

I walk past the corner bar and get a whiff of coffee. I stop in place and take it in. Can there be anything better than the smell of freshly-made espresso? Hordes of tourists rush past on their way to the next thing on their bucket list, but not me. I remain in place, sipping my cappuccino slowly. The atmosphere outside reminds me of Times Square, but Italians seem to regard tourists with much more grace than we do in New York. I often lower my camera only to see a local patiently waiting for me to finish my photograph. As they pass, my subject matter will get a nod of approbation.

I walk further and get a whiff of baked bread. I look through the window – it’s focaccia. Ahhhh … Right up there with the smell of espresso. At the corner, there is that other smell, coming from the city’s sewer grates. Pungent! For some reason, it amazes me that a city old enough to be considered the birthplace of the Renaissance has a functional sewer system. But I step away and the olfactory assault is over; the walls I pass on the uphill trip to Piazzale Michelangelo are covered with honey suckle vines.

  

TASTE

“A Plate of Pasta is a Plate of Love” comes to mind as one appears before me. Pici All’Aglione.  I am happiness personified! It’s the first sit-down dinner at Borgo San Fedele, a renovated monastery in the hills of Chianti that is home during this week’s photography workshop. Pici is a type of pasta that looks like fat spaghetti and is region-specific to Tuscany. All’Aglione means big garlic. The sauce has few ingredients. Razor thin slices of garlic — lots of them — are first sautéed in extra virgin olive oil. Whole tomatoes are crushed by hand and then added. Recipes on the internet claim that 20 minutes is enough to cook the tomatoes. Andrea, our chef for the week, explains that he coaxed them slowly for a full three hours. I lower my head into the plate — my nose one inch from the food. I want to absorb this amazing smell into every pore of my face.

A fellow student makes a faux pax by asking for grated cheese. Andrea is gentle but firm: “It will not improve the flavor.” Silence ensues. Folks exchange glances. I smile. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

  

SEE

My last night in Florence. I am tired of walking around with a map and leave it at the apartment. As a result, it takes longer to find the hole-in-the-wall gelato place. First World Problems, for sure. Within moments, a little cup of heaven is in my left hand.

The first taste of gelato – ricotta, by the way – is followed by a slow exhale. The taste reveals itself slowly, not like the immediate fireworks of cioccolato. The gelato is creamy beyond belief and silky beyond … well, beyond whatever. The best gelato I’ve had in my life. Unawares, my eyes close with the spoon in my mouth. Opening my eyes, I see the young woman behind the counter looking straight at me. A knowing smile is on her lips, but she says nothing. Italians can be a bit formal with tourists. Americans, on the other hand, have no problem letting it all hang out. To practice my Italian, I note how cremoso the gelato is. She nods and says it is a flavor typical in Sicily.

Italy is a true feast for the senses. When I am here, I am encouraged to feel. And I am never disappointed.

  

To view my photos from this trip, click here.

11 Comments

  • Love your photos! Love Florence! Let’s get together soon for a bite. Will you be upstate in late July? I will be up there for my yearly workshop and visit to Hudson.

  • oh, Gilbert.

    So, it really still is like this there.
    I am so happy.

    I am ready to go, eat, smell, see my way around

    many many thanks
    and wishes for moments of delight here too

    ruth

  • Thanks Gilbert!

    It was like I visited Italy in the company of a true connoisseur of architecture, language, gelato and much more. What a treat.

  • A wonderful, tantalizing post – I feel like I am there, experiencing through your eyes, both with the words and the photographs you weave together as a blissful vacation for us all to experience

  • OMG! Gilbert, as you know I’m a fan, but this set of photos and description of your experience really brought me back to Italy which I haven’t visited for years. What an enticement! Thank you, Judith

  • I loved seeing your perceptions (I really could) in your photos and then this post, writing from the senses. Just brilliant.

  • Reading this on the bus in NYC and am suddenly enveloped in my own Firenze memories, circa 1980. Another time, really another world, yet quite similar. Beautiful! Thank you for that!

    • Dear dear, Your words are so present and the clarity rings like a bell. I can’t believe I have waited so long to read this AND I haven’t even looked at the photos yet. You are a sensuous human being and I feel this writing is so close to your heart. I am delighted to be on the same planet with such an extraordinary soul such as you!

  • Gilbert, you have an amazing eye, each photo tells a story and demonstrates your passion for what you are experiencing.

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