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. I know how good it will be. Returning allows me to savor the sensual yet again, and more slowly each time. And why engage in FOMO during vacation? You can visit ten places in Italy and enjoy them equally in limited amounts, or you can visit two places and enjoy each just the same – but for a longer period of time.
When I am here, I am encouraged to feel. And I am never disappointed. Italy is a true feast for the senses.
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 the view 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 a small person.
Between 1420 and 1436, this space was apparently used by workers during the construction of Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome. Today, the same space is so cramped with tourists that any sudden movement might result in an accusation of sexual harassment. The experience is not for the claustrophobic.
Out on the lantern, I take a deep breath. Yes, the climb was worth it. The late-day sun feels good on my skin, as does the cool breeze. I look down at the ocean of red-tiles roofs, and then across to Giotto’s Bell Tower and to the many tourists who’d climbed 414 steps to the top. I hold my camera in both hands, comforted by its size and 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 pixels … and to memory. The sound of the shutter is comforting.
I 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 generally navigate their native tongue, but only if my stomach or bladder is involved. 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. The internet says that Italian is spoken exactly as it is written, and that every letter in Italian gets equal treatment. Surely, I can imagine them thinking, it must be the same 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, probably the owner’s son, comes over. All we want is coffee and i dolci. Wanting to practice my Italian, I ask what dessert he likes. His responds in English, and as expected, each letter gets its due: “I like-a the peh-are tart-a.” Translation: He likes the Pear Tart.
That “a” sound 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 some Italians. Some native Spanish speakers have a similar issue with English words that begin with the letter “s,” adding an “eh” before it. 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.
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. The atmosphere 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 before passing in front of me. And as they pass, my subject matter will often get a nod of approbation.
I walk further and get a whiff of baked bread. I look through the window – it is focaccia. Ahhhh … Right up there with the smell of coffee. Then at the corner, there is that other smell, the one 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 still has a functional sewer system. But I step away and the olfactory assault is over, quickly forgotten as I walk uphill to the Piazzale Michelangelo and pass old stone walls that are covered with honey suckle vines.
“A Plate of Pasta is a Plate of Love” comes to mind as one appears before me. Pici All’Aglione. It’s the first sit-down dinner at Borgo San Fedele, a renovated monastery in the hills of Chianti that is home for the week during our photography workshop. Pici looks like fat spaghetti and is region-specific to Tuscany. All’Aglione means big garlic. Razor thin slices of garlic — lots of them — are first sautéed in extra virgin olive oil. Whole tomatoes are crushed by hand, because of course they are, and then added to the sautéed garlic. Recipes on the internet claim that 20 minutes is enough to cook the tomatoes. Andrea, our chef for the week, explains that he coaxed his slowly for a full three hours.
I lower my face into the plate — my nose one inch from the food. I want to absorb this amazing smell into every single pore of my face. To my right I hear a tut-tut sound. Someone is shaking their head and smiling at me. He explains that the proper way to appreciate the smell of food is to move your face forward two inches and use one hand to gently coax the aroma in your direction. Whatever. Then onto that first taste. Sublime. With few quality ingredients, the flavor of each comes through clearly.
To my left, someone commits a faux pas by asking for grated cheese. Andrea is gentle but firm: “It will not improve the flavor.” Silence ensues. His answer is clearly the final word. Folks exchange glances. I lift my glass of red wine and smile. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
My last night in Florence and I am tired of looking. Not at people or architecture or at food through shop windows, but at maps and street signs. What via is this? Doesn’t matter, so I decide to leave the map at the apartment. I have a general idea where I am going, but it still takes longer to find the hole-in-the-wall gelateria that I had been to days before. First world problems, I know.
The first taste of gelato – ricotta, by the way – is followed by a slow exhale. And maybe a moan, but I won’t admit to it. The taste reveals itself slowly, not like the immediate fireworks of cioccolato. The gelato is creamy beyond belief. Yes, probably the best I’ve had in my life. Full disclosure: the pistacchio I had at this place two days ago was also the best I’ve had in my life. Unawares, my eyes close for a moment with the spoon in my mouth. When I open my eyes, I see the young woman behind the counter looking straight at me. We are the only two people in the store. A knowing smile is on her lips, but she says nothing. Italians can be a bit formal with tourists, unlike the over-sharing of some Americans. To practice my Italian, I note how cremoso the gelato is. She nods and says ricotta gelato is a flavor typical in Sicily. I nod and say grazie as I leave the store, happy beyond words.
Until the next time.
To view my photos from this trip, click here.
You are a unique and wonderfully talented friend. Envious. 😘
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.
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
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
What wonderful sights & words! Thanks!
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.
You are definitely in tune with La Dolce Vita.
Italy a feast for all senses and you have definitely
captured my mother country. As an interloper to the U.S
I’m always in a liminal state and your photos
And comments put me in a dreamy state.