Forget about Florence and its Renaissance roots. See you later, Manarola and your picturesque coastline. There’s been a change of plans. I belong in Bolzano and the Alto Adige region of northern Italy. The draw will not be a surprise: The dramatic, rugged spires of the Dolomites best even the Tetons.
German (and Austrian) heritage runs deep in this area. Historically, the heavily-contested region was part of Austria-Hungary, but control shifted to Italy after World War I as an award to the victors. You can still see many castles and towers that are remnants from that era and before. The landscape is more German, but the weather is more Italian. I packed gloves and a stocking cap specifically for this area, but temperatures neared 100 degrees, and I have a sunburn to prove it.
But the mixed cultures means that everything in the area has two names – one in Italian, one in German. This includes towns and streets, and signs and restaurant menus always list both (and usually don’t include English). When I walked into a tourist information office, I was greeted in three languages: buongiorno, guten tag and hello. (There’s another language, Ladin, that is only used in this region, though I’m not sure I heard it during our stay.)
Bolzano, a city of about 100,000 people, seemingly goes on holiday every weekend. Many shops shut down after noon on Saturdays, and about 80 percent of the businesses (including supermarkets) are closed all day Sundays. This can make it difficult for vegetarians to find food, particularly in a town with mostly Tirolean restaurants, many of which don’t display their menus in English.
But that’s OK. The city itself is not the reason we visited. This is the home of the Dolomites. Even though Bolzano is the only place in Italy where I felt like I might be able to navigate in a car, my preferred choice of travel was a different type of car: the cable car. From Bolzano and many of the surrounding villages, you can pay your way up to the mountains a little bit at a time.
We arrived around midday, and after lunch we walked a few blocks from the train station to the Funivia del Renon, which lifted us up about 1,000 meters in a dozen minutes, dropping us at Soprabolzano. From there, a single-track train slowly took us deeper into the mountains to Collalbo, where we got out and then hiked to neighboring Longomoso, where we passed numerous people dressed in traditional German garb. Yes, lederhosen included. Past the village, you get to see “earth pyramids,” natural pinnacles similar to ones at Crater Lake National Park, as well as expansive views of the Dolomites. We had a nice outdoors dinner in Soprabolzano before riding back down to reality.
With more time the following day, we could visit Alpe di Siusi, the largest high-alpine meadow in Europe, according to Rick Steves. Even though traffic in Alto Adige is fairly light, I’m not sure I would have liked driving even my old Honda Civic coupe up the steep, winding road to Siusi. How the bus drivers do it, I’m not sure. We only had a handful of near-accidents in the 50 minutes each way. (Small world: A couple that was just moving away from Bend was also on our bus.)
Then you get to the Siusi cable car, with the Massiccio dello Sciliar towering above you, and all is well. After another 15-minute cable car ride, any roads seem light years away. Compatsch is a gateway to numerous other cable cars that will whisk you up the meadow and into the highlands if you’re in a hurry (and willing to pay). Otherwise, you can hike to the horizon and beyond.
I am about to verge on blasphemy here: I thought that the Chapel of the Princes at the Medici Chapel was more impressive than the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.
Both feature paintings that tell stories of early Christianity, but the Medici’s dome, the second-largest in Florence, is just more … impressive. Let’s face it: The Medicis make Jay Gatsby look like a bum. Their chapel and basilica were built more for self-adulation than as an homage to God. The family’s impact is apparent everywhere in Florence and throughout Italy. And we were there to seek it out.
We each bought a Firenze Pass, which costs a lot up front (72 euros) but means you can drop into pretty much any place of significance over three days without worrying about paying admission, so you’ll check out locations you otherwise wouldn’t have (like the Medici Chapel). You also get to skip the lines, some of them very long, and move to the front as if you have a reservation. If you can spend three days in Florence, I recommend it. We hit about 10 sites in two days, and they do start blurring together and losing their impact. I lost count of how many painted ceilings we saw. Another day would have been nice, even though two of the sites we were hoping to see – the Duomo museum and the photography museum – were completely closed for renovation. (Plus, you get a sweet lanyard with your Firenze Pass, and many people wear it all day, begging to be singled out as a tourist.)
Some things I learned during our jam-packed, self-guided trek:
Tour groups should be limited to 10 people.
Any gallery or church worth seeing requires a climb of at least one flight of stairs, but usually three or four.
Any gallery or church worth seeing has scaffolding up and is undergoing renovation, meaning you won’t see everything you expect to see.
There’s no such thing as too many crucifixes in one room, nonetheless at one site.
There’s no such thing as too many Madonnas holding baby in one room, nonetheless at one site.
To say the least, one of the great impacts of the Renaissance was that artists broadened their source material. I admit that I have zero understanding of what makes art “good” or “important.” For instance, one site happened to have works by Jackson Pollack in a special exhibit. I don’t know why his works hang in a museum instead of someone else’s. I’m more interested in art’s impact from a broader, historic perspective, though I can appreciate certain works that stand out to me.
It turns out that the ushers at the Vatican were not an anomaly. Being a guard or usher at a museum or church in Italy has to be the easiest job on the planet. Had I pieced it together sooner, I would have started an “Ushers of Italian Museums” meme, featuring folks sitting down and studying their phones or books while supposedly on the clock. Of course, you’re not supposed to take photos at many museums, so some of the workers would have been safe from me. Still, the question of photography at museums and churches is very much up in the air. At the Uffizi, there are signs that say photography is not allowed, but in the Botticelli Room, looking at The Birth of Venus, we were surrounded by tourists taking pictures and posing in front of the painting. One Italian patron even started telling people “no photo,” then went to the two ushers who were sitting in the middle of the room. They said that photos were OK without using a flash, but the three of them went on to have a 20-minute conversation about it that included phone calls to, I presume, security central. At the Medici Chapel, I asked if photography was allowed. The usher said she didn’t know (she didn’t know!), so it would be OK for me to take a picture.
In the Uffizi, someone briefly set off an alarm for getting too close to something; the usher did not even look up from her book. They don’t even smile. One happened to look up at me as we passed through her door, and I got zero response when I said “ciao” to her.
There was, however, one usher at the Uffizi who was all over it. She told me to make sure to keep my camera in front of me so that it would not get stolen. As if I wouldn’t notice being relieved of a 5-pound camera that’s hanging from my neck. And as if one of the cameras hanging from every wall of the building would not catch the perpetrator, who had to pay admission to get in.
So I’m about ready to pack up and move to Italy and get one of these jobs. You seemingly don’t even need to know Italian, since no one ever wants to ask you a question because you look completely disinterested and like you wouldn’t know anything anyway. Perhaps there’s just a cultural difference that I don’t understand. When I visited the Oregon Historical Society a few months ago, the security guard was not only helping give direction but also was providing insight about what was hanging from the walls. He was an ambassador for the museum. If the Italians are volunteers, please let me know. But they all have badges, which leads me to believe they are employed or organized by someone.
I’m not even annoyed by the ushers. I just find them incredibly amusing – probably too much so.
Oh, yes, there was art, too. We started our marathon at the Accademia, and got there just as it was opening. There was already a line that stretched blocks, and even a line for those with reservation. Thanks to our pass, we only waited about 15 minutes. I have no idea if the poor souls in the non-reservation line ever got in. The highlight of the Accademia is Michelangelo’s David, probably the most well-known sculpture in history. I did not expect to be impressed by David, but it truly is stunning. He’s shown off under a dome that was built with the sole intention of showing him off. The sculpture is much larger than I thought. It also helps that Michelangelo’s four unfinished Prisoners line the path leading to David. But other than that, the Accademia really doesn’t offer much aside from some paintings and a lot of plaster models. David, however, is worth the price of admission.
Another highlight was the Galileo Museum. Not only was it interesting – focusing on scientific progress and innovation as a whole, not just Galileo’s contributions – but it also was different than everything else we saw. Instead of art, scientific tools were on display, including telescopes, globes, barometers, electromagnetic tubes and much more (you can also see Galileo’s middle finger). The museum is next door to the exit at the Uffizi, so there’s no reason to skip it.
Even the museum of science is practically a tribute to the Medicis, who are the common thread throughout Florence. Without their patronage, Michelangelo and Galileo probably would not be remembered today, and the Renaissance itself might never have existed. So they deserved their own chapel.
Now this is Italy. At least the Italy that’s romanticised in best-selling novels and movies starring Diane Lane.
Welcome to Manarola, a tiny town clinging from the cliffs above the Mediterranean Sea. It’s one of the five villages that make up the region known as the Cinque Terre, famous for its spectacular shoreline and the trail that hugs it. Unfortunately for us, only one section of the 7-mile trail that links the five towns was open for hiking, so we made the most of what Manarola had to offer.
Yes, there are crowds, but these crowds come in waves. Generally within five minutes of a train. Here, two cars (primarily delivery or garbage trucks) create a traffic jam on the one hilly, winding road that’s not open to the public. Below our apartment, the same group of four or five people recalled the day at the same two benches every afternoon, shielded from the sun by umbrellas.
Outside of working in a restaurant, a store or a garden, I’m not sure how people here make a living. Maybe they don’t. Most of the people strolling the street looked like us. Like newcomers looking for a sunny escape. And we all apparently looked like we wanted to hear Pharrell on repeat, either from a party boat or one of the local bars. Yes, we were all “Happy” to be there.
Although most of the coastal trails were closed, the same wasn’t true for that led up. A number of paths crisscross the hills and meander their way through the vineyards to other villages, both along the coast and above.
“Above” is the key word. There was nowhere to go but up. Up past the cemetery. And beyond the Jesus statue. Hundreds of steps later, you pop out at Volastra, another tiny spot out of a story book. Stroll west to find a handful of family homes perched with a garden and ocean views. And then, maybe two minutes later, you’re through what appeared to be someone’s backyard and at the top of a hill with tiers of vineyards plunging down to the Mediterranean. Manarola to the left, Corniglia to the right.
It might just be the best view that Italy has to offer.