A winter trip to Italy may seem counter intuitive, though I suppose one could ski the Dolomites or soak in any of the many natural springs and spas in the northern Italian Alps. For the most part though, tourists travel to that Mediterranean nation for the outdoor pleasures of shirt sleeved walking on the narrow, labyrinthine, cobble stone streets and byways of its bejeweled historic cities and villages, trekking and viewing alfresco the bucolic countryside or swimming and sunning on its many unique and picturesque beaches.
Instead of warm weather travel, my wife Dale and I, now in our seventies, decided to make a winter trip to the Ligurian Coast, Central, and Northern Italy. We traveled more than 500 miles by car and 150 miles by the high speed (200 mph) Frecciarossa train between Milan and Venice. We journeyed by water bus in Venice; traveled multiple times by tram to cross the Arno River during our stay in Florence; and rode a slow local train for the two to 10 minute stops between the five coastal villages of the Cinque Terre that are hammered into the Ligurian coast north of Genova. Our air and high speed train arrangements were made on line from the States. The tram, local train and water bus tickets were routinely purchased from automated ticket booths at or near the stations.
This January Italian sojourn was unique, filled as it was with multiple unexpected and seemingly blind-alley adventures that opened into piazzas and passageways of unanticipated personal encounters, neighborhoods, restaurants, and artisans.
In Venice on New Year’s Eve day, as we sipped our morning cappuccinos in a neighborhood café, a wooden foot bridge away from the original location of the world’s first Jewish Ghetto in Canareggio, the northernmost of Venice’s six districts, we overheard an unfamiliar language being spoken by a group of six customers standing next to us. It was not Italian. It was not any Romance language that either of us speak. In the coffee-aroma confines of this tiny but stylish gathering place, in a city and country where people are not afraid to look strangers in the eye, it was not uncomfortable for me to inquire of one the coffee drinkers what language they were speaking. Turkish was the surprising and smiling answer given to us. What followed next was one of those moments that makes travel, at any time of the year, but especially on this festive winter’s last day of the year — Capodanno in Italian — one of exceptional warmth. For the next hour, amidst refreshed orders of cappuccinos and slices of almond cake, the eight of us, doing a kind of conversational square dance — switching informal partners and groupings — shared personal and collective stories of family, nations, ambitions, and careers. Reluctant to part and wanting to continue our animated and confiding chatting, our coffee house companions astonishingly invited us to their home to share with them a kind of sacred Italian family winter’s rite — il cenone (New Year’s Eve dinner). Instead of Italian dishes, we were treated with Turkish dishes of borek and kofte. Then, with our heads spinning from the Venetian wine consumed and the intimacies shared, we all snaked through the alleys, backstreets, and lanes of their San Marco district to usher in the New Year watching the imaginative, thunderous, and full color spectrum pageantry of Venetian fireworks. The eight of us stood together in the frigid night air and embraced in the shadow of the Doge’s Palace, surrounded by multitudes of wine and alcohol- imbibing merrymakers, feeling happily warmed by the company of new friends.
Returning on foot to our Airbnb, well past midnight in the wintery silence of the now-darkened and deserted maze of streets that is Venice, we found ourselves in an unfamiliar world of mystery, fog, and shadows that our GPS could neither calibrate nor penetrate. We were hopelessly lost again– tracing and retracing our steps, startled by our own footfalls on the cold cobblestones. Finally, like the pulsating nighttime beacons in the Venetian lagoons, in the evening’s murkiness we saw sparks of light coming from two still-open hotel lobbies. Aided by the kindness and age-old landmark directions from the internal compasses of two native-born Venetian concierges, we reached our destination.
The winter sky in Florence is purified by the alpine tramontana winds that dart across the region from the north. As we walked through the city’s Historical Center on this head-covered and scarfed January day, towards Il Duomo, the Cathedral of Florence, the medieval and renaissance buildings surrounding it appeared so sharply silhouetted against the sky as to seem like cardboard cutouts. Arriving at the Piazza del Duomo, the afternoon light played against the church’s exteriors and domed brick roofs and illuminated the green, pink, and white marble and muted earthen colors in a way that only happens in this city’s winter months. For a visitor, the buildings seemed to shimmer.
If the inanimate landscape of Florence was permeated by the invisible winter whispers of fresh northern mountain air, the human landscape of the Piazza del Duomo echoed to the drumbeats and thunderous, clarion calls of heralding trumpets.
For only in winter, and only on January 6th can a visitor to this city witness the spectacle that is The Day of the Epiphany, the winter celebration of the pilgrimage of the Three Magi bearing gifts to announce the birth of Jesus. Long before the Cavalcade of the Magi reached the Piazza del Duomo where we were standing as a small part of a huge crowd, the air began to vibrate with the cadenced sounds of distant drums and the clarion calls of heralding horns as the procession of men, women, children, horses, carriages, drummers, jugglers, trumpeters, goats, sheep, donkeys, and falconers with their birds on their forearms, crossed the Arno River via the ancient Ponte Vecchio. Then, for over an hour, this stylized wintery procession of almost 1,000 costumed bearers of banners, ancient weapons and battle armor, dazzled our eyes in their jewel-toned silk and brocade costumes, exact replicas of the medieval clothing worn by the ancient Fiorentinos and residents of its surrounding villages. It was a joyous celebration by Fiorentinos for Fiorentinos, and for the lucky handful of foreign tourists who chose to be here in January.
In the chilly crepuscular January light of the Tuscan city of Lucca, we raced along the now almost deserted Via Fillunga, the city’s principal shopping thoroughfare, towards the Church of San Giovani. We were hoping tickets might still be available for the evening’s 7:00 o’clock concert of Puccini and Verdi. This lovely, medieval walled city is Giacomo Puccini’s birthplace.
Every night, 365 days a year, somewhere in Lucca there is a Puccini concert honoring the inimitable composer of La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot.
Breathlessly arriving at the performance space in the deconsecrated Church of San Giovani, we were immediately aware that its interior seating area was as dimly lit as the quickly disappearing outdoor light. We needn’t have worried about the concert being sold out. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, and we took our seats, we realized there were only ten other concert attendees. The miniscule audience did not matter to soprano Deborah Vincenti, tenor Tommaso Martinelli, and pianist Diego Fiorini. We, the privileged January few, were treated to a bravura, energetic performance of artistic excellence that would have pleased a public of thousands at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala.
Following the stirring performances of the vocalists, we reluctantly left the warm confines of the theater and headed into the frigid Lucca night. As we passed through the city’s largest and most architecturally harmonious plaza, Piazza Napoleone, we noticed the same wording on shop signs we had seen on Via Fillunga, as well as on most of the adjacent streets we had walked along earlier. The signs on the front of all the shop windows read SALDI (SALES), often followed by a percentage symbol. January is the time of the year Italian stores, big and small, have clearance sales. Two pairs of women’s magnificent, funky, and deeply discounted leather shoes, and one black leather, handsomely discounted backpack later, we were on our way again.
The next morning, our last in Lucca and in Italy, I awakened early to feed the parking meter in one of the city’s open-air parking lots. While overnight parking is free, the meter starts up again at 8:00 a.m. My euros inserted into the slot, and my receipt placed on the inside dashboard, I was hurrying back to our Airbnb to catch a few more winks, when I noticed a young woman struggling awkwardly to push a wheelchair-bound teenage girl up the front steps of the entrance to Augusto Passaglia Music and Arts High School.
Instinctively and wordlessly, I rushed to help. Finding the front door to the school locked, I searched and located the speaker phone to ask that it be opened (I speak Italian). However, like so many simple everyday tasks we had to perform during our trip, I could not figure out how to activate the voice box. The young mother reached over her daughter’s back and pointed to the hidden voice-activated button to speak with someone inside the school. As the door opened, the mother started to push the wheelchair through the entrance. The young girl, who had been silent up to this moment, awkwardly reached her hand backwards over the wheel chair’s back support, touched my arm, and in a barely, audible voice, but with a large smile on her face, looked up at me and whispered, “Buona vita.” Her mother repeated the phrase. “Buona vita.” (Have a good life. Have a good life.) I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect epilogue for our January visit to Italy.