Venice to Siena

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Sunday night in Venice the rain picked up and the water level on the steps to the Rivo outside our room kept rising. I was tired after working on pictures and words from 2 to 5:30 A.M. After breakfast in the Poste Vecchi we put on as much raingear as we could muster and negotiated the by now familiar maze to the Vaporetto stop. We got off at the Academia, Venice’s premier Art Museum, shoes, stockings and pants soaked. It was built by Napoleon after his conquest of the city also known as Serenessima in the early nineteenth century. Napoleon loved the place, had one of its Church’s demolished to improve his view of the Grand Canal, voided the laws which restricted Jews to living in the ghetto, and built this museum to house many masterworks that he removed from cathedrals and churches. Among the ones we most enjoyed were some medieval altarpieces, portraits and landscapes by Bellini and Gorgione, and immense architectural canvasses by Veronese and Titian. I was disappointed by the dim lighting on this dark day outside, and also by the lack of any vibrant colors in works that clearly were intended to dazzle, but appeared dimmer than many of the restored frescoes we had seen in Florence.

After two tiring hours we left the museum in a downpour braved by a long line of people wating to get in. We got out of the rain for lunch at the familiar Antica Trattoria and dried out and had a siesta back in our room. It was great to be warm, dry, sleepy, and to take a small break from our steady diet of overstimulation. In the late afternoon we started out to take a vaporetto to a place we hadnt been before, but it got dark earlier than expected and we headed back to our home neighborhood, stopping on the way to pick up some peccorino–sheep’s milk cheese–and prosciutto from our favorite deli. We also stopped at Cantina DaMori, one of the many wine bars that locals congregate in to escape Venice’s rain, the claustrophobia, the sewer smell and the crowds of tourists, and drank a glass each of the housewine drawn from barrels by the barman who told us that this was his private stock from a small vineyard that had been in the family for many generations. It did the trick.

Tuesday was departure date. Had the weather been clear, it would have been difficult to leave, since we had not yet penetrated most of the city, nor any of its outlying islands. But passing the now familiar palazzos on the crowded vaporetto, I was glad to be heading for the railroad station and not sure that I’d want to return.

On the Eurostar train to Florence we chatted with three couples travelling together from Curritiba Brazil. We had read about this city as a successful utopian experiment in Amory Lovins’ Natural Capitalism and seen a film about its remarkable successes in city planning, social services and especially transportation. These natives of the place had little positive to say about it. They complained that there was no subway.

We switched trains to Siena in the familiar hub of Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station, known to locals as S.M.N. and arrived at our new destination in time to shower and meet the Elder Hostel group we had signed up for more than a year ago. The “Hotel Garden” was more luxurious than I had expected, a not unwelcome surprise. An old manor house, built in the seventeenth century, it was located on a large property twenty minutes walk from the old city on a hilltop with views in several directions, and surrounded by well kept formal gardens. There were frescoes on the ceiling and smiling concierges saying buona sera at every turn–the kind of place I remember wanting to stay at when we drove through Brittany eight years ago, but couldn’t dream of affording. Now it was all part of the prepaid package deal.

An opening reception introduced us to our conscientious shepherds for the days ahead, Agnese and Giuseppi. Their welcoming remarks and disarming self-introductions were delivered in excellent but heavily accented English requiring such close listening that it almost seemed we were understanding a foreign language.

Our fellow hostellers hailed from all over the U.S., many of them ex-teachers, all animated, excited to be here and talk about themselves, seasoned travellers, and with a few exceptions, ten to twenty years older than us. I felt a little intimidated to be in this group, both because they seemed like a foreign breed and because it reinforced my sense that I was being transformed into one of them. The talk was all about hometowns–Anchorage, Lincoln, Asheville, New York–and former professions–architect, accountant, nursery school teacher. Nobody talked politics, but there was an air of hesitant curiousity. How many of these folks were Bush and War supporters? The ice was broken several days later, when it turned out that many loathed him, including quite a few life-long Republicans. We surmised that despite their red-state backgrounds, people who travelled and were interested in art were likely to be on our side.

Having arrived in a world of comfort and security, I went to sleep on time and didn’t wake up until morning. My disease and insomnia disappeared, and I stopped writing in this journal. I remembered Thomas Mann’s insistence that creativity was a byproduct of illness.

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