Just about every visitor to Italy stops in Florence. I almost didn't. In place of a trip I'd half-planned up to Mont Blanc, on the French border, Elisa convinced me that Firenze was more worth visiting. And despite its droves of tourists, overpriced tickets and two-hour queues it was well worth the two days we spent. Partly because we bought no tickets and waited in no queues.

Back in its heyday, Medici cash lured a ridiculous concentration of intelligence and talent to Florence. Among plenty others, each of the four ninja turtles spent years here, painting, sculpting, engineering and digging up dead bodies/inventing spiral helicopters in their spare time. While powerful families may have cared for little more than out-doing the gaudy palaces, churches and public piazzas of their rivals, some of history's greatest minds were at work pushing the boundaries of the Renaissance. The Old Florence we see today, much of it unchanged since the 15th century, owes itself to both groups of course.

In our wanderings, Elisa and I passed from Santa Maria Novella to the jewelry shop-lined Ponte Vechio, the closed Giardino di Boboli, the towering Bargello, the enormous Santa Croce and finally the much more enormous Gothic Duomo, lined with its spectacular colored marble facade. We covered a good 15 km in a slow 2-day meander, stopping for gelato and a raw Tuscan meal in a cozy trattoria among the old avenues. A true Ligurian, Elisa wouldn't touch the inferior focaccia.

After two sweaty days on the streets of Florence, we caught a train to the coast, hitting an umbrella-packed beach in the town of Viareggio. In the afternoon we parted ways when I hopped off the train in La Spezia. 


Genova II

Almost two months after arriving at Genova Principe on my first day in Italy, I was back. Just as before, Elisa was waiting at the station in overcast weather. After two months of late, delayed and cancelled trains (including on the long trip from Brescia) I'd lost all faith in trenitalia while pretty much falling in love with Italy.

The Giordanos were great hosts, again. To a soundtrack of Mark Knopfler and Rino Gaetano, we took a drive for granitas overlooking the old city and the bustling new harbor after a three course Italian dinner. Back at home, Elisa's dad spent nearly an hour showing me old black and white photos of Genova, genuinely thrilled to share the history of his own city. The next day I wandered town again, meeting Elisa at Piazza de Ferrari for a lunch of pesto genovese. On my walk back down Via Garibaldi the sun was out for once and the old city's pastel maze felt more like the bright Liguria I'd come to know. 
I took off that evening for sleepy Moneglia with Elisa and Laura. 



In Tirano I felt as much at home as anywhere. Gennaro and Carmen, an extremely likable couple from the south, played my host while I taught 6-7 year-olds at their daughter Noemi's English camp. Age 11, Noemi played tour guide/Italian tutor while Giulia, 6, was our entertainment. As in La Spezia, I enjoyed two weeks of amazing meals, a nice bed in the little girls' room, and enjoyable company; perfect hospitality.

Outside of camp, there was plenty time to explore Tirano and surrounds, on foot, by bike and in Gennaro's car. Set in a beautiful forested valley dotted with cliff-hugging churches and ruined castles, Tirano's narrow streets were a bit too charming, humming with the near-constant chime of church bells and the rushing Adda, a white torrent that cut the town in two. On a walk through Old Tirano we wound from Porta Milano to Porto Bormio in just a few minutes, passing beneath its dozens of faded frescoes and stopping at every other cold running fountain. Gennaro pointed out the slit of empty space above each gate where the portcullis used to slide. Some of the old stone homes were sectioned out of medieval courtyards, each linked to a church reflecting the families' wealth. These days, thanks to a little fresh paint, neatly cropped vines and crazy amounts of potted flowers, the drab old outpost comes off as cheery and idyllic as its Swiss neighbors up the road.

We left town often to explore Valtellina. My hosts were always ready to drive or take the bikes. We made the loop to Livigno, northern Italy's duty free version of Park City, then looping through Switzerland and back down the valley to Tirano. Somewhere near Livigno we hit an obstacle course made of ropes and zip lines built way up in the trees. Just up the road a few minutes, Noemi and Gennaro showed me around the Visconti Venosta Castle, built beside 4,000-year old petroglyphs. Heading south, the whole family wound up the mountains to a shared cabin set amid forests and meadows right out of Sound of Music. I spent the afternoon playing soccer with a kid from the camp, hiking through the hills like Heidi and checking out the cabin's old photos from the war as well as from fun times in Somaliland and Ethiopia. To the southwest, we also drove to Lake Como, stopping in Lecco on its southeastern tip. One of George Clooney's mansions shares the same lake, a bright blue sliver between massive Alpine foothills, ringed with lavish estates and mostly unattractive hotels. Gennaro paid my entry to Montecchio Fort, a WWI/WWII era base, equipped with four giant guns. After killing off the Nazis that had shared the space, the partisans blocked Mussolini's attempted escape to Switzerland with 5 off-target shots from launched from here. Giulia was bored to death, until we got back in the car and turned on the Waka Waka for the hundredth time.

When the camp ended and I was on a train south, I still had the song in my head.


Baia di Ieranto

Nobody seemed to know about this place in Naples. Or Sorrento for that matter. It wasn't until I'd reached Nerano, a tiny seaside village on the top of Capo di Sorrento, a long, mountainous peninsula jutting off the bay south of Naples, that I founds someone to point out the way. The Baia di Ieranto was the only reason I'd even come this far south. I'd happened into a photo a few weeks before: an empty stretch of white sand surrounded by sheer cliffs of limestone and turquoise water. Just off the coast from here, on the island of Capri, was where Odysseus came across his mythical Sirens. Seeing as Capri is now an overpriced tourist trap and a playground for people much richer than me, I imagined I'd see more of the Iliad in Ieranto.

True to the chance-found google image, the bay was spectacular. An hour along the abandoned trail from Nerano, its jagged, white, cave-ridden cliffs rose into view, wrapping for miles up the peninsula. After a side trip to a desolate old Neopolitan fort perched on a cliff edge, I wandered down the mountain side, not a person in sight. A few minutes below the fort I stumbled into a grove of some kind. An old, red and wrinkly man was pacing the porch of a tiny cottage buried in trees, leaning back on the leash of his barking guard dog. Noticing me, he shouted unfriendly things in my direction and I took the hint, backtracking up the hill. Further along, I dove back into the bush, taking a wide detour down to the coast.

When I arrived at the beach I wasn't quite alone. Around fifty young monks had chosen this day to get some much-needed vitamin D and sing hymns, all rejoicing on an old abandoned concrete jetty. Row row row your boat was sung in rounds, compounding the joy. They were having a blast in their matching shirts, bags and silly wide brimmed hats. Occasionally one would hurl himself off the high ledge and the others would clap. I didn't know monks were allowed beach days (I certainly wasn't as privileged in my own monastic years). A handful of windsurfers were also scattered across the enormous bay. Aside from the old fort, some overgrown Roman and Greek ruins, the angry red man's vineyard and an old wrecked dynamite station, the peninsula was all wilderness, something hard to come by along Campania's glitzy coast. And after a month between the still more overdeveloped Ligurian coast, it was a refreshing change. With nothing else to do, I gave a nod to my new clerical friends, found a suitable cliff and launched into the water.

My drinking water ran out later that afternoon. With nothing on offer on the bay side of the mountain, I decided it was time to start back to Nerano. I was exhausted when I reached town, but satisfied with having made it to Ieranto. Although I'd have preferred sirens over monks.



I could have spent much longer in Naples. The city was seductive as any I've seen in Italy. Grimy, decaying and littered with the world's most heavenly pizzerias, it's got as much trash blowing in the coastal breeze as any place I've seen since Cairo. Packed within its crumbling maze of old alleys are monstrous churches with hershey-domed roofs, glorious piazzas, drab apartment blocks and a giant toy castle dominating the corniche. Meanwhile, crowding the cobblestone streets themselves are millions of olive-toned bodies lounging on lawn chairs or slouched against scooters, Napolitano-style. Based from a couch in Aversa, a twenty minute train ride inland, where the coastal winds disappear and the sweat never stops dripping, I took a couple days to explore. My hosts were three Estonians and an American, the latter employed by the giant US Navy base in town. On our first night, we took in a wild street celebration a few blocks from their place, wading through a sea of sweaty bodies, christmas lights and brass instruments, spilling drinks all over the neighborhood and earning whistles and stares from hordes of young Italian men (the Estonians' blond hair isn't nearly as common this far south).  Having only booked the couch for two nights, I was off too quickly yet again, catching a train to Sorrento in the afternoon.



My first memories from Rome are mostly a blur of ruins, monuments, museums and a chance sighting of Sylvester Stalone during a family visit. That was 1992, I think. All blurry except for one memory: I can still see one street scene quite clearly, taken in through the bottom of of a grimy city bus window. Crowds of pedestrians choked the sidewalks as cars, motorbikes and and buses struggled from light to light through insane traffic, a noisy mess that's plagued Rome for maybe 2,000 years. Our light must have just turned green, because I remember pulling away and picking up speed when I first spotted my dad. I had no idea how long he'd been running, sprinting actually, faster than I'd ever seen him go, dodging cars and bikes and people, running in the same direction my bus was now chugging along, past two, three, four city blocks. It was quite a sight: he was fast! But if he was running in the street... he was no longer on the bus. Why didn't the rest of us get off? I finally took my eyes off the wndow. Of course, it was just me, and he did catch up to retrieve his air-headed son for a long walk back through the sweltering streets of Rome.

This time around I took in the city at an impressively slow speed, settling into Rome's cheapest camping grounds, Tiber, about 30 minutes outside the city. As well as several days lounging around the camp's amazing pool, I took a few leisurely days wandering the city's plethora of piazzas. Joined alternately by a long-lost college friend, Val Norman, freshly arrived from studies in France, and select guests from Tiber, I hit just about all of Rome's hot spots, from Charlton Heston's Circus Maximus to St. Peter's all the way back to Russel Crowe's Colosseum, arriving at each in step with dozens and more often hundreds of fellow tourists. In just one day in Rome I probably saw more Nikon D90's and expensive photography gadgetry than in the rest of my life.

I made a final pass by Trevi Fountain on my last day in town. I think I remember tossing a coin there along with the other little Jacksons in '92. So yeah, two hazy memories actually.