When James Belfield joins a coach-load of Americans for a cultural tour of northern Italy, he learns much about two great civilisations.
I follow Joe into the Sistine Chapel. He is feeling his 85 years after a 6am wake-up call and brief contretemps with the cutest waitress he could find about the state of the coffee.
We are among the first of the day to emerge from the crouched Vatican corridor into the venerable space and are able to find a quiet bench on the north wall.
The first things that catch the eye are the 15th-century trompe l'oeil wall frescos, where masters such as Perugino, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio depict the lives of Christ and Moses. Then it's the breathtaking ceiling – more than 1000sqm, four years of Michaelangelo's life and that image of God reaching out to bestow the gift of life to Adam with the delicate touch of his index finger.
Then the gaze shifts to Michaelangelo's monumental Last Judgment, a mass of portraits showing the ultimate revelation of salvation and damnation. Whether your religion is art or belief-based, it's hard not to be awed by the hushed silence of an early-morning visit to the Sistine Chapel.
When I turn to whisper something deep and meaningful to Joe but he has his head between his knees. Fearing his age and jet-lag have conspired to create his own last judgment, I give him a quick jab in the ribs and ask if he is all right.
"You've got to hand it to these Italians – they know their floor tiles," he says.
"I was in flooring for 30 years and I couldn't have done anything like this. Not even with vinyl."
WE'RE THREE seats short of a 44-person capacity on our Italian Treasures coach tour of northern Italy – an 11-stop, 10-day historical holiday in the company of a group of North Americans of varied hue and humour. This overwhelming United States contingent ranges in age from mid-20s to mid-80s (Joe is one of five octogenarians), in politics from the noisy neo-conservatives to the apple-pie-and-picket-fence Democrats, and in enthusiasm from the guide-book-gripping "Oh my gawd" awestruck to the curmudgeonly hotel-room limpet.
In short, it's a potential trekking timebomb.
In charge of choosing whether to cut the red or the blue wires is defusal expert and all-round camp commander Remo, with his driving sidekick, the boy Enzo.
The Vatican visit and an afternoon tour of the Colosseum and Forum are Remo's Day One gift to us. The day panders to those who are there for the religious highlights and the chance to see the Pope close up (we do), to the historical buffs and to those, like Joe, who want to go back to the old country but let someone else do the driving.
It also gives us all the chance to start the phenomenal catalogue of snapshots which will mark 41 cameras' versions of 41 holidays.
Remo's leadership is delivered with a light touch during our initial forays into friendship. He hands over the reins to a guide at the Vatican and delivers a wonderful narrative about ancient Rome around the Forum and Colosseum, but otherwise urges us to follow his strides rather than his soliloquies.
That all changes on Day Two, when he launches into proof of his history major education.
Remo is a great storyteller. He punctuates his history of the Italian peninsula with detours into art, archaeology, geography and social anthropology, and the importance of buying into the tour's added extras. A blend of the aesthetic and the pecuniary, he is a true Renaissance man.
Remo's main lesson is that the peninsula's history is divided into three distinct periods: Rome the city, ruled over by kings, senators and emperors from the 8th century BC to the 5th century AD; the Papal States, the religious base for the Catholic Church, whose influence over the Western World lasted from the 6th century until relatively recently; and the birth of modern Italy through the Risorgimento, when Napoleon's rule over a collection of cities and states was replaced by a unified country in the mid-1800s.
So, Italy – younger than New Zealand, Canada and the US; historically and geographically, vastly more important than the US (that rattled a few cages); and decrepit – so decrepit that it would have looked decrepit 600 years ago.
AN EARLY flush of spring means our travels through Tuscany are pigmented by the pale pinks of fruit and nut tree blossoms, the bright yellows of mimosa, blue-green fields of artichoke and that terracotta-red earth.
Stops at Pisa, Lucca, Siena and San Gimignano offer the chance to time-travel backwards and forwards between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the chance to photograph towers both leaning and straight, and the chance to witness a rapier thrust of reality in the form of a joint trade-union and anti-capitalist rally against the new Chinese owners of the world's oldest bank in Siena.
Dinner on Day Four is at the splendid Verrazzano Castle, whose battlements look out over the Chianti Rd and whose cellars stock giant barrels of exactly the type of liquid that will set Joe's tongue loose and dull the pain for those who have had enough benefit of his experience.
The vineyards date back to the 14th century and the house was the birthplace in 1485 of Giovanni da Verrazzano, a celebrated navigator who explored much of America's east coast.
There's a bridge in New York named after him, three bricks from which are embedded in the castle's wall. Apparently, there are three Tuscan bricks in the double-deck span that links Staten Island and Brooklyn.
The next morning is the first time our call to breakfast has not been at a time with a 6 in it. So at 7am on the dot, I'm queuing for the necessary pint of espresso and pile of cured meats and cheeses at Florence's Star Hotel Tuscany.
The last time I was in Florence, I was mugged of everything bar one boot, including a poncho that in my teenage daftness I was particularly fond of. That experience spoiled the thrill of being in the most glorious outdoor art gallery in the world, so this time, with one eye open for a shifty-looking, poncho-covered thief wearing a single 18-hole German army boot, I was eager to sally forth.
Remo again surrendered his narration to a local guide – this time a tweed-waistcoated bookish type who led us (again early enough in the day to bypass the madding crowds) around the Accademia di Belle Arti, which has been home to Michelangelo's David since 1873 and a collection of his mesmerising unfinished sculptures of St Matthew and four Prisoners intended for the tomb of Pope Julio II.
The Accademia is set out like a church dedicated to the majestic David, with the hyper-real statue set in place of an altar, but the veneration paid to the single artform misses the point of what Florence really offers.
Signoria Square is studded with world-renowned sculptures reduced to being a backdrop to overpriced tourist fare, but which any other city would give an inner-city rail loop to possess.
As for the buildings – the magnificent Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is a work of art on its own, as well as being a feat of engineering. When work started on the cathedral in 1296, no-one had the technical knowhow to finish the job with the necessary 45-metre diameter dome. Then goldsmith and clockmaker Filippo Brunelleschi came up with the plan, completed in 1436, to make a two-skinned, lightweight, terracotta-tiled dome. The result, dominating the city, is known simply as the Duomo, or dome.
From Florence to Venice, Verona is a lunch-stop visit to see Juliet's balcony, where tourists fondle her bronze nipple for good luck (although I've read Shakespeare's version and I'm certain it did Romeo no good at all) and watch a Sunday parade of ancient Alpha Romeos growl their way past the incredibly well-preserved pink marble 1st-century AD Roman amphitheatre, while groups of hawkers and street entertainers brawl in the weekend sunshine.
If Florence is an outdoor art gallery, then Venice is an outdoor museum-film set. From the moment your boat slides up the Grand Canal to drop you off at a hotel, the romance of which hasn't changed in half a millennium, it's hard not to think you've somehow adopted the style of George Clooney, the panache of a 1930s Rockefeller plutocrat and the allure of an 18th-century English heir on his Grand Tour.
The kissing couples retire to gondolas and champagne. Joe and I get lost in the tunnel-like maze of lanes.
A full day of St Mark's Square, the Doge's Palace, the Bridge of Sighs and a boat trip to have lunch on the island of Burano thrills the sightseeing senses, but simply whets the appetite. It's the first and only time on the tour when the timetable seems to overrule the subject matter. Venice deserves more time than most (even the Clooneys, Rockefellers and English aristocrats) can afford and a tour like this is the perfect way to experience the highlights.
The combination of low off-season crowds with unnaturally warm weather is just the treat to make you want to have your Venetian slice and eat it.
The last two days seem quite whistlestop as we tick off 6th-century mosaics in Ravenna, a glorious night in a tiny hotel opposite the basilica in Assisi and the imposing medieval ramparts of Orvieto on our way back to Rome.
Remo's histories evolve to the modern-day Italy and a few of the more foot-weary travellers start to long for their long-haul flights back to the land of the free.
But Joe's not keen to stop yet. The veteran coach-tourist is already planning his next venture and he's put off his return flight so he can go down to Sicily for a few days where he "knows a few people he can look up".
He's a dark horse, that's for sure. So open, so loud, so brash, but with one heck of a history. A bit like Italy, really.
James Belfield travelled to Europe courtesy of Emirates and Globus.
Space is still available on some Globus Italy tours for 2012, with popular tours running until December. See your travel agent to secure your seat today or for more information, go to globustours.co.nz. Emirates flies from daily to Rome from $2538.38 economy return. For more information go to emirates.com/.nz
- © Fairfax NZ News
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