For those of us who like to get off the beaten path, Italy is never quite what you expect. Sometimes for the worse, more often for the better, but occasionally it can be downright terrifying. It’s all fine and good to be the curious type of traveler, but you’d better be prepared to face the potential perils…train strikes, unannounced museum closings, and attacking skeletons. What?!?
I wish I could tell this story in the first person, but actually it belongs to my friend Marco. He’s a fellow English teacher from Australia and we have a lot in common. For one thing, we both like to find the little-known sight-seeing gems in this city—the ones that don’t often make it onto the standard tourist itinerary. One Monday afternoon over lunch, he asked me, “Have you been to Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte?”
“No. I’ve never even heard of it. Where is it?”
“It’s on Via Giulia, not far from Piazza Farnese. Anyway, I was there last Friday evening and the strangest thing happened…”
I stopped eating and gave him full attention. Something about his expression told me that this was going to be interesting.
“So this little church—not much to it, really—has one of those chapels decorated with the old bones of their own priests and monks, kind of like the more famous Cappuccino Crypt on Via Veneto, but smaller. This one is not always open to the public, but the old rector was kind enough—or perhaps senile enough—to let me in for a quick look.”
I had no idea where this was going, but he certainly had my captive audience.
He continued, “I’m taking my time, trying to read some of the inscriptions, when all of a sudden the door slams. A second later I hear the bolt turn and the lock set.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. But before I had a chance to react, the lights go off and it’s completely dark. I mean pitch black—I literally can’t even see my own hand. Then I quickly realize that it’s Friday and I’m contemplating the possibility of spending the entire weekend trapped in total darkness, and wondering if there’ll be enough oxygen to last until Monday.”
“So it’s me and about a hundred dead guys locked into this little sepulcher. I began feeling around the walls, trying to make my way towards the door without tripping over anything. About halfway around, I clutched onto a lever or something, thinking it might be a door handle. Only it wasn’t. It was a crusty 400 year-old femur. I started to panic, and the next thing I know I’m wrestling with skulls and vertebrae, knocking over pedestals, and the whole nightmare is becoming comical, like a bad horror flick. If I hadn’t been so freaked out I’d have been laughing my arse off, mate.”
Which is exactly what I was doing at this point in his storytelling—laughing my arse off. But luckily, there’s a happy ending. After about 10 minutes of terror, my friend was rescued when the old, senile rector had at last realized his mistake and opened the door to find Marco holding one of his dearly departed brothers in a full nelson. Apologies all around.
So what’s the moral of the story? I guess it might be this: even in the center of Rome, it’s still possible wander a little too far off the beaten path, and an informed guide can make all the difference. Even the great poet Dante needed Virgil to show him the way.
All roads also lead AWAY from Rome
Despite the omnipresent threats of dead monks and kamikazes on Vespas, I never get tired of playing the tourist in Rome. And when friends and family from the U.S. come for a visit, I always relish my role as a temporary guide—a part-time Virgil—showing off my “expert” knowledge of this great city. However, no matter how much you think you know about Rome or Italy, there’s always so much more that you don’t know. It’s humbling, to say the least. Sometimes even scary as Hell, as my friend Marco would attest to. (Marco, if you’re reading this from Bangkok, “Cheers, mate!”)
And Rome is just one city in a country overpopulated by UNESCO World Heritage Sites. No other country in the world has more. So in an effort to further expand my knowledge of this incredibly rich and endlessly complex landscape, I’m taking my blog (and my family) “on the road” this summer to explore the many treasures of the Bel Paese, from north to south. My travels will take me from Lombardia to Tuscany to Umbria. Then passing through Rome again, I’ll continue down the Boot through Campania, Calabria, and finally ending up in Jessica’s hometown in Sicily…where I’ll promptly stuff myself with arancini, cannoli and Malvasia and collapse for a few days.
While on the road, I’ll be blogging about my adventures, as well as posting updates and photos to Facebook and Twitter. Additionally, I’ll be a regular guest on the “How to Tour Italy” radio show by Anthony Capozzoli, broadcasting in the U.S. and worldwide via the Internet. Once the trip is over, I’ll write in more detail about the places that I’ve visited, and all of the things that I’ve seen, tasted, and experienced along the way so that my blog becomes a valuable resource for anybody who might be interested in this type of deliberate, mindful travel through Italy.
Most of all, I’ll be sharing “stories,” whether my own stories, those of others that I meet along the pilgrim trail, or an excerpt from one of the many chapters that comprise the long history of this great country. These are the moments that give color and flavor to travel, and impart a deeper understanding of a place that mere “information” can’t begin to explain. I’m saying “NO” to Top Five/Seven/Ten/Twenty Lists and “Must-See” sites that have already been glorified ad nauseam.
So, gentle reader, I’d like to be your “Virtual Virgil” this summer as I lead you around Italy on tour of discovery—from the Hell of Termini Station in Rome, to the Paradise of a Sicilian sunset, we’ll see, smell, touch, and taste it all. As usual, I’ll hold nothing back, removing the rose colored lenses when appropriate and giving you an honest view from my vantage point. The departure date is set for May 1st from Milan. At this phase, the precise day-to-day itinerary is still evolving, but should be finalized within the next three or four weeks. It’s going to be a fun ride…I hope you’ll come along!