June 16th 2014

Three Days in Italy

Every now and then, an older brother should spend time with his little sister.
Venice here we come.

DAY 1: BERGAMO

Three days is all we had. A long week-end at the end of spring 2014, just a couple of days before the summer solstice.

“I have never been to Venice” is how I started, before noting that “June is not too crowded and the weather should play in our favor.” Marina didn’t need to be convinced. Her first trip to Italy a couple of years ago was one of her most memorable travel experiences and she was more than happy to be able to surround herself with the pleasant sounds of “la bella lingua”, lose herself in some alleys, grab a gelato and pretend that time had ceased to run while sitting in a café or restaurant. Venice it would be. But instead of taking a direct flight to Marco Polo International, we opted for the car and draw a route that would lead us from Milan to Bergamo, Lake Garda, Verona and finally Venice. In three days.

After all, this was more about the journey than the destination.

We departed from Zurich on a late Friday afternoon, picked up a rental in Milan and arrived in Bergamo as the sun was setting over the Città Alta. Our first stop on this little roadtrip. A quick check-in at the hotel, conveniently located just below the medieval part of the city that sits atop a hill overlooking the rest of the town, and we took a taxi to Piazza Vecchia, the heart of the Città Alta. On the short ride up to the old town, our driver exuded his Italian finesse and immediately recognized our French accents. “I try to go to Paris once a year and although I am a proud Lombard, I must say, it is my favorite city.” Marina immediately replied that Rome was her personal favorite and that Paris couldn’t stand the comparison. Two latins exchanging their views and opinions during a 10 minute drive into the past. I had to smile.

That evening, after thanking our driver for providing us with directions and the address of a typical Italian restaurant, we got our first glimpse of what once belonged to the Republic of Venice. Filled with history, from the massive walls protecting the old town to the facades of the Palazzo della Ragio, a town hall that dates back to the 12th century, a walk through the streets of the Città Alta feels like a trip back in time.

It wasn’t before we had enjoyed some italian gastronomy and with the knowledge that we would have more time to discover the old town during the next morning that we both collapsed into sleep.

DAY 2: LAKE GARDA & VERONA

After an early breakfast and a promenade through the streets of Bergamo where we dived into the lively italian atmosphere of a Saturday morning, the little black Fiat 500 took us further east, to the shores of Lake Garda.

Our first stop was Salò, a city on the western shore of the lake.

Boxed between the Monte San Bartolomeo and the Bay of Salò, the city was recommended to us for its Mediterranean flair, the long lakeside promenade as well as its numerous restaurants.

We spent some time strolling around, gazed at the Palazzo della Magnifica Patria, a 16th century palace packed with documents on the Renaissance period as well as exhibits on the late 19th and 20th century in Italy, before feasting on the Piazza Dal Vittoria, the gastronomic heart of the city. The quietude of a calm Saturday, filled with the sounds of joyful conversations in Italian, German and a bit of English, complemented the serene display of the lake.

Seated right next to the water, Italy continued to work it’s magic on us.

We left Salò around 3pm and while driving along the lake, we realized that saying good-bye to Lake Garda and heading to Verona without testing the waters was out of question. A short halt was therefore implemented, in Sirmione to be precise, a little town located at the southern shore, on a peninsular stretching a few kilometers into Lake Garda. We didn’t see much of what Sirmione has to offer but the collection of modern yachts in the harbour and the impeccably renovated buildings gave us an idea of the place’s popularity.

We soon spotted a group of teenagers jumping into the lake from a pier and decided to join them. Neither too cold nor too warm, swimming for a couple of minutes proved to be the perfect refreshment before jumping back into the car.

Time to head to Verona now.

Passing through Verona just for a night before continuing to Venice left us little time to properly experience all that the city has to offer. However, no matter how short one stays in this ancient Roman city, it is impossible to remain indifferent to the old majestic remains of various architectural structures, from bridges to gates and villas. A walk through Corso Porta Borsari, Verona’s iconic shopping district, down to the Arena and Casa Giulietta, gave us a first idea of the city center. On a bustling late spring Saturday evening, children running around with a balloon in one hand and a gelato in the other one (which reminded me that – I too – should indulge into another ice cream), their parents looking for a place to sit down and enjoy dinner, could be seen among some ravishingly well dressed women (we are in Italy after all), groups of Asian tourists, restaurant owners chatting with each other and men dressed as Roman légionnaires giving away flyers for upcoming shows at the Arena.

I wish I had taken more pictures of Verona and spent a little more time there, but as we woke up on sunday morning, a greyish sky and rain urged us to continue our route.

Off to Venice.

DAY 3: VENICE

We crossed the long bridge of Ponte della Libertà connecting the floating city to the mainland, left the Fiat near the train station and entered Venice on foot.

Marina had discovered the City of Canals during a previous trip.

For me, this was the first time.

On our way to the hotel Palazzo Abadessa, a historic residence with a private garden located in the Cannaregio district, while passing through narrow alleys and streets (called “Calle”), halting in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, one of the major churches in Venice, walking through Campo San Stin and Campo San Polo, crossing the Rialto bridge, the grandeur of Venice unfolded itself to me.

The Serenissima is romantic.

Renaissance constructions abound, pleasing the eye. Canals snake through the city like veins. Larger arteries such as the Canal Grande regulate the flow of bigger vessels. There is beauty to be found in almost every corner of Venice and one needs but to close the eyes in order to imagine the flamboyant past of the Doge republic.

What kind of thoughts crossed the minds of Lord Byron or Goethe while having tea or coffee at Caffé Florian, right next to the Piazza San Marco? When the flow of time was slower than in our modern society, what was it that people came to see at the top of the Campanile di San Marco? And what kind of prayers were whispered within the walls of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute? Left without answers, the mind wonders.

Venturing through little ateliers and boutiques, we discover the craft of typical Venetian masks; we lay hands on old  books and gaze at Murano glass. According to the owner of the boutique, back in the days, Murano glassmakers had to fear for their life if they were to leave the island of Murano (north of Venice) and pass on their know-how to outsiders. Assassins would be hired to preserve the secrets of the craft.

Beauty, tragedy and secrecy have always shaped the narrative fabric of civilizations.

That evening, the owner of a restaurant right next to the Giardini, near the Parco delle Rimembranze, tells us about his favorite months of the year to stay in Venice. April, May and September. “You have to come again Signore!”

I will come again.

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On the next morning, as I slowly come back to my senses while sitting at a table in the garden of the Hotel Abadessa and realizing that I will never ever write the number 2 in front of my age anymore, the concierge gently asks:

“Tout est en ordre Monsieur?”

“Thank you. Everything is fine. I already feel like this place is my new home.”

“Oh, but this is your new home Signore.”

I smile.

How could I not come back?

All pictures shot on Canon 5D Mark III & Canon 50mm 1.4.

This post is also available in French and German

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