Love this photo from the back paths of Boboli.
Love this photo from the back paths of Boboli.
Porto, Lisbon, and Barcelona — get ready.
Many, many photos and details to come. See you in a week!
I’m a type-A organizer, impossibly controlling and nauseatingly high-strung. Traveling has kicked my penchant for planning into overdrive: when leaving for a weekend, I itinerize every step. I plotted out every inch of train, bus, and plane transportation to London with times and back-up plans. I decided I wanted to eat Prague schnitzel and picked two restaurants to try before I even arrived in the Czech Republic. I’ve stopped just short of scheduling when to kick back and explore on my spring break, though I have mapped potential places to eat and see in Barcelona with a suitcase while I wait for a few friends to arrive. Some of the best experiences I’ve had abroad, though, are the ones I haven’t planned. When the to-do list is out of my hands, my trips are often a gorgeous surprise — dazzlingly so.
I met my grumpy anthropology class at 7:15am on Friday to board a teeny-teeny-tiny bus and ride out three hours just to poke around some holes in the ground left behind by the long-gone Etruscans. We were depleted before we even left.
I had no idea where we were going or what would be there. My professor had been mentioning these names — Cerveteri, Tarquinia — all semester, but I only knew that they were ancient Etruscan cities that housed some artifacts. And I wasn’t excited to go. I had been on one other class trip this semester for a different course, where we sprinted through five cities in two days to cram in as many museum exhibitions and churches as our budget would allow. It was not my idea of a weekend getaway.
Tired and cranky as I was, as the bus began to shuttle through the Italian mountains, I had to perk up at the craggy skyline and the long stretch of hills. It turns out that we were heading into the south, and Italy was heading into spring. Grass spread from the road to the horizon, dotted with tufts of white sheep. Walking into this valley, I thought, one might never find its end.
And then we pulled up at its edge.
This was Tarquinia, blue-sky Tarquinia, and an ancient City of the Dead. My professor met us at the bus door as we dismounted, and he led us through a funny little one-roomed museum to enter the gated vast field. Stone roofs poked out of the ground at strange angles. Pot-shaped boulders scattered in the grass. These were the buried urns and frescoed tombs of the Etruscans, nearly 2500 years old. We spent the next hour descending into the mouthpieces of these roofs, which protected underground rooms decorated with dancers, gladiators, and priests. These were scenes of the Banquet of Eternity, the Etruscan funerary celebration that was celebrated by both the living and the deceased. We glimpsed portraits of the tombs’ original inhabitants, reclined on their clime and feasting in the frescoes. Then my professor unleashed us to sprawl in the grass and take in how a dead city could feel so alive.
After a brief stop in Tarquinia’s city museum to see what had been unearthed in these tombs, we boarded the bus again to move on to Cerveteri. Again, we pulled up to a seemingly untouched field with greenery abound and few visitors to be seen. But this couldn’t be Italy anymore. We were in the Lord of the Rings.
In Cerveteri, there are these idiosyncratic tumuli, or dome-shaped tombs that are carved from tuffa stone — now covered in moss and grass — that housed underground rooms and rooms of urns and bodies. We circled these massive structures stacked in the hills, scaled their sides and climbed to their entry doors, and crept down into the catacombs to see where the dead used to reside. This was a fantasy world.
After an hour or two of scrambling through thousands-years-old domes, we set out for Norchia to climb into more caves at dusk. It was once a gridded city, now crumbled in the side of a mountain, that we looked on from across a stream. The scene was abandoned. Our professor’s son shouted to the ancient city — “Echo!” — and his words bounced faithfully back to us two, three times. Three ancient worlds in one day, untouched by people or planning.
1. Excavate dead Etruscans with my anthropology class for a day.
2. Sit outside at the young, relaxed bar down the street and have an authentic Bellini.
3. Wake up and stroll down the city center and over the river in my street-sale black dress, black tights and booties. Totally pass for a local until I open my mouth and start stuttering in Italian.
4. Find an edgy artist’s workshop, buy a keychain made from a cork stamped with the word VINO.
5. Gape at the handmade shoes in the window of a leather bottega artigianale.
6. Accidentally get wine-drunk over the course of a two hour lunch in Santo Spirito, accompanied by the best baked truffle gnocchi I’ll ever see in the rest of my years.
7. Hatch a plan to work at an Italian magazine so I can have more baked truffle gnocchi for the rest of my years.
8. Wander into the Boboli Gardens, lie wine-drunkenly in the grass pretending I’m a Capulet.
9. Sigh at the dream that is this city.
I’ve been trying to solve the mystery of the confetti. Since my first days in Florence, it’s followed me down the streets — splayed across the sidewalks, sprinkled on the sewer grates, sticking insolently to my soles. I couldn’t figure out why, week after week, confetti dotted the streets here. On my first Friday night out, my puzzled roommate and I scooped some up for our pockets, hoping it was good luck.
But nothing frustrated me quite like the thought that there was some celebration that I seemed to be missing out on in my own neighborhood. When walking to class, I kicked the little paper stars out of my way. When stepping into my apartment, I scraped the little glittery circles off my boots. After about a month in the city, I finally figured it out: the confetti is for Carnevale, a string of costumed festivals that lead up to the Lenten season.
I’ve also learned, though, that Carnevale isn’t celebrated in Firenze with the magnificent parades and dress-up that you’ll see in Venice or even some of the neighboring Tuscan suburbs. In fact, I was told, it’s more of a holiday for children. With Martedi Grasso, Fat Tuesday, this week, Carnevale has finally stepped into the streets for me to see. Sugar-battered children munch on sweet cenci in the piazzas. Three feet-high princesses, superheros, and more flock the Florentine streets. Still others stop on the sidewalk, squealing as grandmothers pull out plastic baggies from their borse and toss a blizzard of confetti through the air.