Nadira Amir on her great escape to Italy
Even when our surprisingly-packed flight from Dubai touched down at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, I couldn’t fathom that Rema and I were actually in Italy. It had seemed just yesterday that this plan was a complete khyali palao â€” a plan for some unknown future time that we were not likely to reach.
But after the persistent and never-ending harangues of a friend, the greatest advocate for Italy there is, we were electrified into action. A few flurried days of calls to travel agents, and visa offices, as well as a couple of dozen visits to booking.com and lonelyplanet.com, and we were ready for our Great Escape from a load-shedding-inundated, politically-frustrating, nothing-seems-to-go-right and altogether exasperating Lahori summer.
We were ready for our Great Escape from a load-shedding-inundated, politically-frustrating, nothing-seems-to-go-right and altogether exasperating Lahori summer
From the outset, we were comfortable in Italy. Italians seem very much like Pakistanis in their love of life and of food, and especially in their concept of la dolce far niente â€” the sweetness of doing nothing. An alluring, relaxing aura was palpable as soon as we stepped into Rome’s city centre. We were further comforted by our incredible housekeeper Maria at our Bed & Breakfast â€” she left no stone unturned in making us feel truly at home at Urbana 33, a B&B we chose for its proximity to the train station, but in which we absolutely lucked out: it was lovely, as well as clean and modern.
We set off for food almost as soon as we arrived, walking around the pleasant piazzas (squares) and streets nearby. That night I enjoyed the most incredible funghi (mushroom) pizza I’ve ever had. Throughout the rest of my trip I tried every pizza I came across, and none matched my first taste of Italy. After picking up a requisite gelato cone at a neighborhood gelateria (I had planned on trying the chocolate gelato in every city I visited), Rema and I walked to the colosseum â€” the colosseo â€” a mere 10 minutes from where we were staying. It was terrifically grand, especially at night, all lit up. And yet, ironically I suppose, it was also peaceful.
We were escorted to the train-station the next morning by our efficient housekeeper who made sure we were safely on our way before we said our regretful goodbyes!
Florence: Firenze. I cannot overstress the splendor and magnificence of this veritable open-air museum. At every turn, at every corner, all one sees is beauty, history, the Renaissance, art. And of course, tourists! Everywhere there are people, families with children on leashes and dogs in prams (yes!) and group tours, but it is not unpleasantly crowded, not by a long shot. August, apparently, is when peak season slows down.
Since we arrived on a Monday, and the museums were closed, we had the entire day to explore. Our hotel, Residenza Gambrinus, was right on Piazza della Repubblica, dead centre of the city and a five-minute walk from just about any of the main museums or sites.
Florence is truly a city to get lost in; there are treasures at every bend. The il Duomo; the Piazza della Signoria with its open-air sculpture gallery, Ammanati’s Fountain of Neptune, and Palazzo Vecchio (the ancient seat of Florentine government). One can go on and on. Florence is a tangible masterpiece.
Italians seem very much like Pakistanis in their love of life and of food, and especially in their concept of ‘la dolce far niente’ â€” the sweetness of doing nothing
Another of Italy’s masterpieces, of course, is its cuisine: the mouthwateringly-baked bread, dough and pasta; newly-picked basil and moist, juicy, tangy tomatoes. There are no adjectives to describe how tasty the tomatoes in Italy are. Florence is no exception to this.
In the evening we asked our concierge to direct to us to a place with a more “local” feel of Florence. He sent us to Negroni, across the Arno River and about a 20-minute walk from our hotel. This was by far one of my favorite food experiences in Italy. Unbelievable spaghetti. We spent hours on the outer terrace, taking in the ambiance. After dinner, we walked up the many steps to Piazza Michelangelo, and were treated to a panoramic night-view of Florence.
The next day we were off again for a day-trip to the coast. We caught a train and a few short hours later found ourselves in a wonderland patch of blue and green. We had arrived at Monterosso al Mare. This picturesque village on the Italian Riviera embraces its rugged terrain and cool water. We spent some time losing ourselves in its charm, including the winding streets and tiny stalls. This is definitely where the Italians escape to beat the summer heat. Eventually it was time to eat again! By sheer luck we sat down at Enoteca Internazionale. Again, I cannot overstate how good the food was.Â The seafood, particularly the antipasti al mare was utterly fresh as was our usual fare of spaghetti and pizza. Finally, it was time to hit the water, which was cold, but perfect to beat the heat of the simmering August day.
By the time we got back to Florence, it was time for dinner. Steak is a specialty here, and we ventured out to get some Bistecca di fiorentina. Rema and I were pleasantly surprised that even on a Tuesday night, people were out and about till quite late.
We came out of the museums a bit stunned: did we really just see works by Titian, Raphael, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo? Did ‘Art History’ just come to life?
The next day we finally decided to take on the museums â€”the Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Accademia. Although Rema and I were prepared for long queues and a crowd-filled day, it took us all of two minutes to get our tickets and enter. If you have the energy and the concentration span, I definitely recommend a tour. We came out of the museums a bit stunned: did we really just see works by Titian, Raphael, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo? Did ‘Art History’ just come to life?
After Florence, we were off to Siena. The convenient SITA bus deposited us in Siena a short while later and immediately, I was blown away. The town oozes charm. While not as extravagantly beautiful as Florence, Siena, in its delightful and unassuming way, was even lovelier. Everyone here was more relaxed, strolling through the cobblestone streets, just breathing in the magical medieval air.Â For the third time in a row, we were blessed with a great hotel (Hotel Duomo) and an energetic concierge.
He directed us to a great place for dinner, where we tried Siena’s specialty â€” Picci pasta â€” a kind of thick spaghetti. Again, it was one of the top contenders for my favorite meal, although it’s so hard to choose. Afterwards, we walked up to the astounding gothic Duomo, and then down to the Piazza del Campo, the main square, where the furiously-contended horse-race, the Palio, is held twice a year. On this night, however, with mandatory gelato in hand, the Piazza was just peace: people lying on the ground, looking up at the moon.
The next day cemented Siena as one my favorite European cities thus far. We roamed around, taking in the architecture, and after an hour or two we realized we had covered the length and breadth of the city a few times. We walked into a shop where a lady sat painting spectacular porcelain plates by hand. I glanced at the plates with intricate Italian names painted on them. I laughed and pointed one out to Rema. It said Nadia. Rema is the only person in the world who (for reasons known only to her) calls me Nadia. Suddenly she points to one nearby. “Remo” it says. And I am the only one of Rema’s friends and family who calls her Remo. We were stunned and delighted. To us, this was a sign from Siena: this was exactly where the two of us were supposed to be at that moment.