Sunday, September 18, 2011

Third Tier Italy

For such a small country, Italy has way too much to see.  Everyone, regardless of who they are, where they come from or what their interests, starts with the "Big Three": Rome, Florence and Venice.  Those three cities are worthy of several visits in and of themselves, but unfortunately most travelers do two days in each place and then fly home.
Once the big three have been checked off the bucket list, folks generally go  to the second tier cities.  These usually include Naples, (or Pompeii and Capri to be exact), Milan, and some of the Tuscan hill towns such as Siena or San Gimignano.  All lovely spots and well worth visits, for sure.  I never tire of taking our little train into Naples to get a taste of its special chaos.  And as many times as we have gone into Tuscany and Umbria, there are still more medieval hill towns to view. 
Then there are the once off the beaten track towns that are now must-sees.  These include any in the Cinque Terre, Perugia (oh, the chocolate!), Verona, Bellagio on Lake Como and a host of others.  You can see why people keep coming back to Italy!  This year, we did some third tier towns and found them to be special gems as well.  Thanks to my sister Martha's impetus, we added some smaller destinations to our must-see list and were not disappointed in any of them. 
Our first stop was Padova (or Padua in English).  While most people know this town as the home of Sant'Antonio of Padova, there is so much more to see.  The most important moment for us was visiting the Cappella degli Scrovegni.  This chapel was built by the Scrovegni family after Dante put the father in Hell in his masterwork "The Inferno".  The Scrovegni's were usurers and Dante had a special place for loan sharks.  The Scrovegni children offered up this chapel in the hopes that dad (and the rest of the clan), wouldn't end up where Dante imagined them.  So, what is so special about this chapel?  It has the most amazing frescoes painted by Giotto, more beautiful and spectacular than we could have imagined.  Giotto formed a bridge between the medieval and the renaissance and these frescoes truly show the transition from the iconic painting of the 1100s to the realism of the 1300s.  Each scene in the life of Christ is full of action and emotion.  The panels are breathtaking and our 20 minutes that we were allotted to visit this small chapel were just not enough.  Once you have seen the Sistine Chapel and the Last Supper, your next stop must be the Scrovegni Chapel.  It is truly a sight to behold.
The next town that we visited was Vicenza, the home of architect Andrea Palladio.  This town doesn't need museums because every street is a work of art.  Palladio designed and built so many amazing palazzos that are still in use today.  It's unfortunate that so many are private homes because it makes it difficult to see the interiors of these buildings, but just seeing the facades is awe-inspiring.  The undiscovered treasure here was the Teatro Olimpico.  This was the last building designed by Palladio before his death, and it wasn't finished until several years after his passing.  It is an amazing theater and the visit there was inspirational.  As we were sitting on the wooden benches in the theater, the lights went out, music started and a traditional sound and light show came on.  One by one, details of the theater were illuminated, allowing the audience to focus in on each work of art and how it fit into the whole.  Truly a delight. 
Then of course there is "La Rotonda", Palladio's masterpiece that inspired Monticello.  It's outside the city center, in the middle of a field surrounded by more modern bourgeois houses.  It is only open on Wednesdays, so we were unable to get in to see the interior, but just seeing this home from a distance was a thrill.
After Padova and Vicenza, we spent a day up near Udine, but we didn't do any urban visits, preferring to drive through the mountains and on into Slovenia for a quick visit.  At this point my sister and her husband left us to go to Bled, and Mike and I wended our way east to Trieste.  This seaside town isn't nearly as charming as the previous two, but it did have some wonderful sights to see.  We went up to the nearby village of Duino to walk the Strada Rilke, and then down to Grignano to visit the gardens and the castle of Mirarmare, both with phenomenal views.  Downtown Trieste is an odd mixture of seaside resort and bustling metropolis, where work and leisure blend together to make for a satisfying lifestyle.
Our last stop on this road-trip through third tier Italy was to Lucca.  Dwarfed by Florence and outshone by Pisa, Lucca is not on most itineraries, and that is what makes it so charming.  Its immense walls have protected the city center from the incursions of modern society and once inside, it's easy to forget the noisy traffic and bustling crowds on the outside. 
Mike and I have two different ways of visiting new places.  He wants a checklist of sites to visit, with the shortest route possible between each locale.  I prefer to wander and get lost, believing that that is how we get lovely surprises.  On this trip, I was right!  We had gone to visit the church of San Martino (on the checklist) and were debating about where to go next when I just started heading in a random direction.  Mike was annoyed but I persisted.  The end result?  We found San Giovanni Cathedral, the oldest in Lucca, where there are nightly performances of opera dedicated to Giacomo Puccini, Lucca's native son.  We bought tickets, toured the church and its excavations and then went back at 7 pm for some fantastic music.  If we had kept to our checklist, we never would have found this church and would have missed out on a wonderful evening's entertainment.
So, if you have done the big three, and have done the Tuscany "villa" experience, consider going third tier to some of the lesser known but just as beautiful cities.  You will miss the crowds but you won't miss the culture.  You will get a much closer look at what Italy is like for those who live here rather than a hit and run bus stop for hoards of tourists.  And you will come away with memories that will stay with you forever. 

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