Upon entering Venice, you can feel the influence, power and wealth that made this city the richest and the most import trading port in the Mediterranean. You can still sense the wealthy merchants and travelers from around the world conducting business here as they bartered over fine silk from Cathay, and emeralds, rubies, pearls and gold from Asia Minor, and beyond. It seems only fitting that Marco Polo the world’s greatest adventurer and traveler grew up here. Once you learn how to navigate and orient yourself around this city’s canals, bridges, and turning and twisting alleys and cobblestone walkways you could well manage to travel anywhere in the world. As the center of trade for the entire world, this city was the epicenter of learning, culture and art, spawning masters like Bellini and Titian. With such a royal heritage, Venetians are justifiably a proud, noble and refined people. Like the people, the city is calm in mood, dignified, and majestic. The magnificence of this city lives on today in the city’s color, light, music and learning. As you make your way across bridges, over canals, down dark passageways, and up its many stone steps you encounter time and again the city’s refined and noble character. You encounter it in an array of forms in each of Venice’s six districts. It is very much alive in the artists’ studios of the Dorsoduro district where you will find oil paintings, watercolors, woodblock art, and an array of other masterpieces being created. Here you will find artists and master craftsmen with the knowledge of the centuries eager to share their time-honored traditions and works of art.
By day Venice is alive with people from around the world. By night the mystery that once was and still is comes alive. The canals so sea-like during the day shimmer and shine like black liquid asphalt after a heavy downpour. Green, orange and red light dance across a liquid black highway that is the lifeblood of Venice. It is this lifeblood that has enabled the city to retain its essence to this day. With the same means of transportation used by Marco Polo and others over the last 2,000 years, Venice affords a truly unique experience, providing the opportunity to experience a modern day city in the same way that the Medicis experienced Venice. No one checks your pass as you board the water taxis (vaporetti) of Venice. Other than walking and gondolas, this is how Venetians and everyone else navigates the city. As you travel the waterways of Venice sights materialize before you like artistic masterpieces come to life – the Bridge of Sighs, The Doge’s palace, Piazza San Marco, Rialto Bridge, Santa Maria della Salute and other sights of wonder.
Venice is best enjoyed as a journey into uncharted waters where each bridge, canal, and curving and twisting path leads to new discoveries. Rather than a map, the best guide, like seafarers of the past, are the sun, moon and stars. The true magic of Venice lies in the discoveries that wait around every turn, whether that be a marketplace, seaside park, or artist’s studio and gallery. The flagstones, walkways, bridges, tunnels, waterways and canals retain and exude the memories of earlier times and previous travelers creating a shared experience that spans the ages. It is this shared experience, across time that makes Venice a truly magical place.
Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare
To hike the five villages of the Cinque Terre is to journey through time itself along a path of memories. With the chirping of birds, the call of seagulls and the ringing of church bells, the path from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare ascends the mountainside with the Ligurian Sea far below. Here you pass through multi-colored terraces of olive groves, vineyards and gardens. Upon reaching the mountaintop, Monterosso al Mare appears before you in the far distance, shimmering golden in the sunlight, casting its refined reflection out upon the sea.
Like a most beautiful lover promising a warm and tender embrace, Monterosso al Mare is most alluring with its sun kissed sandy beaches, crystal clear azure waters and cosmopolitan cafes, bars and restaurants. Upon breaking the spell of sighting this most beautiful place, you descend the mountain through shady groves, waterfalls, stone walls and steps, and hillside villas. Along the way you might encounter an elderly gentleman offering sustenance in the form of homemade Lemon Cello, a potent lemon liqueur. To compliment the Lemon Cello, you can stop in the local market and purchase homemade pesto, focaccia, pears and wine to enjoy in the warm sand at the water’s edge. The pesto of Cinque Terre is truly a gift from the gods. Here, each family offers its own version of this most exquisite food. Some run like liquid, golden green with locally grown basil and olive oil. Others are denser versions with a strong taste of Parmesan and other cheeses.
Riomaggiore to Manorola
Riomaggiore’s multicolored homes cascade down a mountain valley to a small rock lined harbor. Lining the way from the sea, red, blue, yellow and green hulled fishing dories hang from the cliff walls and line the street. From here you walk along vertical cliff walls to the Via Dell’ Amore – the path of love – which takes you to Manorola. Like the Stations of the Cross, this lover’s lane has its own observances and testaments to the infinity of love. Cupido, La Bella Elena, Apollo, Flavus Amnis, Le Nereidi and Venere are its points of reflection. Like love itself this path is ever so fragile and beautiful. Cut from and through the mountain, the path, like a hanging bridge suspends you above a deep blue sea and then transports you through a tunnel with windows and arches forever observing the miracle and majesty of each day’s sun rise and set. Here against the mountain itself you can find the wall of love where lovers attest their love for one another in languages from around the world.
Vernazza to Corniglia
The trail rises above the tower in a direct ascent up the mountain from Vernazza. Along the way you pass secluded emerald green coves, sea caves, and a mountain of green, gold and burnt amber. Birds sing as the sea below lends its voice to the still mountain air. Sky, sea and mountain are in perfect harmony. Pink and yellow star burst flowers, and multihued olives line the path as you make your way up the mountain through stone terraced olive groves. As if they have spun their own cocoons, protecting them from summer heat and winter cold, the olive groves are encased in a white cloud of netting which acts to collect the falling olives. Along with grapes and the fig tree, olive trees are sacred in Italy. Sounding more like a fable than truth, the olive tree only produces its fruit with the administration of care and love. With this one most perfect teaching, this truly remarkable tree could well be the tree of true knowledge for the entire world. As you ascend the mountain, Corniglia appears like an artist’s abstract painting. With terraces of grapes rising from the sea, the village grows from the vineyards in shades of gold, red, orange and blue.
As you descend the mountain into Corniglia terraces of vineyards spill out to the sea in a profusion of yellow and green. Wild cats of every color make their home along this path. At the rest stops along the way, five or more cats greet you with a variety of voices seeking food and attention. Along the way bamboo groves whisper in the wind, mingling their soft voice with the ocean roar fall below. Adding to this cornucopia of color myrtle bushes spill red berries onto the path.
Like a castle rising from the sea Corniglia is a natural extension the cliffs themselves, with nothing below you but the sea. Looking out from these living ramparts you can gaze upon Manarola to the south and Monterosso al mare far to the north. The center of the village lies along a narrow stone path, with walls on either side blocking out the sun. Here you can find markets with homemade wine and pesto and olives from the groves you have just hiked through. To compliment the best food in the world, you can hike down from the center of town along a long flight of stone steps set into the face of the sea cliff to a turquoise cove where the fishermen launch their dories. Here underneath a pine tree in a green dell perched above the murmuring surf you will find a picnic table with a view of Monterosso al Mare and beyond. With the sea before you, a pine and acorn tree above you, bougainvillea and pink starburst flowers at your back, this is a most perfect room with a view, offering a lunch and a setting like no other, truly what memories are made of.
Corniglia to Manorala
From Corniglia the trail passes along a wall of bougainvillea to a landslide prone area that literally falls into the sea. Here the beach is a mosaic of rounded rocks of all sizes stretching out before below crystal clear waters. Further along, the sea advances into sea caves along a series of points reaching out into the sea. Here and there the trail descends to the foot of the mountain to the very edge of the sea. As you round the final wall of the mountain you come face to face with Manorola rising stately and majestic from the black stone and azure sea below. Perched on the very edge of the cliff, the village seems to be keeping watch as you approach from the north.
Rising ever higher, Siena climbs the Tuscan hillsides in a profusion of cobblestone streets, and red brick arches, and walls. Like a fortified medieval kingdom, the city winds through an array of inner courtyards, passageways, gates and ramparts as it reaches toward the Tuscan sun. Perched above all else in heavenly splendor is Saint Catherine’s Cathedral, the Duomo of Siena. Arrayed in a profusion of intersecting geometries of orange, pink, black, yellow and white marble, the Duomo speaks in a mystic language of stars, suns, and an array of other symbols from bygone eras. The Cathedral’s floor, walls, ceiling and crypt are alive with stories from the past. Here you will find frescoes and paintings telling the stories of the new and old testaments. Marble storybook images across the entire Cathedral floor speak in allegories of knowledge, wisdom and truth. Sibyls, prophetesses from forgotten times proclaim the coming of Christ, along with stories and imagery from Greece, Asia Minor, Africa, and Persia. Since the 1200s worshipers have come to this holy place for inspiration, guidance and solace. In the crypt below the church they would prepare themselves for the majesty, and splendor that waited in the cathedral above.
Upon entering the cathedral, you can not but feel closer to heaven. With its domed ceiling and ascending layers of gold stars against a blue sky you are transported to a higher place. This transcendental feeling is further heightened upon hearing the divinely inspired celestial music from the cathedral’s organ. This music lifts one’s soul and spirit and inspires all who hear it to a higher calling. All who hear are comforted soothed and for a glorious moment reborn with the grace of this divine music.
Saint Catherine’s Chapel
In the home of Saint Catherine, you will find one of Italy’s most beautiful chapels, the chapel of Saint Catherine of Siena. At the center of this small chapel, as if illuminated by divine light from heaven is the cross of San Damiano, the cross which spoke to Saint Francis of Assisi and inspired his own heavenly works. On either side of the altar, golden arches are brought to brilliance by circular stained glass windows, which illuminate the chapel’s beautiful frescoes.
Piazza del Campo
Piazza del Campo exists in a world of its own. It is its own universe, with its red brick sun and travertine marble rays radiating energy outward. Like planets orbiting a star, the Palazzo Pubblico, Torre del Mangia, trattorias, and other shops are suspended in perfect harmony around this magical elliptic. Like all constellations, this place attracts as well as radiates energy. Throughout the ages, people from around the world have been drawn to this magical and enchanting place. Standing in this oval, you can sense Siena’s magnificence and power. You can feel its history. Looking out upon the city’s red brick walls and red tiled roofs you lose track of the centuries as you are transported back to the Middle Ages when Siena was one of the strongest, richest and most powerful kingdoms in the Roman Empire. Befitting such a majestic place, twice a year Sienese society and now the rest of the world gather to participate in the Palio delle contrade. Honoring traditions dating back to the 1200s, ten of the city’ s seventeen contrade (quarters) race their horses three times around the perimeter of the Piazza del Campo. Their goal is to capture the hand painted palio (flag) and bring glory and prestige to their contrada. Each Contrada has its own hymn and its own flag, bringing majesty, color, music and joy to this time honored event.
Like a golden palace set upon a hill, Assisi shimmers and shines in the sun attracting visitors from near and far. The city brings to mind historic quests and legends. There is a magical feeling here, a tangible feeling of peace and protection. This is truly a mystical place, the birthplace of Saint Francis of Assisi and of Saint Claire, his disciple. It is here that Christ spoke to Saint Francis. It is here that both Saint Francis and Saint Claire are buried in sacred crypts beneath the churches that bear their names.
Basilica of Saint Francis
As you enter the lower basilica, which lies beneath the main church, Saint Francis of Assisi greets you with a Latin inscription from the middle ages which reads — Slow down your step and be joyful, oh pilgrim, you have already reached the hill of paradise… Ever resonant with praise and gladdened with holy choirs, this church is a true paradise of spiritual joys. Enter, you will see greater things. As you enter, you can feel the power that radiates from this place. It is as if you are on a quest of your own and have found the final resting place of the Holy Grail, or the Ark of the Covenant. In truth you have come to the final resting-place of Saint Francis of Assisi. As you pass under arches and columns of gold, red and blue marble you come to the tomb that contains the remains of this holy mystic. It is these remains which are the source of the power that you feel, and which to this day provide protection and healing for the entire world.
Basilica of Saint Claire
The crypt of Saint Claire is entered through a star gate, a portal archway of white marble stars against a night of black marble. The crypt lies beneath a heavenly midnight blue dome sky of marble, studded with thousands of gold stars. The effect is that of a heavenly and enchanted starry night. Marble columns rise from the floor and cross the ceiling of the vault intersecting in the middle like rays from an eternal star. The feeling here is different from that of the tomb of Saint Francis. The feeling here is one of total peace and understanding. No matter what the difficulty, no matter what the problem, here it can be resolved.
The Hermitage of Saint Francis
Passing through Porta Cappuccini, one of Assisi’s main gates, you come to a red marble strewn path that leads up Mount Subasio to the cave where Saint Francis received his spiritual insight and power. As you climb through cypress and pine trees you leave the city behind. Here there are no cars, no people, just mountain serenity as you retrace the footsteps of Saint Francis as he made his way from his home in Assisi up the mountain to his spiritual retreat site. In the fall, the climb ascends through evergreens and past trees of yellow gold and burnt amber. The effect is not unlike the cathedrals below with their red and white marble floors, walls of the most beautiful gold, green and orange and ceiling’s of heavenly blue. As you climb you will need to rest against tree and stone, as did Saint Francis, Saint Claire and others who journeyed up this steep marble pathway. You can feel them here in their solitude, robes, rosaries and sandals as they climbed to and from Assisi far below. Nestled in a secret dell in a forest of trees, the hermitage appears to be floating on a sea of fall colors. Green, gold and burn amber envelops the hermitage on all sides. Like the villages of Cinque Terre, this place also rises from the rock and sea of colors below as if grown from the land itself.
Upon entering the hermitage, you descend through narrow, dark stone tunnels and passageways, down winding steps into the cave itself where Saint Francis spent his time meditating and communing with God. This earthen alcove is simply adorned with the cross through which Christ spoke to Saint Francis, the icon known as The Christ of San Damiano. Here all you can hear is the sound of silence. In the light of the cave the cross casts a shadow which looks like the wings of a dove. The cross appears to be a living, breathing cross, providing benediction, and blessings to all. Here in the cave of Saint Francis, the world does not seem the same. Peace lives here, harmony lives here, the grace of God lives here. This grace and peace flows into you like the air that you breathe. It is as if this icon of a cross is reaching out to enfold all humanity in the embrace of peace, understanding and forgiveness.
The Christ of San Damiano
The Christ of San Damiano is a 12th century icon in the form of a Byzantine cross. You will see this cross, which spoke to Saint Francis, in churches and homes throughout Italy.This icon is as compelling today as it was during the time of Saint Francis. It speaks of love, compassion, suffering, hope and ultimately of forgiveness. This sacred cross, like Tibetan mandalas and other sacred images has the power to transport you to a place beyond time and space, to the ultimate understanding.
Saint Peter’s Basilica and Square
The grandeur of Saint Peter’s is simply overwhelming, yet when viewed from atop the dome of the basilica, like God looking down from heaven above, Michelangelo’s vision comes clearly into focus. Like an enormous cross the church reaches out to the four corners of the globe. Looking down upon the people on the floor of the basilica some 400 feet below, you have the feeling of omnipotence over the mortals walking the church floor below you. It seems that from Michelangelo’s dome the entirety of Saint Peter’s comes into perspective. The massive pillars and arches of the church seem smaller from above and can be viewed in all their grandeur from this godly perspective. Continuing on above to the very top of the dome, Saint Peter’s Square opens before you with its hundreds of columns arrayed like arms embracing the world. At the center of the square is an Egyptian obelisk. This hundred-foot-high obelisk, originally designed to honor the Egyptian Sun God Ra, when viewed from above, in conjunction with the circular piazza appears to be a giant sun dial, with the shadow of the obelisk noting the passage of time. Like a living calendar, this place has marked the passage of time for the last 200 centuries.
The Sistine Chapel
To sit in the Sistine and to reflect upon the meaning of Michelangelo’s greatest work of art is truly a blessed experience. This Chapel tells the story of the universe and of mankind. Starting with the creation of light, the story includes the separation of the land from the water, the creation of Adam and Eve and of original sin, the great flood and the story of Noah. The odyssey continues with the enslavement of mankind to sin, and then moves on to hope and the expectation of redemption and salvation for all mankind. This story speaks of the mystery of life and death. The chapel asks us to consider a most compelling question – What is our own destiny beyond the finite nature of time? Beyond this the chapel reveals that the purpose of life itself is to overcome evil, the only true limitation of man and of mankind. The chapel inspires us to embrace the three great human virtues of truth, goodness and beauty. In addition, we are advised to pursue strength, prudence, and temperance and to be a source of charity, hope and faith.
Fontana Di Trevi
Coming across the Trevi Fountain for the first time is like your first glimpse of the Matterhorn. The Fountain appears as a majestic force of nature that has somehow materialized in the middle of Rome. With its waterfalls, grottoes, aquamarine pools, caves, ledges and cliffs, it is erupting with a life force that literally takes hold of you as you enter its sphere of orbit. Only an inspired act of God could explain the appearance of this miraculous creation. In tribute to life giving water the Fountain honors Neptune, God of the sea and ultimately all waters.
Like an enormous beast of a thousand legs, with an unyielding thirst for blood, feeding off of fear, and frenzy, the Coliseum lurks at the very heart of Rome. With an underbelly and legs blackened over the ages, the Coliseum is a living testament to the dark side of humanity. From the upper tiers of the Coliseum you can hear the echoes of the spectators calling out for blood as the gladiators engage man and beast in mortal combat. Feted beyond its own capacity, it like the Roman Empire of old has declined into darkness, yet waits to be reborn into its former frenzied and bloodied glory.
The Food of Italy
The food of Italy is like its art, each dish is a masterpiece of color, texture, taste and aroma. Like fine art and wine, the food is contemplated, savored and appreciated. The subtle tastes like the colors of frescoes and oil paintings meld together to create an experience that elicits a response from body, mind and soul that enriches you with each and every meal. Like the sights that surround you, the food creates memories of a lifetime. Each meal is a special offering, made with love and devotion. Whether it is a cappuccino, cafe au lait, pizza, pasty or a full meal, each food is a labor of love that is made to be appreciated. With its many kingdoms of old, each region of Italy offers its own particular cuisine. The foods of the Venetians, Lingurians, Tuscans and Umbrians are as different from one another as the foods from different countries. The Foods of Venice are of the sea. Here you will find pickled sardines with onions and raisins, squid (cuttlefish) in black ink served with grilled polenta cakes, and seafood pastas of every sort. In Cinque Terre the foods combine the taste of the sea and mountain, with lingurian style octopus, scampi gnocchi, baked anchovies, clam pasta and fresh petso and olives. The food of Tuscany is of the mountains and sky with wild boar, roe deer, stuffed rabbit, fowl and Chianti classico sauces. Here the foods are strong, hearty and bold. In Tuscany you will find homemade pici noodles – soft, round comfort with a tantalizing porcini mushroom and meat sauce. In Assisi you will find restaurants with wood burning stoves radiating fiery red heat into earthen walls and ceiling that absorb the heat and radiate a warmth and welcome like one’s own home. Here the meal starts with toasted bread glistening with olive oil and fresh herbs. This is followed by a homemade local pasta dish of truffles and walnuts, followed by rabbit simmering in a sauce of ten local herbs.
Like the air that you breathe and the wine that you drink, Tiramisu is ever present in an array of different presentations. In Venice it arrives on a plate like a cake with a dusting of dark chocolate on top and rich with liqueur. In the Cinque Terre it is served in a large cup with a predominance of creamy custard and a sponge cake filled center. In Siena, the presentation is of creamy custard coated cake, moist, soft and nourishing. In Assisi you delve into a deep bowl to experience chocolate covered custard cream and cake. Like Italy itself, the food is a rewarding, nourishing and life changing experience. To experience such art and to be nourished spiritually and physically by such cuisine forever changes one’s perceptions.
Story and Accompanying Photos by Joe Prickitt