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Italian Discoveries: An unguided tour

I spent two weeks in Italy once, in 2004. I went with my mother and we were supposed to join a tour, but as we couldn’t make the date for the tour group, we hacked it out on our own instead. Drifting in places where English was not the most facile medium of communication without even a map of the country to guide us could only lead to confusion and various unexpected detours—but also to serendipitous discoveries. There were expected thrills of course: The glorious sight of Florence’s Duomo Cathedral, the delights of Italian food in small cafes, the shops of Venice crammed with colorful crafts, the enchanting view of the town of Assisi, and grand halls of Renaissance art. I always treasure those moments in my travels when I stumble upon the unexpected, something unnamed in a guidebook and never mentioned by any friend who has gone before us. Every town we visited in Italy held such a surprise for us.

In Florence, fueled by amarena (black cherry) gelato, we traversed the entire town on foot wearily making our way all the way to Palazzo Pitti on the outskirts. After exploring the formidable palace, I wanted to look at the grounds before the place closed. I left my exhausted mother on the doorstep of the building and dragged myself a dozen meters or so to view the edge of the grounds. Just looking at the vast expanse of grass within the arch discouraged me, so I contented myself by peering into a mysterious-looking grotto. At first glance, the walls appeared to be made up of natural craggy rocks, but upon more careful viewing, carved faces and figures eerily emerged. In Venice, despite its more bewildering maze of streets, such discoveries made while walking were few. We did have the delight of seeing a glassmaker at work crafting a miniature turtle, and were charmed by the dockside courtyard of the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, where a risqué statue of a horseman presided—standing there, one gets the impression of the unique experience of living in Venice, in which one just walks out to find the water in one’s backyard. In a city so centered on water, it was appropriate our most unexpected discovery should be on the water, when we took a vaporetto on the wrong side of the canal, emerging into the bay where a forbidding red brick island rose before us. It was the police station, housed in what appeared to be an ancient fortress, looming like a dungeon.

In beautifully serene Assisi, we were surprised by a sudden public quarrel between two local grumpy old men, one threatening the other with a chair. But the real discovery we made on that leg of the trip was the town of Foligno, where Holiday Inn, the only hotel near Assisi I could book online was located. I had no inkling that it was a whole different town, nor did I appreciate the distance between the rural towns of Italy until we were going there. We asked directions from a lady whose English was so uncertain she mixed up left and right. We walked through the entire town, which seemed bigger than Florence. While mostly modern, we were surprised by Roman ruins on every other block, and finally found our hotel after stumbling past a golden cornfield. Unknown the town might be, but it still had some of the character of the tourist havens of Italy.

After these quaint towns, we found Rome too intimidating to explore entirely on our own. In addition, our dwindling finances forced us to book tours by credit card so we could use our cash for food and souvenirs. But in our two days of freely wandering the city, we pleasantly discovered gnocchi at the train station cafeteria and stumbled on a gelato shop named Tartufo when we got lost near the Spanish Steps. I mistook it for the Tre Scalini which was recommended in our guidebook, but no matter, they had wonderful rich chocolate truffle gelato. And still struggling to find our way through the city, we stumbled upon colorfully dressed horsemen, rehearsing for the national day parade the following day. We got lucky at the San Clemente where we arrived at the last minute, but were able to tail a tour given by an Irish priest who brought the secretive worhip of early Christians to life. Back on the streets, we unexpectedly caught sight of athletes passing the flame of the Olympic torch. Impoverished as we were by then by our once-in-a lifetime trip, we were still rich in serendipitous fortune.