“A journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you can control it.”John Steinbeck
Let’s face it, embracing misadventure isn’t easy, but as I see it the unexpected is part of the adventure. I have listened to countless travel tales through the years ‘ruined’ by such things as rain, lost luggage—you name it. While they may be inconvenient, I believe unexpected experiences are just as important as the beautiful moments, the a-ah moments, the ‘pinch me am I dreaming’ moments.
From the unpredictability of weather to cancelled flights, from missed trains to late ferries (where I slept on a jetty in Greece and a rat ran over my leg), from severe stomach upset to lost luggage…to the time I almost lost my 75-year-old grandmother in Taormina, Sicily, I’ve had a few misadventures.
The one that takes center stage took place in Italy and hinges on my role as “designated” driver. And, just to be clear, designated has nothing to do here with drinking and driving. Being frugal travelers, my friends and I chose to rent a car with a manual transmission since it was less expensive. And, given I was the only stick-savvy driver in our group, I accepted the challenge.
The preamble to this little misadventure began when I joined friends in Florence. They’d already been enjoying Italy for a couple of weeks by the time I arrived and, together, we were planning to explore the city on foot and then head to Tuscany and on to Sorrento and the Amalfi coast by car.
This wasn’t my first time in Florence and I was happy to be back. During my previous visit I stayed in a serviceable, but uninspiring hotel near the train station. This time I was intent on staying someplace with a bit more character.
My research paid off and Paris Hotel did not disappoint. A former palace, the hotel was filled with all of the rich architectural detail one might associate with grand structures—frescoed ceilings, ornate gilding, ballrooms, beautiful ironwork, mosaic floors, etc. And, if I stuck my head far enough out my shuttered, velvet-draped window, I could see Brunelleschi’s Duomo. It felt like being in a Paris hotel (pardon the coincidental reference) with a view of the iconic Eiffel Tower.
Since I’d already taken in the city’s iconic sites, like the Duomo, the Uffizi, the Piazza della Signoria, Boboli Palace and gardens, and the Ponte Vecchio my first amble around the city, I was really looking forward to what this visit might bring. A meet and greet arranged by a friend and curator from the Cleveland Museum of Art seemed like it might be just what I was looking for this time around.
We met Maurizio Seracini in the Oltraarno across the Ponte Vecchio in a historic quarter of the old city. His offices were located down a rutted medieval street in a 500-year-old building we learned had been owned by the same family since the 1600s.
We had no idea what to expect as we stepped into the building, as our friend only told us we should meet him and little else. What followed was an experience typically reserved for art world professionals, collectors and auction houses. For an art lover like myself, it was an experience dreams are made of.
We soon learned he was a world-famous art sleuth and diagnostician and that he had been up close and personal with some of the most important works of art and architecture in the art canon. Even his offices were a work of art. For the next few hours, even the angels gracing the 20-foot vaulted ceilings seemed to hold their breath as he told us about his work.
He explained how he had adapted military and medical technology for the purposes of seeing below the skin, so to speak, of individual works of art and architecture. He showed us scans of works by Caravaggio, Da Vinci, and Raphael, among others, that revealed the under-drawings or cartoons not visible to the naked eye at the base of the paintings.
The ability to see through the layers of gesso, paint and varnish he explained, allows conservators to gauge the health of a work of art and for art historians to further explore the artist’s intent, which oftentimes changed as the painting evolved. Additionally, his work assists scholars in their work authenticating works of art, which he indicated his company was often hired for.
We were lucky enough to spend further time with Maurizio a couple of days later, when he invited us on an evening walking tour of medieval Florence. As we stepped back in time, he pointed out buildings whose outlines and facades had been altered and changed through the centuries. The tour proved to be as fascinating as our time spent in his office.
We all worked up quite an appetite walking around listening to his stories, so he suggested dinner and we eagerly accepted. We headed back over the Ponte Vecchio to one of Maurizio’s favorites—a trattoria popular with locals located not far from the stairs leading to Piazzale Michelangelo.
During our meal, we discussed his struggles to raise money for his ongoing project in the Hall of Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio, where he had been searching for a lost Leonardo da Vinci fresco titled the Battle of Anghiari on and off for nearly 30 years. Encouraged by the discovery of Masaccio’s lost Trinity fresco found hidden behind a wall in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella, Seracini surmised Da Vinci’s painting had been preserved in the same manner.
It seems Giorgio Vasari, the artist and architect hired to make structural changes to Santa Maria Novella and to remodel the Hall of Five Hundred or the Salone dei Cinquecento in the 1560’s, was a great admirer of Leonardo and would conceivably have been reluctant to destroy any work by the great master. Seracini believed Vasari built a wall just in front of the one containing Leonardo’s painting, like he had done with Masaccio’s fresco, and may have even left a clue hinting at its location.
In the upper corner of the east wall, not visible from the floor below, there is a green pennant on which the words Cerca Trova are painted. Roughly translated, the phrase means, “Seek and you shall find.” The words were unusual, Seracini explained, as they were the only ones in the entire room.
The conundrum was how to prove the painting was there and how to reveal it. Although he had detected a double wall that stretched the entire length of the east wall in the Hall of Five Hundred with his low-frequency sonogram machine, you couldn’t destroy one piece of priceless art to uncover an even more priceless piece of art that may or may not be there.
We concluded our meal with tiramisu and espresso and discussed what was next for us. We apprised him of our plans and he made a few suggestions. I piped up and explained I’d be driving and asked if he had any advice. To which, after thinking for a few moments, he replied, “Don’t think, just drive!”
And drive, I did!
Over several days, we explored Tuscany with its extremely steep hills, narrow lanes and seriously winding roads from our base at Poggio Etrusco—a charming agriturismo located outside Montepulciano. And, though Tuscany’s steep hills were a serious challenge to my manual transmission driving skills, it was the drive to Sorrento and the Amalfi coast that proved the most difficult.
Our unwitting descent into purgatory began at 9:30 AM in near unbearable heat. It was already 96-degrees and I wondered how high the mercury would rise. I wasn’t feeling well either, but didn’t let on, as we had reservations to keep. We reluctantly bid Poggio Etrusco and our lovely hosts farewell and set off on the first leg of our journey.
Driving on the A-1 proved far easier than driving on Tuscany’s winding roads. Since we were making good time, we decided to stop off in Orvieto for a stroll and look at their famous Duomo. We capped off our visit with lunch before getting back on the highway to Rome.
Driving in the Eternal City was a wee bit insane. Round and round we went, as our friend was unsure how to get to her hotel. We must have circled the city at least three times before I insisted we reach out to some policemen standing not far from a taxi stand we had passed several times.
They kindly hailed a cab for our friend and told the driver where to go. We said goodbye and gratefully thanked them for their kind assistance. After a little snack, we got back on the road around 4:00 PM. Sorrento here we come!
Outside Naples, we stopped for an espresso, as my energy was flagging fast. I knocked it back Italian-style and we eased back on the highway for what we thought would be a short drive to Sorrento. Turns out the last leg of our journey, which should have taken an hour, took more than three, as we became stuck in insane holiday traffic.
With the constant sound of Vespa’s buzzing in our ears and the smell of exhaust in our noses, we crawled car length by car length through tunnel after tunnel for what seemed like an eternity. To top it off, the continuous stop and go put serious strain on my knees with the constant pressing and easing off of the brakes and clutch.
To make a long story short, a journey that was only supposed to have taken three hours ended up taking more than than six by the time we reached our destination. I thought we were home free when we reached Sorrento, but the mischievous travel gods had other plans. We got a bit lost as centuries-old coastal cities can be a bit confusing, but finally found our hotel around 11:00 PM.
By the time I found a place to park on the crowded street outside Porto Salvo, the former Capuchin monastery turned hotel, I was literally and figuratively spent. My friend could tell how exhausted I was and went into the hotel without me to check us in.
She returned soon after—no key in hand. My spirits sank to new Dante lows, when she explained our reserved and confirmed hotel room had been given away—insert your own expletive!
I was utterly crestfallen to learn we no longer had a room in which to rest our weary heads. I was even more disappointed since I had spent so much time trying to find a converted monastery to stay in and had been looking forward to it.
I was so exhausted from not feeling well, the heat, the drive, the traffic and the confusion I felt like crying. And, just to note here, I do not cry easily. All I wanted were my sweet little cinnamon-colored poodles, Missy and Raisin. They, unfortunately, were nearly 5,000 thousand miles away and unable to provide me any comfort at all.
The apologetic desk clerk reached out to a fellow hotelier and soon Pasquale, a blond Adonis on a turquoise Vespa, arrived to rescue us. He kindly guided us out of the hotel, jumped on his motor scooter and away we went. Keeping his tail lights in sight, we managed to stay behind him from Porto Salvo up some very steep hills until he came to a sudden stop outside a monumental set of iron gates.
As the gates began to slowly open, he indicated we should follow him and zipped through. I looked at my friend and said, “We have no idea where we are going—he could be selling us off as sex slaves for all we know.” We laughed and I released the clutch and slipped into first as we passed through the gates and began our descent
The first things to strike us as we descended into the property was the pervasive smell of lemons and the sound of gravel shifting beneath our car tires. There was little light until we reached the hotel, so we couldn’t make out any details other than we might have just passed through a lemon orchard.
After parking, we noticed bank after bank of deep blue and limelight hydrangea lining the drive and property walls. The blooms were as profuse as the fallen lemons we side-stepped as Pasquale helped us unload the car.
By the time we reached our room it was nearly midnight. The room was simple with a pair of large green shutters set in what turned out to be the north and east walls and a duo of rather old-fashioned twin iron beds, a dressing table and an old armadio. I took a shower in the communal bathroom in attempt to rinse off some of the day’s stress and then crawled between the crisp white sheets.
Before you could say what for, a feeble rooster started crowing and crowing and crowing. Oh, dios mio, we couldn’t seem to catch a break. After sleeping fitfully through the crowing for a few hours, I decided to get up and headed directly for the shutters across from my bed.
I pushed them open and stepped out to the entire Gulf of Naples spread before me. I was gobsmacked. Blue sky and blue sea stretched as far my eye could see stopped only by the famed Mount Vesuvius rising in the distance. The room may have been simple, but the view was absolutely magnificent.
I came back inside curious what the second set of shutters might reveal. After opening them and making my way outside, I discovered the source of the rooster racket—an old farmhouse situated below our balcony.
Though the light bathing the building was atmospheric, the house itself had seen better days. It was weathered and worn and the shuttered windows no longer plumb. And there in a patch of sunlight, I spied a rather scrawny rooster strutting protectively around the feet of a white-haired, black-clad woman resting in the morning light. The rooster obviously took his jobs very seriously.
At breakfast, we learned we were staying at Villa Oriana—Sorrento’s first B & B and Pasquale’s family’s home. The food was incredible, especially the chocolate torte. It was absolutely THE perfect dessert for a chocolate lover like myself. From the unexpected blue-patterned china to the white ceramic pitcher brimming with blue hydrangea, all of the details were thoughtfully seen to.
We took our meal on a sweeping white balcony that seemed to launch itself into the view. The sunlight was warm on our backs and the breeze so gentle —I felt like I’d found Shangri-La. I couldn’t imagine living like this day after day.
After breakfast, Pasquale took us on a tour of a couple of other properties, indicating we weren’t obligated to stay at Villa Oriana. Though we were reluctant to leave given his kindness, we chose to relocate to a hotel with a panoramic rooftop pool. Hotel Cristina wasn’t the most charming of hotels— more 60’s contemporary—but the view from the pool was absolutely irresistible.
Surrounded by terra cotta planters overflowing with colorful lantana, the pool was very peaceful and we had it mostly to ourselves. It was just what a doctor might order. We relaxed into our postcard view with ease, stretching out on lounge chairs angled toes out towards the bay.
Before long, I grew drowsy—my body feeling lighter and lighter, like the birds riding the updrafts above the bay. I soon gave into my exhaustion and fell asleep beneath the broad blue sky with dreams of unparalleled views, lemon trees, chocolate torte, rooftop pools and Roman gods filling my head.
Our adventure continued from there, but suffice to say after driving for nearly 12 hours the previous day, my interest in driving even a block more had completely fizzled. I was reluctant to let my friend know I no longer wanted to drive since we had the Amalfi coast to explore. She took it well, however, saying, “You are one hell of a driver!”
I was so relieved to know I could pass the steering wheel, brakes and clutch off to someone else I nearly danced in the street. After turning the car in the next day, we happily walked, hydrofoiled and bussed it the rest of the trip.
Do you have any crazy misadventures and subsequent silver linings you’d like to share? I’d love to hear!
Did you know:
- Oltraarno means ‘beyond the Arno’ and that it is an area located on the other side of the Arno River and contains one of the historic quarters of Florence?
- the famed Ponte Vecchio, built around 1333 and considered one of the world’s most beautiful bridges, was the only bridge the retreating Germans did not destroy in Florence during the Second World War? It was supposedly saved by a Nazi consul officer named Gerhard Wolf, who it turns out was more a fan of Florence’s treasures than his boss Hitler and his agenda of complete destruction. Thank you, Consul Wolf!
- the Ponte Vecchio was once one big macelleria with one butcher and fish monger after the other lining the bridge? Supposedly, the powers that be started leasing space on the bridge to shop or stall keepers in the 13th century. As you can imagine, the stench the meat and fish created was less than appealing. By the late 16th century, the meat sellers, who had been joined by tanners along the way, had been replaced with goldsmiths and jewelers. Jewelry tradesmen and women continue to line the bridge today along with antique dealers and profumerias.
- the rendition featured above of Leonard da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari can be attributed to Peter Paul Rubens, who was so impressed by its power and movement, he made a sketch of it sometime before its disappearance in 1563? Sketches made by Rubens and an anonymous Italian artist, along with mentions in 14th century guidebooks, are the only evidence of the lost masterpiece. Does the Battle of Anghiari lie buried in the walls of the Hall of Five Hundred? We do not yet know, but maybe one day we will.