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Discovery in Italy by Debra Bokur
The Forum slips in and out of view in the Roman starlight. The surface of the ancient stone is damp from a late rain, and the light reflected on its uneven exterior seems to shift and glow.
Lovely as it is, my attention is sidetracked by what I find to be a far more compelling sight: my son’s face as he takes in the crumbled, majestic scene. We haven’t traveled alone together since he was a teenager. Now 28, he’s allowed me to coax him away from his life as a hospitality professional in Manhattan’s luxury hotel industry for a few weeks of rest and rejuvenation in Italy.
Rome has been my favorite city since the moment decades ago when I first surrendered to its ageless splendor, standing in this spot. I smile in contentment as my son turns slightly, perhaps feeling my gaze on the back of his head. He grins, then slips his arm through mine and leads me in the direction of a café where a small wooden sign carved with a wine glass and vines hangs above the entrance.
For the next few days, we tour the Vatican, climb the Spanish Steps, gaze at the Trevi Fountain and haggle with vendors at street markets, allowing the days to unfold at their own pace. We’re staying at the Hotel Mediterraneo, an Art Deco masterpiece I adore for its marvelous service. It’s also perfect for walking, with an excellent location on Via Cavour, a long street anchored on one end by the Forum and on the other by the main train station.
On our last day in the city, we linger over breakfast at the rooftop restaurant. Beyond the glassed walls, lovely Rome is spread out below. Together, we enjoy the view while deconstructing jam-filled croissants and sipping our tea and coffee. James sets off for a last day of sightseeing on his own while I pack. We meet up at Caffé Greco, famed for being the oldest bar in the city and the former haunt of literary and musical icons Lord Byron, Keats, Wagner and Liszt. Legends surrounding the long, narrow space include stories of Casanova, and we salute their ghosts with a Bellini and an amaretto.
A late train takes us north to Florence for a day to peruse the vast collections at the Uffizi Gallery. To maximize our time, we’ve booked a guide from Audley Travel, the same company we’d chosen for our tour of the Vatican in Rome. Our guide already arranged for tickets, allowing us to bypass the long queue and to head straight for some of our favorite paintings: Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” Lippi’s “Madonna with Child and Two Angels,” Caravaggio’s “Bacchus.” My son lingers in front of Fabriano’s “Adoration of the Magi,” and the rich tempura colors swirl in front of me. I’m feeling sentimental, of course; determined to remember every moment of this journey.
Later, in search of dinner, I walk beside my only child through the narrow streets along the river. We settle on a trattoria with outdoor seating and a good menu of local handmade egg pasta dishes. For dessert, there’s a slice of the city’s famous schiacciata alla fiorentina cake, served dusted with lemony sugar.
The next day arrives on a warm breeze. We move from the city to the countryside just outside Florence for a night at a renovated estate called Villa le Maschere. It’s a surprise for James, who adores history — especially when it’s wrapped up in an exquisite setting. The estate and its terraced gardens deliver on all counts, and I leave my son in the lobby chatting with the general manager about the five-year restoration process that gave new life to hidden frescoes, murals and statuary. They embark on a tour of passageways and suite 901, where Pope Pius IX once slept and where the surfaces are covered in glorious 18th-century frescoes. I head to the spa to relax in a watery haven of pools and steam baths.
The last part of our Italian journey takes place in Venice. It’s autumn, and the crowds have thinned along the canal path leading to Piazza San Marco. We’re taking a private launch for a night at the San Clemente Palace Kempinski property located on its own small island within the lagoon, but make time first for a coffee in the tiled piazza where a trio of musicians plays. The excellent vocalist is crooning old Sinatra tunes, and we position ourselves with a view of the historic Basilica’s spires and carvings.
Music proves to be a theme of the days in Venice. The next evening, we attend a performance given by Venetia Antiqua as part of the Venice Music Project. The setting is the intimate, resonant space within St. George’s Anglican Church, and we follow the meandering streets to the church’s door facing a small square near the Accademia Bridge. We listen, rapt, as the haunting voice of soprano Liesl Odenweller fills the space and a small orchestra plays on both original and exact replica instruments from the Baroque era. James, who plays several stringed instruments himself, unconsciously moves his fingers on the wooden pew, keeping time, his expression reflecting the beauty of the music.
Our last night in Italy, I stand on the balcony of our rooms at the Sina Centurion Palace Hotel overlooking the Grand Canal. Below, gondola pilots shout good-naturedly at one another as the lights of Venice slowly come on, glinting in the mist rising from the water. While traveling is always an eye-opening experience, exploring the world with our loved ones at different phases in our lives and relationships enriches the journey in ways impossible to predict.
Taking risks, I believe, is essential to the expansion of the soul. Journeying with my adult son to my favorite destination was that, and so much more. Watching this gracious, intelligent man as he embraced the wild world has proven to be one of the most rewarding journeys I’ve ever embarked upon.