It doesn’t take long to get acclimated to a new city. A good map, and plenty of patience can get you anywhere you want to go.
Most first time visitors to Italy end up defaulting to the most popular of choices, the “Holy Trinity” of itineraries: Rome, Florence, and Venice. Some may stop for a quick picture in Pisa, but for the most part, it’s a rushed trek through the Colosseum, a hurried tour through Uffizi and an over-priced gondola ride through the Grand Canal.
But if you look beyond the crumbling columns of ancient Rome, the medieval alleys of Firenze, and the Venetian waterways of Venice, you’ll find the palaces, fountains and elegant piazza’s, each waiting to tell their stories.
If that is, you stop long enough to listen.
Cutting south through the Piazza Navona, I found myself (within three minutes time) in the Campo de’ Fiori. During the Renaissance, Campo de’ Fiori, or Field of Flowers, was the site of an exquisite meadow. The papal procession routinely made its way through the area, and eventually powerful Roman families built fortress-like houses along the route.
Today, the piazza is an open-air market that preserves the traces of daily life that once flourished here. Hugging the banks of the Tiber River, Campo de’ Fiori lay atop the half-ruined remains of ancient Rome. The Spada Chapel, built in 1550 by Barromini, and the imposing Palazzo Farnese, created by Michelangelo, are prefect examples of the distinct personalities found throughout the Campo de’ Fiori.
I found the palazzo alive with organized commotion in every direction. A labyrinth of stalls, all cramming their way along the tiny acre, created a confusing maze of makeshift tables. Fresh artichokes, eggplant, tangerines, peppers, and other seasonal vegetables – all in colorful arrangements – dazzled the eye. T-shirts, handbags, and trinkets of every kind hung at eye-level for the passer by, and fish that were swimming in the Tyrrhenian Sea earlier in the morning, were proudly being displayed on mountains of ice.
An overflow of people squeezed through the puzzle-like tables, stopping occasionally, to bargain with the merchants. Romans argued loudly with the local fisherman, and tourist’s cameras clicked away at everything that moved – and several things that didn’t. Lovers embraced one another, oblivious to the fact they weren’t alone, and laughter was everywhere. People tried on hats, scarves, and ridiculously oversized sunglasses, striking poses for the vendors, who shouted, “Molto Buono!” even though they knew they looked utterly absurd.
Homeless peddlers hobbled by on canes, shaking empty cups they hoped would be filled at days end. Musicians played instruments of all kinds: violins, accordions, saxophones, and guitars. All the sounds bleeding into one another, creating a symphony of mismatched music, each performing in front of open cases with Euros sprinkled about inside.
But it was the scent, not the sounds that brought the Piazza to life. The smells of chocolate and freshly baked bread wafted its way through the Campo. Ground espresso led each person – almost trance-like – into the small trattorias that lined the piazza.
Residents yawned, stretched, and peeked out of the cracked, open shutters from the buildings above, staring down at the commotion of the concrete jungle. Satisfied the noise had substituted, once again, as their alarm clock.
Laughter was everywhere, and I found it fascinating that the only flowers, in what was once a magnificent meadow, were now bound together with crude, multi-colored rubber bands, sold by shopkeepers who never picked them, and couldn’t tell the difference between a Gardenia and a garden.