My Italian odyssey

Italy belongs to a select list of countries to which I’ve traveled without singing karaoke within their borders. Here’s the story of how that happened — and how I occupied myself in the absence of singing opportunities.

In one of the excavated villas in the volcanically-buried city of Pompeii, a floor mosaic bears the words “Cave canem” — Latin for “Beware of dog.” During my 2004 visit to Italy (a tour that did include a stop in Pompeii), I had my own “Cave Canem” experience. The scene for that encounter was the island of Murano, near Venice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Rome: Veni, vidi, vici? Not quite . . .

My Italian hijinks commenced in Rome. I’d been to the Eternal City once before, in 1993. I was excited to return because in the ensuing 11 years I’d read extensively on Roman history; and so I looked forward to appreciating the relics of the Roman empire in their historical context as I gazed upon them in the 21st century.

And the Roman landmarks that I toured did not disappoint: the Colosseum (also known as the Flavian amphitheater); the Forum; the Pantheon; St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums (including the Sistine Chapel); Trevi Fountain; and the Spanish steps. One of the less clichéd attractions that I was privileged to behold was the Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth), which was the subject of a famous scene in the Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn film, Roman Holiday. This image of a river god has hung in its present location in the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin since 1632 (see photo at right). A legend holds that if you insert your arm in its maw and tell a lie, the Mouth of Truth will swallow your arm. I did not put that legend to the test. 🙂

The history buff in me enjoyed taking in so many iconic sights during my sojourn in the Italian capital. But I was in town for another reason as well. Having just added Greece to my World Karaoke Tour a few days earlier, I wanted Italy to join its Mediterranean neighbor on my list of karaoke conquests. Unfortunately, that mission was not fated to be accomplished in Rome. Nick, an Italian-American karaoke buddy in New York, had suggested that I would be likely to find a karaoke venue in the Trastevere, a bohemian quarter on the west bank of the River Tiber. Pubs and restaurants abound along the cobbled medieval streets of the Trastevere; and as I meandered through its narrow pathways, I hoped that at least one of those establishments would offer me the chance to sing.

My search was doomed to failure by an aspect of Italian culture of which I’d previously been unaware. I actually did come across one bar in the Trastevere region in which karaoke nights were held — only to learn that the karaoke was suspended for the month of August (the month during which I’d walked into that watering hole). The reason: during each and every August, many Italians (including, apparently, the karaoke host at this particular pub) go on vacation for the entire month. So I was out of luck.

That was as close as I would come to adding the nation of Italy to my World Karaoke Tour. My Italian itinerary also included Pompeii and Venice, but I was not fated to find karaoke in either of those locations. However, I did see some cool stuff in those cities.

Pompeii and Vesuvius: H-Bomb versus the volcano

The prosperous Roman city of Pompeii was interred under volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 — perhaps the most celebrated volcanic outburst in world history. Pompeii’s ruins (unearthed by archaeologists in the 18th century) make for poignant viewing when one contemplates the tragic and sudden end that befell its residents. You can walk into well-preserved buildings that were constructed over two thousand years ago, and thereby gain a unique insight into the way people lived in antiquity. The surviving structures that line the Pompeiian streets include not only residential villas, but a bakery and even a house of ill repute (tangible proof that the trade that was practiced inside its walls is truly the world’s oldest profession).

And you can even see (sort of) some of the people who lived and worked in those buildings; one of the most unusual series of items on display in Pompeii is the plaster casts of some of the Vesuvian victims (see photo at right). When Pompeii was excavated, found in the volcanic ash were indentations in the shape of some of the human casualties. Those impressions preserved for centuries the poses that the victims had been in when nature’s wrath overtook them. The archaeologists made plaster casts from the indentations. However, the presentation of many of the casts leaves something to be desired. For example, the one seen here is just lying on a wooden table in a storage room.

During my Pompeiian visit, I also took a day-trip to the ruins at Herculaneum (see photo at left), another outpost of the Roman empire that was destroyed in the same Vesuvian eruption that wiped out Pompeii.

And I made an excursion into the bustling metropolis of nearby Naples, where I visited the National Archaeological Museum. Among the highlights of that museum are a wealth of artworks found among the excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Its most famous gallery is the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet), a chamber that features erotically themed art from those ancient cities (Additional examples of the treasures of the Gabinetto Segreto can be glimpsed here and here. But be warned: the images from the Gabinetto Segreto to which I’ve linked here are NSFW). Until relatively recently, the contents of the Gabinetto Segreto were deemed too explicit for public display, and could only be viewed by “persons of mature age, known to be possessed of a strong morality.” My guidebook had indicated that even today, upon entry into the museum, you need to sign up for a timed appointment if you wish to gain access to the Gabinetto Segreto (although the museum staff no longer evaluates your morality when you do that); but even though I forgot to register for an appointment, there were no guards stationed at the door and I had no trouble accessing the forbidden chamber.

Perhaps the highlight of my visit to Pompeii was my ascent of the volcano that was responsible for all the carnage. The rim of Vesuvius’s crater stands 4,203 feet (1,281 metres) above sea level at its highest point, and affords commanding views of the Bay of Naples. At one time, sightseers were whisked to that summit by a funicular railway; that conveyance was immortalized in the popular Neapolitan song “Funiculi, Funicula,” composed by Luigi Denza in 1880:

Alas, the funicular was destroyed in the most recent Vesuvian eruption, in 1944, and was never rebuilt. My mode of transportation was therefore less glamorous: I was driven part of the way up by a municipal bus; and after going as far as the bus would take me, I grabbed a walking stick and finished the climb on foot (In 1953, a chair lift replaced the funicular as a way for people to get to the top of the volcano; but for reasons that I haven’t been able to determine, the chair lift ceased operations in 1984. It’s just as well; with my fear of heights, you’d never get me to ride one of those things. If I’m going to sit in an object that’s dangling high above a mountain, I insist that it at least be fully enclosed).

I thought it was interesting that snack bars and souvenir shops appeared periodically almost all the way up to the summit of the mountain. I wondered what it was like for the proprietors to commute to work every day. While there were no vehicles in sight (and no roads) at the highest elevations, I was reminded of a television commercial that was popular around the time of my trip in which someone drove an SUV vertically up the sheer face of a mountain.

When I reached the edge of the crater atop the volcano, I stared down into the fiery jaws of Hell. Well, okay, that’s not quite true; the view inside the crater is actually just the blackness of solidified lava, as the fires have long since been extinguished. For now, anyway.

Yes, Vesuvius is still an active volcano. An element of excitement and danger thus attended my time on Vesuvius; there was the possibility — however remote — that it could start spewing lava while I was on it. If an eruption were to occur, I would have no chance of escaping.

On the left, you can see Vesuvius looming over Pompeii. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that there are actually two separate peaks. The larger peak at the left is the modern Vesuvius, a cone that rose as the result of eruptions of the original Vesuvius; and the shorter mountain to its right is part of what’s now called Monte Somma, the erstwhile volcano responsible for the obliteration of Herculaneum and Pompeii in AD 79. The “new” Vesuvius has been the source of all the eruptions during the subsequent two millennia. Anyhoo, Monte Somma, which sort of surrounds the “new” Vesuvius, is a lot shorter than it used to be, as it literally blew its top in the first-century eruption.

I was told that you can hire a guide to actually escort you down into the crater of the “new” Vesuvius; but that descent would have taken too long for me (I was on a tight schedule to return to the Pompeii ruins and still catch my train to Venice). Plus, even if I hadn’t been pressed for time, my cowardice may have been an issue; I suspected that the tour would have involved some hiking on passes with steep vertical drops and no handrail. I would have worried about becoming an unintentional sacrifice to the volcano’s rapacious appetite.

Venice: Doges and dogs

As with Rome, I’d been to Venice before. But Venice is so beautiful, and so unlike any other city in the world, that I was eager to see it again.

During the time when the city of Venice was a city-state known as the Most Serene Republic of Venice, it was ruled for over a thousand years by persons titled as doges. One of the more visited tourist attractions in the city today is the Doge’s Palace (the building on the right in the photo on the right), which opened to the public as a museum in 1923. It features sumptuous artworks — not only the framed portraits of the doges that hang on its walls, but the exquisite frescoes on its walls and ceilings, painted by the illustrious Venetian masters, Tintoretto and Veronese. And no tour of the Doge’s Palace would be complete without a stroll across the evocatively named Ponte de Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs), which linked the palace to a prison. The name of that covered bridge (shown on the left) was inspired by an urban legend propagated by the great Romantic poet, Lord Byron, in the 19th century. According to the legend, convicts who were condemned to execution made a one-way journey via the bridge to the dungeon where they would live out their remaining days; and those prisoners sighed when passing through the bridge and looking out upon the lagoon for the last time. It makes for a nice tale, but the name of the bridge as well as its backstory are inventions of Byron. In fact, by the time the bridge was actually built in 1602, most of the the prisoners who occupied the cells on the palace grounds were small-time criminals. They hadn’t been sentenced to capital punishment, but would eventually be released, and would then enjoy ample opportunities to look once more upon the outside world.

In addition to my exploration of the Doge’s Palace, other Venetian activities that I enjoyed included ascending to the top of the campanile (bell tower); checking out the shops on the Rialto Bridge; strolling through the famously pigeon-infested Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square); and stepping into the exquisite Basilica San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica, in case you couldn’t figure that out). 🙂

Of course, there’s much more to Venice than its museums and churches. More than most other burgs, Venice is a city for which simply walking around constitutes one of its greatest pleasures. Its streets are not arrayed in anything resembling a grid pattern, and it’s fun to literally lose yourself while exploring them. While doing so, you can also admire the byzantine network of canals that criscross the city; those canals function as de facto streets for many residents. Sure, every tourist goes for an (overpriced) gondola ride on the Grand Canal, a broad aquatic boulevard that’s the Venetian equivalent of the Champs-Élysées; but it’s the narrower, more alley-like canals that truly supply the city’s distinctive character. And because the streets frequently intersect with the canals, a city walk will inevitably involve the traversing of numerous bridges. Indeed, one of Venice’s nicknames is “City of Bridges.” The effect created by the city’s unique amphibious layout, with colourful buildings rising out of the canals, is one of aesthetic bombardment; every time you turn around, there’s more eye candy. That sensory overload led the writer Truman Capote to observe that “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”

Sometimes, a seemingly innocuous decision can have catastrophic consequences. That was nearly the case for me during my final day in Venice. Seeking relief from the sensory overload, I set out on a brief excursion (via boat, of course) to the island of Murano. That isle is renowned for its glassworks, and I was hoping to take a tour of a factory in which I could witness some glass-blowing; but unfortunately, all of the glass factories on the island turned out to be closed for the month of August (which, as I’d recently learned in Rome, is a popular month for the locals to go on holiday). Still, Murano was a charming little island, with a cute little canal and some quaint shops, and much smaller crowds than Venice.

The charm suddenly evaporated when I wandered into an alley that turned into a cul-de-sac, and I was then cornered by a killer dog. Well, okay, that might be a slight embellishment; the specimen of Man’s Best Friend who was menacing me was not one of the breeds traditionally regarded as vicious, like a pit bull or Rottweiler. Still, it stood blocking the entrance to the alleyway (which was my only way out), and it was barking very loudly, and then it accosted me. And it was one of the stray, quasi-feral dogs that are so abundant throughout Italy.

At that point I wished that I had a sausage or canned ham to distract my canine tormentor with. I also tried to remember whether in that situation you’re supposed to make eye contact with the dog, or deliberately avoid looking it in the eye. I thought I recalled something about how making eye contact would make the dog think I was challenging it, and would therefore incite the dog to aggression; but I wasn’t sure. Besides if I looked away, how would it help to not be able to see what the dog was doing?

Ultimately I decided to look away from the dog; and I rounded the corner to the place where the alley actually dead-ended. A house stood at this location. As I stood staring at that abode, a pair of shutters on the third and highest floor popped open; an older gentleman then poked his head out the window. Maybe I could be rescued!

“Do you speak English?!” I yelled up to the man in the window.

“No” he replied.

“But there’s a dog!” I exclaimed.

“No!” he repeated, and then a few seconds later the shutters closed again. I was all alone with my canine foe.

I was scheduled to catch a night train to Amsterdam in just a few hours; and before I could do that, I needed to return via ferry to Venice and then dash back to my hotel to retrieve my luggage. So obviously I couldn’t linger indefinitely in this random alleyway on Murano. On the other hand, being mauled by a dog wouldn’t help me catch my train. Was there even a hospital on Murano? Or would they have to take me by water ambulance to Venice? And would I then have to get those painful rabies shots?

I ended up waiting out the situation. After a few minutes, I circled back around the corner so that I could look upon the main entrance to the alley. The dog was no longer there. But was it lurking in one of the recessed areas between the alley entrance and the place where I was standing?

I sprinted as fast as I could to the alley entrance, and continued running all the way back to the covered shelter at the ferry stop. There, I found safety in the companionship of other waiting passengers. I had escaped unscathed.

Later that afternoon, I boarded the night train to Amsterdam. I hoped that my World Karaoke Tour would get back on track in the Netherlands.

UPDATE (January 31, 2016): It’s no longer true that I haven’t sung karaoke in Italy. During a November 2015 visit to Rome, I finally sang in that country!

Gondolas in the Grand Canal in Venice.

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