by JOSEPHINE MATYAS
I GREW UP in a household with a bit of trickery called “the family vote.”
Decades ago, we clustered around a table – four kids and two adults – with a simple choice before us: build an indoor pool (four young arms shot up) or take an extended trip to Europe?
We were outmanoeuvred. Followed by 10 weeks crammed into a Renault station wagon, guided by our bible, a dog-eared copy of Europe On $5 A Day. For our immigrant parents it was a chance to marinate us in the sensibilities and influences of European architecture, history, culture and food. Perhaps their hope was that the Old World mannerisms they’d schooled us in would make sense (fork always in the left hand, knife in the right).
This bait-and-switch family holiday planted the seeds for a lifelong obsession with travel. The parts of that trip that form a permanent corner in my memory are the stream of art galleries, museums and architecture. It turned out, after all, to be a bricks-and-mortar vacation – something that would have made my classically-trained, architect Dad smile.
Over the years, Europe has often been on my travel itinerary. This time around it was a return to the scene of the crime – winnowed down to three classical cities, with a deep dive into the history, settings and food that make them unique. Paris, Rome and Venice: Europe redux. Without the crowded back seat.
THE CITY OF LIGHT
For me, Paris sits in its own time warp. Images are rooted in the 19th century – the little newspaper kiosks usually manned by a stooped gentleman in a soft beret, posters plastered onto the cylindrical Morris columns, streetside cafés where patrons linger, elegant fountains and spacious boulevards. Paris has always been forward thinking, but somehow manages to seamlessly blend the old and the new. Think of its popular nickname – The City of Light – a nod to its 18th-century embrace of the Age of Enlightenment.
It is very much a city of neighbourhoods, one designed for walking. My starting point is inevitably in front of the medieval Notre-Dame Cathedral, where an octagonal brass plate in the ground designates “Paris Point Zero.” All else in France radiates from this spot.
Every part of Paris is a village; each neighbourhood a square in the social fabric of the city. Pious Notre-Dame is on Île de la Cité; with its soaring spires and three jewel-like rose windows, it is one of the continent’s finest examples of French Gothic architecture.
When I am feeling whimsical I duck behind the grand cathedral and cross small bridges to explore the 17th-century architecture of Île St. Louis, a small oasis in the middle of the Seine and the second of only two natural islands in the river. Bookended by the grand Arc de Triomphe and the spacious Place de la Concorde, the Champs-Elysées is the city’s grand boulevard to see and be seen, to shop and to play. The perfect symmetry of Place des Vosges in the Le Marais district was a pet project of Henri IV – the oldest planned square in the city is a chic place to sit and admire the design influences of Northern Italian arcades and a touch of Flemish architecture. And, of course, the landmarks of the city, the iconic Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, a priceless treasure trove in the world’s largest art museum.
I tapped into the best of the city by wandering through neighbourhoods, investing time in sitting with a coffee and a book, watching the world go by. “Look at the beauty, the symmetry and the tranquility to the way the city has been laid out,” advised the man at the next table. “We’re less involved in transactions here than in the experience.”
Walking is so integrated into my Parisian experience. The Passages de Paris, a series of glass-roofed galleries with mosaic floors that typify the architecture of late 19th-century La Belle Époque, are custom made for rainy days. Of the few that remain, they are gracious, airy spaces filled with small vendors, tearooms, bookshops and decadent chocolatiers.
THE ETERNAL CITY
Rome is an historian’s dream. Even if the thought of yesteryear makes your eyes glaze over, you cannot help but be intrigued by the notion of a city built atop a city, of one set of religious beliefs being supplanted by another, often by simply removing a statue or figurehead and plunking another in its place. The historical complexity of Rome is something I learned by walking its winding alleyways.
“For a thousand years, this was a little medieval village,” explained Stuart Harvey, who guides visitors in Rome, his encyclopaedic knowledge revealing strata of the city, like peeling back the layers of an onion. “The ancient Romans originally built on the famous hills of Rome but with flooding and silt, the remnants of ancient Rome are actually 30- to 40-feet below the surface.”
These windows into the ancient world are scattered across the city. At the long and beautiful Piazza Navona, the buildings and Renaissance fountains are built atop the archaeological remains of an ancient sports stadium that once held spirited chariot races. At Largo Argentina, unearthed bits of Roman columns and steps to a long-destroyed temple mark the exact spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44BC. Even the city’s many fountains are fed by natural streams of water from the city’s ancient aqueducts.
But it’s the Pantheon that really stops Harvey in his tracks. “The Pantheon is the most important building in Rome. It’s a perfectly preserved and intact temple built in 25BC and then rebuilt in 125AD. It was built as a pagan temple and in 609AD was turned into a Christian church, with an insistence of only one god. The Pope, the Cardinals and the aristocracy destroyed all of pagan Rome.”
The Pantheon is a perfect example of Rome’s shape-shifting past. The word Pantheon means “all the gods,” and in ancient Rome this was a temple dedicated to the entire pagan religion. With the change to a church, the statues of the Roman gods were taken down and replaced with Christian statues. Otherwise, the original decorations from Roman times have remained intact, including the bronze doors, the harmonious dome, the monolithic granite columns and the marble floors from the time of Emperor Hadrian. It is, according to Harvey, “what ancient Rome looked like.”
Rome’s prominent buildings like St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum will always be on every visitor’s checklist (as they should be). But strolling the narrow lanes, learning to identify the distinct marking of each Pope on buildings, columns and fountains – and therefore being able to know the era of construction – is part of looking for clues of a city below and finding buried treasure.
In Rome, of course, there is the serious business of eating. Small trattorias specialize in multi-courses, beginning with platters of traditional antipasto, a first course of classic pasta dishes like rigatoni with Pecorino and bacon or gnocchi with Gorgonzola, followed by a meat or fish-based course of grilled squid, sea bass, lamb or veal. It’s the kind of meal that necessitates a bit of walking.
“Venice is an open air museum,” advised walking guide Daniela Cominotto, whose family has called the city home for generations. “The best way to experience Venice is to walk and get lost.”
The getting lost part is easy. There are 118 small islands, separated by about 100 saltwater canals, connected by 417 bridges – crossing even the smallest bridge is the Venetian version of island hopping. Bobbing in the canals are hundreds of gondolas, the slim-hulled watercraft that shuttle tourists around the city.
Stuck in the deep reaches of my memory are snippets of that first family trip to La Serenissima (it translates as “most serene”). I don’t remember the crowds although recently Venice has seen its visitorship grow to problematic levels during peak season – but I have a very clear memory of delectable gelato. In the shoulder season, and by venturing away from the tourist hotspots, I found tranquility as I got lost in the little neighbourhoods.
With its origins in the Venetian Republic, the marshy lagoon city and its Oriental-style skyline are touched by architectural influences spanning timelines from Byzantine to the grand days of the Renaissance. Many of the buildings are built above the canals on massive wooden pilings. Rather than a gondola, I opted for the vaporetto, the small water bus along the Grand Canal, the “superhighway” of the system, lined with magnificent palaces built in a time when cosmopolitan Venice was a superpower, the richest trading nation in Europe.
“From the arch and the decoration you can understand the time and the era of a building,” explained Cominotto. “In this one spot in St. Mark’s Square you can see the evolution of style in Venice. Absolutely gorgeous.”
In the famous (and often overcrowded) square she pointed out high, skinny arches from the Byzantine era, decorative Venetian Gothic arches, and the arched windows and columns of the Renaissance. Above one of the arches at St. Mark’s Basilica is a 17th-century mosaic showing the bones of Saint Mark being smuggled out of Alexandria to Venice, transported in a barrel of pork to avoid inspection by the Muslims. Venice instantly became an important religious destination.
Even the narrowest streets are lined with gelato stands, bakeries and cafés, shops selling colourful Carnival masks and Italian-made leather goods. Venice has a long and noble history as a trade city dating back to the days when Persian rugs, luxury silk and spices from the Orient were imported via Constantinople – now Istanbul – the capital city of the Roman Empire before being captured by the Ottomans. But with the discovery of the Americas in the 15th century, the Atlantic Ocean became more important than the Mediterranean Sea, dramatically shifting trade routes.
Venice was a graceful end to building new travel memories. I explored with a guidebook in hand, a useful but poor replacement for my Dad and his breadth of knowledge, pointing out the curve of an arch or the geometry of a building. That’s the thing about memories; they add layer upon layer to understanding and appreciation. And when that light comes on, it finds a resting place in your soul.