Written by Tom Thrun.
“You know what ages a man? Boredom. When I was young, traveling, I felt like a lion…but at home I feel eighty.” As I stared the celebration of my fiftieth year here on the planet directly in the face, this line from La Dolce Vita was more poignant now than ever before. At the Excelsior Hotel in Rome, a very wise (and well connected) concierge told me, “Roma keeps you alive!” Well you are right my friend, but I would like to take it one step further, travel keeps you alive.
Every time I take a trip I am reminded of what a blessing and privilege it is to travel. Looking back at a half century of adventures, memories and visiting exotic places, I feel about as fortunate as an old man can feel. But on this birthday I was not going to go quietly, I was going to go kicking and screaming! So my lovely wife Joy went to work on what was to be the trip of a lifetime. La Dolce Vita, the sweet life, or as Joy now refers to it, the expensive date. Five nights in Venice and five nights in Rome, enough time to see the sights and not feel guilty about having a good brisk sit in a café when the mood struck. Doing nothing is an art form and I am Michelangelo.
In Venice we stayed at the world famous Danieli Hotel. Our room was located on the top floor of the original 14th century palazzo overlooking the Rio del Vin and the Canale Di San Marco. We were awakened each morning by the sound of church bells and singing gondoliers warming up for another day of tourist fleecing. We had alfresco breakfast in the rooftop restaurant as the waiters scrambled to keep our feathered friends away from the tables. At these prices, hold the bird poop and keep the mimosas coming. The Danieli was as opulent and special as I had imagined it would be.
With our location just around the corner from Piazza San Marco, it was all to easy too just get a table at the Café Florian, listen to the orchestra and gaze out at ‘Europe’s finest drawing room’. This legendary café was founded in 1720 and it is rumored that Casanova stopped here for coffee after he escaped from the prison at Palazzo Ducale. At eight Euros a cup, I am sure he must have robbed a bank sometime prior to his arrival. As Hemingway once said, (I’m sure while tipping a few at Harry’s Bar) “Travel broadens your ass as well as your mind”. But with all of the walking required to truly absorb the atmosphere and romance of this unique place, we convinced ourselves that we could enjoy all of the incredible food without any guilt whatsoever.
After taking in the modern art at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and viewing Venetian masterpieces at the Accademia Galleries, of course it was time to eat…again. We had lunch at a great little restaurant called La Furatola where one side of the place serves all meat dishes and the other side nothing but seafood. We opted for fish and we were not disappointed. Great wine, a dessert comprised of pastry drizzled with a pumpkin and tomato sauce, cappuccino and grappa, a Venetian classic!
On my actual birthday we hired a boat to take us to the famous glass factories on the island of Murano. We were dropped off at the Marco Polo Studio where we met Aldo, the director of the gallery. He took us to the furnaces where the glass was created by the ‘Masters’. Aldo informed us that 2003 was the year of the snail and he instructed the artist to make a snail as a birthday gift to me. “You must move slowly like the snail and appreciate the beauty that life has to offer, it is reflected in the glass of Murano”. Mamma Mia, this guy is good. He led us into the gallery and offered us some wine, it’s 9:30 in the morning but assures us that this is a ‘morning wine’, not so strong. Make mine a double Aldo. Exhausted, broke, and sloshed, we departed Murano. What a great birthday!
When we returned to Venice it was time for some more birthday shopping. We found our way to Mondonovo Maschere, well known for its papier-mache masks. All of the masks here are hand made by Guerrino Lavato. Famous for his wild creations, Lovato was commissioned by Stanley Kubrick to make the masks for the orgy scene in the movie ‘Eyes Wide Shut’. After a glorious stay in Venice we reluctantly boarded the train for Rome to continue the party.
Our home base in Rome was the wonderful Excelsior Hotel, the epicenter of La Dolce Vita back in the day. The saying, “Roma non basta una vita” (Rome, a lifetime is not enough) pretty much sums it up. There is so much to see and do in this city that most Romans have yet to see it all. Of course we hit all of the classic sights in town but it is the daily unplanned surprises that make a trip memorable.
While visiting the Vatican we decided on the spur of the moment to try and get tickets to the Papal Audience the following morning. I was directed to a long line next to the Vatican Post Office for ticket information. After about a half hour in line a very stern looking Swiss Guard asked me for my letter of confirmation. I gave him my best confused American ‘I ain’t got one’ look. He barked, “Un minuto” and disappeared. When he returned he handed me two cardinal red tickets to the show. A couple of sweeties on the aisle right in the middle of the mosh pit, dude you’re awesome!
The next morning the sky was crystal clear at St. Peter’s and the crowd was buzzing with anticipation in a festival like atmosphere. Suddenly, His Holiness appeared and the Popemobile drove right through the middle of the adoring crowd and directly up onto the stage. With the people cheering and the band playing I had not witnessed an entrance like this since last summers Eminem concert in Detroit. It turned out to be a very moving and inspirational highlight of the trip.
After a long and exciting morning it was time for lunch so we walked from St. Peter’s to our favorite vegetarian restaurant in Rome, Il Margutta. Lunch here is an endless buffet of incredible vegetarian risottos and pastas complete with organic Italian wine and beer. The flavors of these meatless delicacies dart around in your mouth like Vespas on the Via Veneto at rush hour. Even hardcore carnivores will find the cuisine at this restaurant to die for.
After stuffing ourselves we decided to walk it off in the beautiful Villa Borghese, Rome’s version of Central Park. Here we stumbled upon a tethered hot air balloon that soars hundreds of feet over the city for unparalleled photo-ops. From the rooftop of the Hassler Hotel to the dome at St. Peters, many places boast of the best view in Rome. But this is head and shoulders above them all. And, if you should find yourself a bit skittish about the ride, not to worry, there is a full bar adjacent to the ticket booth.
When we weren’t out and about enjoying all of the wonderful attractions that this city has to offer, we could be found at the Café Doney, drinking Negroni’s and taking in the action along the Via Veneto. Hot Italian sports cars roared past the trendy shops and clubs as impeccably dressed model-types flowed along this major artery of the sweet life. Watching this scene play out with my beautiful wife Joy and reflecting on a trip that was nothing short of perfection. I came to the conclusion that if you do it right this growing old thing really isn’t all that bad. And if you keep on traveling you stand a much better chance of keeping crotchety old Father Time at bay. But the most sobering example of the importance of living life to the fullest came on our final day in Italy. We took a short walk from the hotel to the crypt of Santa Maria Della Concezione. In the cemetery beneath the church the walls and ceilings are decorated with the bones of over 4000 Capuchin monks in bizarre geometric patterns. In the last room of the crypt there is a sign hung below the rows of countless human skulls that stare back at you, it says, “WHAT YOU ARE WE ONCE WERE-WHAT WE ARE YOU WILL BECOME”. Translation; PARTY ON, IT’S LATER THAN YOU THINK.