Taking The Train Through Italy & Switzerland
by Lawrence Ferber
Riding the train, often through vast, scenic vistas (even en route to Hogwarts) has been romanticized for years—in my own life, too. I've savored several memorable adventures: weaving through Europe, a Eurail Pass in hand, from Spain to Budapest literally consuming each destination's distinct culture, food, and drink. So, with great excitement and romance in mind, and loose-fitting pants we'd surely grow into, my partner Matt and I embarked in March on a multiple-city journey and eating rampage through Italy's northern half—from Rome up to Switzerland's Italian-speaking Bellinzona, places neither of us had been. Automobile road trips and liner cruises? Uffa!
Part of Rail Europe (www.rail-europe.com), Trenitalia's high-speed Frecciarossa (Red Arrow), zips through Italy at 180 mph, stopping in major cities including Rome, Naples, Bologna, and Milan; with perks like ergonomic seats and Wi-Fi. Sister lines Frecciargento (Silver Arrow) and Frecciabianca (White Arrow) are almost as speedy, with upper-class comforts like a complimentary refreshment trolley service.
Our itinerary began with four days and nights in Rome, which a lesbian friend insisted, "is so much better than Paris," serving to fan our flames of excitement. An express train conveniently runs between Fiumicino airport and the city center's Termini station (€14). Reasonably priced by Rome's bloated standards, our first hotel, the four-star Rose Garden Palace (Via Boncompagni. 19. Tel: 06- 421741. www.rosegardenpalace.com), is just a ten-minute walk from the station, situated across from the American Embassy on a lovely, quiet, yet centrally located street. FYI, oodles of hotels pepper Termini's immediate area, but it's still sketchy, especially at night, and NOT romantic unless you're, say, Charles Bukowski. Palace's rooms are homey, individually air conditioned (a plus, since many hotels' air systems pump out only heat or air conditioning depending on the season), Wi-Fi is complimentary, and there's a small, blissfully underused swimming pool in the basement.
Eating is high up on our list of to-dos and romantic endeavors, but our jet lag-riddled first meal proved calamitous: a lame, glaringly tourists-only restaurant swamped with Chinese businessmen, not-in-the-know suckers, and a small tour group, which our hotel's front desk directed us to (and for which we will never, ever forgive him).
Fortunately, the next day local lesbians Marianna and Anita, from Rome's drag king performance troupe Eyes Wild Drag (www.eyeswilddrag.it), took us to an astounding restaurant with outdoor café seating, La Focaccia (11 Via Della Pace. Tel: 06-68803312. www.lafocaccia.com). Despite its trite name and touristy Piazza Navona location, this is a gem. My perfectly cooked Neapolitan-style pizza, with shaved pear, Gorgonzola cheese, and walnuts, was mind-blowingly awesome. The fresh pasta dishes are equally delicious. What a find!
During lunch, Marianna and Anita mentioned that another Italian queer performance group, Le Sorelle Marinetti (www.lesorellemarinetti.it), was performing that night—a trio of men who dress like women from the 1930s and sing songs of that era (and other international classics, that actually weren't allowed during WWII).
That night we enjoyed dinner at Museo Atelier Canova Tadolini (150 Via Del Babuino. Tel: 06-32110702. www.canovatadolini.com), a dramatic, one-of-a-kind neo-classical sculpture studio/Mediterranean restaurant. It's a favorite of Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, and Renato Zero, Italy's David Bowie, and I can vouch for them having the best cappuccino in Rome, produced at a lower heat so its refined, frothy milk head is almost marshmallow-y.
Continuing our adventures in Rome, we savored an intimate, highbrow afternoon tea atop the Spanish Steps at über-classy hotel Hassler Roma (6 Piazza Trinità dei Monti. Tel: 06-69941607. www.hotelhasslerroma.com) and peeked into several of its guestrooms, which vary from classical Italian luxury to Vogue magazine photo shoot au courant. Then a night at the sprawling, five-star Rome Cavalieri (101 Via Alberto Cadlolo. Tel: 06-35091. www.romecavalieri.com), which overlooks the entire city and the Vatican. We spent a few hours in its acclaimed spa, swimming pool, fitness center, and a steamy Turkish bath with chilled plunge pool. Afterward, we enjoyed Rome's only three-Michelin-star-winning restaurant La Pergola, which occupies the Cavalieri's rooftop and is a destination in itself.
The next day, we explored Rome's iconic sights and ancient ruins (I know, cliché–we took an open-top bus, too), as well as lesser-known ones. The angular, architecturally striking MAXXI (4 Via Guido Reni. Tel: 06-39967350. www.fondazionemaxxi.it), and its sister museum, Macro (54 via Reggio Emilia. Tel: 06-671070400. www.macroroma.org), proved dense with new, multimedia Italian work including an entertaining film/installation about casting a model for a Jesus photo. Matt's a horror-movie nerd, and one of his favorite directors, Dario Argento, aka Italy's Hitchcock, owns a horror paraphernalia shop called Profondo Rosso (260 Via Del Gracchi. Tel: 06-3211395. www.profondorossostore.com). Its basement serves as a museum (three euro admission) with original Argento film props…and a really cheesy narration track. Even creepier, and unintentionally campier, is Via Veneto's Capuchin Crypt, a series of rooms decorated with monks' skeletons arranged in elaborate, bizarre configurations, like a morbid butterfly crafted from a skull and hipbones.
On Saturday night, we visited Rome's gay village, located just across the street from the Coliseum. While this gayborhood's location is the most awe-inspiring I've ever seen, it's also one of the tiniest, like someone chiseled off a corner of Manchester's Canal Street and spirited it here. We didn't detect any overt homophobia in Rome (nobody bats an eye when we insist on a queen- or king-size hotel bed), but we're told things have taken a turn for the worse over the past couple of years, with incidents of bashing both legally and in the streets. In 2011, Italy's parliament rejected a bill to protect LGBTs from discrimination. Nonetheless, we feel safe, and it's refreshing to be among our own for a night.
The following morning we're off to Verona, a romantic's mecca, thanks in part to Juliet's House and Tomb—yes, the Juliet from Romeo and Juliet. Lovelorn and love-struck visitors (and rom-com/chick-flick fans that saw 2010's Letters to Juliet) leave notes here for Juliet to answer. Volunteer "secretaries" actually conduct that bit of correspondence, since Juliet's dead and/or fictitious. Their tale actually dates back to Italy, well before Shakespeare appropriated and adapted it from, according to some experts, a 1,554-page novella version, Giulietta e Romeo, by Matteo Bandello. There's a balcony and bronze statue of Juliet here, the breasts rubbed bright and shiny for "good luck" by grinning, groping tourists of all ages.
The house proved tacky and garish, overcrowded with teenage tour groups pawing away at Juliet's bosom, giggly elders calling out "Romeo, Romeo, where are thou blah blah blah" to the balcony. Bar none, this is the least romantic thing about Verona. The rest of this compact city, however, is an absolute jewel. It's a mix of historic attractions (The Roman Arena, the medieval Castelvecchio, and Lamberti Tower), cobblestone streets lined with both high-end and independently owned boutiques, romantic banks along the Adige River, and downright-bizarre street performers. A ludicrous Michael Jackson impersonator, a plump Caucasian whose stilted "moves" are one more failed moonwalk away from being marched behind a barn and shot, was well worth the two euro tip for a photo together and video of his cockamamie routine. (I'm so YouTubing it!)
We asked a CD shop cashier where to find the best gelato in town—not the best gelato for tourists. The gelato they love.
She and her co-worker directed us to Gelateria Bianceneve (13 Via Leoni. Tel: 04-58033427). Sure enough, it's a winner, teeming with lucky locals. My scoop of chili-enhanced dark chocolate gelato was so rich it was akin to pudding (it oozed, slowly, rather than dripped—there's no cheapo filler in this stuff), and I also tried the 72% cocoa chocolate, Snickers (I know, a bit gauche), and Sachertorte varieties. Incidentally, Matt and I literally criss-crossed Rome by foot in search of the "Best Gelato" and sampled a half-dozen shops'. The famed Il Gelato San Crispino (42 Via della Panetteria. Tel: 06 6793924. www.ilgelatodisancrispino.it), featured in the insufferable Eat Pray Love and stationed a few blocks from the Trevi Fountain, was worth the hype thanks to organic ingredients and an ambrosial, Sardinia honey-blessed namesake gelato. Yet, Bianceneve managed to usurp the title.