Guest Post by Dan Beckmann
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 Coliseum, 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, 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 grandiose fortressed 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 formidable 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. 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. A bouquet of chocolate, ground espresso and freshly baked bread drifted, ever so slowly, through the Campo. Stopping to introduce itself to me, it moved on to the tables behind. Sending us all into a near catatonic state of bliss.
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.
Dan Beckmann is a former NBC News camera operator turned writer and storyteller. He enjoys wine and flies airplanes. Although not in that order. While working for the Today Show in their Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Bureau’s, Dan traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, Europe and Africa. Currently, he resides in Orlando, Florida where his work has been featured on the BBC, Sky News, Reuters, National Geographic, History Channel, Disney Channel and the Discovery Channel. Dan just completed work on his first book and has been practicing his autograph in an artfully ineligible mark of celebrity. He contributes regular social awareness Op Ed columns to the Tribune’s Orlando Sentinel, speaks four languages, and is recommended by 4 out of 5 people who recommend stuff.