Author: Professor Michael Gamer, Penn Department of English
All roads may lead to Rome, but ours this spring instead took that ancient city as our starting point — perhaps because the Penn Alumni Travel Italian Inspirations tour went not by land but by sea. After an overnight stay amidst Romans celebrating independence day (the Festa della Liberazione), we took the train to Civitavecchia and boarded the Riviera, operated by Oceania cruise lines. This was no Carnival Cruise. The Riviera was medium-sized and elegant, its passengers primarily alumni groups like our own.
Of the twenty-two schools represented on the cruise, only Penn and UCLA sent host professors, which made our groups (at times) objects of envy — at least so my co-travelers were kind enough to tell me ;-). Joking aside, I will say that, as a lecturer, I have never spoken to such large groups before. The ship’s main auditorium seated six to seven hundred people, and while speaking about the Grand Tour and its history I found fewer empty seats than I anticipated.
Indeed, in our way we were doing our own Grand Tour. Although at a much faster pace (seven days instead of seven or even seventeen months) and taking a somewhat different route from those taken by travelers 200-400 years ago. Rather than beginning in Milan and heading south before circling back to Venice, our tour engaged in something closer to Lord Byron’s travels of 1809-10, when all of Europe was either at war or under the dominion of Napoleon Bonaparte. Byron, therefore, was forced to do most of his traveling by sea, hopping around the Mediterranean from port to port, gathering antiquities and swimming whenever possible. He was engaging in a time-honored tradition by doing so; since the ancient Phoenicians, the Mediterranean has been southern Europe’s freeway, traveling by sea always an easier proposition than traveling by land.
In our case, we headed from Rome south to Sorrento, where some of us saw Mount Vesuvius and others Pompeii before sampling the local limoncello and watching the sun set over Capri. By the time we awakened the next morning, we were nearing Taormina on the island of Sicily, home of that other great Italian volcano, Mount Etna, pictured here in the background of Taormina’s beautiful amphitheater:
Some of you reading this post will have traveled by cruise ship before. I had not — and there is something magical about waking up to find yourself in a new place. In our case, days three and four found us arrived at the islands of Zakynthos and Corfu, respectively, followed in the course of the week by the stunning cities of Dubrovnik and Venice, where we disembarked for good. Though I have traveled many times in Italy, these Greek and Croatian stops were entirely new to me, and a real pleasure. They possess a color palate unlike Italy, something at once stripped down and sparkling. There is something at once stark and beautiful about the coastline and buildings, the contrast of blue water next to white cliffs and houses.
Of course, nothing quite ever can prepare you for Venice, whether you’ve been there a hundred times or never. After six days of superb touring, that final day we all scattered to wander this wonderful city on our own. Some of us to San Marco; others to the Accademia, the Guggenheim, and other museums; and still others just wandering the narrow calle, trying to get lost. And, so far as I know, none of us quite felt moved enough to copy Byron’s exploit of swimming through the canals.
I will confess, though, that for me all roads did end up leading back to Rome: after saying goodbye to my fellow Penn Alumni Travelers I spent a few days there, soaking up the sun, revisiting old sites and taking in new ones. I can hardly wait to return in October 2014 — this time touring overland with the Flavors of Tuscany tour in October 2014. Hope to see you there!