FERRARA, Italy – I came to Italy to test a French adage by way of an American writer, Mark Twain.
"Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." The more things change, the more they remain the same.
The saying had been on my mind while traveling before, usually with a book from the past clutched in my hands. On a 1991 honeymoon in the Greek Cyclades with my pockets full of love and a 1964 Nagel's travel guide in my hands, the descriptions still fit some of the small fishing ports and dusty museums. But when I returned to Portugal's Algarve coastline a dozen years after I'd kept a holiday diary there, I found some parts transformed beyond recognition.
Now came another test: travel through northern Italy with a copy of Twain's 1869 "The Innocents Abroad," his irreverent "record of a pleasure trip" to Paris, the Mediterranean and Jerusalem. Twain's humorous account of the great sights of Europe and the Holy Land was a best-seller in its day, but its mocking tone was a shocking departure from the era's solemn travelogues.
Following Twain's entire itinerary would take far too big a chunk out of my holiday time. But, Milan, Florence and Venice, a mere fragment for Twain, was within my reach for a two-week vacation. I wondered how our modern cynicism would hold up against his.
My family of four first headed to Milan, and much like Twain, we were drawn like a magnet to Milan's cathedral. "That forest of graceful needles, shimmering in the amber sunlight," the American writer wrote of the stiletto roof peaks, all topped with statues made of sheer grace. When Twain was there, the duomo (Italian cathedral) was still surrounded by "pygmy housetops," leaving it visible from within seven miles (11 kilometers) around to stand in awe of its white marble majesty.
In 21st century Milan, the piazza in front of the Gothic building still offers a glimpse of the overall vista Twain and his American travelers must have had. But beyond, the boutiques for Giorgio Armani and umpteen fashion empires, business centers and a massive football stadium now crowd in one of the biggest cathedrals in the world. Where Twain saw the vastness of the countryside in the distance, the cathedral's rooftop now offers views of the new Porta Nuova business district — all sleek glass, cutting edges into the skyline much like the cathedral once did.
Considering the cathedral was not even fully finished when Twain treaded the marble stairs, such changes might be obvious. But there were other contrasts and similarities Twain would have enjoyed. His account of a cathedral tour mocked the ghoulish relics and priceless treasures on display — two fingers of St. Paul's, a gem-covered corpse, candlesticks in silver and gold. Stepping outside today, he surely would have noted the contemporary gaudiness that affronts not just your eyes, but literally gets in your ears. Right across from the church, the Rinascente department store has a sun-splashed food court and bar on its top floor, where Krug Grand Cuvee champagne goes for €250 ($336) a bottle. Surely, classic European tours of yore offered similar conspicuous consumption, but to have the garish pop tunes waft across the street and through the Gothic arches while watching magnificence in stone, was a bit much to take.
We thought of Twain in Florence, too, where he observed "how the fatigues and annoyances of travel fill one with bitter prejudices sometimes." Visiting last summer during peak tourist season, the throngs were endless, as were spray-painted human statues on each corner and street vendors selling every ilk of cheap thrills. The must-sell trinket of the moment was a ball that splashed flat on the floor only to magically reconstitute itself to a round shape. Twain would have skewered it, for sure.
But while we could see and feel the fatigue Twain endured, we were wary of becoming what contemporary travelers recognize as the incessant whiner. Fortunately, even in Florence's high season, you can drift into the Bargello museum and see sublime art in soothing circumstances. Go in and around Cappella Brancacci and the Boboli gardens across the river and have a Renaissance calm wash over you.
When we got to Venice, "afloat on the placid sea," as Twain put it, we discovered that current guidebooks, despite magnificent graphics and pictures, often could not match Twain's prose. As he fell under the city's spell, his sarcasm subsided: His complaint about the "caterwauling" of the gondolier on a "rusty old canoe" became an ode to the sight of marble reflected on glittering waves, "soft and dreamy and beautiful," as he took his readers from palace to gondola and back.
During our visit to the Ducal Palace and its Bridge of Sighs by St. Mark's Square, it was as if Twain took us by the hand and led us through, much better than any modern audio tour could. Even his political analysis chillingly conjured the Doges' cruel rule and the hopeless fate of prisoners from centuries ago: "The doomed man was marched down a hall and out at a door-way into the covered Bridge of Sighs, through it and into the dungeon and unto his death."
Later, at St. Mark's Cathedral, Twain re-emerged as a cynic, siding with my family against me in giving the building the thumbs down. I thought it awe-inspiring but Twain only found "unlovely Byzantine architecture" filled with "coarse mosaics."
There was one thing left before our trip was over: Not to find another of Twain's places, but instead to experience the ambience that permeates the book, that of voluptuous luxury travel in a foreign land where riches may be enjoyed away from the masses. For all the author's notes about the squalor, filth and ruins he encountered on his tours, there were just as many descriptions of parties where champagne flowed.
Being many rungs below the caste of the super-rich, sampling that lifestyle proved somewhat of a challenge in the 21st century. Yet we found it in between Florence and Venice when we landed for a day in the provincial town of Ferrara. It was off the beaten track, and had all the advantages that go with that. Our hotel, Annunziata, was as affordable as it was sumptuous, with by far the best breakfast bounty of local produce we ever found in Italy, and beyond. As it was, rock stars from the British band Kasabian were lounging on its terrace beneath the medieval Castello Estense, and were even up for a chat. A stone's throw away was the marble-clad duomo and several museums, with nary a tourist in sight.
Off went the kids, Clara and Corneel, into the evening for Kasabian's open-air concert. My wife Reine and I lazed through the streets and a park before settling among the locals with prosecco to watch the sun turn a deeper shade of gold. Over an excellent yet simple pasta dinner served al fresco in an alley alongside the cathedral, we felt we had become Twain's "innocents abroad."
Would he have mocked us, or joined us? We didn't care.