On Being Lost in Italy

A placid canal in Venice
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The footsteps behind us were worrisome.

With each step that landed on the worn, slightly slick cobblestones, an equal but louder pair of footsteps resonated behind my husband and me as we tried to find our way back to our Venice hotel on a frigid November night. Not too far away, the warm, convivial sounds of students who had just finished their exams oozed out of the San Polo enoteca each time someone pulled the door open to step inside.

It was freezing in Venice, tourists were scant, and joining the locals for a round or two of prosecco seemed more worth our while than heading back to our hotel, especially given the prospect that someone could be right behind us.

We kept walking down the calle, a little faster now because the wind whipping off the Adriatic and through the canals was biting. And then, the calle ended. In front of us was only water. Behind us? As we turned around, we realized that no one was there. The utter lack of people out on this bone-chilling night had turned the Lion City’s narrow streets into echo chambers. Although it was eerie, I realized that we were experiencing something special – a Venice without tourists. A wrong turn became an unforgettable moment. 

Alley in Venice

When I think back to some of my favorite or most vivid memories of Italy, many of them involve getting lost. There was the time I decided to forego a tour guide in the ruins of Pompeii, which resulted in me having to hustle for the exit, stray dogs at my heels, when the closing siren sounded. An unintentional round-about drive with my sister from Florence to a castle hotel in Chianti resulted in quadrupling our travel time, but it provided us with a useful time to bond and temporarily forget about the events of September 11, which had occurred only a few days prior.

Then, I have countless fond memories of getting lost in Rome. There were many days when I set out with no agenda, only to find a certain park or a church where an unusual relic was housed. Sometimes I would take the Metro to a destination unknown to me – EUR Magliana or Castro Pretorio – and just walk until something caught my eye. How else would I have found the vintage shop where I made my first Rome purchase – a green, ultrasuede car coat – or the lunch counter that served one of the best gnocchi dishes I’ve had in my life?

Were I to be dropped in Italy for the first time today, I would likely have an easier time navigating my way around cities, what with smart phone apps and friends’ check-in tips. Today, as I did back then, I consult guide books and solicit advice from family, friends, and colleagues each time I travel. It is good to know where you are going and to have a plan so that you can maximize each and every moment that you are out in this world.

But, it is also useful to get lost, to smell the proverbial espresso wafting out of the café around the corner and to use your senses to lead you to a destination just off the map. That is one thing that living and traveling in Italy has taught me. While I am a rabid social media user and iPhone abuser, I realize that my behavior is in complete opposition to what I hold most dear when I travel: discovery and exploration. In this mobile age, there seems to be less of an emphasis on discovery and more of an emphasis on checking sites off of a list. And while I believe in bucket lists to some degree, I also know that getting lost can lead you to places you didn’t know you wanted to go.

This month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable topic was “Back to School” or “What Italy Has Taught Me.” Find out what the other members of the Italy Blogging Roundtable conjured up when they thought about “back to school” in Italy. Click the links below to read their contributions to the Roundtable, and leave comments to join in the conversation. Tune in next month for another Roundtable round-up.

Photos: 1)© Melanie Renzulli; 2) © Flickr user Martin Bartosch

Last updated on May 17th, 2023

Post first published on September 14, 2011

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