A storybook, three-week trip for newlyweds through the most romantic of countries.
The trip began years before we met, when Sara wrote a short story about the perfect marriage. It started like this: “____ and I are moving to Europe to paint and make love, right after he finishes his diamond floor. We will live in a gigantic home filled with magic and passion. One of our favorite things to do in the summer will be to drive our ‘68 Ferrari to the end of Italy and take a boat to a tiny island with nothing on it. There, we will have a picnic at sunset, fall asleep with blankets and small furs and wake up in the morning and go home. …”
Two years after she wrote the story we fell in love. Two years after that, my name filled the ____. And two years later, we finally got around to planning our honeymoon. I hadn’t yet started the diamond floor, but I suggested we recreate the story anyway: We would fly to Venice, take the train to Tuscany, rent a vintage car, hop a boat to Sicily. It would be a dream come true, an old-fashioned, three-week bridal tour through the most romantic country in the world. It was extravagant, but that’s what honeymoons are supposed to be.
The whole notion of honeymoons has been fanciful, if not bizarre, since they came into fashion. The tradition may or may not have been handed down from the ancient custom of “bride kidnapping.” The Norse word “hjunottsmanathr” means to “go into hiding,” and some historians say that it referred to the period between abducting a woman and the moment her family stopped looking for her. Deuteronomy 24:5 is more generous, stating that a newly married man should “be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife which he hath taken.”
If you go
Traveling from north to south in Italy requires a plane, train, car and boat. Venice’s airport is terrific and typically inexpensive to fly into, and the city’s Santa Lucia and Mestre train stations connect to just about everything south with high-speed and local service.
Trains don’t go to the Amalfi Coast, so rent a car in Naples.
Most ferries to Sicily leave from Naples as well. Be sure to reserve a sleeper cabin as most trips are overnight.
Where to stay
The Belmond Hotel Cipriani (Giudecca 10, belmond.com/hotel-cipriani-venice) is the gold standard in Venice. Four minutes from Piazza San Marco, it is an oasis of gardens and far from the tourists and people who sell trinkets that mob the piazza. The Olympic-size saltwater pool is the hotel’s centerpiece during the day — George Clooney named a few of the drinks at the pool bar — and the newly renovated Oro Restaurant is a hub for foodies and celebrities at night.
The Villa Di Piazzano (Località Piazzano, C.P. 6, villadipiazzano.com) is in a 15th-century manor house set in the rolling farmland of southeast Tuscany. The rooms are huge, with 600-year-old beams and modern bathrooms. The hotel offers a cooking school, alfresco dining on the terrace and hiking trails through the mountains.
The Palazzo Avino (Via San Giovanni del Toro 28, palazzoavino.com) in Ravello is worth the drive up the hill from Amalfi. Built in what was once a 12th-century private villa 1,000 feet above the Tyrrhenian Sea, the hotel has 32 strikingly appointed rooms and 11 suites. Get one with an ocean view and burn off your love handles at the outdoor gym, then relax in a pair of hot tubs on the roof deck.
Where to Eat
Trattoria Antiche Carampane (San Polo 1911, antichecarampane.com) is set close to the Rialto Bridge in Venice, but is well off the tourist map. The tiny storefront and modest décor are fitting for a 30-year-old local favorite. The simple but perfect scallops and branzino are house specialties, as is the cellar full of local Veneto wine.
There aren’t many restaurants like La Mescita (Via degli Alfani, 70; 39-333-650-0273) left in Florence. The place is tiny, with 24 seats, and serves “plates” like homemade tortellini in a sauce made from fresh veal, cheese, mushrooms and tomatoes. Steps from Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, it’s not uncommon to see students sharing a plate of salami toscano, mortadella, pecorino Romano and prosciutto crudo served with heaps of Tuscan bread.
Going to Cumpà Cosimo (Via Roma, 44, 39-089-857-156) in Ravello is like going to your grandmother’s. Netta Bottone has been serving traditional Ravello dishes in the 300-year-old cantina for more than six decades. The lasagna and misto — a pesto with whatever pasta Netta feels like making — are out of this world and the salads are fresh and feed the whole table. Meats come from Netta’s own butcher shop next door and tiramisu might be on the house, if you’re nice.
The phrase “hony moone” appeared in the mid-16th century. Some connect this to a supposed Babylonian practice of giving the bride and groom a month’s supply of honey wine and sending them away for a cycle of the moon to conceive a child. Thomas Blount’s 1656 “Glossographia” describes the more accepted, and fatalistic, definition, declaring that a new marriage, “is honey now, but will (fade) as the moon.”
Most Read Life Stories
- Sunday Best: Emily Blunt, Iman are among the fashion winners from 2021 Met Gala
- Rant & Rave: Reader gives a lesson on the etiquette of waiting in line at Dick’s
- These Buffalo wings are an extra-crispy way to celebrate the American classic
- For a Jewish-style deli with 'big, ridiculous sandwiches' and great Ethiopian and Colombian eats, explore this Seattle neighborhood
- Ramona Quimby's Portland: A self-guided walking tour through sites in Beverly Cleary's books
A lot has changed since then. More than three-quarters of couples asked whether they’d be taking a honeymoon said they would, according to the Knot’s research on its members in recent years. The average length is eight days. Most couples pay for their own honeymoon, and most trips are international, costing more than $5,000. More than half of them check Facebook from their trips. The number of couples who go on their dream honeymoon is about 1 in 4.
We were no Vikings but this would be a chance for us to both vanish while at the same time live out a dream version of our life.
Our love was still beaming when we boarded a flight to Venice in April. The TSA and a jam-packed 767 dimmed it for the next 12 hours, but a middle-aged woman holding our newly shared surname on a placard in Marco Polo Airport lifted us from the malaise. I hadn’t used a travel agent in 20 years but a friend, thankfully, advised it.
My first question to our agent, Cindy Goldberger, was how to take the train from the Venice airport to our hotel. Her response: “You don’t. You take a boat.”
Our private launch picked us up a few hundred yards from the airport terminal. Five minutes later we cut across the Venice Lagoon — golden sun burning through the fog, luggage stacked on white leather seats, the air heavy with the smell of boggy wetlands.
It was the first week of April. The sea breeze was cool, and the sun was powerful. We passed the auburn terra cotta roofs of Murano and the grassy fields of Le Vignole. Our captain, who hardly seemed to notice that we had climbed aboard his boat, pointed to the east and we watched the rambling skyline of the Bride of the Sea lift above the horizon.
A white-jacketed concierge met us at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani dock. The Cipriani sits on the island of Giudecca, a five-minute boat ride from Piazza San Marco. Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter and a half-dozen other heads of state slept there. George Clooney was married there. Giacomo Casanova himself was said to court maidens in the gardens around the Cipriani spa.
Three footmen carried our bags from the boat, and another guided us to a 30-foot buffet of croissants, cured meats, biscuits, salads, fresh fruit and 20 platters that I didn’t, and still don’t, have names for. There was Champagne. There were five cheese wheels. There was something that looked like soufflé but wasn’t. There were 13 varieties of bread. We ordered omelets and mimosas and sat in the sun, fully immersed in the dream.
Venice has been a sanctum of decadence since the Middle Ages. After fleeing from the Goths, Avars and Huns in the fifth and sixth centuries, Venetian merchants built a maritime empire on the city’s 117 islets and ruled the Adriatic for half a millennium. Venetian businessmen traded with India, China and Persia for the most precious jewels, fabrics, spices and goods. The finery drew businessmen, royalty and travelers from all over the world.
When lovers during the belle époque reworked the classic “voyage a la façon anglaise” — a painful, very British honeymoon tradition popularized in the early 19th century, in which the entire wedding party traveled around the country visiting guests who could not make it to the wedding — many boarded trains and steamers for Venice. Rules of the new honeymoon: drink, eat, sleep in and practice, as the Bible puts it, “acts of the flesh.”
We slept for 13 hours our first night at the Cipriani, on a king bed with goose down pillows. The next day we took the hotel launch, a vintage mahogany Venetian motoscafo, to Piazza San Marco and meandered along the canals. We crossed 14 stone bridges and eight piazzas, ending up at the Gallerie dell’Accademia beneath huge oils painted by Titian, Giorgione and Tintoretto. That afternoon we sat under a honeysuckle tree and watched the murky water slide by. It was 38 degrees and raining at home in New York City. It was 75 on the Rialto Bridge with poufy clouds and a pale blue sky that looked like a painting straight from the Renaissance.
Eating very well
That night we ate at an old-style restaurant called Antiche Carampane. A sign in the window warned “No Tourist Menu.” We ordered bay scallops caught in the lagoon, roasted fennel, artichoke salad and baby squid with pasta in ink sauce. The waiter told us how the walls of Venetian buildings are built like boats: three layers of wood and a lacquer finish. Once a month, he said, during the full moon, the ocean fills the restaurant with three feet of salt water. The staff puts chairs and rugs on the tables the night before and comes to work early to mop up the place before opening for business.
There had been at least 5,000 people in Piazza San Marco all day. At midnight that night it was empty. I happened to have our wedding mix saved on my phone and played it from my shirt pocket as we danced over the polished cobblestones. The air smelled like wood smoke, and we could hear the low rumble of vaporetti cruising the Grand Canal. San Marco’s bell tower was a dark obelisk against the silvery moonlight. As we twirled over the scaffolding the buskers use during the day, I felt happy and hopeful and thought of a favorite line from “Jane Eyre”: “our honeymoon will shine our life long: its beams will only fade over your grave or mine.”
Tuscan villa and classic car
We felt like one of the lucky couples on a dream honeymoon the next morning, traveling 175 mph on a train through the farmland surrounding Padua, Ferrara and Bologna. Travel agents are soothsayers in a sense, and Cindy had, correctly, predicted a hangover after our weekend in Venice. Instead of bickering our way across the city on three hours of sleep, we glanced at our itinerary, ate breakfast at the Cipriani and waited for a private motoscafo to take us to the train station.
Ermanno Gallo met us in Chiusi, Tuscany, four hours later. He works for Zephyrus Classic Car Rental and handed me something that changed our lives for the next three days: the keys to a 1981 Fiat 124 Spider convertible. My father drove the same car in his later years and, since he died before Sara met him, I thought she could commune with him on a kind of spiritual voyage a la façon anglaise.
Classic cars sit somewhere between the pope and Leonardo da Vinci in Italy, especially one that Enzo Ferrari’s chief engineer helped design. Children on the side of the road yelled, “Bella macchina!” as the 124’s double overhead cam purred through vineyards and cattle ranches in Val di Chiana. The swath of farm country is two hours south of Florence and runs north-south on the border of Arezzo and Umbria. We hung a right near Il Passaggio up a cyprus-lined driveway to the Villa di Piazzano, the regional cardinal’s old headquarters and our home for the next two days.
Tuscan villas haven’t changed much since the Renaissance. They are cold and austere in early April. We dropped our bags in our room and were back in the Fiat 30 minutes later. Ermanno had given us driving gloves, for me, and a scarf, for Sara, but no map. We didn’t need one. The 360-degree view with the top down was so perfect, so reminiscent of driving scenes in our favorite Fellini and Antonioni movies, we simply followed the road wherever it went.
An hour later it zigzagged up a steep hill to Castiglion Fiorentino, a medieval city built on fourth century B.C. Etruscan ruins. We drove until the road dead-ended in a parking lot, then climbed six flights of stone stairs to the only cafe open in town.
Hollywood posters and memorabilia from the 1950s hung from the walls, and a giant picture window looked out at the green spine of the pre-Apennine mountains running northwest toward Florence. The bartender set out goat cheese and figs, tapenade bruschetta and mini slices of pizza and served us $3 glasses of the best merlot we had the entire trip. The scene was ridiculously picturesque, straight out of a 1990s romantic comedy. We were both travelers — me a writer, Sara a photographer — who had somehow wandered into each other. And here we were, together, on the greatest journey of our lives.
The International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family states that: “More than an initiation into marital roles, the postindustrial honeymoon is a ritual that is socially framed as the most romantic juncture in one’s life. The honeymoon is about forming one’s self-identity as romantic, and couples make honeymoon choices as a means to secure their individual and shared romantic identities.”
A few days later on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, steps from a store where my father bought my mother a ring shortly after they were married, we were happy that we chose to act out Sara’s story. It came from a dream, and in many ways the ritual of the honeymoon is a fantasy. It is an escape from your life, job, stress and every other hassle associated with modern life. It is a chance to be together, undistracted, and not much else.
Sailing to Sicily
My uncle, who lived in Italy for years, taught us the Italian word for newlyweds: “sposini.” If you are sposini, he said, everyone in the country will treat you as if it is your birthday. The word came in handy a few days later when we followed the final leg of our fantasy on a ferry bound for Sicily. We had spent a couple of days on the Amalfi Coast — walking Ravello’s gardens that inspired Richard Wagner, touring Capri and hiking between medieval cliff towns that Norman kings once ruled — and the car rental return was more complicated than expected. I ended up pulling the sposini card to get a security officer to let me on the boat, 18 minutes before it departed.
Discount airlines have decreased ferry traffic considerably in Italy, excluding an exceptionally colorful group of elderly and teenage working-class travelers who crowded a blue-carpeted lounge bar that night. We ordered negronis and retired to the poop deck, where we watched the sparkling lights of Capri slide past the gunwales.
A blasting horn woke us in our family cabin — double bed, bathroom, shower, TV — at 6 a.m. the next day. Mount Pellegrino stood above Palermo harbor, alongside a half-dozen other forested mountains. The air and sky are different in Sicily — bigger, wider, like Montana in a way. D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, lived on the island longer than anywhere else the embattled couple holed up during Lawrence’s self-imposed exile.
The raw scenery, laid-back Sicilians and history dating back thousands of years are exotic and fascinating. Of sailing into Palermo, Lawrence wrote in “Sea and Sardinia”: “The fantastic peaks behind Palermo show half-ghostly in a half-dark sky. The dawn seems reluctant to come. Our steamer still smokes her cigarette — meaning the funnel-smoke — across there. So, one sits still, and crosses the level space of half-dark water. Masts of sailing-ships, and spars, cluster on the left, on the undarkening sky.”
We walked from the ferry terminal to our hotel, dropped our bags and kept walking. The marina was crammed with fishing boats and weather-beaten sailboats. The streets around Dominico Square were as narrow as a refrigerator. Structures were a pastiche of Norman, Gothic and Greek architecture, most old and layered with grime.
Beneath the tarnish, Palermo is the kind of city where you stumble across exquisite things. We almost stepped on a late-Roman mosaic, “The Four Seasons,” while looking for a public bathroom. We found the bathroom a half-hour later, in the largest opera house in Italy.
We saw the 17th-century Quattro Canti, an intersection with sculptures of four kings of Sicily, one on each corner. The air smelled like lilacs and the ocean in the Orto botanical garden, and we bought an old canteen at a sprawling flea market in Piazza Marina. That afternoon we haggled for groceries at the 1,000-year-old Ballarò market, where fishmongers cut crimson slabs of swordfish to order and vendors sold blood oranges, pecorino fresco and marble-size capers.
It is bizarre how swiftly the days go by — on a vacation, in life. It’s nothing new, but you feel it more on a special trip. I remember my parents talking about their honeymoon as if it were a thousand years ago. Ours was right here, and there was some pressure to end it as perfectly as it began.
We drove to Cefalù early the next morning for our last few days in Italy. The headland that the little fishing village is named for lurches up 850 feet from the center of town and holds the ruins of every culture that ever settled there. We had rented a tiny apartment with a large deck that looked out on the mile-long beach extending from town. We made pasta alla norma the first night, a Sicilian classic with sautéed eggplant, penne and ricotta salata, and watched the ocean morph from blue to indigo to silver to charcoal.
The next day we acted out the final scene of Sara’s story, packing a picnic and hiking the headland. Four older men charged us $5 each at the entrance of Madonie Park. The trail zigzagged to a gate in a tight draw, situated to defend “La Rocca,” which was occupied by the Greeks, Syracusians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans. Halfway up the path we saw a pre-Hellenic Temple of Diana and mounds of clay that were bread ovens at one time. There was a pine forest near the temple, and after charging to the summit and back we laid out lunch on a picnic table.
I’d filled the old canteen we bought at the flea market with wine, and we sipped it and ate eggplant sandwiches wrapped in foil while a hawk glided just above the canopy. The ocean reflected blue light through the pines, and a sea breeze hissed through tall grass on the mountainside. There were no small furs or blankets, and we were not going to sleep under the stars as in Sara’s story. But we had lived close to the fantasy for a moment, and that was enough for us. Love waxes and wanes. Life is a dream. Sometimes you get to live as if you’re in one, too.