The terra-cotta roof tiles evoke memories of San Gimignano and other Tuscan towns. Scrawled on a wall near the Piazza San Marco, a Latin graffito reveals that M. Holconius Triscus managed to line up the local fruit sellers ages ago in his race to be a magistrate of Rome.
Ah, the home country. Ah, history.
One turns from the piazza toward the waterway beside it, hoping for the Grand Canal, the vaporetti and motoscasi, perhaps a grand palazzo, or the elegant Ponte de Rialto.
Instead, one faces the Rhine. Across the way, Oktoberfest erupts.
It's a small world that Busch version of the "Old Country" is.
Until yesterday, Italophiles heading south across the Po River in Virginia have had to squelch the sudden melodies, tastes and aromas that the roadside reminder sets off. No longer. In the spirit of Augustus Caesar, who boasted that he found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble, Anheuser-Busch yesterday declared that it has taken nine acres near its theme park in Williamsburg and turned it into Italy.
Sic transit gloria mundi (thus pass the glories of this world), as the Romans would say.
A $6 million addition to the theme park, Italy expands the "Old Country" for the third time since it opened five years ago. Aimed at "the average American," according to a Busch executive, the country opened early yesterday for several hundred guests, including Italian race-car driver Mario Andretti. They watched an Italian bike race and mingled with employes portraying Leonardo da Vinci and Cleopatra, the latter perhaps invited thanks to a well-placed vowel.
If you decide to go to Italy, Va., visas start at $9.95 before 5 p.m. -- dropping to $6.95 for the evening -- and through passage to Germany, France and England is guaranteed. But if you go, do it with the motto of the Venetians, in mind, who "count only the happy hours." For the tourists needing an Italian fix, a day in "San Marco" falls somewhere between a deluxe tour of the real thing and chewing on cannelloni."
One way of entering San Marco is by making a right at Big Ben. After a short walk, you approach Leonardo's Garden of Inventions, a formal garden bordered by three rides that reflect -- but wisely don't depend on -- the master's idiosyncratic ideas about energy.
Marked by signs based on Leonardo's notebook drawings for related contraptions, they whirl kids in gondolas topped by simulated hot-air balloons, swing them in Leonardo-like battering rams and and whisk them up in "La Nacchina Volante," which plays on the master's affection for energy transmitted by gears.
Farther down an yet unnamed "corso ," one encounters the daringly named "Bella Casa," a gift shop offering mostly imported trifles such as Anri carvings and a porcelain "Capodimonte" model of the Last Supper -- asking price a mere $4,500.
In case you spring for that on sudden impulse, you can drink your decision away a few steps down at "Vino and Caffe."
As you can tell by now, Italy, Va., isn't looking to estrange anybody by getting too regional or too particular in its details. Take that as a spur to action.
Pack up your Fodor's, Michelin, Frommer or whatever and read them amid the Commedia dell'Arte drawings, recreated frescoes, mock vegetable carts and elongated Italian accents.
And don't complain. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day.