4 weeks in Italy
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In case you are thinking about a trip to Italia in the near future, let me warn you that as a result of a weak US dollar, you lose about 40 cents on a dollar. The money lost was not nearly as shocking as accepting the fact that "pepperoni" was green peppers and not spicy sausage.
I should preface my comments by informing you that the 4 of us had the help of our ‘adopted daughter’, Francesca "Chicco" Alberghnini. Chicco has spent her entire life in the Italian travel business. A native of Naples who has lived her adult life in Rome. Chicco arranged private transportation to and from the airport in Milano. We had private guides and transportation in Florence, Rome (2 days), Naples, Pompeii and Venice. Chicco was our "Italiana Angel"!
The four of us took on the name of "The Roamin 4um". None of us speak any Italian but soon found out the locals have a passion for speaking English and were most generous with their information. My most used Italian was, "Me dispiace, non parlo bene Italiano". (I am sorry; I do not speak good Italian) It is amazing how fast you pick up the essential Italian survival phases. You know, Buon giorno, Grazie, Si and No, Va bene (OK), ciao and of course la toilette. The word "prego" seemed to mean most anything, from you are welcome to go right ahead or excuse me. So when it doubt, you just say "prego".
Our month long journey to Italy included one week in Florence, one week in Rome and one week in Venice. I am sure staying in these ‘fast cities’ gave us a distorted idea of Italy. We did get a taste of the smaller cities as we took day trips out of each city. We had a Rail Italia train pass that allowed close to unlimited train travel for the month. I am most pleased to report that the "Roamin 4um" has no tails to tell of the time-honored tradition of the sciopero, a.k.a. strike. The Eurostar Italia was the nicest train. They had newspapers being handed out, free drinks and snacks (think airplane service). We really liked the reading/napping aspect of this style of travel. And the legroom and reclining seats. and the dining cars. Train travel also provided an opportunity to mix with the Italians. Romans sure are fun to listen to. It's all very animated. You get the impression that they are having a big dispute but before you know it they are all hugging and kissing.
Upon arrival in Milano, "the Roamin 4um" took a 2 day trip to Northern Italy, passing through the Lake Como area to a small Italian town, Tirano. (We loved the town) From Tirano, we hopped on a train called the Berinina Express through the Italian Alps to St. Moritz, Switzerland. The Bernina Express train trip is said to be among Europe's finest and dramatic alpine train rides. Awesome!!!!
Our first ‘fast city’ was a week in Florence. As we approached Florence from the North, we viewed the hills of Tuscany and, guess what?, they look just like the
Florence is, above all, Medieval. Florence, a city that was a center of more recent history, the Renaissance. It was, like Italy has been in general, awe-inspiring. Our apartment was located with a view of the Ponte Vecchio (old bridge). Almost all the main historical sights are within a 20-minute walk. In Florence we are talking the genius of men like Michelangelo, Leonardo, Machiavelli, Galileo, Dante, Amerigo Vespucci led by the great patron of Renaissance thinking; the wealthy banking family the deMedici’s. Genius followed the money!
Since Florence does not have an underground and buses are sometimes tricky to master The Roamin 4um walked a lot. The very first thing that a new tourist of "this pedestrian city" is confronted with is the traffic. What little sidewalk you are given (no more than a meter wide) is generally taken over by autos that have parked with 2 wheels up over the curb. If you can squeeze pass the little room remaining, you will be confronted with mopeds that are parked on the sidewalk.These same vehicles also park in the crosswalks. The results are that the pedestrian is forced into the streets. Italian drivers are notorious for driving excessively fast, making for hair-raising experiences. Yes, walking the streets is an adventure unto itself. I must concede they are all very skilled drivers, don't get me wrong, but they all love speed. To add to this, it seems that most of the eligible population of Florence, from old women to young males with stylish haircuts to priests in vestments, drives around on little scooters, Vespas and their knock-offs. These little things, which to Americans who know the girth of the Harley-Davidson seem like toys, are able to weave in and out of traffic at incredible speeds, many times avoiding collision by merely a hair's breadth. Crossing any street in Florence is a challenge. Florence just reverberates with cars and Vespas zipping by. Some may think the energy from sucking in carbon monoxide is invigorating. Florence needs a Renaissance as to the acute effects due to the formation of carboxyhemoglobin in the blood, which inhibits oxygen intake. Does this "unfriendly pedestrian city" have any respect for the fact that at high concentrations, CO exposure can be fatal? The primary culprit of Florence’s next "plaque" will be the inhaling of CO. One would feel the natives will take care of their population problem in a more civilized manner.
Have I mentioned that I LOVE the Italian ice cream, GELATO? The best gelato in Italy is found in Florence. We are talking an edible art form. OK, I have to admit that after ordering my first gelato. (Double on a giant cookie cone) I walked up to the position to pay for the 2 scupper. Yes, I had just ordered the 10 euro (about $14.00) "tourist rip-off special"). Live and learn. I needed something to wash down the fumes from the motor vehicles I had been dodging all morning.
We all noticed that in Florence and almost all the major cities in Italy that we visited; there are these black African immigrants armed with a fairly good mobile phone, that are trying to sell fake sunglasses, fake watches and fake handbags of established brands. They have all the same stuff. They don’t annoy passers-by but openly defy posters strategically positioned in the city centre warning potential customers not too by fake products because it’s an infringement of copyright. It’s all in the game. City police, the normal police, the Carabinieri, and private guards patrol the streets. At the first sign, the "knock off" salesmen gather their wares and walk hastily away. When the security officers are gone, they regain the streets. The officers do not arrest anyone. Sometimes they smile at the scene of hectic withdrawals of the immigrants, but they stay comfortably in their cars. Conducting undercover patrols donning civilian clothes looks like a no-brainer to me.
As the Roamin 4um traveled the country we noticed that every region of Italy has its own way of making bread. They often make what essentially amounts to plain pizza dough, baked with copious amounts of olive oil on top, and served just as is. Simple, but absolutely delicious. (OK, I still prefer butter). The Florentines and the people of the Tuscany region, however, prefer their bread unsalted. Yes, Florentine bread is crumbly and almost totally tasteless: its like eating air. I should add the Romans have no qualms with carbohydrates, and if you're ever in Italy, you won't either
After a week we had to depart from Florence and our lovely apartment. Florence is an absolute haven for lovers of the art world. We all agreed that being able to visit Michaelangelo's "Statue of David", supposedly the best and most admired sculpture of the human form in the world, was a highlight. While in Florence we took a day trip to Assisi and Perugia and a day trip to Siena, San Gimignano and Pisa.
Adiamo to Roma. We leave for Roma armed with such important knowledge that European toilets come in many forms and varieties. Some not very user friendly by USA standards. Europeans are a little more careful with water usage also. Many toilets have 2 different flushes—a little flush and a big flush—for obvious reasons. Oh, yes! Italians do not queue. He who pushes hardest gets to the front.
We am really looking forward to seeing the ‘Eternal City’. A city with a history that extends from its founding among the seven hills on the banks of the Tiber by salt and metal traders to its rise to global dominance led by Julius Caesar and his nephew Caesar Augustus. Again, we are talking Romulus and Remus and extraordinary development over five centuries. Are we pumped?! In history, culture and art, what city can match Rome's greatness — and curse —. The curse is that a visitor can never see more than a fraction of what's there in one visit. Part of the greatness is that there is just so much, you can enjoy a first-rate cultural experience and never pay a cent.
Our apartment is located just a few blocks from St. Peter’s Square and one of Europe’s midget countries, the Vatican. In Europe’s tiny derby, the Vatican is the big little winner. The apartment is not nearly as nice as the one we rented in Florence. Our first adventure in Rome was to go shopping for groceries at a market just a few steps from our apartment. The Roamin 4um have entered into an arena inhabited by real Italians who spoke little to no English, so an incursion into this world by 4 American such as ourselves, who know minimal Italian and are only haphazardly aware of the Italian grocery shopping culture, proved a challenging adventure. To make a long story short, a elderly Italiana women that was behind me in the checkout line, read me the riot act, in Italian of course. As best as I could figure out, the entire rage centered around the fact that I did not weigh the vegetables and have them priced before I entered the check out area. Her obviously frustrated facial expression betrayed her contempt for my utter lack of understanding of her fruit or her language. Needless to say we learned to weigh and price vegetables in future visit to the market.
Our first day of Rome sightseeing, led by our outstanding Roma guide, Dario (talk about insight, Dario must have lived in Ancient Rome in another life) included the Coliseum. Being there forces you into multiple perspectives, none of which you can manage: What was it like to be a spectator? A victim? In another culture 2,000 years ago? WOW!!! We walked through the Roman Forum with a vista that opens on a field of ruins in various states of repair. One can almost imagine what the scene must have looked like when the Empire was in flower and committed to being magnificent in public. Fascinating, moving, almost eerie. Our tour included one amazing sight after another. People, it occurred to us, live in these places that seem to us pure fantasy. There are children, adults, and old men and women in Florence and Rome. Life goes on. We wondered whether or not being surrounded by such things that we call great art and impressive ancient monuments makes Italians take such things for granted. We wondered, are the Italians as awestruck with our world as we are with theirs. Imagine having grown up with only tall buildings made of age-worn stone, and then seeing for the first time buildings ten times taller made of shimmering glass. When they come to Las Vegas they can see the American version of Italia in such places as Caesar’s Palace, The Bellagio and The Venetian.
Our day concluded with Chicco entertaining us at the Piazza Navona, the shape of the chariot racetrack that once was there. The piazza musicians were entertaining, and Chicco provided an at least 8 course meal at the Tre Scalini Restaurante. Chicco is a good friend of the owner, Antonio, so we were treated like visiting royalty. Yes, a day to remember! The Piazza Navona at night was yet another in a day of glorious public spaces.
Our day trip via train to Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi coast. We spent very little time in Naples but the Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius tour was outstanding. If we ever return to Italia, I am heading straight to Amalfi Coast and famous coastal resort towns of Amalfi, Positano and Ravello.
OK, I must admit by this time I have vowed, no more Duomos (Italian for cathedrals) However, how does one pass on San Pietro in Vaticano (Basilica of St Peter). We are talking the St Peter’s Basilica built on the site thought to be that of the tomb of St Peter. We are talking Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. We are talking millions of pilgrims flooding into the Vatican City. Looking for something non-touristy here is like looking for a restaurant filled with locals at Disneyworld. Our last night in Roma was featured by dining at the home of pasta, Alfredo’s. We all indulged ourselves in the taste of the famous fettuccine in triple butter sauce, invented by the first-generation Alfredo. Our waiter, Umberto, presented my wfe with the "gold fork and spoon" that Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (silent movie fame) gave the restaurant as well as the serving platter. She was so flattered. This is a must see and eat place for anyone going to Rome. It was fun to watch Chicco dressed to the nines and walking, click, click, click, to a row of scooters. She grabbed her Vespa, (which of course was parked in) hopped on, started the engine, and drove off, sitting with perfect posture like the royalty she is.
As we load our luggage (we are talking "final four" in luggage weight) we say Arrivederci Roma, Goodbye, goodbye to Rome . City of a million moonlit places, City of a million warm embraces, Where we found the one of all the faces, Far from home! It's time for us to part.
Another smooth Eurostar ride out of Roma and we were in Venezia in 4 hours. We immediately fell in love with Venice! It is so picturesque, unique and charming that you just want to move right into one of the gorgeous decaying but elegant palaces. Never did we imagine that a city just a few hours from Rome by train could be so different from the Eternal City. So different, in fact, that it seemed we had crossed the border into an entirely different country.
Our "Pink Apartment" was located walking distance from the train station. The walk to the apartment included some serious hoisting of our big and heavy suitcases — not a great city for people who need ramps, not steps. The Pink apartment is one of only 3 apartments with a garden on the Grand Canal. My brother-in-law Robin enjoyed sitting on the garden wall with an adult beverage having his photo taken by passing tourist (mostly Asians) riding in the passing vaporetto’s (water buses) Our Venice guide gave us a 3 hour tour of the most famous sights of Venice. We saw Piazza San Marco (St Marks square and Cathedral), the Bridge of Sighs, and Venice's signature Rialto Bridge, etc.. What a difference a few (million?) cars make! Florence and Rome: a dramatic Vespa-infested change from the pedestrian city of Venice. Venice is a ridiculous idea and its realization is indescribable. The throngs of tourists (including us, of course) cannot defeat the city's basic rhythm: Street, alley, passage, up a bridge, down a bridge, street, passage, open space. Somehow we were able to manage the maze. (A few breadcrumbs helped) Handicapped access is virtually non-existent in Italy—and the handicapped are nowhere to be seen. I don’t know how anyone in a wheel chair could get around in the cities we have visited.
We purchased a weekly water bus pass and toured the island via canals and the Adriatic. Relaxing and great way to see the sights.
I must confess, by this time my tastebuds were burning out on a steady lunch and dinner diet of pizza, pasta and ‘meat’… oh, for a good USA meal. Is there a reason my 3 travel companions are calling me "Gelato Dundee"? I might add that the Italian pizza is boring. We found a tiny restaurant, LaZucca, a few alleys from our apartment with as many meatless dishes as ones with meat. I was informed by my fellow "Roamins", that the food was fabulous and the prices were reasonable. It was also wonderful to catch up with the people watching.
We took a day trip, via train, to Verona. In Verona, Romeo and Juliet seem to be on every tourist's mind. The "Balcony of Juliet" is a mob scene, as every tour group in this part of Italy converges on it all day long. As they take snapshots of each other rubbing the statue's polished breast to get "luck in love," their guides tell stories about the completely bogus balcony. Verona was a pleasant surprise. The autos stopped at stop signs, did not park on the sidewalk and in general acted in a very civilized manner. Just when we had become comfortable with walking (or running) so that you weave around the Smart-cars and motorbikes careening towards you.
We took a second day trip to the Italian Tyrol. High in the Dolomites, tourism is huge. Proximity to the Austrian border resulting in the natives speaking German. The tram up into the mountains was spectacular!
We were very surprised at the number of villages up in the mountains.
After a week, it was time to say Arrivaderci to Vanessa-- --and board our train to Milano. We had reservations at a great hotel (2 blocks from the train station). The big news in Milano was that the Milano futbul (soccer) team had just won the European cup championship. Defeating Liverpool 2-1 in Athens. Every Italian is absolutely fanatical about soccer, oops, sorry...futball. I know every country has their fans and devotees but it seems Italy is way more obsessed than the others. The Milano team was playing on Sunday. My brother-in-law Robin and I took the Metro out to the traditional football temple, the stadium Giuseppe Meazza, 85.000 inspired fans. The game was a sell out. They did have a few tickets remaining at the cost about $140 a ticket. We were advised not to purchase from scalpers, as they are known to sell counterfeit tickets. We did get to see the famous stadium and get a feel for the atmosphere.
Our Monday transport to the airport was to arrive at 6:00am.
What did we enjoy the most during our month journey to Italia?
Maybe the best benefit of traveling abroad is not learning about another culture or language, as valuable as that is, but illuminating your own culture that we so often take for granted. Living in a different culture shows you the contrasts with your own, and thereby makes you realize that yours even exists.
We are home. We traded the car exhaust of the streets of Florence and Rome for the smell of the desert. Instead of surroundings of ancient relics and marvels, we have Arizona’s canyons and cactus. Yes, we do miss Italy– how could we not? But at the same time, it is good to be back home. There's something to be said for being comfortable again. We never felt uncomfortable in Italy, true, but it never felt like home; it always felt temporary. Yes, like a vacation. Italy was never easy, either: traveling in a foreign language in most daily interactions with other people is tiring, exhausting even. Rewarding, of course, but to order a meal in English again – as effortless as a wave of the hand –is truly a joy.
They took the Roamin 4um out of Italia but they can never take Italia out of the Roamin 4um.