My first trip to Italy

Italy Travel Blog

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This year’s trip started like any other, unplanned and under-financed with one small twist I was meeting a friend who has been living in Asia for the past 10 years and I hadn’t seen him since he left.

Which was a risky proposition given our solitary ways and me not being very smart. Luckily Mike is.  He even took the time to read a guidebook and learn some Italian before the plane landed in Rome.  Me? My preparation involved packing a second pair of shoes, 4 pair of dress slacks, some date shirts and the first night’s hotel reservation.  I didn’t even know that Italy was in a different time zone from my London departure. 

Because of the time zone mix up, I arrived in Rome after the direct busses to Rome quit running.  I had to ride the local bus into Rome.  A pleasant experience normally, but after traveling for 4 days, none of which included running water due to plumbing problems, I wasn’t so fresh.  At least I had a good deal of personal space up until 40 teenagers or so teenagers got on and just as I was getting into Rome and I had to put my luggage on my lap and I couldn’t see out the windows and didn’t understand the names of the stops the driver was calling out.

  I finally extricated myself from the bus but without any idea where and my Lonely Planet Map sucked.  I proceeded to tour Rome at night, on foot and with all of my luggage.  I saw the Coliseum, the Forum, the Train Station (3 times) countless fountains and all the Romans enjoying the hot humid night in sidewalk cafes late into the night.

Before you think I am a total idiot, I am hoping there is still some wiggle room on that one, I have to admit I did ask directions from the only people that I found that spoke English, the concierges at the high end hotels.  That ended up being fruitless, the directions always seemed just good enough so that I couldn’t find my way back to their hotel.  I think their help was based mostly on the getting me out of their hotel rather then to mine.  Finally, I ended up back at the train station and got a taxi for the 200 yard ride to my hotel.  I cleaned up and headed back out for many slices of pizza and one 8 dollar beer. This made me realize that this was going to be either a really sober or a really expensive trip.

  I was betting on the latter. 

I wasn’t surprised when I got lost again the next day on what was supposed to be a 4 block trek from the first hotel to the second.  Really, I don’t think it was me.  Being a middle aged, American white guy, I am used to nice straight roads starting with 1 and working their way up in a nice serial fashion.  There is also the nice easy to pronounce AND remember names like Main and Elm and High.   The Italians (and French and Germans, Chinese, Mexicans and etc, etc, etc)  just aren’t so good with straight roads.  And if you were born in Italy or even passed though Italy in the 1700’s you get a street named after you.  For example how long can you remember Via Lazzaro Spallanzani or Via GB Morgagni? How about if I tell you the first is named after an Italian priest, physiologist and natural scientist, born on January 12, 1729 and the other is named after the un-renowned Italian anatomist and pathologist born on February 25, 1682.

  Does that help?  I didn’t think so.  Maps don’t work either because the length of the street name is inversely proportional to the length of the street.  So the streets are all abbreviated into unpronounceable jumble of letters.   In the end, I recommend a good pair of walking shoes and a lot of beer money for the rest stops.

So enough complaining (for now).

I had a day to explore Rome before Mike arrived that night so I set out on foot early to see everything there is to see without standing in line or spending any money (other than for beer).  The next day we roamed around, paid to see old stuff and even stood in a few lines for the privilege.  Mike is a fan of eating good food and drinking good wine and was actually reading his guide book. I am just a fan of eating and drinking in general and was using my guidebook to balance out my luggage as I took it on the various walking tours of Italy.  Mike found us a great restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto even in a driving rain storm.

  It is called Ristorante da Giggetto.  If you are ever in Rome, check it out http://www.giggettoalporticodottavia.it/english/home.htm. Given this success, he was put on food and drink reconnaissance duty for the remainder of the trip.  Come to think of it, he was also the translator, tour guide, and keeper of the itinerary. 

Rome is interesting but in the end it is just a big, busy, expensive European city with old rocks piled up in an organized fashion.  I can’t say much about the people since I didn’t actually meet anyone.  Could have been my lack of Italian skills but I didn’t see them as being all that friendly.  The women are pretty but I rarely saw them smile and seem downright miserable or at least irritated.  I know that is not saying much since most women have little to be happy about when I am around.  I have heard that Italian women put their “leave me alone” faces on to keep the Italian men away.

  Since I hardly look even remotely Italian, I am not buying that.   In short, Rome is a good place to eat, see the old stuff and get out of as soon as possible.

We did.  Our next stop was selected by Mike who continued to fulfill his tour guide duties.     We took the train to Sienna, a couple of hours North and just on the Southern edge of Tuscany. We got our rooms and Mike read his tour guide and I went and drank beer until dinner.  I’ve heard it is a nice little town but since it was pouring rain almost from the moment we got there, I just found it soggy.   Mike’s tour book recommended a local restaurant that seemed easy to find.  For a small town, there sure were a lot of streets and the kind local’s sent us down everyone in responses to Mike’s Boston accented Italian quest for directions led us.  In the end, we went somewhere else. That is the problem of asking for directions in the native language.

  They are going to give them to you in the native language and nobody ever gets that far in the language tapes.

After Dinner, I stuck around for a beer and Mike went back to read.  A rainy Wednesday in the off season in Sienna was not unsurprisingly quiet.  Definitely, not lively enough for the $8 beer investment so it wasn’t long before I started the easy 15 minute stroll back down the hill to the hotel.  But I was tired and thought 15 minutes too long so I took an obvious shortcut.  2 hours later, I crawled into bed.

In review, Sienna is a nice charming romantic little Tuscan town with some crazy shortcuts.

Next stop was Florence or Firenza and the locals say.  Mike had reserved the rooms using his guidebook reading skills and it was close to the bus station so it was easy to find once we started walking in the right direction which we accomplished after 2 or 3 attempts.

  That was how Florence went and this time is was not mostly my fault.  Florence has an illogical addressing scheme.    Residence address number plates are blue and businesses are red.  And they have totally different patterns on any given street.  For example, If you are looking for house number 4 any average sequentially processing white guy would think that if he found numbers 1, 2 and 3   or  7, 6 and 5, odds would be pretty good that the next door would be 4.  Not true in Tuscany.  The next number could be anything if it wasn’t a house.  In fact the house Number 4 could be blocks away if you are in a commercial area. 

Florence is a medium sized city that feels small if not a bit Claustrophobic.  The Narrow streets and alleys are bordered by identical 4 story buildings right out to the sidewalk.  So it is hard to find a landmark when you need one.  Mike and I got split up after a Friday night pub crawl.

  So we made our way home separately.  His trip took 10 minutes, mine was 7 hours plus the 3 hours I had to wait on the front steps before the hotel curfew lifted.  So after a couple of hours, I am way beyond the walls of old Florence and in the industrial and warehouse section of town.  There are no lights and nothing is open.  A few cars passing by.  Then in the distance I see some people standing around waiting for a bus or something.  I get closer and they are all women and it isn’t a bus stop.  Now, I have seen 60 Minutes during sweeps.  I know instantly what is going on, this is the Tuscan hooker corner and they looked bored.  Luckily, I didn’t have any money left so I figured they would take pity, point me in the right direction and send me on my way, unscathed.   Good plan in theory, but I wasn’t sure about it delivery.  With my luck and Italian skills, these were Vice cops and I was going to end up in a Tuscan Jail for soliciting.  Sure that would make for a much better newsletter not to mention the prison food is probably pretty good (1) if not Atkins friendly.
  Either way, I was tired, thirsty and hungry and something had to give.  So as I was getting up the last of the nerve, I heard a friendly male voice in perfect English ask me if I was lost and did I need help.   I turned around and there was no guy just a large boned buxom white woman in a fishnet top.  I don’t remember this on 60 Minutes but I figured it out pretty quick. although the breasts did slow down the full realization of what was going on.  Then He/she spoke again and asked where I was trying to get to, I got some directions back to town and I was off again.  By 5am, I was sitting on the front step waiting for the hotel to open again.

 After a few hours of sleep, Mike and I went out to his family friend’s Tuscan Villa to catch up and eat a big family dinner. I don’t speak any Italian and their English was basically limited to “Bush is an Idiot”.  If I had to rank my varied interests in order of, well, interest, Geo Political affairs and issues would have to fall a distant 17th behind dinner, beer, wine, naps, power tools, sex, television, the remote control, slow motion reruns of Bay Watch, free food at Costco, flannel shirts, and 5 other things that I have so little interest in right now that they don’t even come to mind.

But Mike carried the evening with his Italian and French so I was happy to quietly eat and drink.   

I really liked Florence, I didn’t see any of the usual stuff, seemed silly for a guy to wait four hours in line to see a statue of a naked guy.  There were more people who spoke English there, tourists and locals, and they didn’t seem closed off like they did in Rome.  The bars and restaurants were fun.  Outside of the industrial section, it is a nice place to walk around too.  I would definitely go back once I get a better map.

  We only stayed a couple of nights in Florence but that was plenty for a couple of footloose guys that don’t stand in lines.  We hopped the train for Pisa and its leaning tower. 

Pisa is just another couple of hours North by train so we had plenty of time to get in get settled and check out the sites and food before nightfall.

  But you forget who I am.  We didn’t have a room before we got to Pisa so my luggage got a nice walking tour of Pisa before we found a suitable hotel. 

We got to the top of the tower just as the sun was going down on a beautiful night.  Quite romantic if you bring a date.  Mike and I just thought about where we were going to dinner and beer.  Not an easy trick on a Sunday night in Pisa.  Other then the tower, there isn’t much else to do in Pisa so we caught the morning train to the Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre is eighteen kilometers of sheer rocky coastline in northern Italy, terraced hills and vineyards sloping steeply down to the sea. Five little villages are built into the rocks between the beach and the hills. Each village has its own character, they are a few minutes apart by train or a couple of hours if you walk the connecting trails.  The only problem is, as intrepid European tour guide Rick Steves put it, "That quaint little village isn't so quaint when the tour bus pulls up".

   Luckily Mike and I arrived as the tourist season was winding down, so it wasn’t so crowded we found hotel rooms pretty easily.

Mike and I stayed in the Northern most town and caught the train to the southern most town the next morning and started walking North, hitting each town along the way.  It is not a hard trail, I wore flip flops.  We weren’t in a big hurry and spent time in each town along the way.  We stopped often for photos and to take in the beautiful vistas on the beautiful Mediterranean blue sky day.  I think there were even some beer stops.  Even at that leisurely pace we were back at the hotel for happy hour.  Which begs the question, what do people do here that would keep them busy for more then a couple of days?   And yes ladies, he is still single, imagine that.  Mike and I had dinner and beers in preparation for our final parting of ways. 

Mike and I had one more night in Bologna then I headed North to Milan and he South back to Rome.  Not much to say about Bologna.   

On the train to Milan, I pulled out my underused tour book and looked for a cheap hotel.  Decided on one near the train station and was not surprised to find me and my luggage on yet another walking tour of Milan.  A couple of hours later, I was on the steps of the Hotel Sera a few blocks from the station and there was a room available.  Dropped the luggage and headed out into the fashionable streets of Milan.  Well, the fashion district covers about 2 blocks and as someone who shops at JC Penny, the attraction eluded me.  But I pressed on and found Milan to be just like Rome without all the old rocks.  The tourist bureau puts out a nice map though so I always knew where I was, which was nice.  The fact that my hotel wasn’t on it was a bit of a problem though.  I figured it out after a few hours and safe and secure back at the hotel before the sunset. Cleaned up and headed back out again that night to see how the pretty people play in Milan. 

That didn’t turn out so well.  Pretty people are expensive.  They hang out in places with $10 beers so that was a short lived effort.  Probably a smart move since my fashion sense is rooted in end of season sales at JC Penny.  Milan does have a good happy hour scene.  All you can eat from the buffet for free as long as you are drinking.   But there is a risk here. If you pick the wrong place to gorge yourself on pizza and olives and pasta then you are kind of committed to the place.  If you venture on looking for more interesting environs, they are still going to charge you the increased happy hour price of $12 for beer regardless of your food consumption. I looked for a non happy hour (2) but it seems to be the thing.  So I got a beer and a paper bag from a quick stop and sat in the park and drank it.  This trip was definitely over and it was time to go home.

The only problem was there was my flight out was still 2 days away.   

Instead of aimlessly wondering around Milan for the day, I took a train up to the Italian Alps and Lake Como.  This was more like it.  It is beautiful up there.  I was up there on a warm blue sky day.  It was one of those perfect days between summer and fall.  The air was warm but the breeze brought the hint of crisp autumn day.  The sky was blue and the leaves were just starting to change to their fall colors.  There are little towns all along the lake and I took a ferry ride that stopped at each.  It is a really slow ride but a spectacular one.  It was probably the highlight of the trip.  But I was running out of daylight and needed to get back to Milan to get ready for the flight home.  Next time, I’ll stay longer, hike the Alps, sail the lake, explore the towns and eat too much.

I think the sign of any good trip is when you are glad when it is over.  When you are happy to unlock the door to your house and crawl into your bed.  And I was.



[1] I wonder if I would get tired of eating Italian everyday
[2] Yes, I never thought I would say that either.
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686 km (426 miles) traveled
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