The Real Italy
There is a lot of beauty and history in Italy – that’s why people come here, to experience such things at their source. For us, even a short trip allows us to touch on such stellar areas as the Coliseum, the Tower of Pisa, the waterways of Venice, and some of the many, many art treasures that populate the country.
Following, I’ll try to share some of the most impressive scenes from our travels. I’ll also punctuate the “Travelog” stuff with some down-to-earth observations about the Italy that surrounds all the beautiful sights.
This blog is a transcription of the original Word doc, so some of the caption references may be a little out of place – – sorry.
Bryce drinking from a “nazoni” public water-fountain in Rome.
Narrow streets that only a scooter or golf cart can negotiate.
Tiny tots pause in their run up/down the 16 stories of inverted tower-well at Orvieto.
A “jail-bird” church in Siena (early popular architectural style).
One of the tiniest vehicles we saw in a tiny-vehicle country. Two stories are evident – first, even the most microscopic car can still get a ticket; second, no vehicle, however slim, can escape the ravages of close-quarter traffic on a daily basis.
Florence city center (il Duomo) above the Arno River. In medieval times, Florence residents would pee joyfully into the Arno, in full knowledge that their wastes would become the drinking water for rival province Pisa downstream.
One of the first and most striking impressions when driving around Rome (and later, pretty much every other Italian city) was the graffiti. In the US, you see it only in the “crummy” areas and along roadways, etc. In Italy, almost every wall is a spray-can billboard. Sad, especially since the US stigma makes nice areas in Italy look shabby due to the association with slums and barrios.
Nobody seems to mind it much. The guides typically would say something like “Yeah, there’s too much graffiti” and let it go at that. We also did not see much in the way of any cleaned-up graffiti (new paint etc.). Once in place, it seems to stay forever, until it fades, or gets replaced by later over-writes.
It seems like about half the entire population of Italy smokes cigarettes. We also saw one aged old crone puffing contentedly on a pipe in an outdoor eatery. The hotels and indoor restaurants are fairly smoke-free zones, but the pervasiveness of clouds of smoke, issuing from every other pedestrian, means we are almost always breathing in some second-hand nicotine.
All-in-all, I’m feeling like I’m doing about a half-pack a day while in Italy. My lingering cough is definitely aggravated, either by the ubiquitous tobacco smoke, or the not-too-California diesel fumes. At times it seems that a little oxygen is a difficult commodity to come by.
Martina and the boys trying on traditional masks during our guided Venice tour. The long proboscis was copied from the “doctor of the Plague” – a long snout used to house aromatics while the physician attended the dead and dying during the great Bubonic Plague of the middle ages.
A glass-blowing factory in Venice. The workman is rolling the workpiece across three glass beads. After embedding the beads, he will expand the glob of molten glass, eventually creating a cylindrical goblet with inlaid, quarter-sized florals created from the spreading-out of the tiny beads.
Tips and Service
As we all learn with the first web-site or guide-book reading, there is little or no tipping in most of Europe. Some people are evangelistic about this (we met a few), and some believe, as I do, that exceptional performance merits at least a small reward.
Regardless of your personal convictions, the absence of tipping means one thing for sure: the only good service you’ll ever get is if somebody feels like being nice to you. Since they’ll likely get no compensation for any level of service, sourpusses don’t have any incentive to ‘put on a happy face’.
My personal sense of this is that there are probably about the same number of intrinsically helpful and not-so-much folks in Italy. But in the US, where tipping is a main part of their income, the grouches have to wise up or find better employment. In Italy, the same personalities just ignore you, or even let you know (in clear if incomprehensible Italian) that you are one big pain in their butt.
One reward, for me, is that when I do give a tip, the recipient is so surprised and grateful, they look at me as if I just paid off their Mercedes. Feels good.
Bottom line: Service can be truly excellent; it can also totally suck. Flip a coin, and enjoy the show.
A massive cruise ship motors sedately by Piazza San Marco in Venice. These things tower 15 stories above the water line and are higher than the clock towers in the city. Over 7000 passengers and crew drift by, tourists gawking at tourists.
The 2000-year-old ruins of Pompei, after being excavated from under 40 feet of volcanic ash.
Plaster cast of vaporized body.
Ferrari formula-one in a showroom in downtown Florence. If you can’t afford the car, you can probably pop for a $75 baseball cap with the famous prancing-horse emblem. (Did you know that the horse came from a WW1 Italian fighter pilot’s airplane emblem?)
Standing vs. Sitting
Karin and I are coffee-lovers, and European coffee came WAY before Starbucks. So every day, we enjoy either an espresso, or a café-americano, which is actually an espresso with hot water added to make it more like what we Americans know as a “cup of coffee”. We discovered that coffee comes dear to tourists, and we paid as much as e6.50 (about US$10) for a single cup. Later during our trip, we found equivalent cups for e0.90. What’s the difference? Standing up.
When you sit down in a tourist area, or residential area for that matter, you are going to get charged for table service, either directly (via an explicit cover charge), and/or indirectly via steep pricing. We learned to look for a “Bar”, which has a stand-up counter with prices that everyman can afford, without a second house mortgage.
Below: Pope’s-eye view of the famous plaza (Piazza del Popolo, of course) where he addresses the adoring multitudes.
We didn’t draw anywhere near the same crowd. Go figure.
Food and Nutrition
Italy is certainly the pasta capital of the world. And, despite multiple assurances from web sites and travel books, gluten-free foods are very rare commodities. While the ladies and kids grew quickly tired of pizza, pasta, and bread, I starved for it (I eat gluten-free). When I finally found a place that served gluten-free pizza, it was like a man dying of thirst in the desert diving into a swimming pool. Heaven on earth.
In general, we did not frequently find really good food. I believe this was due largely to unfamiliarity, and being too much in tourist areas. Also, our most expensive meals were not the best, and our least expensive meals included some of the most tasty.
Of all the places we visited, certainly one of the most visually striking was the Coliseum. Here, the intricate structures beneath the exhibition floor are shown. In early, lavish times, these chambers were used to house gladiators, animals, criminals to be executed, and other show paraphernalia. Later on, the same spaces became places for entire acts to be elevated into or out of the arena, as the schedule and programming required.
The original bronze metal ornaments and building-ties were later scavenged for other purposes.
Right: It looks enormous, and once inside, it proves to be even more-so.
Left: The famous (or infamous) Bridge of Sighs. This was the last passageway for condemned criminals on their way to captivity in the prison adjacent. A brief peek through the grilled windows afforded them their last light from the world outside. One lingering sigh, and off they went to their incarceration.
At first, the boys thought pigeons were mostly for chasing. But after discovering they liked to be fed, they changed quickly from pursuers to the pursued.
These colorful gals patrolled Piazza San Marco to tell folks not to feed the pigeons. Some relatively new regulation, and nobody seemed to care except the orange-hatted guardianettes.
So, we re-organized around the corner, and – – – – –
Below: Success! A crowd of smiling on-lookers enjoys the mom, the boys and the birds.
Driving & Traffic
On our first day in Rome, I received a baptism-by-fire by driving a golf cart through the city streets (behind our guide). Those close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat situations were not as excitingly mirrored by traffic in wider, more regulated zones.
While stop signs are definitely a vague suggestion, traffic lights are observed pretty religiously. Speed limits less so, until the small sign appears indicating a camera-check; then everyone slows to the limit, passes the camera, and speeds back up again. Interesting.
Bottom line: in the countryside, a foreign visitor would have no problem driving around Italy. In the cities, just knowing where to go and how to get there looks like a two-year college course. Take a cab.
The Piazza del Popolo near our apartment in Rome (a different one from the Pope’s own plaza) has a quadrant of fountain-lions. These are very popular with the younger set (and even some college-age visitors as well). Their backs are polished by multiple riders’ use. Our family enjoyed them as much as anybody. The boys would often have breakfast “desert” by racing to the lions.
This brow-furrowing study session took place on the rooftop patio above our apartment in Florence.
Happy diners are (clockwise): Bryce, Martina, Greg, Karin, Br. Brian, Fr. Daniel, Br. David, and Brandon.
I think the expression on the boys’ faces says it all.
We’re at home now, and I have the exotic luxury of typing on a full-function keyboard in front of a giant screen, using a real version of Word. Life is good. My noble experiment, using my Droid instead of a laptop, was educational for sure, but by all measurements a non-success. Next trip, a nice compact, lightweight laptop will stick to me as close as my passport. :o)
Since I didn’t have the time or equipment to do a decent blogging job on the road, I’m going to take this first day home and catch up on some of the stuff worth sharing about Italy. You can skip a couple of pages down to it if you like.
But first – while it’s still fresh in my mind – our last-day saga….
The Return (narrative)
From the get-go, we had planned to see friends in Germany on “the way through”. Anybody who has ever traveled a bit knows that there’s no such thing as “stopping by”. Even a brief visit requires the usual rigamarole of getting off an airplane or other vehicle, checking through passport, baggage, customs, getting transportation, yatayatayata. In this case, “all we did” was arrange for a stretch layover in Frankfurt, so that we’d have a few extra hours in the airport. Then, our friends, who live not too far away, could come and see us there.
So now, the details (there are always details)…..
The flights were so full, we could only get a 6:45AM departure out of Venice. UGH!!!. Venice requires water-taxi, then land-taxi, to get to Marco Polo airport, a simple journey of about 10 miles that takes most of an hour to accomplish. In addition, transportation in Venice is nearly shut-down in early morning (main canal-ways are actually closed to all but emergency traffic). To make absolutely certain we’d make the flight, I set up a pre-arranged, pre-paid private limo door-to-door transportation. Hotel-to-Lufthansa, guaranteed, 4:15AM, for a measly $433. Yes, really. I wanted to make sure nothing could go wrong on our last day.
They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. I began thinking about this on Tuesday morning.
The first wrinkle was our hotel change. Not only were we moving to a different hotel (where the pickup was to occur), but our new hotel was set back a couple of blocks from the water-front – so we knew that the boat would not come right up to our door at this new place. I called the limo service three days in advance, and let them know about the hotel change. Then I called two days in advance and made absolutely certain that they would come to the hotel door to pick us up. You probably are beginning to get the gist of this now, right?
At 3:30AM, three different alarm clocks went off. Three sleepy adults, two sleepy kids, and a bunch of bags and baggage – – – all began arranging themselves to travel. No whining or griping, just down to business and getting ready to go. Teamwork.
At 4:14 AM we are 100% downstairs and ready to launch – – but I am getting nervous. These transfer folks usually show up 5-10 minutes early to help with bags and what-not, and there’s not a soul in sight. I go outside and walk up and down the totally deserted streets. NOBODY.
I call the (New York) emergency number. Fortunately, there is a dispatcher on duty, and he puts me on $1/minute hold for about $10. Back on the line – No, there’s nobody coming to the hotel. Didn’t I know that the hotel was not on the waterfront? Didn’t I know that I was supposed to be at one particular boat-docking area, out of 6 or 8 possible spots, at a different hotel? Didn’t I know the name of that hotel? And didn’t I know that the hotel in question actually has a front-entrance dock AND a rear-entrance dock?
You would have been proud of me. I didn’t use any profanity, and I did not ruin any equipment or furniture in my vicinity. Nobody was injured either. About $15 worth of phone calls later, we finally rendezvous with the boat driver. It’s now 4:45AM.
The boat ride is fascinating. There is absolutely nobody on the waters of Venice except us, in stark contrast to the teeming throng of daytime operations. As we slip across the calm waters, I ask the driver where he had been told to pick us up. He had never been given any hotel name, or any instructions to meet us at the hotel door. His dispatcher simply told him to get to a specific boat dock. What an amazing disconnect. But – I gently remind myself – this is, after all, Italy.
The cool night air is effective at soothing my modest ire, and I’m only slightly steaming as we wend our way along back-waterways to avoid the primary canal closures. After plodding, wake-free, through pretty much every residential neighborhood in northwestern Venice, we arrive at another boat-dock that is empty save for one gigantic black Mercedes limo-van. The van driver is nervously looking at his watch, and hurriedly drop-kicks our luggage into the cavernous rear storage area.
We launch down the freeway, with the driver desperately looking for ways to make up for lost time. The lanes on this thoroughfare are posted with per-lane speed limits: 60kph (about 45mph) for the right-hand lane, and 90k for the left-hand lane(s). Apparently, these are only advisory in nature, for the driver seems to consider 140k a more reasonable figure for this dark, lonely morning.
Our speed, coupled with the usual Italian boundary-layer intimacy when passing other vehicles, assures that we do not drift off to sleep on the ride to the airport. We arrive, happily without incident, at 5:45AM, one-half hour before boarding time. No sweat, huh?
As we work our way over to check-in, the driver rushes up to us to give me my (forgotten) travel bag. In my defense, I WAS being careful – of everybody else’s stuff. Dang. Opa goofs up again. Almost a habit by now. :o)
The rest of the trip goes as well as could possibly be expected from a 30-hour day. The kids are absolute stalwarts, taking in stride travel conditions that would bring a lot of adults to tears; Martina and Karin and I are in pretty good spirits; we actually get home, with all of our bags, on time and un-scathed. We have well over 1500 photographs to sort through after all the dust settles, and we’re looking forward to it.