Monthly Archives: June 2014

Your Primer on Italian Travel

With the Italy trip fresh in my mind, I thought some travel tips might be helpful to the 3 or 4 Americans who have not yet traveled there.  The rest of you, shame on you for getting there ahead of me, turning all of the Italians against us, and giving them an inflated idea of what their stuff is worth.  If you haven’t read the previous post, “I Waited 47 Years for That?” you should include that valuable reading as part of your trip prep.

Learning the Language
This is very important.  About 30 days before your trip buy an Italian phrase book, chuck it in your suitcase and forget about it.  Then start practicing your ability to speak very simple English words, but at about twice the volume at which you would normally speak.  If you use these things you have practiced you’ll find that they immediately label you as American, the Italian turns away in disgust and luckily you are saved from having to communicate.  Also, hand gestures, critical;  if you can point at something and say, “quanto costa,” (how much) you know 90% of what you need to know.

Vowels, the Italians love their vowels, and they pronounce them all.  Here is a partial list of the towns we rode our bikes through on the trip:  Figazzano, Monteguerra, Locorotondo, Mozzabrucio, Alberobello, Pietrapertosa, Laurenzano, Marsicovetere, Campomaggiore, Castelmezzano, Montescaglioso, and the winner with 7 vowels, Buonobitacola.  I’ll bet you wouldn’t even know if I made some of those up.(1)  By the way, this does not even include town names made up of two or more words.

When you come up on an Italian, never say “Buon giorno.”  Don’t even grumpily say “Giorno” in a gravelly undertone like they do.  This gives the Italian the false impression that you speak Italian, so that after he or she has spoken about three totally non-nonsensical sentences, wasting both your time and his, you have to break in saying, “no speeka di Italian.”  At that point you are both left frustrated, depressed and at a loss as to what to say next.

Buy some Euros from your local bank before you cross the pond and plant the idea firmly in your brain that a Euro is worth approximately 1.5 times what a US dollar is worth.  That way it will take at least 24 hours to forget there is a difference, and it won’t be until the second day that you are happily spending Euros as if they were the same as dollars.  You’ll breeze in and out of restaurants and retail establishments congratulating yourself on the wise decision you made to travel to this country where everything seems to cost about the same as in the US.  This works really great for as long as you are actually in Italy.  When you get home, however, and review your credit card and bank statements, ouch!

What to buy
If you want Italy to be around for a return trip, buy anything and everything that looks vaguely interesting.  The Italian economy is just barely grinding along, so your efforts are important.  Don’t concern yourself with cash versus credit, because Italians don’t pay their taxes anyway.  The tax laws there are merely suggested giving levels.

Seriously,  great things to buy to give as gifts or just for personal use:  linen items, leather goods, jewelry and clothes.  If the Italians have one thing it’s style sense, so on this kind of stuff you can’t hardly go wrong.  I bought a purse for The Princess at a store where the bag they put the purse in was better looking than most purses you see women carrying here in the US.  I’m not kidding.  The Princess gives her stamp of approval to all Italian gifts in aforementioned categories.  Finally, from this most catholic of nations be sure to buy plenty of saints medals to assure a safe trip home and to ward off the stuff that scares you most going forward.  If something frightens you, there’s a saint for it.  For example, The Princess is afraid of being attacked by loose dogs.  No problem, St. Vitus protects against among other things, animal attacks.  Here’s a photo of a statue honoring this great saint.

St. Vitus

What to see
Italy is just full of really old stuff.  Make sure you see a lot of it.  I don’t just mean the buildings.  As we rode the Italian countryside our group probably saw a million olive trees.  They all seemed kind of short and squat with incredibly thick, gnarly trunks.  I asked our Italian guide how old the trees were, and he said it isn’t unusual for the trees to be 200 to 300 years old, with a few still yielding fruit after 900 years!  That makes my mind spin.

The men are really old here too.  The typical Italian village square, or piazza, contains a war memorial, a fountain and about a dozen old men loafing about.  Here’s a photo of two such men.

Day 9, two old guys on a bench

I blew the doors off this guy as we climbed the hill leaving town, but some of the others weren’t so easy to beat.

Italian Hotels
Bring a couple of things with you that you wouldn’t think to bring along on a trip in the US:  a few small packages of Kleenex, some good quality toilet paper, and a nice, big bar of soap.  In Italy there will be no Kleenex in your room, soap bars the size of postage stamps and a grudging amount of TP that is so thin, it’s transparent.  I’m pretty sure that the toilet paper thing relates to the bidet thing.  They figure that if you’re washing your hinder in the bidet, why do you need all that toilet paper?  But come on, it takes time to get used to those things.  I kept banging my back side into the faucet, shooting water all over the room, and still ended up needing the TP.  Sheesh!  The tiny showers, well they’re just impossible.  How small are they?  In one of them I dropped the soap, and there was simply no way I could pick it up without allowing my dripping butt to go out the shower door into the bathroom.

Without much explanation, I’m going to insert a gallery here, with just some brief captions. You can click on any you want to enlarge.

Just in general, we rode over 400 miles from the Adriatic Sea on the east coast to the Tyrrhenian Sea on the west coast and through the Italian states of Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria. (2)  I swam in both seas, rode up and down mountains, visited ancient cities, ate fabulous food and drank a lot of wine and cappuccinos.

One funny thing, that first photo, “My Motivation,” depicts the rocky beach in Polignano, and I didn’t know this until I got closer to her, but a beautiful woman in a bikini.  She was in the water by the time I approached her, but  I asked her whether the water was cold.  Although obviously not American or English, she did speak English and said, ” You just need some motivation.”  I thought well what more motivation do I need and headed back to the hotel for my swimsuit.  On the way to and from the hotel, the thought went through my mind, why not just bag this crazy bike trip and spend two weeks here with her.  I was in high spirits with a spring in my step as I hustled down the stairs that led back to the beach.  Alas, when I made the turn and the beach opened up before me my “motivation” was gone.  It wasn’t easy, but I eventually ducked my head under the icy water, as frigid reality set in.

I hope these travel tips serve you well on your trip to Italy.  Whether you follow them or not, it’s almost impossible not to have a great time over there.
Thanks for reading.

(1) OK, you probably guessed, the one I made up:  Mozzabrucio, named after my now favorite cheese, mozzarella, and my namesake coffee drink, the Brucio (an Americano with an extra shot of espresso.).
(2) Yes, that’s the same Calabria where the Pope just excommunicated mafia members who said they were good Catholics.  You go Pope!

I Waited 47 Years for That?

I know, I know, it’s been a long time, and I owe you one.  I got home from the two-week trip to Italy Sunday night.  I’ve been sending reports in from the road to family, but will reread those, boil them down and see if there is anything worth passing along.  If it’s worthless, you can be sure I’ll tell you about it.  In the meantime, I thought I’d just cover my visit on the last day to the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Forty-seven years ago (1967), I was on an extended trip to Europe with a college friend and my cousin, Ed.  We had a blast, but unfortunately I picked up a nasty infection in Yugoslavia, so my time in Rome was spent in a hospital.  I lay there getting shots of penicillin while my pals “did the city.”  Ever since then, I have wondered what I’d missed by not getting to see the Sistine Chapel.  So I decided since I had a lay-over in Rome at the end of my cycling trip I’d take care of some unfinished business.

I had pre-purchased a ticket on-line before my trip, and since they are “timed tickets,” I bought one for 3:00pm on Saturday, my last day in Italy.  My plane arrived on time, I dumped the suitcase at an airport hotel, took a free bus back to the airport train station, took a train to Termini station in Rome and cab to the Vatican Museum.

Rome airport train

Isn’t that a great looking…train?  I got to the museum at 3:05, whew!

At the Vatican it was pandemonium.  My ticket said to present it to someone at the right side of the entrance.  There were probably 500 people there, I think qualifying them as a horde.  Tons of tour groups, all getting fitted-out with listening gear, being lectured to by earnest sounding men and women.  The tour guides were holding long poles, each with its own distinguishing flag or doodad, so that the guide could be found in the mob.

I finally found a guard, waved my piece of paper and was allowed to enter.  I thought, OK, I’m in, no waiting, COOL!  I’ll shoot to the Sistine Chapel, check it out and scram.  Ohhhh no.  This is the point at which the real pain began.  After another guy gave me a little ticket and map and waved toward the stairs (I was stupid enough to ask where the chapel was.) I joined the horde INSIDE.  This was the beginning of an agonizingly slow, forced march.

Think of the Sistine Chapel as the milk in the cooler at the grocery store.  You have to go through the whole store to get to the milk, and on the way, of course, buy other stuff on your way in and out.  In this case it’s the Vatican trinkets that are strategically placed along what felt like a one-mile walk to the chapel.  Take a look at this  little map they hand out, and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Vatican Museum Map

The line in fact weaves through the entire Vatican museum.  From the cab I had seen it.  It covers at least several square blocks, maybe more. Imagine not a line but a mass of humans (some smelling, someone farting constantly, all looking dazed and unhappy) writhing like a big snake through stuffy, humid halls and rooms filled with ancient catholic stuff.  Some brought kids, oooo they were the most unhappy of all.  Every now and then there was a kind of “you are here sign.”  Oh my god, I have so far to go before I get to The Capella Sistine and the blessed cappuccino.  Yeah, next to the words, Sistine Chapel, the sign always depicts a nice steaming cappuccino.  What the hell is that about?

I spent more money in my two weeks in Italy on cappuccino’s than on any other single thing. They’re really good! I thought, well, this chapel is going to be pretty damn special if they’re equating it to a cappuccino.

On we writhe. You can’t believe how happy I am that, as bad as this is, I’m not being lectured to besides.  With the tour guides poles bobbing in the crowd, the place is like New Orleans Jazz Fest, but in a stuffy, tight, old building, and without the jazz, the fun, and the sun.  So OK, it’s not much like Jazz Fest.  Every now and then there’s a little open space and I am able to slip ahead of a few people, but there are thousands ahead of me before we get to the much-anticipated holy Cappuccino Chapel.

In spots along the way there are opportunities to buy junk, catholic junk for the most part.  They don’t have one cotton-pickin thing here for a Lutheran.  I’m under orders from the Princess to bring back a good Sistine Chapel book, so I stop for a few precious minutes while many in the horde get ahead of me, damn! I find the book, whip out the Amex card and am surprised, but not really, that the Vatican does not take AMEX.   If the Catholics understand anything its money. I move on.

I begin to think I may have missed the chapel. Every room in the place has ceilings covered in frescoes.  Who painted this stuff?  Oh, OK , I haven’t missed the main event, only some guy named Rafael painted these, plus I still see the cappuccino on the sign.  In a brief interlude of “less horde” and more breathing space, I find that I am in the part called contemporary art, which means, this stuff is only about a century old. And, I like the works by Chagall, Diego Rivera, etc, snap a few pics for The Princess and move on. I’m beginning to recognize people in the line every now and then. We are compatriots in our agony, plodding forward.  Up stairs, down stairs, narrow halls, wide halls, I haven’t seen any toilette in a long time.  No wonder people are starting to get gassy, me too.
But I sense we are getting close.  A final few twists and turns and we enter a big room, higher than the others, with stuff painted on the ceiling.  Yup, sure enough, right smack in the middle, there is God…handing Adam a cappuccino.  Oh, you thought it was God giving Adam life?  No, it’s God giving Adam a cappuccino, which, in turn, gives Adam life.  Just to prove I was there, here’s one of my unauthorized photos of the ceiling.  I think it’s probably to small to see the cappuccino.

Cappella Sistina
It’s funny, the guards are constantly shushing people, because we’re supposed to be respectful.  There’s so much shushing it’s not a bit respectful.  Of course, no pictures are allowed, so like everyone else, I take a bunch of pictures, and move on.   One of the guides for the cycling trip was Italian.  He said, in Italy there are no laws, well there are laws, but people treat them like suggestions.

Then, on leaving the chapel it turns out, you can get a cappuccino, and you can get cafeteria food, even visit the separate Vatican pizza parlor.  Hell, by this point you’re so worn out you need nourishment of some sort.

But believe it or not, the exit is still many twists and turns away, the halls and rooms lined with books and trinket junk. This place is an absolute, Vatican money machine.  The final staircase is a death-defying, circular corkscrew (see map), after which if you can come through it standing, you are put in line for consideration as a Cardinal.  It took Michelangelo about four years to paint the ceiling; I think I managed to walk to and from it in just a little less.  When I finally hit fresh air outside, I am not kidding, I feel as if I have come through if not hell at least purgatory. Praise God!

I should be leaving for Florida to visit Mom tomorrow, but as punishment for this blasphemous post, God killed our refrigerator last night.  I’ll miss you, Mom, and Jim, but know that I am thinking of you.

Thanks for reading.