© 2013 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Welcome to a new travel series, titled, "Memories of …". I'm starting with Italy, my first ever stop in Europe.
In each instalment, I'll borrow from my diaries. I'll also add other commentary. I've deliberately chosen to not include any photos, as you can see pictures (and plenty of other information) by following the on-line links.
My first time there was in 1979, when I spent several days visiting the obligatory sites. I didn't return until 30 years later, when I wrote copious notes about my experience. It was April and, surprisingly, very hot and humid.
[Diary] … Through the trees, the Coliseum loomed into view. It was built at the bottom of a valley between several of Rome's hills, and I approached it from one of those. There were lots of tourists, mostly in groups with guides. Near the entrance, a number of men were in full centurion costume complete with swords, and, at regular intervals, they lured passers-by into photos. Off to the side, I saw one Roman soldier smoking a cigarette. Perhaps that was the real reason behind the decline and fall of the Roman Empire!
Now I'm sure you are up with your Roman history, but just to freshen your memory, here are some details. Construction of the Coliseum was started in AD 70 by Emperor Vespasian (known to his good friends as "Bruce"). He up and died in AD 79, leaving the completion to his son, Titus, who had the opening ceremony in AD 80 with a 100-day celebration that saw the slaughter of 5,000 animals. The completed structure had tiered seating and 80 exits (called vomitoria, I kid you not). 240 wooden masts were erected to hold up a vast set of sailcloths over much of the open top to protect the spectators from the elements. A fire in AD 217 devastated the upper levels and wooden arena. Of course, the operators had neglected to take out insurance. (Don't you just hate that when that happens?) In the years following, there were other fires as well as earthquakes, all of which inflicted damage. At one time, the main arena could be flooded, so they could recreate famous sea battles. Seating was segregated by class, and gravediggers, actors, and retired gladiators were banned from attending. Really!
[Diary] … I walked the full length of the Circus Maximus, home track of the Rome Chariot Grand Prix. Much of it was grassed, and people were out lying in the sun or picnicking in the shade. In several places, I came across pieces of coconut husks, which I thought might have been dropped by African swallows on their way to England. (See Monty Python's "Holy Grail" for details.)
[Diary] ... It was a long walk from the Metro stop to the Vatican City, and, as you might expect, it was wall-to-wall vendors along the way, interspersed with guides trying to sell their services. I walked around St. Peter's Square taking pictures and shooting video. It wasn't too busy. Then, I went through security and joined the hour-long line to go up to the top of the dome of the Basilica. Fortunately, that line was in the shade. There were some 550 steps up to the top, and one had two choices to get there: pay €5 entrance and climb the whole 550 or, pay an extra €2 and ride an elevator and walk the last 320 steps. I took the elevator option.
[Diary] ... My first stop was the famous Fountain di Trevi where I watched Neptune rule over his domain. People were constantly throwing coins over their shoulders into the fountain. Tradition has it that doing so means that one will return to Rome. I took some photos and video and then rested in the shade watching the tourists and listening to the many different languages being spoken around me.
From there, it was on to the Pantheon, a temple that was built by Hadrian starting in AD 118. It was very well preserved, primarily because it had been covered in bronze and lead for many years, although, later, that cladding was taken away to be used in other building projects. The dome was as big as St. Peter's, but quite plain inside. At its top, there was a 28-foot hole, which was designed to allow one to commune with the Heavens from the inside. Being a sunny day, the sun streamed in and cast a tube of light down onto a large painting on one wall. Apparently, it is something to experience when it was raining and the water came through.
The Dolomites (Dolimiti)
I was on a driving trip with my family. From Bavaria, we drove south through Innsbruck, Austria, and then up through the famous Brenner Pass into Italy. We spent the better part of a day driving on steep mountain roads before going east and north into Switzerland. Along the way, we stopped off at a glacier where I was very surprised to see ice worms living in the ice!
I've been to Milan twice. The first time, I was very adventurous and I stayed at a youth hostel, where I shared a dorm room with a group of guys from Peru. (Who'd have thought I'd get a Latin-American Spanish workout in Italy!) The cultural highlight of that visit was a look at Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting The Last Supper. I also remember the Linate airport being fogged-in such that I missed my connection in Frankfurt.
On my second trip, I was riding in a taxi from the airport to my hotel when the driver asked me if I was in town for the big fashion show. As I looked down at my hiking trousers and boots, I wondered what about my dress made him think I was in the fashion business.
[Diary] … In the bathroom of my hotel, I noticed a cord hanging down the wall by the bath, and thinking it activated the ceiling fan, I pulled it. As soon as I did, I noticed a small sign further up the wall, that said "alarme", and I knew I'd done something wrong. Sure enough, within seconds, the phone on the wall rang and the front desk was asking me (I suppose they were, as they spoke in Italian) if I'd had an accident in the bath. I politely informed them that everything was okay. [Considering how many accidents do occur in bathrooms, it seemed like a sensible idea; however, I'd never seen it before.] Afterwards, I had the sneaky suspicion I'd learned—and subsequently forgotten—that lesson during my previous trip.
[Diary] … At La Spezia, I learned that there was a train strike for the service around Cinque Terra, so it was on to Plan C. (Always have a Plan B, even for Plan B!) So, unexpectedly, I took a bus to Portovenere (which was not on my destination list) where I had two absolutely wonderful days!
… We pulled into the small town of Portovenere where the bus route terminated. It was the end of a number of major hiking trails that came south from Cinque Terre, and given the beautiful weather, it was no surprise that the hikers were out in force. I walked 100 meters into the town where I found a friendly young policewoman who spoke passable English. She gave me some directions for the tourist office (which didn't open until 16:00) and some accommodation tips. I soon found my Shangri La, the hotel Genio. It was built up a steep hillside with lots of steps and terraces that overlooked the main plaza. The friendly front-desk assistant, a Russian called Igor, was happy to give me a very good rate for two nights if I paid cash. Breakfast on the terrace between 08:00 and 10:00 was included as was high-speed Internet access at his desk—and all for only €65 a night. Igor took me to see Room 6, way up the back with its own little garden under fruit trees. It was a very nicely appointed double room with en-suite bathroom, all quite modern and spacious. I accepted his offer and went down to check in. By the time I unpacked and settled in it was 15:30. A church clock chimed at 15-minute intervals.
[Diary] … When I came out the alley, I was in (another) St. Peter's Square, at the end of which was St. Peter's church, built in 1277 on the site of earlier temple ruins. It was constructed from black and white marble. I went inside, out on several balconies hanging over the cliff, and up onto the roof from where I could see north up the coast to Cinque Terre. Nearby was Byron's Cove, which had a connection with the English poet, Lord Byron. It was flanked by some very interesting geology consisting of nearly horizontal thin layers of rock. At the entrance to the cove, a man played music on an electronic keyboard.
I walked back into the village on the high street, which was a little further up the hill. It was entirely residential, with people hanging their washing on lines across the alley from upper floors; all the clotheslines were on pulleys so the clothing could be pulled out and back in from a window. There was an old public drinking fountain in one small plaza, and several tourists were gathered there. I chatted with a Dutch family, the daughter of which was living in Australia. I also spent time with an Irish couple from Dublin.
I decided to stay another day and night, so made plans on how to spend that extra time. Late morning, I headed up the steep hill to see the castle. It was quite a climb, but I paced myself. Fortunately, there was plenty of shade and places to sit and rest along the way. The castle was an impressive structure built way up high, and it was in wonderful condition. I took some great photos and video of the town and surrounds. Nearby was the main church and cemetery, and I toured both. I was most interested to see a mailbox at the cemetery. I was pretty sure there wouldn't be in-coming mail, and wasn't sure who'd be sending any out either! I thought perhaps that it might be the "dead letter office".
Back at my hotel, I had a small picnic on the terrace and read for several hours before fading. I tried napping, but only managed to close my eyes, so I lay in the sun reading my novel.
At 15:00, I went down to the tour boat office to enquire about the 15:30 tour around the three islands nearby. They needed eight passengers minimum before they would go, and, so far, they had only seven. I checked back at 15:30, and they had about a dozen, so I paid my €10 and went on-board. It was a very large boat with three crewmembers, and I went upstairs out in the open. I shot photos and video and picked up a few things from the narration, which was in Italian. On one island, there was a large concrete bunker built by the Germans in WWII. There were also remains of Austrian fortifications from WWI. The islands were very rugged, and the largest had hiking paths that quite a few hikers were using. Forty five minutes later, we were back at the dock.
[Diary] … At the Portovenere waterfront, I bought a 1-way ticket on the ferry to Vernazza. The ferry departed promptly at 11:00 with cloudy skies and a light sprinkle of rain. Occasionally, the sun broke through and warmed things up. We headed up the coast with our first stop being the southern-most Cinque Terra town of Riomaggiore (which I referred to as rigor mortis whenever I couldn't remember it). The boat struggled to keep close enough to the rocks to let the people get off on the constantly moving gangway, but not so close that we'd be on the rocks. It was quite a feat to watch, and I took photos and video. All the while, the waves crashed on the rocks, occasionally splashing the passengers getting off or waiting to get on. Although the ferry serviced the second town, Manarola, we didn't stop there. And the ferry doesn't service the third town, Corniglia, at all. We arrived in Vernazza right around noon. It was easier getting off the ferry there.
Vernazza was crowded with day-trippers, many of whom had come from a cruise ship anchored in Livorno. My first order of business was to find a place to stay for at least two nights. There were no hotels, but there were quite a few rooms, mostly in private houses. Well, it was a bit like Goldilocks; beds too hard, too soft, none available, or only one night available, and so on. On the fifth try, I succeeded. I rang the bells of two places in the same building, but no one answered. And just as I turned to leave, an elderly lady arrived on the street, smiled and chattered away to me in Italian. She seemed to be the proprietor of some rooms, so I followed her up some steep stairs. She showed me a large room with double bed, en-suite bath, and plenty of storage and a table with chairs. Very quickly, I used up my Italian, but she understood I wanted a room for one person for two nights. The price was €65/night, cash, no breakfast included. We sealed the deal and she took my passport to go off and take down my particulars. Once I'd unpacked, I met her husband who spoke some English. They were both very friendly. The room was way back in a quiet corner.
Within 50 feet of my front door, I found a small supermarket, a cash machine, and an Internet café. I refreshed my emergency rations with milk, peanuts, cheese and peach/mango juice. Nearby was a very narrow alley, which I set out to explore. I soon found a coin-operated laundry, which had a book exchange with most books in English. As I spied several candidates, I raced back to my room to get two books and swapped them.
[Diary] … At 08:45 am, I packed my gear for the hike to Monterosso, the next and northern-most town in Cinque Terre. By 09:00, I was several hundred yards up the path waiting at the Park Ranger's hut for him to arrive. He wandered in at 09:10 and sold me a 2-day pass to hike the National Park trails; cost, €8.
The first 20 minutes it was very steep. I did get some nice photos and video of Vernazza, however. Everyone I'd talked to had told me that that was the toughest section of the trail, and I believe it. I climbed a lot and went up and down a few times along the way. I saw only four hikers going my way. For the first hour, I hardly met anyone coming from Monterosso; the hikers had either come through earlier or had a late start. However, passed the halfway point, things got a bit busy especially on some of the narrower parts of the trail. Almost all the people I met were Aussies, Canadians, or French with an occasional smattering of Americans.
I saw terraced vineyards in which bamboo poles were used as trellises. There were many wildflowers, and the occasional smell of their perfume was welcome. At one point, I could see all four towns to the south.
I ambled into Monterosso at 11:20, 2:10 hours after starting. My only thought was to get some ice-cold whole milk, and it took a bit of searching. Finally, I bought a carton and that, along with a nice ripe banana, replenished my body. I walked around the old town taking pictures and video, and then went through the tunnel to the new town. Both had beaches with requisite chairs and umbrellas for rent. I sat in the shade and read my novel with my boots off.
As they say, it's the journey not the destination, and that surely was the case with this town, so, by 12:20, I was at the train station waiting for a train to take me back to Vernazza. It arrived and I got on for the supposed 5-minute ride. I got talking to an Aussie couple, and when the train stopped five minutes later a large group of us thought that was our station (and it was), but we were in a tunnel and it was dark out all the windows. By the time we worked out that we should move to another carriage whose doors opened, the train was pulling out. Okay, no problem, we all said; we'll simply get off at the next town and go back. Of course, it wasn't a local train and didn't stop for three stations. So, unexpectedly, we were at the southern-most town, Riomaggiore. We had to wait there 40 minutes for a northbound train that stopped at Vernazza.
[Diary] … At 7:45 am, I was ready for some hiking, and I headed off on the steep steps out of town headed south. I took a little less than 90 minutes to get to Corniglia. Apart from a workman repairing the trail, I saw nobody until I met two young women near the end of that leg. It was cool and overcast, and there had been light rain during the night. I alternated from a sun hat to a woolen cap. The level of difficulty was similar to the day before, and I went from right around sea level to some 650 feet up. Corniglia was just waking up as I arrived. A few tourists were heading to the train station, which was 300 steps down from the town. (There was a bus for those happy to pay and save the effort.) I certainly was happy to be going down the steps rather than up.
After that, there was more traffic, especially as the path to Manarola was almost flat as well as wide. It was so easy I had to stop myself from breaking into a run. In Manarola, I stopped at a little coffee place and sat at a table under a large umbrella, where I sipped a milk coffee. It was so good, I had a second one. I chatted with three women from Salt Lake City, Utah, and we exchanged information and tips about travel. It was a great break.
The path from Manarola to Riomaggiore was even easier, and I was there in no time. As I approached the town, very light rain fell intermittently. The skies stayed grey and threatening, but it didn't result in any serious interruption. I toured the whole town including right down to the waterfront where a ferry was arriving. I spent several hours there sitting in the sun, reading my novel and chatting with a number of different lots of people, including some from my home state of South Australia.
[Diary] … My host, Carmine, arrived at the station in his car to take me to his apartment. After we finished supper, we walked around the old city visiting a number of plazas and monuments including the relatively new bronze of well-known local-boy Giacomo Puccini.
[Diary] … At 09:30 am, armed with a tour map, I headed towards the northern gate of the city wall. It was quiet out with only a few tourists. Mostly it was people opening up shops and setting up stalls. At the Piazza Santa Maria gate, I visited the tourist office and got some more information, especially about Sunday hours. The young lady was ever so happy to also rent me a high-speed internet cable for €1/10 minutes, so I hooked up my netbook computer and checked my email and phoned the day host I planned to meet the next day.
As I was leaving the tourist bureau, I spied the bicycle rental place next door, and, suddenly, the 4 km-trip around the top of the city walls didn't seem so arduous, especially not at €2.50/hour. I had to leave my passport as security and in return I got a bike and lock. The proprietress took me out the back where she asked the repairman to fix me up with a bike of size suitable for my height, and he did.
I headed up the ramp to the top of the wall, and, pretty soon, it all came back to me, and I was on my way, in a counterclockwise direction. However, it occurred to me that made it harder to see inside the walls as I was riding on the far right side of the very wide road, so I reversed direction. And to make it a bit more challenging, I took out my video camera and shot while riding, keeping one eye on the road and the other through the camera's viewfinder. Large trees all along the route provided plenty of shade.
There was no need to change gears, as it was quite flat. I stopped at a number of places to take photos and to look around. In no time at all, I had completed the loop. Only once did I come close to an accident; an unsteady young Frenchwoman was pulling out from the side and failed to look in both directions, and blocked me off completely.
Back at the start, I went down the ramp to street level, and put my video camera away, ready for "Toad's Wild Ride" (the "Wind in the Willows" ride at Disneyland) around the streets, scaring children, pets, and little old ladies. By that time, the tourists were out in force. Although the streets were paved with small cobblestones, they were still a bit rough. I went back around the city in a counterclockwise direction poking around in many back streets and narrow alleys. By the time I got back to the rental place the novelty had worn off and different parts of my body were aching. However, it was a good workout.
I started my walking tour by heading for the Contrini Pfanner Palace and gardens. I toured the rooms that were open for display and then walked around the garden. Two rows of statues lead to a fountain surrounded by lots of flowers in full bloom. I sat in the shade and contemplated life in a palace with a walled garden. From there, I went to the central square and church, Piazza San Michelle, and then on to the elliptical Piazza Anfiteatro. On the way home, I rescued a bottle of iced-cold Coke to have with my lunch—a tuna and sun-dried tomato roll—which I ate back in the apartment with a breeze blowing in one window and out the other. Life was good.
[Diary] … I stopped on a bridge over the Arno River to take some photos and video. Eventually, the crowded streets gave way to the "Field of Miracles", which opened out before me. At the left end was the round baptistery. In the center was the large cathedral. And to the right was the famous Leaning Tower, and it surely was leaning. The more I looked at it, the more I thought it was going to fall, right then! The buildings were set in a long rectangular park that was mostly covered in long green grass.
I walked around the buildings and up to the old city walls and one gate; however, I declined to go inside. I thought about going up the tower, but there was a 2-hour wait and it cost €15, so I decided not to. In any event, those who did go up the very steep steps could only go outside on the smaller top level.
[Diary] … After a train ride to town, I rode a bus to the city center and started to look for accommodation. Not seeing any and not finding anyone who knew where the tourist information office was, I asked a couple of tourists if they could recommend a cheap hotel nearby. An American guy did, and, in five minutes, I was standing at the registration desk of the Albergo Tre Danzella, barely 50 yards off the edge of the main plaza. Yes, the man would be pleased to give me a very large double room for two nights at the incredibly low price of €49/night, cash or credit. Breakfast was not included and there was a share bathroom for each five rooms. I checked it out and it was just fine, so I signed up.
I unpacked, splashed some cold water on my face, and sat and rested for a while. It had taken quite a while to get there from Lucca. After I was restored, I walked to the main plaza, where the bright sunshine fell on the tower and half the square. It truly was a magnificent sight. People sat all around the plaza in the sun eating ice cream, talking, and sleeping. Around half of the plaza there were outdoor restaurants doing a roaring trade.
Each July and August, riders race horses bareback around the edge on dirt that is trucked in. The whole event takes only several minutes, but people start getting into position 12 hours ahead. I took some photos and video and then sat by the fountain. I met a young Aussie couple that had been traveling 6 months and had more than a year to go. We exchanged some travel tips and sat talking for a good long while.
At 09:20 am, I was on the bus headed for the well-known hilltop town of San Gimignano. Very soon after we left Siena, we were in the countryside among rolling hills covered in forest with cereal farms and vineyards all around. It was a pleasant drive that lasted 1:10 hours.
The town had many very tall towers and was built on a hill. I walked around looking in a variety of shops. I stopped to shoot video and photos especially of the surrounding countryside. I hiked up to the top of the highest hill where I found an olive grove and some old town defenses. I sat in the shade for some time listening to a man play a variety of flutes. In a courtyard nearby, I sat again, to hear a young Florentine woman in traditional dress perform on a large harp. We chatted a while between tunes, and I bought one of her CDs. On the way back down the hill I stopped to watch a woman painting; she had a large collection of watercolors for sale. She was a grandmother originally from New Zealand, but now living in San Gimignano, enjoying sitting in the sun painting, talking to the tourists, and selling the occasional painting.
I sat in the shade and had leftover pizza for a late lunch, and then I walked some of the quiet back streets taking photos of doorknockers, signs, and such things. Back outside the walls, I found the bus stop, but people waiting there told me I had to buy my ticket back in the town. Well, when the bus came, the driver said I could ride to the next town and pay there, so I did. On arrival, I paid and after a few minutes wait, transferred to an express bus headed for Siena. It was a very comfortable air-conditioned double-decker bus. I sat upstairs at the front where I had a bird's-eye view of the countryside.
Certainly, there are other places in Italy I'd be happy to visit; however, only one area has any priority. That is Venice, in conjunction with Trieste, and the neighboring country of Slovenia, along with northern Croatia. Arrivederci!