Italy


I have rarely wanted Ruby Slippers more than on this day. Three clicks and home sounds just perfect. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the day unfolded.

Vlad and I got up bright and early (6am) and took the shuttle to Malpensa Airport for our 10:30 flights. That’s when the Travel Gods decided to throw their best curveball.   Just as my flight to NY was about to board, they announced the pilot had not been able to get a flight plan approved due to the new ash cloud hovering over Spain, and we would be delayed 15 minutes or so while that is completed. Vlad’s flight to Heathrow took off on time, and there I was – standing at the gate with a feeling that it wasn’t going to be that easy.  How right I was!

15 minutes ended up stretching into 4 hours. No approved flight plan. I had a feeling we weren’t going to be leaving that day.  When we received definite word of cancellation, I immediately started working to rebook on another flight the next day. Unfortunately, I’ve been through this before, and know the drill.

The American Airlines staff (all two of them!) were incredibly helpful and so very nice under the enormous pressure they were under. They re-booked me and two gentlemen also flying business class  on the Lufthansa flight to San Francisco leaving the next morning from Frankfurt, and a flight from Milan to Frankfurt tonight.

The two gentlemen had no problem – they were first in line and got their vouchers right away.  When I got to Lufthansa’s ticket counter I found my ticket was all messed up.  I’d been  inadvertently booked on a flight through Heathrow. Cursing the Travel Gods, I pulled out the card the service manager gave me  and called her from my mobile. She came running over and started speaking with the Lufthansa person in rapid-fire Italian that I couldn’t follow.  It took quite some time to fix the issue, and while that went on, all the available seats were booked on the Lufthansa flight. I was about to break down and cry right there. Hey it was excusable.  I had had only a few hours of sleep the night before,  my husband was on his way home, and I was stuck in Milan all by myself with a suitcase full of dirty clothes.  And tomorrow was Mother’s Day.  Who wouldn’t tear up just a bit?

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but my day was about to get a whole lot better.

The American Airlines service manager felt so bad about the mess up (she had accidentally canceled me from the Lufthansa flight when doing the bookings) that she put me on a United flight leaving Frankfurt the next day –  in first class.

As I was walking through the airport to the lounge and a desperately needed glass of good German beer, I saw bunches of people from the canceled flight standing around cell phones trying to rebook and find places to stay tonight. I felt a bit guilty that I had a potential way home and they didn’t, but in cases like this, it’s every woman for herself.

After an uneventful flight from Milan (where my eardrums held up quite nicely, thank you) I was soon sitting in the hotel in Frankfurt, my newly washed shirt drip drying in the shower, and catching up on my blogs and email.

It’s been a crazy trip.  Where are those Ruby Slippers?  There’s no place like home…

If you’ve ever tried to get tickets to see DaVinci’s The Last Supper painting, you’ll understand. They’re almost as hard to get as tickets to see an opera at La Scala. Tour groups snap up blocks of tickets and use that to bludgeon the unsuspecting public into taking their half day tours.

Vlad really wanted to see the painting, so we decided to bite the bullet and sign up for a tour.  After a lot of research, I found a tour that had the least amount of negative comments and booked.  There were 4 sites that this tour was to take us to see. The Sforza Castle, The Last Supper, La Scala and the Duomo. OK, sounded pretty harmless to us when we booked it.  On the positive side, we got to see the painting. On the other hand…

We show up on time to the meeting spot, and stood in line to get to the bus. They hand us stickers to put on our jackets (yeah, right – that’s like wearing a bulls-eye on your chest), and one of those ubiquitous receivers that you hang around your next with an earpiece. This is ostensibly so the guide can speak quietly andnot to disturb the other tourists at the venues, but really it is to humiliate the tourists.

Our guide gets in the bus and announces that since there is one couple on the tour from Spain, she will be doing a bilingual tour. OK – that’s fair. We can go with that.  Then she launches into her spiel.  Good God – she said a few words in pidgin English, the same in Spanish and then back to English to finish the sentence. That made it almost impossible to follow what she was talking about.   O what a tangled web she weaves…

Sforza Castle

The Sforza Castle was in disrepair, and with nothing much to see – not sure why it was on the tour, except there really wasn’t much else to add.  That didn’t prevent the Tour Guide from telling everyone about the traffic in Milan after explaining that the castle is just an eyesore and a drain on tax revenue.   We had a feeling we were in for a long morning – especially when we realized we had joined a group that could only be called an Adult Tour.  Ack!

We’d found the 4th Circle of Hell.  Didn’t Dante once live in Milan?  Something to think about…

The Last Supper is really cool,though, and was fortunately next on the agenda.  It’s amazing it survived the bombing in WWII, and stayed in such good condition – one of the tourists on the bus whispered to her husband next to me that it was obviously divinely spared.  I can go with that.  You’re only allowed to gaze for 15 minutes and then they shoo you out so you need to make every minute count.   Vlad and I decided we’re with Dan Brown – the figure they say is the apostle John looks more like Mary Magdalene to us.

The most amazing thing we found was when you stepped back toward the opposite wall, the painting took on this 3 dimensional look that reproductions don’t do justice. You have to see it to truly understand.  It’s worth even a lousy tour to see, and that’s saying something.

When we got back to the bus, it was evident that a number of the other sufferers decided to bail after the Last Supper. After hearing many ‘useful’ facts about the La Scala Opera House on the way, such as “it was built because the people of Milan love music very much”, Vlad decided we would join the defectors and bail on the tour as soon as we got there. We’d go to the last sight, the Duomo on our own. Easy-going as he was, he’d had enough.

La Scala

We handed in our receivers when we go into La Scala, with our thanks, and gratefully explored the gallery and museum on our own. They allow you to peer into the interior of the theater from one of the boxes, but quietly and only a few at a time. It’s much smaller than it looks like on TV, but very impressive and opulent. For Vlad and his love of classical music and opera, it was like visiting Mecca. He drifted around with a blissful expression on his face the whole time. We were lucky enough to watch a few minutes of the dress rehearsal of that night’s performance, and got to hear Placido Domingo sing for a bit.

We saw the tour had dwindled down to only 6 people following the guide out of La Scala.  I’m surprised there were any!

Grand Hall in La Scala

The La Scala museum is also really cool. They have beautifully preserved musical instruments from long ago on display, as well as paintings of famous stars and conductors. They have a cast of Chopin’s hand, which Vlad really thought neat. The death masks of Verdi and Toscanini were a bit ghoulish, but the collection of miniatures and other memorabilia made up for it.

Bust of Toscanini in Grand Hall

Once we left the theater, we walked over to the Duomo. This is one of my favorite churches in Italy. Of gothic construction, it was started in the late 14th century, and subsequently extensively renovated in the late 16th century by San Carlos Borromeo.  It is every bit as lovely as Notre Dame in Paris. The stone carvings, stained glass windows and vaulted design is incredible. Outside, the cathedral is sheathed in pink and white marble – not in the striped fashion of the other main Duomos, but more of a soft pink wash on white marble.  Lovely.

Milan's Duomo

2010 was the 400th anniversary of the canonization of San Carlos, and they had a very interesting exhibit in the church on the contribution he made to the renovation of the cathedral, as well as paintings about stories from his life and miracles.  Even Vlad, not a real lover of museums, was fascinated and spent more time in this cathedral than all the others we had been in before.

The rain that had been plaguing us all week was at it again when we left, but we still walked through the old city admiring the buildings and ambiance.

Milan's lovely neighborhoods

If we had to do it again, I’d still take the tour to see the Last Supper, but I’d spend the extra money for a private tour.

One of my favorite places in Rome is the old Foro Romana, or the Roman Imperial Forum. I first visited this as a teenager with my late Aunt Rosemary, and of all the places we went, the Forum stuck most in my mind. It spurred a lifelong interest in Roman history, and whenever I get a chance to visit Rome, the Forum beckons.

The weather stayed lovely the evening after I left the Villa Borghese Museum, and I decided to use the last few hours of daylight prowling around my favorite ruins. The taxi ride from the Via Veneto to the Forum was made more harrowing than usual due to the large amount of people on the street. The driver told me this was the best day he’d had in a while, and he hopes the subway goes out again on strike later in the week.   Every trial has a silver lining, I guess.

Once at the Forum, I happily prowled around the walkways. It’s a work in progress with excavations still continuing. They’d recently unearthed some excellent frescoes from the ruins of the Basilica Aemelia and put them on display in the Curia Iulia – the only building still in a good state of preservation. This was because it was turned into a church and thus was saved during the destructive centuries of early Christianity.  Inside the curia, you can see the unearthed  stone dais (or what remains of it) where the chair of the Roman Emperor was placed.  As you look at it you can imagine Augustus, Tiberius or Claudius sitting there and giving the Senators a very hard time.  If they were anything like our Senate, they probably deserved it.

Outside the Curia lie the ruins of the Temple of Saturn, the former treasury and armory of Ancient Rome. All that is left of the upper building are the amazing columns and upper frieze with the inscription still intact. They were working on the excavations of the basements at the time of my visit and a sign posted said there would be new exhibits coming later in the year. Rats – that would have been most interesting!

Around the next path the Basilica Iulia now has it’s foundation excavated, and the ruins of it’s pillars are easily seen.   It was a large building for Rome, and pretty fitting for Caesar’s Folly.  Just past the basilica is a tumble-down ruin with a big line of people. This is the spot where Julius Caesar was murdered by the disaffected Senators.

Old Julius is kind of a minor Deity around here. When you walk past the protective wall, you see a mound of stone with offerings of flowers, notes of petitions and candles placed on it. Delightfully pagan, and kind of sweet, actually.

Walking farther down the path you see the Temple of Vesta. Three pillars of this charmingly round temple remain, and they’re actually in pretty good shape. Makes for a nice picture. There are wandering groups of school children here, all in matching caps, and they all were listening attentively to their teachers explaining the history.  Well, all except for the two ruffians trying to put dirt down the shirt of  this cute little red-headed girl.  Kids are the same the world over, but these were luckier than most – Rome is the city of endless field trips.

The Palatine was open, so I made the climb to the top of the hill to see the ruins of Augustus and Livia’s mansions, as well as the splendid view. They’re also still excavating here, and have recently uncovered a portion of Augustus’s garden, with a stone mural intact. Livia’s portion of the house was closed for excavations, and the archaeologists were just leaving for the day when I walked over. What a cool job they have.

Walking back down the stairs, you can exit out the back of the forum and end up right at the Colosseum. I had visited there several times, and it was getting late, so I decided to give it a miss. I decided to find a cab and go back to the hotel.

The cab drive back was an experience. First, the driver (who thought he was with NASCAR) sideswiped a bus. Didn’t even stop. Just cursed and continued. Add Rome to the list of cities where I’ve been in taxi accidents. At least it wasn’t a person this time, so I counted myself lucky and hung on a bit tighter to the chicken strap.

The subways were working again, so I couldn’t figure out why the traffic was so bad, so I figured I’d ask the budding Mario Andretti at the wheel. He explained that the Rome-InterMilan football game for the Italy Cup was going to  start in an hour, and it was in the Rome Stadium.   He was angry his company was making him work until he  reached his quota of fares, so he couldn’t see the game – hence the sunny disposition and dangerous driving.

The rest of the drive, with me hanging on desperately in the back, was a tirade on the virtues of the Rome football team and the fact that InterMilan has no real Italians on the team.  His diatribe was interspersed with Italian curses and shouts to the other drivers he encountered.  I’m sure most of what he said is not found in any dictionary, but was fascinated at the flow of curses.   He couldn’t find the hotel fast enough for his imaginary timetable, so he wanted to leave me on some other street. Using my  Taxi Driver Arguing skills that were honed to a fine edge in New York City, I got him to leave me on the corner of the street where the hotel was and paid the rate we previously negotiated.  Once back at the hotel, I had a glass of wine and watched the soccer match.

PS.  for anyone who cares:  The football game ended with InterMilan beating Rome 1-0.

I just wish it hadn’t been the Metro system on the day when I was on a tight timetable with my two favorite museums already booked.  The Travel Gods really came up with a good one this time.

Taxis were scarce as a result, but the wonderful staff at my little hotel (Hotel Diocleziano – I highly recommend it!) were able to call me one so I could get to the Vatican museum at least somewhat close to my starting time of 9am. My driver was a kindly retired gentleman teacher who drove a taxi part time so his wife won’t kill him. Or so he said. He pointed out many of the interesting sights along the way, with stories attached. As we passed the Vittorio Emmanuel monument he said that I should visit Mussolini’s tomb because he was such a great man. Oooh. yeah, right… So not going there…

Traffic was jammed, since all other public transit was at a halt, and it seemed everyone in Rome was driving either some species of car or motorbike. Ever see a large lady in a mini skirt on a motorbike? I wish I hadn’t.

We finally pulled up at the Vatican Museum, and the line was around the block. Having done my homework, I had booked ahead and marched up to the entrance and straight to the ticket booth. I was in the first room within a few minutes, ready to soak it all in.

The Vatican Museum is a world-class museum that goes on for miles. They have the most incredible statuary exhibits I’ve ever seen. Roman, Egyptian, Greek and Assyrian – the collection is amazing. From there, the swarm of tourists pushes you through some amazing galleries with tapestries, maps and more statues. Part of the wonder of this museum is the building itself. Every gallery had the walls and ceilings painted by the best masters of the day, and the floors were usually inlaid marble, or mosaic. You get a crick in your neck because you don’t want to miss the ceiling fresco done by Raphael.

The culmination of the tour is the Sistine Chapel. This is a large room that’s packed as full as it can hold with teeming masses of tourists, all looking around and talking at the top of their voices. There are a few guards that stand by the altar area yelling for people to be quiet. The funny thing is they have their walkie-talkies on much louder than the tourists – and much more jarring. I was able to score one of the few spaces on the bench by the altar and sat for about 30 minutes and gazed at Michaelangelo’s masterpiece to my heart’s content. No matter how many pictures you see, it pales in comparison to the awe that the original inspires.

After the Sistine Chapel, there are only the corridors of the Vatican Museum Library left. This is an area I enjoy. Most of the tours and large groups of people just blow through here on their way out, and it leaves more quiet and space to admire for us serious museum buffs.

After 4 hours, it was finally time to leave. I had just 20 minutes to get to the Villa Borghese for my starting time at that museum. I found a taxi by the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica and make it with only 5 minutes to spare.

The Borghese museum is a very hard-to-get ticket. They only let people in every 2 hours, and it’s a limited number. You miss your time, you’re out of luck. They book up several days out, so the best way is online. I took my voucher to the ticket window and got in line, after checking my purse with the attendants. You’re not allowed to bring anything in with you. My tired shoulders were most grateful.

No photos are allowed in this museum, so I’ll just have to describe it. There are two floors, and you start at the top. Each room in this mansion is covered with incredible art. Trompe d’oeil paintings on the walls and ceilings, frescoes, gilding, marble inlay on the floors and walls, and I haven’t even gotten started on the exhibits! Cardinal Scipione Borghese really knew how to live.

The top floor is devoted to paintings, but in each of the main rooms there is also the finest collection of Bernini statuary anywhere. Paintings by Titian, Rafael, Caravaggio and Rubens are scattered throughout.

Downstairs is devoted to statuary, with many incredible pieces to see. My favorite is the Bernini sculpture of Apollo and Daphne. The detail of Daphne turning into a tree is amazing, and she even has tears sculpted on her face. There are several tours here, and I’ve found that breezing through the galleries and doubling back when they leave is a great way to enjoy the experience without going crazy.

The two hours allotted for this museum go by way too fast. Fortunately, this time I was able to see everything I wanted before they started ringing the bell. Off to collect my purse and stroll through the gardens.

The Borghese Gardens are well worth a trip by themselves. Now a spacious park, the area around the house is set in formal style, with sculpted hedges and fountains. The rest of the park is tree and grass-filled, with lots of locals and tourists enjoying the fine weather. As you walk around, fountains in the baroque or neo-classical style dot the landscape and make for nice picture opportunities.

Once done, it’s a simple stroll to the Via Veneto, and all the over-priced shopping and restaurants anyone could wish. I took a stroll down this famous street in honor of all my friends who love to shop. No, I didn’t buy anything. My friends say I’m missing a gene because I hate shopping.

It was such a nice day, I decided I can fit in the Forum before it gets dark. I was in luck and found a taxi that didn’t cost a fortune. Since they were the only game in town, they all turned off their meters and you had to negotiate prices. Legalized highway robbery, and they knew it. Ah, Italy!

I wrote this blog entry on the long train ride from Riomaggiore to Rome. It was pouring rain again, and there was really nothing to see. I found myself pondering all the tourists I’ve seen over the past week and how they could be classified.

Cruisers are the most fun. They tend to be happy-go-lucky social animals who will strike up a conversation with anyone they see. On land for only 1 day, they are focused on seeing as much as they can before they have to head back to the boat. We met two that were a real hoot. Waiting for the bus to Corniglia, a couple with very identifiable Brooklyn accents asked us a question – I don’t remember what, but we started talking. The gentleman, a retiree of New York’s Finest, told us they came on this cruise because he wanted to see Naples, where his grandfather was from. They spent one day in Naples and were so disgusted he told us he’s going to figure out someplace better to be from. You have to love that kind of attitude, and I’m not sure he didn’t have the right idea.

Kiddie Tours are great fun to watch. There are usually 30 or 40 youngsters in something matching with lots of giggles and enthusiasm.  Here they use matching baseball caps – very useful when it comes time to count heads. They’re herded around by usually 2 or 3 very harassed-looking teachers who are obviously NOT paid enough for what they do. These kids tend to be pretty well-mannered, and they’re just so cute you can’t help but smile when you see them.

Scouting groups are a great example of organized chaos. We had a whole pack on the train back from our hospital experience in La Spezia, and every one of them was soaked to the skin and had a big grin as a result. Yeah – I forget that at that age nothing’s better than to be wet and squelching when you walk.    It’s also fun to see what they’re carrying on their backpacks.  One young man had a collander strapped to his pack. I guess in Italy, it’s all a part of  the “Be Prepared” motto. You never know when you’re going to need to cook some pasta.

Pack Animals are tourists who spread out to take up whatever space there happens to be so no one can dare to pass them or break up the Perfection of The Pack. Teenagers traveling together tend to Pack, and they’re the rudest tourists in the world – bar none. Blocking entrances, tunnels and train carriages are part of their stock-in-trade. The ones  here have been more out of control than we’ve seen in other countries, with loud voices, inappropriate PDA, making fun of other tourists, and generally behaving like cigarette-throwing thugs.  They’re lucky they weren’t my kids – they’d have grounded for the next 7 or 8 years.

Teen Tours are a variant of the Pack Animals, but with chaperones. As a result, they have to at least give the appearance of being decent. They don’t spread out in Pack Formation, but they really do have the bored-to-death body expressions perfected. Slouching, eye rolling, and whining are brought to a fine art form.  In Florence at the Pitti Palace we saw the best example of the Teen Tour. It was spring break and it was obvious that these teens were all put on this tour because their parents didn’t want them at home getting into trouble.  So they dejectedly followed the guide and tried to ditch her at every corner. It didn’t work, I’m happy to say.  That woman was amazing. She knew where these kids were at all times and called them to order on a regular basis.  It was a relief to all when she realized that she either had to get them out of the museum fast, or something was going to break.

Unruly Tour Group is an older variant of the Teen Tour, including a tour guide who can be depended on to speak in the loudest voice possible and go into a lengthy explanation of every exhibit she sees. The Tour Groupies tend to spread out and jostle anyone out of the way in Pack Formation, and then take one glance at the exhibit and walk away. Seeing the angry and disgusted looks sent their way by the other tourists unfortunate enough to get in their way is most amusing.

Blending Tourists are the reason I like to travel. They’re the ones who quietly go about their business, politely waiting to see something popular, and talking in hushed voices amongst themselves. Oh, and the obligatory wink or smile at others in the know when a Pack or a Tour approach and act like total idiots makes putting up with it all such fun.

God bless them all!

Vernazza is the town Rick Steves prefers, and as a result, it was very crowded.  It was funny to see almost every tourist holding various translations of his distinctive blue and yellow guide – including us. We had a lovely lunch on the harbor square since the day was so nice and warm.  We chose the restaurant based on my online research, not the tour book, and therefore had a much better meal without all the crowds.   Score one for me!

The owner of the restaurant waited on us himself, and was very chatty, telling us he liked practicing his English. Two of his sons, he told us, were the waiters, and the third son ran the kitchen with all of his own recipes.  He took great pleasure to explain to us that in HIS restaurant, when you order it takes 15 – 20 minutes for your food to arrive. That’s because everything is always cooked fresh to order. He gave a rather disparaging sniff at the other two restaurants and said that if we were in a hurry, to go to one of the others who cook in the morning and reheat. He seemed quite pleased when we said that we were happy to wait.

Papa must have liked us, for he stood by us while we ate, chatting away.  I couldn’t figure out why we were being favored until he asked me why my parents never taught me Italian.   OK, I thought. That’s it.  I had to find out why he thought I was Italian.   He laughed when I said I was of Irish ancestry and said that I really look Ligurian.  He pointed out a couple of the locals walking by – one of them could have been my cousin.  The mystery of Genetics was solved. 

Frankly, I wouldn’t mind being from here one bit. Not that I mind being of Irish descent, but Liguria’s a lovely place, with nice people and really great food. What more can you ask for?   Something to think about, anyway.

Lunch done, we set out to explore. We walked to the top of the town and enjoyed the view of the colorful buildings all crowded together. It’s not as steep as Riomaggiore, but it’s definitely longer.  Back down to the waterfront, we visited the local church. Built from stone, the spire and rear portions were obviously added at a much later date, with the main part of the nave still 14th century gothic.  A very simple church inside, but most dignified.  I liked it.

Back outside, the surf was too high for boats to be launched from the harbor, so we missed out on all of that action. What we did get to see were lots of spray from the waves dashing the breakwater and providing amazing photos.  Worth the tradeoff, I’d say.

I highly recommend hiking up the steep stairs off the harbor to the ruined lookout Tower. The views from this place were incredible. We could see Monterosso to the right and Corniglia to the left. The haze made pictures that far away a bit difficult, but for the nearer sights, it was well worth the climb. There were cats and tourists all basking in the warm sun, and taking pictures – the tourists were, at any rate. The cats were being typically arrogant, posing for all the pictures with superior and smug expressions on their faces.

With all the sightseeing done, we headed back to Riomaggiore for our last dinner in Cinque Terre.  The next day, Vlad was heading off to Monza and work, and I was buzzing down to Rome for two days of museum bliss.

Arrivederci, Cinque Terre.  I hope to return again.

It was our last day in Cinque Terre. The rain from the day before had cleared, and it was a lovely day for a nice, long exploration of the two towns left on our list.  Most of the trails were still closed from the previous day’s deluge, so we took the train to the farthest town, Monterosso and check it out.

Monterosso is the largest and flattest of the 5 towns, and it’s the most commercial. It’s broken into two sections – the new and old towns.  We just explored the old section, since that’s where the few sights it has are. This is the only place with a real beach, which is why there are so many iffy-looking hotels crammed onto a small beachfront. Was I glad we didn’t stay there!

The only really cool things to see in Monterroso were the Church of San Giovanni, which was built in 1307, and the Oratory of the Dead. The second is a rather macabre place, filled with carved skulls and other image of death. It belonged to a group that arranged funerals and took care of the bereaved, according to a sign outside.  Both buildings have the black and white striped architecture that’s so popular in Northern Italy, but with stone and tufa, not marble.

After that, there really wasn’t much to see except a monastery high up on a hill that was a major climb.  I wasn’t really feeling up to it, so we gave it a miss.  Glad we did – we heard from another tourist later that it was a major disappointment.

Since all there was left to do was wander through the streets looking at the buildings and shops (eek!), we took a very nice stroll, and then headed down to the waterfront. The views of the Med were lovely from the boardwalk. The surf was really churning and unfortunately canceled the boat service between towns.   We were a bit bummed about it since that eliminated our offshore picture taking possibilities, but it sure made our onshore pictures more dramatic.

Next we left to join the throngs of people on the train to Vernazza.

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