I'm writing this from roughly 30,000 feet somewhere off of the west coast of Italy on our return trip home 12 days after leaving Charlotte. It is a good news, bad news scenario. Good news, we are less than 12 hours from seeing our kids. Oh, how we have missed those guys. FaceTime sure makes things a bit better when traveling but nothing is like being with those guys. The bad news is our Italian vacation has officially come to an end. Cindy and I have been fortunate to visit some outstanding places on vacation but nothing compares so far to this trip to Italy! The relaxed attitude of the Italians, the history and art of Florence, the food and gelato from everywhere, the beauty and exercise of Tuscany by bike, the ruggedness and tranquility of Bellagio/Lake Como, the chaos and age of Rome altogether put this trip on another pedestal compared to some of our other vacations. And the food…oh, the food. Everything was fresh. I'm not sure I will ever be able to eat boxed pasta again. A great vacation for sure with great friends. Tracy and Alex are absolutely friends I would travel with again. Easy, funny and don't forget about Alex's personal friend Rick Steve whenever we get in a bind. Mr. Steve came in handy more than once on this trip.
So what did we do these past few days with the Backroads portion of the trip behind us? Mostly slowed our pace and relaxed a bit. “Tranquilo” is the Italian word for it as this wonderful woman on the train to Varenna told us as we were standing as the local train rolled along the mountainous region of Lake Como. She helped us at the end of a long day figure out our stop and proceeded to converse with us even though we both knew it wouldn't be easy. One of my favorite pictures, even though slightly blurry, was us with this wonderful woman. She put huge smiles on our travel-weary faces by doing nothing more than engaging with us. We have named her 'Marguerite' as we all kicked ourselves for not asking “Ti llami?” to get her real name.
We arrived at Lake Como after taking a misty ferry ride from Varenna to Bellagio, checked into the Metropole Hotel where we were put in a lake view room with a cute balcony. You could sit and watch ferry boats and birds and mountains for as long as you liked. The town of Bellagio was built into the side of the hill and has seen more than a few movies filmed here in the past, most notably the patio scene in “Ocean's Twelve”. On Monday we hiked up and down the very narrow streets two people walking, enjoying espresso, gelato, appetizers, wine, baked goods, light shopping and people watching. There was a much higher percentage of Americans here than we have seen anywhere else on the trip. The weight difference is crazy. So is the volume of our speaking…tone it down America! :). We had several good meals but noted the stronger Swiss/German influence here (roughly 15 miles from Switzerland) in the food. One night for appetizers we ordered and ate salted bait fish. Questionable was the verdict on this appetizer but points scored for courageous ordering. The Italian foods, while still very good, were not Tuscan quality good. The regional snobbery for wines in Italy amused us. The Como folk didn't think as highly of the Chianti Classico wines as the Tuscan region (the Chianti Classico side of Tuscany that is) did. We ordered it anyways and it was still quite yummy.
After much relaxation and many laughs, we got up on Tuesday and took a ferry and two train (Varenna to Milan and then Milan to Rome) and a taxi (the first taxi of our trip) and 4 hours later we found ourselves at Rome checking into the Hotel Nazionale next door to the Italian Parliament. In 6 hours we saw the 2,000 year old Pantheon (twice!), the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica,La Pieta, Trevi Fountain, Rome's most famous gelato spot (Goiluca's?) and the Piazza Nervona which was filled with artists, musicians and crazy street performers. We enjoyed some final pastries from a Patticerie (good but not quite as good as the one in Montalcino), wine, bruschetta and pizza from an outdoor restaurant and our last fresh pasta of the trip where I doubled down on a pasta with pesto dish and a pasta with Pecorino cheese, garlic, olive oil, chili peppers and porcini mushroom dish. Both were awesome!
This morning we woke, choked down our last European breakfast of breads, cheeses, vitamin fruit juice, Nutella and yogurt, checked out of our hotel and headed on our way through the crowded streets of Rome to the airport. The best I can tell, drivers in Italy don't respect stop signs, fit small cars in very small spaces, rarely honk and somehow rarely hit other things. The bigger the vehicle the more room you are given. Mopeds are everywhere but seem to be the lowest of the transportation food chain leaving them to fend for themselves. They are also without a doubt the fastest way around Rome. Defensive driving on a moped is your only hope. Moped parking also seems to be harder to find than even car parking. Nonetheless, we made it to the airport in a brisk 35 minutes from the center of Rome via Taxi…not too shabby. As a side note, a cab for 4 to the airport is actually cheaper than a train for 4. $55 with tip versus $60. Who knew?
Final thoughts and observations:
- Packing: pack even less. Zipper pants/shorts could have been useful over jeans and my MK pants. Pack fewer dress shirts. You can't pack enough socks and underwear (they are small). Two pair of kick-around shorts is fine. A lightweight pullover was my most used item. 2 cycling outfits (bibs and jerseys) is all you need.
- Financials: self serve kiosks (e.g. Train station ticket purchases) in Europe want your PIN number even on a credit card. Know this before leaving the country of plan to use your debit card. Bank of America compatible (meaning the ones that are free and without crazy service charges) are not going to be found outside of the larger cities. Research where you can find these ahead of time and plan accordingly.
- Electronics: bring at least 2 plug converters, ideally one that can control the voltage. Most updated rooms have master keys that turn off the electricity when you leave the room requiring all the charging to occur during sleeping hours or hours you will be in the room. Voltage converters are required for hair dryers and flat iron type devices. Bring them or you will be buying a new flat iron at an inflated price.
- Water: buying water in large bottles at the beginning of the day from a grocery store will save you 3-5 Euros each meal. Using copper taps around the cities gives you access to free, fresh water in Italy. We spent like hundreds of dollars on Aqua Naturale (still water).
- Language: work on learning the basics before you leave and practice it throughout the trip. One of the things I enjoyed each day was trying to speak in Italian first before succumbing to the “para Ingles?” line. I also think the locals appreciate the effort and work with you more. One of our most rewarding experience on the entire trip was speaking with the lady on the train who knew zero English. In the process of trying to speak it I also provided Cindy with many laughs (e.g. “We will take il Conti (the check) per favore”).
- Wireless: it isn't as good in hotels in Europe as it is in the US. The buildings are usually older and the signals are weaker. Getting the universal phone plan is worth it if you are considering relying on Wi-Fi throughout your travel for your iPhone Apps. Cindy had it, I didn't, which means I spent more time offline and couldn't hit the Internet for easy questions, help, translations, etc.
- Train Porters: there are no such things. I didn't expect there to be but when we were asked by a man on the speed train if we wanted him to rack our luggage we said sure. He then followed his hard work up by shaking us down for $5 Euros a piece to which we politely declined. He did get $2 Euros from us as a unhappily negotiated compromise by both sides and then walked off the train and platform shaking his head (ours were also shaking).
- Coffee Products: Italians do not walk around drinking coffee products. In fact, they have a few unspoken rules about how to enjoy coffee products. 1) Espresso is rarely enjoyed sitting down. It is almost always ordered standing up at the bar and enjoyed standing up at the bar. If you want to enjoy coffee sitting down then a cappachino might be a wiser choice for you. 2) In my 12 days in Italy I never saw anyone order a coffee product using more than two words and usually only one would get the job done. No double this or half-caff that. Normale (plain espresso), macchiato (espresso with milk) or cappachino. Simple. Through some personal experience and a sleepless night to prove it, I also don't believe they even carry decaf in Italy. Ordering it is like indirectly ordering insomnia for a night. Just get water, wine or something else if you can't take the caffeine past a certain hour. 3) Cappachino is not to be ordered after noon no matter how much you love it. You will get laughed at and possibly told no. It is viewed as a morning drink. 4) Italians don't want to hear you talking about how there are no Starbucks in Italy. They want and like it that way. Ironic considering most of the language in Starbucks is based on the Italian language. Not one time in 12 days did I see a to-go cup or a travel mug.
- No Cheffret (sp?): this means “no worries” or “don't sweat it” but it embodies everything the Italians stand for. These guys truly live a fuller and richer life than many of us do in the USA. They work less hours, take more breaks and are passionate about most anything. Family is talked about in generations and traditions. Meals are savored. Soccer is sacred. Neighbors are to be known, looked after and enjoyed. We have a lot of the same things in the USA but they seem more easily forgotten and at times ignored. Corporations in Italy while present seem to fit in with the traditions vs. driving a way of life. If most folks in Italy were given the choice of simple/easy vs. traditional (even if harder), they would take the latter.
Traveling is something I am so fortunate to do and want to continue to do with my best friend in the world. It doesn't help me see where the USA is better or worse but rather enables me to open my mind and see first the differences across cultures. Hopefully it allows me to apply the great spots I see and learn about to my family and culture and absorb the rest as appreciation for these differences. The world is bigger and more amazing than any of us give it credit for being (I'm still scratching my head wondering how 2,000 years ago people made huge structures like the Pantheon!) and I am most appreciative of any reminders of how we are all pieces in the overall existence of life, none ideally big enough to make too much of a negative impact so another 2,000 years worth of people can live in it and appreciate how amazing it all is.
Until our next vacation, arrivederci! Click here for a slideshow of our last 2 days.