Italy Vacation September 20th to October 12th, 2004
Travel to Rome
I left Boston on the afternoon of September 20th for a quick trip to JFK airport in New York, then, after a bit of a wait, I was on my way to Rome. I know you are probably wondering why I took a long way to Rome, but I was using a free ticket that I had earned on American Airlines, so for the small matter of taxes I had to put up with a longer way to Rome. It would be worse on the way home.
The flight to Rome was uneventful, which is always a good thing. I did have a woman sitting next to me that complained about everything Italian, even though she was going there for 3 months. She even brought her own spices because she didnít like the food. Wow, was she going to the wrong place or what? She told me stories of how I would be taken advantage of in restaurants, how expensive everything was. She must have been on the wrong flight, because she could not possibly have been more wrong.
When in Rome (Roma)Ö..†
After arriving in Rome and finding my way to my hotel I was pretty tired, but excited to start my adventure. I decided to take a bus tour around the city as a way to get oriented and figure out which places I wanted to spend more time at. I had originally planned to spend the first week in Rome, because there is so much to see and do. Since it was my first trip to Italy, I really wanted to concentrate in a few places rather than spending a lot of time traveling. The saying is that you could spend a lifetime in Rome and not see it all. This is quite true.
The bus tour was nice and kind of relaxing. After that I walked back down the hill to the Roman Forum area, which was about a mile from where I was staying. I took some pictures as the sun was starting to set and just enjoyed the rest of the day.
The next day was Wednesday, which I had planned to tour the Vatican with an organized, English Speaking walking tour. I had booked the walking tour with a company called Enjoy Rome. The tour didnít start until afternoon, so I headed over to the Vatican to have a look around in the morning. This actually worked out great. Wednesday happens to be the day that the Pope does his weekly address, which I didnít know at the time. I got to St. Peterís square and had no idea why there were so many chairs set up and why there was so many people around. So I hung around and ended up getting a pass to get closer to where the Pope was speaking. Listening to some of the other people, they didnít know what they were doing either, so we waited. At about the Pope was brought around in a jeep like vehicle. They drove him around the entire audience; there were thousands of people there. Then they drove him up the stairs and wheeled him off the jeep to the microphone, where he gave his address. It was pretty cool and I'm glad I just happened along at the right time.
The Vatican walking tour was excellent. It was nice doing it with a group and having someone explain things along the way. The Vatican Museums are huge, it would be easy to spend many hours there alone and the Sistine Chapel was amazing. You are not allowed to take pictures in most of these places, so thatís why I didnít take any. St. Peterís is remarkably huge. I got some pictures, but itís impossible to capture that size of the place. We donít think much of it because we are used to seeing huge buildings like shopping malls and sky scrapers, but can you imagine what it must have been like for a person in the 1600s to see a place like this? They had never seen anything that was even close to this size. They have placed tiles floor of St. Peterís that show how big it actually is. The tiles show the names of various cathedrals and basilicas around the world along with their length. The tiles are placed where that place would end if it were inside St. Peters! After the tour I climbed up the 300 stairs to the top of the dome on St. Peters for some good views of the city.
The next day, which was Thursday, September 23rd, I started by finding a GeoCache that someone had hid in the Roman Forum. This was quite challenging, not because it was a hard find, but because it is a very busy place. It was hard to be discreet while searching through the ruins. I had to keep dropping my water bottle and appear to be taking pictures. Fortunately I had gone there early in the morning when it was not as crowded, but it was still quite a challenge.
After finding the cache and making some other arrangements for my trip south, I toured the Coliseum, the Palatine, the Roman Forum and other places. Touring the ruins was quite fascinating, but their existence also presents quite a problem for the City of Rome. Nearly anywhere that they build they uncover ruins because for centuries they kept building things on top of things. The Coliseum is not the case, but a lot of The Forum and The Palatine were filled in and things built over it. Parts of the Coliseum are missing because for a long time they took the materials from it to build other things. They basically used existing structures as a source of building materials. A lot of what was used in St. Peterís came from the Coliseum. This was my last day in Rome for a while but I had seen quite a lot and was getting ready to move along. There were plenty of things left to see at the end of my trip.
Naples (Napoli) and The South
Shortly after arriving in Italy I got in touch with my friend Tony Nappa and decided to change my original plans. Tony is working at the Mustilli Winery, which is in the south of Italy, not too far from Naples. Since their grapes were not yet ready for harvest, he was actually not too busy. Things would get crazy when the grapes were ready, but at the moment things were pretty relaxed. I changed my plans to take the train to Naples on Friday and spend more time there. Originally, the plan was to go there for a few days, but I was able to be there for 10, which was really excellent.
The Mustilli Winery is located in a beautiful town called SantíAgata die Goti. It has a wonderful old part of town that is built on a hill between two deep valleys. The center looks like it would have come out of a movie set. The Mustilli winery used to be in some caves below their current wine bar, but moved 2 years ago to a new location just down the street. The caves are still used to store some wine, but for the most part the new winery is used for everything. They have a wonderful wine bar that has live music on Saturday nights and a wonderful staff of family and friends that run the place. The Mustilli family is a typical Italian family where everyone has a part in the operation. I can honestly say that I enjoyed visiting with all them. They showed me a wonderful time and their generosity was awesome. When I went to thank AnnaChiara (the daughter of the owner and one of the people Tony works most closely with), the reply was ďthatís just they way we do thingsĒ. Truly wonderful!
I was fortunate that Tony was staying at a guest house and they had room for me as well. This place was wonderful too. I was given a room that had doors that opened out to a deck area with some nice views. Rino Meccariello and his son Enrico that own the place were fabulous, they treated me like family. The meals were wonderful and the company was absolutely great. Enricoís nephew, Fabio, came from Switzerland for a week while I was there. He was on a break from school so he came to visit. It was a lot of fun and added to the family atmosphere. Enrico, Fabio and I went hiking one day and on the Sunday before I left, the three of us and Tony spent the day in Naples. They even taught us a card game called Scopa (which literally means broom, as in sweep). This is one of the most popular card games in Southern Italy, there is, of course, a website that tells how to play. It was good fun; it plays a bit like the game pitch, but not really.
Driving around was interesting at first, but was easy to adapt. Everyone talks about the crazy Italian drivers, but hey, I can drive in Boston, how hard can it be to drive in Italy? Itís really just a matter of always being prepared to expect the unexpected. I rented a car for the 10 days, and that made exploring the region possible.
I spent 10 days at the guest house using that as a base for exploring the south of Italy. Tony had the first weekend off, so we explored a bit. We visited the city of Caserta and walked around the grounds of the 17th century palace. Interior shots of the palace were actually used in one of the Star Wars movies. We also went to the top of Mt.Vesuvius and had a look at the crated. This mountain is the famous one that erupted for several days in AD 79 and covered Pompeii and Herculaneum with mud and ash and pushed the coastline out several kilometers. Itís not done erupting either. The last major rumble was in 1944 and there were major ones in 1906, 1794 and 1631. It is just a matter of time before the next one; which will be a huge problem as about 3 million people live around it!
I also got to be a tourist by myself. One day I explored the ruins of Old Pompeii, which was just incredible. It is amazing to think what it must have been like nearly 2000 years ago as the mountain erupted. Pompeii was a pretty wealth city which was very obvious from its size. There are lots of websites that talk about Pompeii, I thought this one was pretty good and has some good links.
Another day I took a drive along the AmalfiCoast. One view and you know why this area is a World Heritage Site. It is absolutely breath taking. It would be easy to spend a week or a lifetime here! I only spent one day, but quickly added it to the list of places to come back to. Perhaps next time in a sailboat?
On my last day in the region, Tony, Enrico, Fabio and I went to Naples. Enrico had lived there for several years and was an excellent tour guide. We went to places that most of the tourists donít visit, which is really the best reason to visit with a local! One of the places we went to was the underground of Naples. There are caves and water ways under most of the city. These have been here for hundreds of years and were originally used to move water into the city. During World War Two some of them were used as shelters. The tour was fascinating, unfortunately it was in Italian, but Enrico and Fabio did great translating for us! It was a wonderful day, but also sad because my time here was coming to an end.
Part of the reason for spending more time in a single location rather than traveling all around the country was so that I could experience the culture and the local people. I was sure able to do that. The people that Tony works with and the people he was living with were simply wonderful. They showed me a really great time and made me really appreciate their way of life. The food and wine were wonderful, but the generosity, just canít be described. They invited me back any time. I had no idea that I would be returning so soon, but more of that later.
Florence (Firenze) and the Cradle of the Renaissance
It was finally time to return the car and get back on the train for the 4 hour trip to Florence. I spent 4 Ĺ days in Florence and was able to see so many things that are just impossible to describe. One of the wonderful things about Florence is that the city center is pretty compact. It really is very easy to see the entire city on foot. Just walking along the streets was amazing. At times you stop noticing all the intricate sculptures that are part of most of the buildings, because they are simply everywhere.
When I got to the city I took another bus tour to get oriented, etc. It was really good and I quickly realized just how much there is to see in the city. I was also able to take the bus to a small village call Fiesole, which was pretty neat too. This village is built on a hill and was a place where people would come to escape the heat of summer. It has ruins and museums.
One of the highlights of visiting Florence was getting into the Galleria DellíAccademia, which houses Michelangeloís David. I thought I had an idea what it looked like, and I did because there are copies and pictures of the famous sculpture everywhere, but until I actually say it in person, I knew that I had never really seen it. There are not words that describe the size, detail and shear masterpiece. There are other sculptures in that museum and certainly thousands all around the city, but none compare.
I was also able to get into the Galleria Degli Uffizi, also known as the Uffizi Gallery, which houses the worldís greatest collection of Italian and Florentine art. Getting in is actually a bit of a challenge because it is the most popular place to visit. They book tickets several days in advance or you can go and wait in a line. At times the line is over 2 hours long. I got in line about 30 minutes before the museum opened and only had to wait about an hour (counting the 30 minutes), so that wasnít too bad. When I left the museum a few hours later, the line was huge! It was well worth the time spent in line for sure.
There are hundreds of galleries and museums to visit in the city, and an incredible number of churches to wander around in. I did my share of all of these. Florence is a wonderful city and well worth spending at least 4-5 days there just to see it. I learned more about art history then I expected and really enjoyed walking around and seeing things.
Back to Rome
After spending 5 days in Florence, I took the train back to Rome to continue to see what I had not seen in the beginning of my trip. I had a list of things not to miss and was looking forward to seeing them. I spent the first day back in Rome visiting the Pantheon, which is absolutely the best preserved Roman building anywhere. I think because it was a church spared it from being destroyed or taken down for other things. I also visited the famous Trevi Fountain, which I donít think is the most beautiful, but it certainly is the most popular. Legend has it you will return to Rome if you toss a coin over your shoulder with your back to the fountain. There was no shortage of tourists sitting on the edge of the fountain tossing in their euros or other coins. In case you are wondering, my coins remained in my pocket. Not that I donít think I would come back to Rome, but probably because it just seemed like too much of a ďtouristyĒ thing to do, or maybe because I'm a cheap ass. You can probably form your own conclusion.
I had had enough of tourists and crowds so I wandered into a cool little English pub and ordered a Guinness. Sometimes you just need to find a good pint. For all the Italians know about making food and wine, they know very little about making a good beer. It actually goes along with my brother Joeís theory that ďthe warmer the climate, the worse the beerĒ (or something like that).
After spending so many days looking at sculptures, paintings, churches, ruins, and graves, I was a bit overloaded and got to thinking of spending the weekend back at SantíAgata die Goti and enjoying that area one last time before heading home. On Saturday morning I checked out the train schedule and was able to arrange with Tony to pick me up at the train station in Caserta. I had not really planning to be back so soon, but it was great to return and especially nice to be out of the city. We enjoyed the music, wine and grappa at the Mustilli Cantina (wine bar) on Saturday night and attempted to find a way to watch the Patriots play on Sunday. We had no luck with the football game, but that was to be expected. That was too bad because that was the Sunday that the Patriots played Miami to beat Miamiís winning record.
After a wonderful Sunday dinner with Rino, Enrico, Maria, Andreas and the gang they gave me a ride back to the train station so that I could return to Rome. It really was great seeing them all again. I know I will probably be back, I just donít know when.
My final day in Rome I set out to find some GeoCaches. This was nice and allowed me to see parts of the city and parks that I would have skipped. It was a lot of walking mostly because the roads that looked like they went where I needed to go had a fascinating way of stopping at some historic building or something. It was a good day and a nice way to end my trip to Rome.
The next morning it was time to check out of the hotel and take the train back to the airport. Fortunately I had given myself plenty of time as the lines getting through security were quite long. The flight back to the US was uneventful, but seemed to take forever. Because I had a free ticket, I was forced to take the only flight that had free seats available when I booked the trip months earlier. This meant that on the return trip I had to make a connection in Chicago. I never did the math until I was seated and they made the announcement that it takes 10 hours to fly from Rome to Chicago. They actually showed 4 movies on the flight. For some reason this one seemed longer than any flights that I had taken to New Zealand or Australia or anywhere. The really discouraging part was that we practically flew over Boston on the way. But a free ticket is always nice, just sometimes less convenient than desirable, but free is free.
It was a wonderful trip, I'm really glad I had the opportunity to see everything. I was especially fortunate that the timing worked out good with Tonyís schedule so that I was able to spend more time with him than I expected. I got to really experience life as Italianís live it, not just through the eyes of a tourist.
I have a list of things I want to do the next time I visit Italy. There is so much more to see and do, that I just know I will return someday.
†I'm sure there are some typos or other things that just donít read right. Please me kind and tell me about them.