This is a text-only trip report. If you were looking for pictures, you wanted Italy in May 2001.
Executive Summary: We spent three weeks traveling by train in Italy, and had a great time. The food was wonderful, the women were cute, the landscape was beautiful, the art was stunning, and the trains ran on time. OK, I lied about that last part.
Background: We’ve been making some attempt to alternate between trips in the US and elsewhere. Last year was Alaska, and we weren’t in the mood for anything super-exotic so that pretty much means Western Europe. However, we wanted to do something perhaps a little outside of our comfort zone so rather than do, say, England (E’s only been to London and I haven’t been outside of London since I was a kid) we introduced a couple of new elements — the language barrier and a pure rail trip, no car whatsoever.
Since we would be lugging our stuff on and off of trains with some regularity we packed as little as we could manage. We each had one bag — one of those backpacks that zip up totally so you can take them on planes without having lots of straps flopping around. If you look at REI.com and search under "convertible packs" you'll see what I mean. Mine was larger because I brought my big camera bag and film, which made up probably half the weight.
Elisabeth has pretty decent French so with the help of some learn-Italian CDs she got her Italian skills up to the point where regular commercial transactions (confirming a reservation, buying gelato) were zero trouble but actual conversations pretty much only happened if they happened to speak English. Italy is like a lot of European countries in terms of speaking English — if you talk to businessmen, hotel owners, and younger folks you get the impression that everybody speaks English but it turns out that most Italians have no intention of speaking anything other than Italian (more on this later). Anyway, when people would look at us they usually assumed we were German, but when Elisabeth spoke they usually guessed she was French. American tourists in a lot of these areas pretty much consisted of the college age hostel and booze set, and the tour groups (mostly older) without a whole lot in-between.
Getting There: We flew into Rome simply because because it was cheap and easy. We arrived early in the morning. Our goal was to stay awake, get to Assisi, and check into our hotel room. We didn’t want to deal with Rome right away, but it was a pretty short rail hop to Assisi which is a relatively small quiet town in which to take it easy and get over our jet lag. Also, to get there we would have to acquire lira, buy train tickets, validate them, get on the right train, change trains at the right station, get off at the right place, find out where they sell bus tickets (usually at whatever kind of market/newsstand/whatever is closest to the stop), get on the bus, find the hotel, and hope our reservation was OK. In short, the same process we would be following every few days. If we could manage it the first day while confused and exhausted it would be a good indication that we were going to be fine.
I should probably insert a word about train tickets. We just bought ours one or two at a time. Italy has a fairly confusing train system where you might commonly have a ticket, a supplement, and a reservation some of which need to be stamped before entering the train. It's not that big of a deal, but it can be easier if you use passes. The rule of thumb on price seems to be that if you're just going to be in Italy the only pass that makes sense is the kilometric pass but if you're going to be traveling all over Europe some more general pass might make a great deal of sense.
Assisi: It worked great. We pulled a million lira from an ATM (BancoMat) at the airport, took the “express” train to the main train station (this was probably the slowest train we took the whole trip) and probably the only real surprise in the whole process was when we entered the bus in Assisi and found it full of robed monks. Franciscans I imagine although Assisi is still enough of a pilgrimage site that they could have been almost anything. We saw more monks, clergy, nuns, etc. per square foot in Assisi than anywhere else including Vatican City.
There are basically two reasons to go to Assisi. The first is the Basilica of St. Francis, and the second is that it’s just a very cool old hill town in Umbria, which is just an absurdly beautiful area (it looks a little like parts of Sonoma and Napa counties). Most tourists just go for the day, and clear out at night, so other than a few hours it’s pretty much just you and the locals. In other words, the perfect place to spend a couple of days and get over jet lag.
There’s no shortage of big, beautiful churches in Italy. What makes the Basilica special are its frescoes. In 1997 there was a big earthquake and after extensive (aggressive, controversial) restorations they are as good as new. Basically the floor plan is that in the basement they have the remains of Francis and his four closest friends (and his patron off to the side). On the ground floor they have an stunning church with georgeous frescoes. Then on the first floor, they basically have an identical redundant church with more frescoes. Either basilica by itself would be simply amazing but to have two is just mind boggling. By the way, this is one place it is worth arriving early. We were there before 8 am. There was a church service going on in the crypt, and we could hear the hymns, and we nearly had the place to ourselves. We stopped by again later, and it was mobbed (although they don’t allow guided tours unlike most churches, so it was still fairly quiet inside).
Siena: We next went to Siena, another old hill town, this time in Tuscany. Tuscany is very nearly as beautiful as Umbria. Siena has basically banned auto traffic from a large portion of the town (you can drive in for some purposes, but you really don’t see that many cars). The only real “site” in Siena is the Duomo (cathedral). Inside you’ll find sculpture by the likes of Michelangelo, Donatello and Bernini. Again, most people pop in for the day but it’s the kind of place you really want to visit just as it opens, before the tour busses can drive in from wherever they put the tourists the night before.
The Duomo is also interesting in that they had intended to build a huge Duomo to replace it, with the current church as just part of the new structure. It didn’t work out (the plague can disrupt even the best laid plans) but you can still see some of the columns where they’d started.
I didn’t go to Italy for the food (well maybe the gelato), and I won’t be mentioning it very often. We spent a lot of time picnicking just because it’s easy and cheap and you get to try random stuff. I ate more salami in three weeks than I have in the last three years, which is a real shame because there are a couple of local brands that are quite good. Anyway, it was in Siena that I first tried real mozzarella. What we would call “fresh mozzarella” but made from buffalo milk. This stuff is just wonderfully good. I later had it on pizza as well and although the difference in texture doesn’t come across the flavor is just as nifty as could be.
Florence: We continued to the north, to Florence. We really didn’t get out of the heart of the old city. In fact, we stayed about a block from the Duomo on Via dei Calzaiuoli which is a big pedestrian street going from the Duomo to the Uffizi (the most famous museum) and the Arno (the river).
Basically for us the Florence experience was supposed to consist of running from one museum to another eating gelato regularly to keep up our strength. However, Italy is a little too random for that. One day, the local bishop was elevated to archbishop so we hung out in front of the Duomo and watched him process in, then after the ceremony they rang the Duomo bells constantly so there wasn’t any way to resist running out and watching him process back out. It was a neat moment — he was very happy, people were shouting congratulations and so forth. Lots of tourists paused and watched even though they had zero idea what was going on.
The other oddball experience was the Mille Miglina (thousand miles) car race. One day, they’d shut down our pedestrian street and we found it filled with classic Ferraris, Jaguars, Mercedes, whatever zipping on by. Somehow Elisabeth didn’t appreciate this as much as she should, and she went to acquire Gelato. When she bought two, the owner said, “All husbands are exactly the same.”
Anyway, museums. You pretty much have to go to the Accademia (David and a bunch of other art that nobody looks at) and the Uffizi (which has up to a four hour wait if you don’t have reservations. It has an even longer line for the lady’s toilette. I mean, really, they were just a disgrace. I’ve never seen such a line. ) These are the kind of museums that just leave you exhausted from fighting crowds. Think Louvre and you’ll be along the right track. Both places tightly control the number of bodies in the building but the limit is way too high.
Luckily Florence has a lot of other museums, with art that is just as impressive and you can slow down and actually enjoy the experience. The Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo has a Donatello carving of Mary Magdalene that looks like it could be modern it is that far ahead of its time. Michelangelo grew up being inspired by Donatello to give you some historical context. Speaking of which, Donatello’s David is in the Bargello, another awesome Florence museum. Santa Croce Church has the tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo (moved in long after the fact) and Rossini among others as well as monuments to Dante (he’s in Ravenna) Enrico Fermi (Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago) and Marconi (a villa in Italy). The museum of San Marco has rows and rows of monks’ cells, each with a Fra Angelico fresco. There’s also a lot of oddball stuff like the Medici Chapel, which pretty much has the theme “we’re richer than God”. The inlaid marble floor alone is worth the price of admission. The Michelangelos aren’t bad either.
Ravenna: We didn’t stay in Ravenna, we just got off the train and checked it out as a day trip on the way to Venice. I won’t say a lot about it, but if you like mosaics this is the place to go. They have several churches, tombs, etc. with 6th century mosaics. They also have the actual tomb of Dante. It's worth a day trip, even if it makes for a long day, but there's no reason to stay there.
Venice: What we mean by “Venice” is an island with a population of about 70,000 people, connected to the mainland by a causeway. The city on the mainland is substantially larger.. A lot of people stay on the mainland, because it’s cheap and there are a bunch of trains zipping back and forth but we went ahead and stayed on the actual island. You can also drive across the causeway but it just goes to the mother of all parking garages. We had a little trouble finding someplace on the island, even though we were booking months in advance, so we ended up going to a place with a couple more stars than normal. We had a lot of trouble finding it and it was getting dark and raining. The whole neighborhood was dark and deserted as a result - much different than in the day when it turned out to be very nice. We actually walked past our hotel several times while trying to find the place, because it looked way too snooty to even poke our heads in and ask directions . There were some pretty horrified looks from the other guests when we finally realized this was our place and went in soaking wet with our backpacks on.
Venice is pretty much what you might expect. Canals (they don’t smell, at least not in May. I hear August can be pretty bad.), tourists, St. Mark’s and the pigeons. We were in St. Mark’s square one night when it started to flood which kind of completed the experience for us. One tip to be aware of is that if you head up some stairs to the right just as you enter the church you can pay a small admission to a museum and eventually get up on the roof which is an cool place to hang out and watch the crowds in the square below.
Venice has its fair share of museums although it’s not Florence. One thing worth noting is that we saw posters up for an Etruscan exhibit where they’d pulled together Etruscan artifacts from all over. This turned out to be pretty terriffic stuff, and it wasn’t anything we’d heard about until we were there. We took this trip at a fairly slow pace but we never had trouble finding things like this to do.
Cinque Terre (Manarola): This is a collection of five little towns on the Italian Riviera. Basically this was a chance to rest, decompress, hike along the coast (think Sonoma county coastline), swim (Elisabeth’s first time in the ocean), and generally rest up a bit. After all those museums I was in way more of a mood to look at wildflowers than another painting. Each town has its own character. The largest is more of a resort town. The one we stayed in doesn’t get a lot of tourists and doesn’t really have a beach but it has great deep water swimming. Basically you just jump off the rocks into the sea and swim around until you get tired and then you try to find the footholds to clamber on out. Luckily some kids were jumping in and out of the water so I could watch them and figure out the procedure.
I don’t have a great deal to say about the area, it was just really nice. It was the only place on the trip where I really didn’t want to leave, and I really want to go back. If you want to find out about this place, check out the Rick Steves' Italy. It’s been popular for a while with tourists from other areas but pretty much every American you find there will be holding a copy of Rick Steves.
At this point, we were done with the north and had to head down to Naples which is pretty much an all day affair. Luckily there’s a convenient diversion in. . .
Pisa: Basically the way this works is you get off the train in Pisa, you pay a couple of bucks to check your bags at the train station, you take a 10 minute bus trip to the tower, you say “Yep, it leans”, and you get back on the bus and hop on the next train. Pisa is trying to mass a lot of little museums and things in the area and sells combination tickets to get people to stay longer but really it’s pretty much a good hour or two and that’s about it. Still, it broke up a long train day and there really is this nice moment when you see something in person that you know well from photographs.
Naples: I was going to start this section “Naples is a hellhole” but that might give you the impression that I don’t like it. Let’s put it this way, after visiting Naples we thought Rome was quiet, with good drivers, easy to cross the street, very clean, no crime. Typical traffic might include a road with 3-5 “lanes” of traffic (there are no painted lines), no crosswalk, no signals at all, and when you walk across they just kind of zoom around you. And it’s not just cars, about half the traffic is these obnoxious little scooters called Vespas (wasps) that zip in and out of all the other traffic. In most of Italy little old men sit on benches and watch people walk by; in Naples they stand at the street corner and watch tourists try to make it across the street alive.
Why go to Naples? Well, first off all the good mosaics, frescos, vases, whatever that were yanked out of Pompeii and Herculaneum and Paestum pretty much all ended in the hands of private collectors and over time they’ve been bought up by the Naples Archeological Museum. This includes the “Secret Room” with all the really naughty stuff. Over the years it gets opened and closed depending on how the church/state relationship is working out. Right now it’s open but you have to go to a desk and register and be over a certain age and so forth.
In addition Naples has some great old buildings, shopping areas covered by amazing glass roofs, and all manner of people watching. It’s the kind of place where you can go a block or two off of a main road, look for the one sign to Capella Sansevero (God forbid they should put the sign on the main road, you just have to know where to turn to get to the sign) and inside you’ll find assorted statues including an body of Christ under a very thin cloth (The Veiled Christ). Except, of course, it’s all marble. It’s by Giuseppe Sammartino in 1753. No, I have no idea who he is either. Here’s a link to a not too bad picture. It's much more impressive in person, of course.
The problem is that you can’t really get to anything by car, bus etc unless you have a death wish, the Metro works great but you’re shoved in as long as people can keep shoving in the door (right when you’re think the car can’t hold any more a few more people squeeze in until finally they’re trying to close the doors and the last guy is sucking in his gut so it won’t trip the sensor). So you get a certain amount of cruise ships in the bay offering day trips in mini vans up to the museum but other than that not a lot of tourists. This is pretty amazing considering that Naples was part of the Grand Tour.
And, oh yes, this is where they invented pizza. What more do you need to know?
The standard advice is to sleep in a nearby resort town and take the train to Pompeii, etc. (there’s lots of stuff to do in the area). However, this can lead to a lot of extra travel time if you want to go to some of the sites and we bit the bullet and stayed in Naples right next to the train station. In effect this means that we spent four nights and one day in Naples. The next few items will be day trips out of Naples.
Just as an aside, Naples is where I have my only rude waiter story for the trip. This waiter got into a big argument with another table because they didn’t round up their bill to the next thousand lira. Now, this place charged a cover plus service and the service wasn’t great so there was zero reason to leave an additional tip; he was just being greedy. He then went on his tirade (in Italian) about how cheap Americans were, worse even than the French (there was also something about the Scottish in there), and how it’s because our economy is a disaster. He apparently didn’t realize that a) their Italian was enough to follow this tirade and it made them even more determined not to tip, and b) we were American and could also get the gist. So when we got our bill for 30,400 lira, he set it down and said “31 thousand lira”. Elisabeth gave him 50,400 and asked for change. Realizing he wasn’t going to get the roundoff from us either he said he couldn’t be bothered to make change for us if we weren’t giving him any extra and made us walk across the street to pay the bill at the cashier inside.
Pompeii and Herculaneum: Pompeii you know about. Herculaneumwas wiped out in the same eruption. It was a smaller town, so it doesn’t have a lot of the bigger buildings, but it’s not so crowded and you can pretty much wander through the whole thing. Pompeii was very “you can’t go here”, “this is forbidden”, “stay on the main road”. Both are very impressive, and they’re only 15 minutes or so away by the same train you’ll take from either Naples or Sorrento so there’s no reason not to visit both (there’s a combination ticket that in addition to being a bit cheaper lets you avoid the ticket line at whichever you visit second). Again, most of the really good artwork was swiped and is now in Naples.
Paestum: Paestum is a town that was founded by Greeks in the sixth century BC and was eventually conquered by a neighboring set of barbarians, and eventually by the Romans. It’s the kind of thing where you get off the train in the middle of nowhere, hike eight minutes down a trail, and suddenly all these ruins appear. It still has three huge Greek temples in great condition— better than those you’ll find almost anywhere else, and it’s only an hour and a half out of Naples. It isn’t very popular with Americans — we ran into Germans, Italians, a few British and I think only one other American couple there. This was the main reason we stayed in Naples and not Sorrento — the way the trains work it’s very hard to get from Sorrento to Paestum until fairly late and then you have to get back. There’s also a cool museum with all manner of greek stuff including actual Greek paintings (not many survive). If I had to pick between Pompeii and Paestum I’d go to Paestum any day. We didn’t see a single tour bus anywhere in town, incidentally.
Sorrento: This is where they recommend you stay instead of Naples, because it gives you good access to Pompeii, Naples, and the coast (including Capri) and it’s not a hellhole like Naples. However it’s just not that interesting of a town and we would rather go to Paestum than the coast, especially having spent so much time on the coast further to the north. Still, we had dinner and gelato there a couple of nights when we’d finished our sightseeing early and we’d hang out until the last train before it got too dark (you don’t want to be wandering through Naples late at night). Sorrento is very famous for its lemons which look exactly like the lemons here. They taste different than normal lemons, but if you’re a Californian ask somebody with a lemon tree in their yard for a Meyer lemon and save yourself a 6,000 mile trip. It’s pretty much the same deal. (That being said, if you don't know what a Meyer lemon is, you're missing out.)
Southern Italy: This is as good a time as any to make some comments about southern Italy. It’s pretty different than northern Italy, in the same way somebody from New York or Georgia might not be exactly the same. Some of this is obvious — in the north we pretty much looked like slobs and in the south we were sometimes a bit overdressed and we were wearing the same three outfits. The food is different. The traffic is crazier, the hours things are open get more random, the trains get more random, and well everything is just kind of random come to think of it. It’s worth noting that we saw fewer Germans the further south we went and I don’t think it’s just a question of it being further away.
Rome: Well, you know the clichés. We had passed through Rome before on the train but this is the first time we really got out of the train station. Basically the first day was “Old Rome” day — the colosseum and so forth. No big surprises there except I have a good Ugly American story. After standing in this tremendous line to get in (with only 2 people selling tickets. Typical Italian museum staffing: 40 guards, all chatting in one room, 6 people manning the gift shop, 1 person selling tickets) this guy kept asking for the senior discount. The woman kept telling him you had to be 65. He kept saying “But I’m 60, that’s close enough”. His strategy seemed to be to delay the line until he turned 65. Now, I don’t know how good the senior discount is, but it’s only about $4.50 at current exchange rates full price so he was really just being a pain. Eventually he gave up. I should mention that technically this isn’t an Ugly American story, because he was German, but people seem to expect Ugly American stories so I won’t tell if you won’t.
The second day was some odds and ends and the Borghese Gallery. The Borghese really has its act together. Every 2 hours they let in around 300 people. Then they kick them out two hours later and start all over again (so there’s a 1-3 group, a 3-5 group and so forth). You must have a reservation in theory although in practice if they have any slots they’ll let you go on in for the remainder of the 2 hours. The place isn’t that big so 2 hours is plenty, and you don’t have the obnoxious crowds you get at the Uffizi. People go there for the sculpture although there’s also a decent painting collection (which takes up about a half hour of the 2 hours — if you do this first you avoid the rush at the sculpture). “Decent” by local standards includes Raphael, Titian, Rubens, etc. The sculpture includes a number of Berninis including Apollo chasing Daphne. It’s just the moment when she’s turning into a tree as he catches her. I’ve never seen such a sense of motion in sculpture before. I really wish they allowed photography — really good sculpture is fun to shoot because it’s so different from different angles, but there’s usually one famous view that you always see. You get people crowded in front of the thing, when it might be even more interesting from the sides. I would have loved to spent the last few minutes of the 2 hours, after basically everybody was gone, capturing this from a few angles. Unfortunately all the photos I’ve been able to find on the web are really bad or I’d include a link. They've done a wonderful job with the lighting the statue would photograph great under that light so of course they all used huge flash against white marble and washed out the details. Sigh.
Day three was Vatican day. Again, not a huge surprise. The Vatican Museum is very impressive but most people just kind of march on through to get to the Sistine Chapel. I only saw a couple of people who knew that there’s a little side chapel you can get through on the march that has a Fra Angelico fresco. Similarly the Egyptian museum and so forth were pretty much empty. Everybody just marches along to the Sistine Chapel. Anyway it was worth the trouble but if I was short on time I would recommend dumping this and going to the Borghese. We of course also went to St. Peters. It’s the biggest Christian church in the world, etc. etc. It’s stunning in the sense that it’s very big, and there’s a lot of highly detailed mosaics and so forth, but it doesn’t inspire half the awe that Chartres does and isn’t nearly as beautiful as the Basilica of St. Francis.
At that point there was nothing to do but fly home. Unfortunately this involved a 5 hour layover in
Newark, NJ: Is it just me or does Newark smell funny? Anyway, all I’m going to say is that Continental customer service stinks, they were very rude to us, they lost the seat reservations of the woman and two small children that sat in front of us even though they’d confirmed them when they checked their bags (I have no idea how they managed this) and they only got to sit together because other passengers were kind and moved, plus their food is terrible. I’ll gladly fly AlItalia again, but never Continental.
Well, that’s it. We’re home safe, I’m still washing clothing (it’s going to take a while to get those socks white again) but basically it’s back to normal.