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I don’t know about you, but I can more fully understand an experience after I’ve had a while to process it. It’s easy to get caught up in the feeling of something, good or bad, and try to assess right then, but I’ve learned that better understanding comes after an experience has had time to stew for awhile. I had the incredible opportunity to visit Italy last summer, exactly a year ago, and so I’ve been going through everything that we did there as well as the photos.

A year ago yesterday, my mom and I spent our last night in Rome. We had had a long, hot, day visiting Pompeii and Naples (mind-blowing, by the way) and wanted to spend a relaxing evening before driving to Florence the next morning.

At the time, I was eager to move on to Florence, excited to see what would come next. Rome was overwhelming, but in a good way. There was just so much to see and I knew we’d never do it a bit of justice in just three days. I think to truly experience Rome, I would need to stay for a while, sit with a glass of vino at a sidewalk café day after day, wander the streets with no goal in sight, and just feel the rhythm, the pulse, of the city. Being independently wealthy would help with that.

I love big cities; I adore the energy that they hold. They have personalities all their own and Rome is no exception. Rome is just so big, in so many ways. There is some sort of order, but not the kind that’s in London, Dublin, or Sydney. The centuries of tumultuous history that have made it into what it is today are still there, everywhere you look. Scooters fly by the ruins that mark the spot where Julius Caesar was stabbed to death. Egyptian-influence mixes with Greek. Morning and evening rush hour zooms under the magnificent Roman wall still surrounding much of the city. Modern life goes on, but pays its respects to the events and buildings that have been the foundation of the Eternal City since its very beginning. It’s a crazy paradise.

Roman wall

Roman Wall

 

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The Coliseum and Roman Forum

Rome was patient with us. My mother had had to fight jet lag for the first time ever, an unpleasant experience for even the most jaded traveler. We had a fabulous guide, though, Lynne, who provided us with equally wonderful local guides during our time there and that made it all the better. We learned to walk boldly into the crazy traffic to cross streets, (Chin up, chest out, shoulders back, no eye contact with the drivers, and GO!) to see Vespas that tore down sidewalks and zipped in between the throngs of tour buses and cars as the norm, and became accustomed to the constant beeping of horns.

I learned particularly quickly how to dissuade all gypsies, some aggressive, with a hand up and a firm, “No, grazie”, before walking past them and holding my bag close, hand on the zipper, nothing in my pockets. (“Gypsy” is sometimes seen to be a derogatory term, but it includes all of the scammers that hang out to pick pockets or swindle people, especially tourists. The term used to be used to describe only the Roma, but there are many different nationalities of people whose main occupation is to steal in Europe. “Gypsy” seems to cover them all in Italy.) We had successfully navigated the bus system, getting off at a stop relatively close to the Coliseum, walking the rest of the way, and then making it back to our hotel the night before. We paid the obligatory visit to the Hard Rock Café Rome to eat and get a t-shirt for Oldest Child. We saw many of the treasures of the Vatican Museum, walked through and prayed in the stunning Sistine Chapel, and began to make friends in our tour group. Our first three days had been busy, to say the least.

 

St. Peter's

St. Peter’s Basilica

Visiting the Vatican, its own independent country but completely within Rome, walking over the spot where St. Peter is reportedly buried (THE Peter, the fisherman, the one who walked with Jesus, who saw him risen, that one), standing in St. Peter’s Square, the place that’s on my television every Christmas Eve for midnight mass even though I’m not Catholic, yeah, those experiences still floor me. I can’t believe I was there, in the middle of all of that history. Religious or not, the volume of the priceless art alone is enough to give one shivers of glee. Throw in the religious significance and it can reduce you to a puddle of joy.

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View from the Vatican

 

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Remains of a temple in the Forum

Anyhow, on that last night, we found a nice little outdoor café/restaurant for dinner. Outdoor cafés are all over Italy, some are expensive, many are very reasonable, and I really think that’s a fabulous way to experience the country. The people-watching is spectacular. We had quite a bit of free time to do as we liked, something that I think is important on a tour. I’m learning from the Rick Steves’ philosophy of going where the locals like to go in addition to the popular tourist hangouts, a very rewarding experience.

The night was warm, but not too hot, and the waiter was very nice. I tried ordering completely in Italian (I had been getting bolder with my language skills) and laughed when the waiter repeated my order back to me in English. I teasingly shook my finger at him, chiding that I was practicing my Italian and that he wasn’t helping me. With good humor, he graciously listened to my broken Italian and spoke slowly the rest of the time so that I could understand. I found that to be the case in many places, especially in our hotel in Roma. The front desk staff all seemed to be amused by my attempts, but not in a mean way. If I was struggling with a word, they would gently say the English version and then the Italian after to help me along. I’ve always tried to be helpful with those who speak English as a second language here in the States, but that experience has taught me to be even more mindful of the language barrier.

The wine came, the food came. Everything was delicious. My mother and I talked for a long time, a luxury with our normally busy lives at home but in Italy, everyone makes time to talk, everyone takes the time to visit, especially in the evenings during the passagiata. The passagiata is the walk that people take in the cities and towns, usually around a piazza, or city square. People visit, have an aperitif before dinner, (Italians eat dinner late.) and generally relax after a day of work or play. It’s a lovely idea and a wonderful time to watch people. The entire evening was spectacular and although I was ready to leave for Florence, I felt a stab of regret that I had leave Roma so soon, just as I was getting to know her. The sensory overload that descended on me when we first drove into Roman traffic that first morning was just starting to make sense. I wanted more, I wanted to wander without a schedule, to accidentally find treasures that I hadn’t read about and I plan to go back one day and do just that. Well, with a Rick Steves guidebook and map.

Now, those who know me know that my true love is London. There are places where people know that they belong and London is it for me. but Rome and her sister cities have so much to offer that I want to keep coming back. I don’t think I could ever live there, I crave order and timeliness on a daily basis and while Roma has its own sense of order and time, it would be too overwhelming. I would need to take breaks from the energy, but I know that Rome would always leave me wanting more, never running out of marvels. It’s like a rich dessert: a little bit will satisfy, but you will keep making it because it’s so good. There will always be a reason to return.

Pieta

Pietà

This is just the beginning of my memories of Italy. I condensed Rome into just over one thousand words, no easy feat, especially when I could have filled a small book with just those three days. For such a short time there, it planted a long root in my soul that will continue to come back long after I think it to be gone. Well done, Roma, well done.

A presto.

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I’ve been on a bit of a holiday from things: work, home, and, yes, writing. (Actually, I have a summer job, but that’s my fun one and I don’t really consider it work. I enjoy it too much!) I did actually plan to try and write a bit when I was in Italy, but there was just no time, so now I’m jumping back in. I do want to try and finish the novel that I’m working on, at least the unrevised bit of it, this summer, if possible, but first, a blog post. I won’t bore you with all of the details of my trip, but just a few highlights.

I was in bella Italia, beautiful Italy. The flight was long, cramped, and boring, so I’ll spare you the details. We were fortunate enough to immediately get our tour group’s bus from the airport to our hotel in Rome, driven by the talented Carlo, our driver for the week. An Italian motorway gave way to increasingly smaller city streets, passing through buildings covered in graffiti. I thought the graffiti would go away once we got into Rome proper, but that was not so. In fact, it seems the only way to not have graffiti on your building in Rome is to build a locked gate around it, but then the gate will have graffiti. I found it extremely surprising that a city with a heavy tourist population would have so much vandalism. A lot of it is political, but still, graffiti is ugly no matter where you go.

If you don’t look at the graffiti, Rome is beautiful, in a chaotic way. There are no traffic rules. Absolutely none. Seriously, if there are rules, no one is following them. I don’t even know why there are lines on the road. Tiny cars veer in and out from between large trucks and busses while scooters rule any in-between spaces and even sidewalks. Crossing the street almost gave my mother heart attacks, but we followed the advice of our local guide, Elena: “Shoulders back, chest out, don’t look at the drivers, close your eyes, and GO!” She was right. Roman drivers can sense even a small inkling of hesitation and will keep going if you pause before crossing. It’s kind of like being a teacher. Still, everyone seems to take it in stride; it’s the way things are done. And in the midst of all of this chaos, beautiful ruins, thousands of years old, are scattered through the entire city. Public water fountains flow with water from the ancient aqueducts and the Coliseum seems impassive to the tourist busses that rumble by.

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View of Rome

Rome is extremely walkable, as were all of the cities, if one holds their purse close, closed, and zipped. Gypsies, or Romani, are everywhere, selling cheap crap or trying to scam naïve tourists into taking pictures for 5 euro or taking a rose, after which they get very close to you and say, “Give me money.” If one avoids the heavy tourist areas, or just flat out ignores them, it’s not a problem, just annoying. In the areas by our hotels, we walked around quite comfortably and safely, even at night.

Vatican City was amazing. Although Oldest Child had immediately given me his copy of The DaVinci Code as soon as I decided to go to Italy (as an inspiration to sneak into the private collections), the amount of historical treasures that were actually on display was dumbfounding. Paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and priceless works of art are all on display, no need to go hunting behind the scenes. The Sistine Chapel was overwhelming and brought me to tears with the sheer passion of the work painted not only on the ceiling, but the walls. Silence is enforced there and prayers are said. Michelangelo’s most famous Pieta (he carved several) is on display in St. Peter’s Basillica, more beautiful than I had ever dreamed. I got to be inside of St. Peter’s Square, a place that we watch on Christmas Eve and Easter every year, jammed to the gills with people. It was nowhere near as full as it is for those holidays, but it is an immense area. I’m not Catholic, but I could have spent days in the Vatican.

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St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City

We took a day trip from Rome to Pompeii, the town that was buried by ash when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. The amount of work that has been done and how much of the original town has been uncovered is astounding. Private homes, shops, wells, and, yes, brothels, are all still there, some looking as if their owners could come back at any moment. Our guide, Enrico, took us everywhere that he could, throwing in as much humorous information as possible and making sure our group saw all of the important things. There is actually a lot more of Pompeii that remains buried, but Enrico seemed confident that it would stay covered. The expense would be just too great and the important buildings had already been excavated. Still, walking the same streets that were once a real place, not a tourist attraction, was humbling and eerie. There were three casts of victims on display: a baby, a man and a dog. Even though they were only the molds of those unfortunates, the bodies have long since decayed, it was emotional to see the horrified expressions still evident after all this time. If I had to choose one word to describe Pompeii, it would be “haunting”.

After three days, we bid a fond “arrivederci” to Rome and moved on to Florence for a change of pace, but once we got there, our pathway to the leather factory we were to tour was blocked by a medieval football game. Apparently, it’s a really big deal there and gets quite rough. One of the most famous squares, or piazzi, was completely blocked off and there was a huge police presence, which our tour director sweet-talked us through. To make a long story short, we did get past the (fun) craziness and got to our wine-tasting, pizza dinner and leather tour on time.

We had a lot of free time to explore in Florence but also got to take a day trip to see the towns of San Gimignano and Siena, both nestled high in the beautiful hills of Tuscany. Both have kept most of their medieval buildings and are, rightfully, very proud of them. We quite happily wound our way through the ancient streets, admiring both buildings and landscapes alike. Both of those towns are places where I would gladly go back and spend a lot more time exploring more of what they have to offer.

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City wall of San Gimignano

Venice was next, after a quick stop in Verona to see “Juliet’s balcony”. (FYI, Juliet was a fictional character. The play, by William Shakespeare, was based on warring political families in Verona at the time, but it remains a work of fiction.) Venice was stunning at first glance and remained so throughout the time we spent there. During the daytime hours, there were throngs of tourists to elbow through, and some particularly despicable Gypsies, but there were no scooters threatening to kill us, no busses to dodge, just water taxis and gondolas gliding up and down the narrow canals between homes and churches. In the evening, after the day-trippers leave, Venice is peaceful and breathtaking. Our hotel was across a large canal from Piazza San Marco, so we had to take a water taxi back and forth, an experience in itself. When it came time to go to the airport, we went by water taxi. It was fabulous!.

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Venice

The best part of Venice, however, was that I got to meet my friend, Sabrina, for the first time. We had started communicating almost a year ago online and she was able to meet my mom and me there. We had a wonderful afternoon, just walking around, talking, and getting to know each other. Hopefully, we’ll get to meet up again in a couple of years, perhaps in London. The sooner, the better!

I was given a great gift in this trip, and I have my mother to thank for that. My world was expanded, my appreciation and respect for another culture increased, and I found that while I’m not even close to being fluent in speaking Italian, I am a fairly functional tourist. My next trip isn’t quite in the works yet, we are sending Oldest Child to college next month, after all, but I’m looking forward to what ever adventure comes my way

Ciao!

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