Most vacations just become memories, both through photos and in our mind's eye. We remember them fondly, recalling snippets of the good stuff... many become part of who we are, becoming anecdotes to ramble on about for years to come or being absorbed into our accumulative life matrix. But for some reason this time I'm experiencing something different--the dreaded regrets. Things we planned wrong or didn't make time for or simply forgot about.
For example, during the rushed haze of packing I forgot a very important element for visiting Molfetta and paying homage to my Dad. I have some of his hair in a locket that I cut on the day he passed. I always said to Dad that someday I'd take him back to Molfetta with me. My simple, sentimental plan was to take some of his hair and drop them into the sea in Molfetta harbor, perhaps with some flowers--bringing Saverio back home again. I realized I had forgotten the locket when I was flying over the Atlantic. This is why the plan changed for Lucas and I to bless ourselves in Molfetta sea water in his honor.
Another romantic idea was quashed when I forgot to print out a copy of our marriage vows to take with us. I thought it would be nice to renew our vows in Italy--we had just passed our 15th anniversary. I even researched how much it would cost to have a little ceremony... little church, a priest, some flowers... apparently a big--and expensive--business in Italy. Instead, I thought of reading our vows while up in our hot air balloon. But I forgot to bring them along. I had all sorts of other scanned documents on our devices (Lucas birth certificate, handicapped card, passports, credit card copies, etc.) but the vows? Nope. Babbo forgot. So while up in the balloon all I could squeak out was asking Lisa if she would marry me all over again--along with an apology about forgetting the vows. She did say, "Yes"... again.
The rest are more practical regrets. We should have gone to the Roman Forum instead of the Palatine Hill. It's more... er... monumental there. More research here would have helped... and a really good tourist map of the area. If we had just walked right instead of left the day we got trapped above the forum looking down on it all.
We should have shortened our Rome visit down to 2 days and added them to our Molfetta stay. This would have given us time to go to the town hall and research family history and to find the Finzi ancestors in the town cemetery. This would have given us more time to explore Puglia... we fell in love with the place. Caves, dinosaurs, Trulli, the rocky sea coast... the bread, pizza and the people.
I suppose we should have gone into Florence. The combination of heat, amazing crowds, conniving scammers and gypsies, the fear of ZTL tickets and our overworked legs got the best of us.
We also regret not visiting a single market in all of Italy. The market days move from town to town each day and we just kept missing them. In hindsight, we should have made visiting one of them THE thing to do rather than hitting another tourist site.
I know it was a matter of timing, but I really wanted to rent a boat in Amalfi and captain ourselves around that rocky, mountainous, grotto filled coastline. A similar rental would have been great along the coast near Molfetta, too. There are grottoes there aplenty and the clearest, cleanest water in all of Italy.
I could have asked Vito if I could have made my own pizza in his Forno Antica (which means Antique Oven). That would have rounded out my pizza expertise.
Both Lisa and I agree that we might have not done the Vatican Tour. Sure, in the end we got great photos of the art and magnificence from both the Museum and the Basilica, but we had more memorable times doing the simple things... like our picnic on the Isola in the river or walking through our Trastevere neighborhood. We are not well suited to waiting on long lines or doing the most popular things that tourists do. But even we fell a bit into the trap of that Must-Do Checklist that drives most tourists.
I would have rather have taken a taxi down to the Appian Way to take a stroll and have another picnic along those 2000 year old cobbles and tombs. Besides, it's still free to walk there (tickets are needed for the catacombs, however). I am pretty certain that in their wisdom, Rome will fence this off too and start charging just to take a walk, as they did on Palatine and the Forum.
In the end, Rome was not our most favorite place. It was far to dirty and graffiti-ed and crowded. The fear of being robbed was always in the back of our minds, whereas it never entered our minds while traveling the countryside or in Puglia.
And perhaps we should have stopped by a vineyard or two, although the fake, tourist wine experience of Mormoraia turned us off. It seems that most of these places cater only the tourist trade and are not really in the business of producing the great wines. There are cookie cutter agriturismo vineyards like this all over, but especially in Tuscany. That book (and film) Under the Tuscan Sun created a real tourist boon mostly filling buses with divorced aging hopeful romantics and pseudo wine connoisseurs who giddily pay ten times what that tourist swill is worth. For us, paying under five Euros a bottle at local alimentari for excellent wine was a more authentic experience.
The last thought is the timing of check-ins and check-outs. When check-in is at 3pm it really limits how you plan you days--especially when you have luggage in the trunk of the car to worry about. We had difficulty in finding locker storage in Italy. It might have been better for us to plan longer stays in less places so we could explore more. It's rough having to pack and unpack each time you move. And packing for a train travel day is even tougher... you don't have the car to just toss stuff into as you're leaving. And earlier morning checking out would have served us better, but try that when there are three to get fed and showered and out the door.
Either our Trullo or the Molfetta apartment would have made great travel hubs for exploring all of Puglia. And one central Tuscany location might have been more time saving than having to move from Cosona to Mormoraia after only two days (although we loved the southern Tuscany area).
I suppose many after returning from truly Grand Voyages think, "Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda" (in Italian, potrebbe avere, dovrebbe avere, avrebbe). Niente is perfect, but in the end our memories are perfetto.
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We all have to go sometime... some more than others, some less so. If you drink the Italian bottled "digestivo" waters, chances are it will be more so. But in Italy things are not like what we are used to back in the States. Here's the poop...er.. scoop on the plumbing in the boot shaped country.
First off, when you stay in nice hotels or apartments chances are you might actually have a more modern, more powerful toilet than you have back home. Most are more than adequate although plain, while others are very stylish, right off the pages of an Italian decorating magazine. Oh yea. Chic. Some are mounted on the wall with space underneath for mopping. The flushing mechanism and tank are usually built into the wall above and behind the toilet. There are usually two large plates which you push for flushing... the smaller side for numero uno, the larger side for numero due. I've found the flush on these modern types of toilets to be very forceful... early on I would always wonder if it would blast back at me. It never did. The trap openings are also much larger and wider than American toilets so they are harder to clog.
Now, lets get to what you find out and about in Italia...
If there are building codes in Italy I am sure that people ignore them or pay other people to ignore them. I don't think I ever saw a handicapped accessible bathroom in all of Italy. In fact, some bathrooms were so small it was difficult to get into the tiny space and close the door behind you. I only saw one bathroom with proper ventilation, even though here in the States it's written into the Building Code. Most apartments I stayed in didn't have a window, either. No ventilation--no window equals stink and eventually, mold. I even saw some without lights at all. One particular modern one on the public parking lot in Castelmezzano had no lighting, only odd little round skylights. It was dark at midday.
Correct me if I am wrong, native Italians, but with the use of bidets being so prevalent, I sense that most simply use a washcloth to tidy up after their toilet time while using the bidet. (When I lived in Paris I used the bidet mostly for soaking socks or cleaning my feet.) Perhaps I'm wrong. There was only one apartment I stayed in (Molfetta) that had an abundant supply of of toilet paper. With all others we felt like we were on rationing.
Ok, the last insult I figured would have gone out of style by now. I first encountered the "Turkish Toilet" when I lived in Paris. First while traveling around France and then (sadly) when renting my 6 flight walk-up studio apartment, which had one I shared with the old lady across the hall. I'd crouch down to use it but she would go in late at night to empty her chamber pot. Yes, a chamber pot. (This is way back in mid-seventies, folks). We first encountered one in the Florence Hertz garage. I had a bit of an emergency but when I entered the bagno in the rear of the garage the emergency went right out of me. My old knees can't crouch the way they did back in the seventies. I called Lucas back to see... he took a picture.
You might have to pay for a toilet, too. The one at Grotte di Castallana charged one Euro to get into the modern, coin operated stalls--and there was no toilet paper! Hey, for a buck and a quarter I'd expect a can of soda to go along with the seat. Others at train stations might be pay also, some with attendants who sit there waiting for a tip.
Now here's the nutty thing. In many we went to, there was a nice, modern toilet... but NO TOILET SEAT! That's right, sit a few inches lower than normal on hard, cold, germ ridden china. Shudder. I opted out of these. Lisa used one in an emergency and she said it "looked clean" but as I understand it, germs are invisible to humans. To their credit, the toilets without seats did usually have a vessel with a toilet brush and some sort of bleach solution to wash before--or after--you use it. It seems like a lot of trust to put into your fellow human being to me.
Toilet paper. Yes. Toilet paper. If there is toilet paper at all, it will more than likely be a stack of tissue thin napkins--barely able to handle your... er... business. Or it will be more like brown paper hand drying napkins we find in American public rest rooms. Yea... I always want to sandpaper my butt afterwards. Toilet paper isn't such a big thing in Italian supermarkets, either. Sure, it's there. It just doesn't take up much shelf space as it does in the U.S. Even when there were rolls, they were usually either very thin or scratchy. My final gripe with their toilet paper is the brown colored stuff. Huh? It's a brownish color--the same color as... well, you get it.
The last part of my plumbing rumblings has to do with train travel. I love traveling by train. Back in the Forties in the U.S., car and gasoline companies conspired and paid off politicians to rip up trolley and train tracks everywhere. This was their plan to more cars and gasoline. It worked. Train travel is pretty much dead in the States. Nearly 8 out of 10 people in the U.S. own cars (there must be lots of kids driving!) But train travel is much more comfortable than driving for long hours or flying. And when nature calls, there is usually a big, comfortable bathroom on board. The same holds true for Italy.
The first train we took from Rome to Chiusi was not a modern train. It was known as a Regional train--an older, well worn train. Comfy enough, clean enough, but definitely showing its age. When I had to go, I entered the older style rest room where the lights didn't work, the cabinet doors were rickety and the napkin folded toilet paper was hard to find (tucked into a odd little cubby). The real treat was when I looked down into the toilet. No water. Just railroad ties rushing by under the fast paced train. It reminded me of the toilet on a party fishing boat out of Brooklyn I was on years ago... with the toilet looking right down into the ocean. I pity the poor Italian hobos who walk these tracks.
In contrast, on the modern high speed trains (Frecciarossa, for example) there are ultra high-tech bathrooms with futuristic sliding doors, cool lighting and very clean facilities. Nothing to fear here. They even had rolls of paper... not tissues.
All in all, going to... no... IN Italy is hit or miss. Er... literally. At least we didn't have to do it the way the ancient Romans did. Sharing a sponge with your neighbor!
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Ok, Hold Your Breath, 'Cause this is Really Gonna HERTZ! Renting cars in Italy
We found the indoor garage across from what I thought was the Hertz office and drove inside. The people were friendly, polite but spoke little English. (By this time I was getting pretty brave with my Italian). This is where Lucas and I discovered a Turkish toilet--the crouch down type with a hole in the middle of a flat piece of porcelain. I digress... After this, it was a long five block walk, dragging luggage (we have the hand truck type with small wheels) behind, over cobblestones and on sidewalks that were nearly too narrow for one person. When we got to the station there was a large flight of steps to get up before entering the station... not very handicapped accessible, like the rest of Italy. Again, no rental office or drop off AT the station.
Now, the real nightmare: Naples Hertz. Naples Centrale Station is so large it was difficult to get our bearings (and the data plan wasn't activated yet on our phones, so I couldn't use the Maps app). We had to cross over an extremely busy viale where people do not pay any attention to signs, speed limits, other cars, pedestrians or stop lights. I was really worried about Lucas getting across dragging his large backpack rig along. Then it was a two block walk along one of the most sleazy streets I've seen yet. Filthy, druggies, gypsies, stench and drunks amid the rush of normal workaday people pushing past it all.
This was also one of the hottest days yet... we were all sweating when we finally got to the Hertz office, a tiny space with a garage door pull-down and--of course--no air conditioning. This office did have tw0 young men working there. But it seemed they were working tandem on each person (there were a few people ahead of us). They couldn't seem to handle taking care of two customers at one time. We did the paperwork and they gave me the keys telling me the car was in a "parking lot" 30 meters down the street across the busy viale--again. This time, there were no lights, no crosswalks and a major "rotary" intersection to get across. Just getting across the street was a real effort... and dangerous for Hertz to have their customers do.
Ok... 30 meters? Try 359 meters (I measured it on Earth). This walk was also hairy... past a sleezy train station hotel with hookers, panhandlers, gypsies and filth, the stink of urine. This taught me that everything I read is true... Naples is a sewer. Literally.
We couldn't find the "parking lot" until Lucas spotted a small Hertz logo on a building around the corner from the street they said it was on. It was a run down indoor hourly parking garage. So, that's where they hide their rental cars! The next surprise came when they seemed puzzled that I expected an automatic "Fiat 500L or similar compact" as per my contract (I reserved months ago). The best they could do was give me an automatic Volvo "soove"(SUV) he said. This thing was big--and dirty. He asked if I would like it washed. Of course, I said. He said it would take over half an hour... forget it, I said. We were trying to get to the next check-in in Amalfi to meet the caretaker. So, we got stuck with this wide vehicle, not the Fiat 500L that I had originally booked. And this wasn't even in the same "compact" class of car. It was a move up the tier... which I didn't want... especially considering the narrow, twisty roads that I knew were in my near future.
Returning this car wasn't all that bad, aside from the insane drivers in Bari. This office had three people working there, and still, NO air conditioning. At least, the Hertz person there offered to drive us to the station since he had to drive the Volvo across town to their garage location. (I'm glad I didn't have to pick up a car here!) I was happy for that, because otherwise it would have meant walking 4 blocks in a seedy, train station neighborhood, then carrying luggage down and then up stairs to get under the train tracks at the station. You see, in their wisdom, the Bari Hertz people have their rental office on the back side-- the proverbial wrong side of the tracks--from Bari Centrale Station. There's an underground tunnel going from the Hertz neighborhood side to the main part of the station, where you must enter to get to any train platforms. Again... no kiosk right at the station? Nope, that would make troppo senso (too much sense)!
Renting a car from Hertz in Italia is a truly painful experience. Beware... and look elsewhere.
The Palantine, Forum and Packing Up...
After the tourist lunch we headed back to il Palantino above the Foro Romano. There were lots of steps and some inclined cobble paths but we made it up without Babbo popping. (Huff, puff)
When we got toward the top we saw many ancient ruins... some very large but besides the few sign markers we knew little about what we were seeing. I had Rick Steve's audio tours on a little iPod that dropped out of my pocket back at Grotti di Castellana. Anyway, we did see the houses of Augustus and evil Livia. A lot of history here. And the views from the top were great... all the way to St. Peters.
The trouble came when we couldn't find our way down to the Forum way below. They don't make it easy to get out of these places... one way in and maybe two exits... far far away from each other. We heard that not too long ago, the Forum and Palatine were free... that's why when we tried to get into the Palatine previously, we found several entrance gates--all locked. Now, they funnel you to make lots of money. I really don't understand the Italian way of doing things. If they complain their aren't enough jobs, hire people to man these gates... have ticket sales at every one of them so tourists don't have to crown and funnel into one or two entrance points. You'd have more exits, too.
By the time we located a way out it actually dumped us near the Colosseum again. The wrong direction from where we needed to go. We were thinking we could walk back to the apartment after strolling through the Forum (keep dreaming). We made a wrong turn (to the right after coming down from Palatine, instead of left toward the rest of the Forum) so we didn't see much of the Forum at all. We we hot, sweaty and thirsty and decided to get back to start packing for home--by taxi. Besides, I don't think my poor legs could have taken any more of the incredibly irregular ancient paving stones we came upon down in the Forum--it was like Pompeii all over again. Walking these stones can be a real contact sport--where you contact the ground! At this late date I know when I am pushing my own body--and Lucas and Lisa--too hard.
Of course, the only taxi stand was on the other side of the Colosseum. More walking! We didn't see the typical TAXI sign but eagle-eyed Lucas spotted the mish-mosh huddle of taxis and saved the day. (Taxi stands don't always have a neat line of cabs cued waiting for a fare... often they are in a jumble and you have to ask "Chi e primo?"... Who's first?)
Taxi home... rest... pack... then we went to dinner at our favorite little Trastevere joint: Trattoria Vincenzo Alla Lungaretta. Cheap, good food, checkered tablecloths and nice waitress. We had some wine which also was good and cheap. During dinner we noticed a commotion outside. There was a protest march through the streets... candles, signs, priests, babies, moms and dads--all types. They were protesting Italy joining the war on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The crowd walked past the restaurant for about 20 minutes.
A short walk back to the apartment and showers to save time in the morning. When tucking Lucas into bed he looked up at me with a tired grin and said, "Dad, I'm SO happy we came to Italy! It's been amazing!" That meant the world to me... this difficult, beautiful whirlwind of an adventure was worth it after all... We put a smile on his face and memories in his heart.
I wrote this at the airport where we had a lousy breakfast and are suffering with inadequate A\C again.
I pray the flight takes us back home safely...