This trip happened because Steven really needed a vacation. The nucleus came from Risa who wanted to get a group of friends together to rent an Italian villa for a week. Steven took the dates and built our itinerary around that. I told him that I was in no mood for foreign travel and if he wanted me to go he would have to make all the arrangements and just tell me what I owed. As you will see he did a marvelous job planning the trip: his countless hours on the internet checking TripAdvisor and other web sites really paid off. I was just along for the ride to take pictures and drink wine (not necessarily in that order). I kept a travel-log mainly for when senility kicks in and I need reminding about past events. You are welcome to read it if you are really bored, but I would recommend just looking at the pretty pictures. Steven’s comments and rebuttals to my impressions are in blue text and they are probably worth reading. Andiamo!
TOUR OF SOUTHERN ITALY
Everything went smoothly on the trip to Rome. Flights were on time, luggage stayed unlost, driver with sign was waiting for us at the airport. Rome had the laxest Customs inspection I've ever seen. The official gave the briefest glance at our passports and we just whizzed out of security in the nothing to declare line.
The trip to the city took about 30 min. The driver was very friendly and tried to act as tour guide, but his English wasn't good and we don't speak a lick of Italian. The hotel is quite nice in a quiet residential area north east of downtown Rome. We got in around 10:00 AM but they were able to get us a room right away, even got upgraded to a room with a private patio.
During the plane ride Steven took 2 of the sedatives the doctor had prescribed to help him sleep. They're low dosage, he said, I can handle 2 with no problem, but he was moving awfully slow as we got off of the plane. After we got to the hotel and freshened up he took his numerous pills and said, oh I think I just took another sedative, oops. Let me tell you, Steven under the influence of 3 Valium is a lot like Steven after 4 Manhattans; he shuffled along incoherently and became very belligerent. He insisted that we go out sightseeing but started nodding off as soon as we sat down in the subway. The glass of champs he had at lunch probably didn't help.
We were able to check the Spanish steps and Trevi fountain off our list of things to see in Rome. Neither of us knew why we needed to see them but all the guidebooks call them a must see. The fountain is really an impressive group of statuary with water running over it. The crowds were huge as everyone said they would be. We then started back for the Metro and got a little lost (my fault) , but got a nice view of the St. Peter's in the distance. After finally finding our way to the subway Steven wanted to stop in a little restaurant for a bit. After a nice snack of cured meats and cheeses we started back for the hotel. Luckily the Rome Metro is much like ours and there was no problem finding the right trains. Steven started falling asleep the minute he sat down and I had to prop him up to keep him from falling over. The Manhattan he had with our snack probably didn't help. We finally made it back to the hotel and I got him to lie down. As I write this, he has been sleeping for about 6 hours and I should probably go in and make sure he's still breathing.
Today we saw all the major ruins; the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Coliseum, and Pantheon.
The morning started out drizzling but cleared into a very nice day. Steven had booked a tour where we got private access to the Coliseum and didn't have to wait in the 4 hour line to get inside. Our guide was named Stephania, she was about 4 feet tall and was easily one of the best tour guides I have ever heard. They started out by passing out little radios so that we could hear every word she said. This worked really well, she didn't have to shout and we didn't have to cluster around her at every stop.
The tour started out at base of the Coliseum where we learned why it is called that and not the Flavian Amphitheater (because of a statue outside that isn't there anymore). Then we moved on to the ruins of the Roman forum, passing along the straightway that Mussolini had carved out of central Rome so that he could have a view of the Coliseum from his balcony.
Our little group had the forum to ourselves because of the rain. Guide said it was never that empty except in mid-winter. We then moved up the Palatine hill stopping at several ruins along the way. We saw a wild caper plant and the weed (acanthas) that Corinthian columns were modeled after.
At the top of the hill is where legend says that Romulus founded his city. Today we learned the origin of words spa and fornicate. We had a set time to enter the Coliseum and they were very strict about this. They told us about how the Romans hated Nero and drained the lake he had made outside his villa to create the stadium. How the Politicos of the day put on the games to keep the populace happy and the richer you were the more special effects you could afford: forests raising up from the trap doors to release lions and tigers (and bears oh my! Only they don't have bears here), and breached ships opening up to release hoards of hungry animals. How if you wanted to pay a lot of money you could have the gladiators fight to the death, but it was not the norm. How the thumbs up sign, unlike what you see in movies, might have meant slit his jugular. How the women could be sent up to the top level when the husband was tired of her.
Interesting fact, If the men were bored of seeing slaves being mauled by lions, they could go to the ground floor and look for the fornix (arch) with graffiti of an erect penis to find a brothel. This is where we get the word fornicate.
After our tour was over we went to the Jewish ghetto to eat lunch. The specialty is artichokes. We had a nice little nosh at a kosher bistro. The morning tour was tough; we were both dog tired after slogging through the ruins. I don't know how the guides do it day after day, especially in summer heat. Seriously, we're here in September and I sweated through my cloths, can you imagine what it must be like in mid-July with a thousand sweating tourists milling around?
During lunch we were trying to decide what to do in the afternoon. My vote was for going back to the hotel and a nice nap. Unfortunately we were about half a mile from the Pantheon, so Steven wanted to check it off the list. The outside of the building look the same as Roman times, but the temple to all the gods has been converted to a Catholic Church. In the alcoves where once rested statues of Zeus, Hera, and Venus, are now statues of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Getting back to the hotel was a tough walk we were both so tired, hopefully we are walking off some of the empty calories we are consuming. We took a 3 hour nap and then went out for dinner at a wine bar. Even when the waiters say they don't speak English, they still have a far better grasp of the language then if we tried to speak Italian. I had a delightful dinner of Gnocchi and an Italian red. After dinner drinks at Numbs bar; the whiskey and amaretto drink wasn't near as bad as it sounds. Back to the hotel for early bed, we have to be at the Vatican tomorrow at 7:00 AM for our private tour.
The Vatican. Still feeling a bit jet lagged, we had to get up early today to make our tour. We left the hotel in plenty of time to take the Metro across the Tiber to Vatican City, but still got to the meeting site with only 30 seconds to spare. though we weren't the last to arrive. No time for coffee or breakfast, we immediately got on line for the 'private' tour.
I'm going to be honest and say that I was against doing this tour from the start, but Steven wanted to check this off the list. I didn't like our guide today, part of which may be due to the subject matter and partly because we were basically human cattle being herded through Vaticanland.
We had paid extra to get into the Sistine Chapel before it opened to the general public. We got in a long line with a bunch of other guided tour groups waiting to race into Vaticanland. As we waited, Guide went over what Michelangelo had painted and when. She handed us each a photo sheet of his paintings and proceeded to go over each panel in detail, telling us the whole time that when we were in the Chapel itself she could not talk to us. When the line started to move we were herded through metal detectors and them into the museum area. There we waited until the chapel opened. She spent the time trying to refute the rumors that Michelangelo was a homosexual. Sure he painted a huge number of buff naked men on the ceiling but that doesn't make him gay. And yes the few women in the paintings were really masculine looking. And yes he painted the serpent from the Garden of Eden as a woman, but that just means that he didn't like women, not that he was gay. Let’s face it folks; Michelangelo was a total Mo, and the fact that guide was trying so hard to deny it makes me sure that the church censors what the tour guides say. I mean they are all talking on these little radios and there's got to be some zealot priest sitting in a room nearby listening in to make sure there is no mention of child abuse, or homosexuality, or women's rights. Come to think of it there were a couple of times that our guide’s radio broadcast cut off suddenly, hmmm.
Anyway, once the chapel opened we rushed past a bunch of statues and stuff so we could get there. Guide told us she would tell us about them later and we weren't to dare to try and ask questions on our mad dash to get to the Sistine. Well we finally made it, ushered into this sanctum sanctorum. Now don't get me wrong, the whole effect is very impressive. I hadn't realized how big the chapel is. I had thought the room would be fairly intimate and that you could almost touch the fresco, like a small wedding chapel. Instead the room is more like a bus station and the ceiling is at least 60 feet overhead. Is it the world’s finest painting as guide kept telling us? Hard to say. If you craned your neck and squinted you could make out a few details, but for the most part you could just get the big picture. I found most impressive how he made the 2D surface look 3D. Apparently he was really innovative in this technique.
When guide told us no talking, she wasn't kidding. When the noise of the crowd rose above a whisper, a deep booming voice issued from a PA system: SILENCIO, QUIET PLEASE, SSSSH. Guide gave us 20 minutes to stare at the walls and ceiling, I was ready to move on after 10. Old Mikey put a bunch of FUs to the Pope in the mural that guide took glee in telling us about beforehand. The other fun fact is that Big Mike had 4 years to paint the ceiling and spent the first year doing one little section about Noah and the flood, then figured out he had better get cracking.By the end he was basically doing the Bob Ross thing over big swatches. There are no mistakes, just happy accidents. After we had our 'private' time in the Sistine Chapel guide led us back to the start of the museum. She then proceeded to cheerfully describe how the church had systematically pillaged the cultural treasures of many nations. I kept thinking if they sold off some artifacts they could easily buy off many of the people that the priests molested as children.
Well, we saw tons (literally) of statues and scads of paintings, with assorted tapestries, mosaics, and sculptures thrown in. By this time the crowds had grown and we were shuffling through Vaticanland with hoards of other tourists all listening on their little earpieces to guides talking softly into microphones. Guide told us at the beginning that we would have to pass through the chapel but not spend any time there. We joined the long line of cattle waiting to get in. One woman in our group started to complain bitterly, why did we have to wait to go through when we had pay extra to see it early. Guide explained that Vaticanland is a one-way ride and that the only way to get into the Basilica was through a little door at the back of the Sistine chapel. The woman was having none of it and started telling Guide how things used to be done when she was there 25 years ago. Guide, with exasperation in her voice, pretty much told the woman that she hadn’t even been born then and to shut up and let her keep telling us about the pretty statues. We pushed our way through the throng in the chapel, there must have been at least 700 people all staring up at the ceiling with many thousand waiting their turn. We got through without losing any of our group and went through the little wooden door, making our way down to St. Peter's Basilica.
There is no way for these photos to convey just how big St. Peter's is in scale. Guide threw out numbers like 3 Coliseums (Colisei ?) stacked on top of each other. She told us the bodies of the Popes have to stay inside St Pete's until they did their 3 'miracles' and could be promoted to saint. We saw the magic door that they open up every 25 years and which wipes away all your sins by walking through it. Guide showed us a funny set of crests that depicted a woman in labor. The interior decorator was feuding with a Pope about money. To get back at Poppi he depicted the Popes daughter giving birth to an illegitimate child, it was quite a scandal. So St. Peter's was just chock full of statues to this saint or that pope and of course Marys out the wazoo. The building contained everything a good Catholic could wish for to have spiritual super happy fun time. The ride dumped us out in Saint Peter's square. I had brought bread to feed the pigeons, but I guess that they don't have them anymore; there were just a bunch of chairs set up facing the Popes balcony. Well that was it; we had seen all the major sights in Rome. I'm sure there were scads of other ruins and churches we could have gone to, but I think we did enough. We went back to the hotel for an afternoon nap. That evening the front desk guy recommended a meat restaurant that was fantastic. They brought out a hunk of meat that was still sizzling but oozing blood when you cut into it. We were in heaven. All was well and we went to bed. That night Steven woke up with a splitting headache. Hopefully it was due overexertion, overindulgence, and dehydration and not a blood clot brought on by the long flight.
A Terrible date in history I know. As I write this at 4:13 I am thankful that nothing major happened terrorism-wise
as far as we know. Today we left the "Eternal City' for the city of Naples. Last night we had cocktails in our hotel and
met an Australian couple who had just gotten off a cruise boat. When she heard that we were going to Naples the wife’s
first response was 'I hated Naples, it was so dirty'.
Took a taxi from the hotel to the train station. The station was easy enough to navigate, especially because there was this little unkempt man with crooked teeth who told us exactly what to do and kept checking back with us. I'm still not sure if he worked for the railway. We got on the train and another unkempt man helped us get our luggage into the rack. I thought he was just being helpful, but he followed me to our seats and started making the international sign for give me money. Steven paid him off and then kept an eagle eye on the bags until the train pulled out of the station. Our train car was filled with an elderly tour group and their much put-upon guide. She spent the entire trip trying to placate a old couple that left something in their hotel room and she was trying to arrange over the phone for them to get it back. The Italian countryside was idyllic. Verdant mountain slopes and picturesque villages.
We got into Naples after about an hour. The cab queue at the train station had a holdup because the drivers seemed to be having a fight amongst themselves. We got into the car of one of the losing drivers and were suddenly on Mr. Toad’s wild ride. Speeding through the streets while dodging motorbikes and barely avoiding pedestrians. Driver suddenly drove the taxi into an alleyway that was just barely wide enough for us to fit. Pushing pedestrians out of the way and taking sharp corners at speed, we whizzed through these crowded alleys for several minutes. We looked at each other with fear in our eyes thinking that this couldn't be right, but he dropped us off right in front of our hotel. It was absolutely amazing the he got us there without crashing and that he knew exactly where our tiny little boutique hotel was located. That was a true professional; we salute you Mr. Cab Driver man.
Our hotel turned out to be tucked onto the third floor of a building with an accounting agency and some hi-tech business. There were only 13 rooms. There is one clerk and one bellhop / bartender. Steven thought it was very Faulty Towers. There was a nice rooftop deck with a view of the hills on one side and, if you lean out a little, a view of the water. They told us there was a bar up there, but it turned out to be that you go up and Punjab the bellhop comes up to take your order then runs back downstairs to make the drink and schleps it back upstairs to you. We got in around noon, but check in wasn't until 2:00, so we left our suitcases and went out to explore. Our first stop was a pharmacy to get better drugs for Steven’s lingering headache. We wanted to go to the Pompei museum and headed in that direction.
Let me tell you, Naples is dirty; but it is also vibrant, alive, bustling, and a real city. Where Rome is built on the bones of the dead, Naples has been in business since before Romulus and Remus were sucking on the tit of a she-wolf. Where Rome is sterile, Naples throbs and oozes with an organic crust that has been scabbing over for several millennium. Yes the people are far uglier than Romans, and everyone has a bit of a gut, but the vibe of the city is so much more exciting than Rome.
The historic section is block after block of tall buildings and narrow alleys. There are shops at street level and apartments above. From what I could see by spying through people's windows, the apartments consist of two small rooms, one for eating and one for sleeping. Everyone had laundry hanging to dry on the small balconies. The balconies are so close between buildings that you could literally shake hands with the person across the street. I'm guessing that these buildings must not have elevators, so it must be a pain living on the 5th or 6th floor. Motorcycles, scooters, and some small cars go speeding down these streets and alleys and there are few real sidewalks so you are in constant danger of being run over. What sidewalks that do exist usually have vehicles parked on them so you have to be in the street anyway. We walked up the hill along the main street Via Toledo to get to the national archeology museum. By the time we got there it was around 1:00 so we stopped for lunch, sitting outside and sharing a pizza. Naples is supposedly the birthplace of pizza and they are very proud of that, but all in all I still prefer Pizza Hut.
The museum housed many artifacts from Pompeii dug up since the 1850s. There was also a special collection of penis art that had been amassed by one of the Borgias and which had been considered too smutty for exhibit for many years. A lot of the ancient Roman statues were of naked men. The Catholics either glued a fig leaf on or just chopped the penis right off because a naked man with a jagged stump where his penis used to be is somehow more acceptable. The sculptors actually carved in marble pubic hair. The Romans considered the penis a good luck sign so there was a lot of art featuring it. I think my favorite was the god Pan copulating with a goat. On the audiotape this very proper sounding British woman describes how the goat has her head tilted to one side and is looking languidly up at Pan as he does the nasty. After the museum we went back to the hotel for a nap.
That evening the desk clerk recommended a local restaurant close by. The place was like a movie set of an Italian restaurant, too many tables in a small space decorated with cheesy Italian art and a colorful cast of characters passing through. It seemed like the owner was running several restaurants out of that one kitchen because he kept going in and out with plates of food. There was one woman with a poodle who kept looking in the door but wouldn't come in. I'm convinced that she was try to catch her husband cheating. We finished off a bottle of wine each and had a lovely lemon desert accompanied by limoncello. Life is good.
Today we tour Pompeii; buried under ash from an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79AD, the city and its inhabitants remained undisturbed until modern day. We made it to the train station OK but got on the wrong train, Sorrento and Soriano sound so similar over a muffled PA system. After some backtracking and a few train changes we made it to Pompeii about an hour late.
Steven had arranged for a private guide who was very understanding of our delay. His name was Franco, an older, white haired gentleman who had been giving this tour for over 30 years. He was fantastico! Not only could he understand our American accent, he knew positively friggin everything. We saw the butcher's and the baker's but not the candlestick maker's (because that would have been anachronistic). We did see the fish monger's and the bars and the brothel. These people seemed to have a pretty sweet life, unless you were a slave of course, then your life totally sucked. When they first started digging out the city they discovered that the flesh of the people had dissolved away leaving a cavity in the hardened ash with a skeleton inside it. They found that if they poured plaster into the cavity it would form an image of the people in their last moment. When I was in high school, 20 years ago, my Latin teacher told us that they put these casts in the place where they formed so you got an idea of the last day in Pompeii, which included the people getting it on in the brothel. So we saw some of the casts, but they certainly were not where they died. I was a little disappointed by this.
On the tour Franco told us that there was a saying: if you want to make money in Pompeii open a bar or a brothel. We learned that before prostitution was legal they kept the girls in a second floor room. Once Caligula made it legal, people opened up brothels. Then the hot girls were kept on the second floor, so you could pay the amount of 2 glasses of wine for a used up hag on the first floor, or 8 times that for a nubile girl on the second. And back then women started having children around 14, so you know nubile must have been really young. We did see the mosaic menu of sexual positions in the brothel which must have made for interesting conversations. I'll have number three but super-size it and add a side of cunnilingus. Franco was able to get us past a couple of large tour groups waiting in line to go through the brothel because he knew the guides. Then we went down to the theater, gymnasium, and concert hall areas, like I said, if you had money back then you had it made. Just after we finished our tour it started to rain. We really lucked out on the weather. We paid Franco for his time with a generous tip because he was such a good guide.
We had just enough cash for the train back but the ticket guy would not accept the 5 Euro note because it was wrinkled and taped. I must say that the rudest people that we encountered on the trip were always behind ticket windows. I don't blame them because that job has to suck. We caught the train back to Naples and made our way back to the hotel.
Naples has a number of funiculars running up the high hills on the East. We decided to take the funicular to get a view of the city. In my experience rideing a funicular always meant a scenic trip up a hillside with a vista on the top. This funicular was much more utilitarian, being underground the whole way and letting you off at a place that looked just like where you got on. We really had to work to find a view of the city, all the best views being blocked by expensive apartment buildings. Our hotel recommended a restaurant with a view but we chose to pass that up for the free one offered in a small area by St. Elmo’s castle. We rode the funicular back down before our ticket expired. As we were discussing dinner plans a perfectly lovely woman (with criminal fashion sense) suggested a restaurant where they supposedly invented pizza and even offered to lead us there. The place was called Brandi (start singing song in your head, Brandi you’re a fine girl...). We were both so carbed out that we did not order pizza. I had a lovely plate of octopus. We split a bottle of wine and had limoncello with desert. Back to the hotel for our last night in Naples.
Slept in late and had a leisurely breakfast. Checkout was at 11:00 so we have time to kill until our boat left at 8 PM. Watched the Jersey Shore on MTV and then saw some honest to God music videos. They still make those even if MTV USA never shows them anymore. We left our luggage at the hotel and went out for our last day in Naples.
Steven found an open-topped bus city tour. We took the panoramic loop first. The views were great but they went by so fast it was almost impossible to get a picture and we didn't feel like getting off the bus. The next loop didn't leave for half an hour so we ducked into a small restaurant to split a plate of meats and cheeses and a bottle of prosecco. It was nice to do the historic town loop of the tour with a nice champs buzz on. I don't think we learned much but I got a lot of pictures of people's laundry, total strangers, and the graffiti.
The youth in Naples must take their spray painting very seriously; I don't think we saw a single building without at least one tag on it. And the city apparently makes zero effort to clean it up or discourage the practice. The tour ended near the port, so we walked over to make sure all was well with our reservation for the boat to Lipari that night. The ticket office wasn't open, everyone seems to have a long afternoon siesta built into their contracts, and so we sat and had a beer while we waited.
I thought Steven was crazy for trying to take care of everything so early, after all the boat didn't leave for another 6 hours. He wasn't crazy and I'll say it for the record, you were right and I was wrong. The ticket office was quite a ways from where the boat docked. The guy at the office gave us a dock name and number that we never did find. We must have wandered around for 40 minutes trying to find where we were supposed to go. Finally after straying into a restricted area and getting shooed off by a guard, he was able to understand us enough that he directed us to an unmarked area behind a gate. You line up there sometime before the boat leaves he told us vaguely. There were no signs, no desks, no nothing. It was just some random spot of concrete. It would have been really tough to find if we had waited until the last hour like I wanted to do.
We then went to a cafe to have a bite and split a bottle of wine. Then back to the hotel to retrieve our luggage and down to the port. Luckily there was a small cafe with free WiFi near the random spot of concrete. We sat and had a beer while waiting. Close to the time the ticket guy had told us we started seeing people gathering at the random spot so we got in line. Of course it was another hour before they started letting folks on board and of course there were no announcements during that time. The guard just suddenly lifted the chain and people surged toward the boat.
We got checked in and got a key with instructions in Italian on how to get to the room. I understood turn left but that was about it. We searched around the boat for a while and finally found the cabin. Steven had booked a room with a shower, the top of the line. I think he was expecting a state room; he was sorely disappointed. Our cabin was the size of a large walk-in closet with 2 bunk beds and a bathroom. There were some thin sheets on the bed and a couple of handkerchiefs for towels. We stowed our bags and went out to explore.
The boat had clearly seen better days. The decor was straight out of the 70s with a fluorescent orange and green color scheme. It had probably been a cruise ship once because there was a swimming pool, long unused. The bar menu had a long list of alcohol, none of which were available so we had a shot of whiskey and some limoncello for desert. After a quick stop by the buffet for some French fries we turned in for the night.
This morning we were woken up at 5 AM by an announcement in Italian. We then started to hear people get up, shower, and zip up suitcases. Steven got worried and went to find out what was going on. We were stopping at the volcanic island of Stromboli, the first of several islands we hit before our destination. We went back to sleep and got up around 7:00.
At each island people and cars got off the boat and a few people got on. We got to Lipari around noon. The island must not get much rain because there are cacti growing everywhere. The port is charming with many outdoor cafes and old stone buildings. There were a few hours to kill before Rod and Risa arrived from Sicily. We had a bite, hit the bank, and then tried to find the scooter rental place that had been recommended by the owner of the villa we were renting. Not good with directions in Italian, we ended up in front of another rental place and called the guy. With the help of a nice crazy lady trying to sell us a timeshare we finally got Marcello to understand where we were and he walked over and found us.
The first of two embarrassments that day happened at this point. Risa had wanted to rent scooters to get around the island. Since I had never driven one Marcello needed to give me a test to see if I could safely operate one. I failed my driving test, no scooter for me. I think if maybe he had given me the instructions in English I might have been able to get it, but I never did understand what he wanted me to do. Luckily they also rented small cars so I wasn't stuck. I think it was for the best since we wanted to get groceries and the such which would have been tough to carry on a scooter.
R&R got in and took a car as well so we will never know how the scooters would have worked out. Giovanna, the caretaker for the villa, met us at the gas station (benzene they call it) and led us up to the house. We knew from the Internet that the villa had a view, but we kept going up and up. The island is an extinct volcano that still has some height. The villa was exactly like what was pictured in the advertisement. Beautiful view, white columned porch, swimming pool, nicely furnished. It is everything you could want in a Mediterranean villa. It is also quite a ways from the main port so it felt very rustic, including roosters that crowed nonstop. We explored the house and had a couple of bottles of wine before getting ready for dinner.
This is when the second embarrassing thing happened. I went to use the bathroom and locked myself in. Everyone was ready to go and I was locked in the WC. Steven was screaming through the door , why did you lock it. We managed to unscrew the handle using a dinner knife but that didn't do a lick of good. A call to the caretaker was not answered. Finally I was so frustrated that I wrapped a wet towel around the key and twisted as hard as I could and it turned at last. So we went to dinner fashionably late. Found a lovely outdoor restaurant that was highly recommended on the web. I pointed blindly at the menu and ended up with a squid that was delicious. Then back up the hill and to bed.
We got up around 5:00 and just hung out for a few hours. Drove into town to pick up breakfast and some supplies. Then our plan was to just relax at the villa the whole day. I put the handles back on the bathroom door. For some reason a cannon kept being fired at odd intervals and it was loud, with booming echoes careening down the canyon. We speculated that this was for some sort of Catholic feast day or festival. R&R went off in their car to explore the island. Rod nicknamed the car Snookie because it is ugly, squat, in a shore town filled with a bunch of Italians, and it has a lot of miles on it. They got back as we had settled down for an afternoon’s nap. I was just dozing off when we started hearing someone shouting for help. Went downstairs to find Rod was now trapped in the bathroom because I had put the handles back on in the wrong direction. Took the handles off the door again and released Rod back into the wild.
That night we went to a restaurant named Kasbah and sat outside in the garden. Ordered swordfish which was a little dry. During the meal it started to drizzle so there was a mass migration of patrons indoors. After dinner Risa got to have her first gelato of the trip. We got back to the villa just as it started to pour. Whatever was going on with the cannon fire they had now added fireworks, which we watched shooting up over the hill behind the villa until the rain drove us to seek shelter under the porch. Rod and I polished off a bottle of limoncello as we sat talking late into the night. It poured cats and dogs all night.
This morning we waited for the rain to end before setting out to explore, setting out to drive around the island (literally) and hit all the attractions. We first tried to find the old church because R&R said that there was a good view of the other islands from up there. We followed the sign which seemed to lead us to a dead end alleyway with a dumpster that had a dog in it. We backtracked and tried again but just ended up in someone's driveway.
Gave up on trying to find the church and headed for the cave of pumice. The major industry of Lipari until the 1950s was the mining of pumice stone from the slopes of the extinct volcano. When the guidebook said to visit the pumice cave we were expecting a big cavern leading into the mountain, something like the blue grotto. We drove back and forth on the small winding road looking for some sign of it. We saw this huge industrial complex where a big chunk of the mountain had been scraped away to reveal the white pumice. We knew we had to be close so in the next town we stopped at a cafe for coffee and a lovely croissant filled with marmalade. We consulted Google and found clear directions to the pumice cave so we headed back the way we had come.
Fun Fact: the Italian word cava means pit, quarry, mine. We had been passing the pumice 'cave' each time we went by the strip mining operation. Stopped on the little beach and took pictures. Next we hit the supermerkato for more bread, cheese, sliced meats, and prosecco; then drove back into the port town to pay for our rental car. Home to the villa for some pool time. After lunch I wanted to go to the beach to swim in the Mediterranean Sea.
The villa has a spectacular view, but that means the beach is quite a distance below us. The path leads down, almost straight down in some cases, through cacti and thorn bushes to the black pebbly strand. We did pass by some solidified lava flows which was pretty neat. There we only a few other people on the beach, probably because it was so remote. There was one old couple, the man in a banana hammock and the woman topless, letting her old lady mummeries flap in the breeze. The water was warm but not as clear as I expected given how blue it is. I had to wear my sandals into the water because the rounded basalt rocks were painful to walk on. Climbed back up to the villa for more reading by the pool.
That evening R&R drove us up to the old church that evening so we could all watch the sunset. It turned out that we had been on the right track that morning, you just had to go past the dumpster, make a sharp right by somebodies garage into an alley that almost scraped both sides of Snookie, and then down some back streets and there it was. All with no signage either in Italian or English.
The spot was lovely with an old stone church perched on a cliff overlooking all the islands to the north. The temperature was perfect, not too hot or cool, with a nice breeze. The verdant hills in the background and the azure sea below made for the ideal backdrop. We arrived about 40 minutes before sundown and climbed up on a boulder still warm from the afternoon sun. The light changed minute by minute and I must have taken over 100 pictures hoping one would capture the moment. Risa had thought that we might be able to see lava light from Stromboli but unfortunately the crater seem to be facing in the other direction.
When dusk came we drove back down to the south side of the island to a small town named Acquacalda. We went to restaurant that R&R had found on their explorations. We ate outside with the surf crashing against the sea wall across the street. This night my swordfish was not dry, smothered in a sauce of olives and capers. Desert for me was fresh peach in a desert wine.
In the words of Winny the Pooh, it was a rather blustery day. The Aeolian Islands lived up to their name today in that Aeolus was the Greek god of wind. Hurricane force winds whipped up the canyon non-stop. Not the type that blows weather channel guy off his feet, more like the wind we get just before a big thunderstorm. There hasn't been any rain, just big fluffy white clouds whipping across the sky like they had somewhere important to get to. That morning we took a brisk walk over to the cliffs where I had seen sheep grazing the other day. Great view of our beach in the foreground and the island of Vulcano in the distance, a smoking crater spewing sulfurous gases into the air. The Roman name for the island has contributed the word for volcano in most modern European languages. In Roman mythology this island was the chimney to God Vulcan's workshop. We tried to follow the sheep trail but those little buggers are much more sure-footed than we are. Scrambled around on the pumicey slopes for a bit, almost causing a minor avalanche at one point, and then headed back to shower up. Went in to the port to explore and eat lunch.
The Main Street of the town is just like any other tourist port, with souvenir shop next to a cafe next to place offering tours and excursions, repeated over and over. But the rest of Lipari is a maze of back alleys each presenting postcard worthy vistas of brightly painted plaster flaking away to reveal ancient basalt brick walls. Picturesque balconies overhead decorated with flowers, garden gnomes, and of course laundry, usually with at least one item emblazoned by Hello Kitty. Lunch was a crusty sandwich with eggplant, spicy salami, and sheep's milk cheese. The wine was produced on the neighboring island of Selena, nothing special but quite drinkable. Back to the villa for more reading and a nap.
Dinner in town at Ristorante Nenzyna (ranked #36 in TripAdvisor). My dinner was pasta in squid ink for first plate, and whole squid for second plate. Squid ink has an interesting taste, sort of fishy. I'm glad I tried it but it is not my new favorite dish.
Today we were supposed climb up the active volcano at Stromboli. We loaded ourselves up with extra clothes, water bottles, and high energy snacks for the 3 hour trek uphill. Arriving at the excursion office we were told, oh sorry the trip had been canceled - we go tomorrow - we tried to call you but oh well. They said the sea was too rough for the boats. So we had a free day to just relax.
We went up to the Greek fortress that dominates the town. Found a small church that didn't look like anything from the outside but had this huge diorama of the nativity scene set in a Sicilian fishing village. The baby Jesus is rather overshadowed by the colorful cast of fat fishermen and haggard old crones. Steven even found Elvis hiding in a back alley.
If you want a good chuckle I recommend watching this clip of the comic Maria Bamford describing how she would leave phone messages for her mother from the baby Jesus.
Maria Bamford Show Episode 12
The whole Maria Bamford Show series is worth watching, but this one really cracked me up.
Next we had lunch at the same shop as yesterday because the sandwiches were so good. Back to the villa for a long nap. That night we went to a real bar. As much as I love wine, it was so nice to catch up with my old friend scotch. Went to dinner at a place right next to where the ferry docks. The guide book said that the place lacked ambiance but had good food. The gas fumes from the idling ferry engine made eating outside unappealing, so we sat inside where on the back wall was projected a soccer game between Italy and Germany. The food was good, but I think that I have had my fill of Aeolian style which means the food comes in a sauce of tomatoes, capers, and olives.
The day did not start off promising with intense scattered showers. It was neat to watch the walls of rain pass over the water between Lipari and Sicily. We called early to find out if the excursion was still on, but they told us that they wouldn't make the decision until 10:00. Waiting around until the appointed hour we discussed plan-B. Despite the continued rain the tour was still on, so like babes in the woods off we went to climb a volcano.
It was pouring as we made our way to the tour office. Poor Risa got soaked because she wrapped her jacket around the camera bag to protect it from getting wet. Dolce Vita (Sweet Life) was the name of the boat that picked us up at the dock, ironic given the events of the day ahead. At least it had stopped raining when we set off so we had good views of Lipari and the neighboring islands. I was OK until the tiny little speed boat left the protected water near the island and started into the open sea.
Up and down went the boat with my stomach following suit. Fortunately the only thing I had to eat was a peach so I was able to hold it together for a while. I kept the nausea in check by focusing on the peaks of the distant islands. That changed when the ponytailed German guy next to me pulled some food from his pack and started eating. The mere sight of food made my stomach want to turn itself inside out. I shut my eyes and prayed for an end to the rocking. At that time the boat captain decided to start hitting the waves crosswise so that not only did the boat drop but also twisted. At that point my stomach said ‘that will be quite enough of that thank you’ and it was to the side of the boat for me. We made a rather pointless side trip to a sheltered cove so that people could go swimming. The must have been in the Italian version of the tour brochure because none of us had any clue that this was part of the trip. Not that I had any desire to swim now (or ever). I used the time to try to comfort my inner ear and to get dripped on by Europeans climbing out of the water. Next we landed on the island of Panaria for lunch. The others were able to eat and I sipped some water. Steven offered to give up on the volcano and go back with me which was really sweet but I knew he really wanted to make the hike. I found out after he was secretly hoping I would take him up on the offer.
We got back on the boat and headed for Stromboli. When we got there the top of the volcano was covered in clouds. We had been told that we could rent hiking boots and flashlights at the excursion office, which was partly true. The boat guy lead us to our volcano guide who immediately said we have to leave right now and if you were stupid enough not to bring your own gear you have to go find somewhere in town that will rent it to you and hurry up because we are waiting. Fortunately the rental place was well marked in English and we were able to quickly rent boots and hiking poles.
It turns out that the island used to be huge on growing wine grapes but then the vine blight hit here as across the rest of Europe so the majority of the population moved to Australia leaving the island largely uninhibited. The slopes had been terraced for cultivation so the first half mile or so wasn't that bad. Then the real hike began. Let me tell you, if the Israelites had to make this trek out of Egypt they probably would have said ‘is Pharaoh really all that bad’.
First was the climbing up rocks through stands of bamboo. The brochure had told us to bring a change of shirt because you would sweat. There was no breeze and the humidity was high. Hiking uphill for an hour and we were drenched in sweat. The guide told us he was a biologist and to ask him anything. Started out showing us wild fennel and the plant that absinthe is made from. That was the total extent of his lecture. The rest of the time he spent basically running up the mountain and expecting the rest of us to keep up. One German guy had to drop out after about an hour.
Climbing up a rutted switchback path, stumbling over stones and boulders, at each turn the peak seemed to get no closer. Finally we got above the cloud line where it no longer rains and there is no vegetation. Now there was a little bit of a breeze and it felt wonderful. It turns out that walking on volcanic ash is much like walking on sand. Do you know how hard it is to walk on the dry sand of a beach where you can't get any traction? Now imagine doing that at a 45 degree angle. This part of the hike seemed endless.
Guide kept promising that we would stop for a break but our group was so slow that he just kept going and going without rest. Part of the problem seemed to be that we needed to keep up with the other groups that were speeding up the hill ahead of us. We had one older French lady there with her son. She must have been over 60 and less than 5 feet tall. She was going slower than the rest of us and I was so thankful to her because it gave the rest of us the excuse to slow down. This phase went on interminably, slogging through the ash first one way then the other, climbing slowly up the peak. The higher we got the mistier it got; we were walking into a cloud bank after all.
Eventually we came near the crater. Guide let us rest for a little to change shirts. Everything was soaked in sweat. My passport was in my pocket and it will never be the same. I must have wrung a half liter of sweat out of my tee shirt. At this point guide told us that we were going up to the peak and we had to stay in sight of the next person or someone might wander off into the fog and get lost. We hiked up to a ridge with thick walls of white cloud on either side. Guide said we would stay there for a while and hope the wind changed so we could get a clear view.
I thought he meant that then we would move closer to the vent so we could see the lava. Oh no, this was our one and only chance to see an eruption and if the clouds didn't miraculously part we were out of luck. Poor Risa, she had dragged (with help from Guide) her camera equipment and tripod up the mountain and had planned for months how she was going to capture on film the ejaculate of the volcano. She set up her equipment and expectantly pointed her camera lens into the misty whiteness, her finger poised over the camera trigger she had purchased just for this event. She knew what F-stop to use and what lens filter and was all set to get that magical picture of an erupting volcano. You could see maybe 2 meters into the cloud. Guide told us that the floor of the crater was approximately 100 meters down. We didn't see jack.
We did hear 3 eruptions while we were waiting. It sounded like big rocks grinding against each other. Then a rain of fine ash and pebbles would fall around us and the smell of sulfurous gases would waft up from the crater. We spent our allotted time peering into the blank mist and then guide told us we had to go.
We took a shorter way down, skidding through foot thick ash almost straight down the slope. At one point guide told us 'for the next 30 minutes you may not stop for fear of avalanche'. Of course we did stop to wait for the stragglers who could not keep up with the quick pace he set. Even with gravity on our side making our way down through the loose ash was tough work and the jacket and helmet we had needed at the top soon became unbearably hot.
Finally we reached the lower slopes and could stop to rest. Looking behind us we could see the lights of other groups snaking down the mountain. The last hour of walking was just a blur. The drinking water was long gone, our feet hurt, and the stifling heat had returned. We all just wanted this thing to be finished. At last we got back to excursion office and were able to get back into sneakers.
I know that more than one of us was looking forward to a cold beverage from a bar at this point, but scowling boat guy was there telling us that we had to leave now and there was no time for a drink. Of course, when we got to the boat we could see that now the top of the mountain was cloud free and we could see the flashlights of groups still on top enjoying clear views of the crater.
The one good thing about being massively dehydrated with no food in my stomach and physically exhausted from the climb was that motion sickness really didn't bother me on the return boat trip. Back on Lipari we looked for a place to get a bite and a cold beverage. Steven had befriended a nice English couple who joined us. These folks were young and fit and said that they were going to make the climb again on Saturday to try and get a better view. Show offs. Fell into bed that night so tired that after rinsing off the worst of the ash I even forgot to take out my contacts and woke up with gummy bears stuck to my eyeballs. Thus ended our one and only hike up a volcano. Next time Steven says we will take the helicopter.
Our last real day of vacation so just wanted to relax after the exertions of Stromboli. Slept in late then drove down to Canneto to sit on the beach. Rented an umbrella and two chairs. Got coffee and pastry from the shop across the street. Sat and enjoyed the sound of the gentle surf washing over the rounded black volcanic rocks that make up the beach. Actually went in and splashed around, though walking over the stones to get into the water was painful on bare feet. We had a couple of tiny little bottles of prosecco. Our fellow beach goers had plenty of sagging flesh and cellulite so I didn't feel so bad about taking off my shirt to expose fish-belly white flabbiness. Around noon we left the beach to hit the supermercato for a few final bottles of prosecco. Back at the villa we just napped and read until dinnertime.
Drove into town for drinks and dinner. Risa had been dissapointed in Sicily because they had made an attempt to go to a puppet museum but couldn't find it (no signs). Apparently Sicilians are known for their puppet shows. Risa was very excited because they found a hotel where the lobby was dedicated to the display of old puppets. We went there for drinks and so Risa could take more pictures.
We had made dinner reservations at a restaurant next to the citadel. A beautiful setting for our last meal. The tables were all out doors but covered with large tents. The full moon was just rising over the sea, breaking through scattered clouds. We split pasta with fresh clams and I had swordfish wrapped around stuffing in a light wine sauce. For dessert I had the house cannoli that our waiter made fun of me for trying to eat with a fork. Steven had a wonderful sweet ricotta pudding. Each was matched with an Italian dessert wine or spirit, cannoli with something like a port and the ricotta with a grappa which Steven didn't care for but I thought was tasty. Back to the villa for one last glass of prosecco and to bed.
Travel day. Woke up before sunrise and started to pack. The weather was beautiful; I stood on the roof deck and could hear a choir of six roosters crowing across the hills. Took one last look at the canyon leading to the placid blue sea glowing with the first rays of the sun peaking over the hills to the east. Drove down to the port to return the rental cars to Marcello. Had coffee and pastry at the same cafe we went to when we first landed on Lipari.
We had about an hour to wait for the hydrofoil boat that would take us to Sicily. There wasn't really anyone telling us what to do but we figured out where we needed to stand and the boat came in right on time. The sea was calm and the trip over was fairly smooth so no problems with nausea. Steven had arranged for a bus to the airport and we found it with no problem.
The ride to the airport took about an hour and a half, we rode from the north of the Sicily to the south coast passing the tip of Italy's boot on the way. From what I could see the landscape was much like the Aeolian isles, high hills covered with prickly pear cactus and scrub trees. From the airport we could see the Mt. Etna rising in the distance.
Steven had booked us into the Hilton Hotel at the airport so after collecting our luggage we were able to walk down a few corridors and get to our room. Had an expensive drink at the hotel bar and then a disappointing meal at the restaurant. The food was not great but the cast of characters staying at the hotel made for interesting people watching. Back to the room to watch zany Italian game shows one last time.
11:30 flight so in no rush to get up. Breakfast at the hotel, nice to have eggs again even if they were scrambled. Shuttle to the international terminal was all Americans going home to Philly. Spent all our remaining Euros on chocolate for folks back home with enough left to get one last bottle of bubbly with charcuterie. Boarded the plane on time.
And so we bid a fond arrivederci to Italia. Ciao Bella.
This trip went incredibly smoothly, thanks mostly to Steven’s meticulous planning; no accidents, missed connections, lost luggage or illness. The only problems we had in finding things were due mainly to what seems to be an Italian national aversion to putting up signage. We got back to find that all was well with the house and the cats were still alive and happy to see us.
One of the nice things about being away was that we got very little American news. We could catch the gist of the Italian news and the rest was filtered through the BBC, so we really have escaped the constant drone of the talking heads. As I write this, the T-party D-bags are ready to shut the Federal Government down next week in their racist obsession to ensure that President Obama accomplishes nothing in his 8 years of office.
The hardest part for me about going on vacation is having to climb back into the rut of the daily grind after having escaped it for 2 weeks. I just dread having to face the eternal D.C. traffic jam; the pointless government regulations; the deliberately-obstructive military regulations; the moron oxygen-thief assistant; the lazy-good-for-nothing-20-somethings; the passive-aggressively crazy; maliciously crazy; and just-plain-bat-shit crazy coworkers and leadership. All those things that I had become numb to before the trip now seem intolerable, like a toothache once the novacane has worn off. I know, quit your bitchin’, work sucks, get over it. At least I have the satisfaction of knowing that we just blew our non-existent child’s college tuition on a fabulous trip that we will remember for years to come.