It Isn’t Easy Bein’ a Doge!

Vienna was a republic, so the Doges (long “o”, soft “g”) were elected, not by the common folk, but by the representatives of the wealthy families of the city. In all there were 117 Doges through the history of Venice, the first being elected in 697 and the last, being advised by Napoleon to take a hike, left in 1797.

So, for 1,100 years there was more or less of a struggle between the Doge and the electorate to wield power. The first one had to serve under the rule of another city. He left and the next guy was elected by people who wanted out from under the thumb of the Byzantines. Well, he was assassinated. For a while after that some other guys filled in. In 742 they elected a guy name Theodato Ipato. He served for 13 years till somebody else, Galla Gaulo, thought he could do a better job. So, with some of his friends, he arranged to have poor Theodato deposed, blinded, and exiled. Galla didn’t last more than a year until another guy, Domenico Monegario, had him deposed, blinded, and exiled. Domenico ruled for 8 years, then the same thing happened to him!.

The next in line, no doubt wearing protective eyeware, served without being deposed, but he, too, made a big mistake. When it was time to take his leave, he put his son in his place. Well, one of the big no, no’s of being a Doge is nepotism. The electorate gave the son and his family a one way ticket to Mantua, and made it clear that returning would be a VERY bad idea. Apparently they all died in Mantua.

So, on and on it went for centuries. The Doge would try to get away with something and the Council would say, “No, no, no!”

It is pretty clear, though, that these guys were not shrinking violets. Here are a few portraits.

Around 1150, the current Doge had a palace built in its present location, connected to Saint Mark’s Basilica, which at that time was a private chapel for the Doge. From that point on, the Doges were required to live at the Palace, mostly so the Council could keep an eye on them. At one point, the council required one of its members to be present before the Doge could even open correspondence from a foreign power.

The original palace did not last, so around 1340 the construction of the current palace began. Over time, there were fires and modifications, but the existing palace is close to the original. So, let’s take a look!

Here is the outside:

DSCF9524

The view from above:

DSCF9706

Inside the courtyard, which contains two wells:

DSCF9860

A close-up of the link to St. Mark’s

DSCF9863

Inside the courtyard:

9752 Edit

The floor plan:Doges Palace

OK, let’s say you are, oh, the King of Naples, in town to discuss business with the Doge. Your ship pulls up to the harbor, but you’re lucky if anyone comes to meet you. You get off the ship and arrive at the entrance to the Palace.

DSCF9935

The first thing the Doge liked to do was to make sure you had to climb to meet him. Your journey started here.

Then, once inside, you found this:

DSCF9756

Up we go! To the landing where there is another set of stairs like this one. By the time you get to the Doge, who is on an elevated stage, you are more than just breathless in anticipation!

You observe that the Doge spared no expense on decor:

DSCF9796

DSCF9777

DSCF9785

DSCF9787

DSCF9764

DSCF9763

DSCF9761

One of the things Doges loved to do was to have themselves painted into biblical scenes:

DSCF9775

Why not?

Well, we could go on and on to room after room, but there are two you should definitely see: First, the Room of the Great Council!

Sometimes, if the Doge was planning something really big, like a war, he would convene the Great Council, which consisted of males 25 and over from the proper families. This could be up to 2,000 people. Where are you going to put them? Right here!

DSCF9845

At the far end, where the Doge sat,  you’ll notice a rather large painting:

DSCF9852 Edit

The artist Tintoretto was a favorite of the Doges and they were always bugging him to put out more work. Finally, he hired a workshop of apprentices, fine artists in their own right, including three of his children. It was the Tintoretto Workshop, and the man himself, who produced this painting, called Paradise. It is reputed to be the largest painting on canvas in existence. It is the size of a tennis court. Tintoretto was 70 at the time. This was his last major work.

Here are some details:

DSCF9851

Everything builds to Christ crowning the Virgin Mary:

DSCF9859

Over the thousand or so years, Venice played around with different ways to set up government around the Doge. Predictably, the larger the council the more unwieldy it became. At one point somebody came up with the idea of taking the top ten most influential guys and making them a separate council to deal with issues in a hurry. They became the Council of Ten and one thing they did was to decide the guilt or innocence of various alleged offenders. Here is a detail of where they met:

DSCF9804

As you might imagine, some of the cases heard by the council were of a delicate political nature. And, if they decided that some guy was guilty of, say, treason, and a lot of his supporters were out in the hall, it would not do to parade him through the palace. If you look closely at the wood panels you will note, in spite of the glare, that one panel, almost in the center, seems to stand out from the others. That is because it is a secret door which leads directly to the dungeon below. No muss. No fuss.

In our next post we will take you to the dungeon for a nice visit. I will leave you, though, with a small sampling of treasures from the war room where you can take a look at some of the brotherly love displayed on the Medieval battlefield:

DSCF9836

DSCF9827

DSCF9826

DSCF9825

DSCF9822

DSCF9821

DSCF9819

DSCF9814

DSCF9812

Nice guys!

 

 

 

 

Piazza San Marco!

In the year 828 a couple of merchants of Venice happened to be in Alexandria, Egypt, which, at that time was under control of the Muslim Saracens. It just so happened that the Apostle Mark had established a Christian Church in Alexandria years before and when the merchants visited that church they came across some monks who were very concerned that Mark’s church might well be attacked and plundered. Their principle concern was that Mark himself was buried there and the monks had no interest in seeing his bones paraded down the street. So, the merchants and the monks hit upon a plan to get Mark out of town. They exhumed him, stuffed another lesser saint into his sarcophagus and, loaded him on the next ship bound for Venice. To make sure he was not discovered they hid his remains under a load of pork and cabbages, which the Muslims would not go near. Sure enough, they quickly passed inspection and off to Venice they went. Numerous miracles are said to have occurred on this voyage, which brought everyone back home safely.

At that time Venice was ruled by “Doges” (DOUGH-jis), or, “Dukes”. When the Doge heard that Saint Mark was in town he immediately ordered the construction of a cathedral right next to his palace. Well, it was a beautiful cathedral no doubt, but unfortunately it burned to the ground some years later and it was assumed that Mark’s remains went up with it.

However, as a new, larger cathedral was being constructed an apparition appeared one night and pointed to one of the pillars left from the old church. Sure enough, upon inspection, it was discovered that Mark himself had been tucked inside the pillar! So, as the new cathedral was completed a much more suitable and secure final resting place was created. Where is it? Nobody is saying. All we know is, he’s somewhere in here:

DSCF9676

The basilica is now part of the complex known as the Piazza San Marco which is the crown jewel of Venice. If you stand at the west end of the Piazza the basilica is at the east end:

DSCF9670

Along the north sides, to your left and right, are the offices of the Procuratie Vecchie, the people who administer the affairs of the Basilica. The tower is the Campanile di San Marco, or, bell tower.

Here is a better view of the Procuratie Vecchie:

DSCF9667

If you stand at the cathedral end and look west you will see this:

DSCF0080

At the far end is the Correr Museum, which we will visit later.

If you are at the cathedral looking south, toward the canals, this is the view:

DSCF0092

To the left is the Doges Palace, still connected to the basilica. There are two columns also, the one on the left being a winged lion, the symbol of Mark and of the city itself.

DSCF0090

So, let’s take a look at Saint Mark’s Basilica. First the outside. The columns at each entrance are of different colored marble. Above are mosaics depicting scenes from Mark’s life and of his rescue from the Muslims:

DSCF0022

DSCF0025

DSCF0060

Such a huge cathedral and yet the attention to detail is incomprehensible:

DSCF0028DSCF0026

DSCF0027

DSCF9539

DSCF9544

DSCF9682

DSCF9545

What incredible art! But wait! Let’s take a look inside:

IMG_1586

Yes, people. That is gold! It is gold leaf embedded in the glass chips!

IMG_1590

IMG_1587

IMG_1585

IMG_1583

DSCF0061

DSCF0062

I could show you every picture in our collection or you could find more on the internet but nothing takes the place of just being there. We have been in many great cathedrals, but this is an absolute mind blower! And yet, there’s more!

Inside the basilica is a museum which mostly features mosaics and other art that was salvaged from the earlier church or otherwise removed for display, like this one:DSCF0075

But, by far, the stars of the show are the Horses of Saint Mark:

DSCF0074

These horses date back to the first or second century and were probably part of some Roman garden. Apparently they were gifted to the Byzantines and for many years were displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Well, in 1204, they became part of the loot plundered from that city during the Fourth Crusade. They were brought back to Venice and displayed above the entrance to the basilica where they remained until Napoleon captured Venice in 1797. He removed them by force and had them placed on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris.

Following the Battle of Waterloo, however, the Emperor of Austria gave the horses back to the Venetians who, once again placed them on basilica. In 1980, people began to notice that pollution was taking its toll on them. They were taken down, restored, and moved inside to protect them. Are they happy?

DSCF0068

Here are the copies:

DSCF0084

Next, we’ll head up the Campanile and take a look around.

 

 

 

Venezia!

Venice is a city like no other! Of course, you already know that. But, to actually be there is also an experience like no other. It was a two and a half hour train ride from Milan (38 euro for the two of us) and to get to the city you have to go over a causeway.

IMG_3097

So, over we go! We arrive at the Santa Lucia station and it’s an easy departure right out the main gate and there, in front of us is the Grand Canal! Across the canal we can actually see our hotel. This is the one town we decided to upgrade our hotel so we could be on the canal. All we had to do is simply cross over the Scalzi Bridge, turn right and we would be there less than a minute. There is only one detail that even Rick Steves left out: here is the Scalzi Bridge:

IMG_3178

Even our light luggage dreaded this one. Almost instantly we were besieged by guys with carts offering to transport our luggage. Now every tour guide we read had one piece of advice in common: Do not allow yourself to be approached by strangers selling stuff and, if you are, ignore them. So, this is what we did. Instead we lugged everything up each of these steps and down the other side. It was awful. And, these guys followed us right up the steps to make matters worse. But we persevered and finally got everything over. So, here is an addendum to any tour book you read. If you are approached by a stranger wanting to carry your bags over the Ponte Scalzi, pay them!

OK, so here is Venice, famously shaped like a fish:

large-detailed-map-of-venice

The train station is at the upper left. Our hotel was across the Grand Canal, the omega shaped ribbon that runs through the city, and, as you can see, most of the streets are water. To get around the city you take a water taxi called a vaperetto, which is this:

IMG_3103

They make routine stops up and down the Grand Canal and out to the nearby islands if you take the right one. They are numbered so you know which one to get on. To go the entire length of the canal takes about an hour if you get on one that makes all the stops. They can be incredibly crowded. Would you like to go for a ride? No problem! This is the part of the journey that takes you under the Rialto Bridge:

This is the way to see Venice! Here are some more sights along the way:

DSCF9999

 

DSCF9953

 

DSCF9952

 

DSCF9951

 

DSCF0020

 

DSCF0011

The real charm of Venice, though, is the side streets:

IMG_1608

 

IMG_3109

 

DSCF0009

So, we took the vaporetto the length of the canal and planned our time here. Then it was back to the hotel. Here is the view out our window:

IMG_3100

As it turns out, there was a gondola station right in front of us! In the next chapter we will go on a gondola ride and visit Piazza San Marco. Plenty to see and do! In the mean time I’ll leave you with a view from the room at night:

IMG_3174

 

 

Lake Como! Varenna!

So, we have found our seats on the huge Airbus 380 and, miraculously, the third (aisle) seat remains unoccupied. Soon a flight attendant stands near us waiting to direct people to their seats. No one else comes, so she starts up a conversation with Dianne. It is the usual, “Where are you from?”

“Ohio”

She seems interested. “What part of Ohio?”

“Findlay, south of Toledo”

She seems even more interested. “Really? My grandmother lives in Rossford! Have you heard of it?”

“Our daughter and her family live in Rossford!”

Well, from that point on we had new friend on the flight crew. Her name is Jessica and she lived for many years in Texas. With her new job at Emirates she has moved to Dubai. But, she misses her family, so we said we would be happy to take a note to her grandma. She said she had a better idea. In a while she came back with one of those red hats the flight attendants wear and put it on Dianne. It was a perfect fit! Then she invited us up to the crew quarters for a photo op. We took many.

IMG_3036

She had a Polaroid and soon she had mounted the picture into a card holder and dated it for her grandma, who is 96 years old. We promised to hand deliver it in about a month when we got back.

Last Thursday, we made good on our promise. Jessica’s grandma is the classic sweet, old lady. She has lived in her house in Rossford for 80 years!

DSCF4129

She was very glad to get the picture.

Well, as I mentioned in the previous post, it was a wonderful flight to Milan. Malpensa Airport, however, is not in Milan. It is 30 miles away. Our travels in Italy were to begin at Milan Central Station. In order to get the the Central Station, you take a train called the Malpensa Express. And, it is possible to buy tickets on line for that train. We were supposed to arrive in Milan at 12:15, local time. Our train to Varenna was to leave at 2:20 pm. This seemed like plenty of time, so I booked the Malpensa Express for the 12:45 run, which seemed like more than enough time to cover 30 miles. When I booked the train, though, I found that the Express is not really an express at all. It is a commuter train with a number of stops. The entire run takes about 50 minutes and only leaves at hour intervals. So, if we missed the 12:45, we could jump on the next train, but it would be a miracle if we caught the Varenna train.

As it happened, however,  our plane arrived early. It was a quick process to get our luggage,  go through Passport Control, find the train and get on board. When we arrived at Milan Central Station we found that the Express stopped at a track some distance from the others, so we engaged in an orderly sprint to get to the main tracks.

Here is one thing VERY cool about Milan Central Station. They have an app! One thing we learned from our previous travels in Europe is, just because you buy a ticket to Varenna, doesn’t mean you will see Varenna on the Board that shows arrivals and departures. What you will see instead is the name of the last stop that train makes. In our case, the last stop was Tirano. That is good to know, but actually, since we had our tickets already all we really needed was the train number. So, you look on the board, find your train number and wait for the track to be assigned. When it is, off you go! But, on the app not only do you get the train number, is you click on a little track icon it will show you every stop that train makes on its way to Tirano. Believe me, that adds considerably to the peace of mind of the guy who buys the tickets!

In no time at all we were on the regional train to Varenna! I should point out, that on none of the regional trains (operated by Trennord) did anyone ever so much as look at our tickets. On the high speed trains, they always did.

If you talk to someone who has been to Italy, most of them will talk about Lake Como with that far-away look of dreamers. They loved the place! So, this seemed like the perfect location to unwind and get used to the time difference. The village of Varenna was recommended by Rick Steves and when he does tours, they go there. I don’t remember exactly how we settled on the B&B “…Il Giardino Sul Lago”, but the reviews on TripAdvisor made it sound like just the place we were looking for, even if the name doesn’t exactly work the magic. The manager is Julie and when I told her what time our train would arrive, she said she would meet us at the station. Which is a good thing, because here is the entrance to the B&B:

DSCF9273

 See the sign? Well, there isn’t any. But here is the room:
DSCF9136
DSCF9135
Down the hallway is he boudoir, to the left is the very spacious bath. The place was spotlessly clean, but the best was outside:
DSCF9298
It didn’t take long to settle in.
DSCF9142
Our room was to the right of the last palm tree.
DSCF9152
The Alps were just a short distance away.
DSCF9216
The village of Menaggio is directly across the lake. The other side of the mountains is Switzerland. DSCF9339
This B&B was originally owned by the Pirelli family of tire fame. One of the Pirelli’s to whom it was handed down, apparently got religion and decided to give it to the Catholic Church. The Church, however, had all the properties it could handle already, so they, in turn, decided to sell it. No rich buyers, it seems, came forward, so it was sold in sections. Julie, our excellent host, at the time was living with her husband elsewhere in Italy. Her husband heard about the sale and pressured her into agreeing to sell their current home and buying part of this one. Then he ran off with some floozy, leaving Julie to manage this place. Fortunately their piece included the basement, which she turned into a B&B. And that brings us to today.
Julie is very outgoing and extremely funny. She is British by birth and still maintains a distinct British accent. She joined us on the patio from time to time and was very helpful explaining the ways of the area.
After shaking off most of the cobwebs in our brains, we decided to go for a walk and check the place out. From our room there is a gradual climb which takes you to the public square, Piazza San GiorgioDSCF9225
The centerpiece of the piazza is the Church of San Giorgio, but, as you enter you pass by an even older church, the San Giorgio Battista (Saint John the Baptist).
DSCF9224
This church dates back to the eleventh century. Records show that it was extended in 1151.
DSCF9220
The frescos on the walls date back to the 14th century the one below is a couple hundred years younger. DSCF9222
After stopping in here, we decided to stroll along the lake shore. The main street out of town was decorated with pennants to celebrate a bicycle race that had been held the day before. DSCF9226
Soon we were in the country
DSCF9255
Below is the beautiful Villa Monastero, now a convention center. Each year a physics conference is held here. Years ago, Enrico Fermi was the presenter.
DSCF9237
Another shack we passed along the way.DSCF9236
I think it’s safe to say that money has found its way to Varenna.DSCF9232
In time we found our way back to the piazza and decided to stop in at the main church, San Giorgino:
DSCF9262
This church was consecrated in 1313, which was a year that spelled trouble for all of Europe, the beginning the the Little Ice Age. The result was steady rains and a four year famine. But the worst was yet to come. Thirty-four years later was the beginning of the Black Death. Before it was over, 35 million people, a third of the population of Europe, would be gone. Just to give you some historical perspective.
Today, however, it is simply a beautiful little church. So, we went in to rest our bones and noticed there were others doing much the same. Before long a lady came up to us and handed us a small piece of paper which announced, in Italian, of course, that there was going to be a concert by the organist Ennio Cominetti, who apparently was in Varenna as part of a circuit tour of organists sponsored by the region of Lombardy, which includes our town. Sure enough, in about 5 minutes a guy comes in, sits down at the organ and starts playing. Want to hear some of it?
After the concert we thought it would be a good idea to buy a bottle of wine to take back to the room. Across the the church was this little market,
DSCF9266
I opened the door to go in, though, and found that it would only open part way. Why?
DSCF9269
This lady parks herself behind the door! It appears she has no other function. We came back to the store a few hours later and she was still there! Maybe this is an Italian version of Eldercare.
This is a store where every square inch is occupied by something. Generally, something yummy!
DSCF9268
If one of Varenna’s citizens wants to actually go shopping in a supermarket, they have to take the ferry over to Menaggio.
Well, that’s enough for now. Next we will visit Bellagio.

Italy!

Fourteen trains, five flights, and numerous white-knuckle rented car miles later, not to mention 115 miles walked (according to Dianne’s FitBit), we have finally returned from Italy. Now, as promised (or forewarned, depending on your perspective) the blog begins! Rather than boring you immediately with a rundown of sites visited and adventures experienced as is my custom, this blog will start a little differently. As we prepared for this trip and began to tell people about it, with real, actual dates, we realized that there are many people who really want to go there. Some have already been there, some have actual plans underway, some are seriously thinking about it and some have but a far-away look when the subject comes up. So, since the summer is young, and plans can still be made, I decided to begin, rather than end, this blog with our general travel planning process, which, hopefully some of you may find beneficial. If you’ve already been there or have no interest in going, you might want to skip this chapter. The next one will be coming soon, with a lot more pictures and much less blathering.

Why Go?

Well, what do you want in a vacation? Breathtaking scenery? Beautiful cities? Warm and engaging people? Incredible food, wine, etc? Some of the best art ever created? Beautiful beaches? Rich heritage and history? Are you an archeologist? Do you want easy planning? Reasonable prices (generally)? Romance? To throw coins in the Trevi Fountain? Shopping? To climb the Spanish Steps? To be a gladiator (yes, there are schools)? To learn to cook Italian food (yes, there are schools for that, too)? To ride a gondola?  Did I mention wine? Well, it’s all there. And much more. Let me just say that all the good thing you have heard about Italy are true, and often understated. Certainly if you include among your hobbies the study of genitalia, then Italy is the country for you. Specimens carved in stone can be found around virtually every street corner.

Planning

We began to rough out the itinerary for this trip back in 2014, but with uncertainty about the date our new granddaughter would arrive we put it on the shelf. When that date became certain we chose other destinations before, and well after her arrival. Last fall, however, the Italy folder was re-opened and we began to get serious.

For this kind of planning, we rely on two main sources: Rick Steves to lay out and make cases for his itinerary and Trip Advisor to get additional feedback and very up-to-date recommendations. We also watch a ton of videos on You Tube. Here are two other sites I found to be helpful and informative:

10 Best Places to Visit in Italy

Home

The last one has some great videos. There are many, many other helpful sites as well.

So you look all this stuff over, decide what you really want to see and do, and what you can afford in cash and time. Then you simply connect the dots with transportation and lodging. Because the transportation system in Italy is so good, and because there is an abundance of relatively inexpensive and good, clean, highly rated places to stay, planning this trip was in many respects the easiest we have done. Here are some additional considerations:

If we’ve learned one thing it is this: Travel is hard work. Sure, you get to be in some of the best locations on the planet, but to get the most out of them will be simply very physically demanding. For example, according to Dianne’s FitBit, over the four days we spent in Rome we walked more than 39 miles. (I understand there is some reason to doubt FitBit accuracy and I agree it may be somewhat off. To me, that figure seems a little low.) I should add that this is not 39 miles on the WHHS track. This is 39 miles of cobblestones, flagstones, no stones, and sidewalks sometimes all of 18 inches wide, while mostly going up or down hills.

And remember, even though you are traveling light, with small luggage, “light” is still a relative term. By the time day four rolls around and you hoist those things up on the luggage rack. you will think those carry-ons are full of neutron stars.

So, when you plan, give yourself a break! The reason we started out on Lake Como for three days was to simply adjust to the six-hour time difference, something that has always been hard for us. In Italy your day begins at 1 or 2am Eastern Time. At our age, that takes some real getting used to.

Many of our stops were for 3 days, Rome was 4, and we had a some 2 days as well at places in close proximity to our previous location. Every place has so much to offer you can stay very busy without having to pack your bags all the time. Generally, we would much rather visit fewer places and stay longer that a lot of places and be constantly on the move. Unless you just up and decide to live there, you can never see it all.

Here is something else extremely important about visiting Italy: In the summer it can be unbearably hot. Our Colosseum tour guide told us that in the summer he will start with a group of 20 people and end with 2 because of the heat. Many of our friends who have been to Italy have said the same thing. When we went in May the temperature only exceeded 80 one day and was generally mid-60’s to 70’s. Perfect! April and October, they say are generally ideal as well. Need further proof of how important this is:

DSCF3058

Here is a bus in Rome before another 6,000 people got on. It is about 75 degrees and the A/C is already a non factor. Fortunately, everyone is up to globally accepted hygienic standards. Add another 20 degrees, however, and those standards, like your last gasp of oxygen, go straight out the window.

Getting There

Throughout the year, airfares are all over the place. In spite of the plethora of advice on how to get the absolute lowest fare, my personal experience is, it’s a crap shoot. So, instead, I settle on a price I’m willing to pay and when it appears some place, and I have stashed away the funds,  I pull the trigger. On this trip, I got the price I was looking for back in October. Turns out that, had I waited I could have done better, but not much better. I didn’t feel cheated.

One good way to go, if you have the time, is to subscribe to a price-alert from Kayak or Expedia or one of those sites. They will e-mail to you the latest fares for your destination. Still, you will never know till boarding day that you got the best deal.

The lowest fare, however, is not the only consideration. It is an 8 hour flight from JFK to Milan. That can either be 8 hours of relaxation, or 8 hours of misery, which will mostly depend on the plane and its seating arrangements as well as your ability to select seats. This is not a minor issue. When you hit the ground at your destination a lot of things will happen very quickly: passport control, baggage claim, train connections and so on. If you are dead tired when you get there, it just may not go too smoothly. At best it will not feel like a vacation.

So, when you book your plane, they will tell you the kind of plane you are flying. If they don’t let you select your seats, or if they charge an unreasonable fee to do it, cancel and look elsewhere.

On this trip, we found the best rate on Emirates Air. This is a modern, relatively new, airline. Recently they have been running ads with Jennifer Aniston talking about missing the shower and lounge areas that she has become accustomed to with Emirates. Well, as it turns out, these things do exist.

Now, understand, we fly economy class only. But with Emirates, that takes on a whole new meaning. The plane they fly is an Airbus 380. It is a huge 4-engine jet with an oval shaped fuselage. The oval shape makes two things possible: It creates room for a second floor. On the second floor you will find Jennifer showering with her very rich friends. But for those of us below it allows standing head room even on the window seat! That means on your 8 hour trip you can stand and stretch as often as you want and disturb no one. And, the seats are wide and comfortable. Not only that, there is a screen built into the seat in front of you that has an entertainment system with hundreds of movies, TV shows, radio, and even video games with a pop-out controller. And, they come around a pass out head phones. Not ear buds, but actual headphones. And, the food service is fabulous. We not only were served a large, very tasty meal, they came around later with very nice snacks. By the time we landed we were stuffed!

Here is another thing that sets Emirates apart from other airlines: The staff. OK, so you’re sitting at the airport waiting for your flight. As you wait there is a smattering of baggy-eyed flight crew people dragging their well-worn luggage behind them on their way to their umpteenth destination. On and on. Then, all of a sudden here comes a team of thirty or more which includes pilots, flight attendants, and others. They are sharply dressed, they move with a purpose and they act like a real team. That’s YOUR flight crew heading for YOUR plane. You feel like you are part of something big. You feel like these people will get you safely across the Atlantic! Hallelujah!

IMG_3365[1]

And that’s exactly how it was. Both coming and going we have never had better flights. It would take some serious price drops from others to make us even think about changing airlines again. I would even consider them for a trip to Australia, something I swore I would never do on a plane without multiple lay-overs.

Where to Stay

The one thing that made Italy stand out compared to other places we’ve been is the availability of clean, low-cost, well-located places to stay. This is the thing, above all others, that makes and extended stay possible. To take full advantage, however, you have to think beyond the traditional hotel room. Apartments and B&B’s are also an important part of the mix. Fortunately, ratings and up-to-date comments are available for all these places, so the probability of unpleasant surprises, although possible, is very low.

Once again, Trip Advisor, guides the way. But any time you Google a place you will find commentary from many sources, including Google itself.

As an example, over half of our vacation we stayed in properties that cost around $100 or less, and, as you will see, they were very nice. In Rome we rented an apartment for $127 per night that was a 10 minute walk from the Colosseum, if you know how to get there. It was beautiful!

Getting Around

Your success in getting around Italy, or anywhere else abroad, for that matter, begins at home. If you are the kind of person who feels that you have to have multiple changes of clothes to look your best and so on, my advice is, stay home. Because what you will experience overseas will not be a vacation. At least not for the poor SOB that has to lug all your stuff around. In one carry-on size piece of luggage you should be able to fit clothes for 10 days, basic hygienic supplies and necessary documents. Rick Steves, among others, tell you how to do it. Follow their advise.

Here was our basic rig for traveling:

IMG_3366[1]

Our basic rig: carry-ons with clothes, my bag (The Right Thing, (thanks, Terry!) with camera gear plus a small computer and other electronics, and Dianne’s bag with her extra stuff, plus room for a few souvenirs.

One carry-on plus one other bag to store under the seat in front of you. (OK we cheated already by checking the luggage and carrying on the bags only.) The reason being, the airlines, with their in-humane checked bag fees, have never provided enough space for carry-ons. We knew, going in, we could not get away with this. Checking the small bags was never a problem.

So, you may ask, since you checked your carry-on luggage, why not bring a bigger bag with more stuff? The simple answer is, what I described above applies to planes. You will probably not be doing much flying once you get overseas. Most of the time you will be taking trains.

Often, in our case, the trains didn’t pull up to the station till a few minutes before boarding. On the high-speed trains, when you buy your ticket you are assigned to seats in a particular car. Some of these trains can be as long as several football fields, so if your track is assigned only minutes before boarding and your car is two or three hundred yards away, you better be movin’ your ass down the line. THEN, when you get to your car, you have to hoist those bags up several steps to even get on board (usually with people crowding behind you, just as desperate). THEN, you have to find a place to store them. On some cars you can’t even fit a purse on the overhead racks, much less your luggage. So, you have to find a place between seats, or, some cars have a small, overwhelmed, luggage area. The problem with that is, luggage has been known do disappear from those areas in a twinkling. I cannot overstate: travel light.

OK, so here is the next thing you can do before ever setting foot on Italian soil: Buy your train tickets! Yes people, what an age we live in! Of the fourteen trains we took on this adventure, eleven of them were in Italy. When we touched down in Milan I already had tickets printed for every one of them. That’s right: no standing in ticket lines, no messing around with ticket machines and the all-too-helpful people that show up to “help” figure them out. Not only that, purchasing tickets early often led to huge savings. And, every single train we booked was on time and every single ticket was honored. And, every ticket you print is pre-validated, so you don’t have to fool with that crazy process.  What an incredibly efficient system! And, what this means is, lets say you decide to stay in just one location, say, Florence or Rome. With the train system, virtually the entire country, every destination we visited plus many more, is available to you as day trips typically from 10-30 euro per person, each way. Here is where to get started:

http://www.trenitalia.com/tcom-en

Since the topic of this chapter is “Getting Around” I should mention the cities. First, be aware that, regardless of what city you are in, the public transportation system will be overwhelmed. The term “crush of humanity” will be more than an abstract phrase by the time you get out of these places. If the vehicle you are riding seems filled beyond capacity, you will find, as we did in every city, that it can always take a few hundred more.

In Venice the streets are canals, so the way to get around is the Vaparetto, or water taxi.

DSCF9568

Does this look crowded? Well, it’s one of the early stops.

In Florence, it’s the bus system. Starts out quiet and soon seats become only a dream. In Rome, well, that is a whole other story, which I will save for later.

All things said, however, this is the easiest country to travel in that we have experienced. Unless, of course, you decide to rent a car. I’ll save that subject for later, too.

Language

The guide books will tell you that Italians appreciate even a feeble attempt to speak their language and you will be even more warmly greeted if you give it a try. So, months before our departure I did my best to memorize a few phrases I considered to be key, the most important by far being: “Questo e’ il treno per (your destination)”? (Is this the train to….). As it turned out, however, the one used the most was “Dov’e’ l'(what you are looking for)” Dov’e’ (pronounced DOH-vay) means “where is”…. , a phrase we used almost constantly.

When we got over there, we found that particularly in the tourist areas, almost everyone spoke tourist English, that is, they can answer in English the questions most tourists ask. Even in non-tourist areas we could always find a way to communicate. Language was almost never a problem. In fact, here is something we did not expect: Many Italians take considerable pride in their English phrases. So, we would saunter into some new place, like, say, a hotel lobby, armed with our poor excuse for an Italian phrase and before I could even open my mouth the person I approached would say, “Good morning!” or some other English phrase. Apparently, neither Dianne nor I will ever be mistaken for Italians. And, if I would say “Buena sera” (good evening) to someone they would reply with “Good evening”.  Sometimes we would compliment someone on their good English and they would get all sad-faced and apologize that their English wasn’t very good. And I’m like, Dude, it’s YOUR country. I’m the one who should be apologizing to YOU! (Which, of course, I couldn’t since I don’t know the words).

One thing that took a little getting used to, language-wise, was, a common exchange is, when someone does something for you, you say “Grazie” and they reply “Prego”, which means “you’re welcome”. But, when we would go into restaurants, the waiter or owner would say “Prego”, which we took to simply mean “Welcome” and we would reply “Grazie”. So, things got a little turned around. No big deal.

Here is one thing, though, that Italians do appear to be sticklers for: place names. If you tell somebody you are going to, say, Florence, they will look at you like you just said Mars. Both at the train stations and in polite conversation know that Venice is Venezia, Florence is Firenze, Tuscany is Tuscano, Rome is Roma and so on.

The point is, you don’t have to delay your trip to bone up on Italian phrases. It’s more fun to live them.

Money

Here is a true confession: We carry cash. I try to figure out how much we are going to need and then go to Huntington and convert dollars to euro. Unless the exchange rate is really bad, in which case we use ATM’s over there. Right now the dollar is fairly strong, so the rate is, at least, tolerable. You will never get the market exchange rate here and you won’t get it over there either unless you are moving huge sums. If you are, you will not relate very well to this blog. Quit reading and go elsewhere.

I should note that since we carry cash we take many extra steps to protect it. Italy is the land of pickpockets and you will be constantly warned. I won’t go into what we do, but it works. One thing, I never carry a wallet. I leave it at home. My back pockets are for train tickets and hotel reservations. Cash for the day I carry in either hidden money pouch or my front pocket, which is usually so full of other crap that even I can’t find the money half the time.

But, if you prefer ATM’s or going to banks, by all means have at it.

All this said, we use cash mostly for incidentals. We run restaurants and hotels through a credit card. Why? Double points so we can afford our next trip. Be mindful, however, that a euro is not the same as a dollar, Right now it is about 12% more, so try to avoid sticker shock when you get home and find the dollar equivalent of those euro on your next statement.

Enough Already!

I agree! Now the tale begins…