John and Gina's Italy/Sicily Trip Blog - - September 28 to October 13, 2007
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|Sicilia and Italia va Bene!
Gina and John Rice have planned this trip since our first trip to Italia for our 20th Anniversary in 2004. Ginas people left Sicily in the early 1900s and never returned. Introductions were made to Ginas Italian cousins by her Uncle Lou Martello from New Orleans who took an escorted tour to Italy earlier with an extension in Sicily about ten or twelve years ago. In the geneology search, it was realized that the Italian side of the family was named Schittino, but the American branch changed their names to Martello at some point in the immigration process. The Sicilians could not understand why people left and never came back. The American cousins (cugini) had not returned to Cefalu for eighty years when Lou went to Cefalu with his friend from New Orleans who had family in Sicily along with their wives. Many people who landed in New Orleans were from Cefalu and many of our friends in Tampa have family that were originally from Agrigento or up in the mountains from a place called Santo Stefano Quisiquina. As Gina grew up, she experienced Sicilian culture mixed with New Orleans culture and now she knows the origins of some of her life, foods, songs and expressions.
In 2004 Gina and John took a Grand 20th Anniversary tour of Italy that included Rome, Florence, Naples, Taormina and a three day stop in Cefalu. This was a grand self guided tour that included first class Eurostar Trains and very nice hotels. The last stop was Cefalu which is a Bellissimo town on the north coast of Sicily about half way between Messina and Palermo. The town is dominated by La Rocca with an ancient section and a new section down by a beautiful beach. The main attraction is The Duomo which was built in the 1200s by a Norman King that crashed a boat on the shores of Cefalu during a storm but lived. In return for the favor that God paid to the King, he built a beautiful Church in the center of town. When people ask me to describe Cefalu, I can only say that it is a cross between Florence, Italy and Myrtle Beach, SC if you can imagine a beach town with roots that date back to the days of Christ. As we left Cefalu, we vowed to come back and three years later we did!
This second trip was supposed to be a family reunion for Gina and initial estimates were that twenty or thirty people including the New Orleans cousins would make this trip. In the end, we were only a traveling party of five which included Ginas Brother Bill, his wife Regina (our regular traveling partners) and my Mother from Fort Lauderdale.
2007 was a year where airline tickets were expensive and the US Dollar had a very low value compared to the Euro. About a week before we departed, the St. Pete Times announced that the US Dollar was at its lowest level ever. We purchased our tickets in January of 2007 for departure in late September on US Airways. The airline has emerged from bankruptcy like most US Airlines, but has operational problems that went on and on and on. On this trip, we started in Cefalu and flew there via Philadelphia and Rome, Italy.
Friday, September 28, 2007 - Philadephia, USA
We purposely left ourselves more time in Philadelphia than suggested as we were traveling with my Mother and had to make a connection to Palermo. This meant leaving Tampa at about noon for a 6PM flight. When we arrived at Philadelphia, there was a plane at the gate so we thought that we were good to go. At about the time of the departure, it was announced that the incoming plane had a mechanical problem that they did not have the part to fix, even in their hub! They would have to scramble another plane and the delay would be about two hours. About 8:30, we finally loaded and headed out to the tarmac. We thought that we had lost our take-off slot, but we found that the second plane had another mechanical problem so we went back to the gate. After they swapped out a computer in the cockpit, we were finally off to Italy at about 11PM. This meant that we would miss the connection to Sicily, but there was another plane about 3 hours later, so we took out our travel agency computer and rebooked ourselves at the Philly airport before everybody else asked the gate to be rebooked. This is one of the advantages to having a travel agent book your ticket, because we get you the rebooking seats before everyone else when something goes wrong. Our best clients have our cell phone, so you can call us at 11PM and have us re-book you from home so ask about our VIP service if you travel frequently. We were running about five hours late when we got into the sky, but we were thankful that we left the USA before the airline crew ran out of workable hours.
Saturday, September 29, 2007 - Rome, Italy to Cefalu, Sicily
Italians love Italia so much, that there is always a low volume cheer when the plane touches down. We have about two hours to make our connection and the US Air rep is assuring us that our bags do not need to be claimed and they will be transferred to Sicily for us. This is a good moment to speak about that little voice in your head that even Travel Agents do not listen to sometimes when they travel. I had asked the counter about only checking bags as far as Rome but was assured they would make the transfer to Palermo. My little voice said this may not happen and with a late plane, I was now sure that we were probably not going to get luggage upon arrival which turned out to be true.
We did some shopping in Cefalu and bought some clothes courtesy of US Airways. John got a nice Italian linen shirt and Gina got some fancy Italian jeans and a top. We are staying in apartments in Cefalu that our Italian partner Sicilanbreak handles. The apartments are plain but when you open the back door, the blue Mediterranean Sea is just out back. Johns Mom has the only ground floor apartment in town and we are just just down the block with Ginas brother upstairs. We started the evening with a good bottle of Sicilian Nero d'avola and some Pecorino in Moms apartment and then went down to Umbrio Scoglio for tiny Sicilian clams in a Spaghetti con Vongole. As the plate of steaming pasta is put down in front of me, I know I am finally in Sicilia! The secret to beating jet lag is to force your body to stay awake until about 9 or 10PM local time and then get a good nights sleep. With a full tummy of Vongole and a breeze off the Mediterranean we are off to sleep.
Sunday, September 30, 2007 - In the country above Cefalu, Sicily
The morning rose a beautiful red with a clear sky. I am not sure which is the prettiest blue the Tyrrhenian Sea or the clear blue sky. We are off to the Duomo Piazza for a cappucinno and mass at the Duomo at 10AM. It is pretty amazing when you think that Gina's grandfather probably went to the same church before he left for America in the early 1900s. We meet the neighbors and Salvatore is a man from the country that is on oxygen, but he has brought part of the country with him to the city. He is growing grapes and yellow melons on the porch and they have extended his porch with scaffolding to hold his grape vines to make just enough wine for vinegar and pots with various spices. Everybody sits in the dead end street below the balcony chatting and his wife we have taken to calling the block captain because she always wants to know what is going on with everybody, including our luggage by now. Sal is a great proud Sicilian man but sad that he is sick. For three days he is making a wooden fork to turn meat on the grill but he says he is simply paseo tiempo or passing time.
After Church, we make a phone call to the Cugini. Everyone is excited to hear from us even though as they say in broken English. Language, it is such a Problem Pippo will say more than once today. We offer to get a taxi, but cars are organized from the kids making their way to the Country House (campagna). I have yesterdays pants, no shave, but a new linen shirt on when I am making my way back to the apartment. A woman who looks familiar is checking addresses and we look at each other for a second before I ask in Italian are you Mirella? About the same time, she asks if I know Billy Martello and then immediately asks if I am Ginas marito before we both break out into hugs and kisses even though we have only seen pictures of each other. Gina's dad was always Billy and his Son was always Bill so it seems appropriate that the Son is now dubbed Billy by the Italian cugini. We stop at the apartment office to arrange for the baggage arrival, but are told it is Sunday so they will not arrive until Monday as everything stops on Sunday. They were picked up from Palermo airport, but are probably sitting in a van somewhere in a yard in Sicily while the driver eats all day.
When we get upstairs, Bills wife is jumping up and down with Mirella and doing the happy dance. They visited for a month two years ago and got to be very close with Kate and Pippos kids. We are picked up about noon for a day of eating and visiting after Tutti shows up with a second car. On a Sunday, there is only one meal served in Italy. It starts about noon and ends about 10PM! Mangiare, mangiare, mangiare we are told as the courses begin to arrive. There is a long table set up outside and the weather is about 80 degrees as Sicily is hotter than most of Italy. We explain the day old beard and the fact that bags were in Roma yesterday and are now in Palermo today so we will not get them until tomorrow.
We have learned to speak more Italian than our first trip to Italy, but when we get with the family, it is always obvious how little Italian we actually know. We can get around a restaurant menu, order wine and café with no problem, get through an airport or train station and even do our travel agent business in Italian, but we are not fluent by any means, even with a few years of sporadic studying the language. With each trip it gets easier and Ginas brother says once you butcher a few words of Italian, the Italians are not afraid to butcher the English language which seems to be true.
John speaks some Spanish so the Italian is easier for him, but Ginas parents never spoke any Italian in the house so Gina is struggling as she has grown very close to the Italian Cugini which requires more words than the average person. Between the five of us and the English the Italian kids have learned, we are able to communicate, but our heads will all hurt at the end of the evening from scrunching our brows when we do not capice. I promised to bring Gina back in 2007 when we first came here. Kate hugs me and tells me in perfect English that I have kept my promise which brings tears to my eyes as she reads some but does not speak much English so I figure she had to practice this one. We all kiss on the right and left cheeks as we meet everyone.
The meal started with plates of fresh green olives with olive oil and hot peppers, a spicy pecorino and cherry tomatoes, then came a Sicilian rigatoni with ground meat, sausage, proscuitto, provolone and red sauce. We are encouraged to eat a second dish of pasta and the crowd even cheers when someone accepts seconds, especially the American cousins. Actually we are all full before the secondo arrives but thankfully, we get a half an hour or so before it does. We bring bottles of wine which go uncorked as the homemade Sicilian wine comes out in leftover bottles. My neighbor in the USA makes red, but this is done from white grapes. Same effect, high test! The secondo consists of the largest pork chops we have ever seen, breaded and fried in olive oil, garlic and lemon. It is accompanied by grilled eggplant coated with olive oil and chunks of garlic. This is followed by the fruit course with the huge yellow melons that are in season at this point in time, huge white and red grapes. Home made cookies were the dolce at the end of the meal with strong coffee. As you move south in Italy, the coffee gets stronger and Ginas cousin Kates could stand the hair on your head, it is so strong. The Sicilians definitely have the strongest coffee in the country made in the little old perk pots from the old days. About 10 PM we are driven back into the town of Cefalu after hugging the family as we will not see the kids nor the grandkids again on this trip.
Monday, October 1, 2007 - Cefalu, Sicily
Monday morning started bright blue and the sea is full of swimming anchovies below the apartment. One of the German tourists is feeding his old bread to the anchovies and a feeding frenzy begins. In about two minutes, whole loaves of bread are scarfed down but we also see bright blue striped fish eating the anchovies as they gather in a school off the reefs. A little more shopping as the Sicilians were right, the bags did not arrive on Sunday as the airline said. John needs a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and Gina buys a fancy pair of Italian jeans and a cute batik top. With new clothes, we feel better but the shaving kit is still on the truck from Palermo so the beard is three days old at this point but I am starting to look quite Sicilian. Good thing we took the toothbrushes on the plane in our carry on. The Sicilians are right and the luggage is delivered about 10AM on Monday morning schedule.
Gina and John go off to find wine making supplies for our Sicilian neighbor in America. As we are fully immersed in Italia, we have to learn more Italian each day to explain Sulphus or Zolfo as it is called and get directions to the farm store in Cefalu from the hardware store we have already found. Italians are great and the owner is so touched that we have searched out his store to find these items for our Sicilian friend in America that when we ask about tomato seeds, we are given them for free. We tell him we only need one package, but he insists we take two different types to make sure which kind grows best in our yard in Florida. This is one thing that we see over and over again on our Italian travels. Since we have learned some Italian, the Italians are very gracious to us as we travel. We shop our way back to the apartment and we have a little Sicilian flag for our neighbors son when we get back home plus a new olive oil bottle for us with a matching antipasto plate and some t-shirts and other presents for friends back home.
We finish the day with Mom and a lunch of black mussels overlooking the Mediterranean and an antipasto in the apartment for dinner with salami, prosciutto, a great spicy romano and a few other cheeses accompanied by good Italian bread and we even polish off an entire bottle of green olive spread before biscotti. With the apartment, we spend hours enjoying each other's company and just sit which we do not get time to do in America. About 11PM, we collapse for another full night sleep and the jet lag is completely cured.
Tuesday, October 2, 2007 - Cefalu, Sicily
The morning sun rises bright red over the Med and we are off to the Duomo square for Cappuccinos before we climb La Rocca. La Rocca is the big rock that Cefalu is built around. First you climb the stairs through town and then more stairs to the entrance of the park. When we were here three years ago, we did not get all the way to the top because we started too late in the day. We also commented to Pippo that the place was full of garbage and not cared for and he is one of the influential people in town. This time, it is a park with an entrance fee, the trails have been improved and cleaned up. We wonder if he had anything to do with that, but we do not ask.
The Temple Diana was built about 500 years before Christ was born and there are also other monuments on the mountain by the various people who controlled Sicily over the years. Sicily has been taken over by the Greeks, the Romans, the Vandals, the Goths, the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs, the Spaniards, the French, the Normans, the Italian kingdom when unified and even bombed by American planes to take it back from Mussolini. Gina's brother Bill went up to look for a cemetery in Liscari years ago, but was told it was destroyed when it was bombed in WWII. Gina and I took a bus up to Liscari (above Cefalu) on our first trip as we were told the Schittino's originally came from Liscari. When we got back on the bus to back to Cefalu, the bus driver asked in the form of a question in Italian "there are no monuments in Liscari for tourists? We told him Gina's grandfather came from Liscari and he looked in the bus driver mirror at her facial features then just smiled and nodded. We found no connection the same as Bill, but had a great baked chicken and rice balls on the trip up the mountain.
The view from the top of La Rocca allows you to see 360 degrees to the mountains and down the coast. The early morning light is beautiful on the Temple Diana and in the trees on the mountain. It is cool as we head up in the morning and the shadows from the sunrise are spectacular. The mountains in Parco Madonie are not as pretty as our first trip as they have had a huge wildfire in the hills just recently. After we hike down, it is time for another cappuccino. We are on the five or six cup of coffee program each day since the coffee is so good in Italy. You start in the morning with cappuccinos and switch to espresso or and espresso with a little foamed milk called a macchiato that is served in the espresso cup.
After coffee, we meet my Mom who spent a few hours reading a book at the Duomo Piazza. All five of us head to a local trattoria for some pasta and then everyone heads their own way until we meet at Rosalias apartment. We walk with Mom on the narrow streets down to the beach for a look. We take a late afternoon walk and the streets are full of locals as it is late in the afternoon. We meet another cousin Salvatore who owns a newspaper stand in town. Everybody stops for something they need like stamps or postscards and we do some window shopping because the Euro prices are crazy when we convert them to US dollars.
Rosalia (Kates Mom) is 95 and Gina did not meet her on the first trip. She is a cute little old Sicilian lady that has a caretaker, but is still in her apartment. She has the most amazing steel bed with lovebirds but she has not slept in it since Sal died 40 years ago. She cannot see or hear real good and think Bill looks like her dead husband who was an aviator in WWI. We see pictures of Sal and she is right. Mary (Ginas other cousin) made a bianchi pie and we are given strong Sicilian espresso and pie. Gina does not eat her whole piece and when we are not looking Rosalia sneaks a second piece which we all think was done on purpose but hey if you cant have a second piece at 95, when can you?
I have invited the clan for pizza as we were treated on the last trip. Dinner consists of a whole pizza for each person preceded by calamari, mussels and seafood salad (shrimp, clams, mussels, tiny octopi) steamed and put up in lemon, olive oil, salt and garlic. Everyone has a margharita pizza with sauce, garlic and buffalo mozzarella. On the last trip, Pippo snuck off and paid the bill, so the waiter is called over to me and is told not to give anyone else the check except me, no matter what they say. The pizzas are delivered steaming hot with a paper thin crust like we used to get in New York.
After dinner, we are all in the street saying goodbye and I call Gina's Uncle Lou in New Orleans on the cell. You have to go into the street to use the cellular phone because the walls are so thick in the old buildings that you cannot get a signal. Lou made the first trip back, so he is special to the family and the cell phone is passed around so everybody can say ciao. At this point, tears are flowing all around because Lou had knee surgery after the flood in New Orleans with bad medical care and he was unable to make the trip, even though he was initially supposed to travel with us. We try to explain the New Orleans situation to the cousins as they have seen pictures on television, but what happened after Katrina is really unexplainable, especially with the language problems.
Wednesday, October 3, 2007 - Palermo, Sicily
Today we head to Palermo to meet Ginas other cousin Lucia and her family. Our initial plan was to take the train to Palermo and a taxi to her house. When we were out walking the evening before in Cefalu, John sees a taxi man in a nice Mercedes van and asks if he is free tomorrow. Once you get five people together and start adding up multiple tickets and taxis, a driver for the day is not much more and much easier since he stays with you and helps with the language as taxi men know some English. John calls Antonio in the morning to finalize the plans and we are off to Palermo about 10AM. It turns out Antonio has quite a sense of humor as with most Sicilians. As we head into Palermo he jokes in Italian that we are passing one of the most famous hotels in all of Sicily where some of the richest and influential Sicilians spend their last time. He explains that the food is even included and all your activities are planned for you. At this point someone realizes he is speaking of the Penitentiary and we all have a great laugh.
Antonio is from the country, so we all laugh as he tries to find the address in the big city. He stops people on the street, asks other drivers at stop lights once he has gotten in the neighborhood using his maps in the car. He even stops at a bus stand to ask directions and the drivers all give him a hard time about not finding his way. When we get to Lucias, they come outside and we all get kisses on the cheek but they explain that their apartment is being worked on. After a look at the apartment we collect Joacimo and head off for Dolce and coffee at a local café.
Lucia and her family are delightful and we spend about two hours with them having coffee. John has ordered a rice ball with his coffee as we have had too much dolce. The rice ball is huge and stuffed with meat filling that is covered in rice and bread crumbs and fried. Gina also picks at the rice ball until we are able to finish it. Lucia insists we get a few cannolis and we decide that these are the best cannolis we have had in our whole life, even though Gina makes a pretty good cannoli. Joacimo and Bill got to be friends on the first trip and he is very glad to see his Amici. He works at the port in transportation and is interested that Gina and John are Travel Agents and Tour Operators. When Bill says that he is going to the Island of Lipari on Saturday. Joacimo calls his friend that operates the ferry company to the island and immediately arranges a complimentary passage for Bill and Regina. We discuss that it is Lucia and Sals 50th Wedding anniversary when we are due to return to Sicily in 2010 and Joacimo insists that we should tour Sicily with him for a few days at that point to see the best and less touristy parts of Sicily and we agree.
It is obvious that we are the entertainment for everyone in the restaurant as they try to speak English and we work on our Italian. When we leave the restaurant, everybody wishes us goodby including the rest of the patrons who have enjoyed our visit with the Italian family as much as we have. If you have family in Italy, we suggest that you return sometime and our travel agency can help you with arrangements. Even if you do not meet your family, you will enjoy getting back to your roots. When we first touched down in the country three years ago, Gina said she felt in her heart that she was home. Gina and I worked in the Caribbean as tour operators for twenty years. There are many similarities between the Caribbean people and the Sicilians also similarities between the geography of Sicily and the Caribbean.
Everybody in Sicily has family in America but not everybody gets to see them as the people that left around 1900 never returned. The economics in Sicily were very bad at that point, that is why people boarded boats for a two or three week trip to come to America. Since they did not have a good impression of the country when they left, many of their children did not return nor learn Italian to communicate with the past. Low cost flights have made the world smaller so it is easier for our generation to reconnect. The kids ask how much to come to America and we say about $750euro. They ask da Roma? Thinking that we only mean part way. We explain that is all the way to the USA in the off season and we see the light bulbs go off in their heads. Maybe the old folks will never come, but we expect the younger generation will make the jump someday now that they have "family" they know in America.
When we planned our 20th anniversary trip, we were just finishing Ginas Dads Estate which took a few years to close and a visit Sicily seemed appropriate at the time. I will never forget eating a late dinner with the owner of a small trattoria in Taormina and discussing why we were going to Cefalu over our first meal in Sicily. Italy is a very male dominated society and most women do not work or even leave the house very much. They spend most of their life in the home including evenings when the men go off to drink and talk with friends. The owner of the trattoria told me that You honor the father by bringing the girl home to Sicilia. I will never forget that our waiter was leaving the restaurant that evening before we had closed the check and when I asked if he was not waiting for a tip. As he put on his vespa helmet, he looked at me with respect and said Tonight you do not pay. This is a country of tradition, honor and a cultured people that respect family above everything else. In two trips, we have learned much about Sicily and Italy and we expect we will return again and again for the rest of our lives. This day in Palermo is another link for Gina and she walks arm and arm with Lucia back to the apartment after adding another piece to the puzzle. She and her family are delightful people and we are happy to see more family than we did on the last trip because of time constraints.
As we go around Palermo, we see some people from our flight from Philly that are also touring Palermo with their Sicilian family and they look like they are having as much fun as we are. We exchange notes about when everybody finally got luggage as the whole plane to Sicily had the luggage miss the connection. They also look like they are having a great time with their people from Sicily as we see smiles all around. After the family, we take a tour of Palermo including Mondello. If you are staging to go up to Santo Stefano Quisiquina or Agrigento this would be the place to stay before heading up in to the mountains.
After driving through the beach area we are shown a few sights in Palermo including Teatro Massimo which is the largest in all of Italy, The Cathedral and Fontana Pretoria and a quick stop for a Panini. We order 4 or 5 different kinds of paninis and crustinis including cheese, tomato, spinach and proscuitto. We all break off pieces and pass them around the table.
After lunch, we head to Monreale which is a church on a hill above Palermo. This church is filled with mosaics and has a spectacular view of Palermo. We spend an hour and a half up at Monreale. The story we hear is that the church is so big because it is in a different archdiocese from Palermo and the bishops along with their benefactors had a competition to see who could build the most spectacular church. The 360 view is amazing from this point and we continually comment that Sicily is one of the most beautiful places on earth. This comes from people like us that have worked most of our lives in the Caribbean and have seen some beautiful places.
We get back to Cefalu about 5:30. Pippo and Lia are coming down the mountain to pick us up at about 7 so we shower and change. When we arrive at the house, we see plates of small and large fish plus caponata sitting on the kitchen table. The girls disappear to work on the pasta course and Pippo is showing us the movies that he directed including the one with Carla about Cefalu by night that is in the Mandrolisca museum. Bill has brought a copy of Cinema Paradiso which Pippo worked on, but did not direct. Many of the scenes were shot in Cefalu and Lia is an extra in the movie as a teenager. It is the first time Pippo has seen the entire movie as he worked on editing and it is the first time Lia has seen herself on the screen so Gina asks for her autograph.
We are about 4 days into the trip and John is feeling overwhelmed with the mangiare, mangiare, mangiare that is characteristic of Italy. As it is about 9PM when we start with the primi and John asks for a small portion which must be explained in this country as travel, upset stomach, etc. We have brought wine so we are not drinking the high test country vino and the fish course is not spicy so it settles Johns stomach by the end of the meal. The family seems to understand that John is not eating the way he did on Sunday.
At the end of the meal, Bill is presented with an il conto from Pippos Bed with No Breakfast as a joke. We all laugh until tears are rolling down our faces because Pipo is so funny with the joke. The bill is presented in a folder and charges for the courses, the conversation (even my Mom is joked on as she is billed zero for conversation since she does not parlo Italiano). This has taken him about two hours on the typewriter and it shows that a joke is very important to a Sicilian as are funny stories that are developed with care and extensive set-up.
I have honored my promise to bring Gina back a second time at the time that I said. My Mom is accepted as part of the family on this trip and we are all sad to be leaving Cefalu. As we leave the country house, we promise to return and Kate says that we will all be older at that point, reminding us that anything can happen; but we are glad that we have returned to spend time with these dear people in this great country of Sicily. We are all crying as we leave the country house including the Italian cousins. Gina and I have a glass of wine on the porch and watch the moon rise above the Mediterranean Sea. We discuss this special bond that has been created between Sicily and America. Sleep is not a problem tonight and we set both cell phone alarms to make sure we are up for the departure to Taormina. I am sure Gina's dad is smiling tonight as he has watched this scene from above.
Thursday, October 4, 2007 - Taormina, Sicily
Antonio is right on time for the transfer to the train station. We purchased tickets a few days ago and Antonio double parks the cab and comes inside with us to help with my Moms luggage as she is traveling with too many bags and has done some shopping in Cefalu. He is also a sweet man and this shows that all Italians are some of the most gracious people on earth. As a travel agent, I have drivers in most countries that I sell and I promise to Antonio that I will send him more business when the Cefalutanos in New Orleans go to Sicily.
We have purchased first class train tickets since we are traveling with my Mom and the air conditioning is appreciated on this hot day in Sicily. The ladies in the compartment with us are from Palermo and we exchange stories about where we are going and Ginas family. They are going to Rome for a weekend of shopping and the ride to Messina Centrale is beautiful along the Sicilian coast. When the conductor comes to check our tickets, he tells the Americano with some trepidation that there is a surcharge because this is an inter-city train with less stops but he is relieved that I am not upset and have exact change for the surcharge. We thought that $14 euros was cheap for this first class ticket and anything involving the Government, trains, taxes, etc. in Italy always has some complication attached.
We are staying at a luxury bed and breakfast above Taormina called Villa Angela for one night and they have referred us to a driver that has an arrangement with the hotel. We will use the same driver to get to Catania tomorrow. It is the first time my Mom has traveled with us on a complicated point to point itinerary and she is impressed with our work that seems to be going like clockwork at this point. We were planning on taking a taxi in Rome to the apartment but with my Mom being heavy on luggage, this driver refers me to a friend in Rome for the pick-up so we do not have to negotiate extra luggage charges with a Rome airport taxi.
When we get to Villa Angela, we meet the owner on the verandah. His name is Jim Kerr and he is the front man for the rock band Simple Minds. They were famous for the #1 worldwide single Dont you (forget about me) from the soundtrack of the 1989 John Hughes movie, The Breakfast Club. The B & B is beautiful with all the luxuries you would expect. We are VIPd with a fruit basket and an expensive bottle of Prosecco which is dry Italian champagne. The fruit is fantastic and the Prosecco is the best we have ever had so we sit on the porch for an hour or so and watch Mount Etna.
We leave Mom at the pool and take a hike up to the top of the hill to see Chiesa S. Madonna della Rocca (Saint Mary of the Fortress Church) and shoot pictures of the coast. You can see all the way back to Messina and even over to the toe of Italy from this vista. The small chapel of the church is beautiful and Jim tells us later that actually seeing it is hit or miss as it does not keep actual hours. The chapel is built into the mountain with the ceiling actually carved out from the rock and the alter is beautiful. As we head down the mountain, we stop for a macchiato at a little restaurant with a panoramic view. Chatting with the owner, I am asked what we do for a living and explain that we are travel agents. As we try to pay for the coffee, it is free and we are asked to send some customers sometime and remember him if we ever have a group coming to Taormina.
Back at the hotel, we see Mom at the pool and go up for lunch. Classy paninis and salads are the choice for today as we need something besides pasta or eggplant at this point. Jim stops to talk about the hotel business as I have been a tour operator most of my life and we used to sponsor reggae band concerts when we operated charters for the Jamaican Government so we are familiar with the concert business. He is very soft spoken and easygoing for a rock star and speaks of his Mum in Scotland and the process of getting into the hotel business in Sicily. He is very involved in the community, which makes it easier for a foreigner but the hotel business is not easy to learn.
Gina and Mom go up to get ready for an afternoon and evening in Taormina but Jim seems to enjoy talking business and I tell him that in three years he has learned his craft well. He explains that they are about 70% happy with the way the place is running and that some days are easier than others. He reminds me of some young hoteliers that Gina and I know in Jamaica that have also gone through this same process as he explains that all the experienced managers they interviewed seemed tired so they took a chance on a young group of people and his brother Paul is the General Manager. These working class guys seem to understand luxury after traveling with a famous rock band for twenty years. Gina and I comment that Simple Minds must be a joke on their working class roots, but we enjoy our stay at this place and vow to return.
The hotel operates a shuttle service to Taormina and the City center is like the French Riviera with expensive shops like Prada, Dolce - Gabana and Versace along with tourist shops, bars and restaurants. My Mom is recovering from hip surgery a few years ago and has not walked as much as she should to help with her recovery. Here in Italy, we have pushed her to walk as you have to, to be able to see things as Europe requires walking unless you take a guided group bus tour. Today, she walks to the top of the Greek Theatre for the view and is even surprising herself that she is able to walk a mile, although huffing and puffing up the hill. Sometimes in a strange place, you not only realize something about the place, but also about yourself when you get away from your real life and we are proud at how well she is doing.
After some shopping and a stroll on the main street to the Piazza we sit and watch the families walking along with the tourists. We stop for a split of wine and stop at a restaurant that we ate lunch at on our last trip. We will have to wait until the next trip to see Nino and his guys as it is too far down the hill for Mom. The restaurant that we go to has a great vegetable antipasto and I am sent up for selections. That is followed by a pasta course and a wonderful bottle of Chianti Classico Reserva which is a nice change of pace after the heavy Nero d'avolas we have been drinking. We are realizing that an average bottle of wine is about 10 or 11 euros in a local trattoria, but if you go 15 euros, you are drinking great juice so we enjoy a good meal. It is nice, to stop eating after two courses, a vegetable antipasto and some ravioli, except we split one piece of panforte. About the time of dessert, a roving band of Sicilian musicians storm into the restaurant and do a few numbers for the tourists. We are tired and skip coffee again as we all want to sleep tonight to recover from all the traveling since we have to move tomorrow.
Friday, October 5, 2008 - Catania, Sicily to Rome, Italy
We just sit at the hotel until our pick-up at 11:30 for Catania. Breakfast is included in the rate and includes a great salami, proscuitto, fruits, home baked breads and fresh squeezed juices plus custom made coffee. We order café Americano just for something different from the cappuccinos and macchiatos we have been drinking for days and we each get our own pot. Mom has discovered lattes con café and has one of those along with a piece of chocolate cake with her breakfast.
The road to Catania circles Mount Etna the whole way so you get to view the volcano from various angles. Catania is more of an industrial city than even Palermo. On our last trip, the bus from the airport gave us a pretty good tour of the city, but this time, we are doing 90 in the mercedes until we get off the strada at the airport exit. The flight is uneventful. A friend of the driver in Taormina picks us up at the airport and we check into a nice 2 bedroom apartment above a busy Roman street. Mom is getting squared away and we head out into Roma to get cds to store pictures and basic housekeeping at the grocery store. Both are accomplished and they have a great Brunello as the special of the week for less than 20e so we splurge on one of the best Tuscan wines. We make unscheduled Italian stops at the flower market and bakery for mini cannoli's on our way back to the apartment. We take notice that there is one of those special Gelaterias downstairs that actually makes ice cream (artesianale) instead of getting it from the supply truck.
At night, we head across to Dino and Tonys near the Vatican for Antipasto di Giorno. On our last trip, we went for a plate of pasta but promised to come back for the house special antipasto. We sit at an outside table on a cool night, no tourists but a busy restaurant with groups of Italian friends ordering special Antipasto from the guys. As we sit, the restaurant keeps getting bigger as they spread extra plastic tables on the wide Roman sidewalk. Try to imagine 2 brothers and a cousin with track shoes running entrees around the place. Course after course of antipasto including fried ravioli, meatballs, little pizzas and calzones with cheese, meat and spinach is followed by two courses of pasta. After the first course of pasta, we are done but we are firmly told that the pasta course has two levels. After this, we are really done when the owner comes to ask about dessert. We are stuffed. After a few moments he jumps in the air and shouts GRANITE! and runs back into the kitchen. He was right the perfect finished of a little shotglass of frozen coffee ice topped by a sweet cream. We are glad the apartment is a few blocks as we need to walk.
Saturday, October 6, 2007 - Rome, Italy
Juice and fruit at the apartment start the day beautifully then we make a quick stop for a cappuccino on the way to market. The Rome market by the Vatican is one of the best in all Italy. We start with sundried tomatoes and dried porcinis to take home along with gaeta olives for the apartment. We move across the large market to the pasta booth, walk along the stretch with fresh meats, vegetables and fish but do not buy and stop at the bread store to buy foccacia bread, little rolls with walnuts and green olives and a crusty Italian loaf for toast. Next, we visit the deli booth and we look at a large roasted pig. An Etta is about 100 grams or about a quarter of a pound so we get an Etta of the best proscuitto, salami, romano, fontina and blue cheese. We are doing pretty good with tourist Italian and the vendors know some "Roman English" so we both enjoy the interaction with each other. The ladies want a slice of the pork with the rosemary but we are told that is my brother, not part of the order. We are all smiling including the old Italian man, in a white chefs coat moving towards the pork. It appears that those samples always work with the tourists, so there was never any question whether we would get a slice. A final stop for some fruit and pre-washed mixed baby greens for salad we are off to the apartment.
We drop the market goods at the apartment and head out to Campo de Fiore. We want to get there early enough for Mom to see the market in full bloom. My Mom has insisted on paying for taxis as we would normally use a subway pass so we are touring Rome first class with drivers. The driver asks if he can drop a block or so away from the Campo and we approve. When we see the multitudes of tourists and locals in the market, we see why. As we approach the piazza, even the side streets have vendor booths in the street in front of the fancy jewelry and leather stores. Campo di Fiore is literally the field of flowers and when entering the piazza, the full color of the large flower booths explode into your view.
Time for a two hour lunch of fried calamari, fancy salads and wine. We walk the neighborhood and Gina buys an artisian homemade leather purse. I stop at a good quality leather store for a belt and we follow up with machiatos and split a cannoli. We catch a short cab ride to the Roman Forum and walk around. My Mom has been walking more in Europe than she has since her hip surgery. Today, we will do a few miles as we walk the market and across the breadth of the Forum to exit by the Coliseum. We experience the first light rain of the trip, but only have to walk a few blocks to get to a side street and get a cab.
Tonight we had to Il Colibri for a Ristorante dinner. We have been here before and it is one of the best small local neighborhood restaurants in Rome. Ravioli with sage and cream, rabbit pasta and seconds of veal and saltimbocca. Even the dessert of homemade gelato floating in a coffee cream with coffee beans cant keep John awake tonight and Gina is excited by the limone gelato in a fizzy float and Moms calms her stomach after the longest tourist day we have done.
Sunday, October 7, 2007 - Rome, Italy
Church at St. Peters is the first goal of the morning. We are moving slower than we should, it takes a while to get a cab and then there is the security lines at St. Peters that are longer than expected because of our late start. We kill some time touring the Basilica and take a mass at one of the side alters. It is nice and we are sitting with many of the little old ladies of Rome that live in the neighborhood and attend mass at St. Peters.
As we exit the Basilica, the Pope is speaking to the crowds. The square is so crowded that we cannot really see the Pope, but the loudspeakers carry his voice and we can see the open window from the Apartment and the purple cloth hanging out the window. When he is finished, we blend into the neighborhood for the first coffee of the day. The waiter finds it extremely amusing that we have a cappuccino followed by a macchiato as the first was not strong enough at 1PM to get us started. He mentions high test in English as he drops off round due and we all laugh.
By accident of our late start, we do not change clothes before going to Piazza Navana as we are all getting hungry for lunch. It seems to fit as it is Sunday and the Italians are starting to mix with the tourists walking the square. My Sicilian friend calls from Tampa to see how we are doing. To his surprise, I answer the cell phone "pronto" while walking the square and speak to him in Italian. Even though Italian is his first language, he is caught off guard speaks English and we laugh at the oddness of the moment. It is surprising when you are immersed how much you can learn quickly of a foreign language especially after trying to converse with Ginas family.
We stop at a restaurant to lunch and take the best table right on the Piazza. The waiter is pleasantly surprised by our dress and the fact we order a good bottle of prosecco plus the fact that we speak some Italian. I cannot stress enough that if you are going to a foreign country, learn to speak a few words as people will help you with what English they know if you try. These guys are fluent in five languages and we have a few courses like crayfish risotto and broiled veggies in olive oil followed by a nice steamed fish and chicken. Another note, if you are trying to get though all the courses in Italy, it is acceptable to share a second as long as everybody has a first course. The Italians will understand.
After lunch, we see a street performer and sit on a bench for the show. He does a 20 minute mime deal with audience participation that is very funny. My Mom gets involved in one of the first skits and there is a little Italian kid that keeps wandering into the scenes until he is cuffed with a balloon handcuffs to his own mom. The guy must have taken in $200 euros from the crowd when he was done. This is done with city permission but the foreign knockoff purse vendors are all chased by the Carbinieri during lunch.
Monday, October 8, 2007 - Tuscan Countryside and Siena, Italy
Monday morning was bright and sunny. Mom is heading to the airport and so are we to collect a car for our first driving experience in Italy. Our taxi driver is running late as he had vehicle problems but we have left extra time, so we are ok when he arrives with a loaner vehicle. We put my Mom in line for the USA and kiss her goodbye. We head off to find the rental car counters which are across the airport in the parking garage. We are checked into half a car and we fill the entire back seat with luggage. The vehicle is pretty zippy so off we go to Tuscany. We cleaned the antipasto out of the fridge and we stop for a macchiato at the first rest stop out of the city. It looks like a 7/11, but has a barista cooking espresso and a coffee bar with about 10 drivers and truck drivers. We eat the leftover salami, cheese and Gaeta olives in the parking lot and head out.
Driving in Italy is not as hard as we expected. You just have to look for the Mercedes doing 100 when you get into the fast lane to pass. The Fiat can move pretty fast for half a car and the scenery is beautiful even as it passes from the green of summer to the brown of fall. On top of hilltops, you can see small hill towns and Tuscan Villas in the morning sun. We are heading from Rome to Siena and we have no problems or wrong turns until we get right into Siena. We stop and ask directions and with a little help, we are at our hotel for the night. Hotel Arcoboleno is a great choice as another of those clean two star hotels in a classic Italian style. The restaurant is listed as a winner in the guidebook, so we stash the bags and head to the basement to eat. A little pasta with fresh green beans and spinach done in olive oil and garlic makes another great Italian meal with a split of chianti.
After that, we walk about a mile into town which balances out the pasta again. It always amazes me that I can eat like a horse and still lose weight every time I am in Italy with all the walking. We get lost once on the way downtown but a nice Italian lady walks us to the main gate since she is going that way anyway. Between her English and our Italian, we have a nice conversation along the way. We bid her goodbye at the main gate to Siena which is quite impressive.
Siena is one of Tuscanys most picturesque cities with the town square being built around City Hall rather than a church. The City Hall has a mural about good Government and bad Government which we laugh at given our current Government in the USA and the metaphor with an overextended empire at war across the World. The Duomo is a few blocks from the town square and we go up to tour that and it also is impressive. The Sienese were very powerful in the renaissance era with an empire that rivaled the Medicis in Florence. Cruise ships must be in port in Livorno as the town is very crowded for October but we enjoy a walk around the side streets as we stop for a late afternoon glass of wine to watch the tourists run for the busses that head back to the cruise ships in Livorno.
Dinner that evening is a classic Tuscan meat feast at a fancy ristaurante. About four of the seven courses contain meat of some kind and it finishes with a great steak which is a nice change after the fish based diet in Sicily. We comment that we like the atmosphere in the Trattorias better than some of the stuffy ristorante's. It is late in the evening when we collapse back in bed at the hotel.
Tuesday, October 9, 2007 -Tuscany, Italy and The Tibur Valley, Italy
We finish our trip to Siena with a great continental breakfast with a Cappuccino and an extra cup of Café Americano to rev. up before hitting the road again. After departure from the local roads in Siena, we move only two exits on the superstrada and then exit back onto country roads up in the Tuscan hills. We pass a farm and there is no mistake that they make Pecorino cheese from the smell. We pass olive farms that hand squeeze oil and we head higher into the mountains. When we stop for a picture at the apex, it is about 20 degrees colder than it when we left Siena in the morning and we break out our jackets.
About 11AM we stop in a small Tuscan town outside Arezzo for a cup of coffee. Are you starting to get the pattern here? Coffee stops on your second week in Italy only stretch about two hours apart. This is a delightful Tuscan town so after the coffee, we stop at the bakery for a piece of foccacia bread. The one with the extra virgin olive oil and course salt please. In the town square, we buy a b & b sign for the porch. The Italian is something about the girl and the room have to be paid separately so it seems like a good joke. After that, we go on to Arezzo and stop for gas, yes the green benzene and fill it to the top. Wow, half a tank of gas is about $40 US or about $8 a gallon. Arezzo looks interesting, but we avoid the city centre as we want to do some hiking at the Agriculturismo in Sansepolcro. Arezzo is in the valley but we are climbing again into the hills as we depart the city.
We do stop for lunch and I make a good pick with my salesmans logic at La Giostra. A clean looking place with plenty of heavy duty trucks parked in the lot. The crowd is exclusively Italian as we are off the beaten path. We have a stop at a great fresh salad bar, followed by the mista bruchetta (small pieces of toast covered with tomatoes, others with cheese, mushrooms and a green olive mixture) this is followed by wonderful home made pasta. Gina has the cheese ravioli with butter and sage, I have a ragu with meat sauce and we trade. More coffee and off we go into the mountains again.
We notice a lady on the side of the road that is dressed kind of trashy with fishnets and stilletos but we do not think of the truckers traversing this route. A little further down the road, we see two more ladies dressed the same way, but they are working next to an actual motor home parked on the side of the road and we both see the enlightenment at the same time and laugh that the thought did not pop into our heads earlier. Further into the mountains the terrain gets more rugged and temperatures drop again. On and off the highway and another fifteen miles and we are coming into Sansepolcro. This areas claim to fame is the Tiber River Valley is lableled as the road that Peter took on his way to Rome. The Tiber Valley is more industrial than Tuscany and has some of the famous designer fashions like Prada, Versaci and Gucci factories in this valley. We follow the signs up again from Sansepolcro to the agriculturismo called Calcinaia sul Lago that is literally at the end of the road by the side of a huge manmade lake.
In the afternoon, we go hiking after the owners show us the olive crops. They grow an heirloom olive that is not as big as the olives we saw in Tuscany, but the EU pays them for each tree grown to keep the species alive. As it is slow season, they put us in one of the big apartments with a farmhouse kitchen. Out come the hiking boots and jeans and we take to the trail shown us by the owner. The first part is through the woods and we end up down at the lakeside which is about 40 meters down due to the recent drought in Europe. We stop and sit by the lake for a while and then head back up to the farmhouse. As we get to the top of the hill, the owner is coming by in his car to make sure we are not lost. I indicate that I was once a boy scout and can usually find my way home, but he indicated this is not always true of the tourists so he comes looking before dark.
As the sun sets over the mountains, we head into Sansepolcro to shop for dinner and see the town. What a pleasant surprise! There are three or four churches that look ordinary from the outside, but are spectacular inside. The town looks much like a smaller version of Siena, and has some very upscale shopping. We stop at a wine bar and are offered Chianti as tourists, we ask if the Montepulciano is also offered by the glass and are told everything is offered by the glass. As we sit on the front porch, it is getting cold, but we are soaking up the culture and enjoying the town. We stop at a butcher to buy a slice of roasted pork for the antipasto and go back to the deli where we stopped earlier.
What a fun experience as the deli man offers us a glass of wine and we let him pick our antipasto for the evening. We get a taste of everything as he cuts, slices and spoons our dinner into plastic containers and paper wrappers. Salami, Prosciutto and a few other meats, fontina cheese and pecorino plus roasted peppers, porcinis in olive oil and olives. We add a few kinds of bread but I cannot tell who had more fun, us or the deli man as we worked through the counter. Probably too much, but we can finish it for breakfast. On the way to the car, we stop at a barista and get some ground coffee for the morning, a quick stop at the chocolateria and the grocery for some water and red naval orange juice in a container. Back up the hill in the darkness to the farmhouse but since it is our second trip of the day, we simply move slowly up the mountain. Before going to bed, the Florida sissies figure out how to turn on the heat as it is due to be about 45 degrees tonight in the mountains.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007 - Sansepolcro and Ravenna, Italy
Before the owners dad gets up to the farmhouse, his big friendly dog makes the run up to the back porch where we are eating breakfast and drinking coffee. Molly is a little bit overweight Labrador that invites herself for breakfast. She wants her belly rubbed, but more directly wants some cheese and salami. We ask Francescos dad if it is ok and he says sure. We see why she is a big dog as she has a love of all foods Italian including pasta according to the owner. We notice most Italian dogs have pasta as a regular part of their diet or lack of diet. Molly even likes the apples and pears we are cutting up though so at least she has a balanced diet.
We drive into the foothills near Sansepolcro and then into the Marche mountains which remind me of New Hampshire and Vermont. The leaves are just changing to yellow and red so it is a beautiful ride this morning to Ravenna. As we come out of the mountains and into the Adriatic plains the topography looks remarkably flat like Florida. To me it looks like the area near Okeechobee with black agricultural dirt and familiar crops all around including oranges, apples, pears and even sugar cane.
We are told that the traffic patterns in Ravenna are difficult and that is an understatement. We go around three times before we actually see the cut-off to the hotel and that is only with the help of a newspaper vendor. Once at the hotel, we get a parking spot in the street near the hotel and start walking towards the sightseeing. It is about two PM by the time we get into the city center so we settle for stand up pizza as we need to keep moving. This town offers eight World Heritage sites with some of the most spectacular mosaics in all of Italy. Two of the sites are closed for restoration, but we manage to see five of the eight in three hours plus an archeological museum in the basement of a church. When we stop to soak up culture in the Piazza, it is a very well deserved glass of wine this afternoon. We pick the corner table near the square and watch the teenagers be teenagers when they get together after school. It is really a short walk back to the hotel as we walked the wrong way in the morning and we head up for a well deserved shower.
We ask at the front desk if there are restaurants that are not touristy and we are directed away from the city center to La Rustica. This is one of the best dinners of the trip. The restaurant is run by Mom, her Son with an Aunt and Sister in the kitchen. It is not too busy when we get there about 9PM, but we are lucky we got right out as it fills quickly with loud groups of Italians having fun. There is a birthday party next to us and a couple of other large tables plus a mother daughter splitting an entrée and the atmosphere is just fun. Dinner is one of the best we have had with Gina ordering her favorite pasta with garlic, olive oil, hot peppers and salt. I had porcini mushrooms cooked down into a great sauce on tagliatari. After dinner, we walked back to the main Piazza for one of the best gelato stops of the whole trip. The sign said artesianale which means home made and Gina declared it the best lemon gelato in all of Italy. My cup with half chocolate and half pistachio was also one of the better ice creams I had ever had. When I dripped chocolate on my shirt and asked for some water I was immediately given a dish with seltzer water and a cloth napkin which I appreciated as we always seem to get taken care of in Italy. We will sleep well this evening in spite of the twenty people talking in the next room that are there on some type of bus tour. We thank the night desk clerk for the recommendation on the restaurant and settle our bill as we are leaving at 6AM for Venezia.
Thursday, October 11, 2007 - Adriatic Coast to Venice, Italy
We roll out of Ravenna early to try to keep the car down to three days. We head out with trepidation as we have to run the car in at Piazzale Roma in downtown Venice but we are surprised that the entry to Venice is so easy as we drive across the Causeway. We have used our own supplier Auto Europe for a prepaid car voucher and the entrance to the office is on the street from Piazzale Roma and the back door opens on the vaparetto docks out the back door.
The road from Ravenna to Venice looks like the Gulf Coast. It really reminds us of the roads in Southern Louisiana. As we leave Ravenna, we see huge dip nets to catch the eels that people eat in this region, but the trip soon turns into farmland and industrial cities along the coast including oil refineries like Louisiana. We make good time and have the car back back 10AM in Venice after a cup of coffee along the highway. When we return to the US from Italy, we will probably require coffee infusions about every two hours after the tiny strong cups of macchiato we have been drinking across Italy. You can order a café Americano which is traditional coffee or just a café which is espresso in America, but we drink macchiatos which are espresso with a touch of steamed milk.
We buy a three day vaporetto ticket which allows unlimited use of the boats, one suitcase, plus the bus to Marco Polo airport. The bags roll on and off the vaporetto, but we strongly suggest that you travel to Venice with only one bag and a carry on as one travel writer says you will never travel to Europe with more luggage on your second trip. Europe is filled with steps and cobblestones, plus our hotel has no elevator and is on the third floor.
We stash the bags in the room and ask about restaurant recomendations. We are sent up the street to Trattoria Corto Sconte and upon entry, we see a cold steamed seafood buffet that looks like San Francisco. The table has huge boiled crabs and crayfish, mini octopi, steamed shrimp, and some type of fish row. We have been prepared that things are more expensive in Venice as it is known as the most expensive city in Italy and it is. We have found that the further you get away from the Grand Canal, the cheaper the food is and Venice has some delightful local establishments frequented mostly by locals rather than the tourist restaurants on the canal and Venice Bay.
We start with crayfish grilled in a butter garlic sauce, followed by a simple fresh pasta vongole with clams. Venice red wine is thinner than those to the south but a nice change of pace after the Chiantis, Tuscan Reds and Nero d'Avolas we have sipped. After lunch, we take a few hours to tour the Pallazo of the Doges of Venice to learn the history of the city. This also has a tour of the prison with the famous Bridge of Sighs. This was the last view of the bay and outside window that prisoners saw as they crossed to their cell for a life in jail. After lunch, we wander head into St. Marks Square to watch the crazy tourists feed the pigeons (this unsanitary practice was recently outlawed after our visit) as they even land on their heads. We tire of the crowds in St. Marks Square and head out on a walking tour suggested by the hotel and end up at the Church of the Madonna across the Grand Canal. After a tour of the church and a walk through the surrounding neighborhoods we have an overpriced split of red wine at a table on the Grand Canal.
We rose at 6AM so we skip a shower before dinner and head to a local trattoria suggested by our hotel. When asking for a restaurant suggestion in Italy, if you say No Tourista, you will usually be sent to a local place but you have to learn a few words of Italian as many of these restaurants do not have people that speak much English. In Venice, everybody seems to speak some English and our Italian has gotten much better since we have been immersed in it for two weeks so it is pretty easy. The trattoria (this one is more a local pizza joint) is full of Italian families and couples, the kids are very cute and the food is always great. Gina has a marinara with no cheese but sauce and garlic and John picks a spicy salami, capers cheese called a Sicialana. We find it a good joke that the pizza is named a Siciliana, but all of Ginas family always orders a margharita with just cheese and sauce. Along with the pizza we get a great green salad with just baby green lettuce that gets topped with extra virgin olive oil and a neat white wine vinegar.
After dinner, we take a walk for a coffee and a gelato. Gina has lemon and John has two scoops with one pistachio and one chocolate. We finish the walk along the Grand Canal and head back for a well deserved sleep.
Friday, October 12, 2007 - Venice, Italy
Friday breaks out bright and sunny and we go for Cappucinnos at a local bar then out to St. Marks Square. We go the St. Marks Basilica first before the crowds get too thick. We only have to wait about 15 minutes to go inside and we head up to the museum upstairs which costs an extra three Euros but is well worth the cost. You get up close to the ceiling in places, they have special mosaics that are very nice.
Our St. Marks museum ticket is also valid at the museum of natural history so we head across town as it is only open until 12:30 but except for the dinasour bones, it is a disappointment. It does put us in a great little neighborhood called Santa Croce and we find an outdoor trattoria on the Campo that looks real good. We have our first menu faux paux of the trip as we order a secondo of veal that is actually veal liver which has a lot of onions so it is ok, but not what we thought. We kept thinking sweet veal but they meant veal sweetbreads or organs. The meal is actually great except for that as we have a spicy bowl of black mussels and a fried seafood platter with shrimp, calamari and fried vegetables. The vino della casa is good and the campo is bright and full of locals that make the people watching interesting with local musicians.
We watch an entire grocery store being delivered by boat which is pretty interesting considering the shrink wrapped pallets have to be delivered from the boat with a crane onboard then brought up the street by men with pallet jacks before it is all unshrink wrapped by the store personnel. It helps you understand why things are so expensive in Venice because of the delivery cost to a City that is an island. The shrink wrap must keep the groceries dry across the bumpy Grand Canal.
We finish the trip with a trip to Murano to see the glass museum and by a few gifts for friends. We consider a set of six glasses from Murano, but we are already overloaded to leave a city by boat and the Euro is crazy expensive by now (about 1.45 to the dollar) so we decide maybe next time as we board the vaporetto for the trip back to Venice. We get off the vaporetto on the opposite side of Venice from our hotel and cut through the Costello neighborhood. You definitely need a good map of Venice to find your way as the little winding streets and small pontes (bridges) make is like winding through a maze as you look for your hotel. The neighbors put up little signs with arrows that say St. Marks or Rialto because they are tired of giving directions to the lost tourist.
After our walk, we stop at a wine bar downstairs and taste some local wines from the Venice area. With sadness, we pack to leave Italy the next day. After a few hours, we go out to see about dinner with a recommendation from the local wine store. We are surprised that Venice does a huge weekend business with Parisians, Swiss and Italians so we are unable to get into the recommended restaurant without a reservation. We try another more commercial place that has lots of tables and are told if we wait 15 minutes, we can get a table. The place is busy, but we have a great meal with pasta and a lemon butter flounder to finish off this trip.
Saturday, October 13, 2007 Depart Venice, Italy
We are up earlier than most of the tourists so the walk to the Vaporetto is quiet. We purposely take a route to Piazzale Roma that we have not been on yet and we pass some huge ships owned by MSC, Princess and Royal Caribbean. It is going to be a busy day in Venice. At Piazzale Roma, we transfer from the Vaporetto to the Express bus for the airport. We cross the Causeway and traverse through the suburbs of Venice to the airport which is modern and clean. We are in line with stewardesses with US Airways that are on vacation. We talk about the problems they are having to Europe and they admit that they too have seen problems. They give us the email address for the President of the airline and encourage us to write a letter.
As a smart aleck, I suggest to my wife that we should buy some sandwiches before boarding the plane and the airport bar has Prosecco so we have a few glasses before boarding. We allow the cruise ship passengers to push past us and board first while we enjoy a last glass of Prosecco in the airport lounge. When boarding, my wife gets picked for a random search. The Italian security invite me to stay with her unlike America and I even help to repack her carry-ons while she is being wanded. I joke that she is a Sicilian and they should search her good but we all have a laugh. I would not have made that joke in a TSA line in the US.
When we finally board the plane, true to form, our third US Airways flight breaks down (out of five on this trip) and we are delayed about an hour. Being a travel agent, I have scheduled plenty of time between planes, but the people who booked on the internet are freaking out about missing connections already. By the time the airplane is fixed, the Italian ground crew is on a coffee break, so we are delayed another half an hour but finally we are airborne and heading over the Dolomites toward northern Europe. Another great trip to Italia and we will be going back to Sicily in 2010.