Lady, you can’t be serious!
My flight from Malta to Naples went via Rome, and the first leg was pleasant, being seated next to a Maltese lady who was a Social Worker and had spent time working in Blacktown, NSW. We talked about all things social work related, and she was keen to learn more about the Lead Tenant house I live in, while I was educated on the rising domestic violence and homelessness situation in Malta. I had free wifi in the airport in Rome (why is it that Melbourne Airport charges for the use of their wifi and no other airport seems to?), yet my flight from Rome to Naples was eyebrow raising to say the least.
The plane was half empty, yet I had a window seat next to two large African women. Their clothes were bright and colourful and their hair piled on their head. I was about to compliment the one next to me on her hair, until she turned away from me and I realised with a shock it was a wig! Upon closer inspection I could see her natural black hair poking out from underneath, and I turned to look out the window to hide my smile. Suddenly I felt a sharp stab in my thigh and when I turned towards her she had a painted fingernail jabbed into my leg. Without another word she then pointed to the in-flight magazine with the word ‘Valencia’ on it and asked ‘Spain?’ I agreed that Valencia was in Spain and she returned to the conversation with her friend. A little puzzled and massaging the area of my leg where she had poked me, I returned to watching the goings on on the tarmac. The men in the rows ahead of me continued to talk loudly in Italian while the weary looking hostess gave the safety demonstration, and I felt sorry for her having to put up with their rudeness. One of my pet hates is people who don’t remove their sunglasses when talking to you indoors, and these guys continued to wear their mirror lenses the whole flight. Luckily they only talked across the aisle between themselves.
As the plane was moving to the runway I realised with horror that the woman next to me was talking on her mobile phone! I looked at her friend who just smiled, and I was shocked that she continued to talk, albeit in hushed tones, for the next few minutes. I don’t think mobile phones can interfere with actual aircraft controls or we’d surely have them confiscated on boarding, however I was stunned at her audacity. Come on lady, there are blanket rules for a reason and it doesn’t take much for you to respect them when necessary. Far out! Thankfully she put the phone away when the plane gathered speed, but I was still shaking my head at her attitude.
Entertaining myself by watching Rome get smaller below us, suddenly her arm snaked across my view and she shut the window blind just ahead of me. What the?! No pardon me, excuse me, do you mind or could you please – just reach out and encroach upon my space a little more why don’t you. I was fuming, however we were seated above the wing and admittedly that window was blindingly bright, so I left the blind down and continued to look out the one slightly behind me. I was in no mood to argue with these two large women who had me boxed into the window seat, nor did I want to deal with a tired and possibly cranky air hostess., but still, a little courtesy would go a long way.
With now only clouds to see I got my netbook out to type and turned it slightly so she couldn’t read what I wrote. Next I know she’s gouging around in her nostril picking her nose. Boy oh boy, the sooner I get off this flight the better. As we were coming to land in Naples she repeated the procedure with the blind, opening it this time and I kept my eyes firmly glued to the window I claimed as mine, effectively blocking her view. Thankfully she wasn’t able to manoeuvre herself well enough to stick her head into my window and I sat looking out the window until we landed.
Interestingly, the stairs we descended were actually the underside of the aircraft tail, and I was intrigued, having never seen stairs that formed a part of the aircraft before. I boarded the waiting shuttle bus at the opposite end to where the women sat, and little did I know that that flight was going to be fairly indicative of my time in Naples and Rome..
Arrival in Dirty Naples
Arriving in Naples I was repulsed by the amount of rubbish piled in the streets. I’m not talking a few random plastic bags, this was stinking, steaming piles of garbage – broken bottles, food scraps, cardboard boxes, nappies, plastic bags and more. It was absolutely disgusting. There was also graffiti everywhere! It was pouring with rain when I arrived, and no one other than a few fellow tourists spoke English. Even the receptionist at the hostel I stayed in didn’t speak English. I had breakfast included in my stay, and although he gave me the card to get brekky at a nearby restaurant, he did not understand when I asked what time it was served. ‘No Englise’ was a common term I got used to hearing in Naples. I ended up drawing pictures of three analogue clock faces showing times of 7, 8 and 9 and he pointed to the clock that said 8 – at least that was easy enough to sort out. Brekky turned out to be just a croissant and glass of juice, so you were right Natalina – just one ‘lousy’ croissant as you put it!
I realised I’d been spoilt in Malta without knowing it, because everyone spoke English and were friendly, so it was a bit of a shock to arrive in Naples and be confronted with the opposite. I had read that you must validate your public transport tickets in Italy, for the train police will target tourists and issue a large fine if you haven’t. What I didn’t realise at the time was the ticket I had obtained on the bus from the airport I could have also used on the trains to the hostel. However, wanting to do the right thing, I entered the main train station and asked around where to buy a ticket as there were no self service machines I could see. ‘No Englise, No Englise’ were the replies I got, so I chose the most expensive looking shop I could find and thankfully the sales girl was able to understand and speak English well enough to point me in the direction of the Newsagent where I had to buy the ticket.
Having obtained the ticket I made my way to the platform she had indicated was the one I needed (having the address written on a bit of paper was handy), then realised it wasn’t validated. Trudging up the flight of stairs again, I managed to locate the validating machines and get my ticket stamped. These machines were not well signed, nor did they look particularly important, so I can see why so many tourists overlook them. Back to the platform I went, and arrived as the train I needed was leaving. I waited 40 minutes for the next one, and managed to follow a few American kids as they headed ito the same station as me. Plodding along the street towards the hostel, I was drenched by the rain and any person I asked for directions simply muttered ‘No Englise’ and walked off.
Eventually I found the alley where the hostel was located, and, in the dark just managed to make out the hostel name amongst a list of next to buzzers on the wall. The guy answered in Italian and when I heard the door click I pushed and it opened into a central courtyard/car park. Having no further directions to follow, I wandered around a bit until I found the hostel entrance, and lugged my now wet and heavy backpack up three flights of stairs. From leaving the hostel in Malta to arriving at the one in Naples was a total duration of ten hours, and I was tired, soaked and wanted a good night’s sleep. Thankfully I was the only person in my room, and it had an air conditioner, wifi and a spotlessly clean bathroom which was nice, although the toilet seat wasn’t secure and if you sat on it any way other than dead centre it slid violently to one side and felt as if you’d end up on the floor!
Sights of Naples
I woke up to beautiful weather on the Saturday, and walked around Naples for the whole day. The markets were interesting, and I was intrigued by the open air food stalls. One seafood shop was below an apartment and they washing hanging directly over the fish which I imagine would leave the clothes smelling particularly bad. I saw a wedding procession through the narrow crowded streets, with guests walking ahead of the fancy cars that announced their arrival with horns tooting, before the bride arrived at the church to the song ‘Here comes the bride’ blaring from loudspeakers. I saw a car with an open boot full of large ferns in pot plants spilling out of the rear of the vehicle, and scooters galore with most often two or three people astride the little seat. Sometimes they wore helmets, sometimes they didn’t. Those that did often had a phone shoved halfway into the side of the helmet to talk as they rode, while others simply held the phone to their ear. Sometimes there were groups of three friends on the scooter, laughing and talking as they rode, while other times it was mum and two kids – one standing in front and the other clasped on behind. To cross the street in Naples you just have to walk out and keep walking – and it took me a while to remember they drive on the opposite side of the road to Australians, so the childhood rule about looking both ways before you cross the street became particularly important! The drivers zoom around you and your chances of not getting hit are better when you allow them to navigate their course, rather than you trying to navigate around them.
I went to the information centre hoping to get some basic info on where to go and what to do, but all that was offered was a city map and ‘Hop on, hop off’ bus timetable. The map was marked with little icons for sights to see, so I made my way around those. I did visit the Museo Cappella Sansevero, which contains the ‘Veiled Christ’ marble statue. It was interesting from an artistic point of view, as it was quite realistic looking and did make you want to touch the ‘veil’ to see if it was really made from marble. I got the local bus to Mergellina, a little south west of the centre of Naples and along the water, and pursued a halting conversation with a lady who sighed and looked wistful when I said I was from Australia. She gave me a ticket for the bus because I hadn’t found where to buy them on the street, and she told me it was from the ‘Tabacci’ shops. These ‘Tabacci’ shops are kind of like milk bars back home, as they sell a variety of everything, including cigarettes.
I made my way along the waterfront to the Castel dell’Ovo, a castle on land that jutted out into the sea, upon which was built a small marina. Taking photos with yourself in them becomes a skill when you travel alone, and can often be a good way to meet people. A couple from Northern Italy saw me doing this and offered to take my picture, to which I gladly agreed – if only to speak English for a little while. They were really nice and in Naples for the first time themselves. Anytime I heard a snippet of English I’d be drawn to the person/people because it was the only time I got to talk to someone who spoke the same language. Even the hostel I was staying in seemed deserted, so I spent most of the day talking to myself for company 🙂
I tried to say the basics of hello, thank you and goodbye in Italian, but even then I got stared at and look upon as if I was not worthy of their time. I found the people in Naples to be rude, aggressive and not at all welcoming. Granted I was there on a weekend and the weather was poor, however I was taken aback at the hostile feel of the city. I was warned by two women and an elderly man I asked directions from to watch my bag from thieves and pickpockets, ‘Attenzione, attenzione’, while pointing to my bag, and I figured for locals to warn me the situation must be pretty bad. People are trying to sell you stuff everywhere you go – fake name brand handbags, sunglasses, scarves, umbrellas and even socks. I had one guy follow me up the street for about two minutes insisting I look at the socks he was selling, even after I said no a number of times and kept walking. The hassling reminded me of the markets in Africa, and I’m sure they are similar to those in many other countries, but seriously, I’m certainly not going to buy something because you pressure me into it.
Pompei and Mount Vesuvius
On Sunday I went on a tour to Pompei and Mt Vesuvius, and both were really good. We had a fantastic guide who knew answers to every question we asked and he knew and explained the Latin and Greek symbols, words and mythology. He gave us so much more information than we expected and it was really informative, and a nice change to be with people who spoke English as there were four Americans and two Londoners on the tour with me. We learnt that Pizza originated in Pompei, because people didn’t have time to sit down for lunch so the restaurants would sell their lunch on an edible ‘plate’ – just like a pizza as we know it today. With the lack of schooling in those days people did not have numbered streets, your house location was simply known by the face of the god/goddess carved into the water trough nearest your house.
Brothels were an important part of everyday life, to keep the violence and aggression levels low to minimal, and the word SPA as we know it comes from Latin words meaning ‘Health by water’ – which is how the people of Pompei would spend their afternoons after working all morning. There were phallic symbols all throughout the buildings, some carved into stone like graffiti, others were built onto walls and footpaths. This was to invite the gods of fertility to bless their families, because the infant mortality rate was so high they wanted to produce many children to ensure their family flourished. The gladiators were not so by choice, however they were slaves and criminals whose punishment was to fight for others entertainment. If they won a bout they earnt money, and winning enough times meant they also had a chance at gaining their freedom.
We climbed Mt Vesuvius, or at least the last 600m anyway. My Grandpa had climbed it in 1949, only five years after it last erupted, and I was keen to do the same. The crater is huge, although not having any comparison I’m not sure if it large in terms of other volcanoes. I glimpsed a few wisps of smoke from the centre, however I was a bit surprised to see grass growing in the crater. It makes sense when I think about it, because it has been 67 years since the last eruption and the crater is comprised of dirt, rocks and vegetation, however it was something I guess I just hadn’t considered. There is now a railing around the edge, which wasn’t there when my Grandpa was there, and there are a few stalls selling postcards and gimmicks as you climb up. We were told we could take some rocks from the crater, so I got a few little ones of different colours since I’m betting there will come a day when you’re not allowed to take anything from the site.
An encounter as we headed up the mountain left us all in stitches from laughing so much. Our mini bus driver was stuck behind a large tour bus and at one sharp corner we came across another large tour bus heading down hill. Drivers in Italy seem to announce their arrival at intersections by tooting the horn, and in this case it was an early and appropriate warning system as the road was barely wide enough for one bus, let alone two. Our driver and the tour bus reversed their vehicles, while the other tour bus navigated the corner, and we were perched precariously on the very edge of the road while we waited for the outcome. Suddenly our driver darted onto the other side of the road and drove parallel to the bus ahead of us and towards the oncoming bus. As we squeezed between the two vehicles with only about an inch free on either side, the downhill tour bus driver shouted something in Italian, to which our guide replied, also in Italian. Once we’d succeeded in passing we left them to work it out and continued up the mountain, while our guide explained in English what had been said. Apparently the oncoming bus driver had yelled ‘Why were you behind the other bus?’ to which our guide replied ‘Why was your mother behind the stove?’ We thought it was hilarious because it was a stupid question that deserved an equal reply, and the guide had succeeded in delivering just that.
Arrival in Rude Rome
I was glad to be leaving Naples and heading to Rome, and managed to buy myself a ticket from the self service machines, rather than waiting in line for hours to be served by staff who didn’t seem to ever be in a rush or care if you missed your train. Even these tickets had to be validated, which seemed idiotic as it was for a particular train at a particular time and platform, however I complied. I double checked with a girl reading the departures board that I was on the correct platform and headed for the right train. Barely any of the instructions were in English, so I wanted to be sure.
I had the cheapest of unallocated seating, yet when I got on the train there was no one to ask for directions to the correct carriage, nor did I see seat numbers, so I simply sat in the nearest seat to where I got on. As it turned out it was an excellent choice, as a good looking guy had sat across the aisle just before me and he spoke English! We talked the whole way to Rome, and I discovered Mike was a Hawaiian born pilot currently living in Dubai. He’d travelled a lot and was interested in photography so we had plenty to talk about.
Upon arriving in Rome I was pleasantly surprised to hear a lot more English spoken than in Naples, however the customer service was, if at all possible, worse in Rome. We headed to the information desk to get maps, the first essential any traveller obtains when in a new city. We waited in line (there seem to be lines for everything in Italy) and after a few minutes of watching the two women at the desk chat between themselves while the line grew longer my patience wore thin. Leaning over the desk I asked if they simply had any maps available and thankfully one woman got up and retrieved a stack from a cupboard. She handed me one and turned on her heel and walked off again. Uh, hello – we actually want two – is that so difficult?! Mike then asked for one as well and she simply ignored him. To the point we decided it was deliberate and finally another traveller offered us their map instead.
I found this attitude prevalent in Rome. Everywhere you went you had to wait in line, which I could understand as there were so many tourists even at the start of summer, but the customer service people seemed inclined to provide no service whatsoever. They were rude, abrupt, unfriendly and lacked manners. I may expect that at the end of their summer, but the city is a major tourist attraction, so if you don’t like the job you have then get one where you are not expected to provide customer service. Every English speaking tourist I met had had similar experiences, and all agreed that as a tourist draw card, Rome was a disappointment.
I went to another tourist info centre for further information, or at least get brochures of the city’s highlights and bus/train info, and was given none of it. I was told you could buy public transport maps and timetables for €2.50 (Euro), which I was not going to do. I asked for directions to the Catacombs and the woman stabbed her finger at the map and said the bus number I had to get. I wanted clarification on how long the bus was, how much it cost etc, (all the usual things a tourist place gets asked I’m sure) and she just told me to ask the bus driver – well I discovered the bus driver didn’t speak English. I managed to get to the Catacombs with a tonne of guess work, pointing at maps and signs and a lot of waiting around. Buses in Italy rarely arrive on time, if at all, and you often can’t buy tickets on the bus and have to pre-purchase them at ‘Tabacci’ shops. None of this was explained to me at the info place, I learned it by myself or from other tourists.
One morning the wifi in the hostel wasn’t working, so at 8am I pushed the buzzer for the receptionist, and she opened the little window bleary eyed and barked ‘What?’ I asked if there was problem with the internet as it wasn’t working, and she said ‘No internet’ and slammed the window shut. Geez Louise, it was 8am and I’m paying to stay here woman! Is it too much to ask for even a polite rebuff? Another time I was in a supermarket trying to decipher the packaging of the items I wanted, when an older Italian man walked past me to get a bottle of wine. I was still standing there when he returned, and although there was plenty of room for him to get past me, as he did so he raised his elbow sharply and knocked a packet out of my hand. I was stunned, and looked at an Italian woman nearby who simply raised her eyebrows and shrugged her shoulders. I walked out of the shop and decided the only nice people in Rome were the tourists.
I wanted to send some postcards home, yet the post office closed at 12noon, so asking at the ‘Tabacci’ shops I was told one stamp was going to cost me 2euro. No way! That is extortion – equal to about $2.50 back home. Come on, it cost €0.67 per stamp to send postcards from Malta, so they can’t cost €2 per stamp in Italy. Other places I asked said €1.60 which I still wasn’t going to pay, but just proved my point that ROME = Rip Off Merchant Extraordinaires! I wanted to go to the post office to ask, but twice when I went there the line was out the door and I didn’t feel like wasting half a day waiting.
The food was another issue. Advertised prices were often only for take away, as soon as you sat down you were charged more for using the table, plus a ‘service’ fee. Food that didn’t have a price on it was often weighed and you paid per weight, which of course wasn’t explained. If it was, I’d have asked for half as much because I didn’t eat it all anyway. I just took what they served and figured it was a set price, but alas, it was not. A serving of eggplant lasagne plus two pieces of zucchini cooked with tomato and cheese on top cost me €8.90. Everyone raves about the pizza in Naples but I have to say, I was unimpressed. Luckily I found one small shop in Rome where the guy made the pizza in front of you, and it only cost €5, however the Capriccosa pizza I ordered came out with a few slices of mushroom, three whole olives, tomato and oregano and an egg in the middle. It was fresh and tasted good, but seemed to be a rare find as most of the food I’ve seen that is reasonably priced is drenched in olive oil.
The sights in Rome were nice, although a little underwhelming. Mike and I wandered around and saw a fair bit, as Rome is pretty small so you can basically walk everywhere. I think the Colosseum was more impressive from the outside than from the inside, and I got some great pictures of it on a clear sunny day. I am amazed that people live in this city where there are so many old monuments and such history, since Australia has so little. The main road that leads to the Colosseum would be a route for many people to and from work I’m sure, yet I guess if you lived there you wouldn’t notice it after a while.
The Trevi fountain had a hundred or so people surrounding it even at 8pm so I didn’t stay long, and the lines for the Vatican were ridiculous so I didn’t go in there either. I did go into a number of other Churches and Basilica’s, and one free museum I found, along with the Roman Forum and Archaeological site adjacent to the Colosseum. I walked to most of the Piazza’s (public squares) in Rome, photographed most of their Obelisk’s (tall structures usually in the middle of a Piazza and obstructing your view of the building behind), and saw the Pantheon. My favourite place in Rome was Piazza Navona because I arrived to find a musical ensemble playing lively songs; I didn’t get hassled to buy anything although there were numerous stalls selling artwork throughout the Piazza; and the fountain there was nicer than the Trevi fountain! It was the first place in Rome I really enjoyed, and for anyone going to Rome I’d say that has to be a first stop. Restaurants were setting up and I imagine it would be a nice spot for dinner too, although I was a bit early for that. The other place I heard was nice but didn’t get to visit was Trastevere.
The Leaning Tower Rescues Italy
After the disappointment of Naples and Rome I was glad to be heading to Pisa and the Leaning Tower. I’ve always wanted to see this tower, and now my chance had come and it did not disappoint. The Leaning Tower was my first real ‘wow’ moment for Italy, and didn’t even see it coming so to say. I was following my photocopied map and suddenly looked up and there it was, in the background behind residential flats and houses. Just like that – amongst people’s homes and it is such a cool, unique building that attracts visitors from all over the world, yet some lucky ones see it every day when hanging out the washing.
I decided to pay the €15 to climb it and was so glad I did. You could actually feel the lean of the tower as you climbed the steps circling the inside. I hadn’t thought it would be so obvious, but it certainly was. One minute you were at equi-distance between the walls and with a few more steps you suddenly found yourself closer to the outer wall and as you went higher it became necessary to physically put your left hand on the wall as you climbed, to keep your balance. It was amazing and I highly recommend doing the climb if you get the chance.
We were allowed to go outside at a point half way up (as the previous group descended), and again at the top we were allowed to circle the exterior and take photos. This is where you were visually affected by the lean. On the high side all was good, then as you walked around to the lower side you suddenly saw a bit more ground than previously and gravity meant you automatically leant towards the rickety looking railing meant to keep you ‘safe’. I wasn’t too bothered, but you could see the ones who were. They were either creeping along with their back pressed against the tower, not daring go near the railing, or some were practically sliding along on their bums so as not to have to stand up. It was difficult to get pictures from the top to show the lean, so I got some great ones from the ground instead. The weather had been cloudy and overcast when I left Rome but had cleared to a brilliant blue sky with a few clouds upon my arrival in Pisa. I took it as a sign of good things to come.
The next day I headed to Florence, for a few hours stop over before Bologna. I loved Florence. It was basically along the river, with grand buildings and architecture to admire, and had trees which gave it a living quality that I’d missed in Rome. I found it extremely difficult to get maps of any kind in Italy, and if the information centres actually existed and happened to have a map they wanted to charge you €2 for it. They seriously tried to squeeze every last dollar out of the tourists, and I didn’t like it. I discovered the Hop-On, Hop-Off buses in every city, and I would ask for a map of the bus routes under the guise of studying it before I bought a ticket. Considering the ticket for each city was between € 18 and € 22, I certainly wasn’t going to get on the bus. However, the maps they had indicated all the major landmarks and icons that the buses stopped at and which roads they took to get there. So, I followed the routes on foot. Not all of the route mind you, just the sections I was interested in. The maps didn’t name every street, but you got the general gist of where to go and how to get there. This method continues to work for me in every city that has the Hop-On, Hop-Off buses and has saved me a few € ‘s in the process!
I saw all the major ‘must see’s’ in Florence, and was a little overwhelmed with the nunber of tourists around, however I soon discovered they were from a cruise ship that docked in Florence for the day and there were not usually quite so many people around at the beginning of June. I met some lovely people from Wales, who told me of a nice coffee shop to visit when I get there and who also took a photo of me on my camera. This is an ongoing issue when you travel alone, getting photos of yourself. Often you resort to the self portrait style, other times you have to ask someone else to take it. Being particular about photography I often do not like the photos other people take, so I now set up the camera to how I want it, including zooming it and sometimes even taking a photo of the area I want them to get and point to where I will stand when they take the photo. Sometimes they get it right, other times I say thanks and delete the photo they took because it’s crap and repeat the process with someone else a bit later on 🙂
I had intended to get a certain train from Florence to Bologna, the cheaper one, but when I wanted to book the ticket it was sold out. Not happy! This meant that instead of paying about $10 for a seat on a train (ok, so it was a bit slower, but who cares, I was still going to get there in the end!), I had to pay just over $30 for standing room only on a faster train – either that or pay for a night’s accommodation in Florence. Geez, the Italian rail system, Trenitalia, can be great and can be equally as frustrating. I discovered how to find the cheap tickets online, but you obviously should book them online to get the discount. I bought the (way too expensive ticket) for the 40 minute trip, and ended up talking to a nice Italian lawyer, who ended up helping me with directions once we arrived in Bologna.
The hostel in Bologna was out of the city centre, so made another (what felt like epic) journey to get there and was ready for bed by the time I arrived. To my pleasant surprise, the staff at this hostel were Italian yet they spoke English really well! That was all I needed to perk up again, this was the first time I had Italian people who I could ask actual questions of, about their country, the transport etc etc. I think my check in was the longest on record, about an hour all up. I asked them all the questions about Italy that thus far I’d just guessed the answers to. I found out about the divide between the North and South of Italy; why the rubbish is such an issue in Naples (more involved with the politics and the ‘Mafia’ than just people not caring); the difficulties in getting a job and possible reasons why those in customer service are still ‘serving’ when they clearly don’t want to be; and why tourists are ripped off so much. They confirmed for me that there is a general attitude in Italy that every last euro should be coerced from the tourists as much as possible (or words to that effect!) This was the first of a few occasions I heard this from an Italian, so I wasn’t imagining it, we were being purposely ripped off at every opportunity.
I had intended to look around Bologna before heading to Venice, however it was pouring rain that day and I didn’t feel like lugging my backpack around while dodging puddles and getting drenched. It almost became routine that it rained for one day in each place I stayed in Italy.. I decided to go straight to Venice and was glad I did. I met up with my couch surfing host, Dario. He owns a Gelateria and I was most interested in this concept, and being new to gelato/gelati (one is singular and the other plural but I’m not sure I can remember which is which..) I was intrigued. The samples I’d had thus far in Italy were pretty good, and amazingly tasted exactly – or pretty close at the very least – to the flavour it was meant to be. This was, I later discovered, because it was made from a heap of chopped fruit, sugar and a few other ingredients to make it malleable enough to serve. Yum yum!
Dario was kind enough to show me the buses from his place into Venice, and took me for a brief walking tour of this enchanting city. I loved it! There are no cars once you get past the bus area, and the canals and bridges are so picturesque – I had to control how many photos I took so it was a reasonable number to go through afterwards. Venice was amazing. So different to the other Italian cities I’d visited, and was a welcome change. Everyone walked everywhere or took the traghetto (public water boats to cross the main canal for €0.50 per person) or the ferry boats (€16 for 12 hours to use as often as you want) if they couldn’t afford a gondola trip – which would set you back about €80-€100.
I met Dario’s flatmates, and was introduced to Venice at night, and to the local popular drink of Spritz – a concoction of wine and Campari or Aperol and sparkling mineral water with an olive on a stick to stir it all around. It was then I realised just how much we pay for alcohol in Australia. It’s crazy how cheap it is in Europe – and I can understand now why so many young people can afford to drink their way around Europe.. It was really nice to have some friendly faces to meet, and be shown some local spots and be told more about the city than you will ever find in a guide book.
The next day I headed into Venice early and wandered around the streets and got lost even with a map. I discovered you asked at the police station for maps if the info desks didn’t have any, so there’s another handy tip for those wondering where and how to get orientated in a new city in Italy – try the cop shop! I didn’t even manage to cover a good section of Venice, even though I walked for about 10 hours. It’s amazing how many streets and public spaces and tiny bridges there are to navigate. Many times I saw a couple musing over a map while trying to find their way back to where they started, or to find a new location to visit. If you waited in the same place long enough you would sometimes see the same couple reappear a short while later and still not know where they were!
There was the annual regatta in Venice that day, which meant I couldn’t take any of the ferries because they weren’t running until the evening to return the locals home, yet there were heaps of photo opportunities and so many gondola’s winding their way through the canals. I heard some Gondoliers singing, but most just talked (shouted) to the nearest other Gondolier while they raked in the cash. I saw one group of Japanese tourists in a gondola and the mother was so excited, clapping along to the singing of her Gondolier, I was concerned she might fall in the canal she was so taken with the experience. I don’t know how people can think it’s romantic because for every gondola I saw there were numerous people on the bridges and sides of the canals taking pictures and watching those in the boats and it didn’t seem to be particularly romantic or private..
I heard that a Gondolier can make up to €200,000 per year, (about AU$250,000) and that is only working for six months a year for a few hours a day. The guide who said this also said that until last year there had only been male Gondoliers, but the ‘President’ of the Gondolier Society/Association didn’t have a son, so he had to change the rules to let his daughter take over. Apparently there are only two places in Venice that make the actual gondolas, and it is a ‘secret’ trade as such. The gondola is made for the particular weight and size of the owner, although these then get ‘leased’ out to other Gondoliers to use, while the ‘Master/Owner’ counts his cash at home. I was intrigued by the shape and meaning in the various aspects of these boats.
They are not symmetrical, they curve around to the left, sort of like a banana laying on its side. This is because the operator only uses one paddle on the right side of the vessel and this curve assists in his control. The silver fin at the front represents the fish shape of Venice, and the seven prongs on this fin represent the seven districts of Venice. I couldn’t find an answer to why some Gondoliers wore navy blue striped shirts while others had red stripes, but they were interesting to watch nevertheless. I particularly liked when there was a ‘gondola traffic jam’ and I saw about seven gondolas all approaching the same section of canal between two bridges at once. There was much shouting and pushing off walls with their feet and holding onto the underside of the bridges to slow the boats down. These gondolas can be manoeuvred forwards and backwards, and can turn the sharpest corners imaginable. A collision was avoided and I was suitably impressed – although not enough to pay for the ride myself.
I had won an Italian walking tour with Intrepid before I’d left for Europe, so I chose a tour that included a few drinks and snacks along the way, and figured that was my dinner sorted for that night! I hadn’t expected to be fed much at all, but the third place we stopped included a good serving of lasagne, which of course would be rude not to finish it all off, so I did just that. I met a nice couple from Geneva, Switzerland on the tour, and they convinced me I should also visit their city on my trip, which I think I’ll do. I’ll shuffle things around and see what I can organise.
On my last day in Venice it was cloudy and overcast, and it rained as well. Italy was determined I not forget it was winter back in AU just yet.. I took the ferries to Murano to see the glass blowers at work, and then to Burano, where all the houses are painted bright colours. Apparently this dates back to when the island was a major fishing base and the colours helped the fishermen identify their own house when they returned in heavy fog. I was not expecting the brilliance of the colours, yet I saw reds, blues, greens, yellows, oranges and purples. The island was small enough to cover within a short time, and I did just this. I will aim to have the remained of my Italy photos up soon so you can see what I mean by these colours.
I wanted to send a parcel home before I flew to Spain, to reduce my carrying load and also to protect the presents I’d bought. Well, lesson learnt – and for anyone considering this in future, take note – DO NOT MAIL ITEMS FROM ITALY. It will cost you a fortune, and apparently there is a high chance it will not arrive safely anyway. Dario came to the post office with me, as I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t get ripped off if I tried to negotiate it myself. Well the lady weighed it and after much negotiation in Italian that I didn’t understand, I was told that the 2.03kg package was going to cost me €50. My face dropped and obviously said it all, because I certainly wasn’t going to pay that for two kgs. Holy moly. That is roughly $65. That’s insane! I was told I could open the parcel and remove 30g worth of goods, but I was running precariously close to time to arrive at the airport and couldn’t honestly be bothered. Dario managed to negotiate the price to €29, which I still thought was outrageous, however it was slightly better and would get if off my hands. I bought two more stamps, at the official price of €2 each (so those who get postcards with Italian stamps should consider yourself lucky – I only sent five of them because they were so expensive), and the total came to €38 – somewhere another tax had been added on that even Dario couldn’t explain. I am still amazed that they can charge those prices and get away with it, but this is my warning to anyone travelling in future – send your parcels once you leave Italy. As an aside note, I’ve since discovered that stamps from Spain to AU are only €0.80 which is much more reasonable, so I’ve posted some from Spain.
Overall I loved the northern cities of Italy that I visited, and would certainly go back there again and see those cities I didn’t have a chance to visit this time, although I think I’d avoid Rome next time. Or if I did it would be for a day and that would be tops. It was very nice to get into this couch surfing to meet people from the local area rather than just fellow tourists (thanks again Dario!), and I had my fingers crossed for nice weather and new stories to post from Spain. Stay tuned..
Photos of Italy
Photos from Italy can be viewed here – enter ‘europe’ when prompted for a password.