Italy 2008

Sharon's 50th

We get an invitation for a week at a villa in Umbria for Sharon’s 50th birthday party. Accepting immediately, we plan a month long trip to Italy, where we have never been together. We go in June and get a lot of rain. A lot. Days in a row.

In Rome we stay in a small room in a small pensione in Trastevere. It is a trendy, across the river, bohemian kind of ‘hood. At night the squares are filled with restaurant tables. The tables are filled with locals and tourists. The menus are almost all the same. You just find a table wherever you can and sit down. Glad for a table.

Lunch at Gusto does not disappoint. A recommendation from a piece on Rome in Bon Appetite, it is a buffet of Italian deli food. Lots of veg. Cheese. Not expensive. Over by the Piazza Poppolo. From there we walk through old Rome. The Trevi fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona. Stop at Piazza Navona for a drink. A cold glass of Prosecco. We find a piece of art to bring home. After this trip Piazza Navona will be a favourite. We get a sunny rain-free afternoon, under a market umbrella, sipping and nibbling and watching. These kinds of experiences are, for me, just as sweet and memorable as the myriad museums we visit. Maybe moreso.

A day at St. Peter’s is borderline overwhelming. So much art and architecture. And history. We take a tour in order to avoid the line.

The coliseum day is blustery and wet. We lean into the wind and rain, walking to the ruin. The photos are dark. Dull. Grey. As is the day. We finally take refuge in a museum cafe.

Firenze is a quick train ride away and a perfect three day stop. We spend the first two nights at a B & B on a hill overlooking the city, a restored villa in a park-like setting. Gorgeous! Not to mention Antonio, the owner, a 30 yr old Italian Mel Gibson. After two nights we move downtown to a 3-star place. Very basic rooms. Clean. Good location. Excellent view of the cathedral from our room.

We see the usual sights – the Uffizi, the cathedral, the Academia – walking for hours.

Craig’s birthday dinner is on the outskirts of town at a basement bodega. Afterwards we walk along the Arno river and eat the most expensive ice cream cone ever. 9 Euros. Right by the Ponte Vecchio, so I guess we are paying for the location.

From Florence we head to Sienna, an old walled city, where we stay in the historical centre, close to the main square, the Piazza del Campo. We visit the main cathedral, with its remarkable collection of art, St. Catherine’s church and monastery, take a bus tour into the Chianti countryside with a stop at San Gimignano, and spend hours sitting at cafes on the piazza. Sienna quickly becomes a favourite city.

A train takes us to Monte Rosa, the most northern of the Cinq Terre villages, on the west coast of northern Italy, on the Ligurian Sea. Our hotel in Monte Rosa is across the street from the beach and we get some sun to lure us onto a beach chair.

We hike to the other villages: Corniglia, Vernazza, Riomagiore, and Manorola, taking the train back. The scenery is stunning. A photographer’s dream. We have great weather during the day and a raging Ligurian Sea storm our last night.

A series of trains takes us to Umbria, where we are to take a taxi to the villa Sharon has booked. It is Sunday and the train station is deserted. There is one taxi on the street. The driver nods when I show him the name of the property and the address. Off we go. It doesn’t take long to realize he is lost and driving in circles. Stopping frequently to ask questions. The instructions to the villa are in English and he cannot understand them. We do not speak Italian and cannot translate.

We drive for hours, finally turning down a lane we had not taken b/c of the “Private Property” sign. There is a large house at the end of the road with several cars parked in the front. I see Sharon’s husband Ray at one of the cars. Big relief. They had expected us the day before, so are also relieved. This was 2008, before the era of traveling with cell phones. No texting! Not even email. Notwithstanding communication challenges, we make it, are welcomed in and quickly bond with the group, most of whom we do not know, some we have never met. Two, Maria & Denis speak little English. Suelement Francais.

Bev & Larry are primary school French teachers. They do fine. Sharon & Ray lived in France for a year and they do ok. Brian & Renee speak English & Africans. Ron & Julie, the Brits, speak pretty good English and nothing else. Our high school French gets taken out of storage and we fumble along. Denis speaks some Spanish, about as much as I do, and some of the same words, so that fills in some gaps.

Our villa is splendid. Set in farming countryside, surrounded by fields, it is within day-trip driving distance to several towns. We go to Assisi & Orvieto.

We cook at the villa most nights. Everyone pitches in. The last night we go out for Sharon’s birthday to a local place for a set 8 course meal. It is a lot of food and although everyone mocks Craig for asking for a doggy bag, the contents disappear before lunch the next day.

After a week at the villa we head off in different directions. Brian, Renee and Craig go to the airport in Rome to fly home. Bev & Larry carry go to France in their van. Marie and Denis go home to France. Julie and Ron leave for England. Sharon, Ray and I head south to the Amalfi coast.

Hair dyeing and a search for lost keys delay our departure. And a difficult goodbye to Jacqui at the train station could not be rushed. So it is late when we start on a trip that will take many hours, longer if the torrential rain and heavy traffic have a say.

Then there is the question of Sharon’s suitcase and which car it went in.

We drive get to Positano in the early evening. Ray doesn’t have the address of our guesthouse. Nor directions for getting there. He does have the phone number. But his phone is dead. The road through town is one-way so as we breeze through not knowing where we are going, we unknowingly pass our guest house and end up back on the highway. We have to turn around and start all over.

By now I have found the place in my guidebook and we have both an address and a map. Still it is hard to find. We are slowly driving down a street looking for numbers when we see Torri, Sharon & Ray’s daughter and her boyfriend. The town they were going to is full of garbage because of a mafia garbage strike so they left there, remembering we were going to Positano and remembering the name of our guest house. The Maria-Louisa or something like that. They have already found it and checked in. They direct us to it. Oh, and they have Sharon’s bag in their trunk.

A day trip to Pompeii is fascinating. It was mostly destroyed and buried under 4 to 6 m (13 to 20 ft) of volcanic ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The objects that lay beneath the city have been preserved for more than a millennium because of the long lack of air and moisture. These artefacts provide an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of a city during the Roman Empire.

As excavators uncoverd human remains, they noticed that the skeletons were surrounded by voids in the compacted ash. By carefully pouring plaster of Paris into the spaces, the final poses, clothing, and faces of the last residents of Pompeii came to life.

I get lost on the way back to Positano. I get off at the wrong train station in Sorrento. And then get off at the wrong bus stop in Positano. In Sorrento, I have to wait for the next train, get back on and then get off at the right stop. In Positano I have to walk down to the harbour and back up the hill on the other side. It all ends well, but is nerve-wracking on my own.

I need money but neither of the machines in town will give me any. The hotel wants cash only. I explain the situation to the German owner and he lets me go without paying. Says I can send him a money order when I get home. OK. Thanks! I’m kind of amazed. Off I go. To Capri, where the machine spits out money every time I ask. The rich come to Capri to shop. Like Rodeo Drive on top of an island. Strangely beautiful, but disturbingly opulent.

Naples is another story. Gritty. Grimy. Raw. The hotel desk man insists I be in before dark. To not go out alone after dark in any circumstances. So I eat at 5 and go back to my room for the evening. Alone. I have a good book.

It is a lot of work travelling alone, I discover. No one to share chores with. No one to bounce ideas around with. No one to watch your bag while you go to the washroom. No one to have dinner with. No one. I don’t really like it.




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