Pedicures, prosecco and a rooftop restaurant, or Patty Moriarty’s Top 10 tips for international travel

Pat and I have traveled together quite a bit, although not as much as we hope to do, and in addition to the trips we have taken together, she has been on tours in India, Egypt and other places. These travel tips have evolved over the years, but this is the first time we have tried to write them down. Most of the ideas here are hers, with a couple of my own thrown in. They are not really designed, or would be of any value, to experienced travelers, who have found their own preferences and rhythms. These are more aimed at folks like us who have traveled a bit but hope to do more as they ease into their dotage.

Travel tip No. 10: Look for local evening entertainment.

Lunch with the group after our cooking class.

Lunch with the group after our cooking class.

Like everything else, this is a little more challenging when you don’t speak the language. For example, on this trip, we showed up for a concert at 9 o’clock rather than the posted time of 19:00. On another occasion, out for our evening walk, we happened on a bar with lively street entertainment near our apartment. In Ravello, we attended a concert at an auditorium designed by a renowned architect, Oscar Niemeyer. Another time we were walking near our apartment and came upon a local Puppet Show advertised that evening at Piccolo Teatro Dei Pupi. The puppet-makers laboratorio was across the lane and this looked like the real Italian deal.  So Pat went off to a wonderful hour of The Arrival of Angelica in Paris –in Italian of course.  It is nice to get out with the local crowds. (See next tip.)

No. 9: Meet the locals. It is always more fun to interact with local folks than just to stay with your travel companion or tour group. Even on Pat’s tours in the East, the groups have added visits to local homes. Our trip to Italy with its cooking class and olive oil tour really added to the fun. (See next tip.)

No. 8: Track down the farmer’s market. This is a way to achieve No. 9, save money on food, and add a little more interest. In Tuscany, we would go to the

Fish shop in the market in Siracusa.

Fish shop in the market in Siracusa.

market day in the various hill towns. The market in Siracusa has great fish and vegetables but also all kinds of other goods. Bargaining with an Italian to find the sweetest tomatoes of six varieties when you don’t speak the language can prove a art in creative hand gestures. On the other hand, the big market we went to in Trastavere in Rome was just one stall after another with the same low-rent junk they sell on the streets.

No. 7: Try to eat in small local restaurants. Avoid the tourist areas right near the cruise ship or major tourist site. Not only is the food cheaper and better, but you have a better chance of achieving tips 8-10 above. We often ask the locals for tips, and these days the internet is very handy.  Generally we stay away from four star restaurants preferring to spend our travel budget elsewhere. (see tip No. 1) Although there is always a bad meal in each week the food has been very reliable on this trip of towns that pride themselves in good solid food.  We had great luck in Rome by walking a couple blocks north of the Vatican into a middle-class neighborhood. One guideline: if there are guys outside asking you to come in, you probably don’t want to.

No. 6: It helps to have defined roles and responsibilities. It relieves some of the stress to feel that you have to negotiate everything.  It also means that there shall be no second-guessing of your partner’s choices—for the most part! For this trip, Pat chose most of the apartments we stayed in, and I did

airplane connections and rental cars. I always take charge of the laundry (an important role even if there are no dryers in Italy.)

time to yourselfNo. 5: Even when traveling with another person, such as a spouse, take some time to do things on your own. Pat suggests one day of each week.  Since we are not really retired – yet – Pat and I have not adjusted to being in the same house together all day. Same thing on trips. You need to be able to have time to go off and do things on your own. Which leads to No. 4, below.

No. 4: What is the role of compromise? I once read that compromise, which supposedly is the key to a happy relationship, is kind of overrated. You are not always going to agree on where to go, where to eat, what to do. Often when you compromise neither person gets what they really want. One option is to trade off decision-making. For this trip, we agreed on Rome, and more or less agreed on Lecce, but I picked Sicily and Pat chose the Amalfi coast.  We shall see how this works out in our new semi-retirement existence.

No. 3: Don’t overplan. Allow surprise or serendipity.

Stone hut in park near Lecce

Stone hut in park near Lecce

This won’t happen if every day is planned and you have to be at the next tourist spot on a tight schedule. Sometimes it just feels right to go off on a hike even if you don’t know exactly where the entrance to the trailhead is located. You might just find yourself walking through an olive grove, say hello to locals picking sweet potatoes and come across an abandoned stone hut that is “who knows how many years old?  The reward is that you get to see and do things you didn’t know about in advance.  (This tip is all Pat’s. I agree in principal about not overplanning, but I am against hiking in all its forms.)

No. 2: Understand the “uncertainty principle.” I coined this term myself to describe the tradeoff between complete assurance that you will be taken care of and absolute panic that you will be left deserted and never heard from again. There is no right answer here; you have to find your own sweet spot. It can vary from going to a resort where you are picked up at the airport, taken to the resort hotel, where all your meals are inclusive, and you never leave the grounds – to just showing up, learning your way around and finding the local highlights.

Planned tours where you are picked up in a bus and taken to the next site, and the next hotel in the next city are pretty close to the first idea; we tend to lean toward the latter, although not all the way. Pat says she would not have enjoyed India or Egypt if she had not been on a tour.

Another example: Having a car, as I said on an earlier post, gives you a lot of freedom but includes some worry and responsibility, and the hassle of Italian drivers trying to assure Zero Population Growth among American tourists. I like having my rooms rented in advance and not having to look for lodging once I get somewhere, but that does tie you down somewhat. The important thing is to find where you are comfortable, and that can evolve as you do more and become more confident. Also, language has a lot to do with this. Having available Wi-Fi is becoming a necessity, not a luxury.

And, finally, Patty’s No. 1 tip for international travel: Allow a little occasional luxury: This trip, Pat has used the internet to find rooftop gardens or restaurants. Although we don’t go to five star hotels, we do allow ourselves an expensive glass of prosecco or cup of coffee if it affords the panaromic view and a counterpoint to hectic days on the road. This tip jelled when we were sitting in the rooftop restaurant of the Hotel L’Etranger in Siracusa — Patty just having finished getting a pedicure, and drinking a glass of wine and prosecco. It quickly made its way to No. 1 on the list. The corollary to this tip is that we aren’t college students any more and don’t like roughing it. If something seems too cheap, it probably is. Why be miserable?

OK. For any of you have made it this far, we are just about at the end of this journey. One more evening in Rome and we head home. Watch this space for the exciting conclusion.

Roman ruins, Greek ruins, ruined knees and rheumatism.

The early plans for this trip did not include Pompeii, not because it would not be interesting to see, but just because it didn’t seem a high priority given everything else we wanted to do. But when we hired a car to take us from the airport in Naples to our agriturismo in Ravello, the car service offered a stop at Pompeii for an additional charge. It is not far out of the way, and Pat argued that we are unlikely to come this way again soon, so why not see it.

Ancient fresco in Pompeii

Ancient fresco in Pompeii

Of course, Pompeii has been there for more than 2,000 years, interrupted in its industry only by the odd volcanic eruption, but we made the trip in any case and I am quite pleased that we did.

Pompeii is just a short drive from Naples, and there are plenty of tours available. We knew we were just going to be there for a couple of hours, so other than paying for admission and obtaining the accompanying map, we didn’t indulge in any of the other tour amenities – either the audio guide or a guided tour by one of the many fairly aggressive local guides. That was a mistake. There is virtually no signage inside, and

Temple in Pompeii

Temple in Pompeii

the map provides precious little information. We had to read up on it on the internet afterward.

Of course the Pompeii story is well-known. It was a thriving Roman town until an eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius, the ash from which provided a coating of preservation until its excavation. The site is much more extensive that I had realized, and the Roman ruins very well preserved in a few places, including remnants of frescos on some walls.

But somewhat less visited is another city, Paestum, which is near the coast south of the Amalfi area near the city of Salerno. There was a sign in our agriturismo advertising day trips to Paestum, and our visit there was remarkable. Of the same

Greek temple in Paestum.

Greek temple in Paestum.

vintage as Pompeii, 6th and 7th Century B.C.E., Paestum has not been excavated as much as Pompeii but has three remarkable Greek temples. Paestum was founded by the Greeks, although later went under Roman rule. It was abandoned not because of onrushing lava flows but because the area became unlivable because of the malaria and climatic conditions. While there is a street-long row of tourist shops, it is less-visited and less commercial – and also less visitor-friendly – than Pompeii. And quite a bit harder to get to unless you happen to be staying in Monte Brusara, as we are, and a driver, Vito, is a friend of the family. Here’s his e-mail:

And while I highly recommend Paestum, the drive there from Ravello was a great trip as well. We drove the coast road from Ravello through the towns of Minori and Maiori – Maiori looks like it would be a great location with a very nice beach and a beautiful waterfront – on the way to Salerno. I was in the shotgun seat and thought I was going to meet death. Patty was in the back seat – with no seatbelts – but only whimpered a little bit. I don’t think Vito heard it. Our Edmonds colleague and travel

2ist Century queen/goddess outside the temple to Hera in Paestum.

2ist Century queen/goddess outside the temple to Hera in Paestum.

guru Rick Steves recommends hiring a driver for the Amalfi Coast, and like much of Rick’s advice, this is a good plan.

Part of the aggressive driving needed for this road includes the Italian requirement that you talk with your hands. So it requires real skill to drive, talk with your hands, and talk on a cell phone at the same time. We were comforted only by the fact that Vito’s day job is as a fireman, so we assumed he had EMT training.

Amalfi Coast summation: Stay in Ravello if you can, and choose your location based on how far you want to walk. Monte Brusara is a great spot, and next year, Filomena plans also to rent out two apartments in town.

We didn’t like Amalfi, but we were only there in the busy part of the day. We were attracted to Minori, Maiori and Atrani. We have not been to Positano or Sorrento. Wherever you go, the towns are very different at night than during the day. Daytime crowds are touristy; in the evening, you get strollers, folks out for dinner, residents. It is much nicer to stay overnight in any of these places.

Amalfi and the jet set, with aching knees.

Although we have a couple of days in Rome yet at the end of this trip, our stay on the Amalfi Coast is more or less the final leg. Patty had been eager to come here, hike along the cliffs, and have an experience that was a little more rural and out in nature than stumbling over the cobblestones of Rome, marveling at the baroque architecture of Lecce, and going into yet another 16th Century basilica.

We flew from Catania, in Sicily, to Naples and hired a car to drive us to Amalfi. On the advice of legal counsel, we chose to say in the town of Ravello which is in the hills 1,200 feet above the cities on the coast. Our agriturismo, Monte Brusara, is

The cathedral in Atrani

The cathedral in Atrani

another good climb above the city, so while we have walked down, we used the little public bus to get back up. (There apparently is something going on with the bus system, as the little transit bus is also the yellow school bus, and yesterday on our trip up, Patty tried to teach English to the four school boys who were on their way home.

Moonlight dinner outside the agriturismo

Moonlight dinner outside the agriturismo

While somewhat touristy – that’s normal condition for the Amalfi Coast – Ravello is a very nice and interesting small town with two beautiful gardens that are open to the public. Villa Cimbrone is a 19th Century villa with extensive gardens right on the cliff above the Mediterranean. It is a combination of English and Italian formal styles and among its most famous guests was Greta Garbo, who came here to escape Hollywood. Villa Rufalo, just of the town square, is traced to Moorish design of the 13th Century. Its gardens are not as extensive, but it is built on a succession of historic structures. Tonight we are planning to attend a concert at another local treasure, the concert hall designed by Oscar Neimeyer, the famous Brazilian architect, designer of Brasilia – among may famous works – and winner of the Pritzker Prize.

For Patty, however, I think the highlight was the walk from Ravello to Atrani and then on to Amalfi. This involved a steep descent from Ravello the 1,200 feet to Atrani which is at sea level. And then the walk to Amalfi, close by, is mostly on the level on a pathway above the coast road.

Atrani from its beach.

Atrani from its beach.

(I will add some photos here of the scenes along the way, to the extent the local internet connection will allow me to upload them.)

We found Atrani to be a lovely little town with a very attractive town square, or perhaps we were so relieved to find a cold drink and a bathroom after the long descent. But Amalfi, while picturesque and with a very nice beach, was jammed with tourists even in late October. We did watch (for a short while) a man take off his swimming trunks and dry off on the beach in full public display, and that is as close as we have come this trip to anything approaching a topless beach. In this case

The cathedral in Amalfi dates from the 13th Century.

The cathedral in Amalfi dates from the 13th Century.

bottomless, and nothing to write home about (despite this comment.) The municipal bus back gave us a good taste of the coast highway and a reinforcement of the wisdom of our decision not to have a car here.

One more thing, about the place we are staying. It is owned by Filomena Mansi who appears to me to do all the work, although she has some daughters here. Her mother is doing the cooking, and her father is here as well. In the evening, a number of people always seem to show up to eat dinner, but we aren’t sure who they all are.

The descent from Ravello to Atrani/Amalfi.

The descent from Ravello to Atrani/Amalfi.

The agriturismo includes a hectare, according to the father, and they grow their own vegetables and make their own wine and honey. The meals are wonderful. I would highly recommend it. the site is



View from our room.

View from our room.



Sicily, Siracusa and any reservations

I had been intrigued by the idea of going to Sicily for some time, so when it came time to plan this month-long trip, and we parsed out our preferences week by week, one of those weeks was devoted to Sicily. I did not want to spend the entire week traveling, so we settled on one city, Siracusa, and agreed that we would see the highlights of Eastern Sicily and not worry about Palermo or Cefalu. (There has been some consternation about not getting to Agrigento, but more about that later.) Sicily has two main airports – Palermo on the west and Catania on the East. We flew into Catania on a flight from Brindisi – changing planes in Rome – and wondering whether Alitalia would go into default while we were waiting at baggage claim. Fortunately, the government has decided to keep them flying for a while longer and our remaining flights are on other airlines.

The second bit of apprehension was car rental. I am always a little concerned about rental cars in countries where I don’t know the rules or speak the language, but renting a car at the Catania Airport was quick and easy – a lot easier than finding our way out of town and to the freeway to Siracusa, about an hour away.

The Italian autostradi are great roads, well-engineered. And part of their secret is that they don’t actually go anywhere near the towns. The exit from the A45 to Siracusa is a good 20 minutes from the city center, on awful streets. And they love roundabouts. I have only found a couple of stoplights in Siracusa, but many, many roundabouts getting from the autostrada to the city center. They are perfect for the Italian style of driving, which has no time for stopping but lots of energy for aggressive driving through roundabouts.

The other dilemma is parking. The Italians have a system, which was explained to me, about how to know where to park. If a parking space is outlined in orange, you should not park there or you will be towed. If it is blue, it is OK to park but you have to pay at one of the hard-to-find machines, some of which are still working. If it is white, you can park for free. As a practical matter, all of these spots are filled all of the time, regardless of color, and I have yet to see a tow truck. Obviously someone understands this system better than I do. I am always stewing about whether the car is going to be OK or not.

Roman amphitheater in Siracusa

Roman amphitheater in Siracusa

But Siracusa, itself, was a great choice, in my opinion. We are staying in the oldest part of town, Ortygia – an island connected to the main city by two bridges.

Ortygia was first settled by Corinth in the 7th Century B.C. There were wars with Athens in the 4th Century B.C., and Siracusa (and Ortygia) have been conquered by one or the other people for centuries. They managed to make peace with Rome, but later were taken by Vandals, Goths, Normans, Arabs, etc. You certainly can see the Greek influence in the architecture, and a highlight of the city is visiting a beautiful Greek theatre and Roman amphitheatre. Most of what is left in the Greek theatre actually dates from Rome.

The Greek theater

The Greek theater

And a lot of the city was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1693, and a lot of the buildings are on Greek, Roman or Norman ruins or foundations.

We took a side trip to Taormina, which has a famous Greek theatre as well that is not as old and not as well-preserved, but is in a magnificent setting overlooking the sea. Taormina is also well-known as a place for the jet set and is a popular cruise port. As we saw it, in October, it was touristy but manageable. I think August would be very different. Pat and I joined the jet set – at least in spirit – by having a cup of coffee on the terrace the five-star “Grand Hotel Timeo”  overlooking the sea. (Today when I walked down to the Port area in Siracusa I noticed a giant cruise ship tied up here – we will see what the crowds do to this calm little island today.)

It is an advantage to have a car here – as we were able to add Taormina, Ragusa and Noto to our list of cities visited. There are amazing baroque buildings in Noto, and a remarkable medieval old town –Ragusa Ibla – in Ragusa. It is a tradeoff with the hassle of car rental and parking but clearly worth it on this trip. I wussed out of driving across Sicily to Agrigento, which has a famous Greek temple. I hope we can come back. You just can’t get to every UNESCO world-heritage site on one trip.

A couple of other thoughts about this part of Sicily:

I had the strangest pizza  – of course I don’t eat those California kitchen monstrosities back home with barbequed chicken and pineapple.  Here, I ordered a pizza with mushrooms and salami – normal, huh?  But what came, while good, included not only meat and mushrooms, but also a couple of entire hard-boiled eggs, peas and whole olives. Peas do not belong on pizza.

Also, please consider this consumer warning:

Jet setters in Taormina

Jet setters in Taormina

The Italians are justifiably proud of their great olives and wonderful olive oil, but they are indiscriminate about their use. Just because an olive has been baked into a bread, or put on top of a pizza, is no indication of whether the pit has been removed. I don’t know whether they are just in a hurry or being paid off by the dental lobby, but it pays to be careful.

So, with those few reservations, we heartily recommend Sicily and Siracusa. The weather is great, the setting is very beautiful and we are going for walks every night in the moonlight. I have yet to wear a jacket and it is Oct 21. The natives are friendly and helpful. It is very different from other parts of Italy we have visited. We sat next to an Australian couple at dinner last night who were back for their third trip here. It made perfect sense.

Patty is converted, or anti-Pat-so?

How many Sicilians does it take to lift a beam?

How many Sicilians does it take to lift a beam?

Pat Moriarty posting:

I have to confess I wasn’t that excited about visiting Sicily when it was first proposed.  Another red sauce and pasta just sounded too much like “The Cuomo”, the Sicilian restaurant of my western New York home.  Mortadella? that baloney with hunks of fat—YUK I could do without.   Also, I had met my share of Brunos and Guidos growing up.

The only Italian I found any fondness for was my niece’s husband, Vinnie, a regular Italian with a salt-of-the-earth temperament who is a little (or a lot) rough around the edges, and in love with cats and all things family.

I wasn’t too sure about this whole thing.  Ah well I would be a good sport, see the sights, eat the food and move on.

Well Sicily has claimed my heart.  The marinara sauce that I pictured red and gloppy turned out to be a touch of tomato with  “oh so fresh” just grilled seafood.  Gelatti abound, and I give myself permission to eat it twice a day unless one of the times is cannoli stuffed with local ricotta cheese in a crisp homemade shell.  Mortadella made with veal and none of the hunks of the fat I remember is welcome on my antipasto plate.  I am still in search of the “real” spumoni ice cream loaded with pistaccio.

The people whom I expected to be curt and dismissive have been wonderfully warm.  We met the local book store owner where David buys his New York Times; he speaks no English but has managed to share with us his favorite day trips through thumbing through tourist books and maps and swooning over the choices.

We walked by a cathedral renovation today in the town of Siracusa where we are staying.   Beams had just been delivered, and the workers were readying them to be lifted into place.  Much to my surprise, out of the chapel appeared about ten locals and they proceeded to heft the beam into the church.  The guys were good sports as I took their photo and applauded their efforts.

We have visited every baroque church in Rome and Lecce. But here, I have loved learning about the Greek influence on the area, visiting a Greek amphitheater and traveling along the mediterranean coast to find a Greek Temple.  —I will leave that part to David’s blog.

The “poor people’s food,” and a weak dollar

As we were preparing for this month in Italy, friends at home often said, “eat a lot of pasta and drink a lot of wine for me.” And while we have done our best to fulfill any outstanding obligations on that part, our week in Lecce has provided an introduction to a cuisine that is new to Pat and me, and it is to a degree related to the overall theme of this trip and blog: slowing down without becoming slow-witted, living in the moment and not always thinking about the next job or assignment. OK – that may be asking a lot, but let me see if I can make the point.

Ylenia at work

Ylenia at work

While Lecce is famous for its architecture, we have spent the past few days exploring the cuisine and agriculture of the area. We started by booking a market tour and cooking class with a group called ciao laura (, which offers classes throughout Italy. In Lecce, our guide/cook/mentor was a force of nature named Ylenia Sambati.

Here is her website:

Ylena is a fount of wisdom about all things in the area. While our tour began with a visit to the local market and cheese store, she was able to fill us in on the local industries – which include alternative energy, aerospace and furniture in addition to agriculture – and specifically about the local cuisine called “cucina povera” – the poor people’s food. It is a first cousin of the “Slow Food” movement which we first encountered in Tuscany some time ago. It essentially consists of using local, natural ingredients, which in this case include – among other things – fava beans (often pureed,) rabe leaves (which seem to be related to kale in some way,) local cheeses such as mozzarela and burrata, tomatoes, the locally produced olive oil and wines. You go to a restaurant and ask if the house wine is good and they kind of jump out of their Italian shoes: “Negroromano!” (that’s the local grape and cause celebre. You can find wines from this region – Puglia – at home under the appellation Salice Salentino.

They have their own pasta – orecchiette, or an ear shape – which they claim holds more sauce.

We began our day with Ylenia, whose picture you can see here and as you may notice is a dark-haired, dark-eyed Italian beauty who might be in an Italian film or a Prada ad if she weren’t busy promoting this area. Ylenia worked for a while in corporate conferences, tourism and logistics before focusing her career on promoting Puglia.

We began by watching mozzarella being made at a family-owned shop, left with a tray of fresh cheese, and left for the market.

Everyone there knew Ylenia, of course, and we tagged along and learned the names of some things no American had ever laid eyes on before: two kinds of cichory; several types of both fresh and dried tomatoes, the rabe greens I mentioned, local bread.

DSC00256 We went for our cooking class in a nearby masseria, which is the local term for an old farmhouse. It is becoming quite the rage here to renovate old farmhouses and turn them into agriturismos. This one is used to offer cooking classes both to professionals and to tour groups. The person who appeared to be in charge is called Mama Julia. She doesn’t speak English, and has quite a gentle manner, but was forced to step in when she was dissatisfied with the quality of the homemade orecchiette I was trying to form, and when my meatballs – polpette – were a little too large.

In addition to our own pasta, we made a beautiful braided loaf of herb bread with sesame seeds and poppy seeds, a dish with peppers and sun-dried tomatoes, two kinds of zucchini dishes. There were small amounts of sausage or ham in the pastas and zucchini, but meat isn’t the big deal here that the vegetables are.

As we got closer to lunchtime, people whom we couldn’t identify kept showing up. One of them, Michael, works with Ylenia and helped fix the meal; another one didn’t do much of anything other than argue with Mama Julia; another one was either an engineer or naturopath – I am not sure which – but combined the self-assurance in his own beliefs that is common to both professions. After lunch – and before cleanup – they all disappeared.

It really was an amazing experience because of the ability to talk to the local folks, share their enthusiasm for what they are doing, and their love of their local area.

OK. That was one day.

Then, based on a tip and a little name-dropping from Ylenia, we made arrangements to tour a local olive-oil producer at their masseria-factory, Azienda Taurino. ( or

Olive harvest was about to being this week, and the equipment was cleaned and ready as Valentino Valzano took us through the process, explained the difference between virgin olive oil and extra virgin, and persuaded us that only olive oil from Italy is even worth considering.

Valentino and his oil

Valentino and his oil

In both these cases, we had wonderful experiences because we were able to talk to the local folks about what they were doing, and we were very taken by their dedication to the local area and its products. Valentino decided at age 12, he said, that he wanted to be involved in agriculture. It is the one growth industry in Italy, he says. Ylenia forsook the world of corporate planning and logistics. The quality of the products and of their work really struck me as I continue to think about how at and I will live our lives from now on. Of course the “poor people’s food” is a definite possibility for us.



Struggles in the old south

DSC00201Lecce has been a little bit of a struggle so far. That has nothing to do with the architecture, which is amazing, but a combination of not speaking Italian, not knowing where we are going and normal international travel.

We few from Rome to Brindisi, which is the nearest airport to Lecce, the “Florence of the South.” It is right at the boot of the heel, if you are familiar with the shape and geography of Italy.

(I am used to these kinds of names: When I was living in Walla Walla, some of the locals referred to it as the “Athens of the West,” apparently referring to its relative cultural advantage over nearby Dayton and Waitsburg. And my friend Lynn Claudon calls her hometown of Auburn the “Little Detroit of the West” because of the many car dealerships.)

DSC00186Lecce is so named because of the amazing abundance of baroque architecture. The historic center of the town is a tangle of little lanes – with many of them off-limits to cars – and intricate old churches and other buildings. It is surrounded, however, by quite a busy industrial town. With help, we were able to find a place to park our car and search for the old town. But the real quandary was finding the apartment we had rented for a week on VRBO. Neither the street address of the apartment or the rental agency was on our map, nor were they on the database at the normally helpful Tourist Information offices. The Tourist guy indicated the general direction of a landmark, and I was finally able to find the street by going into the local college and asking for help. Now that we are inside, it is a lovely place with a roof deck. The climate is southern Mediterranean – there are palms around and a lot of cacti in pots on the deck. Pat is almost a permanent resident of the deck.

I am including in this post some photos of the highlights, including an old Roman amphiteatre from the third century (with a cat from the 21st century,) a night photo of the duomo, and another church entry that, while unique in itself, is typical of the intricate baroque decorations here.

DSC00191Another little struggle, without which this post would not be possible, was to find an internet hotspot. Despite what you might expect, we have yet to find a Starbucks with free internet. We did go up and down the main street outside our apartment asking for the internet, and finally found a gelato place in the main square. Now we have a portable hotspot. I guess it is no surprise what kind of former luxury has come to be a necessity. But no internet? C’mon. (Actually, there are plenty of locked internet addresses. These southern Italians are as wired as anyone. They just haven’t learned to share.)

Oh, des toilettes

Rome travel tip No. 17:

We have found three kinds of toilets here: 1) toilets with a seat; 2) toilets without a seat, and 3) toilets without a toilet. I prefer them in that order.

Each of the three types can be found with or without toilet paper, although there is a slight tendency for toilet paper to be available more prominently in the order of preference I suggested.

I don’t have a solution to this. Just thought people would want to know, and be forewarned.

Toured de force

I have never really been comfortable with the idea of travel tours. Pat has been on great guided tours in India and Egypt, and she is convinced they wouldn’t have had nearly as good an experience without the arrangements and well-educated guides. As well as, in India game reserves, the well-armed guides.

But I have always thought that at least in Western Europe, this is an unnecessary appendage. And, besides, how many more people do I need to tell me that it is time to get up and get going?

On this trip, however, we have been on three guided tours, with mixed results: The “Dark Rome” tour of the Vatican, the “Eating Italy” food tour of the Trastevere, and the “Walks of Italy” tour of the Villa Borghese.

The Vatican tour lasted for three hours. I have had dental work that was more pleasant. And Dark Rome did not provide novocaine. Our guide was an architect and grad student in art history, and she went on interminably. We’d been there for more than two hours and still weren’t inside the Sistine Chapel. We were outside the Sistine Chapel, in fact, listening to her describe in detail what we were going to see in each of the panels — as if we could remember that. There’s no talking inside, so that was the reason for the lecture, but she apparently was unable to sense the rising tide of anger and resentment. She had just described, in great detail, each of the four walls in each of the Raphael rooms leading us here, so there was plenty of opportunity for her to pick up on the body language. My advice: you don’t need a tour of the Vatican. Just go in the front door, see St. Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel, read about them in the guidebook, and then go through the Vatican Museum if you like.

Our friends Tom and Margaret Mesaros were just here for a day, and they did a Vatican tour in the morning and a Rome tour in the afternoon, so I am eager to hear what there experience was like. And my great pal and colleague Rebecca Whitham is due here at the end of the month and has booked a tour under the Vatican. It will be fun to know if we ever hear from her again. A lot of the folks under the Vatican aren’t coming out again.

The next night was completely different. My former colleagues at the zoo had given us a tour of Trastavere as a farewell gift, and it was spectacular. It was a walk between small, family-owned businesses, with a little history thrown in. We drank wine in the basement of a building which had housed the city’s oldest synagogue, predating the Colisseum; we toured a pharmacy that had been operated by Carmelite monks from the 16th Century until 1954, and we ate locally produced antipasti, cookies, pasta and gelato, an drank wine at at least four or five of the stops — I think I may have lost count of that.

And, yesterday, we did a guided, two-hour tour of the Galleria Borghese which was very heavy on information but really worthwhile. You can do the Borghese gallery on a self-guided tour as well, and that likely would be fine, but our guide — packing a master’s in art history — was very good and could read her audience well.

Finally — and this was unplanned — we were going in to see the Jewish museum and main synagogue and ended up in line right behind Drs. Rob and Marti Lidell. Rob is a great zoo board member and good friend, and Marti practices in the Polyclinic in the same suite as my doc. I am eager to see how they liked the tour of the old ghetto area they were heading toward.

Rome’s jews are from among the oldest Jewish communities — dating from Roman times, right — and predate the Ashekenazi and Sepphardim.  Jews were treated relatively well early on, but as in many other cities, they were confined to a ghetto during the Middle Ages — ghetto is an Italian word — were not allowed to own property, and could follow only two professions: lending money and dealing in used clothing. They attained a good measure of freedom in the late 19th Century: a Jew was elected mayor of Rome, but of course that ended in the runup to World War II when Victor Emmanuel and Mussolini made a deal to exterminate them. About 25,000 exist now, and they are proud of their heritage. Admission to the museum requires a guided tour of the synagogue, and the tour was hard to understand and quite repetitive of what we had just read on the panels. Do it anyway. A very good museum.

So I guess that’s hardly conclusive.

One other thought, as we were coming out of St. Peters, exhausted and still pissed off, were were hurrying to find a taxi stand to get to what we had decided would be our next stop and Pat, in her wisdom, said “I’d rather get a drink.” Part of the lesson of this trip, and this blog, is to try to hit the balance between travel and touring and just enjoying ourselves, using the month off to live more in the moment.

I noted that we were still living like we were on a one-week trip rather than a monthlong visit. We will try to do better.

The photos below come from the Trastevere visit. I still need to learn how to wrap text.

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OK. Now we’re here.

DSC00019We are staying in an apartment near the Vatican, on the Vatican side of the river, but within a block or two of one of the many bridges over the Tiber, so it is also quite walkable to get to Piazza Navona and other sights on that side. We rented the apartment through Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO,) and we have had good luck with that sight on other visits. This location was marketed as Trastevere — tras (across) and tevere (the Tiber River) — from Central Rome. That is a little like trying to sell your fixer in Greenwood as “close to all the exciting new clubs and restaurants in Ballard,” but it is a very nice apartment and the location is fine. The photos here show the street and courtyard of our apartment.