Italy, We Have a Problem: About This Blog Entry
It’s hard for even me to believe that there was a time in my life when travel didn’t excite me. But there was.
There was actually a period of my life, when I would travel–mostly cruises, with my family–that I didn’t have that travel “bug;” that unquenchable thirst for exploration, to see it all, as much as I could. I didn’t dislike traveling, but I think I didn’t carry even ten percent of the enthusiasm I have today, because the travel was simply too organized. Piling off a cruise ship with 1,000 other American tourists and getting on a bus to see the main square for three hours never really did it for me. Of course, I’d soon discover my true passion for travel: going solo to off-the-beaten-track places to see things most have never even dreamed of…and well, you know the rest of the story.
Anyway, my trips to Italy were waaaaaaay before I had discovered my love of travelling. And it might have actually been Italy itself that prevented me from getting excited about travel for a while, for it was Italy where I’d first encountered those gobs of tourists all jammed in together, around sights like Trevi Fountain and Piazza San Marco. I got the impression that maybe every place outside of the US would be like this: mobbed with foreigners, all crammed in tightly, fighting for a photograph of some statue. I remember seeing groups of annoying high school students on class trips together, and hoards of humans in group walking tours. Just too many tourists. It was for this reason, that I wasn’t quite yet bitten with the travel bug, and unfortunately the reason I didn’t take many notes on these trips. In fact, some of my visits to Italy weren’t even enjoyable. I’ll explain more below.
With no detailed notes from these trips to Italy, I did my best to parse together just a smattering of random memories to blog about below: experiences for 10+ years ago that may or may not be helpful nor detailed. But here goes.
2008: Trip #1
Italy was only the seventh country I’d ever set foot on, so when it came to travelling smart, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I started in Milan, staying with a friend of mine from Brasil who had a small apartment in a residential neighborhood. I’d taken too many Tylenol PMs on the flight over, and the medicine’s half-life stayed lingering in my body. This caused me to sleep for about two-days straight. My friend was not happy about that. I was a horrible guest. The original plan was that she’d join me in Venice, but we ended up not getting along at all in Milan, and there I was, suddenly leaving Milan on the train all alone.
The three-hour train ride to Venice was nice, except for the part where I’d forgotten my paper tickets back in California. For whatever reason, back then you had to be in possession of the physical paper tickets. I ended up having to buy new tickets. Like I said, it was total amateur hour. I was not a well-seasoned traveler.
As for Venice. I had a terrible time. In hindsight, I’m not even sure why, but I just didn’t enjoy it for whatever reason. Though today I absolutely adore solo travel, I think Venice is one of those places meant to be experienced as a couple. Maybe I was just too young to enjoy it by myself? Maybe I was still sour that Gabriella and I had fought? I don’t know, but I just remember being “over it” after the first night. The jet-lag/insomnia didn’t help. Can you believe I actually called the airline and tried to book a flight home early? I just wanted outta there! I certainly was a different person back then, and if I had a chance to do it over, I would’ve found more things to enjoy, or more realistically, hopped on a plane to see a neighboring country. I was just so young and naive at the time. Honestly, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had to get outta Venice.
So maybe Venice didn’t get a fair shake. I was young, dumb, and a little lonely. Everywhere I looked I saw couples, families, and friends having the time of their lives. Truth is, Venice was absolutely stunning in every way: the old buildings, the curvy cobblestone paths, the canals, gondolas…really, it was breathtaking. I wished I was there with my girlfriend. But she wasn’t there. So I decided to bail.
Next Stop: Verona
This particular trip was over ten years ago, and the memories a little fuzzy, since I didn’t write any of the details down at the time. But if I remember correctly, I had a few more nights booked at the hotel in Venice, which I decided to forgo. I hopped back on the train and made my way back to Milan where I’d fly home from, making a couple stops along the way, the first was in a town called Lazise.
I think I originally picked this town because it had a water park. You can tell I had my priorities in line! This was all before we had internet on our phones and I remember getting off at the train station in Verona and just wandering into town like a true backpacker, in search of shelter; no reservations. I don’t know how I got so lucky, but I did. I found a room at the charming Maison du Port, a cool little guest house with a cheerful owner and a couple of nice cats.
The guesthouse was situated next to a vineyard and the scene here was a nice break from the bustle of big cities like Milan and Venice. There weren’t many people around and I remember enjoying a glass of wine while relaxing and gazing out the window onto the grape fields while a summer shower came down. I remember trying to ask my housekeeper for directions and letting some Portuguese leak out by accident. She soon revealed she was from Brasil, and we had a nice chat.
These Boots are Made for Walking
The next day (or two, I don’t remember), I spent on foot; I must have walked miles. And I really enjoyed myself. This was before GPS, and I had no map. I just walked…and walked…and walked and walked, stumbling across beautiful old houses, trails, and finally into the neighboring town of Lazise, where I strolled along the banks of Lake Garda. There were tourists here, but nothing like the major cities of Italy. Lazise’s relaxed pace and chill attitude was a nice change from Venice, with just enough to see where I wasn’t bored, but wasn’t overloaded with annoying crowds. I picked a nice spot to get off the train.
I don’t remember how I got to Genova (Americans spell and pronounce it Genoa), but I did. I’d spend one afternoon walking around this port city, sleepover, and then take an early morning train back to Milan for my flight home.
I actually dug Genova. It was a bigger, more industrial city, with very little tourists. Like the last stop, I must have walked many miles, all around Genova–a port city built up on hills with spectacular views of the water. I enjoyed trying to blend in with the bustle of real “life” in this busy city. No gondolas or souvenir shops here–at least I didn’t see any. Genova was full of real people, doing real things–industry, commerce, even a few side streets I didn’t feel to safe walking down…now that’s what I’m talking about!
And actually, now that I think about it, that one day in Genova probably gave me my first taste of really exploring a foreign city that was off the beaten path–a place where tourists don’t normally go–and I liked it. Perhaps that was when the first seed was firmly planted in my head and my heart: my first experience of jumping head first into a place many haven’t heard of, most didn’t go, and a place where I could just wander and get lost in everyday things, rather than touristy museums and attractions.
My most vivid memory of my day exploring Genoa was the funicular. This was a genuine, non-touristy, old metal and wooden car that climbed up into the steep hills of the city. I boarded the funicular with no idea where it would take me and I even got a surprise at the end…just watch!
2009: Trip #2:
My mom and I planned an amazing cruise in 2009. Oh, gotta run…back for more later…
I’ll be back for more on that wild adventure with Mom later.
2020: My Bologna has a First Name…
It was 2020 and it was back to Italy to visit the micro-nation of San Marino. The tiny republic has no commercial airport of its own, so I’d come and go through Bologna. My first night in Italy this time consisted solely of the airport landing, rental car pickup and two-hour drive to San Marino. Driving in the city during rush-hour traffic sure had my adrenaline going, but I was soon out of the city and it was smooth sailing.
I had a nice night and wonderful morning in San Marino (you can see the full report HERE), but decided to hit the road before noon that next day in order to visit some new places in Italy. I’d never been to this region, plus I wanted to make sure I was back in Bologna before dark – I had an early flight out the next morning.
I decided on the coastal town of Riccione, for no other reason than it just seemed kind of “on the way,” back to Bologna. I set the GPS and was there in no time, finding street parking and beginning my stroll, as I headed toward the water.
Walk this Way
After just a few steps I was strolling through a wide pedestrian street called Viale Ceccarini. The tree-covered quarter-mile concrete path had shops and restaurants on each side. This area is rumored to be one of Mussolini‘s favorite vacation spots. The restaurants all looked so tempting, but I wanted to get in a few more thousand steps and really work up an appetite first.
The end of Viale Ceccarini empties walkers out onto the sand, leaving me no choice but to enjoy a pleasant mid-morning stroll along the sand before making a U-Turn and heading back for food.
Return to Bologna
After lunch, it was back on the road to Bologna. I wanted to turn my rental car in, see the city and get checked into my hotel. I had a pre-dawn flight the next morning and wanted a decent night’s sleep for the long day of travel ahead.
What happened next would have given me a heart attack in my 20s and 30s, but part of maturing (I’m well into my 40s now) means being able to not take things too seriously…I’d laugh more than cry.
I’d done a pretty expert job at navigating in and out out of the city of Bologna so far. I’d flown in last night and wiggled my way out of the city’s rush hour traffic–en route to San Marino–with no problems at all. Dare I say I was feeling even confident. I’d managed to figure out the toll system without a snag. Get on the on-ramp, approach an automated toll booth, push the button, take the ticket, gate opens, enter the highway. Then, when leaving the highway, choose the right toll booth (the one that accepts credit cards), insert your ticket, insert your card, grab the receipt, gate opens, and you go! I’d done this on my way to San Marino yesterday, and now, on my way back, at least three or four times, and you’d never mistake me for a tourist. Sadly, the record would not continue, as this last exit of the highway would be my downfall.
I don’t speak Italian, but know enough Spanish and Portuguese to have figured out that the display on the ticket-taker read “Cannot read ticket.” Uh oh. Was it the wrong ticket? Did it have a defect? Was I not allowed to exit here? These were the questions running through my mind as I’d re-insert the ticket and it would spit right back out at me, over and over. Something was wrong and I could hear the increasing speed of the suspenseful gameshow music in my head, as car after car began to pile up behind me. Then came the honks. Car horns just seemed louder and angrier in Italian. Soon, what seemed like a mile full of Fiats and Citroëns had formed a line behind me and was growing with every ticket-rejection. A man’s voice finally came through the distorted speaker, obviously the toll attendant: He was yelling something at me in Italian. I had nothing to say but, “English?” to which he replied, “Engleesh no good!” and disappeared, leaving me back to step one. For what seemed like another 20 minutes (it was probably more like three) I repeated the useless steps of inserting the ticket as it was rejected each time, my efforts proving futile. At this point, I didn’t know what to do. It’s not like I had anywhere to go. There must have been 40 cars behind me by now, a closed arm in front of me, and concrete barriers on each side. I suppose I could just abandon the car and hitchhike back. Don’t think I didn’t consider it.
Luckily–and finally–an angel appeared at my window. The Italian truck driver behind me had decided to leave his big rig to come help me. He pushed the button, talked to the attendant, and before you know it, my payment was accepted and I was on my way. I am so thankful for the good deed performed by that man, although he just probably wanted to get going himself and figured helping me was his only option. Either way, I was so happy to be freed and couldn’t help but laugh about the whole thing. When you put it into perspective, it was a little embarrassing, but no one got hurt or pregnant!
I waffled back and forth on whether to return the rental first and then explore the city, or keep my car until I was done with my day. I figured I might as well use this Renault that I paid for (vs. hiring taxis), so I navigated myself right to the center of Bologna. I should have conceded to any of the various giant “P” for parking signs on my way into the city, but instead hedged my bets on getting a spot closer to the very center, which proved to be my second fatal mistake behind the wheel. Soon I was in the very middle of Bologna, where the streets dramatically narrowed and suddenly turned to “one way”. Oh boy. I panicked when I saw a street sign with an “X” on it – was I going the wrong way down a one-way street? Turned out the “Red X” over blue simply means “no parking or stopping,” not “wrong way” or “no entry,” but I didn’t know it at the time and panicked. I had to get out of here before I hit a car heard on. The next 90 seconds were a blur, but I think I might have actually finally turned down a street going the wrong way, because soon I met head-on with the grille of an Italian police car. I smiled and waved and gave the international face for “Sorry, I’m a dummy,” as I wiggled by and got the hell outta dodge. Soon I was back on wide streets and turning into a paid parking lot – the same one I passed on my way in to the thick of things.
Even the parking lot itself was weird to me. As I pulled into the parking garage, once again I panicked and quickly backed out. I could’ve sworn the sign said to drive in, but it looked like I was steering right into a business office – shiny floors, desks, chairs, and people all around. This couldn’t be a parking garage? But alas, it was. Just a fancy one, I guess. I found a spot in this building that looked as clean and shiny as a Maserati showroom, took my ticket and wandered into town. I was so relieved to be free of that car! I don’t know how I had the balls to try to drive into downtown Bologna. What was I thinking?
The Bologna Boogie
I spend the next 90 minutes wandering around Bologna with no rhyme or reason. No plan. I simply strapped on my mask and took a walk, passing the leaning tower (yes, Pisa is not alone in their shoddy construction), passed busy squares and crowded sidewalk cafés, and down small alleys with fruit, fish and meat vendors on each side. I was surprised how crowded the streets were with people, but then again, this is Italy. The crowds were the only thing that has always turned me off when it comes to Italy – amazing country, but just overrun with gobs of tourists, apparently even mid-pandemic! Nonetheless, I enjoyed my brief romp through town and was happy I was able to check off another, completely different region of Italy.
I would’ve loved to sample more food, but I just happen to have that large pizza from Riccione still taking up most of the real estate in my tummy. There were so many amazing treats behind just about every window and of course all those open-air stands. But I couldn’t leave Italy without at least one gelato, so I did indulge in a triple scoop at Venchi before leaving the city. Full disclosure: I was not expecting three scoops, they just happened! The lemon-strawberry-blueberry cone would be my dinner that night. There was no way I could fit another meal in my belly before bedtime.
I sure was glad to sign that car back over to the rental agency at the airport. I felt lucky that I didn’t hit anything, that nothing hit me, nor did I accumulate any traffic or parking tickets (I would not be this lucky in Montenegro though, just you wait.)
I grabbed a cab over to the nearby airport hotel, checked in, popped a sleeping pill and called it an early night. It was a 5AM taxi back to the airport the next morning to head to Bulgaria.
Thanks Italy! Great seeing you again!This entry was posted in Europe