Tuesday, June 2, 2009

May 7

Florence to Venice

We were all up and about by 0900; packed and ready for Jean when he came by at 1000 to examine the apartment and retrieve the keys.

The walk from the apartment to the train station was a short one and we arrived early enough such that we could have hustled onto an earlier train. But that would have involved trying to re-arrange seating and it was just a lot easier to wait the hour for the train for which we already held tickets. To pass the time we got cappuccino and did a bit of people watching.

The Florence train station is nothing at all like the one in Rome. Based on the sheer numbers of people, all roads must truly lead to Rome. Florence, on the other hand, is an “art” community – and there were plenty of artists in evidence. Young people carrying large portfolios and notebooks were everywhere. We also saw the Carabinieri walking a dog through the station – conducting some sort of patrol. There was a nun busily texting on a cell phone. Italian train stations are beehives of activity – people and trains relentlessly coming and going.

Once again, the train arrived and departed on time. We boarded, stashed our luggage and found our seats. While this wasn’t one of the “high-speed” trains, it did travel at what I estimated to be 130 kmph. We blasted through the countryside on our way to Venice. We sat near a couple from California who were also travelling around and about Italy.

The approach to Venice has the train pass over a long causeway to the island. The causeway has a road component – because even though no cars operate on the island, there are still a number of people that drive back and forth. For them, there is a large parking lot at the Piazza Romana. The train came to a halt at the station. I’ll refer you movie buffs to a film called “Summertime” starring Katherine Hepburn and directed by (I believe) David Lean. The film is set in Venice and the approach to the city – as depicted in the film – is essentially unchanged. Upon stepping out of the train station, the first thing we did was to pause for a moment and take in the scene. The sun was shining, the sky a sharp blue. Tourists, boats, a beautiful chaos. It was hot out.

Unlike the film, there were no long lines of porters waiting to meet us and carry our bags to waiting water taxis. We were on our own to make our way to the rendez-vous with the woman who would take us to the apartment. We decided to walk over to the meeting point; after all, it was only about 2 km or so. For the first little while, it seemed like a good idea, but the walking got onerous fairly quickly. The small, narrow alleys and dead end “streets” were brutal to plan a route through. The GPS – while helpful – was often unreliable because of the closeness of the buildings. I think we wound up walking over 4 km to cover the “2” km distance.

The meeting point was at the Fondamente vaporetto station on the north side of Venice. We arrived near the meeting point with one more bridge to cross and decided that Kevin and I would go ahead to search out the contact while Marg and Penny stayed back a bit (in the shade) with the bags. We crossed over one last bridge and waited. I’m not going to pretend that Kevin and I were passing for native-born Venetians, but I eventually started thinking that without our bags, we were now unlikely to be considered “newly-arrived tourists”. There was a woman I suspected of being the contact, but she was on the phone. Eventually, she got off the phone and I approached her and asked if she was there to meet us. Sure enough, she was the one.

She led us back through some more very narrow alleyways and sidewalks. I was thoroughly confused as to our whereabouts. Street numbering in Venice is not the same as most other places. The city is divided into “regions” and each building in a particular region has its own number. Prior to the trip, I had tried to pinpoint the location of each apartment. Florence – success. Rome – success. But in Venice, I had three different locations: one that had been posted on the apartment’s web site, one that came from Google Earth, and one from the Garmin GPS database. When we arrived at the apartment it turned out that all three had been incorrect!

Where the Florence apartment had been modern, this one was older. Apart from the bathroom, it’s quite spacious, but it’s furnished in a much more traditional way. The apartment was fully equipped with everything we need including a washing machine.

We rested for a bit and then struck off to find a grocery store. I suggested leaving a trail of breadcrumbs so that we could find our way back – but we didn’t have enough bread. The woman who’d brought us to the apartment said that there was a fully-equipped “supermarket” not more than 200 metres away. I think her sense of distance was off because we wandered around quite a bit before we found a Coop. She was right about one thing though – it was a fully-equipped grocery store. However, much more cramped and confined than we’re used to in North America. We bought quite a few things including bread, cheese, eggs water and (of course) Italian wine.

We came back to the apartment and dropped off the groceries. We took a bit of time to “freshen up” and then struck off to find someplace for supper. We settled on a small place just a couple of blocks over from the apartment and took seats outside. It was a bit odd … an Italian restaurant, run completely by Chinese immigrants. There is a long historical connection between Venice and China dating all the way back to Marco Polo. That most Italian of dishes – pasta – originated as Chinese noodles.

The food was good – the price was right – and evening began coming on. One of my regrets from our trip last year was that there were not enough opportunities to enjoy the evening in each of the places we visited. Venice has a very well-known café culture, so we began walking to the Piazza San Marco to see what we would see.

There are three things that are not difficult to find in Venice – the train station (Ferrovia), the Rialto Bridge (Rialto) and the Piazza San Marco (S. Marco or San Marco). To get to either of the three, all you have to do is make you way to one of the more “main” streets and start following along. Before you have gone too far, and provided you keep looking up a bit, you’ll see large yellow rectangles with one of those three things written on it. The name will be accompanied by a directional arrow. All you have to do is follow the signs. Or the crowd.

Evening is a popular time to go to Piazza San Marco. And as we approached, the crowds got thicker and the sidewalks got narrower. In many places, window shoppers blocked the way. But I found that a gentle touch accompanied by the word “Permisso?” usually cleared a bit of a path.

I think Kevin was caught a bit off guard by the Piazza. Understandably so. As you approach the square, the streets get narrower and narrower, the buildings close in; and then, all of a sudden, there you are. The way opens up and you’re standing at the edge of an incredibly grand open space. In a later post, I’ll describe the space itself – tonight we were here to hear the café orchestras.

There are three (well actually four) cafés on the Piazza San Marco: Florian’s, Quadri’s and Lavena’s; the fourth – the Caffé Aurora is technically on the Piazzetta between the “new” offices and the Doge’s Palace. In any event, they all have music.

The Caffé Florian is on the south side of the Piazza San Marco. It was founded in 1720 and was one of the first places in Europe to serve coffee. The Florian counts Casanova, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens and Woody Allen among its most illustrious clients. Across from the Florian – on the north side of the Piazza – is the Caffé Quadri. Alexandre Dumas and Richard Wagner have spent time here. Last year, when Marg and I went with Bob and Gretch for our “treat” of cappuccino and biscotti on the Piazza San Marco, we went to Lavena’s. Lavena’s is the “newest” of the three and only has a history going back to 1750 … a regular “Giovanni-come-lately” in Venetian terms.

Our visit last year was in March, and it turns out that most of the café’s orchestras are off in March. Not so this time; all three of the café orchestras were playing. On the north side of the Piazza, the orchestras at Lavena’s and Quadri took turns – alternating 4 or 5 piece “sets”. When one set at one café would end, the orchestra at the other café would start up … and the crowd standing just outside the rows of tables would move left to the left or right to listen. Across the Piazza – at the Florian – the orchestra tended to play for longer periods with fewer breaks; perhaps because they did not have to “share” their side of the square.

All of the orchestras were very good. I felt that the violinist at Lavena’s was a bit of a “ham”; that the ensemble at Quadri’s was very capable; and that the orchestra at Florian’s has the most diverse repertoire (and had perhaps the strongest musicians). All were great, and I could have spent hours listening to any one of them.

But there was something odd. It had been a dry day. So why were there such big puddles near the drains in the Piazza?

It’s said that there are three things that influence the flooding of the square: a south wind, a full moon and an area of low pressure. The moon is nearly full, and a bit of a breeze had been blowing most of the day. Partway through our time at the piazza, I noticed that the areas around the drains were all surrounded by puddles of water. Worse, the water appeared to be bubbling up (slowly) through the drains – and the puddles were growing in size. I didn’t think that the piazza was in any risk of flooding, but it was still a somewhat disturbing sight to see.We listened to the orchestras for a bit, I had to pee, and puddles on the square weren’t helping. In Venice, bathrooms can be somewhat scarce. There are “pay” toilets, but they all close fairly early. Your alternative is to go back to your own place, or stop in at a bar or restaurant.

We decided to head back to the apartment.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

May 6

Florence and the Tuscan Countryside

Today is scooter rental day.

It didn’t get off to the best of starts. The Florence by Bike shop only had one 125cc Honda; the people who had rented it the day before extended their rental. But the woman at FBB made arrangements with her “colleague” to check out a scooter for us to rent at another location.
It turned out that her “colleague” had gone up to Alineri rentals to check out the availability there. Kevin and Penny stayed at Florence by Bike and Marg and I headed up the street to Alineri. Alineri wasn’t my first choice but it was who we would deal with if we wanted to go.

Alineri didn’t have any 125cc Hondas available and instead offered up a 100cc. I asked him if he had anything a bit bigger and he said that he had a 150cc Honda – but only available if I had a motorcycle license. I haven’t ridden a motorcycle for over 25 years but I still have the endorsement on my license. You don’t need a license for a 125cc but you do for a 150cc. He took me to the back to show me the bike. There was a big Doberman doing guard duty – and like guard dobies the world over, was docile when the owner was around and the gates open. And like most dogs in Italy, it needed no grassy area or fire hydrant to relieve itself, the tile floor where that bike and others were parked had a couple of urine puddles through which he rolled the bike as he brought it out.
Kevin and Penny came up the street with their bike just as we were getting the briefing from our guy. Marg suggested once around the block to get used to the bikes – so we did. And shortly, we were off. We managed to get ourselves a bit disoriented on our way out of town, but with the help of the GPS, we eventually figured it out.

We made our way down SR222 (the Chiantigiana). This designated scenic wine road runs right through the heart of the Chianti district. Wine has been produced in this area since the time of the Etruscans. The ride was glorious; well, maybe not as glorious as it could have been since the weather left a bit to be desired – it could have been just a shade sunnier with a bit less wind.We rode for a while, stopping from time to time to take pictures and enjoy the scenery.

As so we found ourselves in the town of Greve in Chianti – the unofficial “capital” of the area. It was obvious (to me at any rate) that this was a town that gets by on the higher-end tourist dollar. But that didn’t detract from the charm of the place; in fact, it kind of enhanced it. We decided that this would be a good place to stop and take a bit of a break. We found a place to park the scooters (not difficult) and then went for a bit of a walk.

We walked away from the main road and on to one of the streets running parallel. There was a fairly large square – Piazza Giacomo Matteotti. We walked around the piazza, went to a café on the north side, sat down and relaxed.

Marg and I ordered cappuccino, Penny and Kevin ordered hot chocolate (ciocolato calde).
The cappuccino was good (it’s always good) but the hot chocolate was something else. It was only drinkable when the cup was nearly full (and it was still hot). As the cup drains, it became more and more difficult to get any out. I guess that’s why it came with a spoon.

After the break, we continued on to Siena. Overhead signs gave good directions to the old part of the city (the centro storico). We had made a very brief stop in Siena during last year’s trip but had approached the city from a different direction. In any event, we got to what I believed would be as close as we’d be able to get so we parked the bikes. As a precaution, I used the GPS to mark the spot where we’d parked.

Our first stop was for a bit of lunch. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking … Tuscany … the Chianti region … you’re probably starting to work up a bit of an appetite just reading this. So … in the midst of all of this gastronomical splendor where did we decide to grab a bit of lunch? McDonald’s!

Right now, many of you are probably labeling me a heretic; but for whatever reason, we were all having a bit of craving for beef. I’ll make no apologies. While Kevin was paying, he reached into his pocket to dig up a bit of change and along with the Euro coins, out came a Loonie. The kid working the counter couldn’t take his eyes off it. Eventually, Kevin gave it to him and (I think) got a pretty good rate of return for the coin – he certainly got back a lot of change.

After lunch we continued walking through the narrow streets towards the historical centre of Siena – the Campo. Siena is one of the most beautifully preserved medieval cities in Italy. The Campo itself is at the convergence of three main streets that run along ridges that divided the city into three “terzi” or districts. The city was further divided into 17 “contrade” or wards. Twice each year, dirt is laid on the campo and horse races involving 10 representatives of these 17 contrade are held. This is the famous “Palio”.

The stone of the buildings is also a very unique colour and is the origin of the “Burnt Siena” the oh-so-popular Crayloa colour.

We left the Campo and wandered the alleys of Siena. We didn’t have much of a plan, we just wanted to wander and so, inevitably, we got lost. We got out the GPS and tried to get a fix on our position, but the alleys were so closed in that it was difficult to get a good “sky shot”. We had to make our way to a piazza to give the GPS the opportunity to get a position fix. Once we had that, it was an easy matter to get the GPS to figure out a route back to where we’d parked the bikes. The problem was staying on the route; once we got back into the confined alleys, the GPS would lose the signal and we’d have to keep going forward without position updates. Normally, that wouldn’t be too difficult, but you have to keep in mind that we were wandering through some very confined alleyways and sometimes the difference between one “street” and another was only 10 to 15 metres.

We managed to get back to the bikes and start on our way back to Florence. We tried backtracking our route in, but the traffic circles were a challenge. In addition, the signs for “Firenze” were all pointing in the direction of the divided highway and we wanted to go back on SR222. For a time, the divided highway won out (mostly because we found ourselves going down the “on ramp” before we realized where exactly the road was leading us). We had to do about 4.5 Km on the “Superstrada Firenze-Siena”. It wasn’t so bad for us; we had a windshield on our 150cc Honda. Kevin and Penny – on the other hand – had to get by with no wind (or bug) protection on their 125cc. We got of the Superstrada as soon as we could and the first thing we did was go back to the GPS to figure out not only where we were, but also how we were going to get back to Florence.
It turned out that we were on SR119 which leads directly on to SR222, so the way back (at least until we got closer to Florence) was going to be easy.

The sun was getting lower in the sky, and while still pleasant, the weather had turned just a bit cooler. The ride was not unpleasant, but a bit more sun and warmer temperatures would have been welcomed.

Rather than risk getting caught in Florence’s rush hour traffic without a clue as to where we needed to go, we stopped just north of Strada in Chianti to start up the GPS and figure out the route. I rode the rest of the way with the headphones in my ears listening to “Jenny” give me directions. At one point we rode along the outside of the old city wall. There were traffic lights at each end of one particularly narrow stretch of Viale Antonio Gramsci – to regulate one-way flows.

Eventually, we got back to Via San Zenobi and arrived just in time to drop the bikes before they closed.

The drop-off was sort of inverse to the pick-up. Where Marg and I had had a couple of hassles picking up, we had no problems at the drop-off. Penny and Kevin had a smooth pickup, but a bit of hassle dropping off. The shop was busy and their drop-ff kept getting interrupted by other customers pushing in. But nothing was really going to ruin what had – in the end – turned out to be an excellent day.

We headed back to the apartment to clean up and relax; then, we headed out for supper. After supper, we did a bit of shopping at the “mercato della nocce” (some may call it the Marché Noir) for some sunglasses. Opening prices of €30 for “Gucci”, “Dior” and “Versace” sunglasses were quickly whittled down to €10 – although not without a bit of “hardball” negotiation tactics including the infamous “walking away” gambit.

After that, we headed down to near the Ufizzi gallery to listen to another one of the many street performers. He had quite a crowd gathered; people were spilling up onto the loggia. We stayed for a few songs then headed over to get our nightly fix of gelato to enjoy during our stroll back to the apartment.

Tomorrow, we’re off to Venice.

Friday, May 15, 2009

May 5


Today’s plan is to absorb more culture. Today we’ll focus on the secular Renaissance.
Kevin and I began the day with a walk over to “Florence by Bike” to check out the scooters we plan to rent for tomorrow’s outing to Siena. The scooters looked good (Honda 125’s) and more importantly, Florence by Bike appeared to be a well-run organization with both a retail shop specializing in bicycles and cycling accessories and a repair shop. We confirmed the reservation with the retail shop’s office; but before we left, Kevin and I had a look around. I saw a Colagno bike with full top-end Campagnolo Record components. I’m guessing it was a “special-edition” Colnago because it also had some “Ferrari” markings. The price? A measly €6,400!

After the Florence by Bike stop, we headed over to the train station. Along the way we passed by the Alineri scooter rental shop. Seeing that shop confirmed to me that we had made the right choice in going with Florence by Bike.

We don’t want to have a repeat of the experience of the ride from Naples to Florence (actually the Rome to Florence portion) so we purchased our train tickets for the Florence to Venice portion of the trip in advance. This time, we’re going to be travelling on one of the high-speed trains – with assigned seats.

Those chores done, Kevin and I headed back to the apartment to get Marg and Penny and head out for the first of our gallery visits.

We started at the Accademia – home of Michelangelo’s “David”.

Good thing we made reservations in advance – there was quite the lineup to get in. The funny thing was that they didn’t ask to see any confirmation of the reservations; nor did they appear to check our name against their list of reservations. We could just as easily have walked up and told someone that we had reservations – and skipped the line entirely.

David is symbolic of Renaissance optimism. He looks at his enemy with a gaze that says “I will be victorious”. Art is symbolism and David screams “symbolism”. The hands and head are the most predominant parts of the sculpture; David (as all men) will overcome their trails and tribulations by making use of their own heads and hands. As I mentioned earlier, David was moved from its original location outside the Palazio Vecchio in 1873 to this specially-designed area in the Accademia. The rotunda in which Davis stands is capped with a dome and the effect is one of a halo overhead. As you approach David, the hall is lined with unfinished pieces by Michelangelo – the “Prisoners”.

The prisoners are a series of statues that had been commissioned and started, but never completed. Michelangelo’s technique was to simply knock away all of the marble that was not the thing that God had imprisoned in the stone. These “prisoners” rise from the marble, caught in an eternal struggle to escape.

No photos were allowed in the Accademia.

Our next museum reservation was for 1400 at the Ufizzi gallery. We then made our way back down to the Piazza Signoria (adjacent to the Ufizzi) and once again found a spot at the loggia to spread out the flag, have a seat, and eat our lunch.

We got to the Ufizzi gallery a bit ahead of our reservation. This time, they wanted to see the reservation document. I didn’t have a printed version, but I’d been thinking ahead and had the email confirmation already pulled up on the little computer. All I had to do was flash my little screen and we were good to go.

In all respects, it was over whelming.

The walk through the museum starts with a climb up four flights of stairs. Once you reach the top, you move the rooms starting with pre-Renaissance and carrying on through the Renaissance and immediate post-Renaissance periods. In the pre-Renaissance period, (1200-1400) the world was “flat” and religious icons predominated. The people of the day had clear understanding of the imagery and the stories the art told were well known – the stories of the bible. This area of the museum is dominated by the work of Giotto, Martini and da Fabriano.

It was said that the Renaissance began in 1401 when Ghiberti was commissioned to work on the Baptistery doors. The next area of the Ufizzi gallery reflects the state of painting at the time. N the 1400s, painters were working out the mathematics of portraying depth and perspective on a flat surface. This was also the time when art for pure enjoyment began to be created. The Ufizzi gallery has the famous “Duke and Duchess of Urbino” by della Frencesca on display.

The Renaissance began to reach full bloom in the mid-1400s. Under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici (aka Lorenzo the Magnificient). Lorenzo drew into his circle the best and brightest of the day; among the members of that group was Sandro Botticelli. The only Botticelli work I had ever been familiar with was “Birth of Venus”. However, when I saw “Allegory of Spring” and “Adoration of the Magi”, I realized that I had also been familiar with them as well (but just never connected the dots to Botticelli). The Botticelli portion of the display closes with “Slander”. It depicts the end of the Florentine Renaissance brought about by the rise of Savonarola.

The work of Botticelli is followed by two religious works by da Vinci. Then, it’s on to the classical sculpture area of the museum for a glimpse of work by the ancient Greeks and the Roman copycats.

As the Renaissance flamed out in Florence, it blew north to Germany and influenced painters there – including Cranach whose “Martin Luther” and “Katherine von Bora” are on display. There followed more sculptures (Greek originals and Roman copies) – arranged chronologically from the time of Julius Caesar to the Emperor Constantine. Along the way, there is a fantastic view of the Ponte Vecchio and Arno River.

The Renaissance got back into gear under the patronage of Pope Leo X. Leo was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and was thirteen years old when his family took in the then-thirteen-year-old Michelangelo. This area of the museum contains the works of Titian and Raphael. It also contains the only easel painting ever completed by Michelangelo. Most consider that the Florentine Renaissance came to an end with the death of Raphael.

And it wasn’t over … it went on and on … and on. And, near the end, there is a wall with (almost unnoticed) three Rembrandt paintings that would be prominently featured in nearly any other gallery.
I told you it was overwhelming.

After the Ufizzi gallery, we headed back towards the apartment by way of the Mercato San Lorenzo. During the day, it’s wall-to-wall merchants working out of stalls and carts. It’s only in the evening that the “black” market – dealing in knock-offs – comes out of the shadows. Strangely enough, Marg managed to find a guy ready to sell a “Breitling” watch for €30. I took it. Penny and Marg bought themselves scarves and shawls. Florence is famous for its leather goods, and for a while, I thought Kevin was going to succumb to the lure of the leather jackets (or maybe a man-purse), but he held firm. I myself found it difficult to resist the lure of a leather travelling bag.

We came back to the apartment and recovered from our wanderings of the day. After our adventures, our little “Ufizzis” were tired.

For supper, we went to a seafood restaurant we’d found during our previous evening’s wanderings. Afterwards, we went for a walk and wound our way down to the Ponte Vecchio.

We stopped for gelato and strolled onto the bridge. At the centre of the span, there was a fellow playing guitar and singing. Overhead, the moon was near full; the evening was warm. It was as near perfect an ending to the day as you could expect.Well, almost the ending. After we got back to the apartment we played a bit of Euchre before heading off to bed.

May 4


Today and tomorrow will be “culture” days. Today, it will be the religious.

The first thing we did was take the opportunity to catch up on some badly needed sleep. The combination of jet lag with standing for as long as we did had worn everyone out. We woke up at about 1100 and took our time to get going.

The first thing we needed was groceries for lunch. Kevin and I went to the Supermercato up on Via Guelfa to get some supplies: some meats, cheese, buns and fruit.

We left the apartment at about 1300 and headed for the Duomo – by way of the Mercato San Lorenzo – the collection of street vendors and stalls in the vicinity of the cathedral San Lorenzo. As with last year, there were scarves, leather goods, T-shirts.

We were roughly following the “Renaissance Walk” described by Rick Steves in his “Florence and Tuscany 2009” book. The Duomo is the centre of Florence and the square in front of it is the start of the walk. More precisely, we start at the eastern doors to the Baptistry – the building facing the front of the Duomo.

The Baptistry itself dates from the 11th century and is Florence’s oldest building. We had the option of paying €3 to enter, but chose instead to spend a bit more time in the Duomo itself. We did spend time looking at the two main sets of doors on the building. The doors on the north side (the entrance to the building) were commissioned in 1401 by way of a competition. Some say that it was this competition that ignited the Renaissance. A young (25 year old) artist named Lorenzo Ghiberti was selected; beating out many other well known artists. One of the artists (Filippo Brunelleschi) later went on to design the dome that crowned the Duomo itself. Nearly 25 years later, Ghiiberti was again commissioned to create the Baptistry’s east doors. It was these doors that introduced a whole new dimension to the art of the day – depth and perspective. It is said that Michelangelo himself believed these doors to be fit to serve as the gates of heaven themselves. The doors currently in place are copies; the originals are safely displayed in the Duomo Museum.

We turned from the Baptistry and headed into the Duomo. The crowd was sparse since it was after lunch; it seems that most tourists want to get their sightseeing taken care of early in the day. The church itself is rather austere inside. All of the great works of art have been removed too the Duomo museum. Still, it is a very impressive space to enter. The church itself is Gothic and was built “unfinished”; that is, the church was built with a hole for a dome that the original builders lacked the skill to fabricate. Nonetheless, they knew that the time would come when someone would have the knowledge and skill to complete the project.

That someone turned out to be Filippo Brunelleschi. After failing to win the commission to create the Baptistry doors, Brunelleschi travelled to Rome where he studied the Parthenon and other Roman architecture. It was there that he developed the knowledge that enabled him to complete the work of those craftsmen of the Middle Ages. The dome took 14 years to complete and was – at the time – the largest dome built since the Parthenon. It remained the largest free-standing dome in the world until the construction of the Houston Astrodome. The Duomo served as the inspiration for domes the world over; Michelangelo studied Brunelleschi’s dome when he was designing St. Peter’s Basilica.

The interior of the dome is decorated with Giorgio Vasari’s “Last Judgment”. In it, the dead rise from their graves at the base of the dome, upwards to a multilevel heaven where Christ decides their fate. I didn’t notice them least year, but it appears as though several long cracks (top to bottom) have appeared in the ceiling of the dome. It will be a shame if more damage occurs to the church.

Kevin began to feel the weight of 2,000 years of Christianity closing in on him. He and talked a bit about the art itself and the role of the pre-Renaissance church as patron of art.

From the Duomo, we headed south towards the Arno River making a slight jog to the west to pass by the Piazza della Repubblica. We showed Penny and Kevin the location of the Penzione Pendini – our hotel from last year.

We continued a bit south and then turned west on via Vacchereccia. Just before we entered the Piazza Signoria, we went over the things we would be seeing there.

The Piazza Signoria is in a part of the city that was once a Roman encampment. The grid arrangement of streets is what makes it recognizable as Roman. The piazza is ringed with buildings – on two sides, restaurants and shops; on the east side the Palazzo Vecchio and on the south by a statue-filled loggia.

The Palazzo Vecchio was the Medici family’s palatial city hall and the political centre of Florence. In front of the palace is a replica of “David”. The statue was originally commissioned – in 1501 – to stand along the southern roofline of the Duomo, but during the sculpting, it was decided to place it at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio. After it was completed, the statue was placed in a cart and dragged to the palazzo and it stood there until 1873 when it was moved to the Accademia to protect it from further weathering. In 1527, the left arm of the original statue was accidentally knocked off by a bench thrown from one of the palace’s windows.To the right of the palace is the Loggia dei Lanzi; filled with statues. At the rear of the loggia (the north wall of the western arm of the Ufizzi gallery) are a series of Roman statues. At the front of the loggia are more statues. The two most important are “Perseus” by Cellini and “The Rape of the Sabines” by Giambologna.

Art carries powerful messages – and the general populace was well familiar with the metaphorical language used in art. Statues such as these were no exception; they too carried powerful political messages that were clearly understood by the people. These pieces were positioned for political effect. Their message? Don’t mess with the Medici family … and if you do, these are examples of the types of things that will happen to you.

We found a spot on the loggia – in front of these statues – and had lunch. There are plenty of pigeons about and we thought it best to have something upon which to sit. Good thing we had thought to bring a flag along.

After lunch and before we left the piazza, we stopped at the marker denoting the spot where Savonarola was hanged and burned (1498). Savonarola was a monk who organized large rallies lit with roaring bonfires. His targets were those living the excesses of the Renaissance and people came from all around to throw their “vanities” (paintings, books) into these bonfires (hence the term “Bonfire of the Vanities”). Encouraged by the pope, the people of Florence eventually turned on Savonarola, captured him and tortured him for two days. Finally, he was executed on this spot.
After lunch, we left the Piazza Signoria at the south end and walked south through the Ufizzi courtyard. The courtyard is lined with statues of great Renaissance figures. Giotto, Donatello, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli and Galileo are all here. It’s a veritable “who’s who” of the Renaissance.

After passing through the Ufizzi courtyard, we came to the Arno River. On our right was the Ponte Vecchio.

Ponte Vecchio literally means “old bridge”. A bridge has crossed this point of the Arno River since the time of the Etruscans. The existing bridge was built in the 14th century by Neri de Fiorvanti. The first occupants of the shops lining the bridge were butchers. The Medici family came to realize that they could extract more rent if they replaced the butchers with gold merchants. The bridge has been lined with gold merchants ever since. In the Second World War, the local German commander was ordered to blow up the bridge; but instead, he rendered the bridge impassable by blowing up buildings at either end. Running along the top of the bridge is an enclosed walkway – used by the Medici family as part of their daily commute between their homes in the Pitti Palace and their offices in the Ufizzi.

We crossed the bridge halfway and then turned back. We got a gelato just north of the bridge, continued north for a bit through narrow, crowded streets lined with shops and turned east towards the Piazza Santa Croce.

The Piazza Santa Croce is the square in front of Santa Croce. Piazza Santa Croce has always been a gathering spot during holidays and festivals. This was evident from the post-May Day cleanup taking place in the square. On November 4, 1966, this piazza was submerged under 15 feet of water owing to a flood of the Arno River. This was the same flood that carried away a great deal of the merchandise from the gold shops on the Ponte Vecchio.

We went round to the side of the church and bought admission. Construction of Santa Croce began in 1295 under the architectural guidance of Arnolfo di Cambio. The design so impressed civic leaders di Cambio was asked to design the Duomo. Construction was completed in 1442 but the façade was only completed in the 1850s.

Inside, the church is very austere. Santa Croce shows typical Gothic design elements; the columns supporting arches are fully exposed – to demonstrate the precision and strength of the builders (and by extension, the church itself). Inside the nave (central) portion of the church, hundreds of people have been buried. There are 276 tombs on the floor alone. Some of the tombs on the floor have been cordoned off to prevent people walking on the carved stones; still others are simply flat markers. As you approach the altar, the number of tombs increases.

The walls also contain tombs and markers. The three most notable are Galileo, Michelangelo and Dante. Galileo defied the teachings of the church by saying that the earth revolved around the sun. For that, he was excommunicated and kept under house arrest til his death in 1642. His remains were only allowed into the church long after his death.

Michelangelo actually has two tombs. The garish one on the right designed by Giorgio Vasari is decorated with figures representing sculpture, architecture and painting. Immediately to the left is a smaller tomb with what appears to be a wooden box. After his death, Michelangelo’s body was stolen and only returned later by a group of Florentines. It’s said that his remains are now in that box.

Further to the left is a memorial to Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). There is no body inside since Dante was exiled from Florence because of his politics. Three statues decorate the memorial – Dante himself in the centre, flanked by a very sad Muse of Poetry (“see what we have lost”) and a triumphant Lady of Florence (“see what we have won”). It was Dante who, through his writings, helped codify a common Italian language (Florentine). And although many different Italian dialects still predominate (making Sicilians unable to understand Venetians), they do have a common – if somewhat more formal – language that they can share.

Also along the walls of Santa Croce are tombs and memorials to Fermi, Marconi and Machiavelli.
We worked our way to the Sacristy to the right of the altar and saw the Tunic of St. Francis of Assisi then back through the cloisters to a museum with many pieces that had been rescued and restored in the aftermath of the 1966 flood. All in all we spent much more time in the cathedral than we had last year and managed to see most parts of the church. But as with last year, many parts of the church are under restoration. The Henry Moore sculpture that I saw in the cloisters area last year has been removed for safekeeping while that restoration is underway.

After Santa Croce, we made our way back northwest towards the San Lorenzo market. Along the way, we stopped at the supermercato to get supplies for tomorrow’s lunch. When we got back to the apartment, it was time for a bit of a rest – a glass of wine – and then back out for supper.
We headed to the Piazza della Repubblica and sat down at one restaurant. But although their meals were reasonably priced, their wine list was rather pricey compared to other restaurants we’ve been in, so we moved on. We caught on to the idea of checking the wine list first – and went through three or four other restaurants before deciding to head back up to the Mercato Centrale area. Eventually, we settled on the place where Marg and I had had lunch last year.

After supper, we headed back to the apartment the long way round; stopping for a gelato along the way.

May 3

Sorrento – Pompeii – Naples – Florence

We woke early, had a bit of breakfast and managed to get to the Sorrento station in time to catch a train at 0850. The train wasn’t as crowded as it had been for our ride out to Sorrento but there were still quite a few people for so early on a Sunday morning.

I had read that there is a “left luggage” depot at the Pompeii Scavi train station. When we got to the station, we asked and were pointed in the direction of the snack bar. Around to the right, right again, back, back, deep in the rear of the snack bar. A couple of bangs on the door: “BRUNO!” Bruno eventually came to the doo and took our bags into his room (which was actually part of the train station’s ticket office). We asked for a receipt and we were handed a scrap of paper upon which some words had been scrawled. Good enough, we’re off to see the ruins. Once again I refer you to http://korahinitaly2008.blogspot.com/ for my impressions of Pompeii. Not much has changed over the past 14 or 15 months. There were some areas that had been closed last year and were now open. On the other hand, some areas that had been open last year were now closed. We wandered a great deal more – without the benefit of a map. From time to time we eavesdropped on other guides. The language didn’t seem to matter – Italian, German, French, English – many of the stories we heard being told were the same as the stories our guide from last year told us.

Speaking of last year’s guide, we saw him with another group of tourists. He’s let his hair grow a bit longer, but still looks about the same. I managed to sneak a snapshot of him by pretending to take one of Marg.

Before we left the station, we had checked on the departure times. It was said of Mussolini that he had managed to get the trains to run on time and that is still (for the most part) true so we were mindful of the time.. We managed to get back to the station just in time to retrieve our bags. We were waiting for the train when Marg noticed that we were on the wrong platform. We were literally on the wrong side of the tracks and had to run down the stairs, through the tunnel, back up the other side and directly on to the train seconds before the whistle sounded and the doors closed.

We knew that there was a 1334 departure from Naples to Florence but when we tried to buy tickets at the machine, we found that there were only two seats available. No problem, there are plenty of trains from Naples to wherever you want to go so we settled for a bit later “local” train.

When the train arrived, we went to board, but checked with one of the conductors to make sure we were in the right place. He looked at our ticket and proceeded to spend the next 5 minutes poking the screen of what appeared to be a small iPAQ or Palm Pilot type of computer. After a lot of screen poking, he gave us back our tickets and told us to board. We boarded the train at about 1430 and since no seats had been assigned, we found our own. As I write this, we’re on the train – Marg, Penny and Kevin are playing cards.

Now, you’re probably thinking: “What could possibly go wrong now that you’re on the train?” Well, there’s a funny thing about regional Italian trains; they just keep selling tickets. The reason we couldn’t get tickets on the earlier “fast” train was because there were no seats available. The reason we got tickets on the slower regional” train was because seating doesn’t matter. They keep selling tickets; some people manage to get reserved seats, the rest stand. After Rome, we were part of the latter group.

In retrospect, I believe that the conductor in Naples was trying to find us reserved seats – and spent 5 minutes doing so. The reason he was unable to find any seats was because the train was oversold by about 100%. This should have come as no surprise given the fact that this was a holiday weekend (May Day was on Friday). So we had to stand for the 4+ hours between Rome and Florence.

It was packed. But we did get the opportunity to meet some interesting people. One couple was travelling with their children. He is Italian, his wife and American; he currently works in Wisconsin. We met a student who had spent part of last year in Walkerton on an exchange program. Other people wanted to know if we were British or American they seemed pleased to find out that we were actually Canadian. I guess those stories you hear about Canadians being more welcomed abroad than our North American cousins are true.

At one point, we had a chance to get to another train to Florence, but because of all the people in the aisles and in the doorways we couldn’t get off our train (with our bags) quickly enough. When we finally arrived in Florence, we were at the “stopover” train station (since the train was actually enroute to Milan). There was a “local” train to the downtown station and we ran to try and catch it, but just as we were climbing the stairs back up to the platform, it pulled out and we missed it.
The next train to downtown was in an hour, so we took a cab downtown. We made our way to the designated meeting point at the Trattoria Garibardi and one of the waitresses brought us up to the apartment and showed us around.

After we unpacked and freshened up a bit, we went back to the Trattoria Garibardi for supper (15% discount for staying in their apartment).After supper, a bit of a stroll down by the Duomo and then back to the apartment to collapse for the night.

May 2

Sorrento – Capri – Sorrento

First things first – cappuccino!

I woke up at about 0730 (local) after a very sound night’s sleep (duh!). I showered and went down to one of the local bars (do they ever close?) and ordered “due cappuccino per esporte, per favore”. It’s not quite the same as a “triple grande, three pump sugar-free caramel, non-fat, extra hot, latte” … but that’s OK; perhaps even better than OK. I brought the cappuccinos back to the “hotel” and caught up on this blog.

The streets were alive again for early on a Saturday morning; but a different type of alive. Shops that were closed yesterday are all open. Vehicular traffic has returned to streets that were dominated by pedestrians yesterday.

We’re just about to join Kevin and Penny for breakfast, then off to catch the ferry over to Capri.
(More of that “time passages music)

There was quite a crowd at the ferry terminal/ticketing station; so great a crowd, in fact, that we were unable to get passage on the 1145 sailing and had to wait for the 1230. We wandered the area, looking at some of the shops and admiring the views of the city and coastline. After a while, we decided to head over to the boarding area and wait.

We got to the boarding area well in advance of the sailing; in fact, we were among the first in line. The ferry was there, but they weren’t doing any boarding. The line continued to build behind us and got quite lengthy. Finally, they commenced the boarding process and since we were so near the front of the line, we had first choice of seats. Seating was all inside – although there was a bit of space on the foredeck (but no chairs) – and since we would be heading west towards Capri, we decided to sit in the front row of the left-hand (port) side of the boat so that we could watch the coastline pass by.

The crew was trying to tell people that they were not allowed outside, but when we pulled away from the dock, there were about 20 to 25 people out on the foredeck. As soon as the boat pulled away from the dock, those outside began to pull on their jackets. And once we cleared the sea wall, quite a few decided to come inside. The boat quickly accelerated to what I would guess was about 40 knots (nearly 50 Km/hr). The ride was very smooth and Kevin and I decided to go outside to see what it was like.

I’ve never been on such a large boat (ship) that was motoring so quickly. We were passing private motor cruisers. I could have water skied behind this ferry. Outside, on the deck, there was a gentle up and down motion of the deck that made walking across from one side to the other a bit awkward; but it was still quite the experience to be out on the open water, on the deck of a boat that was moving so rapidly. The only word that comes to mind is “awesome”.

On arrival in Capri we went around the corner to the right to buy tickets for funiculare. We joined the queue and gradually moved forward bit by bit. They would meter in 80 people at a time to a vestibule and then once the car arrived, an inner door would open to move that group onto the car itself. The inner door would then close and the next group of 80 would begin moving through the portals. There was a big counter above the portal area that counted down from 80 as each group of passengers moved through. When we were getting close, Kevin estimated that we would either just get on at the end of one group, or be at the very beginning of the next group. As we approached the portal, I looked at the counter and it was nearing zero rapidly. In fact, Penny was about to put her ticket in the validation machine and the counter read “2”. I told her to wait. In front of me, people continued through and their group was broken. So we had to wait for one more departure. Once again, since we were the first in line, we got our choice of where wanted to position ourselves on the train – we chose the front row of the lower car for the potential views.The funiculare was as I remembered it from last year’s trip with the Korah High School group (http://www.korahinitaly2008.blogspot.com/). The difference this year was that there were far more people in the narrow streets. And the weather was much nicer – in the low 20’s. We pressed through the crowds and went to a park and had a picnic. The view was fantastic. Small boats and large yachts bobbed on the sea far below. The colour of the water was incredible.

After lunch, we worked our way back up towards the centre of town. Along the way, we stopped at the perfumery and Marg bought some eau de toilette. We continued on past the square and over to the local bus terminal. We bought tickets and boarded the bus for the ride to Anacapri.

The ride to Anacapri was every bit as exciting as it was the last time we did it just over a year ago. Once again, I was standing, but this time, I didn’t have to look straight out the door. The hairpin turns were still exciting, but nothing beats the view out (and straight down) as the bus crosses a bridge spanning a gap in the cliff.

We wandered around a bit around Anacapri. The last time Marg and I were here it was mid-March. And although we found the weather pleasant enough, the locals were wearing their heavier coats. Today, the weather was very pleasant (although not summer-perfect) and Anacapri had a much different look. Most of the small shops had things displayed in front of their stores. It was still mostly the same things that were for sale down in Capri (and Sorrento). After our wandering around, we took the bus back down to Capri.

We got back down to the main square in plenty of time to catch the funiculare down to the Marina Piccolo – but there was quite the line waiting to get on. So we decided to continue down to the Marina Piccolo on foot. We were a bit early for our ferry so we sat at a café to wait.

It was an internet café so I went on-line to check on the status of our bags. The news wasn’t good. There is an on-line tracking web site into which you enter the baggage tracking number given when you first report the bags as “missing”. The tracking site reported back that the search for the bags was still in progress. This was counter to the information we had received earlier which said that the bags would be on the next day’s flight from Toronto to Rome.

So if the tracking system was reporting that the hunt for my bag was still on, how was it that Mario – the proprietor of the Babyluna – said in an email that he’d been contacted about my luggage and that it was to be delivered later in the evening?

>>Hi Paul
>>They will deliver luggage at about 9.30-10pm this evening. Now what do you prefer to do? Do >>you want me to come before dinner or shall we meet directly for luggage?

And shortly afterwards …

>>Paul consider that the developer of the luggage will call me few minutes before arriving in >>Sorrento; this evening I will have a pizza with my family in a restaurant in the nearby of the >>Babyluna, and so as soon as I will be called I will send email to you and come out of the >>Babyluna to receive luggage.

I began to wonder what was being delivered.

Soon same the time to catch the ferry; I (along with most of the other passengers) slept the whole ride back. Kevin said that when the captain announced “PORTO” there was an audible groan that went through the passenger deck. I guess most people had enjoyed the gentle rocking of the boat when it got to speed and were just getting into their deeper sleep patterns – only to be interrupted by the announcement “PORTO”.

Mario had recommended a small fishing community just to the west side of Sorrento, and we planned to head that way. But there was no direct route, we would have to go back up to the main part of Sorrento, and then back down to the fishing port, then back up to walk back to the Babyluna. We took a different set of stairs up to the top, and came out at the west end of the city’s main square. We turned west, but fatigue was starting to weigh heavily. We spotted a restaurant that had tables set up on one half of the street. It was still a lovely evening and we decided that we’d walked enough for the day.

After supper, we walked further up that same street and found ourselves in the midst of a bustling market filled with small shops and restaurants. First things first; some Gelato to help regain our strength. The streets were crowded with people, as you would expect anywhere on the Saturday of a long weekend. As we turned left to start heading back towards the Babyluna, I got an email from Mario: our luggage had just been delivered. I wrote back and told him that we would be there in 10 minutes. While we were heading back towards the hotel, we could hear fireworks. We only caught a glimpse of them as we crossed the main square and soon the noise subsided.

We got back to the Babyluna … finally … our bags! Mario said that the driver had called him to say that he was having trouble finding the hotel and was about to head back to Rome with our bags. Mario reminded the driver that there was supposed to have been a call 30 minutes before arriving in Sorrento – so as to allow Mario the time to arrange a meeting place. Mario interrupted his supper and came to meet the driver. Our bags had literally only arrived 15 minutes before we ourselves got back to the Babyluna. We settled up our bill with Mario and he went back to finish his supper with his family. Grazie mille Mario.

We capped off the evening with a bit of socializing with Kevin and Penny – and off to bed.We’ll be up early to begin heading north towards Florence – but before we leave the area we’ll be making a stop in Pompeii.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

April 30 – May 1

In Transit Ottawa to Sorrento

Things did not get off to an auspicious start.

I got away from the office early enough to have given myself the opportunity to pack in a measured and methodical manner. We drove up to Ottawa at an unhurried pace. Heck, we even had time to stop in at Trailhead so I could buy two pairs of “travel underwear”.

Margaret’s sister Majda had agreed to let us park the car at their house – and I had hoped we would get to Ottawa early enough to allow us to take the bus to the airport – but having her take the car back after dropping us off at the terminal was OK too.

We arrived early enough to go to the lounge and enjoy some of Air Canada’s hospitality before the flight. But that kind of unhinged when we got to the gate and heard an announcement about a “snag” and “ground crew investigating”. Marg tolerates flying but is always somewhat apprehensive about the whole thing; she didn’t take well to this news. I am a frequent flier; I knew right away that this was going to spell trouble for our connection to a Swiss flight in Montreal.

The problem was that Air Canada dispatch (or whoever is responsible) did not formally “cancel” the flight; and since it was not “cancelled”, the “interrupted travel” protocols for rebooking had not kicked in. We were in a sort of limbo.

I called Air Canada reservations, but they needed a reservation number to proceed, they flipped me to Aeroplan (through whom we had made the arrangements) who couldn’t find the match on file for the credit card I’d used to pay the fees – so they were unable to proceed and suggested I call reservations. After a certain amount of pleading and cajoling (OK … maybe a bit of crying thrown in) I managed to get through to an agent who recognized the situation for what it was and rebooked our travel through Toronto.

So, instead of Ottawa -> Montreal -> Zurich -> Rome (Air Canada and Swiss), we wound up with Ottawa -> Toronto -> Rome (all Air Canada). And we managed to hang on to Business class for the whole trip. The downside was that we would wind up arriving in Rome approximately 3 hours after we were originally scheduled.

We were re-ticketed; and I managed to do all this while still down in the gate area. But there was still action on the ACA104 front. The flight still had not been cancelled and now the plan was to take the passengers across the way from gate 24 over to gate 23 and head on to Montreal in another aircraft. But for nearly everyone who had planned connections (many that we overheard connecting to the same Swiss flight we had originally been booked on) that wasn’t proving to be a viable option. For our part, our biggest concern was making sure that we recovered our bags and got them re-tagged to match our new travel plans.

We spoke to the gate agent – who spoke to “stock” (the people who actually handle the bags) and then watched out the window to see if we could actually see our bags. The other passengers boarded the flight, we saw our bags – along with a few others – segregated from the rest, returned to the cart, and brought back to the building.

We still had to get the bags re-tagged, and in Ottawa, this is not something that can be done by the gate agent; meaning that one of us (me) would have to go back u to check-in with our new boarding cards and have that agent re-print baggage tags. But before that, we headed back to the lounge.
Kevin and Penny were surprised (naturally) to see us at the lounge. They were booked on a 1715 Ottawa -> Frankfurt and thought that we would have been well on our way. Marg stayed in the lounge and I went back out to try and get our baggage situation straightened out.

It was not a pretty sight … “afternoon rush hour” and along with the flight to Frankfurt, there were a couple of other large aircraft waiting to whisk passengers off to faraway places. In other words, it was jam packed with people. Earlier, when we had arrived, we had walked directly up to the security checkpoint; now, the line was 3 coils long (in lineup terms, a “coil” refers to the number of time the line doubles back on itself). Up at the check-in area, the line ran nearly half the length of the building. I went through the far shorter “business class” line and when I got to an agent she said “I’ll bet you’re going to tell me a story” … and she was right. But, it was a story that she was familiar with; she quickly prepared the new tags and attached them to an explanatory note. She put the note (along with the tags) into a bin and sent them off on the conveyor belt. As I write this now, I still have no idea if that worked.

After that, I had to join the 3-coil queue for the sham sideshow referred to as “security” (a whole other topic). I managed to get back up to the lounge just before Penny and Kevin were heading down to catch their flight. Shortly after they left, we headed down to the gate to wait for our departure to Toronto.

Those of you who watch “The Amazing Race” can probably picture it now: “The two teams must now make their way to Rome. One team heads for Frankfurt and a connection to Rome. Forty-five minutes later, the second team heads in the other direction – to Toronto – where they will board a direct flight for Rome.” I can even see the graphic representation of our travels on a map … the lines radiating from Ottawa and arcing across to the respective connection points – eventually meeting in Rome. Kevin and Penny’s departure gate (15) was right beside ours (16) and we watched their aircraft push off taxi and get airborne. What I do like about our revised itinerary is the lack of a European stopover. Air traffic Flow Management being what it is means that we are less likely to be subjected to “air traffic control delays” coming from overseas than we would be if we were on a flight originating in Europe. We’re still enroute as I write this, so the jury is still out.
Eventually, we boarded our aircraft for Toronto, but the weather had deteriorated (in Toronto) and were a bit late arriving … meaning that we had to hustle like crazy just to get from where we arrived at the Rapidair gate (120) to the far end of the “hammerhead” at gate 172. We made it with enough spare time to have an opportunity to briefly stop in at the lounge. The tightness of this connection also represents another opportunity for our bags to go missing and I’m starting to think that if they come off the carousel in Rome it will be nothing short of a miracle.

Perhaps a word about the Business Class seating on this air craft … the aircraft itself is a Boeing 767. Recently, Air Canada began retro-fitting these aircraft with “pod-style” seating. The seat itself reclines back to fully horizontal so that – after the meal – you can lie down flat and catch some serious ZZZ’s (or zzz’s for my American friends). Supper was a choice of appetizers: Vodka smoked Atlantic Salmon and Cucumber or Tomato, Pesto and Feta Tart with Mesclun Greens. The main course was a choice of Grilled Veal, Halibut or Gnocchi (I had the Herb-crusted Halibut with Rhubarb, Leek Butter, exotic Grains and Bok-choy). There was a cheese plate and fresh fruit (or ice cream) for dessert. Breakfast has just been served after the “lights-out snooze” portion of the flight. It was a continental breakfast with some fruit, yogurt and a small danish … along with juice and coffee. Oh … and did I mention the little toiletry kit that was on each seat? Slippers, an eye mask, toothpaste, toothbrush, lotions, balms … I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back to riding at the “back of the bus”.

We’ll be landing in Rome in about an hour … let’s see what happens.

(fade out, fade in … something to indicate the passage of time)

What happened was what I had expected to happen. On this trip, there were two points at which our baggage was most likely to become separated from us; at Ottawa because of the last-minute change of travel arrangements, or in Toronto because of the short connection time between the Ottawa arrival and the Rome departure. After we were sure that no other bags from the Toronto flight were going to be forthcoming (determined by the increasing number of Tunisians at the carousel and the sharp increase in the number of bags marked TUN -> FCO) we headed over to the Customer Service area. There are three, each dealing with specific airlines. I had a hard time finding the Air Canada on the sign because it was printed in black – and I’m used to seeing it in red.

We gave the agent the claim vouchers – but she said that there was no message attached to the bag numbers. On a hunch, I asked her to try the “old” ones from the Ottawa/Montreal/Zurich/Rome ticket and sure enough, she found messages saying that the bags would be leaving Ottawa on the same flights we eventually took – but would be a day late arriving. The problem, of course, is that we are heading to Sorrento for only two days and plan to leave for Pompeii and Florence on Sunday morning. We gave the agent the phone number for the Babyluna Hotel in Sorrento and she told us that they would get the bags down there to us. Once again we’ll have to see what happens.
So that was an unproductive hour-plus and now we were starting to be concerned about our rendezvous arrangements with Penny and Kevin. When last we spoke, the first to arrive would wait by the Leonardo train arrival area at Rome’s Termini station and the fallback would be the information desk.

All good in theory.

Today is May Day and it seemed as though everyone in Italy was travelling by train. Never mind the fact that it’s Rome (as in all roads lead to …); it’s a holiday in Rome! Oh … and did I mention that there were at least 3 (and probably closer to 5 or 6) “information centres”? We scanned faces – thousands of faces – for nearly two hours while we wandered the main level of the station. No luck. Finally, when I started to realize that I was recognizing people that I‘d looked at during the search; so we eventually decided to board the train for Naples (and eventually Sorrento) and hope that Penny and Kevin came to the same realization and did the same thing.

So now, we’re blasting through the Italian countryside – southbound to Naples – on one of the Italian high-speed trains. It’s time to do the transition music/fade out fade in thing.

In Naples, we transferred to the smaller “regional” train called the “Circumvesuviana”. It was really more like a subway than anything else; especially as far as the amount of graffiti plastered all over the carriages was concerned. It’s a long way from Naples to Sorrento to begin with and the journey felt even longer on the hard plastic buckets that pass for seats. But at least we had seats. A each stop more and more people kept getting on – far more than were getting off so in the end, the train was packed. We tried to wait for most of the crowd to clear ahead of us, but there is only one rather small exit from the Sorrento station and there was quite the crush of people going up and down the stairs as we tried to exit the building. In any temperate climate, pickpockets thrive – and this is especially true in Italian tourist areas. A skilled pickpocket will work crowded areas where there is a lot of jostling and bumping. No, dear reader, I did not fall victim to a pickpocket, but it was just one more thing I had to keep on my (by now) tired mind.

We chose the hotel in Sorrento for its price and its proximity to both the train station and the central area. The Hotel Babyluna is at 187 via del’ Aranci which was supposed to be a very short walk. Unfortunately, all of our printed directions and contact numbers were in our checked bags (I won’t make that mistake again); so, armed only with the rough location marked on our GPS, we set off.
We got to the area, but could find nothing marked “Hotel Babyluna”. So I fired up the little computer to troll through my email records to get the exact address and a phone number. That was where I got the “187 via del’ Aranci” from, as well as the name of the owner and a phone number. I tried calling the number, but was unable to make a connection. Street signs were non-existent and building numbers even less-so … until Marg found the number high up on the wall carved into a piece of marble. The only thing we found at 187 via del’ Aranci was a locked metal gate. Thinking that a hotel is a pretty difficult thing to hide, we went to a couple of shops in the same area to ask if they knew anything about the Hotel Babyluna. One of the proprietors pointed us back to the corner and up the small hill to a callbox for the apartments in the building. It was there that we saw one of the tenants marked as “Hotel Babyluna”. We tried buzzing, but got no response.

I started to get concerned. No bag is one thing, but no hotel in a big tourist area on a holiday weekend in Italy is another. I asked Marg to wait at the callbox while I went to see if I could find us an alternative. I went up the street to the Hostel Le Sirene and told the woman working the desk my story about the hotel. They had an internet service, so I logged in to check my email to see if there had been anything from Mario – the owner of the Hotel Babyluna – that would give me some further direction. There was nothing. I re-checked the Hotel Babyluna web site, found that it was till operational, and through it sent a message to Mario letting him know that we had arrived. I tried the phone number again but still couldn’t connect. Then I realized that the reason I couldn’t connect was because my phone does not have the correct sim card. I asked the woman at the desk if she could try the number; she did and I was soon speaking with Mario directly. He promised to be at the “hotel” within 5 minutes.

Fifteen minutes later, Mario was showing us around the “hotel”. It’s an apartment that he has converted into three smaller sub-units. Each has a queen-size bed, a small kitchen and bathroom. There is also a small balcony. Despite the hassle of finding the place and getting in, I would still recommend it.

While we were on the train to Sorrento, I took a look at my Blackberry and saw an email from Kevin and Penny. When they had written about an hour earlier, they were still at the Rome Termini station, looking for us. He said that they would continue to look for us until 1700 and then start on the train to Sorrento. I had emailed back that we were approaching Sorrento, but since it was nearly 1700 when I was writing back, I didn’t hold out much hope of that message reaching them.

So, having established ourselves in Sorrento, we tidied up a bit and headed over to the train station to wait for Kevin and Penny. We didn’t have to wait long. They arrived on the second train in. They said that they were quite relieved to see us – as we were to see them.

It turned out that they had missed a tightly-booked connection in Frankfurt. So in our own little “Amazing Race” to Rome, Marg and I had actually come out the winners. So while we were fruitlessly waiting for our bags and dealing with Customer Service, they were still enroute to Rome. We left the airport at about the time they were landing. So it was no wonder that our search of the train station was fruitless – they only arrived at the train station one-half hour before we (having given up all hope of finding them in that melee) got on the train for Naples.
So … here are my draft rules for meeting in a foreign land:

  1. Plan to be at least two nights in your first destination. This will give your luggage a chance to catch up with you (should you be that unfortunate)

  2. Your first two nights should be at some sort of recognizable hotel. even now, I fear that we will not be reunited with our luggage because the “hotel” is very difficult to find

  3. Your destination meeting place should not be an overly-crowded (or potentially over-crowded) location. Enroute delays are nearly inevitable and an hour or two of fruitless searching in a crowd is not something I can recommend as an activity to undertake on minimal sleep

  4. Identify some sort of communications capability and protocol. Kevin and Penny made use of an internet café across from one of the entrances to the Termini station in Rome.

After Penny and Kevin freshened up, we went out for supper to the Leone Rosso restaurant – as recommended by our “hotelier” Mario Casa. Finally, things started to turn in our direction … we had pizzas – at home you would probably refer to them as “gourmet-style” since they had different combinations of toppings. (Some even had “french fries” listed as a topping!) The food was very good and I was told the Italian Cabernet the others drank was very good as well. On the way back from the restaurant, we stopped at a gelateria for – what else – gelato. There was loud Euro-techno blasting away, the streets were crowded with people strolling, scooters scooted around the pedestrians.

We had finally arrived in Italy.