06 September 2015

Dispatches from Spain 10: Italy & France Edition

by Rich Gilbert

Italy and a Bit of France

[European wanderers Rich and Sallie are on the move, this time into Italy and “a bit of France.”  You’ll have to pardon the delay in posting this dispatch, which Rich sent by e-mail from Valladolid, Spain, where he and Sallie stopped after the jaunt described here, but ROT scheduling prohibited me from getting it on the blog before now.  They’ll be traveling much farther afield than this next before returning to the States.  Check back for Dispatches 1-9 (30 November, 10 December, and 20 December 2014, and 14 January, 8 March, 20 April, and 23 July 2015) to catch up with the odyssey so far.  As usual, Rich’s account of his and Sallie’s travels is interesting and full of fascinating little details above the usual travelogue (which, in fact, he’s deliberately skipped).  I recommend that you all also check in at Sallie’s blog, Rambling Solo, at http://ramblingsolo.blogspot.com.es.]

Valladolid, Spain – August 2, 2015

The Trip in General

On June 3, Sallie and I left Malaga and flew to Rome. We had a trip planned with Sallie’s son, David, his wife, Heidi, and their daughter, Emily (Sallie’s oldest granddaughter); Heidi’s mother, Jacqueline, and her husband, Bill, were also along on the trip. Heidi had lived in Florence for several years before meeting David, and had brushed up on her Italian, which was to come in very helpful.  She also made contact with several old friends with whom we were to spend some time. For the most part we were all able to stay in single apartments which Heidi had rented on line. They were usually three bedrooms, with Emily sleeping on the living room couch. Heidi had also arranged most of the transportation.

Our first three cities were Rome, Venice and Florence. Since almost anyone who has been to Italy has been to one or more of these cities, I will not try to describe them in much detail, except to give general impressions and specific experiences. Our last two stops were in the Cinqueterra region and the island of Elba. After the others left we stayed a few extra days on Elba then made our way to Madrid via Genoa, Marseilles and Avignon. (Hence the “bit of France.”)


The rest of the group was already at the apartment when we flew into Rome and took a cab, for which we were overcharged, into the city. The apartment was a reasonably short walk to the Vatican, but a longer walk (30 minutes or more) to the ancient sights like the Forum and Coliseum. It had been over 30 years since I was in Rome and my major impression was that things were much more organized. For example, when I was at the Forum before, you could just wander on your own over the Capitoline Hill, but without any idea what you were seeing. Things are better marked now.  Rome has a subway now. (More about that later.) The Coliseum had been closed when I was in Rome before, so it was fun to see it, but even then there was a regular path to follow, and you needed a special tour to get down into the tunnels and rooms beneath what had been the floor of the arena.

The Vatican, in particular, really has the tourist thing down.  You must take a tour, either prearranged on line, or by signing up after waiting in line. There is much more to see than just the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s, although they are the highlights. In fact, I wondered how one ever gets to really see all of the art and artifacts hanging in all of the rooms we just whisked by, including a significant modern art collection.

David and Heidi made extensive use of their smart phones to locate good restaurants.  I am not sure that is the only way to do it.  Sallie and I have found some great restaurants just ambling until we saw something we liked, but after seven months in Spain, Sallie and I were eager for a change in cuisines. By and large we found the Italian cooking to be very good, even the pizzas.

Our only real misadventure occurred one day when we had walked to the Forum then spent several hours touring it.  Everyone was kind of tired so we decided to take the subway at rush hour. I had my wallet picked in a packed subway car.  They also took my Italian English dictionary from my rear pocket. To my good fortune they did not realize I had my passport by itself it my other rear pocket, probably because it was not noticeable. The wallet contained a fair amount of money and a couple of credit cards and a debit card, but no other identification. I got the cards promptly canceled without their being used and had new ones sent to Madrid, so I was basically “lucky.” I did have to rely on Sallie for money for the rest of that trip, however.


The rest of the group left for Milan after four days to see the Expo and they scored some tickets to see the Opera at La Scala.  Neither Sallie nor I wanted to go, so we headed to Venice, for a few days before the rest of the group joined us. I have always loved Venice, and Sallie had never been. We found an apartment in a part of town that was less touristy.  I watched Barcelona play Juventus, an Italian team from Turin, for the Champions League title at a funky bar downstairs that had set up a sheet and a projector outside.  Big crowd, and to my relief, not everyone was for Juventus. Barcelona won, but it was a decent match and no fights broke out, so a great evening.

There are some places, industrial areas and working class housing projects, which I found during my roaming that actually had almost no tourists, but that is only because there was nothing to see for the average tourist. Otherwise, Venice can be divided into zones where there are tourists intermixed with the locals and zones where the tourists simply inundate the city. In our three days alone, Sallie and I tried to see the first type of places, figuring that we would save the more high-profile tourist sites for when the rest of the group joined us. We had a good time, even though it was challenging to get around.

When the rest of the group joined us, we had to move across the city to meet them at the apartment they had rented for all of us. It was a lovely apartment near St Mark’s Square with two floors and a deck where we could hang out. As a group we went to see the Doges Palace, which included a trip over the “Bridge of Sighs” to the prison.  I had to laugh when the tour description said they rebuilt the prison during the Renaissance to make it lighter and more healthy.  I saw absolutely no evidence of this.

One of the things which surprised me was that the rest of the group had bought no vaporetto tickets. Since no vehicles are allowed in Venice, everything moves over the water by barge, water taxi, the established vaporetto routes (like bus routes), or the expensive gondolas. (To cover distances on land, there is an army of porters.) Right after arriving at the train station, Sallie and I bought passes good for a week on the vaporetti. The rest of the group arrived by water taxi and then did not get on the water until we left.

For me, much of the charm of Venice lies with its canals and waterways. So the last day, I decided to go off on my own and just ride around on the vaporetti.  That’s how I found the industrial area, the naval base and working class housing districts, but lots of other charms as well.  I took a vaporetto out to the Lido, which is a long island that lies at the head of the lagoon. Unlike Venice, vehicles are allowed on the Lido; there are even buses. It is kind of an upscale suburb and beach resort combined. I found a lovely restaurant on the Adriatic and had a terrific tuna dish. Then I headed back to Venice, stopping on some other islands that make up the city.  To tell the truth, I loved that day most of all.


After three days as a group, we took the train to Florence. Florence is where Heidi had spent most of her time in Italy and near where some of her old friends lived, so this was going to be her part of the trip. We had a large spacious apartment near the center of town. We saw the usual sites, the cathedral, the Accademia (where Michelangelo’s David stands), and the Uffizi gallery (with Boticelli’s Birth of Venus.) We met Heidi’s friends.  This is also where the worst misfortune occurred.  Heidi’s mother broke her foot when she awkwardly stepped off an uneven curb. Heidi had to take her to an emergency room; Heidi’s Italian was invaluable then. Eventually a cast was placed on the foot and she had to get around on crutches and wheelchairs, and even had to miss portions of the trip. It made things worse that her husband was coming down with bronchitis during this time.  I am sure they both have had much better vacations.

It turned out to be a particularly bad night to have to go to the emergency room because the “calcio historico” tournament was going on. “Calcio” is an Italian word used to describe football or if you prefer, soccer, but that is not what “calcio historico” is.  The old part of the city is divided into four districts, that each wear a different color – red, yellow, blue or green.  In the midafternoon, in a plaza just around the corner from our hotel, a parade forms up with numerous bands, and groups of men in historic dress carrying ancient weapons.  Very impressive.  The teams and their supporters join in the parade.  Wisely, the teams are separated from each other by the groups of men marching with their weapons and the bands.  That evening a match is played between two teams in a stadium set up near the cathedral.  (We watched part of game on TV.) “Calcio historico” is described as cross between soccer, rugby and American football – do not believe it.  They left out wrestling, boxing and mixed martial arts, with a bit of that old schoolyard standard, “kill the man with the ball” thrown in. In theory, one team is supposed to get the ball into a goal at the other end, but mostly what I saw was chaos.  Guys were squaring off fighting each other with no apparent tactical purpose. There were referees I think, but I do not recall them doing anything. Well, they were always carrying guys off the field injured or unconscious. The emergency room Heidi, Jacqueline and Bill went to was also apparently the emergency room for the red team’s district. Ambulances were arriving all night. I do not know who won the match, but I imagine the emergency room for the blue team was similar. (The next night was the turn for the yellow and green teams.) It is probably good that no one in the United States really knows about “calcio historico;” otherwise I could see groups of testosterone-crazed young men saying “well, that looks like fun!”

One day in Florence, we took a day trip to Siena which was much smaller than Florence but still had a medieval cathedral of great size and a circular plaza in the middle of the town. The plaza is where the famous horse races in Siena take place, although not while we were there. (The riders, representing their neighborhoods, ride bareback.  They often fall, sometimes with serious injuries, but it is the first horse over the line that wins, with or without its rider.) On the way back we decided to visit an even smaller town, San Gimignano, which I would recommend over Sienna as more compact, but still lovely.  We had a great meal there. Unfortunately, Jacqueline and Bill could not accompany us.


We rented a van in Florence on our fourth day there and set off for the coast, but first with a planned stop in Pisa. Like Rome, the visiting experience in Pisa is much more organized than when I was there in 1974. Still, the Tower is open now after apparently being closed for a number of years.  I understand that they think they have stabilized the Tower. Of course, it would have been impossible for Jacqueline to make the climb, but she, David and Heidi ended up spending several hours trying to get a wheelchair they could rent for the rest of the trip. They succeeded, and finally we were off to Cinque Terre.

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is a region on the northeastern coast of Italy which consists primarily of five fishing villages surrounding by high hills that for generations left them cut off from each other and the rest of the world except by boat or by arduous footpaths through the hills and along the cliffs. Now there are some narrow roads that connect them and, more importantly, a railroad line with magnificent views, when they are not going through endless tunnels. We parked our van at La Spezia, the first large town outside the five towns, where there was parking, and took the train to Vernazza, the fourth town going from east to west.

Vernazza is a pretty small town, that obviously thrives today on the tourist industry. It has its own charm and some stunning views.  We stayed in two apartments. Because of Jacqueline’s foot, we put them, and Emily, in the lowest apartment, but still a long flight of stairs up.  David, Heidi, Sallie and I shared a two bedroom apartment numerous flights up, but with a deck that had a spectacular view of the coast. I am afraid that Cinque Terre was not the ideal place for Jacqueline and Bill as there was very little they could do there. (Bill’s bronchitis had gotten worse as well.) The rest of us hiked each day to the next village over, one day in one direction and one day in the next. David, Heidi and Emily are very fit, so had no problems. Although Sallie and I were reasonably fit, we still found the hikes arduous because they consisted entirely of stone stairs, of uneven heights.  We made it, but not as quickly as the others. We took the train back to Vernazza one day and the ferry the other.  One episode we all recalled was encountering an English-speaking family with a small girl and young boy. Although they had only gone a relatively short distance, the young boy was sitting and crying, stating “I hate steps!” Although we could all sympathize somewhat, it became an inside joke among our group.


After a couple of days in Cinque Terre, we took the train back to La Spezia and picked up our van and drove south to the port of Piombino where we took a ferry to the island of Elba. Most people only know of Elba as the first place Napoleon was exiled, and from where he escaped. (St Helena, where he was exiled after Waterloo, is isolated well down in the South Atlantic.) Elba is the third largest island of Italy, although much smaller than Sicily or Sardinia. It is still much larger than we thought. It is a beautiful island with numerous beaches, and high hills. Heidi had arranged for us to stay at a complex of apartments well outside of any town.  We had two apartments.  Sallie and I got our own apartment down the hill somewhat from the others with our own patio. The others were in an apartment adjacent to one occupied by one of Heidi’s old friends, Rafaele, and his family. This how we ended up in Elba in the first place. One of Heidi’s other friends, Paulo, had his own vacation place on the island and was able to spend a few days with us also.

Each day was primarily spent at one of the many beaches on the island. We might drive 20 or thirty minutes to get to the different beaches. They were usually developed with bar / restaurants and rentals for chairs, umbrellas, beach toys, etc. We might grab a light lunch, but dinners were cooked at our apartment complex.  Heidi is an excellent cook, as was her friend, Rafaele and his wife, so we ate fresh seafood or steaks, pasta, and salads every night, with plenty of good wine. No need going out.

One day the group, including Jacqueline and Bill, went to visit the house where Napoleon had stayed in the main port city.  It was interesting, situated between fortifications, but what we had not known was that on Elba, Napoleon is still viewed with affection. Apparently, when exiled, he was allowed to essentially run the island. His fertile mind, besides undoubtedly plotting his escape, also made numerous improvements to the island and its management.

After five days, the rest of the group had to return to Rome for the long flight back to Colorado. There were two more days on the apartment rentals, so with Rafaele’s help Sallie and I rented a car so we could stay two more days. We visited beaches and did some hikes on each end of the island. We did have to eat out, however.  The food was good, but not like what the group cooked.

Leaving the island was easy.  The rental car company was right down at the docks and ferries leave every 30 minutes or so. Getting to Genoa was much more of a hassle, as it turns out that the train station in Piombino was closed for repairs.  There was supposed to be regular buses to the next station, but we never did figure out where that was. We ended up taking a taxi. We got there, had an hour’s wait, then boarded a train to Genoa.


Genoa is the main port city on the north coast of Italy, in the direction of France, which among other claims is the birthplace of Columbus. I had booked a hotel on-line.  It turns out it was the only hotel that did not feel the need to have a big sign, so we walked by several times, before discovering it. It was evening when we got in, so we walked down to the port area looking for a place to eat.  We were unimpressed and finally found a café on plaza nearby. We had some time the next morning before our train to Marseilles, so we walked around some more, this time up the hills.  In Genoa, like so many Italian port cities, there is very little flat land by the sea. The city quickly goes up. 

For much of its existence Genoa was a major port and at its height rivaled Venice for influence and wealth. Above the harbor level are numerous Renaissance “palazzos” or mansions of great size and design. One street containing nothing but such palazzos has been named a World Heritage Site.   Even the regular working class housing was clearly a cut above the harbor area.  It was almost like two different cities. After finishing our walk, we took the train to Marseilles.


We had booked a room near the train station on line and it was a disaster. Very small, no elevator to the first floor, no air conditioning, no screen on the window, no view and no internet. It was late when we arrived and while we were unpacking we heard what sounded like gunshots. Since it was late, we decided to take a cab down to the port for dinner.  As we were leaving, we saw a number of police cars down the street from  the hotel. We got to the restaurant I had picked out and had a lovely meal; the majority, if not all, of customers were French, but everyone accepted our broken French. No Parisian snobbery. They called a cab for us, but as we returned to the hotel, we noticed big flood lights down the street from the hotel.  It looked like a crime scene, and indeed that’s what it was.  The clerk told us someone had been murdered by the gunshots we had heard earlier. We got up after a fitful night, got breakfast (not in the hotel) and fled for the next train to Avignon.


Avignon, one of the principal cities of Provence, was a short train ride away from Marseilles, but it seemed as if we were a world away. We were staying at a hotel some distance out of town; it was a lovely, bucolic place with a pool in which I could swim laps, more or less. We took a bus into the city, walked around, then, by happenstance found a charming corner restaurant, away from the tourist crowds.  The food was exceptionally good. Unfortunately, we did not understand that the bus back to the village where the hotel was located had stopped for the night.  Finally, a cab driver who was waiting for another fare took pity on us, called a colleague to take that fare, and drove us back.

The next day we went back to the city and wandered about the city walls, then crossed over to a large island in the middle of the river.  There is a free ferry which dropped us near a restaurant where we could sit outside and look back at the city. After a nice afternoon, we went back to the hotel.  Mindful of not staying out too late, we had dinner outside on the terrace at the restaurant attached to the hotel, which was operated by an apparently well-renowned chef and had a another great meal. Despite all of our wonderful meals in Italy and Spain, I continue to have a soft spot for French cooking. Alas, our current plans will not bring us back to France.

The next morning we took the high-speed train back to Madrid.  After a few days to rest up and do laundry at the apartment we had rented from our friend Mary C*****, on July 4, we rented a car and headed north to Pamplona and northern Spain. We are just finishing that trip, so it will be the next email.

Current Plans

As I write this, we are in Valladolid in the Castille y Leon region of Spain.  We will arrive in Madrid tomorrow and return the rental car.  We plan to spend four days there, again staying with our friend, doing laundry, refilling prescriptions, hopefully seeing some other friends and preparing to send everything home, except that which we take for the next two and half months. Having seen the value a smart phone can have, I may look into buying one that I can use in Europe and then take home.

We will head out by train on a long ride to Belgium on August 7, spend a few days there, then a few days in Amsterdam.  We will then travel to Copenhagen, where on the 16th we will see our friends Joan and Stan A**** who will be embarking on a Baltic cruise the next day. We will stay a few more days in Copenhagen, then our plans get vague.

Jumping to the end of the trip, we will probably arrive in Greece the middle of September. During the next, and final, month we will tour the Greek mainland, and try to visit a couple of islands.  We are also going to find a few days to visit our friends Sue R******** and Fred S****** who will be living in Israel then. That was not part of our original plan, but it is a pretty short flight from Athens, so we thought we would take advantage of their hospitality, as we might not get the opportunity again.

I have not booked the flight yet, but would expect to be back in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, October 15, 2015, a year to the date after we left on our adventure. We have made no plans for what we will do on our return yet, but hope to see the D.C. crowd at Tunnicliff’s on Friday, October 16.

[What a wonderful journey Rich describes!  It sounds a little bit like the three-weeker my family took back in the ’60s when we lived in Germany.  We put our car on a train in Frankfurt and unloaded it in Milan and then drove down the boot to Venice (with many stops along the way) and back.  

[I also took a school trip from Geneva to Provence one spring—it must have been 1964, but I’m no longer sure—and one stop was in Avignon.  Since we were all just kids, and half of us were French-speaking, as soon as we came to the famous Pont d’Avignon, we all ran out and danced on it. 

Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse.
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tous comme ça!

[We’d discovered soon after arriving in Europe back then, by the way, that we could pretty much always get a great meal in Italy and France just by picking a restaurant, café, or roadside inn by the look of the place.  If we stuck to the local dishes, the simple meals on the menu, we had wonderful food.  This was less true in Germany, Switzerland, and, we found out later, England, where we needed to be more choosy.

[We went to the Palio in Siena.  It’s an amazing sight, to say the least, but not one I’d like to repeat.  First, it’s immensely crowded; people are packed into the square’s perimeter.  The usual weather is hot and bright sun, and there’s no shelter or shade, so we stood in a crowded-subway sort of mass (from which it was difficult even to see the “track”), in the blazing heat.  Many people fainted even before the race started and had to be passed out of the crowd over the heads of the rest of the spectators!  (Ambulances and medical assistants were, of course, out on the periphery of the crowd.)  

[Then the race itself has its problems.  I recall that the “track” in the middle of the square was, in fact, square, not circular.  The racing horses had to make sharp turns at high speeds and several were injured (and, I presumed, later destroyed) in the mêlée.  We saw at least one horse with a broken leg limping around the track until the attendants could maneuver him off the field.  The whole event, as I recall it, was very short—a coupe of minutes at most—but that could just be my memory.  (I was a teenager, probably 16 or 17, at the time; my brother would have been 14 or 15.)  The Renaissance pageantry, of course, which precedes the race itself—lots of colorful flag-twirling in Renaissance costumes, drumming and fanfares—was spectacular and, for a couple of kids, delightful.  The race, though, was disturbing in the end.

[Of course, I don’t run with the bulls—so maybe Rich’s perspective would be different.]

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