Sunday, August 31

Rome, Sweet Rome and Online Bookings around Italy

Roma, Roma, Roma

This past August brought me from Cefalù, Sicily up to Florence & Tuscany (to Il Grande Prato Agriturismo), to Milan, Como, Verona and onto Lucerne and Geneva, Switzerland and ultimately over to Annecy, France for a hearty helping of fondue. [Let's just say, between the inclement weather up north it was decidedly therapeutic.] So you can imagine my elation of coming home to Bella Roma, with its sunny days and empty streets and heck - even the hordes of dumpster divers appear to have taken August off.
While in the past I've picked on the places where this country dependent upon tourism makes continuous #touristfails, I'd have to say...I was pleased as prosecco during my travels, so I thought I'd share some of the Amore with you...Starting with the trains that got me to where I needed to go.
I love train travel.  And the trains are so spiffy, the waiting rooms with wifi and with Italo leaving right near my house, it's truly a pleasure.  Although, I'd gladly take the conversational compartments and the low fares back any day of the week.  And, the cellphone-less travelers, which is why conversations were being held in the first place.  ItaloTreno bent over backwards to help me with some ticket snafus, when they saw I had double-booked 2 tickets. Most local trains, and even the glorious ones shuttling passengers back & forth from Palermo to Messina were pleasantly clean and air-conditioned.
And on Trenitalia, the company I love to hate, as always their staff and conductors were the best thing ever, and, their new Itinere food service providers even lowered the extortionist prices on food, and gave me a 5 euro coupon besides. Heck, they even mixed a Bellini for me during the drinks offering. Can you say, competition?  And while I still have never successfully logged in on a train, and I still can't stand the blinding lighting, train designs have finally been made with the idea that people will be towing luggage aboard.  Although it's Italo whose trains have the cutsie step that comes out so you don't have to hike your bags like a Sherpa.

Online Bookings - Caveat Emptor or Carpe Diem?
In Sicily, you couldn't find a rental car if your life depended on it-which leaves me wondering why fleets aren't upped in the summer months there, but the trains and stations were so terrific, I didn't really care in the end. And while the proprietor didn't show up for a last-minute booking in Cefalù (and lied about it to Hotels.com), getting a morning ice cream-filled Sicilian brioche made it all better.
In Milan, I rented a car thru Economy Car Rentals
which was efficient and inexpensive, although they said the price included the 'after hours pickup' - which I didn't have since Maggiore was open til 11 pm each night (what a change from years ago!)  They didn't cut me any deals on grace periods either  but, I love them anyway. The convenience of picking up a car right at the train station is fantastic.
I used DirectFerries - UK for my ferry crossing from Salerno to Messina.  I was a bit nervous that I'd arrive at the boat and they'd say, Direct Chi?? But, instead, an air-conditioned bus took me from the station straight to the port, a mini-bus came and picked me up at the entrance to escort me round the truckers loading up the ship, and the driver even ran and got me my ticket, and everyone welcomed my little pooch Archie with open arms (okay, I confess: the boat was practically waiting for me to board -- I didn't read the fine print about arriving 2 hrs prior).  The ride was delightful with the only glitch: the woman purser who didn't want to let me have my dog with me on the deck (when everyone else said it was okay...).
It was the Swiss Train online system (sbb cff) that was the most difficult to work around when attempting the supersaver fares.  I spent over 10 hours booking tickets all around Switzerland (three times) and in the end, I never received a confirmation.  Thus the rental car when I got to Milan.  A friend says there's a Swiss train office right in Milan's train station - next time, I'll try there.
And, the icing on the gelato?  If you take Italo and you end up in Rome's Tiburtina Station (the boondocks, for most of us), you can imbibe in a terrific GROM gelato & shopping before your trip, and with a simple €1.50 bus ticket you can hop a ride on the railroad, over to any of the other Rome train stations...! And at my beloved Ostiense station (where Eataly is to be found)?  Some lone, intelligent soul (or fatigued traveler) at Trenitalia has finally figured out that the airport train could use an elevator up to the platform - it's still a work in progress, but hey...Read here for what life has been like without it.
Now...if they would just re-institute the baggage handlers...Perfetto!

Sunday, August 10

10 things that have changed Life in Italy

It all started when Italy Mag published a few terrific photos taken in the 1980s by photographer Charles H. Traub for his new book (try to get past the godawful name), La Dolce Via (click name for link).
I first came to Italy as an adult in 1982, and again for a year in 1985. So I started thinking about all things that have changed since those early days of wonderment, hot summer nights and pasta binges. But one thing that hasn't changed: those Speedo-style bathing suits you see in the pictures.
From Charles H Traub's book, La Dolce Via
photos from 1980s Italy

§ 10 things that have changed the essence of Life in Italy §
  • Shaken, not Stirred - I remember asking - no, begging - for some ice - even a single, solitary cube of it when ordering a drink of any kind.  I was clearly playing Italian roulette, what with ice and being stricken on the spot, right up there on the charts of health superstitions.  Time and again, I would be served a gin&tonic or screwdriver - warm (after walking the barrista through the ingredients and preparation).  Nowadays kids earn 'mixology' degrees, make mean mojitos, and, taking a cue from my fellow countrymen, serve up a huge glass of Coke - with almost nothing in it but ice.
  • Tourist 'Attractions'? Really?! - Who doesn't recall those heady days of seeing thousands of tourists scratching their collective heads for something to do after lunch? It was Walter Veltroni around 1997 who finally freed museums from the clutches of govt unions who did not want their employees to work more than half a day, and we're all better for it (except maybe the scores of lovers who were now left languorously waiting prostrate by the nightstand half-cocked, so to speak).
  • What do you feel like for dinner? - Granted, anyone coming to visit Italy only wants the Real Maccheroni...but for the rest of us, we used to dream of a decent plate of Pad Thai, or a genuine American burger.  Chinese eateries started the trend but then sushi came in the roaring 90s with the Japanese tourists.  Now, you can feast your eyes and please your palate on anything and everything from Argentinian beef to Tex-Mex to Moroccan, without having to hang out at the ubiquitous Kebab joints.  Not to mention something I may have had a hand in...muffins, cookies and cheese cakes served in Autogrills and bakeries and supermarkets across the country.  As a former New Yorker, I'm still waiting to 'Order In', however.
  • Mad Max Parking - It used to amuse me to come across any number of cars pulled right up to the coffee shop or newsstand or phone booth-solo un minuto. Once cities finally figured out they could make loads on paid parking spots (and in Rome, it was the brain child - or at least the pocketbook of - none other than the wife of the Mayor Rutelli - cough - choke) the gig was up - and enforced. But then came SUVs. So now we're just double-parked in by big egos who insist you need to wait for them to finish their cup of espresso or conversation before you're allowed to go on your way. Ahhh...the good old days...when you could at least pull off the sidewalk and out of your own parking spot.
  • (Un)Happy Hours - and...what is now known as Apericena [Aperitivo + Dinner (Cena) where you can pig out at the bar with a drink and bar food for about 8 euro a head]  Only the Venetians had (and still have) their unique form of Happy Hour - served with Spritz, but what started with the fashionistas in Milan, finally spread across the Boot.  So mixed drinks are now served (with ice!) but as for collateral damage: Watching Italy go from wine-only, conversational soirees to drinks, drugs, pole dancers to open air Bunga Bunga frat parties is something that I never thought I'd live to see.
  • Sayonara Siestas - I long fought for the opportunity to actually make purchases when I had time to do so: lunch hours and weekends. But now that shopping malls and continuous hours are the norm, with the advent of chain stores replacing the mom&pop shops, well...it makes me a bit nostalgic for the times when demand was as pent up as a pressure cooker with Arborio rice inside.  I used to think that Italy's economy would be on a roll with longer hours; but with our triple dip recession in play, well...clearly this hasn't helped.
  • How a DJ Changed My Life - It used to amaze me that in Italy, djs would talk right through the songs they played On Air.  In a country with more conspiracy theorists than types of pasta, I was told that this was so people couldn't record the songs straight off the radio; something, we all did, of course. I guess youtube and iTunes put the kabosh on pirated songs over the radio but hey, we can still buy pirated movies on any street corner.
  • Money lenders in the temples - It wasn't so long ago that churches charged money to visitors who wanted the lights shined on an artwork or two.  But in the late 1990s, they wisened up, and many took the bold step of charging to get closer to God...or at least to the gilded altarpieces with Venice - Verona - and Pisa leading the way. And while sometimes you still need to drop a coin in the coffers to see where you're going, you'll find churches - like the Bocca della Verità - charging for photo opps, or putting up scaffolding for inordinate amounts of time to make an honest buck [a plan that sometimes can backfire...when Benetton's priest & nun kissing or some very heavy cleavage was put up on an important Roman parish...] As funny as that was, churches are laughing all the way to the Banca di Santo Spirito - which leaves me wondering, 'What would Jesus think'?
  • Mad Men & Movie Ads - There was a time when I knew all the RAI jingles and could settle in knowing I could enjoy a film - all the way through and without interruption. Then came Silvio Berlusconi, who imported that American-style of TV ads and everything changed (starting with burlesque starlets - maintaining a perpetual loop of 1970s Love, American Style crossed with Hee-Haw). And even though we all pay the loathed TV Tax (promising 'no ads'), well, even on the State-owned channels there they are.  On the flip side, movie theaters have mostly done away with the (hated-by-foreigners-only) INTERVALLI - breaks - during screenings [you can read my own heartfelt recollection of the horrific experience here or in my book].
  • A Breath of Fresh Air - Last, but certainly not least, especially during the sweltering summer months, it was the Summer of 2003 that did the entire country in.  A place so fixated on the ills of a/c that they didn't even have it as an option in vehicles.  Today, although I may find myself covering up with newspapers in trains on occasion, I enjoy entering a bus that is refreshingly cool (unless there are older people on board who have opened the windows).  You can read here about that fateful heatwave of 100+ degrees that changed a nation - from my book, Burnt by the Tuscan Sun.

Move your cursor thru post for live links to more fun stuff...





Friday, August 1

Summer in Italy - Jumping for Joy


This video has had nearly 31 million views
showing a dog's sheer joy after being reunited with his owner

I post it here, at the start of the summer exodus. When people from all over Europe, travel to places far and wide, leaving behind their furry ex-friends. In Italy alone, it's estimated that over 300,000 dogs are abandoned each summer on the streets and highways, usually to end up as roadkill. Others are mercilessly tied to lampposts in the hopes that a good samaritan will pick them up - they usually die of thirst. While puppies are routinely tossed into garbage bags and into rivers or garbage bins.
Seeing that dog above reminded me of my old dog, Trevor, who I found zig-zagging down a highway near Trevi in Umbria (hence the name). I managed to coerce him into the car with hot dogs, but most dogs run away from fear. For 2 -3 years after I picked him up off the roadside, every time he saw a woman approaching with a baby stroller or heard baby sounds, he would have the reaction above. It was heart wrenching. Because, while we can amuse ourselves on the internet with zillions upon zillions of dog & baby videos, unfortunately, in Italy - and I think elsewhere - a new baby is reason enough to abandon your four-legged family member. Actually, pregnancy is reason enough.
And while I know most of my readers probably wouldn't think of abandoning their pet and that we are not the ones we should be watching out for...I post this message every August 1st - just because.

Here's a link to my dog park in Rome - the best thing ever - and a bunch of newly abandoned dogs we're trying to find homes for.  PARCO SCOTT


And here, a few more past posts - feel free to share the photos!


Sunday, July 27

The Costa Concordia Pulls an All Nighter

What, me worry?!
Captain Schettino pulls an all-nighter
to show his solidarity with the victims who
senselessly died the night he was - literally - at the helm

As the Concordia was pulled into the Genovese harbour, its former Captain was caught living it up an a White Party on the island of Ischia.  Obviously, his supposed tethers for In House arrest can cross bodies of water, just like the ones that hoisted the Concordia up the coast.
For my satirical view of the events...please check out my post on Irreverent Italy.

The boat is docked right at the edge of - repeat after me:  Genova.  NOT Genoa where it will be broken down at the very place it was first made.  And, while you're at it...Torino not Turin and Firenze not Florence and Venezia not Venice...!

A few sad stats about Schettino's horrible act of bravado to impress his on-board - and illegal - squeeze who escaped the tragedy by taxi (!) which is why our Captain Coward found himself abandoning his ship to begin with.
32 deaths
110 injured
damages affecting the 4197 passengers who survived

1.5 billion euro (over $2 billion) spent on salvage operation
 12 million euro in damage to the island of Giglio
not counting the loss of sea life
But on the bright side...The salvage operation created

921 days of 24/7 work for hundreds of engineers, divers, workers and sea men

Tuesday, July 15

Berlusconi - A report card on his trials & tribulations

School may be out for the summer, but I thought I'd give you a Report Card on the judiciary woes that have our favorite Prime Minister currently "working" (albeit only a few hours a week) at a Senior Citizen Home as retribution for one of his many prickly peccadillos.   
Just in case anyone wants to keep track:

1 - Found GUILTY for the Mediaset Tax Fraud case, in which he was sentenced to 4 years in prison, later reduced to 1 year for a law to reduce jail overcrowding, reduced to community service since he is now over 70 years old.  
He was also banned from public office for 5 years, but has managed to get that 'under review' as well.
1 - ABSOLVED due to his party changing the law so it would no longer be illegal
2 - Cases DROPPED due to a govt amnesty (surprise, surprise)
3 - Cases DROPPED - usually for statute of limitations.  To many, this is nothing short of incredible. In Italian trials, the clock keeps ticking even once you're on trial, so...your smooth lawyers can stall and stall and Whoa, really?! I'm off because we didn't try my case in time? Funny how that works. 
7 - Cases going to TRIAL

So, where does the "most persecuted man in history" stand on his many trials today?

  • RUBY RUBACUORE - the heart stealer who got him 7 years for sex with a minor - he is now getting it up in appeals.
  • RUBY TER - some of Berlusconi's illustrious Brat & Rat Pack got jail terms for basically running a prostitution ring at Silvio's playpen in Arcore (Sardinia), Berlusconi is going to be tried on corrupting witnesses, since he was paying his call girls - err... friends - nice stipends the whole time leading up to and during the trial [€5M to Ruby and 2500/month to others].
  • BARI ESCORT - more girl problems for Silvio from top to bottom of the Boot. Again, abetting prostitution and then lying about it.
  • BUYING VOTES - In Naples he's on trial for "convincing" a certain Senator (Sergio De Gregorio, who has confessed) to switch parties during a crucial vote; thereby impeding the govt
  • LODO MONDADORI - This coming October, Berlusconi is being asked to pay further damages to his biggest competitor, a certain De Benedetti to whom he was already forced to pay 494 Million euro. They're asking for about 90M more for the legal fees and interest payments.
  • DIVORCE - Ahhh yes, sometimes, when you're caught once too often with your pants down and with minors no less, your wife might say, Basta! Enough is Enough.  So now, the courts need to come up with a tidy alimony payment for her own public embarrassment and with the richest man in Italy.

* A terrific synopsis by the BBC on these cases here
You can find more on my favorite Italian, at The Silvio Show here

Sunday, July 6

Roma Termini Train Station - a place where living comes to life

Longtime readers of my blog will know that I have a few select memes regarding Life in Italy - one of them being, that the entire country needs a crash course in Marketing 101. Heck-they can even choose one of thousands online and free! And so it was, when I caught the new Rome Termini Train Station ad - website - and marketing program.  But, I'll be fair.  Their website is truly terrific.  Thought out nicely, excellent graphics, and even user-friendly.  So on that front, kudos to you web designers!  One trip over there, and you can see all that Rome's Central Train Station has to offer. 
But then there it was...front and center, their cool new moniker. I can't decide if it is tongue-in-cheek like the Brits would do, or if they are totally serious about this.  It reads, literally, "A place for living."  
Check out the Home Page - there's more to Rome's Train Station
than meets the eye!  
http://www.romatermini.com
I imagine that what they mean by this, is in reality, "A place to experience the joys of life" or something along those lines. But, really? Because, when I think...a place for living, the hundreds of people actually living there come to mind.
picture from Il Tempo newspaper
Here, thanks to a mix of outstanding volunteer associations, our guests at least are treated to breakfast in bed - even better service than most of us get at home.
Volunteers help to do what they can for the homeless
in Rome's Termini Station
Adra Assoc
The other association that runs Binario 95 - a place that helps the mentally ill or infirm and locates beds around Rome does incredible work.  But their name?  Europe Consulting. Perfect for a marketing consulting firm in Brussels. Marketing 101 anybody? 

Sunday, June 29

Rome Tourists find sights hiding in plain sight

Picture & slide show from Archive9news.com 
Satirical columnist Dave Barry once penned in one of his most memorable columns, when describing his trip to Italy with his family, that as far as he could tell, "Each summer in Italy, not only do all the Italians empty out of the cities to the beach or the mountainsides, but so do all the statues as well." This summer, almost on cue, it's not the statues but rather all the big monuments that tourists are wont to view. Considering the lack of money Roma Capitale govt claims not to have, it looks instead that we are building for the next Olympics.
So, for tourists, here's your quick guide on what you may or may not be seeing this summer:
• They may have closed all the roads leading to the nerve center of Rome, so tourists can have a leisurely stroll up the Fori Imperiali, but still the Colosseum looks like it's wearing braces while it gets the deep clean of a lifetime [with financing by footwear magnate of Tod's]
• Over near the Spanish Steps clean-ups are a double feature what with the Barcaccia - the little boat - fountain that spouts much-needed cool water in the summer by Pietro Bernini (dad, not son) under wraps so tall they nearly cover the Spanish Steps.
Photo & slide show by UrbanVision.it
• Peep around the corner of the wall there and look up.  At the top of the hill sits the convent and church of Trinità dei Monti but you won't see a thing. I believe it's part of the facelift of the entire Spanish Steps compliments of Bulgari but I can't be sure.  Let's just hope we don't end up with a rubbery-looking staircase that looks like it came from an Italianate Smurf Village, like the lips of fashion models who parade down them each spring. Supposedly it will all be back to its original splendor in two years.
• And finally, on everyone's wish list is to run the gauntlet between the hoardes of tourists, pickpockets, street mimes, counterfeit vendors and beggars toss a coin in the Trevi Fountain. Well, not so fast.  Although it is still a sensational masterpiece with its wild horses, it too is under wraps.  But this project gives us something for the money -- the City just completed a walkway that will allow tourists to get a nice view of the restoration works in progress.  That is, if someone is actually there working over the hot summer months.  Nonetheless, it might keep you out of the way of the pickpockets long enough to enjoy a unique vantage point on gorgeous art restoration.

All links live above for cool slideshows of the works