Sunday, August 31

Travel to Italy - Booking Online Trains, Hotels & Automobiles

Rome, Sweet Rome
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 conducted in the first place.  ItaloTreno bent over backwards to help me with some ticket snafus, when they saw I had double-booked two tickets.  And most local trains I boarded including the glorious ones shuttling passengers back & forth from Palermo to Messina were pleasantly clean and air-conditioned.
On Trenitalia, the company I love to hate, as always their staff and conductors were the best thing on dozens of wheels. Their new Itinere food service providers even lowered the extortionist prices, and gave me a 5 euro coupon besides. Heck, they even mixed a Bellini for me during the drinks offering. Can you say, 'Benvenuto competition'?  And while I still have never successfully logged in on a train, and I still can't stand the blinding lighting, train designers have finally caught onto the concept that people actually tow luggage aboard.  Although it's Italo whose trains have the cutsie step that comes out so you don't have to hoist 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, 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??!!  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, while everyone welcomed my little pooch Archie with open arms (okay, I confess: the boat was practically waiting for me to board -- I hadn'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 [Hint: they're offered only once you've committed to the train & time, like some wild teaser].  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 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, 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 covered 3 stories of 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!