Wednesday, November 13, 2013


After a month in Italy, my impressions written here at the airport departure concourse. The Italian people, although depressed by the economy and the lack of jobs for young people, are as friendly to foreigners as most Europeans - except for those Italians who regularly connect with foreigners through their work: they go out of their way to be sure I know they wish I was not here. From the extreme of the Venice "police" scam to the less offensive but ubiquitous sort of event this morning: we bought a foldable luggage carrier for our two duffle bags. I carried it on in Atlanta, Chicago, London and Zurich without a problem. In Florence, the Italian airline ticket agent had me carry it to security to confirm it was OK.  The security officer said that it was fine but she wanted to confirm with her supervisor (that makes 3 Italians and 2 Americans wasting time on an absurd issue). Then the 20-something supervisor said it was fine IF I was using it to bring a bag onboard but - if not - I would have to remove the tied down strap (a bungee cord).  After 10 minutes this issue was cleared up.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dante got it right

As we have strolled around in our Florence neighborhood, we often pass through the plaza in front of Holy Cross cathedral (the huge Franciscan church "Santa Croce") where stands a statute of Dante Allegheri (buried in the cathedral). Much of Christianity's concepts of heaven and hell come not from the Bible but from Dante's condemnation of the rich, the powerful, and the church. Here today, in the Vatican in Rome, the 32 year old sculptor Michaelangelo was ordered to spend 7 years painting the immense ceiling of the Sistine chapel: he did not want to do it so the pope - this supposed emissary of Christ - said 'if you don't, I'll send my army and destroy your town (Florence) and kill everyone there. And, I'll excommunicate you.  Then Michaelangelo was stiffed on his bill by that pope who ordered the work be done. Nothing in the papacy or the Vatican has anything to do with the life or lessons of Jesus.

The Vatican is packed to the gills with - literally - trillions of dollars worth of art and gold. All in the name of Jesus who said "sell all you have, give it to the poor, and come and follow me".  Well, we Christians have done as poor a job of following Christ as could be imagined. It seems our cathedrals are into power and money and control in the name of our Savior who preached freedom from power, money and control.

And, inside this "holy" place we find all sorts of vendors selling things - like this store selling DVDs. Didn't Jesus expressly condemn commerce in the temple?

I rented an audio guide but turned it off when it said that the Popes who sponsored this orgy of opulence say that it was necessary since otherwise the common people could not understand the teachings of Jesus.

Real complicated:
Love God
Love man
Go tell

I can write it on a corn flake.

Trillions of dollars in wealth while people are hungry.

It's now  time to go home. We leave in the morning. In April, when we left 2 months in Paris running our "B&B", it was bittersweet: we were tired but sad to leave.  This time it's been a long time without the kids; and Italy - with the spectacular exceptions of the Selvas and the Dolamites - has been a great disappointment.

PS. Here's a photo of St Longino in the Vatican today (Nov 12, 2013).  The saint is the Longino in the back.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Yet again

One of my wonderful wife's amazing talents - she has a full quiver of them - is to roll with punches. I tend to punch back.
We arrived on time (9a) to get our rental car only to find out that the rental agency won't rent the car without a copy of the voucher. We have it on our phone. No notice we have to have any copy - particularly not a paper copy (National Rent a Car has the reservation and it reflects prepaid - at €100/day for a sub-compact!). No WiFi anywhere in or around the Verona train station!!  Even though we have already paid for the car, we have to pay again to get it

Lunch is €8 or €11 depending on which combo you order. Donna and I ordered the €8. Bill came at €23:  11x2 +1 for "service". I pointed out the error. Bill #2:  11 + 8 +1 = €20. No. "Sorry. Mistake". 8+8+2. Not going to argue over €1.

We spent the afternoon driving from Trento to Cortina through the spectacular Dolamite mountains. I was driving so check out Donna's photos.  I remembered this route from 50 years ago.  We were unable to get any useful info on a hotel or B&B from the local tourist info office so we parked the car and walked around downtown. Maybe 10 hotels. 8 closed for the season. 1 full. The other? €180 ($225!). Hotel AmbraCortina. Ouch!  No choice, they got us - again. But, hey, it includes breakfast!  But it doesn't. See photo. And, to add insult to injury, the morning coffee was... instant.

The Italians connecyed in any way with tourists stick you every chance they get. The Italians who are not connected in any way with tpurism are delightful people. But we are tourists so we encounter lots of Italians who are so connectrd. Arrivaderci Italy. 5 days to go. I won't be back. I sure hope none of our kids get married or live here!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I picked the wrong cities

Florence, Venice, Rome. Famous, glamorous, full of art and history. Antipathy toward tourism - their life-blood
Sienna, Perugia, Verona.  Smaller, friendlier, welcoming. Full of great art, architecture, food.  Here's a photo of Verona as we arrived last night. This is not the ruins of a 2,000 year old Roman amphitheater. This is a 2,000 year old Roman amphitheater continually in use for 2,000 years

We are passing through Verona today (Wednesday November 6, 2013) on the way to the Dolamites but we will be back Friday morning to explore this city.

Last night I had the most unusual and one of the best meals of the trip.  Our hotel recommended the place. I had shredded horsemeat with parmesan followed by spaghetti with donkey meat sauce and some of Donna's cheesecake for dessert.

Scams, flim-flams, and gellaterias

Italy is art!
Italy is food!
Italy is scams! Flim-flam artists abound.

Today we found the vaporetta scamola.

Vaporettas are the Venice version of city busses. But more expensive. Whiile most busses cost €1.2 per trip, vaporettas cost €7 per trip.  But what a trip!! Nearly 3 miles winding down the Grand Canal on a picture-perfect day: our first in Italy when we were not hot out walking in T-shirts and jeans.

Near the end, 4 people got on purporting to be the police. 3 men and 1 woman ostensibly checking tickets. They were checking tourists, at the approach to Piazza San Marco - the tourist center of Venice. There are no signs at the ticket purchase spot - see photo - saying to validate tickets. On the other side of the ticket booth on the left side of our booth there is a machine - officially closed. [Photo] The ticket booth expressly says they are good for one hour. So why validate? 

Anyhow, the "E" dock where we were to get Vaporetto 1 was blocked off - electronic sign says - in English - that Line 1 is suspended because of high tides.  So I returned to get a refund. Two Korean ladies were doing the same thing so the ticket lady closed her booth and walked with the 4 of us to the entry that was not blocked (it was, in fact, the exit). We waited inside about 15 minutes for Vaporetto 1 and had our photo taken.

Then we hopped on the boat and headed for the scam.

We had arrived at the train station at 10:35 a.m., dropped off our luggage a couple of minutes later [photo], stood in line to buy a boat ticket, returned to the ticket counter for a refund, instead walked back to Dock E, entered at the exit led by the ticket agent (I wonder if she set this up???), just barely missed the boat, got on the next one at 11:20, and ran into the scam 25 minutes later.

There is a small sign on the boat [photo] which - if you come to Venice to read signs and disclaimers you would probably still miss, saying there is a €52 fine if you don't have a ticket. But we have tickets!  [At the end of our shortened visit to Venice we went back to Dock E to look for a sign. It's there!  Not where we first came in - photo.  Nor where we waited - photo. There it is, in tiny letters in the bottom right-hand corner of that huge sign.  What?  You don't see it? Neither did we!  There is a man to the left of center entering data on his smartphone. His left thumb points toward an orange line on the big sign.  Just under the orange notice is the notice to validate your ticket. Failure to do so leads to an unspecified fine. S C A M!!!!

I refused to pay the fine and demanded that we be taken to the police station.  That caused all 4 to descend upon me shouting all at once.  I said I could not hear all 4 at once.  So one asked me why I was demanding to go to the police station. I said "because I don't believe you". We made no progress so Donna asked me what I was going to do.  My response "I'm a 60s hippie still. I'm going to just sit down blocking the tourist exit...". That got the "police" [see photo] busy writing me a ticket. [See photo]. The Korean pair and a retired Scottish evangelist on our boat also got caught - they paid.

On to Venice. It's sinking. Between it sinking and rising sea levels the sea is 10" higher on the buildings than in 1900. So the center of town still has its plaza, but the sidewalk cafes are easy to find with a table because you need wading boots! 

We grabbed a quick bite of lunch - photo - then caught the 3:05pm train to Verona. Not going to spend money in Venice with the scams.

PS. The scammers returned to me our tickets - unvalidated - and returned a pair to Donna as well. Now we have 4 unvalidated tickets for sale - cheap!!

Monday, November 4, 2013

A really "crappy" day

Yesterday the toilet broke, flooding everything. The landlord required that someone be in the apartment when the plumber came to pay him if we had flushed anything down the commode that caused the problem. I wrote her (our phone does not work) that the lift pump had failed: impeller or motor or both but she would not bring a plumber until we were here (even though the flat charge is €150 and she holds a €150 security deposit)!  So, I asked Donna to follow our schedule and go see the Vatican in Rome and I would wait. At 3:15p they showed up. Problem was the impeller broke and jammed the motor. A 3+ year old pump that the landlord wrote was "new".  Anyhow, it's fixed.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Conclusion: never again

Donna is standing in a really, really long line today, to buy tickets for Saturday for Trevor, Eleanor, her and me to go to the Uffizi. This is yet another example of the incredibly frustrating life of a tourist in Italy in 2013.  We started this morning trying to get tickets online.  A Google search on p1 and 2 does not list the ticket agency because - as Rick Steve's points out - there are lots of tour agencies that want to sell us 4 tickets for €120 when 4 are priced at €25. And - says Steves - they want to sell Florence tourists tickets to the identically-named museum in Venice (and vice-versa) - did France have 2 Louvres?  The €95, plus being very irritated at the Italians' complete disinterest whether or not tourists are here, set us out on a long walk. We found the website (says all tickets, all weeks are sold out - Steve's says this is normal and you can call for ticket reservations - as we did at Academia) so I tried calling. Only after I realized that I could not reach any phone number do I suspect my phone is out of time.  No notice, of course, so as Donna stands in a long line to buy tickets I walk halfway across town to stand in a long line to get more time on my phone. They don't open until 10a!  Vodaphone.

So I waited. When I came in, I had to get a ticket for a reservation to speak to an agent. Instructions for the 3 choices were only in Italian so I said "I have no idea which" and the Vodaphone rep said: "No problem, they are all the same". [Then why make us choose?]

When called, the lady spoke English!  No, we (Vodaphone Italy) can't add time to your Vodaphone phone because it was bought in England. [Never heard of the EU?]. "So what can I do to get a working phone now?" "You can buy an Italian Vodaphone chip for €20 valid for 30 days.". "OK" "Let me see your passport". "I have a color copy of my passport here on my US smartphone". "Can you email it to me?". "Of course, if you have WiFi.". "Sorry, it's locked". "OK, put my phone in your copy machine and make a larger photo." "The copy machine won't do that".  I turned and walked out, back across town. Donna had stood in that long line, "reservations" line, only to find out that was the line to pick up tickets if you had a reservation and that you could not make a future reservation there and get the ticket!

On to Pisa.  The express train is on track "1A".  The signs are for tracks 1-20. No "1A" so we stand in line to ask where is 1A?  We get on the train. No a/c.

But we meet a nice couple from Florida who show me the Eurorail app which has all of the train schedules on it and does not need WiFi.  Gonna get that!   But we are considering changing our reservation to return home on the 3rd rather than the 13th. Go to the airport with Trevor & Eleanor.  Maybe. But this will be my 3rd and last trip to Italy. No Germany. No Italy. I'm narrowing down the places I will go by eliminating places to which I won't return.

Pisa was delightful - but typically Italian.  When we left the train station, it was 2 miles to the Duomo and Leaning Tower.  For what else is Pisa famous?  Yet in the first mile of walking there were zero signs pointing toward either, and in the second mile there were only two, both the size of US rural green street intersection signs. When we exited, we wanted a taxi back.  There were 2 at the taxi stand but both were reserved so we walked 1/4 mile, found four police, asked in Italian "Excuse me, good afternoon. Where is a taxi?". They pointed me to a sign: "Taxi" with no taxi.  We quickly walked the 2 miles back to catch the 3:11p express.  We were 5 minutes late, but it was 10 minutes late, so we caught it and zipped off nonstop to Florence.