Musings of a Skeptical Tourist.
Part 2: Italy – On Trucklets, The Mayor of Pisa, Ferraris & Walking Properly.
Rome is a city on top of a city, on top of another city, on top of yet another. First came the ancient settlers of the Tigris who gave the city her name. Then came the Romans as we remember them, who cribbed almost their whole culture from the Greeks, transmogrified it a little, and exported it to their mighty empire. Then came the Roman Catholic Church who plundered all of the treasures the Romans left behind in order to fuel their expanding empire. Then came modern Italy: All Ferraris and fashion and food and love. Well, mostly.
All of these historical layers give Rome a complexity and a depth that make it one of the five greatest cities in Europe. The other four are Paris and London, obviously, and then there's Prague and Budapest in positions four and five. I will not put cities like Copenhagen or Vienna or Munich on this list simply because they are too pristine, and don't feel like real cities – in the same way that Johannesburg is too ugly to feel like a real city. I am tempted, though, to extend the list slightly so that I can add on places like Berlin and Venice and Barcelona and Dublin. OK, let's add Athens to those and we'll have a top ten. (No space for Moscow, unfortunately. Who wants to visit a place filled with thugs, swindlers and homophobes? I get enough of that at home.)
I don't like the Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf myth about the foundation of Rome. I prefer the one the Italians themselves prefer: when you turn the word 'Roma' around, you get then Latin 'amor' – love. And there's so much to love. Even my wife-like girlfriend looks a little prettier in Rome… if that's at all possible. (Melani, my partner in so many of my travels looks robustly Italian when in Italy, sensuously Spanish in Spain – and like a gypsy in Germany and Switzerland and those sorts of places. This means that I do the communicating in the fair-skinned countries and she does it in the olive-skinned ones.)
Although there is a metro, it is possible to walk Rome in a few days. Supplement this with an open air hop-on hop-off bus ticket and you really can see and do a lot in just a few days. A word of caution though: the longer you spend in Rome, the more you fall in love with it. Make Rome a short holiday romance of a few days or so or you will be heartbroken when you have to leave.
As with any major city, there are a few things you have to avoid in Rome, or do early in the morning. Otherwise you'll be swamped with tourists who have no idea what to do at a major landmark but sit and be victims of the plague of gypsies selling toys, laser pointers and other useless things (while they try to figure out how to dip their fingers into your pockets). This is true of the Trevi Fountains, the Spanish Steps and a number of other beautiful Roman attractions. Although this overcrowding leads to some amusing happenings: like when people stand on the top level at Trevi, turn their backs and try to toss a coin into the pond behind them – only to hit the people below in the face.
You will have to suck it up and navigate the crowds to visit the Forum and the Colluseum, though. You get a sense that the Romans, for all their achievements, were just people like us. The Forum was basically their version of a shopping centre, and the Colosseum was the equivalent of our sports stadia (albeit with slightly more bloodthirsty events). And as much as a seasoned traveller might sniff at these, they are wonderful to see.
One thing you absolutely must not bother with, though, is the Vatican. It was a massive waste of time. (And very taxing on my moral compass.) Go and stand inside St Peter's square if you want to say you've been to one of the smallest countries in the world with a zero percent birth rate, a penchant for saint making, and which houses the headquarters of a global child abuse syndicate. But to queue for hours, to wonder through a treasure trove of plundered Roman art, to end up at the Sistine Chapel – where you're told not to stand here or there, not to photograph anything and basically not to enjoy the greatest artwork of all time in any way is a serious test of your patience and ability not to let out a frustrated yell. You can't even really see the Pieta in St Peter's behind all those bodies and security measures. Really, you're better off buying a gelato and wandering around the Villa Borghese park for a day. And your principles will still be intact.
It's incredible how you can walk just a block or so away from the major streets and main attractions in Rome (and most other major cities) and find peaceful, quiet places – often with the quirkiest buildings and people. And everything costs a Euro (or three) less. To my mind, this is where you find the most beautiful parts of Rome.
One of the very many things I love about Rome are the little things. They have little cars, little dump trucklets, little buslets, little gas stationlets and very many little old ladies. And the people are always so friendly – after you at least make an attempt to talk to them in their own language, that is. It amazes me how few people do that these days. (And it is a beautiful language to speak – add-a a-a ay-a on-a to-a almost-a every-a word-a and-a it-a sounds-a very nice-a!)
People say you have to see cities like New York and London and Paris at least once in your life. I would add Rom-a to that list-a.
Job Application: Mayor of Pisa
I would like to apply to be the mayor of Pisa. This is a little town which receives millions of tourists a year but doesn't seem able to milk enough money from them to upgrade itself. At least, not the part I walked through to get to the famous Leaning Tower. Not even the hundreds of souvenir hawkers along the way seem to be making any kind of significant living. With a world famous attraction like the tower, you would expect this to be a very rich town. But it isn't.
I would charge a hefty entrance / parking fee to buses. And I would charge for the free connecting bus that takes the throngs to the Pisa compound. And then I would charge a separate fee to tourists entering the compound – who would then get a refund if they could prove that they didn't take a cheesy 'push the tower' photo while they where there. Finally, I would market the city's many other beautiful attractions (like the Borgo Stretto) and try to find ways to encourage people not to just hop off their tour buses to take a few photos before hopping back on again. In just a few years I reckon I could make PISA a wealthy, pretty little town. Because it really isn't those things now.
Don't Go to Ferrari, Go To Ferrari
If you're ever tempted to visit the Enzo Ferrari museum in Modena, don't. No one can love the car that much that you would care about the ego trip that is the Enzo Ferrari Museum. Instead, why not go up the road to Maranello? The sight and sound of so many Ferraris just driving around out there on the street are enough to make giggling school girls of us all.
Florence is never anyone's first stop on a European tour. By the time you get there, you've invariably realized that you packed a few things you don't need and that you haven't packed some things you should have.
Here's a list of things I needed most on my travels:
- A smartphone and local SIM card (Setting up roaming is expensive and unreliable).
- A preloaded cash passport credit card (I used TravelX and got fantastic service from the very British customer care service operators).
- A map of the area and, if possible, a separate public transport map (Or you could just get a few maps as apps on your smartphone. (I found the Ulmon apps particularly useful because they could be used without a data connection.)
- More clean socks and underwear than you think you'll need.
- Comfortable walking shoes.
- Hand sanitizer. (The metro in any city is a grimy place.)
- Jeans (Which can be reworn for several days without looking too bad).
- Lip ice, eye droplets and some kind of moisturizer. (I am not a metrosexual by any stretch, but things dry out, you see.)
- A two point charger. (Most of Europe uses these, so there is no need for a million converters.)
- Strong roll-on deodorant. (Otherwise it will get confiscated at the airport, along with your lighter – both of which you can then purchase again at the duty free.)
- A dirty laundry bag.
- Small change (to pay for toilets, water and other incidentals).
- Water. Lots of water.
- An adventurous spirit.
And here's a list of things I didn't need:
- That stupid u-shaped neck pillow.
- Soap and shampoo. (Almost every hotel provides these.)
- An iPad. (I had my smartphone, remember.)
- A heavy jacket. (Mostly, you'll be visiting in spring and summer, so taking a few jerseys means you can layer up – which is far easier than taking one warm, bulky jacket.)
- A phrase book. (I picked up what I needed to say fairly quickly: 'Hello', 'Please', 'Thank you', 'Two American coffees please' and 'Can I smoke here?'
Because you're most likely been traveling for at least a few days before you hit a city like Florence, there are a few other things you realize when you're there:
- People generally walk on the same side of the pavement as they would drive were a road. After walking on the left side of the road and bumping into people for days, we finally realised this in Florence.
- Eat a big breakfast. A big, big breakfast. Most hotels provide a nice morning meal as part of their room price, so stock up. Stealing food and hiding it in your rucksack is tacky at best and mushy at worst. Ask if you can fill a thermos with some coffee, though – most places don't mind this.
- When you arrive, take photos of your hotel, the closest street name and your metro station in case you get lost.
- Aim to see something when you're exploring, but take the side roads and allow yourself to be distracted on the way.
- Don't support those annoying trinket salesmen. They're only there because one or two idiots a day buy their rubbish and because a few others leave their wallets dangling temptingly from their pockets.
- If you see a group of ladies asking people if they speak English, don't say yes. Their motives are impure. Shaking your head or saying 'Non comprehendo' works best.
- Respect the city you're in. Most of the locals are either trying to get to work or to go about their daily routines among the tourists. Give them space.
So what stands out about Florence. To honest, not terribly much. This is not the fault of Florence – which tries to be very interesting, but isn't. For one thing, the riverfront is ugly. For another, Florence hasn't really got anything that other cities don't. There's the Piazza del Duomo, which is really nice with its cathedral and whatnot. There's the Ponte Vecchio bridge for those who spend their holiday buying overpriced jewelry. And then there are several other amazing buildings, but many of them were in the process of being restored when I was there and were covered in scaffolding. There's the brass boar's snout which you touch for good luck – like there are brass breasts and noses and willies all over Europe which you can touch to make a wish. And then there's the David statue by Michelangelo. Or rather, there are the two copies of it (the real one is located a short distance outside of the city).
Florence tries very hard, but doesn't quite make it. Unless, that is, you look a little deeper. As a centre of the arts, Florence has some unusual and interesting attractions. Not least their graffiti.
In all honesty, I think I may not have been in Florence long enough for it to really grow on me. I loved the people and was moderately interested in the city, but I don't really think it got under my skin as Rome did, or as did the next city on my voyage: Venice, the water city.
To be continued in The Musings of a Skeptical Tourist Part 3: Missing the Ausfahrt to Bumplitz (From the Bottom to the Top of Europe), which is currently being written.