A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: kafka001

Overnight in Bahrain

DAY 1-2 TUE/WED Alex, Anna and David drove us to the airport and left us to our fate. We didn’t know how much we would come to long for those fresh young faces and those who had not been able to fit in the car during the weeks ahead.

During the short flight to Melbourne we were able to swap our aisle seats for a couple next to the window, though we were forced back to our allocated seats from there on. Sitting next to Margaret was a young man who was visiting his sister in England. She established an immediate friendship with him that lasted until we reached Bahrain and we parted company. By an amazing coincidence we found ourselves on the same plane six weeks later on the way home from Bahrain. The two rows in front of us were occupied by a young couple and their five or six extremely well behaved children. The highlight of the trip was the spectacle of Margaret fiddling with her headphone controls and cursing because they wouldn’t work; she had forgotten to put the contraption on her head.

We arrived in Bahrain to find that our flight to Rome was leaving at 1am the next day instead of 10.40pm. This would have been a disaster except that Gulf Air had provided a room in the rather sleazy Basrin Hotel, located right in the middle of nothing much. Our accommodation was modest to the point that it didn’t include a bath towel, let alone tea and coffee making facilities. At least we didn’t find black hairs in our bed as did some of our fellow travellers. After a free lunch we walked around the block; a very short block as the heat was oppressive and the sights non-existent. We lay down for a brief nap, which turned out to be a big sleep as we didn’t wake up for six hours by which time we had missed our free dinner.

At this stage my pedometer was still working and I found that we had walked 6.62 kilometres since leaving home.

Posted by kafka001 18:38 Archived in Bahrain Comments (0)

Exploring Rome

DAY 3 THU Re-energised by our long sleep we joined the German and Australian couples we had met at the airport for our bus ride back to Bahrain International. After what seemed a particularly long flight, the boredom of which was not broken by an almost inaudible movie (“Payback”) we landed at Rome Airport at 6.30am and were met by the CIT driver who drove us to our hotel .

La Giarda was a small establishment on the second floor of a rather nondescript building on Via Principe Amadeo, which also housed a second hotel on the first floor (piano in Italian). The lift was an ancient capsule apparently designed to hold one extremely slim person and her handbag and I was forced to jam our two suitcases into the tiny space, press the button then run up the stairs to retrieve them before somebody else did. Our room was correspondingly small but very clean and boasted a ceiling fan which saved us from succumbing to the Rome heat. I asked the manager for two cups of coffee and was a bit taken aback when he turned up with normal sized cups only a quarter full. This, I later learned, was how Italians took their coffee.

We were anxious to begin exploring the city and, having packed our backpack with water, maps and our heavy but very useful Lonely Planet guide, we left the hotel to begin our 17 kilometre walk to the Colosseum, the Forum and other sites in the area.

I felt great excitement as we approached the Colosseum. The huge, hulking building was just as I had imagined it would be. An assortment of hawkers and pretend gladiators mingled with the tourists swarming around outside and we hesitated not a moment before paying our money and entering the majestic but ruined arena. We were lucky enough to come across a young woman who was just beginning a free guided tour and over the next thirty minutes learned more about the recreational activities of the ancient Romans than we would have by simply reading our Lonely Planet.

A short walk across the piazza took us to the Forum with its assortment of temples, palaces and halls, most of which, with the exception of the Curia, were jumbled collections of pillars and blocks of stone and marble in various states of disrepair. It was difficult to believe that all these once marvellous buildings had stood together in such a small area. It almost seemed to me that the remains had been collected and placed in the same fairly small area by some nineteenth century entrepreneur intent upon creating a theme park. My favourite building was the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, a well-preserved monument whose imposing bulk and soaring columns eternalised the power of that long-dead imperial partnership. The Temple of the Virgins was the largest structure in the area, suggesting that there were an awful lot of virgins in ancient Rome. The Curia was the only building we could enter and we could almost see Julius and his senators discussing the oversupply of Roman virgins.
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Above the Forum we found the Piazza Campidoglio, designed by a famous Italian and, not far away, the Victor Emmanuel II Memorial. This enormous building was built by Victor only last century to perpetuate his greatness and rivalled any of the nearby ancient structures. The Piazza Navona, with its three Bernini-designed fountains was our favourite square and the numerous artists and sidewalk restaurants gave it an exhilarating air of life in progress.
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According to our map the Pantheon was not far away, but despite our best efforts we couldn’t find it. Margaret asked a young man for directions and after some difficulty in communication, he beckoned us to follow him and set off at a brisk pace down a series of narrow cobbled streets. Margaret fell behind as I struggled to keep up with him. We hadn’t expected him to actually take us to the place but he seemed happy to oblige. Margaret reckoned that I should have given him money for his trouble but he obviously didn’t expect a reward and departed with a friendly wave. The Pantheon was a large round building with an impressive ceiling and lots of paintings on the walls and, as an added attraction, contained the tomb of Raphael (the artist, not the archangel). According to an inscription over the door one earned a plenary indulgence just by going inside. This was extremely generous as there wasn’t any admission fee.

By the time we reached the Spanish Steps we were exhausted and decided to return on another day for a closer inspection. We paused at a kiosk near the Metro entrance for a Coke. At the table next to us a large and fearsome punk, clad entirely in graffiti-covered leather and sporting a mohawk haircut and numerous pierced body parts lounged aggressively sipping from a large bottle of beer. When he ambled over to his purple-haired girlfriend nearby a passing young man made towards his table with the intention of grabbing his half-full bottle. At that moment the punk started back to his table and the young man veered off and disappeared into the crowd with understandable haste.

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The Metro was not as user-friendly as other rail systems we had encountered during our travels (we hadn’t been to Paris yet!) and, as it was peak hour, was overflowing with commuters. After a fairly short and claustrophobic ride we disembarked at the Terminus and were relieved to find that it was only two streets from our hotel. After a short rest we walked down Via Principe Amadeo in search of a laundromat for future reference.

DAY 4 FRI At 7.30am we ate our first hotel breakfast at La Giarda. Orange juice and buns as well as croissants and tiny squares of toast accompanied by plastic containers of chocolate spread and jam. A feast unfit for a king! At least we got full cups of coffee.

We took the metro to the Vatican, again sharing our carriage with commuting Italians. Italian train drivers are the same people who ride Vespas through the crowded streets; they can stop on a dime. Several times the train slowed from 80 kph to 0 kph in two seconds, sending Italians staggering into one another. In Sydney angry voices would have been raised but in Rome no one even changed expression.

We reached the Vatican around nine and soon found ourselves in St Peter’s Square. People are astounded when I tell them that I expected the square to be bigger. At first I thought that it must be a smaller square just outside the real one. The facade of the Basilica was totally hidden by scaffolding in preparation for next year’s jubilee celebrations. We found throughout our travels in Italy that virtually all cathedrals, monuments and other famous buildings were at least partly concealed by scaffolding which was a bit disappointing.

The Basilica itself was very large, though again less enormous than I had expected. My attitude was not good as Margaret and I had had an altercation about dinner the previous night (ie whether to have it or not) and as a result I found the Basilica rather oppressive. Surrounded by huge marble columns and outsized religious statues I felt the weight of the Church bearing down on me. We joined the queue for the cupola before exploring the building in depth as we feared (correctly) that hordes of tourists were heading our way, all intent upon climbing to the top of the dome. I was too parsimonious to pay the 8000 lire required for the lift so we saved a dollar by climbing the stairs. We barely made it to the top. The stairway grew steeper and narrower the higher we climbed and by the time we reached the last flight we had to crouch to fit. Margaret almost had a panic attack due to the claustrophobic conditions and we were approaching death by the time we stumbled onto the roof.

The view of the city from the cupola was stunning but spoiled somewhat by the smog. The roof boasted a souvenir shop crammed with postcards, rosary beads, holy pictures, holy key chains and other religious artefacts to numerous to mention. When we descended to the Basilica we found that the crowd had grown to biblical proportions. A hundred groups of tourists followed a hundred tour guides, each of whom held aloft a stick with a flag, flower or, in one case, a pair of pink panties attached. Before leaving we visited the crypt and gazed with awe upon the ornate tombs of various Pontifex Maximi.

Outside St Peters we joined a queue to see the Sistine Chapel but left after fifteen minutes when it failed to move more than a few inches. In Rome, as anywhere else, it pays to arrive at a tourist attraction by 9.30am so you can beat the coaches.

In the afternoon we walked the length of Via Cavour in search of San Maria Maggiore which, we later discovered, was only a block away from the hotel by another route. This enormous white edifice looked from the outside like a typical government building of the late nineteenth century. The inside was almost totally concealed by scaffolding, though what we could see certainly looked artistic. In the square outside the church Margaret bought a t-shirt puportedly painted by Michelangelo, though I thought it a fake as I’m almost sure they didn’t have t-shirts in his day.

After another rest in our room (it was very hot) we caught the train to Spagna then climbed the Spanish Steps and visited the church at the top. By this time we were totally exhausted and decided to return home for yet another rest. On the way down the stairs a swarthy gentleman of gipsy appearance offered to take our photo. I pushed him over, grabbed Margaret’s hand and fled, not stopping until we reached Via Condotti. Talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire! Via Condotti is home to Cartier, Gucci, Just Jeans and other high fashion shops and is even more interesting than Rodeo Drive. Enthralled by the fabulous jewellery, the well-turned heel of an Italian leather shoe and the wispy haze of a Roman negligee, I insisted that Margaret look at every shop in the street.

In the evening we walked the streets in search of a trattoria we had admired the previous night. It had vanished and we finally settled on a ristoranti which is one step up from a trattoria. When the time came to pay the bill I silently practised my Italian. As a waiter approached I prepared to ask him for the tab, however Margaret stuck her finger in the air and he disappeared inside to prepare il conto. We waited ten minutes and, when he hadn’t appeared, Margaret left to return to our room. I motioned over our original waiter and exclaimed, with wild gesticulations, “il conto, per favore”. He beamed his appreciation, as did the elderly couple nearby, and returned shortly thereafter with a packet of condoms.

Back at the hotel I asked the hotel person for two coffees, one black and one white. “Que?” he asked, uncomprehendingly. “With milk”, I explained. “Cold milk?” he echoed, his simple peasant face a mask of disbelief. “Si!”, I exclaimed with much waving of the hands. I laughed ten minutes later when I handed Margaret her quarter cup of black coffee and sank back on the bed to enjoy my full cup of cafe latte. Margaret had the last laugh, however. My coffee with cold milk was very cold and I spilt half of it with shock.

DAY 5 SAT We were amongst the first at breakfast today, five past seven on the dot. It was not that we were anxious to get stuck into our soggy croissants and toast with chocolate spread, rather that we were travelling to the suburbs for the first time. After buying all-day tickets and a souvenir lighter at the local tobacconist we caught the train to Lepanto in search of the 812 or possibly the 218 bus to the catacombs.

We had great difficulty in finding the right bus stop, however we managed to attach ourselves to a trio of English tourists who had a vague idea of where to go. The bus was crowded and I held my camera tight to my bosom while scanning the passengers for possible gipsies. The bus sped down the Apian Way, stopping briefly at the Catacombs of St Sebastian and drawing away before we had a chance to rise from our seats. We got off at the next stop, about a kilometre further on, and waited for twenty minutes for a bus to take us back. A friendly local woman who spoke not a word of English asked the driver to stop at the Catacombs so that we wouldn’t spend the rest of the day being bussed backwards and forwards past our destination.

As I write: from our hotel room we can hear an Italian family singing and playing what could well be Italian folk songs

We bought our tickets then hung around the entrance gates waiting for the English speaking guide. There were lots of Italian and German tourists and lots of Italian and German speaking guides, most of whom arrived after us and set off before us. We were eventually joined by a pair of young Australian parents and their curly headed son or daughter and still later by a group of Americans and their local priest. After about half an hour an elderly guide turned up and led us to an assembly spot where he gave us an overview of the history of the catacombs.

Not all the levels are open to visitors, so our guide led us down three sets of stairs to the third level where we found ourselves cocooned in a clammy semi-darkness lit only by the occasional electric light. The galleries were very narrow but the ceilings were high and I could almost imagine that we were in the middle of the Great Pyramid. Stone bunks for the dead had been carved into the walls, though their occupants had long left for the greener pastures on the far side of the Styx. I’m sure we weren’t the first visitors to muse aloud over the nightmare possibility of being caught in the catacombs during a blackout.

At the end of the tour we found ourselves in a small chamber with four Americans and a priest. Imagine our delight when they invited us to participate in a private Mass deep in the bowels of the earth! I thought all my Christmases had come at once. A thousand years earlier Christians had performed the same rituals in the same spot, though possibly without the obligatory second collection. The inevitable souvenir shop was full of great trinkets. Margaret bought an icon while I was happy to pay $7.50 for a genuine clay oil lamp as used by ancient Christians.

We were not all that keen on visiting other catacombs however the Catacombs of Saint Callisto were supposed to be just down the road. A short walk down the Apian Way (sounds grand but it was really just a narrow country road) took us to a memorial cavern complex built in memory of the people of a nearby Italian village who were murdered by the Germans during World War II. We couldn’t find any more catacombs so we caught an extremely crowded bus back to Lepanto where we explored San Giovanni de Laterno, a church boasting newly restored paintings, a very striking red and gold ceiling and twelve enormous statues of the Apostles.

Before descending into the Metro I left Margaret to wander around an upmarket clothes shop while I made a quick circuit of a rather extensive market. Fortunately Margaret had all the money and I was unable to purchase a cassette titled “Songs of the Fascist Era”.

Our day had barely begun. A long train trip and an even longer walk took us the Castel St Angelo, a very imposing building constructed as a mausoleum for Hadrian, best known for his wall in England. We were loath to pay the entry fee but took too many photos from every possible angle, most notably from a bridge built by Hadrian but lined with statues designed by Bernini. I had thought Bernini to be a composer (Bernini’s Violin Concert No.1) and was surprised to find that, musician or not, he was best known to history as a quite acceptable sculptor.

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Rather than walk several kilometres back to the subway we elected to travel by bus. Finding the bus stop proved to be more difficult than we had expected, however our search took us through some very narrow, cobbled streets which we would never have found had we been looking for them. Eventually we found the bus stop and Margaret, who was walking in front of me, disappeared behind a parked truck. As I emerged from behind the truck I saw Margaret already on a departing bus, her mouth frozen in a silent scream behind the closed doors. Luckily for both of us the driver heard her cries, stopped, and opened the doors to let me on.

In the evening we strolled down the street to a nearby laundromat. The laundromat men were the most dedicated service people we had yet encountered. They constantly patrolled their machines and barked commands at the hapless customers, several of whom were spectacularly dressed transvestites. Our little clothes-cleaning trip turned out to be quite an adventure though the smell of dead rats from the garbage bin outside the door detracted from the ambience somewhat.

We finally found Trattoria Giovanni for which we had been searching since an American recommended it a few days earlier. Margaret had a dinner, which she reckoned to be the best she had ever had while I had six chops and a large bottle of beer. So good was the fare that we swore to return on Sunday night despite the $55 bill. Darkness had finally fallen so we caught a bus to the Colosseum which, illuminated by giant spotlights, was real pretty in its garb of gossamer gold. On the way back we saw the most paralytically drunk man we had ever seen.

DAY 6 SUN Upon checking in at La Giarda we had been presented with a letter from Cardinal Cassidy along with two ringside tickets to a Mass in St Peter’s Square. After a quick and early breakfast we caught the train to the Vatican and walked the short distance to the square where we found hundreds of people, possibly even thousands, milling about as they waited to be directed to their seats. Our special passes entitled us to sit in the section adjacent to the altar and above the hoi polloi crammed into the square below. The only people closer to the Pope than us were several ranks of cardinals, the odd nun and a group of people wearing identical jackets emblazoned with the legend “Misericordae”.

Most of the people in the square belonged to various charitable groups, for today’s Mass was to honour charitable work. The various groups each occupied an allocated space and held up banners and waved coloured streamers, giving the impression that St Peter’s Square was covered in an undulating patchwork quilt. A few yards in front of us security men with curly leads dangling from their ears scanned the crowds and whispered into their sleeves. I wondered whether they would shoot a potential assassin to protect the Pope or whether this would present an ethical dilemma. I remembered that Christ had prevented Peter from chopping a few Romans in the Garden of Gethsemane in his defence, though this might not have been through any sympathy with his assailants but rather because to do so might have interfered with a reluctantly desired outcome.

Theology aside (as it should be), the suspense was electric. Even I felt excitement as the choirs practiced and a line of young priests circled the altar and practiced ritual grovelling in front of the papal throne. About half an hour before the Mass was to due to begin Pope John Paul II began his extremely slow walk from the Basilica to the altar. I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been kinder for all concerned if he had ridden the distance on one of those three-wheeler contraptions with a pennant flying from the back.

At long last the Mass started and for the first twenty minutes or so I sat enthralled. It didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off, especially since the entire service was in Italian. Instead of a homily three social workers from Uganda, Ireland and some ex-French colony gave long speeches in their native tongues. Unfortunately their voices faded after thirty seconds to be replaced by the Italian translation. It must be very difficult to read your speech in English or French while the Italian version is booming in your ears. After several hours of preliminaries it was Communion time. Only a few score of the extra privileged received Communion from the Pope, the rest, including a disgruntled Margaret, had to make do with a common or garden-variety priest.

The service concluded with a papal blessing, which was very well received by the crowd. In the front rows people held up holy pictures and rosary beads which would apparently be endowed with even greater powers when blessed by John Paul. One especially devoted man held up an arm from which hung at least a score of beads. I had the unworthy feeling that he would soon be selling his sacred stock outside the Colosseum, though he may well have been taking them back to his family and friends in Naples.

After Mass I had a private audience with His Holiness during which I suggested that the Church might gain some credibility if he publicly revised the rather nasty concept of Hell which was no longer taken seriously by many Catholics anyway. He promised to do so within the next two months, though he refused to budge on more important matters like contraception and the banning of that obnoxious hymn “Come to the Water(s)”.

Leaving the square was more difficult than entering it had been. The enormous crowd exited the area via a narrow gap in the barricades that had been placed between the columns. Margaret was nearly arrested or possibly even shot when she decided to make her own gap by pushing aside a barricade. A policeman in a car tooted her and motioned her back rather peremptorily. A passing nun gave him what appeared to be a severe dressing down for being so rude to an ignorant tourist. I also started to move a barrier but desisted when a bullet-proof-vested cop waved his machine gun at me and snarled something Sicilian at me. I muttered what I hoped was an inaudible “porco” under my breath before rejoining the exit line.

I find that I have a natural ability to converse in Italian. I even found myself telling Margaret to “crosso” when we came to a pedestrian crossing. Despite this gift it was almost always Margaret who did the communicating, though she never mastered the art of throwing her hands and arms around or rolling her eyes.

After pizza at a nearby pizzeria we took the metro to the Borghese Gardens. Rome doesn’t seem to have very many parks and we found ourselves strolling amongst hordes of Italian families out for a day in the “country”. We sat for several minutes in front of a small artificial lake and left only when we spotted the inevitable rose seller heading in our direction. Our busy day finally caught up with us and we made our weary way to the nearest metro, arriving at the terminus with only minutes left on our transport ticket.

At around six we dined once again at the Trattoria Giovanni where we indulged in entrees of pasta followed by an excellent main course which included artichokes washed down with a fine chianti. More than elegantly satisfied we literally staggered back to the hotel to watch the eight o’clock news. While attending Mass we had been extensively filmed and there was a very good chance that we would appear on the little screen. Unfortunately most of the news was devoted to sport (made us homesick) and the Mass didn’t rate a mention.

DAY 7 MON This morning we left early so that we could get to the Sistine Chapel by opening time. This meant catching the train during peak hour, which is an experience not to be missed. We managed to avoid being shoehorned in by the station assistants, edging our way on board by shouldering aside a few little nuns and a legless veteran of the Abyssinian expedition. Some less fortunate passengers were almost cut in half by the closing doors which jerked open and slammed shut several times like a demented guillotine.

A line had already formed by the time we reached the chapel, however we were fairly close to the front. Shortly after we joined the queue several busloads of tourists arrived, vindicating our decision to get there early. A spiral staircase led to the ticket office where Margaret attempted to buy our tickets with a 50,000 lire note. The objectionable man behind the counter refused to accept the bill and motioned us away. We thought for some inexplicable reason that he was telling us that entry was free today, so we proceeded to put our belongings through the X-ray machine. The X-ray guard asked for our tickets and assured us politely that entry certainly wasn’t free. It turned out that our banknote was old fashioned and not acceptable. The ticket man, with ill-concealed contempt, suggested that we go to a bank and swap it for a nice new one. This was not a suggestion, which we were about to heed as it would have meant leaving the building, finding a bank, changing the note then rejoining the queue. Fortunately Margaret managed to scrape together 30,000 lire in small notes so that we could proceed without further trauma.

We soon found that one doesn’t just pay one’s entry fee and walk into the Sistine Chapel. First you have to walk through many ornate halls and minor chapels which, I hasten to add, is a very rewarding experience for artistically inclined people such as ourselves. We eventually reached the chapel and found several thousand other tourists craning their necks to view the ceiling. Why Michelangelo didn’t paint his masterpiece on the walls is beyond me, it would have been much more convenient for spectators lugging backpacks (such as myself). I was a little disappointed in his work, mainly because it was too far away for me to see properly.

Before reaching the outside world we wound our way through the Vatican Museum with its fabulous collection of antiques. The Etruscan Pottery room was crammed with cups, saucers, plates, urns and bowls, all with a browny orange finish and all looking much the same. One room contained Rodin’s Thinker, always a favourite of mine for obvious reasons (must I explain? ). I touched his metal head with reverence, not realising that the real and original Thinker was housed in a little town just outside of Paris. This one was a fake!

I have been forbidden by a higher power from making any mention of lavatories, bowel movements or other bodily functions, however I simply must relate my experience in the Vatican Museum toilet. The line outside the ladies’ convenience was extremely long whilst we gents suffered no waiting time at all (more efficient plumbing). While performing an act of nature (I cannot be more specific) alongside several others of my sex I was horrified to see a trio of giggling teenage girls rush into our sanctum and commandeer three cubicles for purposes which were only to obvious. If they had been Italians or perhaps Turks I might have been less disturbed (their sense of what is proper is sometimes a little different to ours) but they appeared to be Americans!

We were too tired to revisit the Pantheon as we had planned and decided to return to the hotel for a rest. On the way back something happened that was very embarrassing for Margaret and would have made for a jolly tale at her expense. Unfortunately she swore me to silence and I was so frightened by her threats and imprecations that I have completely forgotten what it was.

From the hotel we walked to the Termini to locate the platform from which we would depart for the airport in a few days time. We agreed that we would rather drag our bags up the street and pay 26,000 lire for the train rather than 70,000 for a taxi.

Having paid upwards of four dollars for a can of beer for the last few days we were chagrined to find that beer of all varieties sells for a mere $1.50 at alimentares.

Posted by kafka001 18:38 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

A Week In Tuscany

DAY 12 SAT The day had arrived which we had been both looking forward to and dreading; the day we were to leave Roma and collect our car. We caught the train to the airport and, after dragging our luggage here, there and everywhere, we eventually found the information office where we were to meet the Peugot representative.

The young man brought us our car and explained in great detail how we were to drive fifteen kilometres down the road, take the third turn on the left, drive to a service station, fill up the tank, then drive another fifteen kilometres to the Florence turnoff on the A1. He impressed upon us the absolute necessity of filling up the tank as soon as possible as the car came with only a few litres of diesel. I asked him what we should do if we ran out of petrol in Italy and he shrugged, threw his arms about in that charming Italian way (as if to suggest than only an imbecilio would run out of petrol) and suggested that running out of petrol would be most unwise.

It almost goes without saying that as soon as we drove out of the airport we became totally lost. Margaret directed me to take the first turn on the left and I, obedient driver that I am, complied. Fifteen then twenty kilometres passed without any sign of a petrol station. I became extremely tense as I watched the needle creep into the red while at the same time trying to heed Margaret’s frantic exhortations to keep to the right!! After some time we found that our wide road had degenerated into a narrow country lane leading into rather desolate countryside. I knew then that we weren’t going to find petrol, that we would roll to a halt miles from any habitation and be stuck in the wild with no idea at all of what to do. I should have had more faith. Margaret’s little wooden lucky cross came through again for as we crested a hill there appeared in the valley below an enormous petrol station. The relief was so overwhelming that I almost converted to Christianity on the spot.

The service station attendant was extremely helpful and produced three different maps so that he could guide us to the autostrada. That he was able to do so while speaking not a word of English was quite amazing. We drove off with renewed confidence and found the turnoff to Florence without any difficulty. You may believe this or not as you please, but when I looked over my shoulder at the top of the hill the petrol station and its attendant had vanished!

The 230 kilometres to San Piero a Sieve were hair-raising. I found it quite difficult to get used to the gear stick, which was on my right, and kept turning on the windscreen wipers instead of the indicators. We drove in the very, very slow lane at a snail-like 120kph behind pushbikes and large trucks and were amazed at the speed of the vehicles in the faster lanes. Every so often I would gather my courage and overtake a particularly slow truck. Margaret would become almost hysterical with fear and, on one occasion when I was overtaking a convoy of lorries, actually broke down in tears. From that point on she would close her eyes and pray for the suffering people in Kosovo.

Thanks to Margaret’s navigational abilities we found the turnoff to our Tuscan “villa” without too much trouble. The two kilometres of dirt road to the Trebbio Estate were very narrow and winding for much of its length and I was forced to change gears up and down constantly. I eventually learned that the best way to reach our cottage was to drive as quickly as possible so that I could stay in third gear. This meant fishtailing around blind corners and hoping like mad that there was no one coming the other way. I became quite comfortable with this manner of driving and even came to feel just a little Italian. Italians, I should explain, drive like this all the time.

Pergoletta, our “villa”, was a self-contained cottage on a hill with its own verandah overlooking the Sieve valley. Below us stretched rolling hills carpeted with green and brown fields. Nestled in a valley far away we could just make out the town of Borgo San Lorenzo. 27_San_Pie..r_villa.jpg

As I write: Margaret is cooking pasta with materials bought during our visit to the little town of San Piero a Sieve. Home cooked pasta was to be our staple diet for the next few days

An aside: although people drive extremely fast on the autostrada they are generally very tolerant of those who do not. In Rome we saw that, while the traffic was chaotic and anarchic and contemptuous of the traffic laws (if there are any!), we were never in any danger of being run over. The key to survival on the road, whether a pedestrian or a motorist, is to be assertive. Luckily this is one of my most pronounced characteristics.

We ate our pasta in front of a roaring fire (more gently glowing than roaring, if the truth were told). The manageress of the estate had told us that we could use the fireplace as much as we liked though it would cost us an extra 18,000 lire. After our first night we preferred to wear warm clothing and save money.

DAY 13 SUN Today we decided to drive to Pisa because it didn’t appear to be all that far away and we felt that we deserved an easy day after our long drive from Rome. How naive! After a few minor difficulties we managed to get onto the autostrada and into the geriatric lane. Even though I reached 120kph at one stage we were never fast enough to move into the very fast lane, let alone the fast lane. We were both very tense. The speed limit was 130kph and in Australia we would have been cursing those timid souls who didn’t drive at the maximum. Italians are much more laid back and simply flash their lights and overtake you at twice the speed limit.

I had always considered Margaret to be a navigator without peer, however as we approached Pisa she insisted that we take the turnoff to Central Pisa instead of Pisa Nord as we had planned. Central Pisa was nowhere near the Leaning Tower, so we parked in a convenient spot on Via Amerigo Vespuggi and caught the bus to Pisa Nord.

I was overawed by the Leaning Tower of Pisas; the smallest ones cost 3,000 lire whilst the most impressive, at 20,000 lire, came in the form of a lamp. Margaret would only let me buy a little one. Of added interest was the famed tower itself, which I predicted would fall over on the stroke of midnight on either 31/12/99 or 31/12/00. The leaning tower, duomo (or should that be Duomo?) and various other historical buildings were gathered together in a fenced-off square, almost as though the town fathers had decided to create a theme park so that they could sell various combinations of tickets to various combinations of buildings.

We didn’t buy any tickets and simply wandered around taking the obligatory snaps. After half an hour we returned to the bus stop where we found that we could not buy biglietti as all the tobacconists were shut for the Sabbath. With increasing desperation we walked around and around the tourist stalls trying unsuccessfully to find a ticket seller. Finally I made a decision. We would catch the bus without a ticket! There was a bus standing at the bus stop, destination Livorno. Although it was not a number 3 or 9 bus, I assumed that Livorno was a suburb of Pisa and made another decision. We hurried on board, Margaret muttering her misgivings while I tried to maintain my rapidly crumbling facade of decisiveness. It didn’t take long for us to realise that we were not heading towards our car but rather out of town and into the countryside.

Some distance from Pisa the bus stopped for the first time to allow a group of gipsies to disembark. They were a particularly wild and grubby lot and the wildest and grubbiest vagabond paused on the steps and launched into a fierce and mainly incomprehensible diatribe against the NATO action in Kosovo. I could only make out bits of his harangue, which included references to Cleenton and English peegs (apparently directed towards the passengers at the back of the bus who were obviously English tourists from Liverpool or St Albans). He was standing right in front of me and I feared that at any moment he would hawk a gob of spittle in my face. Fortunately he terminated his speech with a violent and obscene Italian gesture and leapt from the bus. As the bus pulled back on the road the people at the back, who had been dead silent, erupted into outraged chatter. “Well I never!” “Did you hear that!” “What a cheek!”

We drove on through the countryside and didn’t stop again until, more than half an hour later, we reached the outskirts of Livorno. Livorno, we soon discovered, was a very large town on the western coast of Italy. It was not the sort of place we would have considered visiting voluntarily as it appeared to boast no attractions whatsoever and, furthermore, was just plain ugly. We found the bus terminus and bought tickets back to Pisa. A helpful and loquacious expatriate African-American told us which bus we should catch for the quickest journey (we would have taken the one which drove to Pisa via the coast and took ninety minutes longer). The bus was very stuffy and hot so Margaret opened a window. After a few minutes the mustachioed woman in front of us closed it and proceeded to turn up the collar of her coat and shiver theatrically.

On the way back I realised to my horror that my driver’s licence was still packed away in my suitcase. Not only had I travelled without a bus ticket, I had driven without my licence! Margaret was disappointingly unenthusiastic when she learned that she was going to have to drive from Pisa to our villa . I was rather excited. Instead of trying to learn to drive safely and correctly by following her many tips I would be able to see how a competent driver actually drove! Although she later claimed to have been frozen with terror for the entire trip she turned out to be a natural right-side-of-the-road driver and elicited only a very few screams from her passenger. The only time she showed any panic was when she had to make a turn at short notice and slammed on the windscreen wipers instead of the indicators.

We arrived back at the villa without a dent and before dark even though my poor navigating skills had led us to drive aimlessly around Pisa before we were able to find the autostrada. It took beer, wine, coffee, beer and wine to loosen the iron bands around our heads. A short walk up the lane surrounded by the beautiful Tuscan countryside calmed us down somewhat and a chat with the equine parents of a young foal returned us to our normal state of tranquillity.

As I write: From our balcony we can hear the call of a cuckoo in the distance. A large green lizard is basking on the rocks nearby and the tiny birds in the trees below our villa are beginning their nightly twitter.

DAY 14 MON After the stress of driving to Pisa yesterday we decided to catch the bus to Florence. We parked the car in what we hoped was a free parking spot in the main street of San Piero a Sieve and caught a very comfortable coach from a nearby bus stop. It goes without saying that we had learned our lesson and bought four tickets to cover our return journey.

We felt much more relaxed now that we were relieved of the stress of driving, though our tension levels rose again when we stopped at a roadblock and were boarded by an armoured, machine gun-toting carabinieri. If he had asked to see our passports it would have been curtains for us as I had left them back at the villa.

Once in Florence we headed straight for the Duomo. The great domed church, with its black and white striped marble walls and spires, was an imposing, magnificent edifice. Inside I found the church to be fairly plain and the usual assortment of old paintings and stuff was hard to see in the perpetual gloom. I stood in a long queue for half an hour in the hope of ascending to the dome but lost patience and climbed to the top of the nearby bell tower instead. Reaching the top of the tower almost killed me, though the view of Florence and the ant-like tourists in the piazza far below made the suffering worthwhile. Getting to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa was a lot easier, though quite illegal.

Margaret had wisely waited for me on the steps of the Duomo and supported me as I staggered from the piazza. Once amongst the stalls of the local markets I was on my own again as she fluttered from one leather goods stall to another. Much to her delight she found a woollen scarf (shawl?) of the type she had been looking for since 1982. It was even better than the one she had bought in Pisa the day before. I, on the other hand, had only managed to purchase an antique oil lamp of doubtful authenticity and a small but charming statue of the Leaning Tower (possibly by Bernini). We ate a very satisfying lunch of pasta and beer at a trattoria where we were waited upon by a young lady from Elizabeth Bay. The museum housing the famous statue of Tim David was unaccountably closed for the day so we decided to return on the morrow and visit both the museum and the Ponte Vecchio.
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I had always prided myself on my instinctive ability to find my way around strange towns but on this day my gift had deserted me. Despite Margaret’s scepticism I insisted that we trudge down an endless street which, according to the map, would take us back to the station. I was trying to be assertive and to demonstrate the power of my internal compass and overrode Margaret’s fear that we were heading away from our destination. I was wrong. Margaret was right. I was 52 years old and losing my faculties.

We had taken the bus to avoid getting lost but once we had collected the car in San Piero a Sieve we got lost. This is a slight exaggeration, we just couldn’t find the right turnoff on the roundabout. Eventually we found our villa and spent the remainder of the day sipping beers. In the early evening I decided that I simply had to walk down through the field at the end of the lane to the creek at the bottom of the valley. This entailed struggling through waist high grass and maneating thorny bushes as well as avoiding (unsuccessfully) concealed creeks and marshes. When I reached the bottom it was all ..... not worth it.

DAY 15 TUE This was to prove our least stressful day since leaving Rome. We caught the bus to Florence then walked through the narrow streets to the Ponte Vecchio where we spent five or six hours looking at overpriced jewellery. The Ponte Vecchio is an ancient bridge across the Arno which looks very picturesque from a distance, being one of only a few surviving bridges to be lined with shops. Centuries ago the shops were inhabited by butchers who would throw their offal into the river. The city fathers of long ago decided that this was unhygienic and replaced the butchers with jewellers, a bad decision as far as I was concerned. Margaret tried very hard to find something to buy but failed, whereas I was able to purchase a keyring celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Mussolini’s birth. The stallholder, probably a communist, was shocked that I would desire such an object and grilled me mercilessly to determine my motivation. “Whatta fora you buya this thingorino?”

A short walk took us to the Academy of Very Interesting Statues where we saw the Very Famous Statue of David. What a strapping lad! Margaret reckoned he was the perfect man, however I thought his manly attributes were not particularly remarkable. He had disproportionably large hands which disproved the old saying “big hands, big .....”. I took a picture of his bum which was firm and gently rounded though cold to the touch.

After a couple of beers at a nearby trattoria we walked back to the bus station. Following the previous day’s fiasco Margaret led the way and, to my mortification, led us straight to our destination. We still had trouble finding the correct bus stop as each bus company had its stop in a different place. Though we had arrived on the CAP bus we were catching the SITA bus home and it took us quite a while to find the SITA terminal, located as it was on the far side of the huge piazza.

At 5.30pm we were taken on a guided tour of our local castle. Our guide was Lorenzo, the current owner of the Trebbio Estate. There was something just a little bizarre about Lorenzo. He was obviously rich, sophisticated and upper class but had no eyebrows and wore a smart blue blazer marked by dribble stains. We sat down in the garden with our fellow guests to hear Lorenzo give a detailed history of Trebbio Castle and its builder, Catherine de Medici. At question time I embarrassed Margaret by asking if the holes in the castle walls were primitive toilets. I reckon they were but Lorenzo, who obviously hadn’t given them any thought, claimed they were merely drainage holes. We only got to see the courtyard inside the castle itself before being led into the medieval kitchen and offered biscuits and Lorenzo’s own famous red wine. We couldn’t help but notice that while we were sipping the tourist plonk Lorenzo was quaffing from a much more impressive bottle.

After our tour Margaret phoned several hotels in Padua to book our stay in that fair city. All were full.

As I write: I can’t wait to read the next few pages of this diary to learn whether we found a hotel or were forced to sleep in the car

DAY 16 WED Our experiences driving to Pisa led us to book a day tour to San Gimignano and Sienna from Florence. This proved to be a wise decision. The coach trip was very relaxing and our young female guide a mine of information. Our fellow passengers were the usual mix of nationalities with a preponderance of Spaniards. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, our guide was multilingual and gave her commentary first in English and then in Spanish. Unlike our bus tour to Sorrento we formed no short-term friendships and had no intercourse, social or otherwise, with the other people on the bus.

Our first sight of San Gimignano perched in medieval splendour on top of a hill was one of the most exciting experiences of our trip so far. The old town boasts thirteen towers, each erected by a prominent family centuries ago to advertise their importance. There had been many more towers at one time but most had fallen or been pulled down. The bus dropped us at the town gate and left us with half an hour to explore the narrow streets. Motor traffic was banned within the town walls which created a medieval ambience spoiled only by the rows of souvenir shops and gelato bars. We strolled around together for a while before I left Margaret to her own devices and walked up a steep street to the old fort with its sweeping views of the Tuscan hills and the overwhelmingly brown rooftops of the town.

Onward to Sienna. At this point I will drop the English spelling and use the original Italian which, according to my t-shirt, is Siena. Siena was even more beautiful than San Gimignano. This was how we had pictured Italy back in the sunburnt country. Our bus guide left us to our own devices in the large square in the middle of town. Il Campo is a very large shell-shaped piazza surrounded by old shops, old apartment buildings and even older government buildings. In August each year hundreds of Tuscany’s wealthier citizens rent the balconies of the apartment houses and thousands of less wealthy people congregate in the middle of the square to experience the famous horse race of Siena.

We strolled around the piazza examining the souvenir stalls then explored the cobbled streets before pausing at a fast food restaurant for a surprisingly good pizza. A second guide, this one even more animated than her predecessor, met us at Il Campo and led us around the city pointing out significant buildings and expounding on the colourful history of Siena, Florence and Tuscany in general. It seems that Florence and Siena were archrivals during the fourteenth century and that rivalry continues in a much-diluted form to this day. Marriage between a young man from Florence and a young girl from Siena is still considered to be not quite the done thing, and marriage between a young woman from Florence and a young man from Siena is seen as just as bad.

Siena, not unexpectedly, boasted a famous duomo which was larger than the average house of God. Apparently it had originally been planned that the church would be even bigger than St Peter’s in Rome, however God’s representatives in the Vatican were not pleased and God himself expressed his displeasure by introducing the Black Plague to the area and killing most of the artisans. The black and white striped marble duomo which was eventually built is an impressive edifice nonetheless and contains a room covered with frescoes which look like they were painted yesterday.

The Church of St Domenico was plain both inside and out but made up for its lack of aesthetic appeal by boasting a bejewelled tabernacle housing the slowly decomposing head of St Catherine of Siena. A midnight visit by the formalin injectors was obviously called for if the miraculously preserved relic was to continue to lure the tourists.

We arrived back in Florence just ten minutes before our bus to San Piero a Sieve was due to leave. This had been the first day since leaving Rome that we hadn’t got lost or had to spend valuable time finding a bus stop. I wanted to stay for the communist uprising which was being held opposite the railway station (lots of placard-waving reds and scores of riot police) but we couldn’t afford to miss the bus.

Back in San Piero we walked down every street in town looking for a place to buy bread and cheese, only to learn that all San Piero’s shops were closed on Wednesdays. Margaret booked us accommodation in the youth hostel in Padua but reconsidered on learning that we would be sleeping in segregated dormitories. Her attempt to book a room in the hostel at Montagnana were frustrated by the inability of the manager to speak English. As Margaret’s Italian was even worse than mine (!) we were forced to ask Marzia from the Trebbio Estate to do the booking for us.

DAY 17 THU Today was to have been the day we visited Assisi but we decided that it wasn’t worth driving almost back to Rome just to visit the hometown of my favourite saint. Instead we drove to Borgo San Lorenzo, the nearest large town to San Piero. We didn’t see a single tourist while exploring the streets in search of bread, cheese and wine and felt almost like real Italians visiting real Italian shops and consorting with real Italian shoppers. Shop service is often rather slow in Italy. As we waited in the bread shop we saw a collision between two cars just outside the shop, and, long before it was our turn at the counter, the arrival and departure of an ambulance.

Having bought our provisions we walked in ever-increasing circles looking for the Post Office so that we could consult a Verona phone book. In most countries we have visited the Post Office is in the centre of the city. In Tuscany this is not the case, and we eventually found it at the end of a dirt road on the edge of town. We had wasted our time as we couldn’t find a phonebook for Borgo San Lorenzo itself, let alone Verona.

At the beginning of the two kilometre rough dirt road to our villa we were hailed by some well-dressed people who asked us to drive them up to the castle. As we wound our way up the narrow road we passed another dozen well-dressed people sweating their way up the hill in the oppressive heat. They had apparently been dropped off at the entrance to the estate by their tour bus, which could not possibly have navigated the hairpin bends. Our passengers jeered their less fortunate companions as we passed but were quickly reduced to fearful whimpers as I took the first bend at high speed, a manoeuvre necessitated by the wide space between second and third gears.

After a quick cup of coffee in our villa we drove further up the gravel road and into the countryside beyond the castle. The “road” was only wide enough for one car and we were lucky to encounter only one, a Land Cruiser, before we reached the highway. The procedure when meeting a car coming the other way on a one-lane road is fairly simple. Both cars accelerate on sight and, at the last possible moment, veer off into the undergrowth. In Australia horns would be hammered and oaths uttered. In America gunfire would be exchanged. In Italy the drivers wave, smile and swerve back onto the road.

We were anxious to find a picturesque and romantic spot to picnic and were thrilled to find San Giovanni in Petroio, an eleventh century church perched on a hill overlooking a beautiful valley. Unfortunately it was locked up and there was nowhere to spread our blanket and we were forced to continue down the road. A little further on we came to a short section of road overlooking a spectacular panorama of the Tuscan countryside far below. There was still no place to lay our blanket down so we drove to the end of the gravel road and back to the villa via a very modern but totally deserted highway.

After all that country driving we ended up sitting in a grove of trees under the imposing bulk of our castle, lying on a blanket in the grass sipping the local wine and eating our lunch while watching two pregnant mares and their foals grazing in the paddock below.

As I write: I can hear the sound of thunder from the direction of Florence. A white haze is drifting slowly towards us from Borgo San Lorenzo. The gardener has just finished whipper-snippering every blade of grass on the estate and silence has descended once again. Almost. In the field at the bottom of the valley a tractor labours back and forth across the brown Tuscan earth, its engine a muted roar.

DAY 18 FRI Our excursion to Fiesole started with the usual hiccup. I had planned to take the scenic route, which started, on the other side of Borgo San Lorenzo but, after driving all the way through town (no mean feat in itself) we were unable to find the road. While I filled the car with diesel Margaret asked directions of the attendant who, not surprisingly, didn’t speak a word of English. Another customer suggested we follow him as he was on his way to Florence. The route he took was one we had taken several times before and we could have done without his services, though we appreciated his willingness to help.

Our guide was very considerate, maintaining a speed on the narrow road which for him must have been painfully slow. For us it was like driving down Bulli Pass at ninety kilometres per hour. When we came to a lay-by he pulled over and told us with much gesticulation that we should take the next turn on the left. We shook hands and he sped off at a vastly increased speed.

Fiesole was a small town on a hill overlooking the vast spread of Florence. There were comparatively few tourists around (we had beaten the busses) and we had no trouble finding a parking spot. A long and arduous trek up a steep lane took us to the highest point of town where we visited the church and museum of St Francis (San Francesco). On the way down the hill we paused in the Park of the Rinenbraza to marvel at the 180o panoramic view of Florence and the rolling Tuscan Hills.

The duomo, a plain but very large building, was covered in scaffolding and closed to the public, so we made our way to the Municipal Museum to see its famous collection of Etruscan, Roman and medieval broken crockery. Just outside the museum was the Zona Archeologico (Roman theatre and baths as well as a number of ruins, which were completely unidentifiable). Our ticket also included entry to the art gallery which was so small that we were in and out within five minutes.

A short visit to the pre-tenth century be-frescoed Church of S. Maria Primerana pretty well exhausted the attractions of Fiesole (Fee-ess-o-lee) and, after a beer and snack, we returned to the car.

Despite Margaret’s navigational gifts we somehow missed the narrow street which would have taken us back to San Piero and found ourselves, horror of horrors, being drawn inexorably into the centre of Florence. We both became extremely tense, but with an amazing burst of Columbus-like navigating Margaret found a tiny street which led us in the right direction. Ironically we found ourselves on the very scenic route for which we had been searching at the beginning of the day. The road was a ribbon of grey across the pine-treed hills, the moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy shore, and the Cullises came driving, driving up to the villa door.

I may have mentioned earlier that we found Italians in general to be maniacs on the road. I may have also mentioned that we found them to be very polite and tolerant behind the wheel. Today we encountered our first rude Italian driver, a woman who maintained her road rage for many kilometres. It all started on the outskirts of Florence when we were trying to find our way out. Apparently I was driving too slowly for the lady behind who tooted her horn repeatedly and shouted what were probably obscenities. Once out of the city she roared past us then abruptly slowed down to 40kph, waving both hands wildly and swearing soundlessly into her rear vision mirror.

Once safely back at La Pergoletta I set about washing our car. Each drive down the unpaved Trebbio lane added another coat of dust and I thought it would be nice to leave Tuscany in a shiny blue car rather than a filthy yellow one. The water pressure from the hose was no more than a trickle and my “chamois” was a tiny dishcloth. It was rather like trimming the lawn with nail scissors.

I had known of the existence of the communal swimming pool since we arrived, but only on this, our last day, did I become obsessed with taking a dip. How could I live with myself back in Sydney if I hadn’t swum in the castle pool? I trekked along a rudimentary track across the field below the castle, disturbing a family of quail which fluttered without much urgency from my path. The pool was warm, and after surreptitiously scanning the houses nearby for oglers, I dived in. Heaven! Even the dead lizard on the bottom could not detract from my pleasure. Why had I left it till the last day?

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Last Day In Rome

DAY 11 FRI Our last day in Rome. Having experienced everything that Rome has to offer we decided to revisit the Forum, only in a more relaxed manner. Much to my disappointment I couldn’t find any bits of the Forum small enough to fit in my pocket. Virtually all of the temples and palaces were missing most of their components, so I can only assume that other people over the centuries have shared my interest in possessing bits of famous places. I was comforted somewhat by the fact that I had managed to collect some lava from Pompeii as well as the toe of an unfortunate petrified person.

Once out of the Forum we took the Metro to Cinecitta to visit the fabled Cinecitta Two department store. Once again I marvelled at the lack of interesting shops in Rome. Shoes and clothes, boringamento! Margaret bought a pair of shoes which gave her a degree of pleasure which was beyond my understanding. The only article I had bought so far in Italy had been an ancient Christian oil lamp, which I strongly suspected was not authentic.

We returned to the Metro station only to find that the Metro was broken. This was not a good thing as we were so far out in the sticks that we were not even on the map. We had no idea what to do but eventually found a bus terminus where extra buses had been laid on to replace the trains. By one of those not infrequent strokes of good fortune that we could only attribute to the hand-carved wooden crucifix Margaret carried for luck, we met an elderly Englishwoman, resident in Rome, who was able to direct us to the right bus.

After a long ride in a bus crammed with people, none of whom needed to breathe and therefore kept the windows closed, we arrived at a place we somewhat vaguely recognized. An extremely long walk through unfamiliar streets eventually brought us to the seedy far end of Via Principe Amadeo and we staggered back along its length to our hotel. We had planned to dine for the last time at Trattoria Giovanni however it was inexplicably closed and we were forced to sup elsewhere.

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Northern Italy

Mantagnan, Padua, Venice, Verona

DAY 19 SAT We left San Piero a Sieve just before 10am with mixed feelings of reluctance, eagerness for a new adventure and a mild fear of the uncertainties ahead. Once again we found ourselves on the dreaded A1 autostrada, travelling at 120kph in the slow lane behind trucks and caravans. Occasionally I would work up the courage to overtake a particularly slow vehicle and zoom into the fast lane at 130kph. During this procedure Margaret would close her eyes and pray for world peace, the welfare of our children and, last but not least, our safety. It worked! I received the gift of extraordinary driving ability, which lasted until we reached the next town.

We successfully negotiated the ring road around Bologna and left the A1 for the A13 in the direction of Padua. Once off the freeway driving became less stressful. Northern Italians seemed to be more sedate drivers than their southern brothers and we were able to focus our attention on finding the right combination of roads to take us to Montagnana.

After having become briefly lost (saved by an ancient, non-English speaking parking lot attendant), we found ourselves driving down a road bordered by a dry moat and towering medieval city walls. A right turn through the narrow city gate took us into the walled town of Montagnana, our home for next few days. The streets of Montagnana were a lot like those we were to see in Basel, the pavements sheltered by arcades which protected its citizens from both the rain and, while we were there, the burning sun.

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The youth hostel, which we like to describe as a castle but which was really a large fortified tower, bore the ancient an evocative title Rocca Degli Alberi. We were a little early, it didn’t open until 3.30, so we parked the car in the street outside and strolled through the arcades to the town square. For such a small town, Montagnana boasted a plethora of cafes and restaurants, mostly clustered around the circumference of the square . We lunched on sandwiches and cappuccinos while revelling in the lack of foreigners and the even more pleasing lack of souvenir shops.

On the other side of the piazza stood a large, plain church whose bells tolled every fifteen minutes . Montagnana’s duomo was very homey on the inside, its walls and ceilings bearing many faded frescoes which, if one could judge by the unusual lack of scaffolding around the walls, were not on the list for millennium restoration. Not enough tourists around to make it worthwhile, I guess.

The hostel was just opening by the time we returned and we walked up to the reception desk to register. The manager spoke little English but managed to convey to us that our room was on the sixth floor. I waited in vain for a bellhop to carry our bags and, after a fruitless search for a lift, we began the long climb up six flights of very steep metal stairs. It was an effort we were to make many times a day for the next few days and when combined with similarly arduous climbs up the Arc de Triomphe, the Duomo in Rome and the bell tower in Florence, turned me into a super-fit man of steel for a few brief weeks.

Our accommodation was less inviting than a cell in the Bastille. Two sets of double bunks were crammed into a tiny room shaped like a quarter of an oil drum. The ceiling was curved from the roof to the floor and the only air and natural light was what managed to creep in through two eighteen inch long arrow slits. Margaret had a particularly hard time getting to sleep on our first night due to the almost airless closeness of the room and I was only able to overcome my own claustrophobia by screwing my eyes tightly shut. While Margaret unpacked I walked around the battlements admiring the town walls and the broad, waterless, grassy moat.

We went to Mass in the duomo in the evening, along with a fairly small congregation that included only a small number of young folk. I found myself more than a little confused as half the people stood when the other half knelt and vice-versa. I had little idea of what was going on as the service was in a foreign tongue (what happened to the Vatican II rule that Mass had to be said in English?) and was taken completely by surprise when everybody started shaking hands and kissing. I quickly realised that we had come to the dreaded “sign of peace”.

After Mass we had dinner at the Trattoria Stona as recommended by the youth hostel man. The food was genuine local Italian and not pasta, a welcome change. It was also a great deal cheaper than a similar dinner in Rome.

DAY 20 SUN Today we drove to Padua, a fairly short trip which passed without the usual complications. Padua was a lot bigger than we had expected and we decided to park the car in the first parking station we came across. This proved to be an extremely large building attached to a hospital. Unbeknown to us we could have avoided the $18 parking fee had we kept our nerve and driven a little further to a cheaper council car park

After walking about a kilometre through downtown Padua (and making serious mental notes of street names for our return trip) we found ourselves at the Basilica di Sant’ Antonio, an enormous baroque duomo which towered over the dozens of tourists who scuttled around its entrance like ants around their nest, only slower. Mass was in progress so we decided to return half an hour later to spare the worshippers our gawking presence.

In the building beside the church we found a small museum choc-o-bloc with photographs and paintings of people whose prayers to St Anthony had rescued them from life threatening situations. I was quite amazed at the number of people in Padua who have fallen from balconies to their near-deaths over the last few centuries. An entire glass case was devoted to dramatic depictions of such accidents and I could only speculate as to the number of clumsy people who had fallen from balconies and not been saved by the saint. The second largest case contained drawings of people whose carriages had collapsed beneath them. Clumsy people, incompetent carriage makers!

We returned to the church at a quarter to eleven expecting Mass to be over but it was only up to Communion. This turned out to be a rare stroke of luck as a rather large choir was singing that rousing hymn from my youth “Holy God we Praise thy Name”. The church was beautifully illuminated and we were awe-struck by the artistry of the frescoes on the ceilings. If we had visited when the ceremony was over the church would have been in semi-darkness and I would have thought it just another gloomy old building.

At the end of Mass we joined a line which wound round the high altar into an apse. We had no idea what the attraction was but guessed that if Italians were actually forming a queue there must be something interesting at the other end. Sure enough we found ourselves in a marble room containing a splendid collection of body parts housed in glistening golden containers. Saint Anthony could easily be reconstructed from his relics, though he would be missing certain important bits considered unsuitable for preservation as holy relics. Despite the fact that his jaw, vocal chords, etc., were housed in reliquaries, his body was also encased in an impressive marble sarcophagus nearby, suggesting a miraculous duplication of saintly remains.

Margaret and I agreed that St Anthony’s was the finest religious building we had visited so far. Leaving the duomo behind, we spent the next six hours exploring the town, which was pretty well closed for the Sabbath. Padua’s other great attraction was one of Europe’s biggest squares, Prato della Valle, which was a round park surrounded by a moat and bordered by a hundred or more Romanesque statues of once famous Padovans.

After a short rest in our hostel room we walked down the street to the Trattoria Stona. As I may have mentioned earlier, Sunday night is promenade night in Italy and on this evening we experienced it in all its fascinating glory. During the week the streets of Montagnana are virtually deserted, but this evening they were full of citizens done up in their Sunday best. Young couples proudly pushed strollers and held the hands of their highly polished toddlers. Elderly couples sat on benches and exchanged pleasantries with passing neighbours. Everyone stopped to talk to everyone else, almost as if they hadn’t spoken since last Sunday which would seem rather unlikely in such a small town. Even the teenagers were well-behaved and spick and span beneath their reversed baseball hats. I half expected to meet Beaver and Bud in the coffee shop.

In the centre of the piazza a stage had been erected and kids in Speedos performed aerobics and danced in front of an adoring crowd of adults. I couldn’t help but feel a heart-warming glow as I immersed myself in the warm pool of community spirit. After ten minutes of glowing we dragged ourselves away towards the trattoria.

Yesterday’s English speaking young waitress was busy promenading and we were forced to deal with an older lady (referred to as madam) who spoke not a word of English. We were not terribly hungry and intended to select only a salad to share and a main course each. There was no printed menu so Margaret attempted to explain what we wanted by pointing to dishes in her phrasebook. As Margaret pointed to each item and asked whether it was available, Madam would say something incomprehensible which we took to mean no or else smile and exclaim “Si!”. After a short wait the old lady returned with a bowl of salad, then another bowl of salad, then a pair of entrees and then a brace of main courses. By the time we had finished I was slightly beyond bursting point and Margaret had had elegant sufficiency.

DAY 21 MON We were both out of sorts today, made cranky by a couple of weeks of tension brought on by the terrors of the road. In retrospect this was a shame because it cast a pall over what should have been a very exciting trip to Venice. We caught the train at Montagnana station, changing at Montselice for the fast trip to the Bangkok of the West. The journey only became interesting when we crossed the isthmus to the island of Venice and disembarked at the Stazione Santa Lucia. A couple of day tickets for the vaporetto cost us 30,000 lire, which was not a saving as we only caught the boat twice. As we walked to the wharf I was called back by a chorus of yells to retrieve my bulging wallet which I had left on the counter.

The vaporetto slowly chugged down the crowded Grand Canal, which was exactly as depicted in the movies. We got off at the Piazetta of San Marco and were greeted by the imposing gothic Palazzo Ducale, home of the doges during Venice’s heyday as a great commercial power. The Basilica di San Marco next door was even more breathtaking and we eagerly joined the queue to enter its magnificent interior. The basilica was built in the ninth century to house the body of St Mark which had been stolen from Egypt by Venetian merchants. The whole project was paid for by Doge Giustiniano Participazio, who must have been an extremely wealthy gentleman . The insides of the church sparkled like an overdressed Christmas tree with dazzling mosaics and glittering gold drawing one’s eyes from the undulating marble pavement beneath one’s feet.

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The Piazza San Marco was one of those places which registers indelibly in the memory. All over Italy we had found that the greatest buildings were obscured by formwork as a result of the big restoration effort for the year 2000. While restoration was in progress in the piazza, however, the facades of the buildings had been covered by huge and realistic paintings of the buildings they concealed and I had to look carefully before I realised that all was not what it seemed. We strolled across the huge square, marvelling at its magnificence and ducking periodically to avoid kamikaze pigeons.

We spent the rest of the day walking backwards and forward through Venice, mainly along the Cannaregio (a long pedestrian thoroughfare running between the station and Piazza san Marco) but with frequent diversions to landmark such as the Rialto and the Bridge of Sighs. We didn’t buy any beautiful Venetian glassware but we did purchase a couple of tasteful fridge magnets for the boys.

Towards the end of the day we caught a vaporetto back to the station and boarded the train back to Montagnana. We travelled in a silence which was to last till the next day when we resumed our usual jolly personae.

DAY 22 TUE After a particularly stuffy night in our cell-like room we left Montagnana bound for our next destination. I had pictured Verona as a small medieval town and was surprised to find that it was a medium sized city. We managed to find the railway station complex and the tourist office where Margaret booked the cheapest hotel in town. While Margaret rested I attempted to buy a Coke at a little kiosk. Buying food or drink in Italy is not a simple affair. One first pays for the item and obtains a receipt then gives the receipt to another person who hands over the item. In this kiosk a rather unfriendly ticket-giving person took my money but, when I looked expectantly at the drink cabinet, pointed to the back room to indicate that the drink-provider was not available. We both stood and stared vacantly at each other until the second lady returned five minutes later and handed me my drink

Unfortunately our detailed map did not show one way streets and we drove around and around searching for our elusive accommodation. When we eventually stumbled upon it we discovered that there was no entrance from the hotel parking lot at the back of the building and that we would have to drag our luggage around the block to the front of the building. The room itself was fine even if the shower was located in one corner in a glass cubicle.

A short walk down the road took us to the city gate, beyond which lay the Verona of Shakespeare’s time. Another kilometre’s walking led us to the Piazza d’Erbe, a large rectangular square bordered by buildings which had once been decorated with colourful frescoes or possibly tempura. They were long gone, faded into barely discernible outlines, but the square was still picturesque even though a little spoiled by the fete-like stalls of the souvenir sellers.

We found the famous balcony from which Juliet listened to Romeo’s grovelling attempt at seduction. The walls of the arch leading to the courtyard were covered in romantic graffiti scrawled on a dark blue background. As shocking as this may seem, the graffiti itself had become a part of the tourist attraction and one could purchase a T shirt bearing a print of the wall. The small courtyard contained a bronze statue of Juliet, her left breast glowing brightly from the hundred of hands which had rubbed it for luck. I refrained from seeking my own good fortune because I was afraid that the ignorant American tourists swarming around the souvenir shop might think me a pervert.
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Not far from the piazza was a small cemetery containing a group of tombs housing the remains of a once-powerful Veronese family. It was a rather bizarre graveyard as the sarcophagi were all resting on large and ornate monuments high above the ground and each was surrounded by an elaborate ornamental fence.

We strolled to the duomo with the intention of giving it the once-over, however an unhelpful and unfriendly attendant informed us that the church was closing in ten minutes and that we would be wasting our 10,000 lire entrance fee. Surely he could have let us in for free so that we could have a quick browse, surly swine! We were irritated by his rudeness but not broken hearted as we had seen many, many churches, most of which were free (other than the one in Montagnana where, during Mass, the collection plate was presented to each worshipper individually).

At the end of the day I left Margaret to look through a few shops while I walked almost all the way back to the hotel in search of a secondhand record shop I had spotted earlier in the day. I returned, hot and sticky, to find Margaret sitting on the steps of one of the buildings surrounding the square. Following her example I bought a cup of granita to quench my thirst before we walked back to the hotel.

Posted by kafka001 18:41 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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