Chaotic Italy and the Kindness of Strangers

On one of his travel shows Rick Steves warns travelers of the chaos that can occur in Italy.  We experienced this on a few occasions, but we found the Italians to be most helpful.  It is as though the locals recognize the chaos and pitch in when necessary to help one another – or tourists – out.

We took a Flixbus from Milan to La Spezia, on our way to Cinque Terre, not knowing we would be dropped off in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday afternoon, with no taxis in sight and no sign of public transportation.   We had assumed we would be near the train station where we needed to catch our train…bad assumption.

We walked several blocks hoping it was toward the centre of town, with temperatures in the high thirties.   We asked a couple of people for directions.  Although trying to be helpful, they had limited or no English.  The best we could get was “your feet will not get you there.”

OK, a clue.  Garry and I headed to the first bus stop we could find, where I asked a woman waiting if this bus would get us to the train station.  She motioned she was going there too.  I must have looked weary, because she grabbed my bag from me and hoisted it onto the bus when it arrived.  After several minutes, she hurriedly signaled us to get off.  She grabbed my bag once more and quickly ushered us onto another bus.  We arrived at a nondescript, unmarked back entrance to the train station.  We entered, and she waved and smiled and headed off to her own destination.  Phew – how lucky travelers are to encounter people who help without reservation.

Second instance.  In the Rome train station, after experiencing a high level of confusion about where to purchase tickets to the airport at six in the morning, we were finally safely tucked onto our train clearly labelled ‘aeroporto’.

Then came the dreaded announcement saying our train was first class only and anyone without a first class ticket should immediately exit the train.  It had no noticeable markings that read, first class.  We got off as did about half of the passengers.  We believe the other half simply stayed on board as we should have.  We thought it was just a move to another train parked behind us.  Nope, turned out we had to wait thirty minutes for the next train.  By then we were highly stressed and in danger of missing out flight to Bari.  So we had some exercise running through the Rome airport.  Just made it…whew!

The third instance involved another near missed train.  In Bari we boarded the train to Matera.  Listed on the car’s information board was our destination – Matera.  However well into our journey Matera disappeared as a destination.  Hmm, we spoke to a young girl who had next to no English.  She conveyed to us that this was the last stop.  We jumped off the train and asked a train employee how to get to Matera.  He pointed to the same train which was now splitting.  He and a couple of other people started signalling and shouting to board the other car.  Within seconds of boarding, the doors closed and we were on our way.  So some cars went to Matera – but others terminated at this station.  Who knew?

 

Milan & Cinque Terre

Over two packed days we visited Milan and Cinque Terre.  Cinque Terre, part of the Italian Riviera,  is a rugged portion of the coast comprised of five villages.

The first photos are from Milan, taken on a blistering hot day.  On our short visit we had a brief taste of the city’s stunning architectural beauty.

While in Cinque Terre we stayed in the village of Vernazza, with additional photos of Monterosso al Mare and Manorola.

We had an opportunity to sample one of the local specialties, Tegame alla vernazzana, the most typical main course in Vernazza.  It is a layered, casserole-like dish of whole anchovies, potatoes, tomatoes, white wine, oil, and herbs.

Over the centuries people have carefully built garden terraces on the rugged cliffs.  Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a “must see” if you are planning a trip to central Italy.  Perhaps a few too many tourists in the summer – ‘we have met the enemy and the enemy is us’.


Milan

 

Shopping area Milan

 

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Matera – City of Caves

This was one of our most fascinating travel days since we arrived in Europe.  Matera is a cave city, first settled in the Neolithic era and is located 425 kilometres southeast of Rome.  It is located on the “instep” of the Italian boot.  It was challenging to get to, but worth the effort.

Matera is one of the oldest settlements in the world, with human activity taking place in what is called the Sassi (a small canyon carved into a hillside) for the past nine thousand years.  The community developed with a close relationship to the rock, and consists of a mixture of caves and man made dwellings. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is currently undergoing restoration and renovation.

In the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. Riddled with malaria, the unhealthy living conditions were considered an affront to the new Italian Republic of Alcide De Gasperi.   – Wikipedia

About half of the thirty thousand inhabitants were transferred to new homes between 1953 and 1968.

In 2004, the community received a much needed economic boost when Mel Gibson chose the Sassi as the film location for “The Passion of the Christ.”  Six hundred locals were hired as extras, with the Sassi standing in as the Jerusalem of 2000 years ago.

No comments required on the stark beauty of  the Sassi, Matera.  The pictures speak for themselves.

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Rome

Rome – I [Garry] last visited Rome 49 years ago, almost to the day.  I noticed that since then, they built a coliseum.  Rome is cleaner than it was, and it was hot – with temperatures often in the +38° C range.

Italy has been the focus of desperate migrants crossing the Mediterranean.  BBC on August 18 broadcast from the Rome Train Station, where migrants ‘sleep rough’ each night.  We witnessed many migrants trying to scrape a living from selling non-items such as folding wood carriers.  While we dined at one outdoor restaurant, a begging woman came around.  Patrons near us gave her half their remaining pizza.  She subsequently sat on the sidewalk near us and while we sat in comfort, she leaned against the wall and chomped down on her donated pizza in the blistering heat.  We witnessed an offensive act, when one begging migrant was casually offered a potato chip by one restaurant customer – very funny eh, to garner your humour from the misery of others.  In 2016 more than 5,000 died crossing the Mediterranean.

In Rome restaurant prices were high.  Particularly of note is the table fee of two or three Euros per person.  Not bad if you are eating a meal but offensive when you are staying at a pricey hotel and in the heat drinking high priced bottled water with the added fee on top.  We found meals in Rome more expensive than Paris.  The city lacked the numerous grocery stores and boulangeries found in Paris.

The above did not distract from the exceptional beauty of the city’s architecture, art, and fountains.

Below are photos of both Rome and the Vatican.

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