Rome Diary II - My return to Rome: Il mio ritorno a Roma!
It was an emotional moment for me as I said Arriverderci! to my family and friends and boarded my Alitalia flight for the 12 hour flight from Rome back home to California. This was my fourth visit to Rome. This time, my sojourn was six weeks. Two years ago, I added six more weeks to my planned two week vacation for a total of two full months, a month of which was in my own apartment in Mostacciano, not too far from Rome's Fiumicino International Airport. My hosts for the journey were my son, Michael and his lovely wife, Laura. Michael is a teacher, musician and tour guide. So, I had an expert showing me the city, coaching me as I struggled to learn Italian, and headlining the live entertainment I enjoyed during my sojourn in the Eternal City. I jetted off for a couple of days to Amsterdam to see an old flame, and Michael and Laura took me for a ride on one of Italy's high speed trains for a three day excursion to one of the most colorful, historical and fascinating cities in the entire world - Venice. All through the holiday I posted articles in my Rome Diary II along with quick blurbs on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. Thank you for all of your nice comments, by the way. It was a joy for me to share my adventure. There will be more Rome Diary II articles in the future, as I have a chance to reflect on the journey just past and collate all ot the photos we took along the way. So, for now, enjoy my photo gallery and my Diario di Roma 2. I hope they serve as an incentive for you to visit a country that I have come to love as my own, Italy!
Buon Viaggio, MikeBo! - Getting Ready for the Journey
ROME DIARY 2 Friday July 17, 2015
Partly Cloudy 86°F/30°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
My travel plans are beginning to look….well….ORGANIZED. Even though I haven’t made this trip in a year and a half, it’s been on my mind ever since I got back from my last trip to Rome, and as my old pal Giotto di Bondone, the Italian painter and architect said about 700 years ago…
"Roma è la città di echi, la città delle illusioni e la città di desiderio".
“Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of desire.”
But, then an Italian painter and architect would have said that back around 1337. And, whaddayahknow? If he were here today, he’d look around, smile knowingly and say that it’s still true. I’m the type of traveler who starts thinking about the trip for weeks before I get on the plane. Now, that I’m at two weeks before lift-off, I’m starting to pull things together. I’m not packing yet, but I have the single suitcase that I’m checking through out of the closet and I’m gathering the ingredients for it on my dining room table. Since August is Rome’s hottest month, my wardrobe will feature cotton short-sleeve shirts comfy khaki slacks and shorts. August! What was I thinking? Well, I wanted to get back as soon as I could swing it, and that happens to be August. Maybe I can stake out a nice cool catacomb.
One thing I have NOT done is put together an Italian travel itinerary that locks me in to a set schedule for the whole time I’m there. I just don’t roll that way. On my last trip to Rome, I had planned on a standard two week holiday. But, that two week vacation turned into an almost three month adventure. After imposing on my son and daughter-in-law for three weeks, they helped me get a place of my own for the rest of my stay. That’s when I became a true expatriate, albeit for just a little over a month. To tell the truth, I was even thinking how nice it would be to send for my dog and make a career out of being Italian. But, the harsh realities of long term visas and the fact that my HMO doesn’t operate out of California brought me right back to reality. So, the best I can hope for is a situation where I can make these extended visits.
Based on my experiences with international travel, I usually recommend a structured tour for first time travelers. A typical Italian vacation can start in Rome and proceed from the heel up to the Swiss border and beyond: Rome, Florence, Pisa, Sienna, Cinque Terre, and Bologna, Milano and Venice and a wide assortment of other destinations. That’s the most expensive way. For other trips, I suggest a more flexible, independent plan where you book your tours or hire a guide as you go. I’ll be writing more about those “how-to’s” as I travel around Italy on this trip. For now, I just wanted warn everyone in my path that I’m coming back.
And what a huge difference in my attitude this time. Two years ago, I was. really feeling very incapacitated by some serious health issues, but thanks to a lot of hard work on the part of my new doctors along with my own determination to get well, I’m literally back on my feet. The biggest contributor in the upsurge in my once youthful vigor was the right shoulder joint replacement that Dr. Sodl did on me back in March. As we looked at the X-rays together during my last checkup, he whistled and chirped, “This is the best one of these that I’ve done.” I was pretty tickled myself, and I was quick to share my feelings with him. “Doctor, I’m thrilled to hear you say how happy YOU are with the outcome. I’m very pleased! No more pain. Lots of gain. I’d much rather hear you say that, than OOPS!”
Mike and Laura are already talking to me about things do when I return. Laura has already added a visit to Venice to the travel plan. We can take the high-speed train from Rome and be there in just a few hours. Then there’s Paestum, an ancient city in the far south which boasts some spectacular Greek temple ruins. Of course, a traveller could spend a life time just in Rome and never see the same historical attraction twice, but I will want to visit the Galleria Borghese again. And, I want to see Michelangelo’s David. The masterpiece was on tour the last time I was there. And, since Michael is playing in a new band called No Funny Stuff, I can get out on the town and go listen to them play. Oh, and one nice thing about having an expatriate son who is not only a musician but a professional tour guide, is that I can tag along with him at work, and take any one of an assortment of tours of Rome. Mike works for a company called City Wonders, (Insert subtle Plug!) which is a good name for any traveller to Europe to keep in mind. I have no set schedule. We Botula’s tend to do a lot of ad-libbing when we travel.
I’m also thinking about a couple of European side trips. One of my old girl friends from my teen years now lives in Amsterdam. Not having seen Joan in about 50 years, and never having been in Amsterdam, I’m keen to make the trip. And, somewhere along the way…and this is a biggie! My cousin Bernie’s grandson, Jeff has just returned from the Czech Republic where he met some distant relatives; a father and son also named Botula. I’ve always wanted to visit Czechoslovakia where my grandfather came from. And this may be my chance.
Each time I visit, I seem to want to stay longer. Maybe I could become a full time expatriate like my son, Michael. Junior grew up in Southern California, but when he went to London after high school in 1999 to work as a musician and sound engineer he met a pretty girl in Rome, and now, Laura is his wife. This trip will also help take my mind off the move my daughter and her family have just made. Her whole kit and caboodle has up and moved to TEXAS. Thank goodness for Skype, but I’d rather go back to Italy. Why Rome? Well let me share a short quote from Mary Platt Parmele’s 1908 book A Short History of Rome and Northern Italy: “Rome did not lay the cornerstone of modern civilization. She IS its cornerstone.”
See you on the road! I’ll be blogging and posting on Facebook et al.
So, more Rome Diary 2s coming up soon!
©Mike Botula 2015
First Day In Roma!
Diario di Roma II – Rome Diary 2!
First Day in Town!
Sunny and 93°F/34°C – It’s August here, already!
I think I mentioned in one of these postings that Italian drivers have their own interpretation of the “rules of the road.” My literary idol Beppe Severgnini has frequently written about them extensively. To recap: A red light or stop sign doesn’t necessarily mean “Halt.” No, no! To Italian drivers, a red light is merely advice to the driver to lift the foot from the pedal and look both ways while making a decision on whether or not to keep moving forward. Yellow means put your foot in it and go like hell before it turns red. And Green means proceed at speed, do not slow! The first example of that was our tram driver, who was driving all of us Alitalia passengers from planeside yesterday to the main terminal to the very long line at Passport Control. The driver started turning very close to a truck parked next to another airplane. Ignoring the chorus of passengers who cried out their loudest warnings in at least six different languages that he was to close, our driver kept going until his bus made glancing contact with the parked truck. Pausing only long enough to finally look in his side mirror while making his decision; our driver then proceeded forward, sideswiping his own bus with the corner of the parked truck from the middle of the left side all the way to the rear bumper. As he did this, the passengers, including the members of the Iranian Special Olympics team who were on our plane, cheered him on in their six languages, and they were joined by all the folks standing around outside on the tarmac. I can only imagine that not even the Caesars ever heard cheering like that during any of their triumphal returns in the old days.
The Iranian kids, by the way, were on their way home from Los Angeles where they took part in this year’s Special Olympics. L.A. had just hosted 6,500 Special Olympics athletes from 165 nations in 25 Olympic-type sporting events. The kids and their coaches and chaperones would be catching a connecting flight at Rome bound for Tehran and home. There’s nothing like an airline passenger cabin, especially on an international carrier like Alitalia to bring a group of diverse nationalities under one roof in a peaceful setting. After all, when you learn to line up at the door of an airliner’s lavatory and no fights break out, you can do the same thing at the U.N. Our world leaders should take note..
Today is a decompression day for me. Weeks of getting ready. Long flight. A full day lost – I left LAX on Tuesday, but didn’t get to Rome until Wednesday. Nine hour time difference. All the little Gremlins that go with a long trip. But it time out OK. By the time we had dinner and I got to bed, it was around midnight. So when I woke up this morning after nine hours of “Z,” my body clock had been completely fooled into thinking that I was acting normally. Jet lag on some of my past trips have left me loopy for days.
If you are wise enough not to overbook your vacation schedule on your trip, take a day or two just to relax and get acclimated to your new surroundings. I plugged in my laptop and established a good Wi-Fi connection, then I picked up my I-phone to call Liliana and check on my pooch, Lola. The message told me, “NO SERVICE!” Ever try to call your wireless carrier when your phone is out of order? I finally called ATT using Skype from my laptop to call their international number. It turned out that the genius in the “Customer Care” unit failed to restore my international cell phone services when I upgraded my phone last month. The problem was quickly fixed, but if I had just picked up and gone on with my touring, I might have missed that and wound up in real trouble.
This morning Laura headed off to work, and Mike and I chatted over coffee on his patio. They’re living in a new home this time. Their building backs up to an urban nature preserve near Fiumicino Airport and, not too far from where I had my apartment last time and in the same general area where they used to live. After lunch he headed off to lead a group of tourists on one of his famous “Crypts and Catacombs” tours. I’ll start tagging along with him in a day or so. That’s an interesting tour to remember, if you’re planning a Roman Holiday, another favorite of mine is Angels and Demons based on the Tom Hanks movie and the book by Dan Brown. Later in the week, it’s the day trip to Pompeii – always worth seeing a second time. Ostia Antica, the ancient seaport of the Roman Empire is right down the road from here. In fact, I could catch a bus there from the front of the building. But, in keeping with my “do nothing the first day of the trip” policy I am staying home with Sofia, il Cane famiglia! Sofia came to the airport with Mike and Laura to welcome me back to Rome. So far, so good. More domani!
©Mike Botula 2015
Festa! Festa! Festa! It's Summertime!
Diario di Roma II – Rome Diary 2!
Selci: On my Fifth Day - Festa! Festa! Festa!
Partly cloudy with Thundershowers, 93°F/34°C – Definitely August, already!
As my Alitalia 777 completed its first leg on my flight from LAX to Rome, it turned in a northeasterly direction over New York, and the animated map on the cabin’s front screen laid out my course across the North Atlantic: north to Nova Scotia, turning almost due east off Halifax and flying through the darkness at 550 mph until landfall over England at Land’s End just at sunrise. The map and the route looked very familiar to me. It was because it was the almost identical route taken by my father at this same time of year back in 1944! There was a difference, however. Our big Boeing jet was flying at nearly the speed of sound almost eight miles high over the North Atlantic. When Charlie Botula made the same crossing in August of 1944, his LST, the 920 was plodding along at about 9 or 10 miles an hour in Allied Convoy HXM 301 along with a thousand other ships. While my own singular discomfort was the Economy class seat I was trying to get comfortable in, my dad’s big worry on his trip was the prospect of sudden death by U boat from the German Wolf Packs that dogged his route across. His fears were not unfounded. In four days, I’ll be posting my annual memorial story about the torpedoing of his sister ship, the LST 921. So, more on that around the fourteenth.
When I departed Rancho Lost Musket, it was Tuesday morning. When our Alitalia 777 finally touched down at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, it was Wednesday afternoon. Michael, Laura and Sofia were right there outside of Customs waiting for me and ten minutes later we were at their new house. After getting me settled in Laura headed off to work and Michael and I chatted for a while before heading out to a location that every visitor to Rome should visit first, the Supermarket! My host was thinking that dinner might be nice, hence the quick trip to the market. I fell in love with the produce section! Not one genetically modified veggie in the lot. No pesticides! Everything sustainably grown. Vons and buying tomatoes that feel and look and taste like the ones you might grow in your home garden. You get to pick out your produce and then once it’s in the bag, you check the ID code on the price label…enter that number as you weigh it….and voilá! No harried checker fumbling with your produce at check-out time.
I always work a couple of days of down-time on a trip like this. So we really didn’t click into tourist mode until Friday. Michael was playing a gig at the Busker Festa in Tolfa, a medieval town northeast of Rome. Music and art is everywhere in Italy. Some of the most talented musicians and artists work right out in public on street corners or in the ubiquitous piazzale which can be found at frequent intervals in every town large and small. At the Busker Festa in Tolfa, there is a sound stage in every piazza in the town, and strolling musicians everywhere. We even saw two gals dancing on the side of a building up the street where we were dining. They had rigged mountain climbing gear so they could dance on the wall three stories above the street. Sidewalk artists and street vendors rounded out the scene. Food stands everywhere and every restaurant in town had tables outside. Mike left early with some of the musicians from his band, No Funny Stuff! for a sound check, even though they weren’t scheduled to play until midnight. Laura drove us out to meet the band for dinner before they went on. After a sumptuous repast in the balmy Tuscan evening, we hiked upward along narrow, winding cobblestone streets to the Piazza Bartoli, just in time to see a trio of female singers take the stage, and struggle through their first few numbers while the sound system squealed and crackled. I felt anxious for them, but fearful for No Funny Stuff! The ladies were quite good, and I counted at least four languages among the songs they sang. Looking at the time, I asked Michael if this happened a lot. He nodded, “an awful lot, but the audience will still be there,” he assured me. There was one more group before No Funny Stuff, Michael’s group, took the stage. By then it was almost two in the morning. Sure enough, the piazza was still packed. It was almost 3:30 in the morning before we headed down the hill toward our car. Wow! I thought to myself, “this old senior citizen is still partying, and it’s almost sunup. Gee! Back home they lock the front door after Bingo starts at 6! ”
Back to Rome for a good night’s sleep and then it’s up and get ready for our holiday in Sabina. Sunday, it’s off to Laura’s folks’ country house an hour north of Rome. Higher elevation, a little cooler and off to another Festa! Laura’s dad, Sergio Tomei is an avid hunter and his hunt club is putting on the annual Festa di Caccia! The hunter’s festival at the local fairgrounds. A team of avid cooks working on open bit barbecues are preparing the meats – cingale or wild boar, which is big in these parts, venison, goat, sheep and a few others that I’m sure got lost in translation. Pasta, greens, my choice is the mutton all served at long tables in front of the dance floor near the bandstand. What can I say? Not a night to start a diet, for sure. A fun time amidst a thousand of my new Italian friends. And the adventure is just getting under way!
© Mike Botula-2015
Up Stream From Roma - A Stroll In Sabina!
A Stroll Along Il Tevere!
Diario di Roma II: Rome Diary 2 – Settimana dué-Week #2!
Summer! 83°F/28°C in Roma
This morning we went for a walk along il fiume Tevere – the Tiber River as it runs through the Etruscan Valley on its way into Rome, where it becomes encased in stone and cement Los Angeles River-style; a long ago captive of an ancient flood control project. But here, out in the countryside, the Tiber flows serenely along as it meanders toward its ultimate destination – the Mediterranean.
Remember that Diane Lane movie Under the Tuscan Sun? Well, that’s the story of my life this week, only I’m in Sabina. Selci to be exact. Michael, Laura and I are “house-sitting” for her parents, Sergio and Annamaria Tomei, while Laura’s folks are – as they say in these parts – on holiday. The house sits near the top of a mountain overlooking a lush, green valley. The sunshine on the patio behind it is filtered through the top branches of the olive trees that dot the property. Once a year, Sergio gathers friends, family members and neighbors to help harvest the olives from his 80-some olive trees and trundles them into Selci to have them pressed into the most delectable olio olivo to ever cross my discerning palate.
It was my brother Packy, who introduced me to the Onion Theory of Stress Reduction many long years ago. Get far away from whatever is causing you stress and relax. The stress will fall away from you like layers from an onion that’s being peeled. Selci is the kind of place that does that for me. On our first night, Sergio invited us to the Caccia Festa. T’is the Festa season here in Italy. It’s summer time or estate. So there’s lots to celebrate. The Caccia Festa celebrates the hunt. So, it’s a giant barbecue at the local fairgrounds, complete with a band, dancing and long rows of tables to dine at. The grills are fired up early in the afternoon for all the roasting that has to be done. There’s wild boar, venison, grilled pork and goat, and of course grilled lamb. Pastas, salads and varieties of other vegetables, and plenty of fine local wines to wash it down with. It’s a giant picnic under summertime Sabina skies. The weather, which threatened at first to rain out the Festa passed by and left the crowd to enjoy the evening under partly cloudy but otherwise balmy skies. A perfect ending to a great first weekend for me in Italy. My “onion” was definitely getting peeled.
Sabina secured its place in history back in Rome’s early days, when the future center of civilization more closely resembled San Francisco during the Gold Rush of 1849. Remember your Gold Rush history? That’s when ambitious males from all over the world swarmed into California’s gold country to seek their fortune. Most of them found little treasure and almost zilch in the way of feminine companionship. So it was in Roma Antica. Now, depending on which account of The Rape of the Sabine Women that you’re familiar with - the accounts tend to vary. I prefer the Man Who Came to Dinner version, where a throng of young Roman males were invited to a Festa in Sabina, ate and drank their hosts out of house and home and then added insult to injury by carting off all the women in the province to become Roman brides. The Romans had indeed struck gold in this adventure, for to this day, Sabina boasts the loveliest damsels in all of Italy.
Now, I should mention the health plan that Mike and Laura have laid out for me on this trip to Italy. With the full knowledge that I am still recovering from major shoulder surgery and the replacement of my old and arthritic right shoulder joint with a spiffy new one of titanium and plastic, the kids have decided that I need to do a lot of walking. (Makes sense to me: Shoulder surgery – walking? Heck yeah!) And a low carb, high protein diet with lotsa salads and fresh fruit. My ten cup drip coffee maker has been replaced with one of those infernal Keurig contraptions that spits out one tiny, tiny cup of espresso in the morning. Italy has never heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act, although some of the big tourist hotels that cater to older Americans like me do have lots of ramps and extra elevators and blue curbs out front. But Sabina has medieval towns with lots of steep grades and hills and stairs and steps everywhere else. So, a casual afternoon stroll for me, is the equivalent of what my grandson Joshua faced every day at Marine boot camp when he ran the Grinder. For me in Italy, Josh’s full battle pack is the extra 25 pounds I know I’m going to lose on this trip, trying to keep up with Michael and Laura on their daily walks. Walk or die! Must be a slogan in the Italian lifestyle manual. There are no obvious alternatives for hypochondriacs like me. Monday, Michael and Laura took me on a walking tour of Old Selci. Along steep, narrow streets and up and down steeper and narrower stairways we made our way through the old city. When I stopped to catch my breath from time to time, I could practically hear the slap of sandals from the Roman legionnaires marching behind us. And, I certainly felt grateful as I looked up from the narrow streets we were walking, knowing that the residents no longer threw their garbage and the household night soil down on the street below to be flushed away by the first rainfall. Finally, when I thought I could not take one more step, we found ourselves in a piazza at the top of the hill where we stopped at a beckoning bar for a well-earned aperativo. More on my Italian adventure- domani!
©Mike Botula 2015
A Week In The Country!
Diario di Roma II: Rome Diary 2
Sunny 81°F/27°C in Roma
Monday August 17, 2015
I realized after the first few days, when I was dealing with my jet lag, that I would quickly lose track of what day it happened to be. On my current sojourn in Italy, I will be lucky if Mike or Laura think to remind me what day my return flight to California is leaving Rome. Laura’s parents’ country home In Selci has but one DSL internet connection in the study upstairs. So, I’m not spending a whole lot of time on the internet on this trip. Maybe when I get back to Rome, and Michael and Laura’s wi-fi, I’ll get caught up on my email and peruse my Facebook page. As far as news from back home, Michael and Laura’s other houseguest, Rocky, did bring a two-day old copy of the International Edition of the New York Times with him. I must say that from this distance, reading about the American Presidential election campaign, especially the GOP primary race, reminds me of watching a re-run of the old “Gong Show.” Now that Berlusconi is no longer the star of Italian politics, the best political entertainment value for the folks around here seems to be the Donald Trump Presidential epic. I find I’m really enjoying the time out.
Laura and Michael invited me along while they are house-sitting for her folks, who have gone on their holiday to Calabria. So, for the past week, we have been ensconced in Sergio and Annamaria’s home in Selci, about an hour north of Rome in Sabina. The area was first settled by the ancient Etruscans some 2,000 years ago. The Etruscans were soon displaced by the upstart Romans and quickly disappeared. The adjacent state of Tuscany takes its name from the former inhabitants, the Etruscans. That’s another reason, I find it distracting to make the effort to remember today’s date – there is so much history here in Italy, that it’s much easier to think in terms of past millennia than to remember what happened last Tuesday. Here’s an example of that.
Yesterday, we went on a drive north to Umbria and a visit to the ancient walled city of Bagnoregio, which is connected to an even more ancient fortified town called Civita, which is perched high atop a peak of volcanic tufa. The two towns are connected only by a long land bridge. Civita sits in splendid isolation in the valley like some land-locked version of Mont St. Michel, off the coast of France. The city was first built more than a thousand years ago. Gradually the land around it eroded, leaving the city stranded high atop the remnants of the long-dead volcanic peak, and its political prominence eclipsed by its neighbor, Bagnoregio. Now, Civita has only 25 or so permanent residents.
Considering the relaxed pace my life has taken this week, it would seem to be a simple task to remember which day I did what. But, that is the infectious aspect of life in the Sabina countryside. No one seems to be in a hurry about anything. Last Friday, we drove to Tolfa for the music and art festa. Michael’s new band, No Funny Stuff, was on the stage in a piazza near the highest point in the ancient walled village. The next evening, when we first arrived in Selci for our weeklong Sabina holiday, the Caccia Festa awaited us. Laura’s mom and dad had invited us to the big community barbecue at the Selci fairgrounds. There must have been a thousand people dining under the stars and long picnic tables set up in front of the dance pavilion and bandstand.
Another day, the highlight was a long hike along the Tiber River. Sabina is way upstream from Rome, and on the summer morning that we took our stroll, il Tevere was meandering along on its way to Rome and the Mediterranean beyond. It was a beautiful warm, sun-drenched summer morning. A beautiful time for a long walk beside the river. Still another day, we lounged around home for most of the day and then hopped in the car for a short drive into the old part of Selci. After a stroll through the old part of town, which involved narrow cobblestone streets and narrow twisting stairways, we emerged in a piazza at the very top of the town to find an inviting bar. It was our reward for the hard work of walking around the town. A welcome respite following a rather challenging walk. As we sipped our aperitivos, we watched the sun set over the hills across the valley. And, still another night, we piled in the car after dinner and headed off to another ancient town, and in the piazza in front of a 12th century church, enjoyed an ice cream while listening to a live band playing on the front steps of the church. People from the surrounding town all congregated in the piazza to sip coffee or enjoy and ice cream or just socialize with their friends and neighbors in the town square.
By American suburban standards Selci Antica would be pre-historic. Imagine, if you can, the idea of renting an apartment in a building that has been continuously occupied for 1,200 years! If that idea appeals to you, I’d be happy to introduce you to Luciana, who lives next door here in Selci. Luciana and her husband own an adjacent resort. She refers to it as a Bed and Breakfast. I would describe it as a palazzo, or at the very least, a resort. It boasts a mansion and a cluster of other buildings, mostly cottages for those folks who want more privacy. Oh, yes. And, a stable whose primary occupant is a quite vocal mule. (Sorry, I didn’t catch his name, but he looks every inch a Democrat).
The balmy summer evenings lend themselves well to outdoor barbecuing. I think that next to his music, Michael’s favorite pastime is barbecuing. Their new home in Rome has a backyard and outdoor patio where a barbecue grill permanently resides. And here in Selci there is a grill right alongside the outbuilding that houses a country cucina, or kitchen entirely separate from the kitchen in the main house. It even has a full wood-fired pizza oven. An outside table under a grape arbor with a full crop of uvas provides the perfect setting for dining al fresco. For dessert, fresh fruit plucked right from Sergio’s many vines and fruit trees.
This has turned into a very different kind of visit than what I had originally though it would be. This first full week is a classic Italian style holiday for me, an alien concept for most Americans, who’ve seen their hard earned annual vacations eroded into oblivion over the past few decades. Italians and other Europeans are still able to savor their annual summer holidays to refresh family ties, and recharge their emotional and spiritual batteries. The holiday is definitely a key element of the European concept of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. And, I’m all for it, even if it means interrupting my retirement and flying in steerage for 6,000 miles to enjoy it for myself! More on this a domani!
©Mike Botula 2015
When "The Big One" Hit Pompeii!
My Happy Journey to Montecassino, Pompeii and Vesuvius!
Diario di Roma II: Rome Diary 2
Monday August 24, 2015
Cooler- Partly Cloudy 84°F/29°C in Roma
To me, that white plaster figure of the boy praying is the perfect metaphor of the tragedy of Pompeii! The statue is an actual casting of the void of the young man who was vaporized in the heat and deadly gases released by Monte Vesuvio in 79 A.D. To an old newsman like me who has seen his fair share of death and destruction first hand, even a 2,000 year old tragedy still gets to me. Pompeii is not a place to visit if you are a person suffering with PTSD. Especially if you are an animal lover like me.
Funny thing about tourists! They’ll travel the world over in their never-ending search for interesting ways to be entertained. My own travel horizons have broadened considerably since my mom and dad piled my kid brother Packy and I into the family’s pre-World War 2 Plymouth and chugged merrily along from New York to Pittsburgh along the Pennsy Turnpike. Dang! I loved those stops at Howard Johnsons’- 28 flavors of ice cream and those heavenly fried clams!
Now, a lot of vacationers travel to places to see where disaster struck on a grand scale – like the great battlefields, or the sites of major natural disasters. And so it was on this, my fourth visit to Italy that I returned to Pompeii last Friday, along with about 25,000 new friends from all over the world. If your tourist delights are motivated even slightly by tragedy and disaster, Pompeii is a dandy spot to add to your bucket list! Just imagine an 8,500 hundred foot mountain blowing it’s top and totally snuffing out two bustling cities under tons of volcanic ash, and killing thousands of their inhabitants, and then making those cities disappear for 1,500 years. That’s what happened to Pompeii and Herculaneum.
According to the accounts by Pliny the Younger, in A.D. 79 there was a devastating volcanic eruption by the formerly 8,500 foot high Monte Vesuvio, which completely covered the bustling port city of Pompeii along with its sister city Herculaneum. Even today mere words fail to describe the explosive force of the eruption. Superlatives like Plinian and pyroclastic are used along with 100,000 times the force of the Hiroshima Atom Bomb. Today, Vesuvius is but a shell of its former self, at 3,500 feet high. But, if it were to explode again, more than three million people would be threatened: the entire city of Naples and its environs, not just the estimated 16,000 who died in ancient times. Buried under volcanic ash for centuries, the city is a prehistoric insect in amber, caught in in a time capsule made of volcanic ash and lava. The victims, for the most part died quickly, asphyxiated by the volcano’s noxious fumes and encased in super-heated ash, which left an empty space that archaeologists wisely filled with plaster to recreate the human forms within.
In its time, Pompeii was a bustling port city, and for the sailors who visited, it enjoyed a reputation as a world class Liberty Port, with numerous public baths, wine purveyors, restaurants, and of course bordellos. Our local guide, Giorgio, explained to us that the bordellos are among the most popular attractions in the city. One reason for that is the erotic art that is displayed in Pompeii’s red light district. As Giorgio explained to us liberty port neophytes, the sailors who visited here centuries ago hailed from many countries, and as he said with tongue planted firmly in cheek, they couldn’t always read his establishment’s “menu of delights.” So, just like a modern fast food joint, the menus were mainly pictures. I wasn’t thinking so much about the menu as I was wondering what a romantic encounter on a masonry bed was like. Yikes! Did Roman bordellos have chiropractors on staff for the girls and their clients? Or was a hot soak at the baths next door enough to get rid of the kinks? Much of Pompeii’s erotica has been moved to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. In fact, if it’s prurient interest that’s prompted your visit, you always have the option of passing on the tour and just going straight to the museum.
My Michael the Younger, had me set my alarm for 5 a.m., so we could catch the City Wonders Pompeii tour bus by 7:30 a.m. at Il Piazza del Popolo. Mike was herding a group of 15 of us. The other guide, Amanda, had another group of 15 or on our tour bus. Now, I’ve already described how Italians behave behind the wheel of their cars. But, an Italian at the wheel of a 65-passenger autobus is a true craftsman of the sublime art of driving, and our Antonio was a true Michelangelo behind the wheel. Off we sailed along the Via Salaria, headed south toward Naples and Pompeii, with a coffee break at the foot of the Abbey of Montecassino. The mountain top Benedictine abbey was the scene of the notorious Allied bombing in 1944, which completely destroyed the 12th century original. Fortunately, the German forces who occupied the surrounding territory had moved the abbeys priceless art and antiquities to the Vatican for safekeeping. The abbey itself was rebuilt stone by stone after the war, and its priceless artifacts returned to the abbey. More than 100,000 casualties from both sides resulted from the Battle of Montecassino.
At Pompeii, our City Wonders tour leaders, Michael and Amanda turned us over to Giorgio, a third generation Pompeiian for the honor of showing us around his home town. That’s the way things work around Pompeii. Guiding tourists is a family business in these parts. But, Giorgio spoke excellent English and he was obviously enthused about showing people around his home town. After the tour – lunch before heading up Vesuvius and a chance to hike to the top to check out the mountain’s huge crater and speculate on future eruptions. After a morning of hobbling along Pompeii’s cobblestone streets and clambering up and down endless stairs, I opted for a cool drink and a chair overlooking the Bay of Naples. On the bus ride back, we made another stop at Montecassino where Mike and Amanda promised us more time for souvenir shopping. Then, back on the bus with our final destination, the Piazza del Popolo, where we had started out 13 hours before. Later this week, another ancient city trapped in a time warp, Ostia Antica, Rome’s ancient seaport. More on that and other adventures in a few days.
©Mike Botula 2015
Take Your Dad to Work Day - Ostia Antica!
Fast Train to Ostia Antica
Diario di Roma II: Rome Diary 2
Friday August 28, 2015
Sunny and Pleasant 86°F/30°C in Roma
As our tour group was forming up in front of the Metro station at Piramidé, I found myself musing over the length of time I’ve been in Rome on my current trip. Gee, Mikey! You’ve been here almost a month, now. Beginning to feel almost a native are you? And, just as that “thought balloon” was forming, the nice lady from Atlanta turned to me and said, Pahdon me, suh! But, do y’all speak English? Now, I could have been a total wise-ass, and replied, Non parlo l’Inglese! And I have done that in Spanish, French, German and Italian. But, this lady was well mannered, and had inquired in that warm Southern drawl that had Georgia peach written all over it. Yes, ma’am. I do speak English. Can I help you? I had remembered, too, that my son, Michael, was our guide for this trip to the ancient Roman seaport of Ostia Antica. So, even by association, I also represented City Wonders Tours. My word! You not only speak English, but you speak it beautifully! Ah can’t detect a smidgen of any accent. Wheah are y’all from? The lady from Atlanta had just made my day. She had mistaken me for an Italian. California, ma’am! Southern California to be exact.
I’ll get to today’s ancient ruins in just a moment. But, first, I want to take note of the fact that Ancient Roma, founded on April 21st 753 AD by Romulus and Remus, is one of the world’s top attractions for American tourists. Chances are, when you come to Rome, you will run into someone who lives right down the street from you. Or is from the same home town. Or knows someone you used to work with. So, if you really want to get away from home and those pesky relatives or neighbors, book a flight to Baluchistan!
Now, back to today’s ancient ruins, as we visit the ancient lost city of Ostia Antica, which is a quick light rail excursion from the center of Rome to a point near il Fiume Tevere, the Tiber River, and the Mediterranean. Not long after April 21st 753 AD, as Rome began to expand, it began trading with folks up and down the length of the Italian peninsula and with the coastal cities the length and breadth of Mare Nostrum. Ostia Antica, or ancient Ostia became Rome’s major seaport, until Rome fell, the Tiber changed course and the shoreline moved away and the place became a ghost town. Then the city was covered up by the mud and silt from the Tiber over the ensuing centuries. Eventually, it was Benito Mussolini, attempting to recapture the grandeur of ancient Rome, who focused a massive public works project to restore the ancient port city. Today, Ostia Antica is a spectacular example of the glory of the Roman Empire. And, instead of a full day bus trip to Pompeii, the spectacle is but a half hour train trip from the heart of Rome.
A short walk from the Ostia Antica train stop brings you to the ancient city’s necropolis, just outside the main gate. Here is where some Californian no doubt got the bright idea for Forest Lawn. It is Ostia Antica’s City of the Dead, the cemetery, which by Roman law is located outside the city so the living can avoid the odors, and the smoke from funeral pyres, and also avoid the shadow people or ghosts that haunt every cemetery. Michael has loaned all of us a small wireless receiver and headset, so we can better hear his commentary and still wander away from our intrepid guide to better explore the city. It is a fascinating place, and my son has told me a number of times that it’s one of his favorite tours. Now, it’s also become one of mine, too.
In a total role reversal, these tours of the Italian countryside, have become for Michael and I, a sort of Take Your Father to Work Day! When he was little, I’d wait until the news director was out of town, and as a special treat take him or his sister Dana with me as I combed Los Angeles for top stories as a field reporter for KTLA. That way Mike and Dana could rush home at the end of my shift and call their friends so they could tell them first what stories would be on Hal Fishman’s Ten O’clock News. Now, that my little boy is all growed up and working in one of the most fascinating cities in the world, I’m more than content to tag along and go to work with him. As his dad, it’s a treat for me to watch him in action. And, I have no compunctions about plugging his company, City Wonders!
So, with a gentle lurch as our train pulled out and Mike’s standard comment that it had left on time, thanks to Benito Mussolini, we head out of Rome bound for the ancient port of Ostia Antica. On the way Michael regaled his audience with his own spiel about the history of the city we would soon be walking through. The wireless headsets give his comments the sound and feel of a personal conversation in a “back home” American accent– one to one – with your personal tour guide.
In Rome, one is surrounded by history. And, in these parts, history runs deep. Michael likes to tell his audiences that Rome is a historical lasagna- layer upon layer of history. Where modern day Americans simply replace every building more than twenty years old. (Or so it seems). The ancients simply built on top of whatever was there. It’s not uncommon in these parts to find buildings that have been continuously occupied for a thousand years or more. A walk along just about any street in Rome will put you twenty or thirty feet above the street level in Julius Caesar’s time. In Ostia Antica, for example, a walk along the main street is like a trip nowadays to the Mall of America. There are restaurants, and markets, granaries and bakeries with goods brought in from the length and breadth of the Roman Empire, all flowing through the bustling port city we are visiting today. For entertainment, there are amphitheaters whose acoustics are still so excellent that a song or dramatic line done on stage in a whisper can be heard far away in the nosebleed seats. At one end of the forum, the Temple of Jupiter reaches into the sky behind a massive altar. Jupiter is the Roman name for the Greek God Zeus. The ancient Romans, it seems, were not above a little repackaging on a lot of fronts.
As we began our walk through the Necropolis, the city’s cemetery, I noticed an attractive young woman with a professional grade Nikon camera taking more than tourist caliber snapshots. I had spent too long as a newsman, and later as a press secretary, not to recognize another pro in the field. This gal was good. Her focus was on our guide, and the smiling tourists who were obviously enjoying themselves in these ancient surroundings. (Oh! And, did I mention that she was gorgeous?) A little while later, as we walked to the next point of interest, I asked Michael if he had a company photographer along for some publicity shots or if he had a travel writer in his group, ghost writing for Rick Steves. Nothing like that, Pop! Her name is Valentina. She’s one of my students! She’s not a travel writer. She just likes to take pictures. I was incredulous. And, what, pray tell can a fellow like you, teach someone like her? He smiled. English, Dad! Remember what I told you about my other job – teaching English to Italian business people at multinational corporations? Well, Valentina works for one of my clients. With that, Michael introduced us. Fortunately for me, Michael has done a better job of teaching Valentina English than I have done learning Italian. She had come along on the tour to practice her photography and to see how Michael handles a multilingual tour group which helps fulfill her language credit. And, in my conversation with the two of them, a plan began to form in my feeble mind – I will find a way to move to Rome, and get better acquainted with my new surroundings and start a new career at the same time by exchanging English lessons for Italian lessons.
PS: Since you are kind enough to follow my exploits on my website, I should also mention that these stories are also on Facebook and my blog – mikebotula.blogspot.com! As we say in Roma Antica, A più tardi! See you later!
©Mike Botula 2015
Counting Down to Wheels Up 2! Ten Days to Go!
Diario di Roma II: Rome Diary 2
Sunday September 7, 2015
Sunny 80°F/28°C in Roma
As we shared our morning coffee and a few father and son talking points, Michael and I suddenly realized that my sojourn in Italy, like my entire life, is closer to its end than its beginning. Damn! It’s been a great trip. And there’s a lot more to go before I head back to California and Lola my poodle’s wagging tail. Tuesday, Michael, Laura and I board a train for fabled Venice and a three day visit to the northern part of Italy. We’ll return to Rome by the weekend, and I’ll start to wrap things up for the long flight back. But, I’m sure that in the short time remaining, there will be a new adventure or two, and more pleasant surprises.
Now, you may have noticed that my Rome Diary II (2 in Italian is pronounced – dué, or doo-way). Diario di Roma Dué. It is not intended to be a Rick Steves knock-off. I’m not auditioning to be the next stellar travel writer. It’s just what its title implies, a journal kept by a solo wanderer. Random notes on a long journey. (LAX to Roma is 6400 miles). I’ll share more of my reflections after I get back, but for the present let me catch you up on the last ten days or so. This trip I brought my own laptop and my new I-phone, so I could keep things on the home front running smoothly in my absence. But, I have been hampered somewhat by difficult internet connections and a temperamental computer. (Gawd! I can’t wait to upload Windows 10). That’s why the Diary digressed into a series of Facebook posts uploaded from my trusty I-phone. I captured the return to Selci and the adventure we had strolling through the Farfa Abbey and Rocchettine. Now, picture this- in 1621 when the Pilgrims and the Indians were trying to figure out the menu for the first Thanksgiving dinner, the Orsini family was remodeling their mountain top fortress village. The village has had people living in it for over a thousand years. Can you imagine the benefits if they had rent controlled apartments in 1175 A.D.?
Since I left California back in August I’ve renewed old friendships and made new ones. Let me digress at this point to share a family adventure. My grandfather, Karel Botula came to the states from what is now the Czech Republic in 1903. He and my grandmother, Johana raised nine children and the Botulas “begat and begat” as the Bible says, into a very large family whose younger members are looking back to their roots and re-establishing connections. (Nothing like two world wars to disrupt family togetherness). So, after talking to my older cousin Bernie Botula’s own grandson, Jeffrey, who has actually visited two prominent members of the Botula clan at their home in the old country, I set out to make my own connection. Michael and I were hoping to be able to fly to Prague for a reunion. (“Gee, dad! Prague is only a two hour flight from Rome.”) Alas, that was not to be, but Jeffrey did put me in touch with Alice Bolfova, a family friend who helped arranged his meeting with Jiri Botula Sr. and Jiri Botula, Jr. Alas, we were daunted by travel logistics and language barriers. The Czech Botulas don’t know English and I don’t speak Cestina! As it is, I need to spend a lot more time on my Italian. So, the new family reunion will have to wait until my next trip back. Alice has very graciously agreed to stay in touch and help me to communicate with the family in the Czech Republic. So, we are now solid Facebook friends. The new friendship will enable her to practice her English and allow me to become better acquainted with my grandfather’s native tongue, Czech. This will help me become inept in a total of five languages – Spanish, French, German, Italian and now Czech.
Speaking of new Facebook Friends, remember the lovely lady that I met on Michael’s Ostia Antica tour? Valentina? It turned out that this pretty and intrepid photographer is one of Mike’s English students. I had her figured as a professional travel photographer, what with the big Nikon and all. But, she’s really a human resources manager for a major auto leasing company here…and also committed, according to junior. Drat! Such a pretty smile, and, those big brown eyes! But, on Facebook at least, I have a new friend! I’ve also reconnected with a groups of expatriates that I first met on my visit here almost two years ago. The other Americans that I met during that trip tended to be from either New York, where I grew up, or from California where I’ve spent the bulk of my life. Add in the Brits, a sprinkling of French, Irish and other nationalities and it all added up to a group of good friends from places other than Italy. The common denominator was that we all spoke English. Having lived in New York and San Francisco and a couple of other international cities, I have felt right at home with these folks from the get-go. It all goes to show you that you never know where you will meet your next new friend.
My other sojourn…to Amsterdam…concerned a friendship of a totally different sort than the Facebook variety. Joan and I had been teenaged sweethearts back in our home town high school days, so many years ago that I tremble at the sheer number of passing years, and think, most people don’t live as long as the time since Joan and I were dating! Our romance came to an end several months after she graduated from high school and headed to the big city, on a full scholarship to N.Y.U. (Oh, did I happen to mention that she was not only drop dead gorgeous, but brilliant, too!) At seventeen she spoke French well enough to interpret the menu at Paul’s Rendezvous, our local French restaurant. She loved not only classical music but, more importantly where I was concerned – Jazz. In fact when I caught up with her on the Veerstraat, she showed me the Frank Sinatra album I gave her for her 18th birthday. Yes, there was a lot of water under the bridge since the last time we saw each other. In fact, as we chatted on the canal boat tour of Amsterdam, we figured that we had last actually seen each other in 1964, a mere 51 years! In its day, it had been, as Sinatra had crooned, A Fine Romance, but now, as we both discovered, long after our parting, there remained a great and enduring friendship. Just before I got into the airport cab, we hugged and I said, Look at it this way, my dear, we are the only two still standing! We were together back then, and now after all this time, we are still here! Go figure!
©Mike Botula 2015
Nightmare at 40,000 Feet, or the Gremlin in 29G!
Diario di Roma II (Rome Diary 2)
Sunday September 20, 2015
Sunny 79°F/ 31°C in Roma
Cloudy, showers 88°F/31°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
Remember that old Twilight Zone episode with William Shatner and that Gremlin outside his window on the airliner? Well I had my own Gremlin to deal with on my Alitalia flight back from Rome. But my Gremlin wasn’t outside on the wing staring me down through the window. No, this guy was sitting right next to me for the whole 12 hour and 15 minute flight from Fiumicino to LAX. He was an Economy class passenger’s worst nightmare.
I had dutifully gone on line 24 hours in advance to check in and get my boarding pass, but while Alitalia has my aisle seat preference in my traveler’s profile, the only aisle seat open was in the very last row, row 29. I tried to change it later in the day hoping for a cancellation, to no avail. I even asked at the check-in counter when I dropped off my suitcase. No more aisle seats. So, I had no choice but to be resigned to sitting for twelve hours in a seat that did not recline, right next to the lavatories. It got worse, quickly. As I boarded the plane and approached my seat, I could see this rather corpulent gentleman in the adjacent seat. His right arm resting on my vacant seat and part of his ample belly flowing over the arm rest. Buongiorno! Scusa! Con Permesso! I said in Italian, getting an angry glare in return. I gave him a moment to withdraw from my space so I could sit down, and then slid into the seat and buckled my seatbelt. While he no longer flowed over the arm rest, his arm was clamped in a death grip so I couldn’t even share it. As we took off and climbed to cruising altitude, he kept pressing into my space, first with his right knee and then with his right arm. Each time, I responded with a Scusa! (Excuse me). All I got in return was a death stare. You know, the kind of look that Michael Corleone gave Fredo. Now, I will pause to explain that I don’t normally waste time in my blogs with horror stories. I had too many good experiences on my six weeks in Italy, but, a guy like this can really ruin your whole day. This is also not a kvetch at Alitalia either. I was happy to get a non-stop flight both ways on this trip. No, this has nothing to do with business, this is personal!
The guy was a real, to use an old Yiddish term, a noodge! His knee and his arm were in constant encroachment mode. He would squirm and then settle down for a moment and then start squirming again, trying to secure more room for himself in his narrow Economy class seat (at my expense, of course). I resisted his moves at every turn. Finally, just when I thought he realized that I had set my boundaries, he settled down. After a moment, he cocked his arm and gave me a hard, deliberate, stiff elbow in my ribs. No, accident here. It was premeditated! Mr. Docile here responded with his own elbow thrust in return. And as I unloaded some of the language I picked up from my new Sicilian friends, cocked my new titanium right arm and waved a fist at him. It was Katie bar the door, when Grasso’s wife interceded and persuaded him to behave himself. I thanked her and returned to my book while visions of an emergency landing in Mϋnchen and the Polizei dragging us both off the plane receded from my mind. Once we landed and cleared customs, things got a lot better. I had booked an airport car service to get me to and from LAX. Traffic was light and after a relaxing two hour drive to my home, things were looking much better. I fervently hope that the guy with the roaming elbow next to me on the flight has a perfectly rotten visit in California.
So, my final comment on this subject…if you ever get on a plane and Grasso is pouring over your armrest, run for the jetway before they shut the door. I’m posting his picture as a public service. Study the “selfie” I took of us, and if you ever see him on your flight, head for the exit. I feel better now that I’ve vented! Besides, for a journalist, the pen is mightier than an elbow.
© By Mike Botula 2015
Diario di Roma 2: Riflessioni su un viaggio fantastico!
Diario di Roma II (Rome Diary 2)
Wednesday September 23, 2015
Cloudy 75°F/24°C in Roma
Sunny 84°F/29°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
Translated, the title reads Reflections on a Fantastic Journey! It’s true. This six week sojourn in Europe has been one of the most incredible trips I’ve ever taken. It was much more than a vacation for me. Much, much more. And, it’s a challenge for me to reduce what amounts to a spiritual journey to mere words. So, I’d like you to consider this blog my summation. I will be sharing other articles in the coming weeks. It was quite a trip – Rome, of course, my new second home; a return to Pompeii; Sabina, where ancient Roman swains went hunting for girls; a 280 kilometer per hour (168 mph) high speed train trip to one of the most incredible cities in the world – Venice; and then a side trip to Amsterdam for a romantic tour of the city’s canals with a one time teenage sweetheart. Also on the travel plan were short trips to some historic and colorful places like the medieval villages of Tolfa, Bagnoregio and Civita, Rocchetine, and the oldest part of Selci, in Sabina.
After a few weeks “in-country,” (as my kid brother used to say back in the days when he was flying for the Air Force to help make Vietnam safe for democracy), the pace picked up considerably and I found that I wasn’t able to find the time to write as many blogs as I had wanted to. I also had to deal with some technical challenges as far as staying connected to the internet. So, I resorted to pictures and short blurbs created on my I-phone uploaded to my Facebook time line. (God bless Jobs and Wozniak for that). That worked just fine, and I want to thank everybody who took the time to comment or click the “Like” button. It wasn’t just a vacation for me. It was much, much more…
My primary guides on the venture were my son, Michael and his lovely wife Laura. The more time I spend with them on my visits, the more I understand why my boy went to Europe on a vacation about 18 years ago and never returned to California. Laura is a treasure, and so are her folks, Sergio and Anna Maria, and her sister Chiara.
Speaking of guides, I can’t advise any traveler with Italy in their sights too strongly about having the foresight to book some guided tours to enhance the experience. Since Michael works for City Wonders Tours (www.CityWonders.com), I must admit to being a bit prejudiced. During my stay, Michael invited me to go along every day he worked. First up was Crypts and Catacombs. It’s a tour of Roma’s underground. The catacombs just over the Aurelian wall is an ancient burial place dating back to Pagan times. The crypts are near the center of the city, where the bones of the Capuchin monks who worked there are displayed in five crypts well under the ground floor of the church. If you take the tour of the crypts, please give my regards to Alba, the museum gift shop’s manager. The monks themselves do not handle money. It’s part of their vows. So, the lovely Alba supervises the business end of the museum gift shop. Next was a half hour train trip to the ancient port city of Ostia Antica, which boasts some of the best preserved ruins dating back to Etruscan times in pre-Romulus and Remus Roma. I recommend the Ostia Antica visit as an alternative to Pompeii for vistors who may be pressed for time. Pompeii is a highlight of any visit to Italy, but it involves a day-long bus trip to an from Rome. That may be too much for tourists on a tight schedule, but Ostia Antica is right down the street.
Out of the month-and-a-half that I spent there, Michael and Laura took me out to the folks “country home” in Selci, where we spent a full week on one trip….and five days on another. That gave us the base camp for visits to nearby Medieval Villages like ancient Selci, Bagnoregio and Civita, and the town and castles at Rochettine. Some of these walled towns have had people living in them for a thousand years or more. One of my very favorite places to visit in the 6th century Farfa Abbey, which was upgraded in the 12th century and is even now undergoing a restoration. On my first visit to Farfa, I had just taken a seat in one of the pews to rest and take in the beauty when I heard the tinkle of bells announcing the beginning of mass. As the procession led by a line of altar boys escorting the priest into the sanctuary, I couldn’t help but ponder that the Benedictine monks of this abbey have been doing this for the last thousand years. What a sense of order and continuity! I felt very much at peace as I took this all in. A brief stop at the abbey’s herb and gift shop later gave me the opportunity to purchase four jars of what the abbey’s gardens are famous for – the honey gathered by the monks who tend the abbey’s fields.
Now, I think I’mentioned that I will be writing longer blog pieces over the next few months about my trip, focusing more on specific places and events. But, even this summary would fall short if I didn’t offer a little more detail about the trip that really turned out to be a highlight of my whole adventure. That would be our three days in Venice. Talk about a city where you need to book a tour. There’s no way around it, unless you want to spend your time in Venice feeding the pigeons in Piazza San Marcos. And, here, I want to tip my hat to three outstanding lady guides Agy, Cristina and Luanna.
Our first tour took us to St. Mark’s Square and a behind the scenes look at the Doge’s palace, and a chilling glimpse of the justice system in the world’s oldest and longest surviving republic, 1200 years. Agy regaled us with the truth behind Casanova’s jailbreak (tall tale), Lord Byron “skinny-dipping” in the Grand Canal and his naming of The Bridge of Sighs. It seems his Lordship paid to spend a night in the cell that once held the legendary libertine, Casanova so he could write about him. From his cell, Lord Byron could hear the moaning and wailing of the convicts as they were taken across the bridge to their cells in the new prison. Hence, The Bridge of Sighs. The next night, Luanna led us on an evening walk through the city streets. The tour ended with a thirty minute ride in a gondola. Hot dawg, I got to ride in a gondola. (Accent on the first syllable. It’s not a Gon-DO-La! The driver is a Gondolieri, which rhymes with Carabinieri.) On our third day we met Cristina, our guide for the Venice island tour of Murano and Burano. Murano is world famous for its hand-blown glass. Burano is famous for the complex lacework done by the ladies on the island. Burano is also well known for the colorful look of its buildings. Cristina explained that the local fishermen were in the habit of stopping by their favorite dockside pubs on their way from their daily fishing forays, and quite often got so inebriated they wandered into the wrong house on their way home, resulting in the sailors hooking up with the wrong spouse. (Catch my drift?). So to maintain domestic tranquility, the people of Burano each came up with a unique, bright color for their homes, so the sailor coming home from the sea at the end of a busy day of fishing would go to the right house. I don’t think I would ever heard that story, if Cristina, who is a native of Venice and knows the city’s history well, hadn’t been the guide on our tour.
Well, there’s more but I’ll save details for future posts, so I’ll just wrap up this reflection with a word or two about our train trip from Roma to Venezia and back. Our high speed train got us there in about four hours. At the front of our coach was a lighted screen that kept us apprised of our stops, whether or not we were on schedule, and a constant read-out of our speed. On our way back, we had been advised that our train was running a bit behind schedule. After we left Firenze (Florence to you gringos), I sensed that the engineer was beginning to seriously put his peddle to the metal. Our speed climbed from 200 km/hr (120 mph) up to 260 km/hr (156 mph) then coasting up through 270 km/hr…280….290… and finally settling down at an even 300 km/hr. That’s 180 miles an hour on any pocket calculator. Through the window, I could see us zipping past the cars on the adjacent autostrade like they were standing still. I couldn’t help but think about rush hour back in California on the San Diego Freeway, or the four hour and 20 minute Amtrak ride from LA to San Diego, less than a hundred miles. When we finally pulled in to Rome’s Termini station, we were actually ahead of schedule. This in a country where Mussolini no longer has a say in the trains running on time.
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© By Mike Botula 2015
Diario di Roma 2: The Memories Linger On!
Diario di Roma Dué (Rome Diary 2)
Tuesday October 27, 2015
Partly Sunny 70°F/21°C in Roma
Partly Sunny 82°F/ 28°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
To borrow a Mark Twain quote from our home page here at www.mikebotula.com... “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
I heartily second that motion, Sam! Travel has definitely changed my personal outlook on the world for the better. I’ve also watched changes in the outlooks of my fellow landsmen after they’ve been on the road to far away places. Travel has certainly broadened my son’s outlook. Michael went to London in his twenties, met a pretty girl from Rome, and not only is still there, but applying for citizenship. Laura and her family made him feel welcome, taught him Italian, and a few days ago he called me and asked “dear old dad” to FedEx him his birth certificate to complete his Italian citizenship application. (I kind of figured this might happen when he came home from his “holiday” showed his mom and I a picture of Laura, packed the rest of his clothes and went right back to Rome). Now I see more of him when I travel to Rome myself.
The first time I landed at Fiumicino International, a whole new world was waiting for me. Now, on each succeeding touchdown I feel more like I’m coming home again. The city has really grown on me, especially after my last visit, when I moved into my own little studio apartment and became part of a new neighborhood. In August when Michael and I drove past my old apartment building in Mostacciano, I asked him to check with my former landlord on any vacancies when I come back the next time. With each visit, Michael and Laura introduce me to new places and new people all over Italy. On the last trip, in 2013, we went to Pompeii, Napoli and Firenze (Florence). The trip to Florence introduced me to the wonderful world of high speed train service. Roma to Firenze in an hour-and-a half. Then, we walked the streets where the Medici’s presided at the dawn of the Renaissance. We toured the Uffizi, the stupendous art gallery that was once the corporate world headquarters of La Famiglia de Medici and walked across il Ponte Vecchio, a 14th century Florentine slaughterhouse that is now one of Europe’s most famous market places for gold and silver artifacts and jewelry. We toured il Duomo, the famous cathedral, where I bought several watercolors to adorn the walls of my home back in California.
I learned to get around town on Rome’s modern Metro, and unscrambled the mysteries of the Atac transit system’s network of bus lines. I went to the market on my own, weighed and tagged my produce for the checker, and bagged my own groceries while transacting all of my business in Euros. ATM’s in Rome work just like the ones in San Francisco, and so do our credit cards. Travelers checks are almost a mere curiosity these days. And spending Euros has long ended the madness of changing your money into a different currency each time you cross a national boundary. Among my souvenirs is a collection of Deutschemarks, Francs, Austrian Schillings, Guilders and Lira, a reminder of post war European travels.
My first overseas adventure was in 1975 when my wife and I went to Germany for a month. We stayed with my Air Force pilot kid brother Packy and his then-fiancé Sue. It was the first overseas journey for both Donna and I – LAX to Frankfurt in a Lufthansa Boeing 707 with an hour stopover in Amsterdam. It was in Germany that I learned my first lesson in overseas travel – wherever you go on your first trip, if at all possible, make sure you have a good friend who lives there to be your guide. Packy and Sue were terrific hosts and tour guides. We started in Frankfurt and spent ten days on the road all through Austria and Bavaria, including a weekend in Mϋnchen for Oktoberfest, and Berchtesgaden where we hiked and visited Hitler’s retreat and the teahouse he built for his first lady, Eva Braun. (Every time I see shots of Der Fϋhrer strutting along at his mountaintop lair on The History Channel, I tell everyone within earshot that Hey! I had a couple of beers right where Hitler’s walking!) By the end of our second week, I was ready to move there. As we traveled with Packy and Sue, we found our hotels at random. Around 3 in the afternoon we’d start looking at the front windows of the gӓsthausen or pensionen along the highway. If we saw a sign that read Zimmer frei, and it looked OK to us, we’d pull in and check it out. The rooms were always clean and cozy and frϋstϋck was always served first thing in der stϋbe.
The following year, I was sent on assignment to Guatemala…just a few weeks after the catastrophic 1976 earthquake, which dwarfed LA’s Big One, the 1971 Sylmar quake. That’s where I learned to pay attention to the local advice for staying healthy in a strange land, and became famous on our return flight for being the only journalist on the press plane not to become a victim of the traveler’s Green Apple Quickstep. (Jimmy Carter called it Montezuma’s Revenge). A few years after that, I went back to Germany as a guest of the U.S. Air Force to cover Reforger, one of the annual Fall NATO war games. That trip gave me the opportunity to visit East Berlin while it was still firmly behind the Iron Curtain, and I got to go because I was the only person in the newsroom with a passport. That is my second bit of travel advice. You gotta have a passport. If all goes well my son will have two, US and Italian.
In between my last trip to Germany and my first trip to Rome, all of my adventures were domestic. That is if you call traveling all over California and the rest of the United States on assignments, business trips and vacations with side trips to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. In all, I have made four trips to Rome, staying longer each time. My love affair with the Eternal City got its start way back in high school in Morris Diamond’s Latin class. We spent the first year translating Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, his account of his campaigns in Gaul from Latin into English. It was Mr. Diamond who inadvertently taught me my own first rule of foreign travel – learn to understand at least a little of the language in the country you are traveling to. The second rule is, at least teach yourself to count in the language of the country you are going to. Since my third rule, and my son the tour guide’s first bit of advice to his tour customers is if your waiter gives you a menu that is translated into four languages beside English, get up and run for the exit. It’s a tourist trap!
It’s hard to believe that I made my first trip to Rome in 2005. As I look back over the past decade, I remember how hard we worked to get ready. I checked my passport to make sure it was current, and Monica applied for hers in plenty of time before our departure. I signed up for an Italian language class through the Italian Cultural Center in Sacramento. Our teacher, Patrizia Cinquini Cerruti, is a native Italian who operates a successful travel service specializing in tours to Italy. Her textbook Buon Viaggio, A Travelers Guide to Italian Language and Culture is a great primer for travelers. If you live in the Sacramento area, I heartily recommend it. One huge difference in the travel landscape between my first overseas trip, to Germany, and my first trip to Italy is the currency. Italy is now one of 28 members of the European Union. No more fumbling with deutschemarks, Austrian schillings, lira, guilders or francs. No sir! Sole currency for just about every nation in Europe is the Euro! Britain and the Pound Sterling being the sole holdout!
On the trip I just came back from, Michael and Laura once again took me on new adventures, one of which was another high speed train trip on Italo to Venezia, fabled Venice, the longest surviving republic in history – over a thousand years. We spent two long holiday weeks at Laura’s family’s mountain retreat in Selci in Sabina… and explored a number of medieval fortress villages nearby: Tolfa, Bagnoregio, Rochettine and a host of others. We returned to one of my particular favorites, the 12th century Benedictine abbey at Farfa, also in Sabina. I went to work with my tour guide son and revisited Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius, joined a group going through the catacombs and toured the crypts of the Dominican Church in Rome where the monks of old decorated several of the crypts with the bones of other monks who had predeceased the artists. That’s where I was welcomed back to Roma by the lovely Alba, the manager of the museum gift shop. We also took a short Metro trip to Ostia Antica, Imperial Rome’s ancient seaport. And, when we returned to Galleria Borghese, Michael was leading our tour. He amazed me yet again with his knowledge of art and his grasp of Italian history. He’s on a first name basis with just about all of the ancient Roman emperors. Then, just before I left Rome to come back to the states, I flew to Amsterdam on a very sentimental personal journey.
Joan and I had been steadies right after high school. I was from Riverhead. She was from Westhampton. Our romance lasted until she trundled off to New York University on a full scholarship and it wasn’t too long after that, we went our separate ways. Somehow we managed to stay in touch over the years. (Maybe part of the reason is that Joan’s first husband was one of my best friends and career mentor. But, that’s a tale for another time). At any rate, in both of our Golden Years, she was living in Amsterdam and I had settled in California. So, as I made plans for my latest Rome trip, I called Joan and made a date to fly up to Amsterdam and take her to dinner for old time’s sake. An Easy Jet non-stop put me practically on her doorstep. At her suggestion, I booked into the Hotel Wilhelmina and was given the keys to a fourth floor room, which I found at the top of an excruciatingly long, winding stairwell.
After a short walk to Joan’s apartment, and a reunion chat over coffee, we decided that since neither one of us could walk around like we used to, she called a cab and we headed off for a boat tour of the canals. Amsterdam, especially the older sections along the canals is quite charming, and has a lot of history attached to it. After all, my birthplace, New York was once Nieu Amsterdam almost 400 years ago. I could just visualize the early Dutch governor, Pieter Stuyvesant, clomping around Manhattan on his wooden leg stomping out his distress that the British had just evicted him. The canal boat ride gave Joan and I the perfect opportunity to catch up on old times. At one point, we reminisced about the different directions our lives had taken us and we realized that we had run up a total of six marriages between us. (At the end of seven innings, the score is 4 to 2 with Joan leading Mike by two!) We had already passed the Van Gogh Museum and the national treasure, The Rijksmuseum. But Amsterdam also has a lot of other museums which might interest you: Museum of Bags and Purses, popularly referred to as the Coach Museum; Foam Photography Museum; Diamond Museum; Bijbels Museum which boasts the oldest Bible printed in the Netherlands-the 1477 Delftse Bijbel; The KattenKabinet, an art museum devoted to works depicting cats; Verzetsmuseum, the Dutch Resistance Museum, tells the story of the Dutch people between 1940 and 1945 in World War II. The city also boasts the Cheese Museum and the ever popular Marijuana Museum. There is also the Anne Frank Museum which radiates a certain solemnity which could be felt even at a distance as our tour boat passed by. As our boat pulled back into its pier we agreed that the boat ride was a great way to spend a first-date-in-over-a-half-century kind of afternoon. And, it reminded us of another boat ride we took long ago as we explored New York City together – our 25 cent ride on the Staten Island Ferry past the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor and back to Battery Park. Personal finances being what they were for a starving student, the two bits was like a million to me at the time.
After another day of catching up, Joan called a cab for me and I headed back to Schiphol to catch my Easy Jet flight back to Rome and the next adventure – our Italo high speed train ride to Venezia. But that is a tale to be told another time. Halloween is right around the corner and I have a story of my own to tell about that before we travel to Venice.
PS: Be sure to check me out also on MikeBotula.blogspot.com
© By Mike Botula 2015
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