- Almost five months might seem like a long time, but it is no time at all. Three months in Italy whizzed by, and there were major parts of the country we avoided all together. Still, we know how lucky we are to have had this amount of time.
- With time to reflect, most of all I wax lyrical about Jordan, and Puglia. Jordan for its unknown treasures as well as the rightly famous Petra, and for its friendly people. Puglia for the light, the most picturesque of seaside villages, and the seafood.
- We found it is possible to travel both comfortably and relatively cheaply.
- Renting apartments and houses gave us stability, space to relax between sightseeing excursions, and gave us an insight into real Italian life.
- Travelling off the beaten track – whether it’s to Qatar, in the hills of Molise in Italy, inland from the Dead Sea in Jordan, or in the lake district of Poland – brings unexpected rewards and is always worthwhile.
- Even supermarkets give insights into local culture, and provide both amusement and horror.
- There are a lot of myths about places and people that shouldn’t be believed.
- There is too much waste and litter in this world.
- When life gives you lemons, make limoncello. It really is delicious.
- Travelling abroad for an extended period allows you to see with new eyes when you come home. Things, people, places we take for granted, appeared new and fresh on our return, and we were reminded how beautiful our own country is, and what gifts we have here. Maybe that’s the best gift of all?
It all started back on the train to Orvieto. We were sitting there relaxed, looking out the window, a bit sleepy from the early start, when suddenly, we sat up.
“Did you see that?”
“Oh my god, I wanted that photo!”
“That was perfect!”
We took a note of the location – how many minutes to the next station – so that we could be ready on the way home, with our cameras, on the right side of the train, facing the right direction. We sat there eagerly, my camera pre-zoomed, so as not to waste any time. And we managed to fire off a few shots, but still, the train was too fast, and the motion too blurred for the picture-postcard perfect photograph.
“Never mind,” the husband consoled me. “We’re sure to see plenty more on the way north.”
And we did. Except we were on autostradas at the time, about as useful for photography as trains. Still, I was happy to see this oh-such-Italian of sights, in classic Tuscan countryside as we sped our way north. In the north, though, they had disappeared. And I was resigned to the fact that by the time we were heading south, they would be past their best, ready for harvest and all brown and shrivelled and definitely not photogenic.
And I was mostly right. Our three-day trip from Vittorio Veneto to Monopoli, in Apulia in the south (on the heel of Italy’s boot) showed that Italy’s crop had largely been harvested or was about to be. And still, once again, we were caught on the magnificent autostradas, running at 130 kmph, unable to snap out the window, and impossible to stop, even if we had caught them at the right time.
But Italy offers other views too. “Oh, look at that!” I would cry, at rolling fields and old farmhouses catching the light just perfectly, at far off villages on top of hills, with tall bell towers, or crumbling castles on the horizon, at vineyards or olive groves or both, patch-working the countryside. My wistful voice said all too frequently, “that would have been a good shot” as it disappeared from view. So many picture postcard shots in Italy, if you had the time (and yes, you’d think three months is enough time but it really isn’t) you could roam this country taking photo after photo of idyllic countryside, village, and medieval town shots. It wouldn’t be difficult, and you wouldn’t have to be a particularly talented photographer, Italy is so beautiful. So as much as possible, I tried to forget the missed photo ops, and just soak it in.
We exited the autostrada on our second day of this trip south. We’d taken it easy that morning, leaving the beach resort late, after a walk along the shoreline, and a casual breakfast at an open air café with a waiter who had never met New Zealanders before. So it was late afternoon by the time we headed inland, in search of our small country hotel. After 20 minutes or so, suddenly, there in front of us, was the view I had been searching for. Even better, there was an open gate into the field for us to park. Unfortunately though, the light was poor, facing us, and our enthusiastic photography just didn’t give us the results we wanted. Still, we knew we were returning the next morning, when the light should be better. So we went on to our little hotel, leaving the provincial road, and climbing up into the hills, no longer green, but brown, after late summer harvests had occurred. But even then the browns were golden, and the hills rolled gently and artistically, and the farmhouses looked quaint, the occasional cypress or olive grove adding some colour or variety to the view.
We settled into our hotel, finding our perfect little (and very reasonably priced) hotel high on a hill, with a swimming pool, and beer and aperitivi. We looked over the stone wall, at all the brown stalks in the field, and asked the owner what they were. She confirmed our worst suspicions. Yes, they were what we thought they were, and worse, they’d been harvested the day before we got there!
“You should have been here a month ago,” she said. “Late July, that is the time. We’re surrounded by about 50 hectares of them.”
I groaned. So close, but so so far.
“Yes,” her husband nodded enthusiastically, not feeling my pain. “It’s like Van Gogh, out here.”
The Husband (mine) thought this was all very hilarious, so we put it aside, and enjoyed our delicious dinner in the garden, with wine from the vines at the front of the hotel, watching a family of foxes.
The next morning we headed out. The light was right. And this is what we saw:
And for the record, this was the view on the train from Orvieto. Looking from the opposite direction, standing still, with the sun on the old farm building in the morning, it would have been a great shot.
After a month in Rome, we picked up a little Fiat (though not as little as most Fiats on the road here) and headed north. Five years ago a friend and I had explored the Italian Riviera (Liguria) for a few days, walking the Cinque Terre trails, sipping vermentino in a wine bar, exploring rainy Genova, and dodging wild boar in the hills behind Portofino (and wild bores elsewhere). I had fallen in love with the immaculate Santa Margherita Ligure, the coves and cliff-hugging villages of the Cinque Terre, blue sea and sky, and had always wanted to bring the husband back. So we planned a stop for a few days on our way north, between rental accommodations.
Last time I was here, it was late October/early November, cool, and out of season. August in Santa Margherita Ligure is very different. The heat is obvious, the streets are packed with tourists from Italy, France, northern Europe, Russia and beyond, and every single restaurant and wine bar is open and touting for business. I managed to find my favourite wine bar from my trip with W, which had good, reasonably priced wine, and a complimentary antipasto platter. Unlike my previous visit, we sat outside as the sun fell, and enjoyed the summer buzz. Just up the street every night was a public jazz concert. Sitting there, sipping our vermentino and nibbling on prosciutto, listening to the jazz, I could see the appeal of a Mediterranean beach resort.
Having walked some of the Cinque Terre with W, I was keen to try some of the trails I hadn’t already done, and to see the other two beautiful villages that make up the 5 Terre. So we set off early, taking the 8 am train from Santa Margherita, arriving early to Riomaggiore, the furthest of the towns. It was a beautiful village crammed into a little cove and the steep hills around it, with fishing boats in the cove, and laundry hanging from the windows.
We planned on starting before the heat rose with an easy walk to Manarola, then deciding afterwards if we (and my feet) were up to the heat and the more difficult terrain between the other villages). I had read that the trails had been closed last year over winter after rains and landslides. I had then researched and saw that the trails were all open again for the summer. Perfect! Except they weren’t.
Both trails I was keen on doing were closed, it turned out, so we lost valuable walking time sorting out what we would do, and waiting for the next train to get to the other villages where the trails were open. Still, we were determined to do the climbs, to capture the views in and out of the gorgeous Vernazza in particular. And the husband was suitably impressed. How could you fail to be?
But Liguria is all about the sea. And we were surprised to see the constant stream of visitors arriving and departing form the Cinque Terre villages by sea. Surprised, and in the end rather envious. So the next day we took the ferry to Portofino for a little taste of summer on the Mediterranean. We passed some magnificent private yachts, and we imagined how it would be to pull into a beautiful cove, or anchor out in the bay enjoying the view back to the hills, pour a glass of something cold and tall, and dive into the Med whenever you needed to cool off. We aren’t, and never will be, on that kind of budget unfortunately, so joined the swimmers of all ages, shapes and sizes down at one of the public beaches, teetered across the hot stony beach to the sea, and plunged in. And I’m sure it felt just as good to us, after a hot day sightseeing and walking, as it did to those on their superyachts. (Well, maybe …)
So, rather belatedly, I can report that we arrived in Rome at the beginning of July. We last visited Rome in November 1998. It doesn’t feel that long ago, but then it does. You know what I mean.
Our arrival this time was quite different. The first time we arrived exhausted, in the early morning, after a long flight from the other side of the world. This time we arrived fresh, flying in from Amman, on a very pleasant almost four-hour flight on Royal Jordanian. (I have to say we were very pleased with all our flights on Royal Jordanian. They were cheap, the service was good, there was sufficient leg-room even in economy, and we had spare seats beside us on both our longer flights with the airline. And the new airport at Amman is excellent. Even the buses to the smaller RJ planes were air-conditioned). There was no jet-lag, only a very civilised one hour time change. It was easier than flying across to Australia.
Rome’s Fiumicino Airport though was distinctly less pleasant. Dropped off at an obscure entrance by the air-conditioning-less bus that took us from the plane, we queued for ages to go through a single security scanner. Finally getting through that, we emerged into the airport expecting, well, something different from what we found. And what we found was a melee of passengers from our, and other, flights. Only a few immigration counters were open, there was no queuing system, and everyone just crowded in. Time passed. Interminably. It was hot. Crowded. Oppressive.
Then some new counters opened. People rushed to get a spot. About 20 minutes later, some more counters opened. There was a mad rush of people. I feared that someone would slip and get crushed. Nothing was organised, or controlled. Only once did authority show its face. “Stay behind the yellow line,” shouted (I assume) one of the immigration officers. The reaction from the crowd was instant. There was scornful laughter, and slow clapping. Mob mentality was only one or two incidents away. In all my travels, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any immigration control so completely unorganised.
Still, I guess people are basically orderly (especially when they want to enter a country), and finally, about an hour and a half after landing, we made our way successfully through immigration. Of course, by then our bags had been off-loaded from the baggage carousels, along with hundreds of others. But we found them. That is, once we finally found the board that advised where our flight’s baggage had gone. Most airports have a list immediately at the exit to immigration, so you can go straight to the right place. Logical, you’d think? Yes maybe. But not apparently, here.
Still, we had got there, with our luggage, and we were finally in the country.
Benvenuti in Italia.