Monday, July 9, 2012

A Trip of a Lifetime

Of all the countries in the world, Italy has been the one I've longed to visit.

As a child, I read about the ruins, the grandeur of the Forum and the horrors of the Colosseum. I saw Ben Hur nearly 20 times, not because of the story, but because I could see how the Romans lived, feel the atmosphere in their surroundings. I have been fascinated by Roman history as long as I can remember.

So to be there, to be in Rome, was a dream I never thought to realize. Then I turned 70.

My daughters, determined to make my special year even more so, arranged a trip of a lifetime for me. The three of us would spend six days, eight with travel, in Italy, wherever I wanted to go. I chose Naples because of its proximity to Pompeii and the Amalfi coast, and, of course, Rome. Terri, my firstborn, did the arranging and generously funded my portion of the trip. She found a travel agent, booked the excursions, the flights, train trips and hotel rooms. When we met Erica, Daughter #2, for the ride to the airport, everything was settled and in good order. I was going to Italy!!!

Our flight left Philadelphia at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 23rd. Never having flown for eight hours straight, I was unprepared for the experience. I could not sleep, although it was obviously a wise thing to do. So, when we arrived in Naples at 8:40 a.m. on Sunday, the 24th, I was already tired. We got lost several times trying to find our way out of the airport and into the train station in Rome and then again trying to find our train. Did I mention it was very hot?

By about 4 p.m., we had arrived in Naples and caught a cab to the Hotel Mediterraneo. It was a beautiful old structure just a few blocks from the harbor, with spectacular views of Mt. Vesuvius. I had a slightly scratchy throat, but didn't pay it any mind as we had a gorgeous meal in the hotel dining room and then spent a few hours on the rooftop terrace before calling it a night.

Monday morning, we were picked up by a tour company for a trip to Pompeii. My throat was quite sore by then, so I popped a lot of Tylenol and scarfed down one Ricola after another. Pompeii was not to be missed. It was everything I always dreamed it would be... a glimpse into a way of life brought to a sudden, catastrophic end by a violent eruption of Vesuvius, which buried the entire population beneath ash. Our tour guide, Loretta, kept everyone moving, but stopped appropriately to point out things we needed to see and to explain the history behind them. Our tour lasted three hours and then we went to lunch. At lunch, we met two young women whom we immediately took for Americans. Their English was colloquial and flawless. Turned out they were students and lived in Paris. Both spoke several languages and it struck us how woefully inadequate Americans are in their study of the rest of the world’s ways. Did I mention it was very, very hot?

After lunch, we met our tour guide, Mario, for an air-conditioned mini-bus ride along the Amalfi coast. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and one of the few times in my life I can honestly say I envied someone with extreme wealth. The homes perched perilously high on the mountainsides, the cascading orchards of flowering trees, the terraced fruit groves, the ancient churches and the black beaches were more than I had ever anticipated. Mario kept up a steady stream of information, jokes and chatter as he negotiated the 194 s-curves along the route, leaving us white-knuckled and breathless. We stopped frequently for picture-taking and once in the ceramic factory so we could use their restroom and make purchases.Unfortunately, the constant motion of the bus didn’t sit well with Terri, who had bouts of motion sickness and wasn’t able to enjoy the trip 100%. Our day ended when he delivered us to our hotel at about 5.

Taking the recommendation of one of the desk clerks, we walked a short distance to Alberto's for some genuine Neapolitan pizza and found far more to enjoy. The tiny restaurant served a low-cost bounty of Italian dishes. By then, my throat protested any intrusion by food or otherwise, but I managed a bit of dinner and immediate bedtime when we got back.

On Tuesday, we walked to the harbor and boarded a ferry for the island of Capri, about a twenty-five minute ride across the Bay of Naples. The picturesque homes on hills, open air markets and cafes were just as I’d always imagined. There was a slight breeze off the water, and the girls were anxious to see the rest of the island, so we boarded a tour boat and sped off on the azure water. Mountains of limestone rocks rose from the ocean floor to dizzying heights and individual homes perched in crevasses along the shoreline. Here and there, a grotto cut into the limestone boasted swimmers from nearby yachts who dove in and out of the nearly green water. Although we had hoped to go into the Blue Grotto, by the time we arrived and joined at least ten other tour boats waiting for the same thing, the tide was too high and we were unable to go inside. We arrived back in the harbor at about 4. Erica and Terri dipped their toes into the sea, collected some beautiful stones from the rocky beach and we returned to Naples. By then, I had a slight fever and a very, very sore throat, not to mention a generous sunburn from my time on the water, sunscreen notwithstanding.

We ended up back at Alberto’s for dinner. The staff remembered us from the previous evening and brought our choices of beverage. It was a bit cooler when we walked back to the hotel, a breeze drifting from the Bay.

Wednesday was a travel day. The girls were up early, ready to go out and explore one last site. There was a beautiful museum we could see from our hotel, so they took the opportunity to visit. When they came back, we had lunch and took a cab to the train station for our ride back to Rome. The accommodations weren’t as luxurious as the ride down, but the train was comfortable and fast and we were in Rome by 5:30. We took a cab to our next destination, the Ambasciatori Palazzo, situated in the heart of Rome within walking distance of many famous sites, including the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. Our first night in Rome, the girls ate in a lovely, quiet restaurant on our street, Via Veneto. I was hot ,tired and feeling terrible, so I hit the sack while the girls went out.

We had a tour of the Vatican scheduled for Thursday morning, but I was simply not in any shape to go anywhere. So the girls arranged to move it to Saturday and they struck out on their own while I rested in the hotel. They came back with lunch and vivid descriptions of the places they’d found on their journey. In the afternoon, after being sure I was safely tucked into our room, they visited the Borghese Museum and brought back what photos they could take (no cameras allowed inside the museum) and glowing descriptions of the place. That evening, we walked down our street (literally, since the Via Veneto is a hill) to a beautiful restaurant which the girls had spotted on their walks. The food was beautifully presented and very, very good.

There were a great many things I still wanted to see, some of which the girls had already experienced, so we decided to use the hotel’s concierge service and hire a car and driver to take us around the city to see the items on my list. Friday morning at 9, Dino arrived at the hotel in his air conditioned Mercedes and we began our tour. He was knowledgable and found ways to allow us to leave the car and see the insides of some of the churches and monuments while he waited at the curb. Without this arrangement, I would have missed the Pantheon, the Church of St. Ignazio, the Spanish Steps (from both top and bottom), the pyramid, the oldest residence in Rome and a host of other things. While it was still blisteringly hot, being in an air-conditioned car made the experience enjoyable.

At noon, we were back at the hotel and had lunch next door at the Hard Rock Café. I enjoyed my grilled chicken salad in spite of the difficulty swallowing it, but we had to rush through the lunch in order to meet our bus for the tour of the ancient ruins. The bus was not air conditioned, but the ride was short and soon we were at the gates of The Forum, so remarkably well preserved I could imagine the activities carried on there. About a quarter of the way into the tour, we came upon a lovely shaded area where a slight breeze blew, so I sent the girls on with the tour group and sat on a flat rock to wait for them. I couldn’t imagine climbing stairs and doing all the walking our guide had in mind. When the tour came back through the area, I rejoined the girls and we headed for the Colosseum. There was no way I could skip one second of that tour. It was extraordinary! We were permitted access into all areas, including the seats where the nobles watched the gladiators and slaves fight each other or the lions and tigers that were released from cages below the floor. Designed to be airy and to keep spectators comfortable, the Colosseum was downright breezy. We walked a short distance from there to the bus to return to our hotel. Once there, we showered and rested, then walked down the hill to a restaurant Dino had recommended. Despite the raw throat I had to swallow over, the food was delicious. Before we left, the maitre d gave us a complimentary bottle of sweet dessert wine and a bag of biscotti made on the premises. After we got back to the hotel, the girls headed out again, this time to the Piazza Navona where they took in the sights. Seems Rome really comes alive after nine p.m. and they wanted to get a taste of it. I was too wiped out to go with them and barely heard them when they got back.

Saturday was the undoing of my trip, in spite of how much I’d anticipated the day. We were picked up at 7:45 for a short ride in a bumpy, rickety bus to Vatican City. When we arrived, we stood in a piazza in the sun while the tour guide arranged us, counted us and handed out audio sets with earbuds. We crossed the street, all 47 of us with one guide, and fell into a line of hundreds of people slowly snaking their way around the Vatican wall. There was little shade and soon many were wondering why we had purchased tickets that promised to bypass lines when we were clearly not bypassing anything. After about a hour, Terri went off by herself to see if there was any shade to be had and came back to report she’d found some… a set of steps around the corner from our line, from which we could rejoin the tour as it neared the entrance to the Vatican Museum. My paper parasol helped somewhat in keeping the direct sun away but it was still very, very hot. Finally, at about 11:45, we reached the entrance to the museum. We went through security and gathered with our guide to begin the trek through the various rooms that make up the museum. The crowd was huge; our guide’s narrative was often lost to static or the narrative of another guide on the same frequency, so much of what we saw was left to us to discover. The group was moving at a snail’s pace, shuffling along shoulder to shoulder in the non-air conditioned spaces. The girls suggested we leave the tour and go ahead to the Sistine Chapel where we could catch up with the group when they arrived there. So we tried to make our way a bit faster, edging along the sides of the crowds, trying to see some of the tapestries, mosaics and frescoes that filled the various rooms. Without a guide and being in such a press, we weren’t able to get a good sense of what we were viewing.

Finally, the Sistine Chapel was in sight. We were herded with everyone else into the room, where we were urged to keep moving and indeed couldn’t do much else, since the crush of the crowd made it impossible to pause for a good view of the famed ceiling. I was struck by the size of the Chapel… only 45 feet wide by 190 feet long! In my imagination, the Chapel should have been a huge room, akin to a cathedral sanctuary, and the smallness of it was a true disappointment. Still, even that wasn’t to be examined thoroughly as the security guards kept us pushing onward toward the exit doors. At that point, I was hot, claustrophobic and exhausted. Wanting only to find some air and a tiny space free of people, the girls and I begged a guard to allow us to break free of the group and just sit for a few minutes. While the guard could see how ill I was, he wouldn’t let the girls cross into the area to which he led me and as he said he had to be careful about what he did for people who claimed to be ill because of the skepticism of other tourists who might also want to break free of the crowd. Finally, after about ten minutes, I felt well enough and really wanted to move on and out. We followed the guard’s directions and found ourselves lost in the gift shop and far removed from our trour group. We couldn’t find another tour group from the same company to notify our guide where we were, so we had to retrace our entire journey through the museum to a place where we could finally exit. When we finally stumbled into St. Peter’s Square, it was four o’clock and our tour bus was long gone. I was actually standing in St. Peter’s Square, which was a place I’d always wanted to see, but the cumulative effect of the entire horrible day took all the joy from the experience. We had missed the Basilica but were so exhausted and angry we really didn’t care. The girls pooled our last Euros and we took a cab back to the hotel. Too exhausted to do anything else, I asked the girls if we could just go next door to the Hard Rock Café again for dinner. I enjoyed the chicken salad, cold Coke and air-conditioned surroundings. When we got back to the room, we began packing for our trip home.

I can’t say whether I was more disappointed or angrier over the Vatican visit. It seemed so thoughtless and mean-spirited for the guards to keep pushing everyone toward the exit of the Chapel. The fact that our tour guide didn’t take the route she said she was going to take and the fact that we took a wrong turn and totally missed any chance of hooking up with our group again contributed to my sense of having been cheated of something I had so hoped to enjoy. If ever I get the privilege of going back to Rome, I will skip the Vatican and fill my time with more enjoyable pursuits.

The girls were up early Sunday morning (at 6 a.m.) to revisit the special places near the hotel and take photos without the crush of people in the way. When they got back, I was up and packing. We went to breakfast and rushed to meet our taxi when it arrived to take us to the airport. Again it was very hot. We were scheduled for an 11:50 flight home, so we planned to arrive at the airport by 9. Security was easy; lines were short. Our flight was on time and uneventful. My ears clogged up about ten minutes into the flight, giving me a headache, but I watched two very good movies to help speed the journey (The Iron Lady and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) and rested.

We landed in Philadelphia at 3:40 p.m. local time, about ten minutes early. I don’t know how many time zones we crossed, but the flight seemed to last forever. Again, security and customs were quick so we were able to go directly for our bags and to the terminal where Howard was waiting. Although we had e-mailed several times during the week, I had not told him how sick I really was so he wouldn’t worry. One look at me told him all he needed to know. We drove to Erica’s where we dropped the girls and came home. He’d planned a simple dinner, but I had no appetite and ended up going right to sleep.

On Monday, I went to our family doctor and learned I’d been nourishing a sinus and throat infection all week. I was given an antibiotic and told it would take anywhere from a week to two for me to totally shake what I’d carried around. As I write this, it is a week later, Monday, July 9 and I am still not up to par. Lesson from all of this: 1. Travel to Italy in October; 2. Take an antibiotic along just in case; 3. Trust local medical people enough to consult a doctor abroad instead of suffering for a week.

I’ve reflected on the trip a lot. Aside from my sheer gratitude to Terri for her generosity in funding it, I am very grateful to have had an opportunity I always dreamed of but never believed would actually come my way. I can close my eyes and see all the wonders we experienced while we were away and I know the images will always stay with me.

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