Friday, February 3, 2012

Some Deep Thoughts About Italy: Part I

So I concluded my Italian vacation the other day which included stops in Rome, Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri, and Naples. I am going to use this particular entry as a dump page for some thoughts, questions, and observations that occurred to me along the way. First off, the trip was incredible and I am very happy I went - I don't want any criticisms or caveats of this particular vacation to suggest otherwise. Anyway, here they are in no particular order. It won't be comprehensive initially, so I'll probable do this in parts.
  • Italy is definitely a Spring-Fall country. The advantages of visiting during the winter, as I have just done, are clearly cost (airfare-hotel), accessibility (lack of lines at major tourist attractions) and the cooler temperatures. In other words, when you are walking 10-12 miles a day, or stuffed on a subway/train, it's a major advantage that it's not 100 degrees out. However, that being said...
  • Italian eating, drinking, and socializing revolves around warm weather - to the point of dependency actually. As someone who wanted to do those things, I found they weren't very accessible to me. It is difficult to understate how important a hot climate is to an outdoor cafe' culture. Most eating establishments (and I call them "eating establishments", not restaurants) relied on outdoor street seating. But you don't want to sit outside when it's 45 degrees out. And if you do, its still socially awkward as you are the only one doing so. Your other option is to stand inside at the counter and eat. And I hate standing and eating - to the point where (and my friends can verify this), I will sit down alone during cocktail hours at weddings so I can do so. It once took my brother and I over an hour walking all over Naples to find a suitable restaurant to eat in. 
  • As someone who likes afternoon naps, I thought I would like siesta hours. Unfortunately, as an American, I found them infuriating. I honestly felt like I had a 23 minute window every day to find a place to eat/drink. Everything is closed before 1p. Then everything closes again at 3:30p. I have no idea when things open again - 9p? 
  • Pompeii is huge. Something like 2,000 people died when Vesuvius erupted so I assumed it was some small village. No - it's a legitimate city! We spent the whole day walking through Pompeii and we still didn't cover it all.
Pompeii Ruins
  •  Why are there so many stray dogs in Italy? Seriously. They are all over the place. If you walk around Pompeii, they will casually follow you back to your car. My brother and I were escorted by two different stray dogs on our walk out of ancient to Pompeii through modern Pompeii to our parked rental car. I had previously gone my entire life without seeing a stray dog  - dingoes in Australia don't count. In Italy they are all over the place. The walked right down the road. Bizarre really.
  • I would like to see video of a city being "excavated" because I don't believe in it. I think it's mythical like unicorns. Or "trickle down economics". Doesn't it take years to excavate something like a stegosaurus? How does one excavate an entire city that's buried in lava? What do you use? Shovels? Picks? How do you know what is molten lava and what is the beginning of a wall, an urn, a bath, a human being, a pot, a stone pathway? I think there is something massive I don't understand about a citywide excavation.
  • If it's winter, you can skip Capri entirely. The island shuts down during the winter. We went, and I'm sure its awesome if its hot and you can go swimming/snorkeling, but otherwise you can pass. Unfortunately the Blue Grotto was closed, so we couldn't see it, though you can walk right up to the face of it. I was tempted to swim through but it was expressly forbidden. Plus I was wasn't drunk enough to be the first idiot to freeze to death swimming naked through the Blue Grotto. Just didn't seem like a great idea at the time. I should note, discouragingly, that I emailed the Capri Tourism beforehand and they told me the Blue Grotto would be open, weather permitting. I can assure you, there was nothing about the weather or water conditions that should have prevented our entry on the day we went. So I felt a little misled there.
Immediately to the right is the entry to the Blue Grotto

  • One thing I respect about the Italians is their use of any available land as gardens/groves. It's amazing, any and all available space is gardened. Large open land and tiny 2x2 foot plots alike are plotted and planted. Olive trees, orange trees, lemon trees, grapes, peas, radicchio, arugula, artichokes, broccoli, etc. It there was an open space it was gardened. And I am talking within the cities here. I know these types of practices are being picked up slowly in American cities but I really think they can have an impressive impact on our urban energy conservation, carbon sequestration, beautification, and nutritional quality. We can learn a lot from the Italians there. I wish I took a good picture to encapsulate this Italian attitude.
An example of the orange trees that are found everywhere.

  • A rental car came with my vacation package, but I probably would have preferred travelling without it. It could be stressful, considering a) driving in Europe is a apparently lawless and b) I didn't have a map or GPS and my iPhone had no service so I felt like I was driving blind most of the time. Finding hotels could get tricky. Thank God I didn't have to do a lot of one lane travel - you know, those extremely mountainous roads that are essentially the width of two cars plus one inch and are beset by switchbacks and tourist buses. Those are real fun. Dodging lunatics on scooters is fun too. They definitely drive wherever they want, whenever they want, though it took me to the last day of my trip to see a scooter headed in the opposite direction of my car on the right hand side of my vehicle. Having a rental car could increase our freedom and latitude, but it came at the expense of my personal freedom and latitude since my brother can't drive stick (pathetic really!). If I drove us someplace, it took a lot of pre-planning and a lack of booze. My driving days always seemed like work days. Plus, petrol is very expensive to boot. I'm not sure we even saved much money versus public transportation. I'm super comfortable on mass transit in general, so I don't think I'd take a car again, even if it, once again, it was already included in the vacation cost.
  • Our hotels sucked. I mean, yeah, I know, you get what you paid for and all, but still. Off-season I suspect we could have done much better paying similar rates at other hotels. We stayed in three different hotels and they were all very inconveniently located. And this definitely affected our experience of the Italian nightlife. Maybe I'll go into more detail about this later...

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