Sunday, July 22, 2007

My Greatest Days Traveling In Italy

Of all the countries in Europe, my favorite travel destinations are France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Ireland, Denmark and Norway. But the costs of most of these trips certainly have gone sky high. Would you believe, when I hitchhiked to Italy with a Palm Springs friend in the spring of 1959, our combined budget was just $5 a day? That included $2 for food, $2 for accommodations and $1 for entertainment. And we stayed in hotels or pensiones, not hostels.

In November of 1970, on our honeymoon, our daily budget was $30 a day on a trip that took us to Florence, Rome, the Amalfi coast and an unforgettable week in Sicily.

Try such a trip today, and the budget would be ten times that, if not more. But then I traveled differently when I was young, and yet had just as good a time, probably better.

Here are some of my greatest days, traveling in Italy.

--On the night of Dec. 23, 1958, I left Paris alone on the Simplon Orient Express, going as far in a second class compartment overnight as Milan and arriving first thing in the morning. The great cathedral near the railway station was my first destination there, and also I went out to another part of town to see Leonardo da Vinci's painting, "The Last Supper," then very faded. It has since been restored. By late afternoon, I was on my way to Florence by train, arriving in the great city of art on Christmas Eve. I had no reservations, but there were plenty of people at the station hawking rooms in what the Italians call pensiones, which offered also two meals a day. As night fell I was very comfortable in a friendly and not expensive place right in the center of town.

--The next day, Christmas Day, was a revelation. What I remember best was Michelangelo's statue of David, the Cathedral, the Baptistery across the street from it and its doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the Uffizi gallery and the outdoor bronze by Benvenuto Cellini, the Perseus. These were the days before overwhelming security. You could go right up to the great works without impediments. It was a sunny but crisp day. Florence is a highlight of any trip. (Michelangelo once said of Ghiberti, "Woe to Lorenzo Ghiberti had he never carved the gates of San Giovanni. His children and grandchildren have sold and squandered all he left them. The gates are still in their places.")

--A few days later, I can't quite remember how it was arranged, but I attended a Papal audience at the Vatican with the man who had just been named Pope, John XXIII. We were fairly packed in, but I found myself standing right next to the actor Charlton Heston, there with his family. Actually, I remember better what Heston said than the Pope. Of course, he had played in the movie, "The Ten Commandments," and the Pope had not.

Rome is a huge city, about as hard to fathom as Los Angeles. One of my best memories there was a dinner Amelia and I went to on our honeymoon in 1970. We ordered "wild hare," which turned out actually to be imported Idaho jackrabbit. It was not all that great. but we were impressed. Lou Fleming was then the L.A. Times correspondent in Rome, and he recommended an excellent inexpensive hotel to us quite close to the Spanish Steps and the L.A. Times bureau. Another highlight of any trip to Rome is going out to the Appian Way, still looking much as it did in Roman times, and, of course, visiting the Colisseum. and Michelangelo's "Moses."

--In the spring of 1959, my friend, Prentiss de Jesus and I hitchhiked down from Austria into Venice. We couldn't afford any of the gondolas, but we did take water taxies. Venice, as always, was superb. And my friends, Bob and Marilyn Trounson, recently visited there for a week, and they say it still is. Prentiss and I also stopped in Verona one afternoon, where there were many American soldiers from a nearby base.

--My wife and later mother of our two children and I went to Italy late in the fall of 1970. We were in the Sicilian city of Palermo on Thanksgiving day. We celebrated it at a restaurant in which, in this crown city of the Mafia, we were the only couple. Every other table was occupied by a single man eating alone. Palermo has a remarkable cemetery, in which many of the dead are quite exposed, and it is a good place to enter Sicily.

We rented a car (above our $30 daily budget) and over the next week drove to Agrigento, with its Greek ruins, on the other side of the island, Syracusa, Mount Etna and Taormina. The entire week was splendid. Sicily is quite different from the rest of Italy, and, as is frequently the case, Etna was in mild eruption. We found a terrific hotel in Taormina, an historic resort, very reasonably priced. The weather at that time of year that far south was pleasant (although even Florence is often nice in the fall and winter). Sicily, over many centuries, was conquered by many foreign armies, but the saying there is that the conquerors all eventually became Sicilian.

The Italian portion of our honeymoon ended on the Amalfi Coast, south of Naples, which is much more settled than California's Route One, with many towns and villages clinging to the cliffs. There are hotels where you have to take an elevator 300 feet up to your room. One morning, I took off, left my wife in Amalfi, and climbed Mt. Vesuvius outside Naples. Only about 4,000 feet high, it's a wonder of any Italian trip, and, of course, Pompei, the city its eruption buried in 79 A.D., has now been escavated and lies below, a re-creation of antiquity.

In 1977, when I was just beginning my Olympic assignment for the L.A. Times, I went from sports federation meetings in Monte Carlo one night across the Italian border to the town of Ventimiglia, where the mayor's Olympic representative, Anton Calleia, and I ate a fabulous dinner of, I think, roast chicken. It demonstrated what is true in Italy, you can easily find a good meal almost every place. Another memory of this trip is driving from Monte Carlo to Lausanne, Switzerland, with Jim Hardy, then general manager of the L.A. Coliseum, and his wife. We went through Turin and crossed into Chamonix, the French ski resort.

In 1981, I was back in Italy, this time with my seven-year-old son. There were more Olympic meetings in Monte Carlo, and we took a train from there to Genoa, then on to Milan and the Swiss border. When we crossed from the splendor of the French Riviera into Italy, my son, David, exclaimed to me, unforgettably, "I can't understand it. In France, every house looks beautiful. Here, (in Italy), the houses all look terrible." It was a difference, in part, of paint, but Italy is less prosperous than France, and certainly Monte Carlo.

I look forward to returning to Italy, even under my somewhat unsteady walking conditions. I'd love to return to Florence, and to Capri, which I visited just briefly on my first trip 49 years ago. Even Naples may attract me, though anyone must watch out for the thieves there. It's said that a piece of luggage left in the Naples railroad station will disappear in two minutes, while a diamond ring left in a Helsinki parking lot will still be there the next day. Trains remain a good way to travel through most of Italy, but you need a car in Sicily. There are many places in Italy, of course, I haven't been. My daughter and her husband went to Bologna for a wedding a few years ago and they liked it very much, as well as the area around Lake Como.

My son went back to Italy as a student, spending considerable time on the Italian Riviera between Pisa and Genoa. One night, he and his companions took a train across a precipice to go to dinner, only to find when they emerged from the restaurant that the railroad workers had gone on strike. They had to walk back to their lodgings, a distance of 10 miles. This is the chaotic side of the great Italian Republic.




Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, the good old days.


The Greatest Generation's legacy: Cheap eats, cheap seats, cheap squeeks (squeezes).

7/23/2007 12:15 AM  

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