Reflections on Italy

24 July 2013, Marco Polo Airport, Venice.

We made it to the airport an hour and a half before check-in even opens for our flight. Excessive, yes, but we had read so many horror stories of getting to (and through) this airport that we didn’t want to leave anything to chance. As it turns out, the airport is actually pretty small; a lot smaller than Auckland International.

Apart from the weather (unmentionably humid and hot — worse than anything we’ve experienced so far) the commute here was very uneventful. We had our now-familiar and short walk over the Rialto Bridge to the aeroporto boat stop, and a five-minute wait to get on the boat. (We caught the 1003 service, rather than the 1033.) The boat was only maybe half full, so plenty of room to sit down inside on nice leather-covered seats, and the big suitcases were accommodated upstairs. If it were full of passengers, it wouldn’t be so pleasant. Still hot, but once the windows were opened and a bit of breeze happened, bearable. About a 45-minute boat ride to the airport; then a seven-minute (according to the signs) walk to the terminal. A bit like the walk between the international and domestic terminals in Auckland.

So, time to reflect.

We’ve spent three weeks in Italy, being uber tourists. We’ve stayed in the metropolitan areas (with the exception of Lucca), and undertaken quintessentially tourist-oriented activities — so my reflections herein should be viewed in that light.

Things I really liked about Italy:

1. The fresh produce. The quality of food here is fantastic. The availability of fresh, ripe, good-quality fruit and vege and fish is excellent. And fresh mozzarella, pasta and divine pasta sauce. (The chance of me fitting my uniform when I get home is slim… unlike me.)
Recommendation: If you are staying in ‘holiday houses’ with a kitchen, make use of it. Before you select your accommodation, use Google or Yelp to find the nearest supermercato. Look for Esselunga, Coop or Billa. It only takes a few minutes to whip up a salad (but be aware that Italian supermarkets don’t sell salad dressing, at all) — or boil up some fresh pasta. Delicious, easy, and a LOT cheaper than eating out.

2. Cheap wine. You can buy a litre of tavolo (table) wine for 1.69 euro. And it’s drinkable. Or you can choose to buy a top-end for however much you choose to pay.
Recommendation: Try the cheap stuff. You might be surprised.

3. The history. This place is a living museum. The opportunity to stand on, see, touch, walk through, photograph items that are up to 2000 years old is special. It puts our existence into a context that we don’t have in New Zealand.
Recommendation: Take your time. If you rush, you miss the good bits. Sometimes guided tours are helpful, like the Vatican. In other places, I don’t think they’re necessary at all, like around Venice. Just get out there with a map, use the sun to help figure out which way to go (we did), and you’ll get there eventually.

4. Cheap train travel. The trains are not expensive, and they go pretty much everywhere, and quite regularly. (As long as there’s no strike, of course.)
Recommendation: Booking the train travel on line before we left NZ worked a treat. If you buy a ticket locally you will put yourself in a situation where you have limited time (and the pressure of people waiting behind you in a queue) to figure out from the machine how to buy the correct ticket to the correct destination. And you have to then validate it before you get on the train. Booking the tickets online, printing them and bringing them with us worked perfectly.

5. Easy accessibility on foot. Because everything is so old and cramped, getting about on foot is the best way to get anywhere. Nothing is very far away.
Bring comfortable walking shoes, not sandals — unless you have tested them and are sure they are suitable for walking/standing all day every day. Most aren’t. Walk everywhere. Yes, you will get hot and sweaty, but so does everyone else. There’s no need to pay for taxis if you choose your accommodation carefully.

6. The leather goods. Mmm, Florence. Leather, leather everywhere. Beautiful, hand-crafted leather jackets, bags, wallets, shoes.
Recommendation: If you want leather anything, go to Florence. And if you are really serious, check out the outlet stores on the outskirts — apparently accessible by bus, if you choose. When buying leather, check where it is made. Look for the sign ‘artiginiale’, or artisan.

7. Free wifi in our accommodation. This is great! Only in Lucca did we not have free access to the Internet.
Recommendation: When booking accommodation, ensure you have free wifi access. Travelling with an iPad and bluetooth keyboard was a perfect combination.

8. Good drinking water. Especially the free fountains in Rome. The water quality is excellent — even out of the tap. How they do it, given the population density, I don’t know, but Italy gets a 10 out of 10 for drinking-water quality.
Recommendation: Don’t buy more than one bottle of water. Fill it up out of the tap before you leave home, then refill it at public drinking fountains if you are in Rome.

9. The two-way windows. Italy has exceptionally solid, high-quality windows that open two ways. If you move the handle one way, they open sideways, like a door; if you move the handle the other way, they crack open at the top for ventilation. Cool.

Things I didn’t really like about Italy:

1. The lack of space. Nowhere that we have been has enough space for the people who need to
be there. Italy has about 60 million people, yet its roads are narrower than ours. (We have four million people.) The supermarket aisles literally do not allow two people to pass each other without turning sideways — forget trying to hold/tow your basket of groceries. The airports and train stations have only a handful of seats for hundreds of waiting passengers. And I could go on.
Recommendation: bring the smallest amount of luggage you can possibly get away with, because wherever you are, there won’t be enough room for you — let alone your luggage. If you have small children, DON’T bring them with you. Nowhere is stroller-friendly, especially Venice as there are stairs on both sides of every bridge. Toddler meltdowns were an everywhere, all-the time occurrence (accompanied by hot and harassed parents). The littlies weren’t enjoying themselves, and they won’t remember the trip. Leave them at home or wait till they’re teenagers. Likewise, if you are somehow mobility impaired: Italy would be a nightmare. They do not cater for wheelchairs well — or at all, as far as we could see, in trains and train stations.

2. The tourists. Yes, we are here in peak season, so I was expecting crowds. But they definitely fit the description ‘madding’.
Recommendation: If you have the choice, don’t come in the middle of summer in peak tourist season. It is very hot (over 30 degrees every day) and humid, and in the main tourist areas there are literally thousands upon thousands of people with cameras gawping at everything. Being one of them doesn’t make it any more palatable! The throngs of gawpers (who get in your way and bum pinto you all the time) increases (exponentially in my case) the annoyance factor, and truly ruins your enjoyment of some very special and unique places. I would love to come back when there are no tourists — winter?

3. Getting laundry done. Yes, the laundromats were clean, modern and functioned well — but they are expensive. To wash and dry about 10 kg of laundry cost at least 10.50 euro. That’s about NZ$17. Ouch.
Recommendation: When choosing your accommodation, try to find somewhere with a washing machine. If you’re using Trip Advisor and the place you’re staying is one of several covered by the same listing, and it says there’s a washing machine, ask the owner specifically if that individual ‘house’ has one. We were caught out twice with listings that said a ‘house’ had a washing machine, only to show up and find that was not the case — but the owner’s other listing did have one. If there is a washing machine, expect it to be really really really small and slow. If you can’t find accommodation with a washing machine, use Google or Yelp to find a coin-operated laundromat (lavarapido). Lavanderias seem to be dry-cleaning outfits that will wash, dry and iron your shirts for a small fortune if you choose.

4. Toilets. Paying to pee sucks. Venice was the most expensive at 1.50. Nowhere other than the airport did we encounter free toilets. Public toilets anywhere are few and far between. The state of the toilets is poor. The best were in Venice; the rest were unacceptable for a major Western nation in prime tourist spots. And the regional trains! Dropping the toilet contents on to the railway track! The only way to describe this is Third World. Italy really lets itself down on this count.
Recommendation: Always have change in your pocket for the loo. If you find a loo, use it, as you have no idea where the next one will be. Ladies, ALWAYS have tissues with you. Always carry hand sanitiser.

5. Photo bans in museums that are not churches. I understand (and respect) photography bans in places of worship, it’s just a pity no one else did. But inside museums? Florence was good on this count (the Galileo Museum), but nowhere else.
Recommendation: You have to check-in backpacks at the cloakroom (what they curiously title ‘left luggage’) before visiting most museums. Don’t bother keeping ahold of your camera, as you won’t get a chance to use it.Visit the Galileo Museum. It rocks.

6. Not having a phone. This is entirely our fault. Don’t repeat our mistake.
Recommendation: As soon as you land on Italian soil, get an Italian SIM card for your phone. You will probably need to contact the people at the places you are staying to update them on your progress. While payphones are available, the cellphone is a much more sensible option. Look for a TIM or Wind store.

7. Smoking. Lots of people in Italy smoke. It’s gross. Italy is about 20 years behind New Zealand on the smokefree front. Ick.

8. Dirtiness. While the inside of the places we stayed were certainly clean, those in old buildings without windows to the outside (quite common) smelled musty, even with dehumidifiers. There is just no way to get rid of 700 years’ worth of moisture in two-foot-thick brick walls. Because the buildings are so old and crumbly (like Christchurch after the earthquake) they are dirty on the outside. (I could never quite work out how people managed to keep clean laundry clean when they hung it on window clotheslines where it blows onto the side of really grotty buildings.) Everywhere looks like a slum at first glance.

Mostly, I have walked away from the Italian experience with a renewed conviction that New Zealand should not focus so much on encouraging tourism. Just come to Venice in peak season and see what I mean. As far as I could see, there is no commerce in Venice other than tourism and building restoration to service the tourist market. What once may have existed is extinguished by the behemoth that is large-scale commercialised sight-seeing.

The locals’ lifestyle is obliterated by a chattering kaleidoscope of camera-toting ignoramuses who bulldoze their way through everything, and are the catalyst for the metastasis of tacky souvenir shops that dominate and blight the interiors of medieval buildings. Not only do the tourists provide a lucrative source of income, their concentrated presence simply overwhelms any other enterprise, and steals from the locals meaningful employment. Instead, Venetians sit, mindlessly bored in small, air-conditioned and empty boutique shops, amusing themselves with their cellphones; or busy and harassed, serving gelato and selling pastries and keychains to an endless stream of holiday-makers who treat their surroundings as nothing more than a glorified amusement park. Or they clean up after the tourists: they clean their hotel rooms and wash their linen, and sweep their litter off the narrow calle.

The identity of places like Venice, Siena, San Gimignano is destroyed by the tourist trade. Queenstown and Milford Sound are New Zealand’s Venice and Siena. We need to be careful. By all means, let people see our natural wonders, but do it with New Zealand’s best interests at heart: limit access, limit tourist development, make it expensive, send a message of value. Take the private-jet mindset rather than the Ryan Air, EasyJet or JetStar one.

End rant!

When I get home I have to see the movie The Venice Syndrome, apparently on at the film festival (reviewed in the Herald today). It laments the ingress of tourism in Venice, quoting the fact that 20 years ago 200,000 people lived in Venice, but today it is a paltry 58,000.

More from me in Dubai if we have free wifi.

Arrivederci, Italia!

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on Italy

  1. I’ve been toalmost the same places in Italy at the same time as you have. Nice pictures. Too bad you missed the most important and interesting art event of the world, the Biennale fo Venice. Salute from Brazil!

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