Random Thoughts on Italy

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I planned to spend a lot of time in Italy – I wanted it to be one of the big stops of my trip. In fact when I was thinking about where I wanted to go I tried to concentrate on places that made me go “Oooooooo….” when I saw them on the map and Italy made me go “Oooooooo….” in a big way. By the time I step onto the boat for Greece I will have been in Italy for about 3 weeks so naturally there are a few things I that didn’t make it into a longer post. And here we go:

- Though it only merited a brief mention in my post on Rome, I did go to the Vatican. I even saw the Pope! I arrived (unintentionally) in time for the tail-end of his weekly Wednesday address out in St. Peter’s Square. There were about 7 zillion chairs set up in a special fenced off area, but the whole square is so huge that they only took up a small part. There were also big video screens off to the side showing his face, and he was speaking German. And despite the fact that His Holiness was so far away they could have substituted him for a talking match- head and I wouldn’t have noticed, it was still pretty cool.

See? That’s him – the infinitely tiny white smudge in the middle of the dais.

- It doesn’t have much to do with Italy in particular, but my Eurail pass expired on October 15th (the day before I got on the train from Venice to Firenze, naturally). And for future reference – it did NOT pay off having a rail pass. I bought the “15 days of travel within 3 months” version, which cost somewhere around €800.00. This means I needed to spend about €53.00 on each trip I used the pass for. Though I stopped keeping careful track, I’m pretty sure I only spent about €650 in total. This is mostly because though I did have a few very long trips, especially the overnight ones, I mostly made a lot of short hops. In fact, the same ended up being true for my Britrail pass (back a thousand years ago when I was in the UK). I’m not saying a rail pass in never a good investment, I’m just recommending you think carefully about where you’re going and how you’re planning on travelling before you invest. In Italy, for instance, the trains are quite cheap, but I hear that in Germany they can be ferociously expensive. Just think about, that’s all I’m saying.

- Here’s something I didn’t mention about the Colosseum: Lots of it looks like it’s made out of Swiss cheese. There are big holes in the stones all over, like it was attacked by giant stone-chewing gerbils or something.


It turns out this is because when it was built they used iron pins to key together the big blocks of stone. When the Roman Empire fell in the 5th or 6th century (yeah… whenever…), people were understandably more concerned about defending themselves against the barbarian hordes than preserving the then-abandoned Colosseum so they chiseled into the stones along the seams, extracted the iron pins, and melted them down to make weapons. I asked my guide what holds the stones together now, since the pins are gone. She assured me that the weight of the building holds everything in place, and it’s now been standing for about 1500 years since the vandalism, so I guess I believe her.

- I’m truly sorry I did not get a picture of this, but the train police in Verona were on Segways! I saw a pair of them on the platform while waiting for the train to Padua; they were rolling along, checking in the windows of the trains. I’m not sure why, but it seemed perfectly ridiculous. I’ve got a strange love-hate thing with Segways: I think it must be fun to be on one, but I also think they look preposterous. It made the police in Padua look like they were part of an Affirmitive Action Program for Mobility-Impaired Law Enforcement Officers (AAPMILEO). And I couldn’t help but think that all a ne’er-do-well would have to do to escape their clutches would be to run up or down the nearest flight of stairs. Then again I’ve also seen quite a few companies offering city tours on Segways, and that would probably be loads of fun.

- My tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel was thanks to a hashing friend I met the night before who actually runs a tour company! He generously set me up on one of his guided tours, so I am happy to plug him here to my 7 or 8 loyal GSRED readers: When in Rome, please go see the Vatican with Italywithus.com. And tell Adrian thanks from me. And here’s a little tidbit from my guide of that day, who was excellent: The Vatican Museums house so many pieces of art that if you were to glance for just 60 seconds at each one, it would take you twelve years to get through the whole place.

A fresco in one of the many Stanze di Rafaello

- I’ve had the chance to play a bit of pool while on this trip – in Holland, France, Portugal, and also in Italy. I am by no means a skilled pool player, but I’m also not complete rubbish. However in Italy I, and everyone I was playing with, were utterly hopeless. This is because the tables were approximately the size of a soccer pitch, and the pockets were exactly one micron wider than the diameter of the balls. It doesn’t really show in the picture, but trust me, if that table was the standard in Italy you would not want to play pool with an Italian on a standard bar-sized North American pool table.

Trust me on this one.

- Daylight Savings Time ended the Saturday night/Sunday morning that I arrived in Rome. (They still use the last-Sunday-in-October schedule over here.) This means that it starts getting dark around 5:30pm, making it almost impossible to go for a run after a day of sight-seeing and before dinner. I may be getting pretty comfortable running in new and random places every other day, but I really don’t fancy trying to run and navigate and dodge traffic in the dark. It’s a drag.

- SPQR, meaning Senatus Populusque Romanus ("The Senate and the People of Rome" or "The Senate and Roman People"). I think of it as something written on the flags of Roman Legions marching off to conquer the world a few thousand years ago. It turns out it's also the motto of the modern city of Rome. It's all over. Like, for instance, here:

- Again, it doesn't have a lot to do with Italy in particular, but I came into possession of a Lonley Planet Italian Phrasebook when I arrived, and I have to say that it’s perfectly excellent, and much more fun than the Eyewitness Russian Phrasebook I had. For instance the Eyewitness did not have a section devoted exclusively to romance, including the phrase “Neanche se to fossi l’ultima persona sulla terra!”. I’d really like to find an LP Phrasebook for Greece.

- As I mentioned, there are ruined Roman antiquities all over the place in Rome, but the thing I found surprising is that they are almost all built out of red brick. I was expecting to see a lot of big chunks of white marble, but the Romans were much too practical and tight-fisted for that. Bricks were cheap, easy to manufacture on site and (compared to solid stone) relatively lightweight. Most of the Colosseum is brick, and a lot of the ruins in the Forum are too. Often they built out of brick and then faced buildings with more expensive stone. The seats in the forum used to be covered in marble slabs, and the Pantheon used to have marble veneer panels on its pediment. (It also used to have bronze panels on the ceiling of the portico which were removed by Pope Urban VIII of the Barberini family, who had them melted down to make part of the altar at St. Peter’s, and a load of cannons. This gives rise to a saying that goes something like: “What the barbarians didn’t do to Rome, the Barberinis did”.)

Brick underneath, and stone for the fancy bits

- Finally, I have to point out that there’s a chain of grocery stores in Italy called Pam!* Look:

And now it’s on to Greece! The trip from Taranto to Athens is a long one involving trains and boats and maybe buses, and certainly lots of waiting and probably frustration and likely a sleepless night. And there will almost certainly be very little internet so don't be alarmed if there's some stoney silence ahead. But at the end there will be another new country (#11), another new language (#9) and even another new alphabet (#3). Stay tuned for news on the marathon, and the ouzo, and the baklava, and hopefully an idyllic Greek island, and a day or two of post-marathon dabbling of toes into crystal blue Mediterranean waters.

* This goes along with the manhole covers in France, which must be made by a particularly clever and talented foundry:


Kathryn said...

You start to recognize the shapes of words in Greek. And it's not too hard to learn because they actually pronounce every letter and once you know how each letter sounds - it doesn't change like silly English. Those clever Greeks. Just remember that 'Nai" means "Yes" - that's probably the trickiest one! (And for the record, "Oxi" means "No")

Patience is a virtue in Greece - the ferry schedules will very rarely be accurate. Find some good stuffed tomatoes, horiatiki, saganaki(I hear flaming cheese is great for marathon runners!) and barrel wine and enjoy!

Island wise - I vote for Santorini. And don't bother with Mykonos.

I hope you get a chance to go to the ancient theatre at Epidaurus. If there is a show on - GO. It doesn't matter what language it's in - you'll love it. Other great theatres are at Delphi and the Herod Atticus at the Acropolis.

Have a great time!!!

Mitch said...

Hmmmm, pink toenails?

Karen said...

There is noooooo way those are your feet Pam! You don't paint your toenails?!

Lisa said...

Yes...the toenails caught my attention as well...;^)

I love the PAM store!

Rick M. said...

Pam,just wanted you to know that I'm completely hooked on your Blog even though I've never commented before.It's WAY better than King Lear.
Travel safe and have fun.

Ian Timshel said...

Is there any turning back once the toenails go? Good luck next weekend Pam.

Unknown said...

Loved this post... well I love every single one of them. You make my heart ache for Italy. One day, one day.
Keep enjoying and once again, wishing you a great marathon!

Viviane said...

Agreed. Way Better than Lear. I may have to make a t-shirt that says AAPMILEO Hilarious!

So happy. That I think says it all. Keep smiling.

Unknown said...

You will be USELESS for work when this year is done!

I noticed the toes too, but thought not about the colour. It was the holiday type footwear when we are in Canadian November Weather Something Fierce These Days!!!!

I went to about 7-8 Greek Islands and each one had ONE thing. The last island I went to was Santorini and I found it to have everything all the others had, but yet was not in conflict in any way. Each thing is on a separate part of the island. I recommend a week on Santorini, even if it kills you. Rent a scooter.

Keep on Truckin'

We live through your adventures.


Nomadic Matt said...

Eurail passes are only good if you are doing big distance and taking expensive high speed trains. otherwise, you lose money!

nice toenails :)

ben said...

OK, I was going to point out the pink toes too...Really pam?!
Try Corfu in Greece. I had a pretty awesome day riding around on a scooter stopping at all kinds of beaches.
Don't worry, you aren't missing anything here! Oh, we bought VL3500's !!

Pam said...

@EVERYBODY: Seriously? 7 comments about my toenails? You people all need to get out more. And for your information, if any of you had bothered to LOOK last summer, you would have seen my toenails were painted then. And the year before. Yeesh.

dreamalittledream.ca said...

so, your pink toenails... :>

We did a tour of the coliseum and were told about the bricks by our tour guide. It seems that almost all the old ruins of the Roman times are now completely gone, with the exception of Christian monuments.

Why is this you ask? Well it's easier to take valuable stone and marble away from the Coliseum, pagan temples, etc and recycle it to build a church or other buildings. And as Christianity has been in effect for the last 2000 years, these are the buildings that have been taken care of.

If you look on the outside of the Coliseum you'll see names of different Popes from the 13th centuries to 18th centuries. It seems after 1200 years of "recycling" these temples they figured it may be wise to restore them. Of course this is very expensive and each pope only did it in limited amounts, and they used bricks which are cheap and plentiful. That's why 1/5th of the current coliseum is in the old white stone and the rest is in brick. And the reason why so many old structures are no longer there.

Same thing happened to the limestone covering in the Pyramids of Giza, the stone was then recycled into Mosques and such.



Anonymous said...

For decadence, try Ios. I spent a few days there in the late '80s. I'm told I had a wonderful time.


kidsdoc said...

Nope, I don't remember the pink toenails. But undoubtedly they will be fast for the marathon. I vote for Santorini and Corfu. Had the most amazing tour of Corfu from a taxi cab guy... just charged a nominal amount, informed, humorous, stopped at his fave spots to eat, met family, etc, etc, etc...
so now you can count 15 for comments on the toenails.

Mitch said...


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