No travel now for nine months so taking a look back at good times in Italy…
Have Bag, Will Travel
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Arriving in Florence we went first to the Cathedral, or Duomo, which although completed as long ago as 1436 is still the tallest building in the City.
Even though it was relatively early in the morning there was a huge queue of visitors waiting at the entrance and snaking in a seemingly endless human coil around the building so being naturally impatient decided we couldn’t afford the time to wait so decided to return later.
Read the full story here…
Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…
Upon my return from Naples I thought I might update my map of places that I have visited in Italy.
Click on an image to scroll through the picture gallery…
“To an American, Italian traffic is at first just down-right nonsense. It
seems hysterical, it follows no rule. You cannot figure what the driver
ahead or behind or beside you is going to do next and he usually does it!” – John Steinbeck
There are three main problems when driving in Italy and the first is the condition of the roads. Unlike Spain, where the Government has spent millions of Euros investing in and improving the transport infrastructure and built many new roads and where driving is a pleasure, in Italy they clearly haven’t spent any of their EU money on highway improvements and the annual maintenance budget is zero.
The condition of the roads is appalling which makes using them rather like like playing Russian roulette. Pot holed and poorly maintained and with white lines that were first painted when Mussolini was in charge they are down-right dangerous.
On account of this there is a general speed limit of fifty kilometres an hour but Italians generally ignore that and this is the second problem – the drivers.
In Italy, traffic regulations currently in force were approved by the Legislative Decree number 285 of 30th April 1992 and are contained in the Italian Highway Code called the Codice della Strada, but anyone visiting a busy Italian city or town would be certain to dispute that there is such a thing as a highway code in Italy.
Italian drivers obey no rules and have no self-control, manners or tolerance, junction priorities mean nothing because show a moment of hesitation and this is interpreted as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to pull-out, cut you up or just simply push in. They are ignorant and impatient and show a split-second of indecision and they go for their car horn like a trigger-happy wild-west gunslinger. At a junction or a roundabout the Italian driver narrows his eyes and flashes a ‘do you feel lucky punk’ sort of glare while his right foot hovers menacingly over the accelerator pedal.
Driving in Italy is like one massive demolition derby! Red lights are ignored, speed limits are purely advisory and it appears to be compulsory to drive while speaking on a mobile phone. After half an hour or so my nerves were in complete tatters and my stomach was as twisted as Chubby Checker and as knotted as one of the trunks of the thousand year olive trees at the side of the road.
Then there is the third problem – parking! There is no parking discipline because an Italian will gladly block you in, double-park, use the bumpers to nudge other cars out of the way, scratch and graze other parked vehicles on the way in or the way out and generally disregard all of the normal civilised rules of parking a car.
“I love the way Italians park… it looks like a parking competition for blind people. Cars are pointed in every direction, half on the pavements and half off, facing in, facing sideways… fitted into spaces so tight that the only way out would be through the sun roof. (Italians) park their cars the way I would park if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap.” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’
We thought that we might now leave the coast and take the main road towards the town of Fasano and then on to another of the white cities, Martina Franca where we arrived about forty minutes later and where the traffic was at its murderous worst and by the time we had found an empty car park I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and Kim wasn’t too far behind me.
I found a car park the size of a football pitch and to be safe I parked the car right in the middle where there was no other vehicles and then walked towards the centre. I wasn’t absolutely confident because what normally happens to me in these situations is that I find a good parking spot like this and then a few seconds later someone in a 4×4 or a twenty year old beat-up Transit van comes along and parks right up next to me.
Perched on a hillside Martina Franca didn’t look anything special so we rather unfairly wrote it off as not worth stopping for and we carried on to Massafra where the driving deteriorated even further where I swear the drivers were all competing in some sort of scrap-heap challenge. Caught up in the flow of speeding traffic I was terrified by the narrow lanes, the closeness of the steel barriers at the side of the road and just how near people were prepared to drive to the rear end of our car.
At every junction I had an expectation of a collision – at a roundabout I showed some hesitation and a twenty tonne truck just cut straight across me, missing me by inches! I realised by now that stop signs are completely meaningless as, on approaching one, an Italian driver just ignores it and simply pushes the front of his car into the flow of traffic while he continues to chat away on his mobile phone.
My nerves were in shreds and I was so pleased to get back to Alberobello and park the car in a safe place where it was now going to stay until tomorrow morning when happily we would be returning it to the Sixt car rental office in Ostuni.
You have probably guessed this already but I didn’t enjoy driving in Italy and it will be a very long time before I do it again!
The next day it was only a short drive to Ostuni and when we arrived there I was really, really glad to be able to return the car. The man at the hire car desk silently and menacingly checked the documents and then looked up and with just a momentary look of threat and anticipation in his eyes asked one simple question “what damage to car?” as though this was surely inevitable.
I told him that I was absolutely certain that there was none and he looked at me as though I was the World’s biggest liar and came round from behind the desk and went off to check.
He inspected both inside and out, several times as I recall, and then had to concede that there was no damage and then, with a look that had turned from anticipation to disappointment, almost reluctantly it seemed to me, signed off the hire release papers.
Italy’s roads are dangerous and 2014 was probably the worst year and according to EuroStat there were thirty two thousand, nine hundred and fifty-one road deaths in the EU and five thousand, six-hundred and twenty-five of them were in Italy. That is about 17%. In the ten years up to 2014 the Italians slaughtered sixty-five thousand, one hundred and twenty five people in traffic accidents so it pays to have your wits about you when crossing the road and why if you want to be sure of avoiding death on the highway in Italy it is probably safest to visit Venice.
“…nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.” – Mark Twain
People have always travelled to other parts of the world to see great buildings and works of art, to learn new languages, to experience new cultures and to enjoy different food and drink…
…In 2008 I flew to Athens and in the departure lounge queue behind us was a couple of girls and one announced to the other that ‘I only go on holiday for three things, to get drunk, get stoned and get laid’, I had to see who this person was and when I turned round she turned out to be so unattractive that I was tempted to say ‘Don’t build your hopes up, if I were you I would concentrate on the first two!’ but she was bigger than me so I said nothing of course!
In 1936 the League of Nations defined a foreign tourist as someone travelling abroad for at least twenty-four hours and its successor, the United Nations amended this definition in 1945 by including a maximum stay of six months. In early 2010 the European Commissioner, Antonio Tajani, unveiled a plan declaring tourism a human right and introduced it with the statement that “travelling for tourism today is a right. The way we spend our holidays is a formidable indicator of our quality of life.”
Young English elites of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (early Rahs really) often spent two to four years travelling around Europe in an effort to broaden their horizons and learn about language, architecture, geography and culture in an experience known as the Grand Tour.
In fact the word tourist has its origins in what used to be more correctly called the Grand Tour of Europe, which was a term first used by Richard Lassels in his 1670 book ‘Voyage or a Complete Journey through Italy’ and after that it came into general usage to describe the travels in Europe of wealthy young men and women in the years of the Enlightenment where it was quite normal to take a gap year (or four) in the quest for a broader education.
Lassels was a Roman Catholic priest and a tutor to several of the English nobility and travelled through Italy five times. In his book, he claims that any truly serious student of architecture, antiquity, and the arts must travel through France and Italy, and suggested that all “young lords” make the Grand Tour in order to understand the political, social, and economic realities of the world.
The primary purpose of the Grand Tour lay in the exposure both to the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance and an an introduction to the aristocratic and fashionably polite society of the European continent. In addition, before museum collections went on tour themselves, it provided the only opportunity to view specific works of art, and possibly the only chance to hear certain music and it was commonly undertaken in the company of a Cicerone, a knowledgeable guide or tutor.
The Grand Tour had more than superficial cultural importance as the historian E.P. Thompson observed, “ruling-class control in the 18th century was located primarily in a cultural hegemony, and only secondarily in an expression of economic or physical (military) power.”
While the general objective of the Grand Tour was essentially educational (and this probably what mum and dad thought that they were forking out for) they were also notorious for more frivolous pursuits such as getting hammered, partying heavily and sleeping with as many continental lovelies as possible and so began a tradition that thousands of holiday Brits continue to this day in the party hot-spots of Europe.
When young men on the Grand Tour weren’t misbehaving like people on a stag weekend to Amsterdam they were mostly interested in visiting those cities that were considered the major centres of culture at the time, primarily Paris, Rome, Venice, Florence and Naples.
The Grand Tourist would travel from city to city and usually spend some time in smaller towns and up to several months in the three main cities on the itinerary. Paris was considered the grandest and most cultured city and was usually first en-route and tourists would rent apartments for several weeks at a time and would make occasional visits to the countryside and adjacent towns.
From Paris, they travelled south either across the Alps or by a ship on the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and then they would pass on to Rome or Venice. To begin with Rome was initially the southernmost point they would travel to but when excavations began at Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1738 the two sites also became additional major stop-off points.
Other locations sometimes included as part of some Grand Tour included Spain and Portugal, Germany, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltic States. However, these other spots lacked the cultural and historical appeal of Paris and Italy and the substandard roads made travel much more difficult so they were not always the most popular.
Some of them didn’t have vineyards either so I suppose that might have reduced their appeal somewhat.
The British it seems have always been rather keen on travelling abroad and we have left our mark all over Europe (and not just through football violence either) in Nice one of the first and most established holiday resorts on the French Riviera, the long esplanade along the seafront is known to this day as the Promenade des Anglais and in many other historic resorts in continental Europe, old well-established palace hotels have names like the Hotel Bristol, the Hotel Carlton or the Hotel Majestic, reflecting the predominance of English customers.
In fact there are nearly three hundred hotels around the world called Bristol. They take their name from Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730-1803), the 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, who spent most of his life travelling around Europe enjoying the best hospitality money could buy. What a good life that would have been, to be sure!
This sort of thing really appeals to me; both the exploration and knowledge and having a really good knees up at the same time and I have become determined to travel as much in Europe as I possibly can. There are forty-six countries in Europe and I have only so far been to twenty-nine so I am just over half way towards my objective of visiting them all.
Ryanair was Europe’s original low fares airline and is my favourite which is lucky for me because the airline has over eleven hundred low fare routes to one hundred and sixty-one destinations in Europe and North Africa. In the last three years I have flown thirty times at a very reasonable average cost of £40 return all inclusive.
Not all of these flights were with Ryanair of course and I have been forced to use others but I generally find that these work out more expensive. A return flight to Athens with Easyjet for example costs £120 and my biggest bargain so far was with Ryanair to Santander in Cantabria, Spain at just £10.02 return. To put things into some sort of perspective it costs over £80 to go to London on the train from Peterborough with National Express and for that you are not even guaranteed a seat. That is about .90p a mile and on that basis it would cost approximately £1,800 to go to Santander and back by train!
In 2015 the most visited country in Europe was France, followed by Spain, Italy, United Kingdom and Germany. Spain made the most money out or tourist revenues and on average the Germans spent most while away from home. The most visited city was London (although as usual France disputes the official figures) and the most visited place was Trafalgar Square, followed by the Eiffel Tower and then the Vatican.
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation, which has its headquarters in Madrid, produces the World Tourism Rankings and is a United Nations agency dealing with questions relating to tourism.
For the record I visited Trafalgar Square in 2008, the Eiffel Tower in 2005 and the Vatican in 2003.
“…we used to go and stand on the bridges and admire the Arno. It is popular to admire the Arno. It is a great historical creek with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around. It would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it. They all call it a river, and they honestly think it is a river, do these dark and bloody Florentines. They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it.” – Mark Twain – ‘The Innocents Abroad’
The most famous bridge in Florence is the Ponte Vecchio, which crosses the River Arno and like the Rialto in Venice is instantly recognisable by the thousands of tourists who visit it annually and saunter aimlessly from one side to the other and then back again. It is the oldest bridge in Tuscany and by happy chance the only one in the city that, allegedly due to a direct order from Adolph Hitler himself, wasn’t blown up by the retreating Nazis as they abandoned Italy in 1944 towards the end of the Second-World-War. Knowing just how much the Nazis used to like to blow things up this must have been a one-in-a-million fluke!
The first bridge on this site was built a very long time ago by the Romans and was constructed of wood on stone piers. It was ruined in 1117 and later reconstructed but destroyed again in 1333 by flooding, it was then rebuilt once more in 1345, but this time much more sensibly using stone. Due to the high volume of traffic using the bridge, a number of shopkeepers set up shop to catch the passing trade.
The first merchants here consisted primarily of blacksmiths, butchers, and tanners catering mostly to travelling soldiers but when the Medici family moved into Florence bringing with them vast wealth and an appreciation for the finer things in life they promptly cleared the bridge of all the dirty trades that were a bit of an eyesore and certainly responsible for polluting the river below and replaced them with goldsmiths and similar upmarket shops.
Today it remains lined with medieval workshops on both sides and some of them precariously overhang the river below supported only by slender timber brackets that look as though they are in imminent danger of collapse. A number of these shops had to be replaced in 1966 when there was a major flood that consumed the city and swept some of them away but this time was unable to destroy the bridge itself.
Running along the top of the bridge is a corridor that the Medici had built so that they could cross the river without having to mix with the riff-raff below and is now an art gallery but we stayed down below and pushed our way through the hordes of tourists. Today, as everyday I suspect, the bridge was busy with street traders and shoppers and the ever-present scrounging beggars.
Along the bridge and especially in the middle around the statue of the Florentine sculptor, Cellini, there were many padlocks clamped to the railings. This, I found out later, is a lover’s tradition where by locking the padlock and throwing the key into the river they become eternally bonded.
This is an action where I would recommend extreme caution because it sounds dangerously impulsive to me; I think I would further recommend taking the precaution of keeping a spare somewhere in case I needed releasing later. Apparently all of these love tokens do lots of damage to the bridge and thousands of padlocks need to be removed every year. To deter people there is a €50 penalty for those caught doing it and that is a much higher price than I would ever be prepared to pay for eternal bondage!
Actually, it may be that there is some truth in this legend because according to ‘EuroStat’, even though it has doubled in the last five years, Italy has one of the lowest divorce rates in the European Union. Sweden has the highest and although I don’t know this for sure I’m willing to bet that across all of Europe the Vatican State probably has the absolute lowest!
On the south bank of the river there is an area of the city known as the Oltrano (literally ‘Over the Arno’), which was an area of palaces and gardens developed by the Medici in the sixteenth century where they moved to get away from the overcrowding and the pollution of the old city. The walk along the embankment took us as far as the Porta San Niccolò, a fourteenth century City gate and from there we climbed what seemed like never ending winding steps through lush mature gardens to the Piazzale Michelangelo where there were far reaching views over the rooftops of Florence on the north side of the river.
The pastel facades of the buildings with their terracotta tiled roofs were just as they appear in the guide books and looked magnificent under a sky becoming ever more steadily blue. At this location there was another copy of the statue of David and several other Michelangelo masterpieces but all of this was spoilt somewhat by the presence of the tacky tourist stalls catering for the continuous flood of day trippers arriving in torrents by coach.
The City was stretched out below and as we surveyed it and appreciated its size we knew instinctively that we had not allowed nearly enough time for the visit to Florence as we only had enough for a frantic dash around the major sites and certainly didn’t have time to visit the many museums, palaces and gardens that we would have liked to have seen. We made a decision that we would have to come back another time.
Mini-Europe is a theme park located near Brussels in Belgium and has reproductions of monuments in the European Union on show, at a scale of 1:25. Approximately eighty cities and three hundred and fifty buildings are represented and Italy is represented by six mini-models.
In terms of the real thing I have visited five out of the six.
First of all, and rather inevitably, Venice the second most visited city in Italy after Rome and Mini-Europe provides a model of St Mark’s Square, the Campanile and the Doge’s Palace.
Alexander Herzen said of Venice that “To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself, but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of genius” but at least at Mini-Europe it is sensibly on dry land.
Next is the Leaning Tower of Pisa which is probably one of the most instantly recognisable buildings in Europe and probably the whole World. I can certainly remember it from a school encyclopaedia article and when I was a young boy I was always intrigued by the concept of a building listing so perilously to one side that it was apparently just waiting for a strong wind to topple it over.
I had secretly suspected that the pictures had exaggerated the buildings predicament so I was astounded when I actually saw it for the first time and was able to satisfy myself that this tower really does lean over a very long way indeed.
Nearby is the Palazzo Publico from Siena which I visited one day in pouring rain in March 2006 so didn’t see it at its very best. I had always wanted to visit Siena ever since I saw the film star matinée idol Stewart Grainger swashbuckling to equine victory in the ‘Swordsman of Siena’ and to see the venue for the famous annual Palio horse race.
This is probably the most famous festival in Tuscany and was first recorded in the year 1273 and is a colourful medieval pageant that takes place twice a year on 2nd July and 16th August. It is so-called because riders race each other for a Palio or winners banner and it is a competition where seventeen seriously crazy jockeys hurtle bareback around a confined square with dangerously adjacent buildings and perilously close spectators; I have concluded that they are probably taxi drivers for the rest of the year.
Although Mount Vesuvius doesn’t make it onto the UNESCO World Heritage List, having been edged out by Mount Etna in Sicily it does get included at Mini-Europe where it regularly erupts to the delight of the visitors.
Guests may think this amusing but if it really was to erupt again then the consequences are potentially disastrous. It is difficult to be precise but scientists think that Vesuvius formed about twenty-five thousand years ago and today the volcano is rated as one of the most dangerous in the world – not because of its size but because of the proximity of millions of people living close by and if it was to go off again with a similar eruption to the one that destroyed Pompeii in 79 then it is estimated that it could displace up to three million people who live in and around Naples. The volcano has a major eruption cycle of about two thousand years so the next eruption is dangerously imminent.
Next are the Trulli houses of Alberobello which I visited and stayed in on my latest Italian journey. Although our accommodation had been restored and modernised to make it suitable for holiday accommodation it was a genuine traditional house with whitewashed walls and a stone cap roof and there was a framed photograph inside that was eighty years old to prove it.
Trulli houses are unique to this area of Italy, they are rather like an igloo with a conical roof and a single windowless room inside with shallow alcoves for bedrooms and storage. Where they first came from is a matter of some debate. One theory is that since Trulli can be built up and pulled down in a hurry, in past centuries their owners would demolish their own buildings whenever the tax man came to town to assess property duty, and then rebuild them when he had moved on.
Six good choices but surprisingly missing anything from either Rome or Florence but if you really need to see these places in a model theme park then they can both be found at “Italia in Miniatura” at a similar tourist attraction near Rimini in Italy itself.
Following the visit to Puglia in Southern Italy I thought it was probably time to review my performance in visiting the Country’s World Heritage Sites.
The World Heritage list has been around for over forty years as a consequence of events in 1954 when the government of Egypt announced that it was to build the Aswan Dam, a project that proposed to flood a valley containing priceless treasures of ancient civilizations. Despite opposition from Egypt and neighbouring Sudan, UNESCO launched a worldwide safeguarding campaign, over fifty countries contributed and the Abu Simbel and Philae temples were taken apart, moved to a higher location, and put back together piece by piece. At last the World was collectively protecting its treasures.
Not surprisingly Italy is the country with the most Word Heritage Sites, it has fifty-three, seven more than Spain which has the second most sites. I have visited half of the sites in Spain but when I reviewed the Italy list I was disappointed to find that I have been to less than a quarter and in this whole fortnight in Puglia I had added only one – the Trulli houses of Alberobello. I was genuinely surprised to find that Lecce, the Florence of the south was missing from the list and to find it marooned on the tentative list where it has been languishing since June 2006.
In terms of cities on the list I have been to Rome several times but my first visit in 1976 was four years before it became the first Italian site to be added to the list. As for other cities on the list I have been to Naples, also in 1976, Florence, Pisa and Siena in 2006, Verona and Padova in 2012 and Venice in 2002, 2003, 2005 and most recently in 2012 because you can never go to Venice too many times.
Which brings me to the final two sites that I have visited, both of them for the first time in 1976 before they were even admitted to the list and which was in actual fact was before there was any sort of list at all! WOW, I feel suddenly old.
The first of these is the Amalfi coastline and its famous death defying drive described so accurately by John Steinbeck: “Flaming like a meteor we hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue sea, that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing, a road carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side.”
The second is a joint listing for the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, two towns destroyed by the eruption in 79 A.D. of the volcano Mount Vesuvius which is surprisingly not included on the list even though Mount Etna in Sicily is.
Well, eleven out of forty-nine is not a good score so it means one of two things are needed to correct this rather poor performance, either I have to spend more time in Italy in the future or UNESCO needs to hurry up and include some of the places that I have already been. They could start with Lecce and Lucca, both on the tentative list, and also Palermo that once applied but after rejection subsequently withdrew its nomination.