Italy and it’s rich three thousand year history beckons everyone. From the mighty Alps and the romantic canals of Venice to the Colosseum in Rome and the Byzantine wonders of Sicily, from fashionable Milan to the sleepy little hill towns, there’s something to see in every corner. Pasta, pizza, da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Mt. Vesuvius, Inter Milan, Paolo Rossi, Pompeii, olive oil all probably add up to living “la dolce vita”.
The trouble with taking cheaper flights is that they invariably operate from airports far from the city. We boarded the flight at Charleroi (Belgium, December 2003) and got down at Treviso. Both airports are about 1 hour’s drive from Brussels and Venice. On reaching Venice we learnt that there was a public vehicle strike. Italy has its share of lowlifes and cheats, and the owner of the water taxi took advantage of the strike and charged us a lot more than what would have been due. The hotel we stayed at was close to Piazza San Marco. We left our baggage in the rooms and went out. I do not know what people find so romantic about Venice, especially nowadays…it’s a little town full of dirt and garbage everywhere. There are no proper signs on the roads, so it is very easy to get lost. However, it’s water on all sides, so eventually, you get to your destination!
Next day we went over to Trieste. I had been traveling with a couple of my friends who had studied there, so they were familiar with the place. As you enter the town, the view of the Adriatic Sea is really grand. The faint line of the Alps can be seen too from the City Centre. There was a particular angle from which you could see the Alps with its cap of snow seemingly floating majestically over the Adriatic; I can see it still in my mind’s eye. What an incomparable scene it was! After walking a lot and treading thousands of stairs we were famished, so we went into a Mom and Pop pizza joint, they make the most wonderful pizzas! Then we boarded a tram with cogwheel drives that took us to the top of a hill adjoining the town. Slovenia was just across the hilltop, and the Adriatic sea lay all stretched out in a fascinating view. We caught the evening train and went back to Venice.
Venice is sinking
Is Venice sinking? Or is the water level rising? The answer is complex but it’s “yes” to both questions. The mean level of the land has lowered by 23cm / 9in relative to sea level.
This was our last day in Venice; we went out to see the neighbouring islands. We caught a public boat. Among the many stops on the way, two consecutive ones were at the hospital and at the cemetery; that gave me a lot of confidence in the Italian healthcare system! 🙂 We went to Murano, which is famous for Venetian glass works. I do not think the place has changed one bit in the last thousand years or so. Most of the workers were quite aged, the younger ones probably left for better lives somewhere else. Touched a few more islands and then went back to the main island of Venice to catch a bus to Treviso airport and back to Brussels.
Rome was the primary destination this time and we made sure we had more than a day (4 days in reality) to conquer it! 🙂 We had to start quite early from England since these were free flights on KLM with the mandatory changeover at Schiphol, Amsterdam. Once we landed at Fiumicino it was a long walk to the train station from where we boarded the Leonardo Express to Termini (Rome Central). Our hotel was a short walk from the station and we passed by Basilica di Santa Maria on our way to it. The Colosseum was close by as well and that was our first destination. It was almost like a deja vu except that it was not! This was my first time but I had seen it so many times in movies and other pictures that it seemed very very familiar. We stood in awe for a few minutes and then walked around the impressive structure before finding the hop-on/off bus stop behind it. We were pretty tired from the very early start and decided to take a tour of the city and finding our bearings a bit before embarking on the active phase. However, that did not turn out to be the case. As the bus made it’s way through the city we jumped off at the Vatican; couldn’t resist that! After taking a tour of the Papal estates, we boarded the bus back to the train station where we had dinner and walked back to the hotel.
The second day started early as well since we wanted to put our 24 hour ticket to good use before it expired. We rode the bus around the city and then started the walk from the furthest point on the west, Piazza Navona. The square was pretty impressive with wonderful architecture all around, fountains, local artists, sidewalk eating places and lot of people taking photos of everything from every conceivable angle. The next stop was the Pantheon. It was “commissioned by Marcus Agrippa as a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome, and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in about 126 AD” (wikipedia). The dome was quite impressive and had a timeless feel to it. From here we found our way to Trevi Fountain. It was an incredibly hot day and the sight of water made me thirsty. Spanish Steps was the next on the list. After climbing the 138 steps we sat inside the Trinita dei Monti church at the top and caught our breath. The view of Piazza di Spagna and the rest of the city was quite wonderful from the top of the stairs. We had covered a lot on that day. Picked up pizzas on our way back as our tired legs refused more exercise!
The third day started off with a visit to the Arch of Constantine and then we walked around without much purpose among the ruins of the Roman Forum, Augustus’ Castle, Arch of Septimius and Trajan’s Column. In the afternoon we met with our friends at Campidoglio Square, one of Michelangelo’s creations, right behind the Victor Emmanuel Monument. The VE Monument looked out of place, all new and white in the midst of beautiful historical surroundings. They walked us through some old neighborhoods, probably the places Julius Caesar once frequented! One of the monuments we saw has fallen into a sad state of disrepair and has now turned into a hangout for feral cats and a dumping ground for bag snatchers; we did see quite a few empty ones lying around. That evening we had dinner at a nice Argentine restaurant. I knew about the huge Italian community in Argentina and now some of those folks have started to come back to the mother country. Clearly remember how Maradona and Veron, the two great Argentine footballers used a not-so-great way of getting hold of Italian citizenships! 🙂
The last day had arrived and we had already covered all that was on our list, something that happens very rarely. We didn’t do much. After a late breakfast we wandered around our hotel for a bit and made our way back to the Termini station where we took the return train to the airport. Saw remnants of an aqueduct and wonderful but crumbling architecture throughout the journey. While I understood that there weren’t enough resources to protect every historical building in Rome, it made me sad nonetheless.
We had our share. Since it was very hot we usually got back to the hotel in the evening, rested a bit and went out again around 10 pm for dinner and snacks. The area next to Trajan’s Column was nicely lit from the shining lights at Victor Emmanuel Monument and we hung out there until past midnight snacking on lovely gelatos from the numerous kiosks and mobile vendors run by Bangladeshis.
They are everywhere in Rome. I could probably get by over there just speaking in my native language, Bengali. They had some amazing stories to share when I had a chance to talk with quite a few of them. Sadly, they are all part of the trade in human trafficking that lures people from the third world with promises of better lives abroad. I met a teenager at a grocery store who told me that he had no papers and had somehow been smuggled into Turkey before making his way into Italy six months earlier. He was paid next to nothing and worked all day, everyday. The fact that they had no papers was pretty obvious when we were in the Colosseum area late one evening. I had struck up a conversation with one that was selling miniature replicas, he had promised me an excellent deal after finding out that I was his “brother” when suddenly someone started yelling in Bengali that there would be a police raid – he had been “informed”! All of a sudden these guys ran for their lives and disappeared into the surrounding darkness within a few seconds. Sure, the police were there shortly afterwards but the sham raid found not a single illegal immigrant!