Italy 2002 Trip Diary

Charlie Crowley

Wynette and I went to Italy and France in March 2002. This is a diary of the letters I sent home.

Milan: March 15, 2002

We made it safely. The whole thing took about 21 hours from our door to the hotel room. Then we had to stay up for eight more hours to synchronize with European time (8 hours ahead of ABQ).

Milan is a big city with lots of traffic but it has a fantastic cathedral, the third largest in the world (after San Peters in Rome and Seville). You can go up on the roof and walk all around it.

Also the food is great, as expected and the coffee still the best in the world.

We are leaving for San Remo tomorrow morning.

Aix-en-Provence: March 19, 2002

We are in a cyber cafe in Aix-en-Provence (pronounced as X). They have French keyboards which are a little disconcerting. The numbers are all shifted, as is the period, the a and the q are shifted so if you see q where an a should be that is why. A couple of othere letters are shifted also. I guess I'n getting the hang of it. Forget spell-checking since it would check for French.

We haven't felt like writing as much as last time. Well, no one wants to read all that anyway. We spent a day in Milan and then took the train to San Reno, which is a resort town on the Italian Riviera. It seemed very busy and the traffic was terrible, even in this, the off-season. The weather has been partly cloudy and somewhat warm, about 60 during the day and about 45 at night. The Mediterranean is not quite as pretty when the sun is not out but still is very nice.

The rooms have these pull-down screens that totally block out the light. This led to a problem the first morning in San Remo. We went to bed around midnight and slept until 2 PM the next day! It was so dark we reverted to our old time. This wasted most of the day and also set us back in adjusting to the time here. We are back on schedule now but now we set an alarm every day.

That afternoon we took the train to a little town a few miles west and took a nice hike up in their old town. It was nice to get some exercise. We stayed just two days in San Remo because we were looking for someplace smaller, with less traffic.

Monday we took the train to Aix, which is the primary town in Provence. It is a favorite town for American students to stay and learn French. We were looking for the bus station yesterday and a nice girl from Humbolt County CA gave us directions. At the open-air market today there were many Americans, both shopping and selling. Wynette asked a price and a guy we later found out was an American told her the price in French. When she looked puzzled, a woman we later found out was his French girlfriend laughed and told her in English. He has lived here for eight years.

Now the important part: the food has continued to be very good. French food is definitely different. Italian food is simple and fresh with simple sauces. French food has more sauces and is more complex. It is more like what you would get at a gourmet restaurant in the US. But they are both very good. The coffee here is also very good but not quite as good as in Italy. The Italian bread is not very good we didn't think. It was fresh but tasted flat. The bread in France is great. We read in the guidebook about a restaurant that served five different kinds of bread during a meal, one for each course. At the market today we saw 15-20 different kinds of bread, dozens of kinds of cheese, and a 10-15 kinds of olives. We got some of each for a picnic lunch but it was hard to choose, easier though when we realized that they would all be good.

Food is about 30-40% more expensive in France, I'm not sure why. In fact, a lot of things change when you cross the border even though the land is basically the same. They have merged economically but not culturally. Also the people here just look French and that is a different look than the Italians. We had learned how things worked in Italy and we are having to relearn them again in France.

We didn't have to relearn the money though. This euro thing is great. Since they just changed they are almost as new at it as we are. The fact that a euro is about a dollar (87 cents) it makes it easy to judge prices quickly. We just consider them to be dollars unless we are trying to justify a purchase that we really want to make, then we take of 15%. And getting money from cash machines with my regular ATM card is very handy too. We took about $100, a credit card and an ATM card. All meals and hotels go on the credit card.

We are just now getting into the trip, that is, getting over jet lag and getting into vacation mode. We will stay in Aix another day and the go to St. Remy, a town of about 8000 not far from Aix. We like the small towns.

We made another travel mistake yesterday. We missed our connection from Marseille to Aix because our train was a little late (it was a ten minute connection) We decided to take another train that left a few minutes later without checking it out. It was a special high-speed train (ANF or something like that). When we got on we read in the guide book that these trains require a fare surcharge and reservations. The trip was only 13 minutes, it was high speed, so they didn't check our tickets but when we got off at Aix we realized that we were not at Aix-Centrale but the Aix-ANF station which was 20 km from Aix. Apparently they have special tracks and stations for the high-speed trains. Then, wouldn't you know it, being France, the bus drivers for the shuttle were on strike. One 28 euro taxi ride later we got to our hotel. Chalk it up to experience.

I didn't brush up on my French, which was never good to begin with, but I wish I had have done so. I really can't communicate at all in French. Luckily most people speak a bit of English, especially the American students.

St. Remy: March 21, 2002

We took the bus from Aix to Avignon and then to St. Rémy yesterday. It is harder to get around by bus than we expected. The schedules are hard to find and frequency lower than expected. It would be good to have a car in this part of France. Many places are not served by trains or buses.

But the important thing is that we got here and we love it! We wanted a small, quiet town and this is it. It has a charming medieval center and about 8000 people total. You can get around everywhere on foot. We have a lovely little hotel that is very reasonable (about $50/night) It is quiet and pretty, and it has an internet terminal that I am using right now. You pay for it with a phone card, which you can get, of course, at any corner tabac (news stand).

In Italy we stayed in San Remo, here in St. Rémy, almost certainly the same saint. Newer signs in San Remo though, like the new train station signs, make it one word, Sanremo. We don't know who decided to change the name of the town.

We are starting to figure out about France. One of the most fun parts of traveling is learning how each country and city works. We don't mind the little problems because it is a puzzle to figure things out.

Some things are almost the same in Italy and France. The train schedule looks similar, but not the same. They are posted in train stations and departure schedules are yellow and arrivals are white. In France, all the hotels have to list all their prices publicly, but not in Italy. Restaurants in both countries must post their menus.

Full meals in Italy had an antipasto course, a pasta course (first plate they called it) and a meat/fish course (second plate), and then dessert. We usually ordered only one second plate, or none). In France there is only an appetizer course and a main course, and dessert. In Italy, they serve the vegetables with the second plate so when we didn't get one they served the vegetables alone, after the pasta, which we didn't like.

They are big on lamb here, which I love, so I have been having that. It is not expensive. All restaurants in France must have fixed price meals ( called a "menu").

I think I will send this out and write more later today. Besides my phone card (which, by the way, is a "smart" card) has only 20 minutes left on it. I need to get another.

St. Remy: March 23, 2002

Well this is definitely our last day in St. Rémy. We liked it so much we stayed four days. We had a fancy lunch today. We have tried to have the big meal in the middle of the day and we finally did it. This was quite a gourmet meal. The portions were small, like you hear about, but there were five courses so we ended up full. I had lamb (carmelized) and Wynette had sole, both were very good. The best part of the goat cheese course where they gave us a small slice of seven different kinds of goat cheese. Each was different, all were good, and two were fantastic. They served us three different kinds of bread through the meal.

Another difference: in Italy you get a sugar bowl with coffee but in France you get sugar cubes. At this restaurant you got sort of sugar lumps, that is, they were sort of cube shaped but rough, and you had brown and white. Like everything in France, and Italy, it was visually appealing and stylish.

We went on a big hike yesterday, about six miles. We hiked from St. Rémy to a place called Les Baux, which was a fortified town on a high bluff with a colorful history. The counts (or lords) of Baux controlled a large area around the place. Eventually around 1600 Richelieu, showing a remarkable blindness to the tourist implications, had the castle torn down to avoid further trouble. Now it is a little town of 400 people that gets well over a million tourists a year!

Not that a lot of them were in evidence yesterday because the place was nearly empty. I guess they mostly come in the summer because the guide books all say the place is great except for the terrible crowds. A nice thing about going off season.

The day was clear and the views were great in three directions. We could probably see close to 100 miles.

We misread the bus schedule and discovered after our six mile walk that the bus back to St. Rémy only runs in July and August. Fortunately this taxi ride was only 13.70 euros.

An unexpected bonus there was something called "The Cathedral of Images" (but in French of course). Les Baux is the site of bauxite mines (hence the name bauxite, which they make aluminum from) and some weathered formations and natural caves they call "The Valley of Hell", reputed to be Dante's inspiration for the Inferno. In 1975 a French photographer got this brilliant idea for using the abandoned mines. The mine/caves are box-like with flat walls, floors and ceilings. I guess this was how they mined it. He put 50 projectors all around and created a show which played music and projected pictures all over the caves. People walk through it and observe the pictures.

The show changes every year, like the 180 degree theaters, and this year it was about China. They have about 50 pictures of some aspect of China showing at a time with appropriate accompanying music. You can't see all the pictures at once so you continually walk around in the dark. By aspects, I mean things like: crowd scenes, farmers, Buddhas, temples, theater people, people close-ups, deserts, cities, the 10,000 terra-cotta soldiers, etc.

The overall effect is amazing and unlike anything we had every seen before. We walked around in awe and wanted to come back every year for the next show.

We are anxious to get back to Italy and may do that tomorrow depending on how the train and bus schedules work out: It has been remarkably hard to get schedule information outside of the train station in the city where the train leaves. So we will leave our destination to fate.

Cassis: March 25, 2002

We decided to stay another two days in France. We went down to Marseille and then took a local train to Cassis. Cassis is a former fishing port. It is about the size of St. Rémy, 8000 people, but since it is on the coast it is busier and more touristy. We got here around 3 PM yesterday and the place was packed. I guess people were getting their weekend at the ocean, it was Sunday. That evening it emptied out and it is fairly quiet today. We find that we like the inland places more though and will try to get to another one tomorrow.

Cassis was built up by the Lords of Baux, whose stronghold we saw two days ago. Did I mention the infamous Baux lord called the "Scourge of Provence"? He would kidnap people for ransom and if the relatives did not pay he would make them jump off the high walls of the castle. They say he loved this part and laughed hysterically while doing it.

We finally had a bad meal, last night. We decided to just pick a place without the aid of the guide book and it is pretty ordinary, albeit cheap. so you can get a bad meal in France.

But we went on a great hike today. We went to Cassis to see "Les Calanques" which are fjord-like inlets near Cassis. We hiked to the most beautiful one (they say) and it was amazing. You look down on it from a couple hundred feet up. It has sheer walls and beautiful turquoise water along the calanque. We ate our goat cheese and baguettes along the rim. The whole hike took five hours so we are happy to hang out for a while now and write email.

Camogli: March 29, 2002

Well, technically I am in Santa Marguerita Ligure because, amazingly, Camogli doesn't have an "internet point" as they call them. That is why I haven't been sending any email for the last few days.

It is a pleasure to be back to regular keyboards with the a, m, q, w, etc where they should be. Those French! They love to be different and difficile. Viva la difference, not!

Lots has been happening since my last letter. We stayed in Cassis two days and left not really sure where we were going to go. We had a very full travel day. We took a local train to Toulon and got a ticket to Genoa (Genova over here). They had us getting in there at 9 PM with a seven hour layover in Nice. This didn't seem right so we stayed on the train at Nice and went to Ventimiglia, just inside of Italy. When we got there there was a train leaving five minutes later to Genova so we got there six hours early, although a little hungry.

We decided to go to the Cinque Terre, five tiny towns within five miles of coast, all clinging to the mountainsides. It gets rave reviews in all the students guides. We got there around 4 PM and there was a big crowd at the train station leaving as we got there. It turns out that the week before Easter is a vacation time for most students in Europe. On top of that it is a big holiday in Italy. So we are no longer "off-season".

We stopped in the Cinque Terre town of Vernazza which is cute as a button. It is about 1/4 mile wide and 1/2 mile long with little twisty lanes, old building, winding stairs, etc. just exactly what we had thought it would be. Unfortunately all the rooms were taken -- actually we found one that we didn't like. The bigger problem was that everyone seemed unhappy and/or unfriendly. The hotel people and shop people were surly and even the tourists didn't seem to be having any fun. The place was filled with students. Wynette and I felt a little out of place. Plus we have moved up to the two and three star hotel level and the place seemed a little primitive.

Even though it was already after 5 we decided to take a chance and take the train back to Camogli. A popular tourist place an hour north of the Cinque Terre is the Portofino peninsula. The peninsula is about five or six miles square. Most of it is a national park with a 610 meter (2000 foot) mountain in the center and lots of hiking trails. At one end is Portofino which is a lovely little town but maybe a bit overtouristy. Last year we stayed in a nearby town Santa Marguerita Ligure (where I am now) and visited Portofina. There is a great walk, about two miles, from SML to Portofino along the water which we took. Portofino is so pretty and picturesque you can hardly believe it. The harbor had a number of large yachts a couple over 100 feet so you can be sure this is not the low-rent district. We loved SML though and it was very reasonable and a real town with local people.

On the other side of the peninsula is Camogli which we had decided to go to this year. It turns out to be even nicer than SML. We have this wonderful hotel which very friendly people. Camogli is just the opposite of the Cinque Terre, everyone we meet is very friendly and helpful. The people laugh a lot and seem happy. There are not many tourists here. The town is very quiet and sleepy. We like to just walk along the streets. They have a cute little harbor with only working boats, not a single pleasure boat there -- unlike SML, Portofino, or Cassis for that matter which had, literally hundreds of pleasure boats.

The hotel was praised extravagantly in our guide book and it was all true. It is cute and the people are so friendly. In general the Italians all seem to be pretty happy and unstressed with life.

Unfortunately we are into the long Easter weekend holiday. We got the last room in the hotel when we got in and we were lucky to get a room through Friday night. We called around and every hotel in the area is filled -- and we called over 30 of them.

We read in the paper that everyone it Italy is going to the seaside for this weekend and we can verify that that is true. Instead we are going up, through Milan to Bergamo for the last two days of the trip. It is up in the mountains and should be nice. We have a reservation too.

Yesterday Wynette felt a little sick and so I went on a hike on my own. I decided to hike up to the top of Mt. Portofino. Luckily I still have some extra endurance from coming from high altitude because it was quite a hike. It had great views though of the whole peninsula. The place is very beautiful.

We found a wonderful restaurant too and have been eating very well.

Today we decided to take the train to SML (five minutes, through a tunnel under the mountain) to see it again, walk around, and use the internet. Wynette just came back from a little shopping so we will got to lunch. This afternoon I might take a hike while Wynette hangs around here. She is still fighting off being a bit sick. It sounds like the same thing I had at the beginning of the trip.

Bergamo: March 30, 2002

This time I really am in Bergamo, in the "lower city" where the main town is. Our hotel is in the "Citté Alte" which is a medieval town and is the charming, quaint one. Interestingly enough we feel more at home down here where the real people live.

So when we left off last time we had been shafted by the Christians on this Easter deal. Tomorrow is Easter. All the businesses will be closed but it seems the tourist oriented things will be open. We'll see. The internet place closes we know that, I have one more hour to get this written. Monday is a holiday in Italy too, so it is a long weekend. Bergamo is busy but not real busy. We got a hotel at least. It turns out that it is a four star hotel although it is not that great.

When you are on vacation you don't like weekends and holidays because things are closed. You want everyone else to be working so you can do things. It is kind of like being retired, which I am! A couple of times this trip we got messed up because of Sundays and things being closed.

Last letter we also touched on another conundrum of tourism. We like places that are nice to visit but we don't want other tourists to be there. We like the places where there are only locals. I thing though that the real thing is that you want to be in a place where the people are nice and want you to be there. That is why we didn't like Vernazza in the Cinque Terre. Of all the quaint little towns I have every seen it was the quaintest and coolest but the people were unfriendly so we hated it. Comogli was very nice but more ordinary but the people were nice.

We are about the only Americans around it seems though. The hotel guy in Camogli was surprised we were Americans. He said he hardly got any since 9/11. We have only seen 4-5 other Americans and we were the only ones who had been to the tourist office here in Bergamo today. We know that because they keep records of where you are from and the guy there was very nice and helpful and told us about it. So we are not worried about the terrorist thing. Here in Bergamo they will blow up mostly Germans. People have been taking us for English.

But there is the sense that you want to keep the place to yourself. We felt that way about Camogli. It seems so unspoiled. Santa Marguerita seemed much more touristy and not as nice.

We stayed four nights in Camogli and loved it. WE also stayed four nights in St. Malo. They have been our favorite placed. The hotel in Camogli had these great breakfasts. In many places you get these Continental breakfasts of just rolls and coffee. In those places we go to the local store and get cereal, milk and fruit and eat in our room, but in Camogli they had everything. They had cereal, boiled eggs, cheese, meat, rolls, coffee, etc. We got into the boiled eggs and even bought another egg cup so we can start having them at home.

Our last night in Camogli we ate in a crazy restaurant. It was run by this old couple. First this old guy who can barely get around it seems comes and takes our order and then brings the wrong thing, seafood salad instead of a green salad. They he picks up this accordion and walks out of the place. Ten minutes later the woman comes and asks what we are having. We said we gave our order to the guy and she made some expression of disgust. So we gave the order again to her. Ten minutes later the guy comes back with his accordion and starts playing. We get our order and it seems to be correct. After he finishes playing we comes around with a cup. We give him two euros. Then he goes back to being a waiter, sort of. When we ask for the bill the woman doesn't know what we had. We paid for the seafood salad even though we didn't order it but we may have paid twice for it. It was all very confusing but interesting. The water was in a bottled water bottle but we noticed that the bottle seemed to be reused.

Bergamo seems pretty nice. There is a big traveling art exhibit here that we will got to tomorrow. The upper city is pretty interesting and has great views. Unfortunately the weather was cloudy. We are hoping for a nice day tomorrow.

So two days here then back to Milan and back to ABQ on Tuesday.

A few other things I was thinking about.

Eggs come in cartons of 10, not 12. So they have metric egg cartons!

Some of the toilets in Italy have two flush buttons, one for a small flush and one for a big flush. Pretty clever.

Milan: April 1, 2002

Well the trip is almost ended so this is the last message. We spent two days in Bergamo which is more than most people do apparently. The guy at the tourist office asked us how long we were staying and said most people only stay a couple of hours. It is quite a pretty place though. It is right at the edge of the mountains and you have good views from the upper city. Next trip to Italy we might go into the mountains, but that would have to be closer to the summer.

Bergamo was pretty busy this weekend despite everyone going to the sea. This is a big holiday weekend so everyplace is full. The narrow streets were crowded with people. To our surprise all the shops were open on Easter and the day after, which is also a holiday in Italy.

It happened that there was a traveling art exhibit that we were able to go to. Some doctor (who must have come from a wealthy family) collected European art his whole life and then gave the collection to UNICEF and they are exhibiting it. It had a lot of well-known artists but usually the lesser works. We enjoyed it a lot. We got one of the little handsets where you punch in the number on the card and it tells you about the painting. We had something similar is Les Baux for the castle. It is a pleasant way to have a guided tour since you can set your own pace.

It turns out that Europe goes on daylight saving time a week before the US does so they did this weekend. Breakfast at our hotel was from 7:30 to 10 and we got there at 9:30 thinking we had plenty of time but it was really 10:30. They didn't say anything though and we ate anyway. It does mean that we went on DST on Sunday, will go off on Tuesday and then back on the following Sunday. And our trip is one hour shorter than we figured.

We are both ready to get home. I guess you gauge yourself and get psychologically ready to go home as the time approaches. This trip was 18 days which was about right.

We are going to go to a cafe this afternoon and read, although it might be hard to find one that is open except right in the big tourist areas, which in Milan is right around the Duomo (big cathedral). I talked about the Duomo before. It is really impressive, even the second time you see it. It is the one you can walk on the roof of.

We get up at 6 PM to make it to the airport two hours ahead of time and then about 16 hours of travel. Then up bright and early the next day looking and feeling our best.

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