France! Italy!

France 028

Like Caesar’s Gaul, my recent overseas trip was divided into Three Parts:

  • A week with six friends in a rented boat gliding down a canal in southern France
  • A week with those same friends in a rented villa in Provence, with excursions to several towns nearby
  • Ten days on my own visiting friends in Rome, and a brief guided tour of Capri

We hatched our plans for this trip last year when Florida-based friends Royce and Martha visited the cabin in Blue Ridge, Georgia, that some friends and I co-own. After hearing about some of us having rented a canal boat in England a few years ago, Royce and Martha told us they wanted to join us for our next canal-boating adventure, provided we schedule such a trip before they got too old to enjoy it!

Because the other travelers had not yet visited Provence – one of my favorite places to travel – we ended up adding a villa rental there to our canal-trip plans, and for that reason we chose, this time, a canal in southern France.

Pictured below (L-R, with me standing behind the others) are the intrepid participants in our adventures in France: : Royce Hodge, Martha Hodge, Kris Kane, Nancy Ward, Robert Ward, and Randall Cumbaa:

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After my fellow travelers returned to the States, I flew to Rome to stay with friends Peg and Gary Kirkpatrick, who’ve lived in Europe for many years now. I’d long wanted to visit Peg and Gary during their stays in various European cities (including a previous stint in Rome), and I finally got to do that! And I knew that, with their familiarity with Rome, they’d be able to show me a very different city than the one I’d visited twice before (once in 1983, again in 2008).

My traveling companions took the majority of the photos displayed here. To see even more photos of the places some or all of us visited, click on any highlighted link in this post; what you’ll see then are the results of Google Image searches.

The Canal Trip

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The boat we took turns steering down the canal:

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(The boat rental company’s nifty photo-tour of the boat is here.)

Planning to avoid a mistake made on a previous canal trip (long days of steering the boat vs. mooring it often so we could relax), we deliberately decided to confine our trip to a relatively short stretch of this historic canal:

Better Map of Midi Canal

We started our boating trip in Trebes and disembarked at Narbonne.

Delights:

  • The day before heading out from Carcassonne (our initial rendezvous point) to get our boat, most of us were able to browse around the city’s bustling weekly market.

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  • While waiting in Trebes for our boat to be readied, we poked around town for several hours:

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We also did some grocery shopping for our canal trip. (Unfortunately, the supermarket we walked to ended up being so far from the canal that we ended up taking a cab to get back to the boat. Fortunately, we enjoyed a yummy canal-side lunch in Trebes before heading down the canal.)

  • Although my fellow-travelers would probably tell you they would have gladly traded our week on the canal for an extra week at the villa, I thoroughly enjoyed our seven days gliding along the Canal du Midi. An engineering miracle built in the mid-1600s, the Midi flows through some gorgeous countryside. This selection of snapshots we took at various points along the canal will give you an idea of the types of landscapes we enjoyed:

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  • Part of what makes a canal trip interesting is navigating its many bridges and locks:

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One of our lock-maneuvering experiences, however, proved a bit too interesting. This photo was taken immediatlye before The Great Canal Lock Mishap (of which more anon):

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  • Most of the Midi flows through farmland or forest, but we also explored several miles of an auxiliary canal below Narbonne, which hundreds of years ago was a port city but is now located inland and buffered from the Mediterranean by a vast marsh. For much of an afternoon, there was salt water washing up just beyond the canal’s edge:

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  • The segment of the Midi we traversed passes near or through several towns and villages. We stopped and briefly poked around and/or had lunch or supper in some of the more interesting ones:

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  • We met a few of the folks who also happened to be on the canal when we were. The most memorable was a sweet medical school student named Simon Lapatie, who was traveling with his parents:

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  • The most interesting place where we moored the boat was Narbonne, by far the largest town along our route, and where we turned in our boat and obtained our three rental cars:

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  • With the exception of a few hours of drizzling rain on a single day of our canal trip, the weather was perfect. Lots of sunshine, but not overly hot – at least when we were hanging out on the boat’s deck and surrounded by the shade of the thousands of trees planted along the canal. (The cooler temperatures of September in Southern France was the primary reason for our scheduling our canal trip when we did.)
  • We enjoyed numerous memorable meals in various restaurants along the canal…

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…as well as a series of tasty repasts we prepared and ate inside or on top of our boat.

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Disappointments:

  • Although the boat we rented was sufficiently large enough to accommodate the seven of us, the steering instructions we got from the company were cursory and somewhat befuddling; the fact that the guy who oriented us to the boat didn’t speak much English (or us much French) was the main problem. So we had to figure out a lot of things as we went along that would’ve been better to have known – or had explained to us more clearly – from the outset.
  • Only a few of the villages along the canal were as picturesque as I’d expected them to be. Our having rented bicycles to explore a few of these villages turned out to be a waste of money. We did enjoy the food at several canal-side restaurants, but most of the towns themselves were either unremarkable or downright charmless (and a few of them bordered on dreary!).
  • We often disagreed about when, where, and for how long to stop along our way. For some of us, we didn’t stop often enough, or linger long enough when we did stop; for others, some of the stops we made seemed, in hindsight, highly optional.

Disasters:

Something really annoying and/or time-consuming and/or upsetting and/or stressful seemed to happen almost every day. No one expected the canal trip (or any trip) to be completely free of stressful moments, but it was uncanny how no day on this trip went without an exasperating incident or two.

  • Our trip started out with every overseas traveler’s worst nightmare: our trip took place in the midst of a strike by the employees of our airline (Air France)! Also, the five of us traveling together from Atlanta to Paris found our connecting flight to Toulouse had already departed by the time our (two-hour late) plane arrived. Plus we got separated at the sprawling Paris airport (long story).

After finally reuniting hours later, we spent several additional precious hours wearily recovering our temporarily-vanished luggage. With the trains in France already full of fellow victims of the airline strike, we eventually decided to rent a car to get the five of us stranded in Paris to the hotel in Carcassonne where we’d reserved rooms in for that night. Somehow cramming the luggage of five travelers into the trunk of our rental car, we promptly – and more than once – got lost trying to get out of Paris before we could begin traversing the hundreds of miles of not-very-scenic expressways to Carcassonne.

  • By the time we finally got to Carcassonne, it was too dark and too late for us to see the famous castle there that we’d planned to visit. (Some of us did get to see the castle the following morning, while Randall and I were preoccupied with returning the rental car quickly enough to avoid any extra fees.) A positive moment of our time in Carcassonne was finally rendezvousing with Royce and Martha, who had flown to France before the rest of us and who had been anxiously wondering what had happened to their five fellow-travelers! (None of our phones were working at that point in our trip, and those phones would continue to give us problems of one sort or another for the entirety of the trip.) Here’s Nancy’s photo of the rest of us waiting outside our hotel in Carcassonne for our cab to the boat dock in Trebes:

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  • Canals have locks that one must negotiate one’s boat through. That’s usually a fairly straightforward – if sometimes time-consuming – process…unless one of your crew loses his balance and falls into the lock’s filthy, frothing, freezing water. Or when another member of your crew, recently recovered from knee replacement surgery, leaps off the boat to tether it to a bollard, and lands way too abruptly on the towpath. Not funny at the time.
  • We repeatedly (if temporarily) misplaced Vital Electronic Devices. At one point (doubtless during some photo-op somewhere), one of us permanently lost, in the same misplaced travel pouch, not only a camera case, a camera memory chip, and a camera charger, but 80 Euros.
  • Navigating the final lock of our canal trip, located in the middle of Narbonne, proved to be a complete comedy of errors.

This episode began with Calvin obliviously steering our boat past the electronic signal that opens this particular lock. I managed to commit this serious error not only because I had gotten distracted by the entrancing architecture of Narbonne we had just come in sight of, but because the lock itself was nowhere in sight (as all the other locks had been when we needed to start looking for the signal). Turns out this final lock of our trip was located at least a half-mile – and several curves and bridges – beyond the lock-opening signal!

Once we reached the lock, which of course was locked and unopenable, the French-speaking-only lockkeeper who (eventually) materialized was not happy, and began barking out a series of equally unintelligible instructions. Finally understanding (or guessing) what he wanted me to do with the boat – turn it around in the middle of the canal so we could drive it back to the signal – I gave up after multiple frustrating tries to do that.

We ended up using our tow-ropes to manually turn our boat around and drag it back through the entire town, to the great amusement of townspeople gazing on our hapless fate from the top of the aforementioned multiple bridges. Here are some of us near the (locked) lock, sullenly waiting for another of us to trot back down the canal a half-mile to see if the coast was clear enough for us to Do Something About Our Embarrassing Dilemma:

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  • Later the next morning, after unencumbering ourselves of our boat, some of us spent a lot of time tediously waiting in line at the woefully understaffed rental car office to obtain the three rental cars we needed to get from Narbonne to Provence, several hundred miles away. (My failing to have printed out the voucher for the car Randall and I had reserved delayed matters further.) And although we’d decided to caravan from Narbonne to Provence, and to stop for lunch together somewhere, our three cars got separated before we even got out of Narbonne…and each of the drivers got lost at some point before we all finally (and very separately), arrived at our villa.

The Villa Stay

The villa we had selected by voting on various candidates we’d found on the Internet turned out to exceed our expectations. For one thing, it looked like a villa is supposed to look:

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There was plenty of room for everyone, and the interiors were charming and comfortable:

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Finally, the views from the villa’s enormous terrace overlooking the nearby town and the surrounding countryside were spectacular:

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[More photos, from the rental company’s villa website, are here.]

This photo shows the valley our villa was located in, at the bottom of the “perched village” of Gordes:

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A nearby footpath connects the valley to the village, which allowed us to explore Gordes without using a car to get there. Views along the footpath:

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Gordes has become rather touristy since my brief visit there years ago, but it is still wonderful to walk around in:

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And the views from Gordes were breathtaking:

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In addition to eating lunch together in Gordes one day, all of us enjoyed strolling around town together on Gordes’ weekly market day:

IMG_0541Some of us enjoyed several sunrises from our terrace:

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The Day Trips from Gordes

I especially enjoyed exploring, with Randall, the nearby town of Roussillon, another “perched village,” which the other travelers visited on a different day than we did.

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Ditto the also-neaby town of L’Isle sur la Sorgue, unusual because several canals thread their way through the middle of town:

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L’isle also featured an extensive market:

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…and probably the most entrancing antique store I’ve ever seen anywhere:

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Other scenic highlights were expeditions to the serene, secluded (and nearby) monastery, the Abbaye de Senaque:

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…and a day trip Randall and I made to Pont du Gard, an impressive Roman acqueduct:

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At different points during our week in Gordes, the other travelers made day trips elsewhere: some to Arles, some to Cassis.

Delights:

  • Hanging out in the villa, especially reading or napping on the terrace.
  • Getting up each morning to make myself a cup of tea and watch the sunrise with Randall.
  • Exploring the town of Gordes via multiple visits, both by myself and with others.
  • The day trips to the sites mentioned above.
  • The excellent meals throughout our stay in Provence – both at restaurants in Gordes and on our respective day trips…

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…and well as the wonderful meals we ate at the villa. (Olive tapenade will be a staple in my larder at home for the rest of my days.)

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  • The weather throughout our week at the villa, which was perfect. The two rainstorms we had both occurred at night, so they didn’t interfere with our sightseeing jaunts. (And the second rainstorm was quite dramatic: it rained so hard that water leaked onto the staircase inside, and lots of rain blew into our bedroom before we realized that was happening.)
  • I enjoyed playing card games with Royce and Nancy every evening (Royce’s repeated trouncings notwithstanding).
  • Actually, almost every moment I spent – outside of a car, that is – in Provence, was, for me, a delight, as it had been before and probably always will be. Because of the time of year we decided to make our trip, we didn’t see Provence’s famous fields of blooming lavender or its sunflowers, but we did avoid the regions’ sweltering summer heat, and least the largest hordes of other tourists…and dodging both those factors certainly made for a more delightful trip.

Disappointments:

  • A day-long trip Randall and I made (at my suggestion) to Aix-en-Provence – which I had remembered from a trip thirty years ago as a graceful, gorgeous, walkable town – turned out to be a frustrating visit to a what’s morphed into a crowded, noisy metropolis. Aix’s quaint historic center was located far from where we (finally) found a place to park our car. However, I did love some of the sights we saw there:

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  • Carpentras was, compared to my expectations and the fact that it was one of Randall’s and my earliest day trips, only semi-wonderful. And despite several wearisome hours of trying, we never found the town’s famous library or its 18th-century pharmacy museum, which put a damper on this particular (and early) expedition that Randall and I made from Gordes.
  • The trip Randall and I made to Orange was another disappointment, mainly because Orange is so large and because the price of admission to the Roman theater there was ludicrously expensive – and because it took us so long to (a) get there (b) find a place to park the car, and (c) figure out how to pay so we could get out of the parking lot.
  • The Lavender Museum, located conveniently close to our base in Gordes, turned out to be a commercialized dud, with an admission fee way too high to even consider paying, and whose prices in their mostly-cosmetics-selling gift store were equally outrageously expensive. Because I’m a long-time fan of lavender plants and lavender products, I had really high expectations of this place – especially in terms of the gifts I’d assumed I’d be able to buy in the museum’s gift store. Definitely disappointing.
  • I had wanted to see more of the “perched villages” located relatively close to Gordes – towns my friend Joyce and I had explored when we made a month-long tour of Provence back in 1996. In particular, I wanted to re-visit Bonnieux, Crestet, Lourmarin, Menerbes, Moustiers, Oppede-le-Vieux, plus certain other close-to-Gordes towns Joyce and I had missed, such as Lacoste and Les Baux. However, having firmly decided not to spend my entire week in Provence in a car, I didn’t go far afield very often, and consequently failed to see any Provençal villages that I’d not already visited before. Still, it was good to see Gordes, Roussillon, and L’Isle at a more leisurely pace than during my previous whirlwind tour of these three remarkable (if somewhat touristy) places.
  • Despite having done extensive research about it before the trip, I also didn’t get to Cassis, one of the smaller port-cities in Provence. The reports of my fellow-travelers who did venture there for the day made me wish I had chosen it over, say, Aix or Carpentras.
  • Nor did Randall and I get to see the Verdun Gorge that we’d hoped to explore (at least by car), as we decided against going there after determining how much driving would be involved.

Disasters: 

  • We got lost in our rental car way too often. This was partly because we kept wanting to trust the car’s non-English-speaking (actually, non-speaking altogether) GPS. In the end, our printed map was far more useful. (Unfortunately, my eyesight – at least when it comes to deciphering minutely-labeled highway maps – isn’t what it used to be.)
  • As with our canal adventure, something annoying seemed to happen virtually every day. A few random examples: exasperating trouble with the phones we were trying to use (including the phone in the villa); the flat tire Royce and Martha had to deal with one afternoon; merchants repeatedly refusing to accept our computer-chipless credit cards (after our credit cards companies had assured us they would, and our depending on that prediction).
  • Our problematic villa-arrival scenario was nothing compared to what happened the morning of our departure. Due partly to the fact that non-French speaking renters were trying to communicate with a non-English-speaking key holder, there was a serious mixup about the timing of our departure(s), which resulted in my suddenly having to rouse six people from their slumbers and a stressful episode of hasty packing and dervish-like villa cleaning before the key holder would agree to reimburse me the 1,000 Euro security deposit I’d paid upon arriving. Driving to the Marseilles airport in the pre-dawn darkness was also the opposite of fun.
  • Although I wouldn’t hear about it until later, five of my fellow travelers ended up getting stranded in the Paris airport on the way home – some of them didn’t get out of France for two more days, and the traveler who did leave earlier missed his connecting flight in Toronto to Atlanta. He didn’t get home until 2 in the morning.

Meanwhile, Calvin, thinking he had a full eight hours before his flight from Marseilles to Rome, assumed that (other than an incredibly tedious eight-hour wait in the airport) his own departure from France would be trouble-free. So wrong! Much to my surprise, my airline (Ryanair) required a pre-printed boarding pass that I did not have (and subsequently couldn’t figure out how to extract from the Internet kiosk in the airport). I also had to pay extra to check my bag, which I (mistakenly as it turned out) didn’t believe would fit into the airplane’s overhead bin. All of which involved standing in multiple, lengthy lines, and in completely unexpected expense and stress.

Cal’s Roman Holiday…with an Excursion to Capri

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Peg and Gary had agreed to meet me at Rome’s enormous train station. With all the logistics-related snafus that had arisen during the previous two weeks, I was nervous about not having a Plan B for our rendezvous. But there they were, waiting on the curb as my bus from the airport pulled up (after dark, of course) to Rome’s gigantic train station. So, yay! A potential disaster averted!

The apartment Peg and Gary are renting in Rome isn’t located in the city’s historic center, but it’s accessible by tram (and a short walk), and the house itself was a very interesting place to stay. “Over-designed” is the best way to describe their apartment, but it was fun to live for over a week in an imaginatively renovated building with so many startling details, such as the four levels I had to navigate in the middle of the night between the bed I was sleeping in and the bathroom; a tomato-red refrigerator; skylights and track lighting; a spacious roof deck; lots of sleek surfaces and modern furniture.

I started this visit to Rome with Peg and Gary accompanying me on some walks in neighborhoods I’d not explored before. My favorite new-to-me Rome neighborhood was the Janiculum Hill overlooking Vatican City:

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An unexpected bonus of our day in the Janiculum area was suddenly coming upon a piazza depicted in a scene from The Great Beauty, which won last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. As I had enjoyed that movie very much, it was a treat to see something featured in it:

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On another day, we strolled down the Via Julia, a street of shops and palazzos just a block from the Tiber:

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And of course I begged Peg and Gary to take me to my favorite neighborhood in Rome, the now-thoroughly gentrified former working-class residential district of Trastevere:

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The most famous sight I’d not gotten around to seeing on previous trips was the Castel Sant’Angelo.  I spent most of a day here, taking in the views…

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…and marveling at the sheer bulk of this fort that the emperor Hadrian built as his tomb (and whose excellent fictional biography by Margaret Yourcenar I thoroughly enjoyed reading last year).

At some point during my stay Gary and I made a day-long excursion to the Alban Hills, south of Rome. We stopped for lunch in Ariccia and then went on to Castelgandolfo, where the view from a terrace near the pope’s summer palace that overlooks a lake-filled volcano was nothing short of mesmerizing:

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Another highlight of my time in Italy was a guided tour of  the buildings and grounds of the American Academy in Rome, an institution I’d seen repeated references to in my reading over the years. Located on the aforementioned Janiculum Hill behind Vatican City, the Academy’s refurbished palazzi, surrounded by huge gardens, constituted the dreamy oasis I’d imagined. Amazingly, the Academy’s frequent programs, exhibitions, and concerts are free and open to the public, so I’m hoping Peg and Gary will be able to attend some of them before they decamp for wherever they decide to live next. Meanwhile, Cal will continue grandiosely fantasizing about getting a telegram informing him that he’s won one of the Academy’s two-dozen annual Rome Prizes, which would entitle him to move to the Academy and live there, all expenses paid, for an entire year!

On yet another afternoon Peg and Gary dropped me off at the Villa Doria Pamphilj Museum. The owners of this palazzo in the middle of Rome have, for many generations, collected paintings and sculptures; these treasures, and much of the palazzo itself, are open to the public. I spent a long afternoon wandering through room after gilded room, wondering how any single family – even one with a pope amongst its ancestors – could have amassed such a fortune. I’d never heard of this place before, but it was every bit as fabulous as Peg promised it would be.

Toward the end of my stay, Peg and I had ventured out to see a particular church that turned out to be closed, so instead she took me to Rome’s contemporary art museum. Among the things we saw there was this temporary courtyard installation by a Japanese artist that visitors (after removing their shoes) are invited to bounce around inside of:

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However, the highlight of my visit to this museum was a trip to its artistically disorienting men’s restroom:

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And then there were, of course, Rome’s churches!

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There are over 900 churches in Rome, and one of Peg’s hobbies is showing her and Gary’s house-guests some of the less-often-visited ones. (My friend Stephen, who once lived in Rome, had provided me a list of his own favorite Rome churches, and most of them were on Peg’s list.) I don’t remember the names of what seemed like dozens of churches I peeked into, but I do remember a lot of mostly Baroque interiors (among them the Chiesa del Jesu, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and Santa Maria della Vittoria) as well as Santa Maria degli Angleia e Dei Martiri, a Roman-era bath complex that Michelangelo transformed into a Christian church. I liked best some of the smaller churches we simply stumbled upon during our walks around the city. (The word “small” being not exactly the correct term here: there is nothing actually “small” in Rome. The scale of everything there is large – not only churches, but government buildings, hotels, retail stores, apartment blocks.)

I ended my stay with Peg and Gary with a quick trip to Capri, having booked a packaged tour that included a whirlwind dash through the Sorrento Peninsula. A series of guided walking tours included the historic center of Naples, and my favorite moment there was our quick stroll through the city’s shopping arcade.

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Several hours and several additional city-center sites later, we were back on the bus, headed for an afternoon slog through the ruins of Pompeii.

Next I boarded a bus for Sorrento. I spent the night there in a luxurious hotel (with the vastest hotel lobby I think I’ve ever seen). The balcony of my room overlooked the Bay of Naples and Vesuvius: 

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The next morning I was driven down to Sorrento’s harbor…

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…where I boarded a ferry for an exhilarating ride along the Sorrento Peninsula to Capri:

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As I’d been warned, the town of Capri is very commercialized. My guide claimed that tourists are forbidden to congregate in front of Capri’s shop windows, lest some visiting sheik with more money than God might be prevented from espying some extravagant bauble or garment that he simply must purchase. Still, the winding, hilly streets of Capri were fun to explore.

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My visit to the city’s August Gardens (and the views from it) were especially memorable.

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The highlight of my all-too-brief stay in Capri, however, was a surreal taxi ride along one of the few roads on Capri…

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…by which we ascended to the island’s other large town, Anacapri. There, a suitably terrifying chair lift…

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…hoisted me to the lookout point from the highest point on the island:

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Delights:

  • All the sights described or pictured above.
  • The food! Both at the restaurants we ate in, as well as the dishes Peg and/or Gary prepared at home. As a bonus, I came back with recipes for two things Peg made while I was a houseguest that I particularly liked. Plus Peg and Gary taught me how they make sure they always have yummy bread on hand: they slice and freeze it, then take out as many slices as they need and toast them. I’ve incorporated this trick into my own kitchen habits, and it’s something that has permanently raised the quality of my eating habits at home. No more leftover expensive baguettes that turn to stone overnight and need to be thrown out!
  • The gelato! I lost track of how many times I ducked into the storefronts selling this stuff to sample yet another of their 2.5 Euro delights. (Favorite flavor: pear – although close runners=up were the lemon and the double chocolate.)
  • Throughout my stay in Italy, I continued to be fortunate, weather-wise: 10 consecutive days of sunny weather. And we are talking late October here!

Disappointments:

  • Even though this wasn’t my first trip to Rome, I felt obliged while there again to at least briefly re-visit certain sites: St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, the Piazza Navona. So, accompanied by the patient Peg, I did go to all these places, but, for some reason – probably because it wasn’t my first time seeing them? – I wasn’t as gobsmacked as I’d expected to be. (I did enjoy overhearing a tour guide in the Pantheon describe the annual Pentecost ceremony there, where millions of rose petals are dropped down through the oculus; on the other hand, it was depressing to realize the Papacy had, centuries ago, commandeered this splendid pagan temple to use as yet another theatrical venue for Catholic Christianity.)
  • My obligatory trek to the Trevi Fountain certainly rates as a trip disappointment: the fountain is undergoing renovation and the entire façade was completely obliterated by scaffolding: 

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(The Trevi photo I failed to take: the sign in front of a box attached to the construction fencing in front of the empty fountain that reads “Insert your coins here”!)

  • I mis-remembered where the statue of Bruno was, so I didn’t get to make a repeat pilgrimage to this monument of one of my major heroes. (It’s in the Campo di Fiori, not the Piazza Navona!)
  • The Vatican Museums. This was another repeat pilgrimage, and probably my final one. Jostling with the herds of other tourists wore me out, and the sheer enormity of the place (and the stupefying amount of artistic wealth accumulated here) quickly became tiresome. My long-standing preference for smaller museums might have had its origins with my first visit here decades ago, and this latest visit certainly confirmed that preference. Even when one obtains a ticket online to avoid the long lines, the steep $25 admission charge (plus another $10 for the mediocre audioguide), and the relatively small amount of art here that any visitor can take in during a single visit, are formidable barrier to enjoying this enormous museum.
  • The Capuchine Crypt. Having read about this bizarre place in When in Rome: A Journal of Life in Vatican City, a book I finished while in Provence, Peg went to considerable trouble so I could visit it (as she patiently waited outside). The allegedly “artful” display of 3,700 disassembled skeletons of former monks and Roman paupers was a bit too kitschy for this tourist, and I won’t be returning. (Similarly kitschy was the stairway – somehow transported from Jerusalem to Rome, allegedly by Emperor Constantine’s wife Helena – that Jesus of Nazareth supposedly kneeled upon in front of Pontius Pilate. It was mortifying to see the dozens of pilgrims on these stairs, dutifully dragging themselves on their knees to the top; even more depressing was noticing the sign that instructs pilgrims that if the stairs are clogged, they can still earn Purgatory Points by clambering up another stairway conveniently constructed nearby for that very purpose.)
  • Not seeing several things I’d hoped to see this visit was disappointing. For example, there just wasn’t enough time (actually, I just couldn’t find the energy) to visit the Capitoline Museums.  And I didn’t make it to the balcony of the Borghese Gardens that overlook the Piazza del Populo (a lookout point I remembered fondly from a previous visit); and the “twin churches” in the Piazza (as so much else in Rome) was closed for renovations.
  • Also disappointing was the sheer enormity, congestion, and noise of Rome. Although we could get into and out of the city to Peg’s and Gary’s place without having to use more than two trams and/or buses, the horrific traffic meant that every outing was a time-consuming ordeal, with pedestrians constantly dodging speeding vehicles or navigating vast swaths of parked cars or motorcycles.

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Plus, Rome happens to be full of hills – certainly more than seven of them!

  • I’ll need another trip along the Italian coast to see what’s important to see in Naples. Some of the places we visited on our walking tour of the city center seemed a bit optional, and did not include even a short visit to what I’ve long wanted to see in Naples – its archaeology museum.
  • A much-anticipated excursion to Capri’s Blue Grotto was a bit underwhelming. Although our excellent guide got us there early (thus avoiding an hour or more waiting outside the grotto to take our turn getting in), our time inside this small sea-cave was way too brief for all the trouble and time we took getting there – and this famously ethereal cave was far too noisy. (It was noisy because the guys manning the rowboats allowed into the cave simultaneously sang – at the top of their lungs in an echoing cave – different but equally trite Italian songs, allegedly to earn the tips they demanded after our all-too-hasty exit.)

Disasters:

For some reason, no trip-related catastrophes occurred in Rome! Peg and Gary were wonderful hosts, and they spent day after day efficiently squiring me all over town – and out of town, the day Gary took me to see the towns in the Alban Hills.

Oh, wait. Before even setting eyes on Peg and Gary, Rome was where I left my cell phone – on a bus from the airport into town! (And losing the phone rates as a disaster only after I got back home: while I stayed with them, Peg and Gary loaned me their computers to periodically read and send email, so I didn’t really need my phone there.)

Post-Trip Reflections

  • Part of the reason I extended my trip beyond the two weeks I spent with the others in France was so I could try to determine how long I might want to stay in Europe next time I go. Except for a six-month backpacking trip to Europe in 1983, and despite my love of Europe (especially Britain, France, Italy, and Greece), I’ve not been able to travel there for very long at a time: I’d always had a full-time job with limited vacation days per year to spend in Europe or anywhere else. This being my first post-retirement trip overseas, I’d hoped to find out if I’d want to be away from home for more than, say, two consecutive weeks. What I found out instead is that there probably isn’t, for me, anyway, a single, simple answer to this question. I think the answer depends, for me, on what I’m doing while I’m out of the country, or, more specifically, where I am doing it, and/or the size of the place(s) I’m visiting. Ten days in Rome, one of Europe’s busiest, noisiest, most crowded cites wore me out, but I might’ve wanted to stay longer if I’d been staying in a smaller place, with time and energy to punctuate my sightseeing urges with periodic spells of relaxing. (I especially missed my daily naps and the daily doses of reading I’m used to enjoying at home. Not that anyone is going to feel sorry for Cal and his how-long-is-too-long travel issues.)
  • With the exception of digital cameras and working cell phones – meaning phones that work in Europe, and used primarily for arranging rendezvouses or coping with unexpected changes in plans, my preference for leaving behind all other electronic devices when traveling in a group  – especially leaving behind Internet-enabled laptops, Kindles, iPads, etc. – was resoundingly confirmed with this trip. In my opinion, we devoted too much time and conversation to either searching for these machines whenever they got misplaced, or (especially on the boat) trying to keep the dang things charged. For me, this preoccupation with (or what is most likely merely a habitual resort to) screen-staring was a distraction that interfered with our trip (or at least with my own enjoyment of it), rather than something that enhanced it.
  • As I’ve gotten older, my desire for – or at least tolerance of – lengthy days of sightseeing – whether on foot or otherwise – has definitely diminished. In particular, uninterrupted stints of browsing in large museums (no matter how famous its contents) don’t appeal to me as much as they used to. And smaller, more navigable (and especially pedestrian-friendly) towns seem more appealing to me now as future potential tourist destinations than repeat (or even virgin) visits to huge capital cities, despite the cultural riches available in the bigger metropolises. (Of course, this constraint is easier to accept after being lucky enough to have visited more than a few European capitals; if I hadn’t been so lucky. I might feel differently.)
  • I spent more $$$ on this trip than on any other overseas trip I’ve ever made. My rough calculations (if I include airfare) tell me I spent almost $130 per day. That’s definitely beyond my normal travel budget (and, hey, does anyone remember, as I do, Europe on $5 a Day?). The search for slightly cheaper overseas vacations will likely become even more necessary since I’m now a Retiree! If European airfares don’t come down drastically, I may be forced to limit most of my future out-of-state vacations to destinations in North America, or travel less frequently than I’d like.
  • As I’ve realized before, and realized all over again after returning from this trip, I am exceedingly fortunate to enjoy the house (and the neighborhood) where I live when I’m not traveling. After spending 27 days in Europe, I felt relieved to get home again. With the steep airfares to Europe and the non-likelihood of their getting appreciably cheaper meaning I’ll not be spending a lot of time abroad in the future, it’s a very good thing I like where I’ve chosen to live. (The cabin in Blue Ridge, Georgia where I can periodically get away from Atlanta ain’t Provence or Italy – or England or Greece, to mention only my other favorite European destinations – but Blue Ridge is a lot closer than Europe and I don’t need an airplane to get there. So I am feeling doubly glad that I can look forward to the peacefulness and relative lack of logistics hassles at the cabin next time I’d like a pleasant – and especially a pretty-much-guaranteed stressless – break from my domestic routines.) On the other hand, I definitely hope to travel abroad again, even if it turns out to be not any time soon or very often. But who knows? Perhaps there’s a cheap freighter fare in Calvin’s travel future? Or maybe one of those (relatively inexpensive?) “re-positioning cruises”? Or I might investigate arranging one of those house-swaps I’ve read about. Surely, there’s got to be a way to Get Back There Again, after my enjoyment of being back at home, or at the cabin, morphs into an urge to go somewhere in Europe again (or elsewhere outside the United States).

Any individual’s recollections of travelling with a group are as subjective as they are necessarily selective. And at times the seven of us travelling together for the first two weeks of this trip chose to spend time doing different things. So I am hoping that my fellow-travelers will chime in with their comments to this blogpost, so readers can learn about my fellow-travelers’ respective trip “delights, disappointments, and disasters.”

My thanks to all of you who have read this write-up of my recent trip. Despite my deciding to mention in this lengthy account a few of the hassles that befell us (or befell me, anyway) on this particular adventure, I heartily recommend cruising down canals, renting villas, and visiting European capitals!

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8 thoughts on “France! Italy!

  1. Cal. What a great job you did on our trip. It was a beautiful adventure and a great time to be with good friends. By the way who was the idiot that fell in the lock? Did I miss that? Let’s plan another one.

  2. Really enjoyed your write-up and pictures. I have memories visiting many of the same places, so it was nice to revisit them through your filter. Are you done with canal boats now???

    1. Thanks for reading, Ken. I know I was a bit loquacious about the mishaps that befell us on this trip, but they didn’t turn me against another canal boat trip! I’d love to do more of them…although I wonder if I could get anybody to go with me!

  3. I loved reading and seeing your pictures!!!!! You have a way with words and the pictures are awesome! I hope to retire like you one day and enjoy these kind of wonderful life experiences like YOU!

    1. Thanks for reading, Martha. Sorry about your comments disappearing into the ether! That’s happened to me a couple of times, too. You might try re-writing as a Word document, saving it, and then copying and pasting from Word into WordPress. That way, you’ll have a copy and won’t need to write a third time! Look forward to your commentary…and to any photos you and Royce will eventually be emailing me.

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