Italy and Greece

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Tuesday, October 18, 1994. The train ride from Cinque Terre to Rome took most of the day. During the last hour of the trip, a lively young Italian man named Tonino (that’s “Little Tony” to you and me) struck up a conversation with us. Soon, all three of the Italians in our compartment were happily jabbering in broken English. I love that singa-songa accacenta that Italians have, pronouncing every syllable as though it ends with a vowel. Tonino’s English was the best of the three, as he had spent six months studying in England.

Roam if You Want To

On arriving in Rome, Tonino showed us where we could pay to store our packs for a while, where to buy tickets for the trip to Brindisi later in the evening, and then he took us on the bus to the center of the city. Although he lives in a small town in northern Italy, he is very enthusiastic about Rome. I have to say, Tonino was so friendly, so unlike most of the Italians we have met, that I was on my guard, expecting him to turn into a con-artist at any moment. Fortunately, he was just what he seemed to be: a genuinely nice guy who wanted to be helpful and show off his country.

We have five hours between trains, so Tonino has pointed us to a few of Rome’s major sites: the Colosseum, the Unknown Soldier’s monument, Benito Mussolini’s former residence, and the Piazza Navona, an enormous baroque plaza with marvelous statues. We are not staying long enough to see Vatican City and the Sistine Chapel, which is okay, because I’m already thinking that five hours in Rome is too much. For all of it’s amazing monuments and ancient ruins, Rome is still noisy, crowded and dirty. Even crossing the street is frightening, navigating through flurries of scooters and lunatic drivers.

Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz, Oh What a Relief It Is

As a traveler, one of the inconveniences you learn to deal with is the state of public restrooms. Rule number one when traveling in Europe — especially southern and eastern Europe — is carry your own toilet paper. As you travel south or east, the conveniences begin to disappear. The first thing to go is the cleanliness; European restrooms can be nauseatingly filthy. Next goes the toilet paper. By the time you get to Italy and Greece, you’ll find that most public toilets do not have toilet seats. And, by the time you get to Turkey, there is no toilet at all; just a hole in the floor and a place to put your feet as you squat.

Rome is so filthy that we are unwilling to use most of the public restrooms. This is where McDonald’s comes in handy. Although many travelers consider McDonald’s to be a cultural cancer metastasizing in the previously healthy cities of the world, a global homogenizer destroying cultural and scenic uniqueness with the artistry of a bulldozer, the restaurant equivalent of the Borg, McDonald’s can nevertheless be counted on to have more-or-less clean restrooms with toilet seats and toilet paper.

If you’re wondering, the entire reason for this discourse on McDonald’s and the state of European toilets is just to tell you about an ingenious invention we discovered in the restroom at McDonald’s of Rome. It is called McWash. The best inventions are the ones that are so obvious, you wonder why no one thought of them sooner, and McWash is just that. To wash your hands, you put them into an opening in the wall labeled “McWash”, which sprays them first with soapy water, then with rinse water, and finally dries them off with hot air. Maybe we’re just easily amused, but both Ann and I came out of our respective restrooms saying “Wow! What a cool sink!

Stealing the Night Away

Wednesday, October 19, 1994. There are thieves on the night trains in Italy. Ann and I are on an overnight train from Rome to Brindisi, again trying to sleep in one of the six-seat compartments in which the seats pull out to form a makeshift bed. These compartments are not very deep; short enough that my foot touches the sliding door. Twice during the night, someone opened the door — waking me up — and then left. At first, I thought nothing of it; just a passenger looking for an empty compartment, and in too much of a hurry to actually look in the window to see the sleeping people. But at about 4:00 am we both woke to find a man standing on our “bed”, reaching for Ann’s pack. As we sat up, he grinned sheepishly and said something like “skyoozie” as he backed out of the compartment.

When you wake from a dead sleep into a confusing situation, your mind shuffles the possibilities and spits them out like a blackjack dealer on speed. At the end of the deck, only one possibility is laying face-up: that man was a thief! He was after our stuff! Nevermind that Ann’s pack weighs about 30 kilos and he never could have gotten it down without waking us. Nevermind that, even if he had gotten her pack, there was nothing of substantial value in it. But it pisses me off that there are people making a living stealing luggage from sleeping train passengers in Italy. When I was traveling with Michael and Bronwen, Michael mentioned that he had lost his Eurail pass to a pickpocket in the Rome train station. Just be forewarned: always be extremely cautious with your belongings when you travel; there are lots of scumbags eagerly waiting for a chance to take them from you.

I’m So Tired, I Haven’t Slept a Wink

Our travel guide recommends one of the hotels in Brindisi, Italy on the off chance that you are forced to spend the night and suicide is not an option. This is only a slight exaggeration. Brindisi is a miserable little town. If not for the ferry port, Brindisi would be a miserable little town with no reason to exist.

What made Brindisi even worse is that we had had a whopping 2 hours of sleep on the train and an 11 hour layover before our ferry left for Greece. The ferry ride was long enough for another 6 hours of sleep, but the sea was rough and we did not sleep well. Corfu — the one of the largest Ionian islands, on the northwest coast of Greece — greeted us with buckets of rain. Needless to say, we were less than cheerful by the time we arrived.

The only thing we had been told by previous visitors was “Don’t go to the ‘Pink Palace’.” The Pink Palace is apparently a drinking fest cleverly disguised as a hotel. At the Corfu ferry landing there were representatives of several different hotels, including the Pink Palace, vying for guests. We and several other passengers went with a man named Spiros to the hotel “Vrachos” on Pelekas Beach. As soon as we checked in, we went to our room and slept for the rest of the morning.

Pelekas Beach is on the west side of Corfu, the opposite side from the ferry landing, so we would never have found it on our own. I’m glad we went with Spiros, though, because both Pelekas Beach and Vrachos were an excellent choice. At US$6.50 per night, the rooms are not luxurious, but Pelekas is one of Corfu’s finest beaches, and Vrachos has everything you need, including a restaurant and bar, a small shop, cheap scooter and snorkel rentals, etc. You would have to work hard to spend more than US$20 a day. Although we originally intended to stay only two nights, we ended up staying nine; it’s easy to get stuck on Corfu. After a couple initial days of rain, we spent a week sunbathing, bodysurfing, snorkeling, riding scooters around the island, watching the sunsets and hanging out with other guests.

Two Tickets to Paradise

Saturday, October 29, 1994. After three false starts, we finally escaped from Corfu. Our plan was to take a ferry to Igoumenitsa on the mainland and then catch a bus to Athens. The ferry part worked out alright, but we just missed the 11:00am bus. The next bus wasn’t until 6:30pm, which would have put us into Athens at 3:00am. Instead we opted to take a bus to the nearby town of Parga — a nicer town than Igoumenitsa, according to our guidebook — to spend the night.

Jackpot! If you are looking for an idyllic Greek seaside resort in which to spend a month or two, you couldn’t go wrong by choosing Parga. Parga is entirely a tourist destination; there are only 2,000 residents but, during the summer months, the population swells to 45,000. This means that 90% of the housing in Parga is hotels and private rooms for rent. Double rooms rent for 4000 – 7000 drachma (US$18 – US$31), allowing for a very affordable vacation.

More importantly, Parga is one of the most scenic vacation spots we have seen. It is a small Greek village of narrow, winding flagstone streets, built on the slopes of a hill that falls away into a clear, waveless sea. On the hill overlooking the town is a minimally restored thousand-year-old Norman fortress and, a hundred meters out in the water is a small white chapel on a tiny island. Both the island and the fort are well lighted after dark, ensuring that Parga is as beautiful at night as it is in the day. On Sundays, the town is transported to another world by the wailing songs of the Greek Orthodox priest, broadcast all morning over loudspeakers and echoing off the hillside.

We are told that, in the summer months, Parga is standing-room only but, because it was late in the year, there was hardly anyone there; we felt like we were the only visitors in town. And, even though it was nearly November, the weather was perfect. We intended to stay only a single night, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave in less than three. This place is like a drug. Sunbathing on warm, pebble beaches, swimming in the crystal blue Mediterranean, dining on fresh fish and red Greek wine in quiet waterfront restaurants; I’m jonesing just thinking about it.

Don’t Drink the Water and Don’t Breathe the Air

Athens sucks. The air is so polluted you might as well take up chain-smoking. The traffic congestion and noise pollution are so bad, and the city is so unrelentingly ugly that we can’t wait to leave. Admittedly, as ancient ruins go, Athens has the best in the world. Aside from the pyramids of Egypt, the Athenian ruins are among the only “seven wonders of the ancient world” still standing. In the three days that we’ve been here, we’ve seen the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Acropolis, and several other ancient ruins, plus the marble Stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896, a re-creation of an ancient Greek stadium. We’ve also visited Athens’ famous flea-market, Greece’s National Garden, and generally tried to see much of what Athens has to offer. Our conclusion? Athens is a dump of world-class proportions. We give it a big thumbs-down. Sure, use the Athens airport as a stepping stone to the Greek islands or coastal resorts, but don’t plan on spending any time here.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Friday, November 4, 1994. Ann and I are on a plane from Athens to Munich right now. In Munich we will pick up my car and drive to England and Scotland. We got so heavily side-tracked in Greece that we have decided to postpone our Turkey trip for a while.

Until next time, I’d like to leave you with this parting thought. Although I don’t think I’ve said it explicitly, you’ve probably noticed something from these travelogues that I’ve been noticing all along: smaller towns and villages are consistently more pleasant and interesting than large cities. Since, for example, we’ve all heard of Rome and Venice and Florence, it’s convenient, when planning a vacation trip to Italy, to think in terms of spending it in those cities. My advice is this: read your travel guide carefully with an eye toward the smaller places. They are usually cleaner, cheaper and friendlier. Taking the time to search out interesting little villages is almost certain to be more rewarding than heading for the big cities.

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Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt