Shipwrecked in Italy

January is never a good month in Italy.  It is short thank goodnesss; but it is a cold, dark month full of the hangover from Christmas and New Year, and the necessary guilt-  based dieting that goes on to try and recover from how much you ate and drank.  There is absolutely no hope of a reprieve in the bleak, boring month and definitely no excuse for a party until Carnivale in February.  In short its a bit boring and a bit depressing.

This year even more so as we contemplate the sheer bizzareness of a captain who wanted to steer his huge ocean liner full of thousands of people onto a beach for fun, and the sadness and shock that it resulted in of lives lost.  In a world full of obvious dangers it seems particularly unfair that lives should be lost as a result of being shipwrecked on a cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany, 50 metres from shore.

As the stories come out about the lack of procedure, the captain not following basic maritime law and protocol, huge risks taken and responsibilities abdicated, none of it actually surprises me.  Bucking the rules for family and friends, bending the rules for personal comfort, and plain ignoring them at times are all fundatmental parts of Italian culture.  This leniency benefits just about every Italian in their lives, as well as most foreigners, at some stage or another.  It is part of the charm of Italy and something that makes it a special and magical place to live in.  It just sometimes all goes horribly wrong.

I am reminded of a hovercraft trip I took a few years ago from Sorrento to the island of Capri with my tall, blonde haired, blue-eyed, British girl friend.  There were more people wanting  to go to Capri than the boat could legally carry.  However in order not to disappoint travellers and their families they just kept letting  on as many people as needed to go (it is a short trip).  As all available space slowly filled up my friend and I found ourselves being pushed to the top of the hovercraft until we were at the Captains cockpit.

“Come in, come in”, he beckoned to the dozen or so of us standing around squashed up against the door.

“There’s plenty of room in here, stand up along the wall here.  You two (meaning my friend and I), come and sit up here on the Captain and First Mates chair.  We can stand.”

We found ourselves sitting in front of the “wheel” which is actually a stick which steers and drives the hovercraft.  It was difficult for the Captain to actually steer the hovercraft with my friend sitting in the seat directly in front of the wheel.

“Here, you do it”, he said after a while.  “It’s really easy, just hold it straight like this and head for that island, I’m going off to get a coffee”

Photographs curtesy of A.Lake

Berlusconi’s last bunga bunga

It is with great relief and so much joy that we say goodbye to Berlusconi as Italy’s Prime Minister for the better part of seventeen years.  Now I know a little how people feel when their countries are rid of dictators.  Berlusconi came to power shortly after I arrived in Rome and hailed himself as a progressive leader that would modernise Italy.  Instead he went about feathering his own nest and did nothing to revitalise or bring Italy forward.  He even went on national television (which he owned) and gave a monologue speech in which he contracted with the Italian people to do a number of things, and holding himself accountable to the population, for them.  At the time I am sure he believed himself.  I can’t remember if that was before or after he was charged with corruption and asked to step down as Prime Minister.  The first time.

Italians are an incredibly forgiving race and tolerant to the point of the ridiculous but I knew it was all over when I read in the paper last week that according to Berlusconi’s second in command, Berlusconi had to go as he had created a laughing stock out of Italy and that no other countries respected them anymore.  Four indictments of corruption, constantly accused for having broken the law in a number of other areas during his seventeen year reign, his lack of leadership, changing electoral laws so it was easier for him to win elections, owning most of the print and television media and using it as the communications arm of his political campaign, flagrant womanising, stacking his political party with gorgeous women he had seduced, and sex with an underage prostitute was never going to be enough.

Italians have an expression La Bella Figura which is fundamental to understanding part of their culture.  It means “to make a good impression” and is the basis for all social interaction and behaviour.  It is important at all costs to conduct yourself in a manner which creates a good impression (and this means treating others well as part of it).  I knew that the comment in the newspaper meant that Berlusconi had crossed this line and caused his country to not have a Bella Figura.  I was therefore pretty sure that unlike all the other times, this time he was doomed.

I do however have a word of caution to the Anglo leaders (USA, UK, Australia) who have been calling for him to get his act together and start leading the country.  Like that was the piece of advice he had been missing.  If only it had come sooner.  There are several cultural, historical and social reasons that Italy is the way it is, and not the way any of the Anglo type countries are.  These circumstances, although they may lead to some disasters such as now, are also tied up in the many successes and wonders of Italy.   It is not as easy as it first seems.

  1.  Berlusconi has mostly had to govern with a minority government over his seventeen year reign.  Traditionally his government has had to include parties in it from the extreme left to the extreme right, in order for him to form a government.

At the moment Australia has had a minority government for just over a year and it has caused us paroxysms of anxiety, debating, stalemates, slowness and at times divided the country because we have had to get the OK of a few people not in the party of the current Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The UK and USA systems have been constantly paralysed and brought almost to the brink of disaster over the past four years due to partisan politics.

Berlusconi’s government has had to run the country like this for seventeen years, trying to get agreement on everything they do across a wide spectrum of political parties, any of whom could dissolve the government if they didn’t agree.  Governing in Italy is a major act of facilitation, participatory practices and consultations to bring everyone along as a group.  It is something that not many other governments have to put up with, and even fewer display the aptitude and leadership skills for.

2.  Traditionally who you voted for in Italy depended on what your professional was or where you lived (your region).  In order to keep your job/get a job or have access to government services in your region you had to pledge support to the candidate who represented this as part of the election campaigning.  All journalists voted a certain way, so did university staff, doctors, bank employees etc.  It was only recently that a law was passed banning mobile phones in the polling booths so that people could not be pressured to prove who they voted for by taking a photo with their phone of their ballot.

This is a system of patronage that greatly hampers any individual politician leading or making any great changes once they get to Parliament.  Much like the system of big business and other factions in the Anglo countries that can afford to pour huge sums of money into candidates’ electoral campaigns.  In Italy the politicians go after the voters, in the Anglo countries it is the other way around.

3.  Italy is a country of 65 million people and one of the eighth most industrialised countries in the world.  It has huge wealth, high productivity, and a black market possibly as large as the one that is recorded on paper.  It is much harder to manage this kind of economy than one which has only 20 million people in it and only 1% of the world’s market.

The way Italy’s economy works is based on its social system which has been around for longer than the economy.  Unlike other countries whose culture can now be called Economic Rationalism, Italy has retained much of its pre-industrialised values and traditions.  This is what makes it such a wonderful place and is also part of the reason it is filled with world heritage treasures.

Sometimes the “Stock Market” is not able to list, define or appreciate all the world’s stocks.  Therefore let’s not make it the only measurement of value in the world.

Top 10 places to visit in Italy (6 – 10)

6.  Knock off Naples

This is a tricky one.  Naples is definitely a “must see” on your trip to Italy but in the past few years the number of street shootings have increased to the point where you can see them replayed on U-tube.   And they are not occuring in “out-of-the-way” places, but in average downtown and shopping areas that anyone is likely to be in (hence them being captured on mobile phone videos).  These days I wouldn’t actually go to Naples for safety reasons.

However Naples is still one of the top ten places to visit in Italy.  Nowhere else is like it.   It is the birthplace of pizza and the ones that you will taste here will leave you pining for the rest of your life.  The centre of the city is an ancient labyrinth of tiny streets, filled to the brim with humanity and all its trappings.  This is not a tourist city.  The rhythm of this city is more like an African than a European city.  The combination of art, history, food, overpopulation and danger means it feels like a city that is on the edge of a precipice.   And technically it is.   When Vesuvius, the volcano behind the city, blows up again in the not too distant future it will be bye bye Napoli!  Just in case you don’t get here I’ve included a few more photos than usual.

If you dare to go to Naples stay at the appropriately named: L’Albergo del Purgatorio, +39 081 299 579.

7. Idle to an island

Italy has many, and to truly experience the fullness of Italian life, you need to go to one.  Pick one, any one – Sardinia, Capri, Ischia, Ponza, Ventotene, Elba, Lippari, Procida, Lampedusa, Vulcano, Stromboli, just to name a few.  They are all on the left side of Italy running down from Tuscany to Sicily, and are all easy to get to, and within a few hours by boat from the mainland or Sicily.  They are the ultimate Italian holiday experience.  Although each has its own character, they all operate at a much slower pace than the mainland and it is nice to see that even Italians can wear flip flops and shorts at times.  Although in parts of Capri and Sardinia they maybe Valentino and Gucci.

Stay at: Casa Adolfo, +39081999443, Ischia

8.  Absolutely Amalfi

I know that many people visit, and love, the Cinque Terra.  However my theory is that only those who have not seen the Amalfi coast, love the Cinque Terra.  Along the Amalfi coast is the town of Amalfi, although I recommend Positano as the place to base yourself in.  I find it hard to describe the Amalfi coast as it takes my breath away every time I see it.  Imagine sheer, grey, craggy cliffs, covered in bright bougainvillea flowers and green cacti, plunging into an aqua blue sea.  Imagine driving along a road that hugs these cliffs and that winds in and out of them for hours, giving you enticing glimpses of the sea, flowers, the cliffs above you, and every now and then a set of dwellings that seem to hug in or tumble down from crevices in the cliffs.  The views are stunning and world class.  Add to this some deep crystal clear water to swim in, magnificent sea food, pizzas (you are still only an hour out of Naples),  and delicious desserts and liquor made from Amalfi’s famously huge lemons, and I am in paradise every time I go (which is annually).

Positano is mostly a pedestrian town, fantastic shopping and eating, with views to die for from even the cheapest hotel windows.   Because it is mostly pedestrian, and the town opens up onto the sea, it makes for a wonderfully relaxed and escapist beach holiday, and a truly summer Italian experience.

Stay at: Hotel Conca d’Oro, Positano (See blog roll for link), Pensione Casa La Reginella, +39089875324, Positano

9.  Admire Albero Bello

There has to be one obscure gem on this list and this is it.  Nowhere else in the world will you see anything like this little town, right at the southern end of Italy, in Puglia.  It is a town made up entirely of Trulli, the name of the traditional rock and cave houses from this region.  It is the only one of its kind in Italy and in the world.  These houses were made entirely out of stones stacked on top of each other and consist of several round rooms joined together with a round roof.  They are whitewashed and each has a different symbol on the peak of their rooves which indicated families or landlords they belonged to.  It is a pedestrian town and you can eat, shop and visit all within these traditional dwellings.  It is like walking through a film set and is a cross between a Hobbit village and a village from the Star Wars trilogy.

10.  See Sicily

Sicily is a country in itself and unlike anywhere else in Italy.  But again to understand and have a true feel of Italy you must see and experience Sicily.  It is the wild west of Italy and extremely varied even within itself.  See Palermo and visit the islands other ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine temples, palaces and churches.  See the most amazing beaches in the Mediterranean, picturesque countryside, incredible food found nowhere else in Italy, and an ancient way of life clung to with fierce pride.

Photographs by A. Verhagen and A. De Luca

Top ten places to visit in Italy

1.  Visit Venice

It may seem passé, a tourist trap, and a cliché but the truth is that Venice is still a lovely, lively and real city teeming with actual inhabitants.  It is also worth going because it so unique.  A city built on water with canals instead of streets not to mention some of the world’s most beautiful squares, palaces, hotels and art galleries.  Venice is timeless, an important part of Western and Eastern history, and yes full of tourists.  However it is a favourite destination because of the above, why would you want to miss out on that just because everyone else is there too?

And do take a Gondola ride.  Yes they are expensive but on your death bed will you be glad you had that extra hundred or so dollars in your pension fund or will you be glad that you took a romantic Gondola ride in Venice?  The Gondoliers are a respected and traditional trade that is passed down from father to son.  Only if you come from a family of Gondoliers can you become one, after many years of training.  They know the city intimately and will show you places you can’t see on foot, and yes they will probably sing for you as well.  All in all it’s an experience that you can’t get anywhere else.

Stay at: Le Guglie B & B, Cannaregio, Venice  (see blogroll for more details)

2.  Do the Dolomites

Part of the magic of Italy is that is so many countries in one.  To appreciate the dry, almost African feel of the South you must have experienced the mountainous cool region of the North, more like Germany than Italy in some parts.  The Dolomites are majestic and offer incredible skiing in the winter and beautiful walks in the summer with stunning views, authentic wooden chalets, beautiful towns, and magnificent food and wine of the region, not found anywhere else.

3. Miss Milan

I may get into trouble for suggesting this but as a long term resident of Italy I get a bit sick of the hype about Milan.  It’s a shopping centre, a big church and then an industrial city of the type you can find anywhere in Northern UK or Southern Germany, and usually cloaked in fog.  In a word, not unique.  If you want to use your holiday to boast to your friends you have been to Milan or if your idea of a holiday is shopping, then you will probably like Milan and fit in well with the “seen to be seen” set.  Otherwise you will be bored after a day.

4. Tour Tuscany

Siena, Volterra, San Gimignano, Cortona, Bagni di Lucca, Lucca, Pitigliano, Sovanna, Montepulciano, Pienza, Florence, Montalcino, Lucinangno, Pisa, San Severo… ……… so many medieval hill top towns all within an hour’s drive of each other.  Tuscany is a nonstop feast for the eyes and stomach.  Feast your eyes on the rolling hills topped with cypress trees, fields of sunflowers, stone farm houses and wild deer.  Tuscany is the poster child for Italy.  Then fill your stomachs on its rich, earthy Chianti’s, chewy salami, handmade bread and stews of wild boar, venison and hare.  Once again everyone goes to Tuscany because it is gorgeous, peaceful, and breathtakingly beautiful.  Nowhere else in the world looks or feels like Tuscany.

Stay at:  Agriturismo Selvoli, Pienza or Relais La Suvera, Pievescola, Siena or Hotel Helvetica e Bristol, Florence (See Blogroll for links)

5. Revel in Rome

Of course if you don’t have Rome on your agenda when you visit Italy then you are a complete Philistine.  Even if you have no inkling or interest in history I guarantee you will be bowled over by it in Rome.  Where else can you go and stand in ancient chariot racing arenas, sit where tourists sat 2,000 years ago to watch someone mauled to death by a wild bear as part their Saturday afternoon entertainment, stand in the same spot where Mark Antony addressed the crowd after the death of Julius Caesar, visit the building where Roman Senators ruled the world for over 1,000 years or visit the illegal underground burial chambers of the first Christians?

If history and Roman buildings don’t grab you then how about the world’s biggest collection of art works and sculptures in just one city, ornate marble filled churches, squares full of fountains, tiny medieval streets and the Vatican.  No?  How about the chance just to chill in a café all afternoon sipping cold Belgian beers or Italian whites and watch some of the world’s most beautiful people go by, often two or three at a time on a moped,  not letting their driving interrupt  their smoking or ice cream eating?

Stay at:  Hotel Locarno or Hotel de Russie (See Blogroll for links)

Tips 6 – 10 next week.

Italian food without Borders?

While travelling across Russia one day, as you do, by train, on your way to Ulan Butah and then Beijing, one morning a group of shy, Mongolian, 19 year old medical students came and filled the doorway of my carriage.  We were about to cross the border from Russia into Mongolia later on that day.

Would you mind storing something in your carriage for us until we get across the border?

Every warning that the Department of Foreign Affairs website has ever hosted has contained some variation of “don’t take anything for anyone across any border ever”.

Seeing our shocked and doubtful faces they quickly added.

It’s orange juice.

Knowing that few people actually admit the true nature of what they are asking you to smuggle on their behalf, I wasn’t moving.  My unworldly travelling companion was quicker than I however and quipped that it would be fine then.

Within seconds the boys were back expertly lifting up our bottom bunks to reveal a storage container we had never even seen, and stacking paper carton upon paper carton of the orange juice brand we had seen all over Russia.

The fierce looking Mongolian immigration guards never even bothered looking in our cabin although they went through the one next door pretty thoroughly, revealing only the requisite amount of orange juice allowed to be imported, per person, to Mongolia.

Thanks, thanks so much!

The students came bounding into our cabin immediately afterwards, full of smiles and gratitude that lasted for the next few days, until they disembarked with their full load of contraband, enough to sell on the black market and make a handsome profit to further fund their medical studies.  Fresh fruit, vegetables and their derivatives are not produced in Mongolia (which is mostly desert) and so come at a premium price.

It isn’t the first time I have snuck food into a country.  Italy has fantastic food.  Italian cuisine is varied, fresh, simple, and consists of much more than pizza or pasta.  They don’t however import or make any of our food, none of it.  So there is no other food available in Italy than what makes up their indigenous cuisine.  Fabulous enough, however when one is facing Winter without crumpets, baked beans, stilton cheese, marmalade, and tinned tomato soup, for the umpteenth time, things can get desperate.

It is a little known fact and hard to explain in a culture such as ours (Australia) where you can get dozens of different countries cuisines, their ingredients, their desserts, their sauces and flavours, that nothing that is not Italian, made in Italy, or eaten by Italians can be had in Italy.  For example you will never, ever find sticky date pudding on the menu, an iced donut anywhere, a slice of cheese cake in a café, a mud cake, mushroom soup, a potato cake, a lamb chop two weeks either side of Easter, sliced bread in a packet, coriander, parsnip, rhubarb, passion fruit, the list goes on.  Like the French they are fiercely protective of their own nations’ producers and most Italians wouldn’t dream of experimenting with another countries food.  Indians eat Indian food, French eat French food, Americans eat their version of food, and Italians eat Italian food is their understanding of the world.

Hence my need to go to London every Autumn and stock up so I can survive the Winter ahead on my non Italian Winter comfort food.  Heathrow however is the centre of search and control practices for keeping airports safe.  You and your bags can be searched at any time and anywhere. Waiting in a boarding queue, one year, after stocking up, I got selected for a search of my hand luggage.  Up onto a large table surrounded by burly, male British air port workers went my small suitcase.  The large security guard, surrounded by all his mates, unzipped it carefully and found it hard to hide the surprise on his face as he encountered a suitcase full of crumpets, marmalade and tins of tomato soup which came tumbling out onto the table and floor.

Ey up!  What’s all this for then? He said as he and his mates were lining packets of crumpets up alongside my suitcase.

I…..I…..I live in Italy…….came out as the only response I could muster.

Even as I was saying it I realised how ridiculous it sounded.  Most Brits go to Italy to FOR the food, they don’t take theirs with them.  Sniggering and laughing into his sleeve, he winked at me knowingly while he zipped it back up again.

Oh, aye, luv, I get it, there’s nothing worse than not bein’ able to have yrrr bit o’ crrrrumpet when you want it.

I lugged away my weighed down suitcase with the sound of laughter in my ears, my face as red as the tomato soup I was carrying and just ordered on line from Fortnum’s and Mason’s after that.

Italy Standard, Poor & Negative?

Standard, poor and negative are three words not usually associated with Italy.  But last week they were, in the Economist news magazine.  The Standard and Poor (S&P) credit rater, downgraded Italy from a “Stable ” rating to a “Negative” rating.  It is concerned about Italy’s lack of economic growth.  That Italy appears to owe more than they earn, therefore alarming the credit raters about their ability to pay it back.  The Economist also reported that most Italians were happy with this situation as it meant that the government, weighed down with debt, wouldn’t be sticking their noses into individual Italians business, as they would be too preoccupied with fixing the country.

When I first arrived in Italy, 17 years ago, I read with alarm the economic reports concerning the financial health of the country that I was earning and saving money in.  I considered exchanging my hard earned cash into US$, or sending it all back to Australia, as it appeared that any minute the economy would collapse.  Italy has always looked different on paper than it does on the ground.

Like the stealthy, Sicilian peasant that only uses cash and looks like any minute his house will fall apart, Italy has a way of always appearing to have less money than it actually does.  Most Italians practice this, whether to hide their actual worth from each other, or from the government, I am not sure, but these are some of the ways that I was introduced into the “double” economy of Italy.

1. Less prevalent now, but many restaurants will offer you two kinds of bills, one cheaper bill written on a piece of paper, and another slightly higher on an official receipt that will need to go through the cash register.  Usually you will be offered the cheaper bill first, if you accept, everyone’s a winner baby!

2. When I paid my rent, part of it was by a cheque for which I received a receipt, part of it was cash with no receipt, which meant my rent was slightly cheaper in return for my landlord not having to declare all of it.  This was such a common practice amongst all my ex-pat friends that I had initially assumed it was actually part of the Italian (legal) system of paying rent.

I found banking hard to take seriously also.  Especially when while cashing my first pay check, the teller demanded, with a smirk, my phone number in return for cashing my pay check.  Or when I started to have enough money in my bank account to be taken seriously as a customer and I was called in for the “investment” chat with the bank manager who outlined the various products the bank could offer me.  When I asked which one he used, he replied that all his money was under his mattress.

So I don’t worry about my money any more when Italy receives a negative rating from a credit rating company on the other side of the world, based on faraway, first world, economic rationalist type data.  I just go and have a coffee with my bank manager, pay the Barrister cash with no receipt, and send my money to Switzerland before the government can find out anything about it.  Photographs by A.Verhagen.

Top 10 travel tips for a cheap Roman Holiday

The final 5 tips in this topic.  Sorry they took longer than expected!

6.  Drink the local wine

Carrying on our theme of economising on eating and drinking which will make up the bulk of your trip expenses next to your hotel, don’t worry about what kind of wine to order, just drink the local house drop where ever you are.  In Rome this will be a Frascati wine from the Castelli region, the cool mountainous area just outside of Rome.  In Tuscany it will be local Chianti.  You can’t really go wrong ordering house wine in Italy and it will be much cheaper than ordering a bottle with a name on it.  House wine comes in glass or ceramic carafes that are quarts (enough for two small glasses), half’s or litres and can be refilled upon request.

7.  Walk

 Transport is usually a big expense for most trips however Rome as a city has the luck to be quite small in distances, per sight you might want to see.  It is therefore cheaper but also quicker and easier to walk everywhere.  Small maps of Rome are available everywhere.  Be prepared to make your way by foot from sight to sight and you will not only save time and money but get to see the city that exists in between the monuments, as well as surprising and unexpected sights not listed in the Guide Books.

This means however that you can’t wear stilettos, in spite of the fact that many Italians will be.  As a woman who loves her stilettos all I can say is that you will severely regret wearing anything with a heel and without a serious soul, full of padding.  Italian cobblestones are really hard to walk on; footpaths are few, small and crowded, making walking difficult and painful.

All this is particularly important given tip number one about how much you pay in a café to sit down which you will need to do if you don’t wear flat, rubber-soled footwear. Save your fancy shoes for the evening when you alight from your taxi outside of your restaurant and for a short after-dinner passegiata (the traditional times Italians go walking to see and be seen).  If you are not Italian most people will expect you to be wearing Birkenstocks anyway.

8.  Expect not to pay

This follows on from the above point.  Rome as a city is in itself a sight.  Her streets, her piazzas, her buildings, the river, her shops, gardens and statues are all worth admiring, walking through and experiencing on your way to sights and monuments.  The architecture, the decorations of art and murals on every street corner, the people, the weather, the outdoor living of the city are all also sights in themselves, beautiful, unique, and awe inspiring.

In addition many of Rome’s monuments are simply part of the city and free – the Circus Maximus, Arch of Constantine, the Pantheon, the Orange Gardens, Spanish Steps, Trevi fountain.  Have a look at my blog on Top Ten Places to visit in Rome.  Nine of them are free.  Rome’s churches are also all free (including St Peters) and hold world heritage art works and sculptures by Michelangelo and Caravaggio just to name a few.

So don’t expect to have to put a lot of money aside to see sights.  Simply walking through piazzas, stopping for a coffee, eating a panino, visiting Dolce & Gabbana and Prada, a church, and a monument or two will be enough to fill your days with silent wonder.

9.  Take the airport train

The most costly transport that any visitor to Rome will pay for is always going to be the travel from the airports to the city.  From both the main airports a taxi will cost around 60 Euro to the centre.  Taxi drivers in Rome have a tight cartel and airport fares are fixed at around 45 Euro.  In addition they will charge you for each bag they load into the boot and there is a surcharge if it is night time………..

The train from Fiumicino airport in contrast will cost around 13 Euro per person.  Tickets can be bought on the platform, a train leaves every 15 minutes at least, to various parts of the city and it usually takes less time than a taxi.  The trains are comfortable, have large luggage racks and are wheelchair friendly.

Spend 60 Euro on a nice pair of stilettos instead.

10.  Buy from the locals – Prada, Armani, D&G

Labels such as these and Valentino, Versace used to scare the daylights out of me.  But here they are just the locals.  Shops are unpretentious, full of helpful yet discreet sales staff, who won’t mind if you are not wearing a label, weigh more than 40 kilos or are over twenty five.  Everyone in the world comes to look at these stores and admire the craftsmanship.  Italians bask in the homage and consider it only natural.  There is no pressure to buy, you can look, touch, feel and ask as much as you want.  They are also cheaper here than anywhere else in the world so you never know.  You might just be able to afford something in there after following tips 1 – 9!