11th June 2014
Wait, what’s this?
I’m writing on a train again?
South from Naples,
through the toes of Italy,
across the Straights of Messina into Sicily,
it’s an 8 hour journey,
and most of it remains ahead of me.
A hottie lass, there’s plenty in these lands,
sits across from me,
I know better now
to pay her attention,
no more than deserves the fat baldy
sitting next to she.
Indulge me, please. It’s meant to be cheesy.
The Marche region (pronounced Marcay), described to visitors as Tuscany without the tourists, lies just south of it, along the central Adriatic coast of Italy. Connoisseurs unaware of Marche needn’t be embarrassed as this is the country’s best kept secret, preferring all honours go to its northerly neighbour.
On the 2nd, Jai and Ann decided to take us on a road trip into the southern Marche country, ending with dinner at Giorgio and Paula’s house in Ascoli. There were 11 of us, requiring 2 cars- Jai’s would be one of them and the other a rental that Tinks would drive. This excellent last minute plan caused him to reschedule his original travel date from SBT to Rome from the 2nd afternoon to the 3rd morning and extend the hotel reservation by a day, both accomplished with ease.
The road trip in earnest started from Ascoli where we stopped to fit the cars with baby seats- for Vihaan and Emile- borrowed from Jai’s cousin, Sara. Sara and her husband, Massimo, with her parents invited us into their new home for tea and drinks before we set out. We were delighted to spend some time with them and the two beautiful children, Pietro and Livia, and invited the family to stay with us in India. Thank you for your kindness and for your graciousness in making us feel like part of your family. We came away bearing gifts of Liqueur and T shirts and Jai’s mum packed us a picnic for the road.
We took the winding back roads out of Ascoli with Jai leading the two car convoy into the serene, picture postcard country. Every single tree, field, hill and farmhouse seemed to have been carefully placed in a deliberately though out exercise to ensure every glimpse, in every light, from every angle is perfect in all respects. That’s rural Marche for you.
The first town along the way was Amandola, where we stopped for a Gelato break. From Amandola we drove to Marcerata, the University town where Ann and Jai met as classmates. The University is situated in the historic quarter, built along the top of a ridge, with the modern town spread just below it where we parked. We climbed the steep stone stairs to the old town and found ourselves at the Piazza at the top, flanked on one side by the ancient Duomo and on the other sides by a Theatre, the City Council and a University building housing the Law Studies Department. Ann and Jai led us on a conducted tour of the deserted medieval town (it was a public holiday), pointing out their Economic Studies Department, accommodation and hang outs. Ann also gave us to understand that while she topped her class, Jai came in last.
Earlier in the day, during our climb up to old Marcerata, we passed a group of young Malyalee men who were standing about chatting. They were dressed and groomed differently from the stereotypical South Asian immigrant; those never say die street vendors who peddle Roses and umbrellas. They weren’t tourists either as they carried that air of familiarity that no tourist can have. Ann had mentioned that this was an especially prosperous province of Marche, being an Industrial base famous for its leather shoes. Perhaps they were skilled employees at one of these factories. It’s remarkable how different an environment from their comfort zones people will live through to make a better life.
From Marcerata we drove to Loreto, passing Racanati en route, home to Italy’s most famous poet. Loreto was a stark contrast to Marcerata, bustling with tourists. This town is a must visit on the Catholic Pilgrims trail, housing the reconstructed remains of the Virgin Mothers house after it was transported brick by brick from Nazareth by the Crusaders to save it from being destroyed by the invading Turks. You don’t have to be a pilgrim though to enjoy Loreto, its location alone warrants a visit. Strategically built on a ridge a few kilometres inland from the coast, the panoramic views of the Adriatic coastline and Croatia in the distance are a treat. From Loreto we took the AutoStrada south along the coast to SBT and inland to Ascoli, reaching Jai’s in time for dinner.
This was the first occasion since being in Italy that we had the opportunity to spend quality one on one time with Jai’s folks. Over the multicourse sit down dinner, thanks to another day of hard work by Paula, the foundations of a strong union for the future were laid.
Giorgio is an ex-serviceman who spends most of his time tending to his farm in the country where he grows olives and grapes. He makes olive oil and produces about 300 bottles of wine that meets his yearly consumption requirements with a little extra to distribute to family. This year the villa guests at SBT were party to 36 bottles of his largesse. Paula is a kindergarten teacher.
Jai had mentioned that his parents hadn’t travelled out of Italy until two years ago when they visited Paris. That too was an initiative by Agnese who is employed in the travel business. They haven’t been outside of Europe and I agreed with him when he opined that they weren’t ready for India yet. Ascoli to Agra. Yeah, not happening, yet.
After almost 2 weeks in Italy, something of significance I’ve noticed is that family bonds in this country exist deep and thick, and thanks to the wedding, I’ve experienced this firsthand. I was under the general impression that family dynamics in the developed world is different to what exists in India. My opinion was aided perhaps by the mass and effective transmission of electronic media manufactured in the Anglosphere. It seems I’ve painted the ‘western world’ with the same brush, wrongly, because there are hues.
The more I think about it, the more I realize a correlation between family centricity and Catholicism. Not Christianity, Catholicism. Before you get your knickers in a twist, read on.
When I say Catholicism, I don’t necessarily mean the culture of participating in the formal fabric of its rites and beliefs. When I say Catholicism I refer to a society that has remained overwhelmingly catholic, irrespective of its contemporary attitudes to the religion in its traditional form. Italy for example is a Catholic Nation with a statistically small church going population. Jai and his Dad are hardly church goers. Malta, Greece and Spain are similar nations. Like Italy, these nations, I’ve learnt, are societies that are family centric by majority. This correlation stands true even for Catholic Nations beyond the scope of the developed hemisphere, those that have suffered historically brutal and vested introductions to Catholicism. Brazil, Guatemala and the Philippines for example are all societies that are family centric by majority.
If you examine those developed countries that have grown into prosperity in an environment of sizeable, equal or major Anglican/Protestant populations – Germany, the U.K., France, northern Europe, Scandinavia, the U.S – you will find societies less immersed in family centricity. It was perhaps informational influences from these nations, the native English speaking Nations particularly, referred to as the Anglosphere that formed my initial opinions. La Cosa Nostra wouldn’t be the outfit that it is if it weren’t for the strength and unity of its controlling family. Unsurprisingly, they aren’t Danish.
Our families exchanged gifts and speeches after dinner. My mum announced that she couldn’t be happier with her daughter’s new family and was returning to India with joy in her heart. Amen mamma.
Later that night at the hotel I packed and showered. I had a ticket for the 7.10 am Regional to Ancona on route to Bologna and Venice the next day. Tinks and Supi too were leaving the next morning by the 4.00 am bus to Rome and the noon flight to Manchester. We spent a few hours on their balcony reminiscing the events of the past few days and they thanked me profusely for making them part of the experience. They got it wrong. Thank you for giving me five days of your lives.
So long Tinks, Supi and Vihaan. So long Marche.
The Regional from Bologna arrived at Venezia St. Lucia- the train station on Venice Island- at 1.15 pm, a minute ahead of schedule and wham! This isn’t a city that visually reveals itself in stages. You’re sublimated to Venice’s physical reality from your mental image of it in that first step from the station, and in this case, imagination and reality concur- the Grand Canal, the architecture, the water taxis, gondole and cafes lie before you in an image not unlike you’d imagined.
As an aside, Pondicherry is a town that reveals itself in stages, cleverly explained by Chetan Bhagat when he pointed out that the only thing he found French about the town on alighting at the bus stop was the giant hoarding advertising VIP Frenchie underwear.
So what was so wrong with the world that none of this mattered to me?
The previous evening I had reserved a hostel bed in Venice through a booking website for 40 Euro a night. It was bloody expensive but nothing else was cheaper or even available for the next day. I didn’t have to pay for it in advance but I was required to furnish valid credit card details to confirm the reservation, with the condition that the card be charged if I was a ‘no show’. Fair enough. The booking confirmation was emailed to me but for some inexplicable reason I deleted the confirmation email from my handset. I hadn’t a clue on where to go after getting off the train and to further agitate the situation I had to use the restroom very quickly. The restrooms at the station were the automated pay and use type, accepting only 1 Euro coins. I had a 5 Euro note that the two establishments I approached refused to change, unless I bought a stupid 4 Euro postcard. Yeah right.
I walked out of the station and noticed that the first cafe I came across had wifi.
“Can I use your wifi?”
“If you order something.”
“Can I use your restroom?”
“If you order something.”
“Are your pizzas tasty?”
“They’re the best in Venice.”
“Of course they are. May I have a Margarita please?”
“Sure. This is the wifi password and the restroom is back that way behind the fridge, please take a seat here”
9 Euro (Margarita pizza was the cheapest) was the punishment for my carelessness with the email but it bought me access to a restroom and some quite time over lunch to think about my next move. I could forget about the reservation and look for accommodation elsewhere but it would be an expensive option. Not only would I lose 40 Euro as a ‘no show’, I was certain I would have to pay much more if I turned up at a hostel without a reservation. And that was if hostel accommodation was available. God forbid I had to splurge on a hotel room. Shudder.
The only option that agreed with my constricted budget was to log on to the internet, determine the website I had booked the hostel on and then finally work out which hostel it was. I recollected that the booking website was listed on the first page of results on a Google search for ‘hostels in Venice’ and the hostel had an 8.4 rating against it. Sounds simple, doesn’t it, considering I had access to wifi? Well, it would’ve been, if I had a laptop with a working wifi antenna or a Smartphone that lived up to the smart bit. I had neither.
Just as I was cursing myself for not fixing my laptop before leaving India and promising to upgrade my phone when I returned, providence struck. A middle aged couple took the table next to mine, setting down an Iphone on the marble top as they settled in. I ascertained they were British when the lady called for the menu. Even before they finished leafing through it I interrupted them.
“Hi, how’s it going?”
They looked up a little startled but responded cheerfully, “We’re very well, thank you, and yourself?”
“Excellent, but here’s the thing...” I went on to describe my predicament with the computer and phone and requested their help with their Iphone.
The lady instantly handed it to me and asked me to “help myself for as long as I needed it”. I’m pretty certain my Robert Redford good looks swayed her into compliance.
‘Generator Venice’ was where I had made my booking on bookings.com. I wrote down the hostel address, returned the phone with thanks and got talking to the couple. They were from Surrey and had booked a two week Baltic and Mediterranean cruise on the Nieuw Amsterdam departing Venice the next day, call time 11.30 am. I enquired if they had visited India and when they said they hadn’t I felt obliged to inform them that it was very different from Italy.
Talking to the waiter I learnt that the hostel was located on Giudecca Island, accessible by waterbus. The fare was 7 Euro for a single passage or 22 Euro for a daily pass. Venice was bleeding me- 40 Euro for the hostel bed, 9 Euro for the pizza and now this!?
I paid the bill at the cafe and as I walked towards the waterbus station with 22 Euro in my hand, providence struck again. An American couple walked up to me from nowhere and asked if I wanted a waterbus pass for free. They had bought a three day pass but decided to leave Venice in two, leaving the pass valid for another 24 hours. I needn’t explain to you how grateful I was, I was almost ready to forgive Bush Jr. Almost
After a 20 minute waterbus commute I alighted at Giudecca Island and walked the rest of the way to Generator Venice, a swish hipster hostel patronized by daddy sponsored gap year kids and flashpacking showponies. Not suited for this 36 year old, penny pinching, workhorse. The bored receptionist collected the 40 Euro, an additional 3.2 Euro (optional) for breakfast and pointed me in the direction of my dorm, accessed through a swipe card. My my, hostels have come a long way.
I slept for a couple of hours, showered and at 5.00 pm was ready to explore; with sunset at 9 pm, I was left with at least three and a half hours of sunlight. I departed the hostel in a light rain and took the waterbus to the St Marcos stop on the main island from where I began my 6 hour walking discovery of the fascinating, unique and historic urbanscape. The motor traffic free main island is a labyrinth of interwoven canals, lanes and bridges with the central waterway-the Grand Canal-writhing through it. Numerous outlying islands also constitute the commune of Venice, the main ones being Murano (famous for its glass works), Burano, Giudecca and Lido. Through the ages poets and philosophers, kings and travellers, artists and wise men have gone on about its architecture and beauty so I needn’t do the same. It is all that they say it is, I promise.
During those 6 hours on foot, I explored most of the main island and excepting for taking in the galleries, museums and a gondola ride, I saw all of the sites on the tourist map. I was attempting a selfie on the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ when an old lady came up to me and asked, “Are you taking a bridgie?”
“A what?” I asked confused.
“A selfie on a bridge, that’s a bridgie!”
“Yes that’s what I’m doing”, I replied laughing. The witty old lady inspired a new line of selfie terminology that you’ll have to suffer as I go along.
I balked at the prices at some of the restaurants and instead bought myself a 2 Euro box of delicious strawberries for dinner. I followed that with a 2 Euro cone of gelato and returned to the hostel around midnight. My train to Rome was at 2.15 pm the next day which gave me enough time to visit Lido and Murano islands in the morning.
Following brekkie it took a Hanumanesque effort to leave the hostel to check off Lido and Murano from the itinerary. I rode the waterbus to Lido, walked across the island to the beach on the opposite shore and rode the waterbus back to Giudecca. I actually liked Lido; it had some semblance of normalcy from the touristy gimmicks of the main island. I didn’t visit Murano.
For everything that it had going for it, Venice didn’t do it for me. Perhaps it was because I felt like I was on the sets of movie that would be dismantled when I left. Perhaps because the attitude of the tourist environment was a slap on the face after the cocoon Marche wrapped me in. Perhaps the city reserves its soul for those in the companionship of a lover and perhaps its tangible treasures- its architecture, culture and art- can only be valued through those agencies that manifest them- its boutique hotels, galleries, live performances and gondola rides. Perhaps Venice shouldn’t be visited by people with a disposition like mine – alone and on a budget.
I found a waterbus ticket on the floor by my bed as I was leaving for the train station and reckoning the validity had run out on it, didn’t give it much thought, but picked it up nevertheless. When I swiped it on a lark at the waterbus station I learnt that it had more than 24 hours of validity remaining, prompting a little yippee skip. Mentioning I was paying it forward, I gave it to a backpacker couple exiting the train station and walked away even before they fully realized their good fortune.
The 2.15 pm Regional to Rome from Venezia St. Lucia departed on time and reached the Termini station just before 9 pm. I walked the short distance to Hotel Fiamma on Via Gaeta where my family was staying, a kind gentleman on the train giving me accurate directions. My mum was in the room when I reached, everybody else was out on a night time jaunt. Earlier in the day my Mum, Ann, John, Anishka and the kids boarded a bus from SBT for Rome. The rest of my family too arrived a little later during the day from Pisa, having also visited Venice and Florence since leaving SBT on the 1st. The Capital of the World was our temporary home.
Rome wasn’t built in a day nor can it be seen in a day. But it can be seen in four.
Breakfast was a reunion of sorts and with my second helping of chocolate cake I was fed sound bites of a 100 Euro meal in Venice and a sexy tourist guide in Florence. A walking tour was arranged for 11 am and armed with maps, water and enthusiasm we departed Fiamma. Disappointingly, we were led by a bored camel for a guide who seemed determined to downplay the 3000 year history of the city with his uninspired rambling. Seriously man, you should have just called in sick. I bothered lending him my ears at the first site we stopped- the ruins of the Roman Baths- gleaning information about the other sites through information boards and Wikipedia searches on Ann’s phone.
We walked up Via Nationale on a hot bustling Roman day to the sprawling Presidential Palace, then down some steps and through a few lanes to the Trevi Fountain, the setting for Fellini’s epic scene in La Dolce Vita and Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn’s romance in Roman Holiday. It is shameful that I’m limited to associating this incredible work of Baroque Art with two popular movies that have themselves borrowed from its significance. Tourists, tourists, tourist everywhere, throwing coins at the fountain and kept away from the effusive marble sculptures and fountain pools by barricades, apparently installed after incidents of overheated tourists jumping in.
The gigantic, black stone, circular Pantheon, a perfectly preserved Roman monument with imposing columns for its facade and the largest unsupported domed roof in the world was built during the reign of Emperor Marcus Agrippa two thousand years ago. It was converted into a Catholic Church in the 7th century which explains its current state of preservation. This was our next monument of call and