Italy: Crowded, expensive and old

So what do I think of Italy? Crowded, expensive, and old. On the plus side, the pasta's good, the ice cream is incredible, the language is easy, and the geography is diverse.

The best part of the trip was the four days in Positano with Rob and Mike (pictured above). But let's start from the beginning...

Milan: Closed up for the summer

Gina and I spent four days attending a conference in Milan. We stayed with Italian hosts, and had a ball trying to communicate things. "Mangere? Mangere? Buono! Buono!" "Letto? Si! Si!" "L'acqua? No frizzante. Naturale!" 

After struggling with the Serbo-Croatian language for four years, it was a pleasure to pick up Italian vocabulary so quickly and easily. The words and phrases can easily be associated with something familiar in English, French or Spanish.

Milan is absolutely dead in August. Everything's shuttered up while business owners go on their summer vacation. Although it was at times inconvenient, it's refreshing to see a nation that puts relaxation ahead of productivity. While Americans are lucky to get two weeks of vacation a year, Europeans enjoy four or five. Sure, America's got the world's highest GDP per capita, but what good is it when you don't have the time to enjoy it? 

We spent one evening down by the Duomo, a monstrous cathedral covered with dozens of spires and over 3000 statues and gargoyles. Construction started in 1385 and took over five centuries to complete. Unfortunately, I took only one picture of it, and it was so out of focus I couldn't show it here. So here's the Milano Centralo train station, with its massive arched roof and our host Giovanni looking on, just before we board the train to Rome.

Rome: A bunch of old stuff

Maybe we were in the wrong mood or something, but Gina and I were absolutely not interested in old architecture. We walked around, looked at these big buildings and chunks of marble everywhere and said, "Yep, that's old. So when do we go to the beach?"

We met up with Rob and Mike in Rome. They had already been there three days and had seen all the attractions. This picture of the Coliseum is Mike's--I was never there. I saw it from about two blocks away, and thought about walking over to it, but then decided I would rather get some ice cream.

Rome: Ice cream by some fountain

Somebody told me this is a pretty famous fountain. I ate my ice cream by it. Now Italian ice cream is something I can get excited about. It is so good! Hazelnut: like eating cold hazelnut peanut butter, without the peanuts. Coconut: It's like a fresh coconut stuffed with ice cream. Raspberry: It's like an ice cream truck had an accident in your garden, and then you went out to save the raspberries, and were wading in knee-high vanilla ice cream, and then you were reaching down through the ice cream to pick the raspberries off the bush... All right, that one's getting out of hand. It's just thick, rich ice cream absolutely stuffed with fresh flavor of your choice. 

Okay, I've dug out the Encarta CD-ROM and figured out that this is the Trevi Fountain, designed by Nicola Salvi and completed in the 18th century. Tradition says that if you toss a coin into the fountain, you're sure to return to Rome. Although I didn't toss a coin in, I may have dripped some ice cream. It's soft and creamy, and it melts really fast.

Positano: Beautiful but expensive

So after 16 hours in Rome, we jumped on a train headed to Salerno. At Salerno, my trusty guidebook said to take the SITA bus to Positano. Did the Lonely Planet editor even visit this place? Two-and-a-half nauseating hours later, we completed the 35km (22mi) trip. (Four days later, we returned by means of a 40-minute ferry ride, avoiding the nasty, narrow, snake-like coastal road.)

Positano is wedged onto the side of a 1400-meter massif that plunges steeply into the sea. The city looks like it was poured onto the mountain like chocolate sauce at Dairy Queen--it wraps around every hump, heave, and contour of the hillside. The warm Tyrrhenean Sea pulses at the foot of the city. Boutiques, restaurants and cafes line the winding streets, and hundreds of hotel balconies offer picture-perfect views.

We had sticker shock for the first day. Coming from Bosnia, I was accustomed to paying $8/person for accommodations and $4/person for meals. Positano was 5 times that. $80 for our hotel room, $40 for dinner. Maybe that seems okay to you, but after three days I had spent more than my monthly living expenses in Mostar. Ouch!

Positano: Beautiful but crowded

This, more than anything, is what will prevent me from returning to the beaches of Italy. The sea is warm, the water is clear, the coastline is beautiful... but too many stinking people! The boats clutter the harbor, leaking oil and spewing fumes and making a noisy racket. There's cars everywhere; the beaches are packed like sardines; you have to body-check your way into restaurants.

If I wasn't aware of any alternatives, I might not mind so much. But I couldn't help thinking about the beaches of Croatia: No boats. No crowds. No pollution. And a fifth the price.

Positano: Rob with Mike's bongos

Visiting with Rob was one of the best parts of Positano. He and I were neighbors in Fruitvale, BC, when I was in junior high and high school. With Gina and I moving to St. Louis and then Bosnia, and him living in London, we hadn't seen each other for a long time. So we got to catch up on everything and laugh about old memories--skiing, biking, my old Volvo...

Rob's a guitar god, and he's pretty good with the bongos, too. So when Mike bought this little drum as a souvenir, Rob quickly put it to use.

Positano: Great food

Food was the other best part of Positano. Once I got used to the idea that I was going to blow a lot of money in the next few days, we started living it up. Salad, pasta, wine, tiramisu... twice a day every day. The sauces were excellent, the ingredients fresh, and the cheeses where the best I've ever tasted. This self-portrait is at a restaurant right on the sea in downtown Positano. We're getting warmed up for the real meal with iced coffees and fresh fruit frappes.

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Positano: Arrivederci

After four days in Positano, we parted ways with Rob and left by ferry to Salerno. We enjoyed an overpriced lunch, then went to the station and found out that, contrary to my web research, there was no train to Matera, our destination. This was unfortunate, because I had an Italian friend scheduled to meet us at the other end in six hours. The person at information told me to take a train to some city I hadn't heard of, then find a bus to Matera. This didn't sound good to me, because I had no map and no bus schedule. The only other option was to take a train that left in 5 minutes to Potenza, one of the cities that I knew was along the way, and then figure it out from there. With 3 minutes left we decided on that option, bought the tickets and dashed onto the train just before it pulled out.

In Potenza we were dropped off at this abandoned looking train station. We searched in vain for a schedule, a map or an information counter. We must have looked out-of-place, because some over-friendly guy approached us and asked what we were looking for. I told him we were trying to go to Matera. He shook his head, and with a combination of English, Italian and body language he explained that we couldn't get to Matera from this station. Then he motioned for me to go with him, and made it clear that only I should go with him.

So I guess this is where my radar is supposed to go off. As I'm being led away, around the corner, up some stairs, down the street and towards a run-down building, I'm thinking to myself, "Bad decision! Bad decision!" And that's when I felt a huge whack on the back of my head.

I woke up on a cold concrete floor with a taste of blood in my mouth, a bad headache, and no more pack. I felt for my money belt, and it was gone too. And if you're believing any of this, I totally fished you in. Hook, line and sinker!

He brought me to another railway line about 100 meters away that ran narrow-gauge, diesel-powered trains. He asked somebody about the schedule, and we determined that a train leaving in 10 minutes could get us to Matera. Then Mike and Gina walked up (they had followed me after playing the mugging scenario through their heads), the friendly Italian man shook our hands and left, the train came up, and we left for Matera.

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Southern Italy: Friendly people

The whole way to Matera, everybody was super-friendly. At a break at a train station along the way, we ate cream pastries with the train conductors. When we changed trains in Altamura, the conductors personally escorted us to the correct train so we could get to Matera. People generally seemed helpful, happy and relaxed.

We didn't find out until after our six hour train ride that Matera is only a two-hour drive from Salerno, our point of departure. My Italian friend, Danilo, could have picked us up there, but because I sent him our plans by email at the last minute, he didn't have a chance to recommend a better route.

But one benefit of our round-about-journey to Matera was that we got to see the countryside of southern Italy. There's more open space than I would have expected in a small country of some 58 million. We saw lots of rolling farmland like you see in the picture above, which reminded me of south-east Washington and Idaho

Matera: City of Cavemen

Danilo showed us around Matera, and we also got to enjoy the sea for a day on the arch of Italy's boot, the Gulf of Taranto. Although Danilo doesn't live in a cave, many people in Matera used to, in the old part of the city called the Sassi. It was originally settled thousands of years ago by nomadic shepherds, who found the natural cavities convenient places to take shelter. Next thing you know, they were putting posters on the walls and putting out welcome mats.

Italy: I can take it or leave it

Danilo drove us to Bari, where we took the ferry to Dubrovnik, and then the bus back to Mostar. I'm happy to have seen Italy, even if it was only a cursory glance. Here's how I'd sum it up:

1) Although it's obviously a western country, the pace of life is more relaxed than in other industrialized lands. Bravo for having your priorities straight(er).

2) It's priced like Canada or the States. Perhaps even cheaper in some places. Just don't spend a year in Bosnia before you visit.

3) The geography is impressive and diverse. But too many people mess it all up. Don't come in August if you can help it.

4) There's lots of old, impressive architecture, if you're into that kind of thing. If not, there's good ice cream.

5) The language is great. It sounds good and it's easy to learn. And if you're going to Italy, you better learn it, because almost nobody speaks English.

I think English-speaking people have over-romanticized Italy, perhaps to the point that it can't hope to live up to its reputation. So I'm being the antidote. It's good, but it's not that good. For my money, I choose Croatia.