Actually, when about to set out on a 36 hour coach journey across Europe to reach Fiuggi, we start the day before travel. The picnic basket (bag actually) is a key component of the journey. Rolls to be filled with cheese, ham, tomatoes (etc), pasties, pork pies, cakes to be sliced and packed in air-tight containers, biscuits and “salty snack-foods” to be made crush proof. It’s all part of the enjoyment (if you can call it that) of spending a day and a half on a coach! To be honest, it’s a much better way than having to spend 12 hours in a shabby French en-route motorway hotel, being fed equally shabby meals. Vive le pique-nique!
Thirty-six hours - so much easier to say before we did it! It wasn’t exactly an ordeal; in a few ways it was really good, but it’s loooooooong! Through France, Switzerland, into northern Italy and on to central Italy. From Calais: 1400kms (850 miles, give or take) which followed from 200-odd miles in the UK and a ferry crossing.
But we’re here...
… right in the middle of some Roman history celebrations. People wandering about and parading the main streets in costume: Senators, Legionnaires, Gladiators - all sorts - which meant we were stuck in the middle of town until it all passed by. Controlled by “Local Police” - a division of Italy’s finest that could barely cope with simple traffic management - delightful typical Italian chaos. Lots of arm waving and little else.
I’d have loved it on any other day, but all I wanted was to get to the hotel and change my (now nearly 40 hour old) socks.
The hotel is on the edge of town, down streets too narrow for a Fiat Panda, let alone a very large coach. More time used whilst the driver (now elevated to the rank of Roman god) inched (literally) his vehicle around corners and through spaces that defied belief.
At last! Greeted by the hotel cat (usual look of distain) and quickly checked-in (not by the cat who was now inspecting everyone’s luggage). The room is a good size, typical Italian shabby-chic (more former than latter), pleasant small balcony and the usual services (not enough plugs as I bring more electronics than a NASA mission). We’ll cope (or blow the fuses).
With evening temperatures now starting to fall to around 30C we’ll see what we can find in town to eat. Pizza would be good!
On our way at 8:15am, heading south towards Naples. Already hot at 29C, we can look forward to a great day.
Our first stop, Monte Cassino, is a Benedictine monastery, 1750 ft above sea-level, and the site of one of the bloodiest battles of WWII’s Italian campaign.
It’s impressive, and for me (who’s visited more churches than the Pope 😀) to say that, it has to be seriously impressive.
Heavily damaged, more like destroyed, in the battle, the reconstruction allows you to view the grandeur of historic architecture and art, in fresh materials. The stonework is pristine. The paints are vibrant. And the location is stunning.
On then to Pompeii, just the other side of Naples.
They say, “See Naples and die”. Now I understand. As far as you can see from the Autostrade, there are tightly packed high-rise flats and apartments that look as if they’d been thrown up 50 years ago and received no maintenance since. Thousands of them. Everywhere. To top it off we passed a shanty town (well within the city limits). Reminded me of news footage from South Africa or Brazil or Mumbai. I could not have imagined this existed in a 21st Century EU country.
Continuing on to Pompeii - A Tale of Coach Driver Brain-fade.
You’d think they’d know where they were going, and you’d think they’d know how to get there. You’d think they’d have a SatNav. "Yes" to all of the above. Except…
The driver’s got a mate who’s been there and had made a suggestion about a shortcut to avoid the queues. We’re in the front seats and see the signs for Pompeii go by. I’m following the route on my phone’s satnav, which screams at me like a scalded cat. Twelve minutes later a “discussion” breaks out between the driver and his mate (who’d made the alternate route suggestion). Off at the next junction and back the way we’d come. Now we take the sign-posted exit and my satnav purrs with contentment. The car park we want is 30 seconds (no exaggeration) from the off ramp. The moral: stick to the script!
Pompeii - mind blowing!
It’s massive. The size of a town of maybe 25,000. I’d never imagined Roman towns to be so big and I’d never imagined so much archaeology could exist in such detail in one place. We walked through streets that looked like (war-damaged) streets. Easy to get lost - it’s like being in a narrow streeted small town (with Latin street names). We had to turn back not having reached one edge of the town (time to leave) and took 30 minutes to reach the entrance (and we didn’t get lost on the way!).
Some details are restored in amazing detail. If you were “into” Roman history it could take days (or weeks) to fully explore and understand the site.
Our first visit to Rome. What a magnificent city.
We were taken to St Peter’s Square. It takes your breath away even if it has no special religious significance for you. I can’t imagine its impact on a devout Catholic. However, it wouldn’t cross their minds, as it did mine, how so much wealth and splendour could exist whilst so many Catholics around the world live in abject poverty.
Rome is an amazing city. It’s a mystery why we haven’t been here before - it’s not that far away, really.
Around every turn there’s something, ancient or modern, to grab your attention. It’s only problem, shared by many other “famous” cities is tourists. I know. We were part of the problem. But with tourists come street vendors and hawkers, none of whom seemed to be locals, annoyingly trying to sell you selfie-sticks, post cards and bus tours. And beggars. Why are there so many near churches? Can’t the priest give them a few coins to feed themselves? Same problem, different city!
But it doesn’t detract here as much as elsewhere. There’s far too much to compensate for the downsides.
The Castel D’Angelo Is just down the road from St Peter’s, another fascinating structure on the Banks of the River Tiber.
This was a key location in Dan Brown’s “Angels & Demons” and the walkway linking it with the Vatican is visible alongside the modern roadway that now links the two.
In the afternoon, we had an escorted, guided tour of the main sights… with a guide who gave incompetance a whole new dimension.
We had been provided with audio sets for her commentary. Her first move was to snap the microphone from the headset. She became aware some of us couldn’t hear her… but she didn’t know how to adjust the volume or change transmission channels. She decided to phone the office. For about 10 minutes! During this time she kept placing her phone next to the microphone. We enjoyed high-pitched feedback or delightfully rhythmic static as the phone’s radio interfered with the headsets' radio.
Her English was “interesting”. Every word ended with an Italianesque vowel. We were about to view an interesting aria. “Puccini, Verdi?” I wondered. No; it was the Colliseum Aria (Area).
Still. She added a little charm and local colour, and something to smile about in years to come!
This part of Rome could take days to explore. We didn’t have time to tour inside the Colliseum itself, and that could use up half a day. Nearby there seemed to be dozens of other important and interesting sites to explore.
We’re coming back to Rome on Friday to visit the Sistine Chapel, but we’re sure that won’t be enough.
As a general rule, I dislike large cities, but this is a place to capture the imagination and we’re sure we’ll be coming back again for a longer stay..
Today, just a short trip (8 hours!) to Frascati, just outside Rome and then on to the Pope’s summer palace at Castel Gandolfo.
Famous for its Vino Verde (green wine), Frascati is a charming town set in the hills above Rome. A lot less touristy than you might expect, given it’s nearer to Rome than where we’re staying (that’s not difficult!!).
The excursion threw up one of the big surprises of the trip. We’d been told we’d have a chance to sample the local vino and enjoy a few “nibbles”. We were taken to a back street restaurant, and found tables laid with large platters of meats, cheese, salami, olives and breads. There were full bottles of green (white) and red wine. All of it more than enough for lunch for a hungry grape picker who’d missed breakfast.
Then two ladies appeared with an accordionist. “OMG," I thought, having experienced “local talent” far too often before. Surprise! Both had excellent operatic voices (not La Scala standard, but good enough). They performed opera and more popular Italian songs for about 45 minutes and were totally entertaining.
The other surprise was for our coach crew.
They totally misunderstood the local parking regulations and local police (ex East German Stasi, probably) appeared from out of thin air to give them a ticket. Whilst discussing this (drivers - no Italian, police - no English) a local town councillor appeared (white shirt and bag) and dissuaded the police from issuing the ticket because "tourism is important to the town’s economy”. They dodged the bullet!
On then to Castel Gandolfo. Being Pope is not the worst “job” you could get. A very nice Summer residence.
Situated higher up on the hills, this charming small town has some of the best views across Lazio. On the other side of his Palace is Lago Albano, stunningly blue and tourist free. The palace is exactly what it says it is - palatial.
There was time at the end of the day for a stroll around Fiuggi. It’s a pretty enough little place in its own right.
What an experience! A carefully chosen word for what must have been one of the worst days we’ve ever experienced in 35 years of travel. Not the Vatican - but the tour; the most disorganised, shoddy arrangements with a tour guide who made Ghengis Khan seem to be a benign leader. Add a storm of Biblical proportions and a traffic jam that created the world’s largest car park for over an hour on the way back…
And it all started so well. A fairly smooth run into Rome with just a “normal” delay on the GRA around Rome (9am, Friday rush hour) and straight in to the underground coach park.
Then it all changed…
10:25am Out to meet the guide, who wasn’t where the driver expected. Phone call to the agency.
10:35am Move to centre of St Peter’s Square, near fountain. Phone call to agency giving our location. Stand around for 10 minutes or so. Another call.
10:45 - 10.50am Walk across the square to another location. Stand around for 10 minutes or so. Heated discussion on the phone. Very heated. Driver leaves to find the guide. We stand around quite a while. Driver returns and, like obedient, but very disgruntled sheep, we move on again.
11.15am We finally find the guide, who sets about telling us off, like naughty school children for being late and being in the wrong place. This goes down very well with the group (as you can imagine). She demands a quick pace to go to the “correct” location, pausing only to point out where the driver should have dropped us off. One of Rome’s most interesting sites, apparently, is a coach pull-in lay-by near the Vatican museum entry.
11:30am Pay-back time! Her rushing and haughty attitude and unwillingness to listen means than one of our group who needs sticks to walk is nowhere to be seen. Slightly (only very slightly) contrite guide disappears to find him, leaving us with fine views of an historically significant cold drinks vendor’s stand.
11:45am Together at last, we finally enter the chaos that is the Vatican tour group entrance. Queue up for airport style security; queue up to collect audio headphone-receivers for the guide’s commentary; stand around whilst faulty equipment is exchanged; join large throngs of tour groups to begin the tour.
11:55am Guide realises our friend with mobility challenges is going to have serious problems with the number of stairways. Disappears for 5 minutes to point out the elevator route.
12 noon Arrive in a courtyard before entering the buildings. Guide now has to explain to our friend how far and how many stairways are involved to reach the Sistine chapel. She must then explain the complex by-pass route to him. He’s not the sharpest tool in the kit and the Vatican (in the spirit of true Christian Charity) do not allow able bodied “carers” to accompany the disabled, and so this process of explanation takes 15 minutes or so. We admire a sculpture of a pine cone.
12:15pm At last. Off we go, into a charming courtyard, where our guide decides to stop and explain the art and history of the Sistine Chapel, which took 10 years to complete. Sensible, as guides are not allowed to speak in the Chapel. To be fair, she was knowledgable and her English excellent. The problem? She’d decided to locate us in such a way as to block a pathway. A Vatican policeman asks her to move (not too politely); she decides to decline his relocation offer (even less politely). This battle of wills proceeds in loud Italian, with sufficient arm waving to create a pleasant cooling breeze. We moved!
12:20 - 13:30pm The tour of the Museum continues. The redeeming feature of the day so far. It is spectacular, coming a close second to the Hermitage in St Petersburg. A very close second. The art is incredible.
The Sistine Chapel is beautiful. Crowded but beautiful. The guards and a priest open and close doors at each end to trap groups of about 500, so prayers can be said (very inspiring for the Jewish, Taoist, Hindu and Muslims in there at the time!). No photographs are permitted and so our guide, self-appointed guardian of World Catholicism, rushes up to anyone and everyone (yes - not even in our group) who is even thinking of taking a photograph and berates them with the rules. Most cower before her. One individual (Australian, I think) gives as good as, and she desists from her patrols. I mentally give him three rousing cheers.
13:45pm We say a sad farewell to the Obersturmbannführer and enter St Peter’s Basilica. Beyond description in terms of size, artwork, mummified canonised Popes. The scale can only be experienced.
2:10pm We leave the Vatican about 90 minutes behind schedule. There was supposed to be a couple of hours free time - now there’s not! And then the heavens opened. Not rain, not a simple thunderstorm; what Noah experienced, by comparison, might have been considered to be a light shower.
Fortunately, we’d felt the first few drops and spotted a cafe just across the street (opposite our pick-up rendezvous) and went directly there. So many others were not so lucky. We had some so-so lasagne and several drinks to pass the time.
3:10pm The rain stops just in time for us to meet the driver. Straightforward, you’d think as he’s standing there. Except our walking stick man isn’t. We hang around for 15 minutes. Another of our party thinks they saw him sitting in the square and goes to find him. The driver sends us off to the coach (easy enough) and waits for the prodigals to return.
In this underground car park, the coach is like a sauna, inside the black-hole of Calcutta. Of course, he wasn’t able to leave the engine running, so no lights or air-con.
3:45pm Off we go. Our troubles are over. Just 90 minutes to the hotel. How wrong were we! The GRA on a Friday evening is busy and given that “normal" for this road is a 20mph crawl, busy has to be seen. Then add a road traffic accident.
6:45pm Arrive at the hotel, surprised to have returned with our sanity intact.
The sights of Vatican city are incredible, even with the inevitable crowds; it’s well worth putting up with quite a lot of hassle (but not this much) to see it. We’re already beginning to smile about it and it’s going to provide hours of useful conversation for years to come.
The day has finally replaced the “Incident of the Frozen Banana at Cape Kennedy” which has stood for over 35 years at #1 in our Holiday Disaster charts, so at least it has something with which to be outstanding.
Sorrento, on the Bay of Naples. A breathtakingly beautiful location. The journey to Sorrento, however, was a demonstration of outstanding driving skill by our driver (crowded, twisting, narrow roads barely big enough for a long wheel-based coach) and driving insanity (hundreds of kamikaze moped riders zig-zagging through the traffic, seeking an early death).
Very much a tourist town with lots of shops (and tourists - mostly English) down narrow streets and alley ways. A strange mix as well, with high-end outlets next door to tourist-junk vendors.
Some of the best groomed horses I’ve seen, offering carriage rides.
A location used for weddings (there was one being set up), with unusual bride and groom transport provided.
Swimming pools? Why not use the sea? Really safe and well set up if parents want a drink and the kids want to swim.
The town is charming, with many places to stop and re-hydrate (aka have a beer).
A great day out.