Last gasps in Rome
Saturday 23 June 2018
I was wrong about our hotel room being the work of the Smart Car designer. I found the real designer (Dr Confineo Shrinkiarie) and the car he designed after he’d finished our room. As you can see, the Smart is quite large compared to this electric two-seater. There are quite a few of these types of cars buzzing around Rome – yet another car-choked city that is looking for solutions. It is going to happen in Melbourne and Sydney eventually, so better to get used to a micro-mini electric now. This one has room for two passengers side by side, with storage provided by a plastic box fixed high up at the rear. Another type, a Renault, where you have to rent the battery by the month, holds two people, but one behind the other, and no storage. Clearly, these cars force choices upon their owners that we’re not used to.
I should add that when Michelle booked our hotel room, the promotional photograph showed a big bank of cupboards, a small table and chairs, and tea and coffee making facilities – all which appeared to part of our room. Wrong. This turned out to be a public space where we sat for breakfast as a couple of the friendly girls (they might be back-packers) who work in the hotel, grapple anew every morning with breakfast – including toast which is made off-site. Hence no hotel toaster report.
We went window shopping yesterday determined not to actually enter a shop. However, Michelle did enter a spectacle frames shop and emerged considerably richer in frame and poorer in money. I also unintentionally entered a menswear shop and emerged richer in jacket but only modestly poorer in money when compared to Michelle’s Specspenders(copyright). To recover from these disturbing events, we lined up at the leading gelato palace on the main drag down to the Spanish Steps. I should mention that, in addition to pasta, there is another dietary nightmare throughout Italy: gelato. There was a long queue stretching outside the shop, signifying top gelato quality, but once inside we beheld one of the wonders of the eating disorder world: the liquid chocolate wall. We’ve all seen chocolate fountains, but a whole wall, running at two billion calories per second into a trough and being recirculated? Being a chocaholic, that was a eureka moment for me. However, I couldn’t dwell on it for too long because once you are holding a cone full of gelato you have to apply yourself immediately to the task of oral disposal. Authentic gelato melts very quickly and wants to run down over your wrist before you can intercept it with your tongue. You can’t talk to a serious gelato consumer in the act. Concentration has to be absolute.
As a counter to bodily pleasures we took a cultural tour of a palace – the 1000 room Palazzo Doria Panphilj – off Rome’s via del Corsa. An audio player carries the voice of the current head of the family that owns it – along with massive other property assets. Listening to Prince Johnathan talk you through a huge collection of priceless paintings and sculptures you’d swear he came from English aristocracy, but he’s legally Italian, having been sent to England for his education and to acquire a super-plummy accent. The family’s history is as intriguing as its wealth. Johnathan is not from the family’s blood line at all, but was adopted as a baby from an English Catholic orphanage, along with a girl (turning her into a princess) and they run the family. Johnathan is single, has a male partner and they have two surrogate children who will no doubt take over the role as custodians of the estates in the future – although the ownership of the properties is now held in a government trust. They all live within the palace in apartments upstairs, unfortunately not included in the tour.
End of days
Monday 25 June
We’re now time travellers, having left Rome and our miniscule room on Sunday morning to join thousands of confused, desperate people trying to make the best of gross overcrowding at Rome Airport as they wait in queues to get into other queues – which can often be the wrong queues.
Our Singapore Airlines flight left at 11 am after which we were served lunch but had to pretend it was dinner, so we could then pretend it was night-time and obediently go to bed early in the afternoon. After a long period of pretend darkness, we had a pretend breakfast at about midnight, but it was really six o’clock in the morning. And exiting the aircraft doesn’t restore reality, because the interior of Changi Airport looks the same no matter what the clock may tell you.
Because we were doing most of this trip on points, we had to take what tickets were available – meaning an 18-hour stopover at Changi. The way around this was to book a block of hours at the Urgent Lovers’ Airport Hotel which claims to be the only airport hotel in the world with a swimming pool. The plan was to sit by the sunny pool, swim and listen to the roar of jet engines. But this was hard to enjoy in the middle of a thunderstorm. Paying to lie in the rain is not good value, either. We changed plan and booked in to a free bus tour of Singapore along with a team of other disorientated travellers, most of whom wanted to sit in the bus and go to sleep. But our lively tour guide had other plans. She made us get off the bus to behold the water-spewing Singapore lion, the Bay Sands Hotel and a famous mosque that was closed. By this time the thunder storm had gone elsewhere, and we would have loved the pool, we were trapped on the bus tour. When we finally made the airport hotel, we were too exhausted to swim or lie by the pool. Because our body time was the middle of the night, we fell into bed – which will result in insomnia on the plane tonight. I realise, of course, that these types of problems are well known to all overseas travellers, but I note that they are much worse on the way home when you’ve spent your money, seen or failed to see what you went away for and are wearing part of an additional person around your waist.
That’s all folks. As usual, I am heavily indebted to my extraordinary tour guide and wife Michelle whose talents could easily be applied to troop movements in the armed forces. I am also indebted to you, my little band of readers, who give me a reason to set all this stuff down. I’ve been doing it for years, and now see the value of retaining created memories – which I suppose is the reason we travel.
We’re busy preparing explanations as to why we’ll be waddling off the plane in Sydney on June 26. There is an irresistible attraction in Italy to putting on weight. This is because the staple food is pasta and even when you’re sick to death of it, it is hard to avoid because you end up switching from spaghetti to macaroni to penne to pizza to calzone and return along the same route. Apart from some brief diversions into seafood salad or fine dining, pasta dominates. Actually, it is not quite so fatifying as I used to think, because when it is cooked its GI (glycaemic index) doesn’t even move the needle to the halfway mark. Dieticians add that pasta is less fattening when firm rather than flaccid. I’m tempted to extemporise on this notion, but I shall refrain.
One of my favourite dishes is calzone – but it can look daunting when it arrives on the plate. Although it is no more than a pizza folded in half, it presents as being too much to costume in one sitting. This one from the other night illustrates the confrontation.
There is a degree of mystery and excitement when you begin at the easterly point and work your way towards the middle. Initially, there is nothing but crust, then a quiet dawn of cheese, soon followed by a riot of rampant, runny cheese, ham, tomato and whatever else the chef threw in – but you can’t see it until you hoik it out. By the time you are at the westerly extremity, with most of the calzone having disappeared beneath the portcullis, a gentle sunset crust is quite welcome.
A FAB retrospective
During our travels we’ve connected with many people who, like us, are cruising through their savings, trying to spend the last dollar just as the grim reaper presses the doorbell. These people, many of them retirees, are delighted by cruise ships that are so enormous they can reproduce what the trippers left behind on land – which seems a bit pointless to me. There are go-kart tracks, climbing walls, forests and streets – all to make you feel as though you’re not at sea. I thought our FAB was a big bugger, with its 50,000 tonnes, crew of 828 and nearly 1900 guests, but it’s a tiddler compared to the biggest, Symphony of the Seas. That can swallow 6,680 guests plus 2,200 crew members for a total of nearly 9,000 people. It has 18 decks, 22 restaurants, 24 pools and 2759 cabins.
Symphony of the Seas – too much like home.
I must say I enjoyed the FAB (proper name: Holland America Line’sOosterdam) as an experience but do it again? I don’t think so. I like boats and I like the sea but moving along in a waterborne suburb is not for me – especially when contemplating going on something three times the size of the FAB. For the record, our 12 days covered 2647 miles at an average speed of 14 knots and guzzled up 180,000 gallons of fuel. Symphony of the Seas (below) statistics would be jaw-dropping.
Last day in Como
Wednesday 20 June 2018
Off to Rome tomorrow but today we said goodbye to Como with a trip to the beach followed by an alfresco pasta dinner. The dinner was up to expectations, but the beach was a surprise. First, I didn’t know Como had a beach. I’d only seen kids jumping off stone walls into the lake on our many ferry voyages, but when we went for a late afternoon walk in 30-degree heat, there it was: sand, modest waves, people swimming and sunbaking. The only problem is, if more than ten people wanted to have a day at the beach it would be overcrowded.
On the walk we also came across the famous statue of Felice Cavallotti also known as The Angry Accuser. He’s pointing at the sculptor who draped a dress on him instead of supplying him with legs.
“You bastard! Yes, I’m talking to you!”
The Smart Hotel in Rome
Wednesday 21 June 2018
Whoever designed the Smart Car also designed the hotel we moved into in Rome. With only five rooms shoehorned into a space that should have yielded no more than two, it is tucked away in a maze of cobbled streets in the delightful historic part of the city not far from the Trevi Fountain.
The hotel reception is so small that when you open the modest front door inwards it takes up nearly all the room in the foyer. The receptionist, an attractive girl who seems to see the funny side of the place, is wedged into a corner behind an encircling wooden desk. The bedrooms are all up a long flight of stairs with a punishing gradient that makes you wonder if you really need what’s in your suitcase. To her credit, the receptionist, only slightly built, comes to the rescue. She and her colleague, also slightly built, take the risk of a coronary as, in tandem, they groan their way up with our cases – based on the principle that dead guests don’t pay but you can always get another girl.
If our hotel room in Bologna was small, this one is like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. That is, until you come to the skinny wardrobe that is so tall I had to jump like a basketballer to hang up my clothes. There are no drawers and the one shelf is so high you could only use it with a step ladder. The tap over the basin is a mechanical mystery – maybe a masterpiece. It has a single handle and turns on and off a different way each time you use it. It’s randomness also applies to the hot and cold function. You’d never get bored with this tap. Maybe to make the room look bigger, the bed is virtually on the floor – which also prevents the mattress from excessive sagging. When you get up in the morning you must get up to get up. People with weak thighs may have to stay in bed until a block and tackle is called in.
Why are we staying here, you may ask? On the recommendation of friends who have stayed here and rate charm, position and economy over practicality. And maybe they’re right, because outside the anonymous front door is ancient history all laid out in 3D.
Friday 15 June
My career as a fare evader continued yesterday when we took the funicular railway up the side of the mountain to get the aviator’s view of Lake Como. We bought tickets at the base camp office and, as Michelle and I stood waiting in the boarding queue, a whole family ducked under the turnstile arms to take the ride for nothing. How disgusting, I thought, to do such a thing. I’d never stoop so low – literally. They ought to be taken away in a paddy wagon.
We eventually got to the top, walked about, ooohed ahhhed at the view, stopped and paid a handsome price for a drink and lined up to take the trip down again. But I’d lost my ticket. Did buy another one? Well, no. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled under the turnstile arm – because I had been shown how. It was not easy, mind you. My body is not suited to such an exercise and it took some time. Just as I was ponderously straightening up, there came a bellowing from the open ticket office window which, I discovered, was in full view of the turnstile. Sprung! I bellowed back that I couldn’t be up here in the first place if I hadn’t bought a ticket – which I’d now lost. After some high volume debate the ticket officer must have decided it was more trouble to arrest me than let the felony proceed.
This is now the second time I have risked jail in Italy for successful fare evasion. I must guard against over confidence, however. My luck will surely run out.
Pay but no play
Saturday 16 June
Como’s superb cathedral but nobody played the organ.
Hoping to repeat my organ experience in Venice, I visited Como’s wonderful cathedral where, in a whispered conversation with a curate, was told there was no casual or recital playing of the legendary organ, but it was used during mass. We duly attended mass at 5 pm where the only music was provided by a flat-singing soprano – as part of the service. Not one note escaped from the huge, ornate organ pipes set in in two banks either side of the nave. We had to sit through a mass in Italian (it might have been Latin), stand up and sit down when the crowd did, put some money into the velvet lined collection bucket – and leave organless.
In search of George
Sunday 17 June
There is a general reluctance among Como locals to identify exactly where George Clooney lives, although it is public knowledge the town is Laglio and the house is called the Villa Oleandra. He bought it in 2002 but because it needed renovation he bought the one next door to use while the work was being done. Sensible move.
It’s a pity George was hard to find because I wanted to see him to discuss beards. However, there is now a law that prevents more than three people from loitering outside his house – in the unlikely event they can find it. Apparently, he moves in during the summer, has a collection of rare motorbikes in his garage, hoons around in a speedboat and goes to local restaurants for a feed with Mrs Clooney and twin daughters.
We followed a rumour that he sometimes frequented one of the most famous five-star hotels in the world, the lakeside Villa d’este at Cernobbio. (Average price per night is A$2324). We took the ferry there with a plan to spend a fortune having a drink in the lounge and surely bump into George. When we arrived at the gate, looking like typically daggy tourists, the security guard pointed us in the opposite direction. Michelle politely thanked him and, from behind a tree, called the hotel on her mobile and requested, in her plumiest pommy accent, a reservation for lunch. They’d heard that one before. Nuh.
No drinks at the Villa d’este
Still not having had enough lake or George, we took a ride plus commentary on a venerated steam boat, hoping we might at least be able to wave to him from the water. The hour tour had some shortcomings because the commentator spoke firstly in Italian and then English, which meant we’d sail past the point of interest before we knew what it was – including George’s house. Another villa connected to George was the one used for shooting some movies he was in, including Oceans Eleven and Twelve. George-search aside, the boat we were on was a delight. Built in 1933 and restored just three years ago, the paddle steamer bore the unfortunate name Concordia (remember the Costa Concordia sinking?) but this one didn’t sink and, as far as I could see, had a sober captain. It was unbelievably wide – to accommodate the paddle wheels. It looked pregnant, as though it would soon give birth to six small rowboats. And its steam driven deafening horn sounded like a giant blowing his nose. But the ride was smooth, unperturbed and stately – something I couldn’t say for the rest of the shuddering ferries we’ve been in on Lake Como.
This Concordia didn’t sink.
Tuesday 19 Jan
Still more lake; this time by fast and stifling hydrofoil (“in the belly of the beast,” Michelle remarked) to Bellagio which sits right on the point where the legs of the inverted Y of the lake separate. It is compulsory to visit Bellagio if you come to Como. A big, stylish, lakeside town, it is especially steep once you leave the wharf-level street. The stone steps lead to more stone steps and you never get to the top. Along the way there are little shops selling useless but attractive made-in-Italy potable goods designed for huffing and puffing tourists. One enthusiastic retailer sized me up as a car nut and sprayed the just-released Maserati fragrance on my arm. I was rewarded with the seductive aroma of warm motor oil, leather, exhaust fumes and burning rubber. No, I lie. The smell was conventionally attractive and quite sexy, but I prefer my Jo Malone grapefruit. After that experience, we followed Michelle’s google maps to locate a recommended restaurant high up in the stone walls that form the Harry Potter-style streets. I was inspired to order perch, because of our bird-territory position and the fact that the fish came out of the very lake we were travelling on. It was served in small fried fillets, along with some sliced roast potato and spinach. In front of me sat the best dish I’ve tasted on the trip so far. I raved about it to the waiter who, it turned out, used to run a bottle shop in Dover Heights. I’d bought wine from him when I was first trying to convince Michelle’s family that I was worth inviting to dinner. He’s travelled all over and he came back to Italy because that’s where he thinks he belongs, but still rates Australia as the number one country in the world in which to live.
George Clooney’s villa
11 JUNE 2018
It doesn’t get much more luxurious that this at a Mediterranean.
After pondering how we should spend our last day in Lerici before going to Lake Como, we decided to have a splurge and go to a beach club. Eco del Mare was rated ‘the best’ by our hotel and the weather forecast was for a hot day. After Michelle had spent some time negotiating the best Monday rate for the day we were dropped at the top of a fearsome cliff which would put Sydney’s Gap to shame. Ah, but for guests at this self-congratulatory hotel there was a lift – oddly only offering assistance for the middle of the climb. At the bottom was one of the strangest place I’d seen in a long time.
It was a hotel shouldered into the side of the cliff. It had six rooms, all looking out over the beach and limpid water. It hadn’t been open long and came with a romantic history of being the fanciful décor work of its female owner who scoured the world for all things beach. The public areas were festooned with coils of salty rope, torn nets, pieces of driftwood, and all manner of auld stuff washed up. The sand comprised grades of coarse grey gravel to pebbles to stones – all doing a more penetrating job on the soles of the feet than Dr Scholl sandals. While the locals walked through this stuff erect and unperturbed, I staggered from one stone pile to the next as though I had two broken legs.
The day rate covered the use of one medium umbrella with two muslin wings, two pieces of reclining furniture (choice of a flat canvas bed or bean bag or bean filled ground mattress), and a non-lockable storage box. I opted for the ground mattress but when I tested lying in it I couldn’t escape because wherever I rolled, the sides reared up, trapping me in a live burrow. Michelle and the beach captain had to haul me out. I switched to the bean bag with far greater success. For one day, sitting on the beach and using this unspectacular equipment, the cost was $180. Drinks, comprising mostly ice cubes, were $22 each. Staying in the hotel, in which you’re virtually trapped after sundown, costs around $750 per night.
The day failed to show any sun and the water was too bracing for us to swim in. It also rained for a while.
Jeez, we had a great day at the beach.
June 12 To Como
Unless you’re a serious, in form, weightlifter, European train travel with large, heavy suitcases is not recommended. Of course, once you’ve planned the route and pre-paid, it’s too late. Our journey from Lerici to Como was looking okay until we reached La Spezia train station where we had to tackle long stone ascending staircases because the lifts were being repaired. Were it not for kind and muscular fellow travellers giving us a haul-up, we’d still be there. There is a certain camaraderie among those who have chosen to lug. And not just in the matter of cases. In the lofty and magnificent Milan railway station, we had arrived too early to meet our driver (to Como) and took refuge in a pizza-and-pee-entitlement restaurant – except it lacked the pee entitlement. That obliged a journey downstairs where one euro was required to make a contribution to the city’s urine bank. Back in among the pizzas we came across a small American woman who’d had a couple of beers, needed relief, but didn’t have the necessary euro on hand. She was seriously assessing her options among the rubbish bins when Michelle funded her trip downstairs and was rewarded with a list of good places to eat and buy jewellery in Como.
Our Como hotel, called the Palace because it used to be one, looks across the road at Lake Como – one of the deepest in the world at 460 metres. Our room, (which we rejected at first because it was too small and then accepted it gratefully when offered microscopic alternatives) is in the centre of the hotel, on the first floor. Our balcony may have been used to wave to the grateful poor below in days gone by. As it was, we could only wave at the rain pelting down. The weather forecast was not encouraging, but because it has proven to be generally inaccurate in Italy, we’re hopeful.
Hotel toaster review
The Como Triple Knobber Cautionhot is unnecessarily complex.
The palace Hotel serves breakfast beneath massive chandeliers and overseen by equally massive faux medieval paintings of near naked men and women cavorting in the cloudy countryside. I would have expected a toaster of regal style in such grand surroundings, but placed in a corner, almost as an afterthought, I discovered the Como Triple Knobber Cautionhot, a modest machine overpowered by a sign warning of fire if other than sliced bread is inserted. But what’s a toast captain for, I have to ask? His basic training covers putting out toast fires. Anyway, the CTKC is fairly basic except for its three knobs which baffle many users into failing to produce toast at all. You can have too much technology in hotel toasters.
On Lake Como June 14 2018
There is an old style, grinding ferry that goes right to the end of Lake Como and stops at 34 delightful lake towns on a-hop-on hop-off system. Trouble is, if you hop off you may have to wait hours to hop back on because the ferries are not frequent or reliable. The best solution is to hop-on-and-stay-on until the end – which is Colico – where you can hop off until the ferry is cleaned and ready to go again. That gives you about half an hour to explore the town, gulp down a coffee and get on to visit the same towns on the way back. If you sit on the same side on the returning ferry you get a different view because you are facing the other way – if you get my meaning.
I must say that the scenery is spectacular with heavily wooded mountains plunging straight into the lake and houses built on impossible climbs. In the lofty distance the Alps stood, still wearing a shawl of late snow. We zigged and zagged across the lake for four hours to reach Colico, but the captain had squandered time and was running twenty minutes late. His crew did a rush cleaning job en route and told the returning passengers they had to stay on board because the service had to get back on schedule and would be leaving immediatamente! Off we growled again, but this time the captain, in his enthusiasm, ran early.
Passengers will tolerate a late ferry, but not an early departing one because it punishes the pious and the punctual. The captain faced enraged ticket holders waving their fists at the too early ferry diminishing in the distance. The captain’s superior, probably the Admiral of Como Ferries, must have called him about the growing angst because he then tried to slow down by docking at Argegno, doing a big loop around the lake, and docking again. This gave a strange feeling of déjà vu because we’d already seen the town on the way up and now twice on the way back. However, it seemed to solve the captain’s problem.
Idyllic Lerici – but a long hike down from the hotel to the action.
This was going to be the beach resort part of our trip. We took a car from Modena for a two-hour country drive to Lerici, supposedly a charming, quiet part of the Italian Riviera. Our hotel was advertised as close to the beach where, for a modest amount, we could hire umbrellas and sunbeds for some seaside indulgence. We understood the hotel had its own pool if we didn’t feel like getting sandy and salty.
The car dropped us at a pool-free hotel perched on a hillside with a wonderful view of distant harbour and beaches best accessed by hang glider. Before guests get angry about having to become mountain goats they are reassured that there is a shuttlebus on demand – as long as it is not in demand elsewhere. It will take us down a selection of beaches where, for up to $300 a day, we may recline shaded at a beach club. The alternative is to bake on the sand, or rocks, at no charge.
While Michelle unpacked I took the long goat trail down to the main square – which I have to say was delightful. But the return trip provided me with a cardiac workout I don’t look forward to repeating without oxygen.
Apart from many restaurants, which we will explore, there is a grey castle on the harbour headland and a main street spa that offers, among other services, the removal of hair from your buttocks or a total chocolate body massage. I wonder who eats the chocolate. I’m fearful but also curious.
One advantage this hotel has over all others I’ve stayed at is that it has a free mini bar. It is conservatively stocked with basic hard and soft drinks and is replenished every day. Thus, we won’t face that inevitable question at checkout time when the cashier leans across the marble reception desk, suddenly injects you with sodium pentothal, switches on the lie detector, looks you in the eye, and asks “anything from the mini-bar?”
Hotel toaster review
The hand clamp persists. It must be an Italian trait. In any case, here in our Lerici hotel I found a Clampa Minora with two basket clamps which do not like to give up their slice of bread when toasted. This is why there is an additional long handle set of tongs to make the separation. It takes some concentration, working all these metal tools in unison, which is why a part-time toast captain is on hand for assistance. Derek Breadchamber points out in one of his books that the Clampa Minora bakes the bread rather than toasts it and is not highly regarded for this reason.
Thursday 7 June
There is a ferry service which took us along the Cinque Terre coast today, calling in at five little towns where most of the commercial buildings huddle down near the water while the houses that are built further up on the impossibly steep hillsides defy logic. How do they get their groceries? There are thousands of steps just to get to a road. Also, how to they make a living? They can’t all be retired poets. These little towns seem to attract tourists and offer beaches for swimming in the Brunswick green waters of the Mediterranean. By our standards, the beaches are awful. If there is sand, it is putty coloured and coarse, but many of them have only stones or rocks to lie on, hence a thriving business in sun beds and umbrellas that cost more to hire than they do to buy. The catch is that you’d need to lug them to and from a ‘free’ beach and then probably be fined for clogging it up. We’ve been spoiled for beaches in Australia.
Pick a rock, lay out your towel and go for a swim. You’re at the beach!
We went down to the city square for pizzas tonight. I was pleased with mine, but Michelle hit a pizza low when she ordered a seafood, mitout cheese. The pizza looked okay on approach but when it was set down it was revealed as a collection of still-in-the-shell seafood strewn across the crust. The prawns, mussels and clams all sat there defying release from their baked-on, brittle shells. After long and unsuccessful surgery, in which the seafood odour began to hint at decomposition, we sent it back and chose something else. To the restaurant’s credit, a bottle limoncello was offered as a peace offering – which we accepted.
While waiting to return via the climbing bus to our hillside retreat, we witnessed the Lerici ambulance service at work. Somebody had taken ill in the bus shelter. The ambulance arrived with dramatic signage, sirens and blue flashing lights and loaded the stricken one into the back. But before driving away to hospital, the ambulance crew, done up in their orange flouros hung liberally with lifesaving equipment, proceeded to have an argument with bystanders and then with each other. It got louder and louder and lasted for about twenty minutes. The patient, who we could see lying inside, was ignored while the opposing teams waved arms and yelled at one another. The fluro team got into the ambulance, slammed the doors, turned on the siren, then all got out again to put the finishing touches to their summing up.