Train Train, Rolling ‘Round the Bend

by Nancy Bestor

227786_5486My sister and her husband are headed to Italy for two and a half weeks this summer. She hasn’t ventured to Europe in over 20 years, and was asking my advice on navigating the trains. “When do you need a reservation,” she asked. “When and where do you need to validate your tickets?“ “What did I think of a longer night train vs. ‘wasting’ a day of vacation on riding a train for six hours.” These are all good questions, and frankly, although I like to think of myself an expert in all things (not just travel, I’m talking about EVERYTHING), I didn’t necessarily have the answers to all her questions. When we traveled by train throughout Italy a couple of years ago, we found that the information we believed to be true after doing research ahead of time didn’t always turn out to be the way things worked on every train. Sometimes we thought we didn’t need a reservation, and it turned out we did.

Other times we were sure we needed to get our rail pass validated for the day, and we couldn’t find anywhere to do it, then the conductor told us not to worry.

Nevertheless, the best way to prepare to use public transportation in Europe is to research, research, and research. Here are a few websites on Italian train travel that my sister has been browsing:

Rick Steves has a great website for many things, including train travel in Europe.

The official Italian rail site is another good one. This is where we purchased point-to-point tickets for a busy route from Venice to Milan. The US agency selling tickets is: http://www.italiarail.com

You should also look directly on the Italian rail site to see where tickets are cheaper.

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In my opinion, the Rail Europe site is the best place to buy multi-day rail tickets for train travel in Europe. On our three-week Italy trip, we bought five-day rail passes that let us choose the five days that we wanted to travel within a 21-day period. We did not have to know those dates ahead of time either. Whenever we decided we wanted to use one of our days, we simply made sure we had our five-day passes validated for the date of travel. Then on that travel date, we could take as many Italian trains as we wanted. Rail Europe often has specials available, and you can buy multi-country passes as well.

What’s Behind Door Number One?

by Nancy Bestor

There are a lot of ways to attempt to live like a local when traveling abroad. You can rent an apartment and shop for groceries at local markets. You can hang your laundry out to dry on a line strung across a small balcony. You can take public transportation, and walk neighborhoods outside of the main touristy drags. But what you can’t see is how the locals really live. I was reminded of this when looking at the photos Bob took from our travels in Italy last summer, when he focused our camera on door after door, down quiet neighborhood streets in Verona, Venice and the Cinque Terra.

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What are the people doing behind those doors? What are they serving for dinner? Do their young kids watch television in the afternoon when their mothers can’t take just one more minute of them running around the house? (Actually, I may be channeling my earlier days of parenting here.) Are they whipping up a delicious homemade pasta dish with fresh crab for dinner? Do they sit in their backyards or on their back terraces and drink a glass of prosecco in the late afternoon while listening to an Italian opera on the radio?

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Those beautiful and intriguing doors, letterboxes and doorknockers make me imagine all sorts of happenings going on behind them. Surely their lives are far more cultured than mine. Maybe it’s best that I don’t see behind them, and instead leave their stories to my imagination. I’m certain no Italian mother has ever served her children tater tots and frozen peas. (In my defense I was really busy that day, and my kids actually like tater tots and frozen peas.)

Watching Die Hard Italian Soccer Fans

by Nancy Bestor

I’ve watched a lot of soccer in my life. For someone who’s not a huge fan, I know waayyyy too much about yellow cards and red cards, offside traps and corner kicks.

It all started in college, when I began dating a man who had played soccer since he was a young lad, and continues to play as an adult. I spent many a cold Sunday afternoon in the Bay Area watching him kick a ball up and down a field with his mates. Often I was the team’s only fan (what a dedicated girlfriend I was, right?).

iStock_000002287290XSmallI’ve watched lots of “important” soccer games on television too. There was the 1994 World Cup (Brazil v. Italy), watched in a small Ashland apartment with about 20 fans. (I was pregnant with our first child, and delighted that Emilio Delgado, Luis on Sesame Street was also there.) Then there was the 1998 World Cup (Brazil v. France) that we watched at a French friend’s home. Our family came with French flags painted on our faces. The best game I’ve ever seen on tv however, has to be the European Champions Cup semi-final (Germany v. Italy) that I watched at an outdoor restaurant in Verona last summer.

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One Gentleman (And Three Women) of Verona

balcony2by Nancy Bestor

When we booked an apartment for a week’s stay in Verona this past summer I knew little about the city, other than it being home to one of the world’s best preserved Roman amphitheaters, which still hosts a world-renown summer opera series. I had no idea that Verona’s most popular claim to fame brings thousands of Japanese tourists each year for an hour long stop (according to my man Rick Steves), on their way from Milan to Venice.  What is the attraction, you ask? The House of Juliet. The fictional home—complete with balcony—where Romeo gazed upward at his lover Juliette, and spoke the fictional words “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?”

kissThe House of Juliet, to repeat myself here, is the fictional home of Juliet, but that doesn’t stop the hordes of tourists (and I put myself into this category) from gathering every day in the courtyard to look up at the balcony and snap picture after picture. We passed by the courtyard and house several times during our week in Verona, and each time it was packed with tourists. We toured the upstairs museum in the House of Juliet, which you cannot enter unless you pay the museum fee. It’s not worth it, unless, as in our case, it is included in your Verona Card.  The highlights in the House of Juliet museum include standing on the balcony and kissing your husband in front of hundreds of tourists looking up at you and embarrassing your teenage children in the process, AND reading some of the real letters written to Juliet, seeking advice in the department of love.

statueAnother favorite activity in Verona was strolling through the high end shopping streets of the city. The pedestrian-only lanes are highly entertaining for people watching as well as window-shopping at pricey stores. Most every night we’d buy a gelato and stroll the avenues, listening to street musicians and gawking at the high prices, including one store that charged for clothes and shoes by their weight.

For gelato, Venchi, on via Mazzini near Piazza Bra deserves a special mention. In a country full of this fabulously delightful treat, Venchi stands out and is definitely worth a detour to sample its deliciousness.

Several churches are also worth a visit, including the Church of Sant’ Anastasia, and its massive pipe organ. Lucky for us, the organ was being played during our visit, adding just the right touch of dramatic atmosphere.

meatOur big meal out was at Trattoria Al Pompiere, our apartment owner’s favorite restaurant. Pompiere is also highly rated by both Rick Steves and Trip Advisor. The best part of the meal was the gourmet meat and cheese antipasti plate, with outstanding cuts of a variety of prosciutto, salami, pancetta and more. After ordering, our waiter sent over the charcutier, and we were faced with the daunting task of discussing our order with him and choosing from an array of meats each specifically prepared and aged and all available for our consumption. Pompiere was excellent and full of Italians, always a good sign in my book.

Notes on Verona:

  • We rented an apartment through www.vrbo.com. The one bedroom, although small, was centrally located, and a good price (875 euros). It was great to stay in a neighborhood, shop daily for groceries, and cook all breakfasts and some lunches and dinners. It also featured a washing machine, which was perfect for the middle week of our three-week trip.
  • We bought Verona Cards for 20 euros each for the two adults, and discounted for our teenage girls. The Verona Card includes admission to most churches and museums in town, a great savings for our weeklong stay.
  • In the courtyard of the House of Juliet, there is a bronze statue of the fair maiden. Legend has it that if you fondle her bronze breast you will be lucky in love. Since I am already luckier than I could have imagined, I passed on the opportunity.

Visiting an Italian Masterpiece

by Nancy Bestor

When Leonardo Da Vinci painted The Last Supper, on the dining room wall of the Dominican Friars in 1498, it’s unlikely he knew that it would one day be one of the most famous paintings in the world. Apparently the Dominican Friars didn’t know it either, because in about 1650, they cut a door right through the mural wall (maybe it took too long for their food to come from the kitchen, and they were tired of waiting hungrily?), cutting off Jesus’ feet in the process.

We visited the Last Supper in Milan this past summer, and even though Jesus’ feet are missing, the Last Supper is truly one of the most incredible paintings I’ve ever seen.

First of all, the Last Supper mural is HUGE. I had no idea. It measures about 15 x 29 feet and takes up an entire wall in what is now the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. I remember seeing the Mona Lisa in Paris for the first time, and being somewhat disappointed at how small it is. Well this baby is not small by any standards.

Then of course there’s the story that goes along with the painting. There is something a bit sinister about seeing Judas with his thirty pieces of silver, and looking maybe more than just a little guilty, while Jesus informs the group that one of them will betray him.

The build-up to a visit of the Last Supper is also worth noting. Tickets can be very hard to come by and reservations are mandatory. Only 900 visitors a day are allowed in an effort to slow deterioration. Originally, when I tried to reserve tickets over a month in advance, they were sold out. But on the suggestion of my dear friend Rick Steves (It was actually thanks to his Italy book, I wish we were friends), I called the day before we would be in Milan to see if there were any cancellations, and luckily there were! We had to take the 15-minute tour in Italian, but we had read up (in our Rick Steves’ Italy guide, of course) on all the details of the painting, so we didn’t feel like we missed much.

We checked in 30 minutes before our scheduled tour and killed time in a waiting area that offers detailed information (in English and with photos!) on the Last Supper. Before our group of 25 was taken in to see the painting, we first had to pass through two air-conditioned dehumidifying chambers. Once in the dining area, we had exactly 15 minutes to take in Da Vinci’s Last Supper to our heart’s content, and listen to the guide speak (in Italian). 

For a church that houses such a famous work of art, The Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is surprisingly unassuming. It’s about a 25 minute walk from the Milano Centrale train station and there weren’t any people outside the building, save for a lone souvenir hawker with Last Supper t-shirts, postcards, and canvases for sale. This visit was well worth the 11.5 euros each that we paid. If you’re in or near Milan, this site is not to be missed.