Italy sojourn: From pleasure to pickpockets

by Betsy Herbert

I got a flight on July 13 from Barcelona to Florence to meet my friend Sue, who was flying in the same day from San Francisco. She’d recently discovered that her grandmother’s family was from Sicily, so she decided to join me in Italy for two weeks.

We would start out in Florence for a few days, then work our way south by train through Rome and Naples to Sicily, where we would hang out for a week and explore. Then we would take the train back to Rome, where a couple of days later, Sue would fly back home and I would continue on the train to Austria.

The heat wave that had plagued my trip to Spain continued in Italy. We grabbed a cab at the Florence airport to our hotel, the Villa Nardi, a guesthouse in the foothills above the city. The neighborhood reminded me of Embassy Row in Washington, D.C. . . . Grand old stone buildings, wrought iron gated driveways, and huge trees. The doors to the villa were about 10 feet tall, with brass knockers the size of volley balls. The cicadas were having a field day in the hot weather, as were the mosquitoes. I was greatly relieved to find that our room had air conditioning.

This is me standing in front of the grand entrance to the Villa Nardi, where we stayed the first three nights of our trip in Italy.

This is me standing in front of the grand entrance to the Villa Nardi, where we stayed the first three nights of our trip in Italy.

At dusk we walked about 1/4 of a mile to another renovated villa, which was now a restaurant with a beautiful big stone patio/herb garden and a view of the Tuscan hills and Florence below. After eating fabulous pasta and drinking a bottle of exquisite but reasonably priced red wine, we walked back to our room and turned the air conditioner on full blast.

The next morning we would get up early while it was still relatively cool and find our way to the statue of David. We had each purchased a Firenze Card on-line, which not only gave us free admission to the most popular sights, but it also served as a bus pass for public transportation throughout the city. We didn’t have a car, so this turned out to be a great way to get around. The buses are clean, modern, and air-conditioned and they run regularly all day.

Before leaving that morning, we had breakfast downstairs in the villa’s big old kitchen. I imagined the family who lived here decades ago, gathering in this great room, seated in front of the big fireplace and surrounded by 18-inch thick walls. After downing a couple of double espressos, we set out to find the bus stop and get to town to see David.

Sue at the breakfast table at the Villa Nardi, where we stayed in Florence.

Sue at the breakfast table at the Villa Nardi, where we stayed in Florence.

David. The thing is, even when you have a Firenze Card, you still have to stand in line to get in the door. You just don’t have to stand in two lines. Well, we finally got in and I have to say that David doesn’t disappoint. The first time I saw the 14 foot statue way back when I was in college, I was bowled over. The second time I saw it, it took my breath away. This third time, I was merely captivated and astonished. I think I was most impressed by how Michelangelo intentionally distorted David’s anatomy. His head is oversized to accentuate the look of concentration on his face as he gets ready to slay Goliath with his slingshot. And his right hand is oversized too, with bulging veins, to emphasize the task at hand, as he gets ready for action.

Michelangelo's statue of David in Florence, with the Biblical David preparing to slay Goliath with a slingshot.

Michelangelo's statue of David in Florence, with the Biblical David preparing to slay Goliath with a slingshot.

Purses, purses, purses and shoes, shoes, shoes. When Sue and I finished gawking at David, we decided to partake of some of Firenze’s other pleasures. We went shopping. We were each looking for a new handbag and a new pair of shoes. if you need leather goods, Florence is the place to find them at a great price. We both scored big time! We each also bought a straw hat to protect against the intense sun.

So much art, so little time, and so much heat. By early afternoon I was dying to get back to the hotel to get out of the hot sun. We took the bus back to our air-conditioned retreat to plan the next day of sight-seeing. We set out early the next morning to visit the Uffizi Gallery, but the lines were already too long and it was already too hot. We decided to come back at dusk. After waiting about 45 minutes in what seemed like endless mugginess, we finally got in.

The train to Naples. On day four, we went to the Florence train station to embark on our trip to Naples. The trip took four hours on a second class fast train, but the heat made it exhausting. When we finally arrived in Naples at five o”clock, and temperatures hovering around 90 degrees F, we weren’t prepared for the pandemonium. The train station was overwhelmingly huge. I had reserved a hotel that was only some 300 meters from the station, but there were so many cars and people crowding the streets that we decided to take a cab.

Strange encounters. We headed for the first cab in the line waiting in front of the station. But then another cabbie came out of nowhere, beckoning to us to get into his cab. He actually grabbed Sue’s suitcase and started carrying it toward his cab. The cab driver at the front of the line was furious and he chased the other cabbie down, yanking his arm and screaming at him. They then proceeded to push and shove each other, screaming at the top of their lungs, nose-to-nose. Apparently, they were trying to kill each other.

Sue grabbed her bag back from the first cabbie and we wheeled our bags away with us as fast as we could go, into the massive throngs of people on the street. We had no idea which direction the hotel was, but we headed for a block of big hotels a few hundred feet away.

I had my little day pack on my back, with a padlock on the zipper. Turns out I had forgotten to lock it when I got off the train. As we pushed through the crowds, I felt someone tugging on my pack and when I turned around, I was face to face with a pickpocket who had his hand inside my pack. When our eyes met, he fled, but I knew he had stolen something. When I stopped to look, I saw that he had got my Kindle. But...at least my laptop was still securely stuffed inside. And I wasn’t hurt!!

I was shaken and pissed off. But mostly, I just wanted to find the hotel and get inside.

Respite. With the help of a few strangers, we finally made our way down a side street, and there it was, the Hotel Pietro, a civilized oasis in the middle of hell.

We vowed not to leave until the next morning when we would take a cab back to the train station to continue our journey to Sicily.

When I got to the hotel room, I emailed Amazon.com where I had bought my Kindle and told them what happened. They were able to remotely remove all the content and freeze access to my account almost immediately. Later, I found out that I could re-download all of my e-books to my iPhone and read them there. So, no big loss in the end...just a little anger and embarrassment at myself for forgetting to lock my pack.

That evening, Sue and I went up to the hotel’s rooftop restaurant where we downed a couple of single-malt whiskeys before having dinner. We were served by a very friendly and attentive young waiter named Francesco, who was enthralled by our travel stories. He was especially in awe of us because we were from California. He asked if he could take a photo of us, and we gladly obliged.

Francesco, our waiter at the Hotel Pietro in Naples, cheered us up after our bad day with pickpockets and insane taxi cab drivers.

Francesco, our waiter at the Hotel Pietro in Naples, cheered us up after our bad day with pickpockets and insane taxi cab drivers.

Onwards to Sicily. The next morning we were off again, back to the train station to continue or journey to Sicily. This time the hotel called the cab and we got to the train station in about 15 minutes through rush-hour traffic. My padlock was secured!

Once on the train, we traveled in a second class cabin, which was supposed to be air-conditioned, for the entire 9 hour trip to Sicily. But, the air conditioning broke down about two hours into the trip and there was virtually no air movement. It was miserable. People were smoking in the vestibules whenever the train stopped and the smoke would find its way back to the cabins.

The train from Naples to Sicily was supposed to be air-conditioned, but it wasn't working. Smoking is not allowed on the trains, but people smoked at each stop in the vestibules.

The train from Naples to Sicily was supposed to be air-conditioned, but it wasn't working. Smoking is not allowed on the trains, but people smoked at each stop in the vestibules.

The train was full because it was Saturday, which is two-tickets-for-the-price-of-one day. There were hardly any tourists on the train, so everybody was speaking Italian and, for the most part, we had no idea what was being said. One lady got on the train with a 6 ft. tall potted banana palm. We did manage to understand that she was bringing the palm to her brother’s house in Sicily. We helped her to put the plant up in the luggage rack so she wouldn’t have to carry it on her lap.

After about 6 hours, we arrived at the bottom of the Italian peninsula, at the “toe” of the Italy’s boot. I had assumed that there was a bridge going across to the port city of Messina, Sicily, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, the passengers got off the train and the passenger cars were loaded onto a ferry. We were able to get out on the deck of the ferry into the fresh air as we crossed the channel.

The train loaded both its passengers and passenger cars onto the ferry crossing the channel from the toe of Italy to Messina, Sicily. We were thankful for the fresh air on deck!

The train loaded both its passengers and passenger cars onto the ferry crossing the channel from the toe of Italy to Messina, Sicily. We were thankful for the fresh air on deck!

Arrival in Sicily. After about 40 minutes, we arrived in Messina, where the train was re-assembled and we re-boarded.

Cefalu. After a couple more hours, we arrived at our destination, the ancient city of Cefalu, on the north coast of Sicily. Cefalu is pronounced “Chef-a-loo”, with the accent on the last syllable. Yes, sounds like “Bobalu,” as sung in the 1950s by Desi Arnaz! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAV3bOJaQuY).

We stayed at a beautiful resort, the Hotel Kalura, about a 20 minute walk along the coast from Cefalu. We snapped up a deal at the Kalura, taking a couple of single rooms at a bargain rate, including a fabulous breakfast buffet.

The Hotel Kalura at Cefalu, Sicily overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Note the staircase descending to the beach.

The Hotel Kalura at Cefalu, Sicily overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Note the staircase descending to the beach.

The Kalura was perched on a rocky precipice overlooking the turquoise Tyrrhenian Sea. The hotel had its own private beach, which was reachable only by descending a switch-backed stone staircase built into the cliff. One of our most memorable days was swimming in the cove around huge rock formations that jutted above the crystal clear water from the sea floor. The rocks were havens for tropical fish, which I could see close up with just swim goggles.

Beach below the Hotel Kalura in Cefalu, Italy. The warm, clear waters are a haven for tropical fish. (Photo by Suzan Friedland, 2015)

Beach below the Hotel Kalura in Cefalu, Italy. The warm, clear waters are a haven for tropical fish. (Photo by Suzan Friedland, 2015)

Swimming was also a joy at the Hotel Kalura’s fabulous Olympic sized pool, where I enjoyed swimming laps during the slow times.

The food at the hotel was great, even for us vegetarians. And the house wine was unbelievably good and inexpensive. Another plus for us was that the hotel had a great pool table in the bar, and we enjoyed shooting a few games to while away the hours.

It was unforgivingly hot and humid the whole time we stayed in Cefalu. Yet, every morning we would get up early, have breakfast, load up on water and then trek into the city. Other than the heat, it was a great place to walk. Motor vehicles are prohibited in the old part of the city, except for taxis and residents. That means that most of the old cobblestone streets were used primarily by pedestrians, though motor scooters and taxis drove rather aggressively through the narrow streets, keeping us watchful.

The streets of the old city in Cefalu, Sicily are closed to vehicular traffic, except for taxis and vehicles of residents.

The streets of the old city in Cefalu, Sicily are closed to vehicular traffic, except for taxis and vehicles of residents.

Cefalu is a strikingly beautiful city with ancient buildings that reflect the long and varied influences of different cultures, including Arab, Spanish, Norman, Byzantine, as well as Italian. Its many plazas and churches are nestled inside rocky cliffs that plunge from plateaus above. The cliffs are dotted with scrub pines, prickly pears and century plants.

The city of Cefalu is nestled in between the rocky cliffs above and the Tyhhrenian seacoast.

The city of Cefalu is nestled in between the rocky cliffs above and the Tyhhrenian seacoast.

The city’s well-maintained cobblestone streets are full of upscale shops. As we walked to and from the hotel to the city, we would pass through neighborhoods of walled houses and small hotels. Along our path were tiled roofs and whitewashed walls resplendent with purple and orange Bougainvillas and sweet smelling jasmine. In the distance we could see remnants of ancient ruins atop natural rock formations rising above the sea.

The beach at the city of Cefalu, Sicily

The beach at the city of Cefalu, Sicily

Palermo. On Day 5 in Sicily, Sue and I decided to take the train to Palermo, Sicily’s main city, about 45 minutes from Cefalu.

A city street in Palermo, Sicily.

A city street in Palermo, Sicily.

We should have done a little research, because most of the museums in Palermo were closed on Mondays, the day we arrived. Still, we had a wonderful time exploring the streets and neighborhoods of Palermo. It seems that there was a surprise at every corner we turned, especially the street art (examples below).

Sue’s husband Karl is a jazz musician, and we’re all jazz fans, so Sue and I were especially thrilled to happen upon a beautiful old domed stone building that housed Palermo’s jazz center. Unfortunately, it was closed for the season, but with good reason. The building was being restored and would re-open next season. The leader of the construction team politely invited us in for a look. We took photos and vowed to return when the place opened again.

Above, two construction workers are taking a break from restoration work at the jazz club in Palermo.

Back to Rome. At the end of our stay in Sicily, we decided not to take the 11 hour train journey back to Rome, instead choosing to fly from Palermo. It actually was less expensive to fly, and the flight was only an hour and 15 minutes.

When we arrived at the main train station in Rome, we were confused by the map to our hotel and set off (in 90 degree heat) in the wrong direction. After stopping at a pizzeria to eat and cool off, our waiter told us how to get to our hotel. After retracing our steps we found the hotel in less than a half hour and once again, reveled in air-conditioned splendor.

I had somewhat dreaded coming to Rome after our experience in Naples, but we had a great couple of days there. Rome is apparently much better policed than Naples. We saw Polizia patrolling everywhere, at least in major tourist areas.

In Rome, the Polizia were actively patrolling tourist areas, such as this path to the Pantheon.

In Rome, the Polizia were actively patrolling tourist areas, such as this path to the Pantheon.

The highlights included our visit to the Pantheon (we got there just before they opened the doors) and the Spanish Steps, which we approached by walking along the via dei Condotti, the Beverly Hills of Rome, and enjoying authentic Italian food and wine.

Inside the Pantheon in Rome looking up at the massive dome.

Inside the Pantheon in Rome looking up at the massive dome.

A cafe with a walled garden in Rome.

A cafe with a walled garden in Rome.

Sue is a trekker extraordinaire, and the last day in Rome she ventured out on her own exploring while I lounged about the hotel and did some writing. She came back brimming with excitement about her solo Roman escapade, during which she happened upon the Coliseum and discovered a contemporary Japanese art exhibit.

I was glad she had such a great final day in Rome, because the next morning at 3 a.m. she would take a cab to the airport, followed by a grueling flight back to San Francisco. I would be able to loll about until 8 a.m. and then find my way back to the train station to travel to my next destination: a health spa just outside of Salzburg, Austria.