Category Archives: Italy

Italy 6: Zagreb to Padua

Our Italian Breakdown – in the Rain, of Course

Sunday, May 12, 2019

We departed Zagreb on a rainy Sunday morning and made our way onto the highway that would take us out of Croatia, through Slovenia and back into Italy. Our destination was Padua, which I estimated we would reach in about four-and-a-half hours. It took us twelve hours to get there.

Bridge over Karlovska Street, Ljubljana, Slovenia

It was still raining when we reached Slovenia, but Melania Trump’s home country looked lovely through the windows of the car. I was sorry that we had to zoom through its capital – Ljubljana (pronounced “Lyubly-anna”) – as there was clearly much there to explore. The ever-helpful Wikipedia informs me that the First Lady herself was born in Novo Mesto — which we drove past but did not visit — but that she attended high school and acquired some post-secondary education in Ljubljana.

Rural Slovenia, near Ljubljana

When I use the word “zoom” to describe our mode of travel, I am speaking more poetically than accurately: our rental car continued to stutter and hesitate every ten or fifteen minutes as we made our way back toward Italy. We were quite worried that the vehicle might stop completely in this country where we knew no one, had very little local currency, and possessed not even a smattering of the language. However, hunger overcame our concerns about the car and about an hour beyond Ljubljana we stopped at a roadside service centre. For the first – but certainly not the last – time on our three-week trip, we were astonished at the dining opportunities we found inside.

The Marche Mövenpick bistro on Slovenia’s A34 is one of a chain of 70 eateries around the world (some readers may have visited the one downstairs in Brookfield Place on Bay Street in downtown Toronto, which is not on the side of any highway!).

The one we stopped at in Slovenia puts typical roadside diners in North America to shame. It offers the hungry traveller anything anyone could possibly ever imagine wanting to eat or drink: all of it fresh and beautifully presented. We settled for soup, bread and fruit, which was delicious, but we could have selected freshly squeezed fruit juice, entrees with vegetables and pasta, salads, all manner of baked goods, elaborate desserts and, of course, rich delicious coffee prepared any way we wanted it. On a trip that took us to some of the great dining centres of the world, I realize it’s a bit odd for me to be raving about a highway diner, but given the location we were amazed at the size of the place, the variety and the quality of the food available, and the reasonable prices. (I was also surprised to find CBD cannabis gum and mints for sale alongside the candy at the checkout counter. These concoctions were as effective in reducing arthritic pain as any of the CBD options I’ve tried in Canada: i.e. not at all.)

Well fed, we set off again, and despite the constant irritant of the hesitating engine, all was well… for a while. Our GPS started speaking to us again when we crossed the border into Italy, the radio produced some nice classical music, and we were lulled into complacency. Feeling the need for coffee an hour or so later, we pulled off the highway and took a little break.

But that was the last straw for the car. It had done all it was going to do for us by way of favours when it got us out of Slovenia in one piece, and now it was done. Dead. Finished.

After attempting to get the engine to turn over for long enough that we feared we’d wear out the starter, we called the emergency number for the rental company. Or at least we tried to call it.

When we’d been in Italy the week before, we’d had trouble using our data and phone plan, purchased before we left Canada. It had worked fine when we got to Croatia, but now that we were back in Italy, our long-distance problems were also back, and we were unable to connect with the rental company via the toll-free number. Fortunately we were still at the gas station, and the attendant there helped Arnie to reach the person we needed to talk to.

That person told us (speaking Italian but with a translation app on his phone: as I’ve said before, technology is a wonderful thing when it works) that a truck would be there within half an hour to collect us and the car. He also told us that after we dropped the car off at a repair centre, we were to take a taxi to the car-rental outlet at the Venice airport. This was not the location where we’d picked up the car in the first place (the Piazzale Roma in Venice itself), but the airport – where we’d begun our visit to Italy one week earlier.

Map showing how we ended up back at the Venice Airport

Sure enough, less than half an hour later, a flat-bed truck arrived and the driver (a very nice man who spoke only Italian and had no translation device on him) loaded up the car, invited us to join him in the cab, and drove us through the ongoing rain to the car-repair location in Mestre, which is a suburb of Venice. There he off-loaded the car, and after we had signed a bunch of papers, called a cab for us.

It was our great good fortune to have broken down where we did: the farther from the original car rental location we had been, the more complex the problem would certainly have become. But nothing is ever simple when documents are involved, so it was another hour at the airport before we finally got ourselves and our luggage transferred to a new vehicle. The new car was bigger (not necessarily a good thing in Italy where the roads can be very narrow) and had no GPS, but that didn’t matter to us then. It ran without stuttering and there was more room for us and our luggage, so we were good.

By now we were again ravenous but we were also really tired so we decided not to stop to eat first, but to go to our hotel in Padua – where we arrived just as the kitchen was closing. Once again, the generosity of the Italian service industry rose to the occasion, and they kindly agreed to prepare a meal for us before the kitchen staff went home. They could offer us pasta (which was delicious) and wine; however, the waiter told us sadly, it was too late for dessert.

Italy (& Croatia) 2: From Trieste into Croatia

Wrangling with GPS in a New Country: A Cautionary Tale

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Waterfront at Poreč

On Wednesday we rented a car and drove from Venice to Poreč in Croatia, a distance of 250k.

We went through Trieste, where we had a tasty pizza in the city’s piazza, which is on the waterfront, and considered the fact that James Joyce and Nora Barnacle had lived in this city from 1905 to 1915. Since I had not known this until we were approaching Trieste, when I finally got around to checking out the city in my Lonely Planet Guide, we didn’t have time to do much more than consider our newly acquired knowledge, but if I ever come back to Trieste I will drop in on Joyce’s “scenic home on the grand canal” and also maybe visit Castello di Miramare, home of “the hapless Archduke Maximilian of Austria” (“hapless,” because he got himself shot by a firing squad in Mexico in 1867. Go figure).

Adventures with Technology

We had several maps to ensure that we would get from Trieste to Poreč without becoming “hapless” ourselves, by which I mean “lost” – e.g., by going astray in Slovenia (where Melania Trump is from), a country we needed to pass through briefly on the way to Croatia. Our reference materials included a printed map from the CAA that we noticed too late had the word “Croatia” printed in large caps right over the names and numbers of the highways we would need to take, obscuring them from view, and a GPS in our rental car that showed nothing but a blank screen beyond Italy and turned out to have a mind of her own.

The Italian-speaking Voice of the GPS happily accepted our request for directions to Poreč but she was devious: As soon as we got out of Trieste, she started giving us wrong directions until we ended up back in the city, in a rather sketchy part of town, where she announced that we had “arrived at our destination, on the right.”

We revised our destination parameters in an effort to trick the GPS into letting us get out of Italy, and set off onto the four-lane divided highway once more – only to have the Italian Voice try to turn us around again ten minutes later. But we were smarter now, and we ignored her advice. Unfortunately, our cleverness meant that now we had no idea where we were or where to go next. (These detours did confirm that we know the Italian words for “left” and “right,” sinistra and destra respectively, which will be handy when we get back to Italy on Sunday and attempt a reconciliation with our GPS.)

We’d bought a data-roaming plan before we left Toronto, but I had inadvertently used up way too much of the data in the previous few days so I was afraid to access the Google map of the region online. So we tried the offline map which we had downloaded ahead of time on the excellent advice of my elder son. However, we discovered that the flexibility of offline maps is limited — they find it hard to readjust if you accidentally go off course, and this one didn’t include all of the highway markers that we needed. It also didn’t, of course, speak Italian, Slovenian, or Croatian, the way the signage did as we proceeded out of, through and into the countries where those languages are spoken, one after the other. At last we gave up, turned on Google Maps’s GPS roaming, and got to our destination that way. I expect to have my roaming ability cut off by Bell at any moment now.

Pouring in Poreč

Poreč is a resort town on the Istrian Peninsula and our hotel – the Palazzo! – was vast and spacious, and reminded me of stories I have read of visitors staying at European hotels in the off-season, when the hotels are quiet and nearly empty, but elegant with staff in their white shirts and bow ties standing at the ready to fulfil visitors’ every need (fluent in German, Italian, Croatian and English and possibly other languages as well). After checking in, we wandered the stone-slab streets and ended the day with a chicken scallopini several blocks from our hotel.

Breakfast at the Palazzo the following morning was as elegant as the staff: fresh fruit, croissants, home-made sausages, eggs to order on demand, olives, cutlets, fresh bread, and several kinds of juices, and coffees or hot chocolate. They’d even carved the image of the hotel into a watermelon to decorate the buffet.

It started sprinkling soon after we arrived in Poreč (pronounced “Por-etch”) and by morning it was pouring, but we loved it anyway.

When the Lights Go Out, It’s Time to Leave

We have been impressed by the hotels where we have stayed so far in Europe for their power-saving techniques. The lights won’t go on unless you insert your room key/card into a slot that activates the power, which means that as soon as you leave the room with your key, the lights go out. We were not thrilled with the system the first time we encountered it, especially since we’d been planning to charge a phone and a laptop while we were downstairs for breakfast, but once we realized the reason, we adapted quickly.

In Poreč the hotel extended this method to let us know when check-out time had arrived: at exactly 11 a.m., all the lights in our room went out. Fortunately, we weren’t still in the shower when that happened.

Speaking of Languages

I have no idea whether the Croatians speak Croatian as well as the Italians speak Italian (just a joke, folks), but almost all of them speak English, which is a big help. And unlike Google Maps, Google Translate works very well off-line as well as on-. Which is nice.

In fact, Google Translate is amazing. You can speak into it and it will translate what you said into any language you want. You can type into it, you can scrawl something onto the screen and you can also take a photo of the words you don’t understand and poof! There it is in English! It’s great!

Italy 1: Venice

Footweary, But in a Good Way

May 6 to 8, 2019

Canaletto's Doge's Palace
Canaletto’s Veduto del Palazzo Ducale

The best thing about Venice is that it bears a striking resemblance to the way I have always imagined it. Of course, like most people, I have had a lot of help in forming my mental image of this city – from literary and dramatic sources (e.g., Mann’s Death in Venice, various iterations of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice), through paintings by Monet, Manet, Kinkade and especially Giovanni Antonio Canal (aka Canaletto. With a name like that, what other city was he going to paint?), to movies that include The Italian Job, The Tourist, and Moonraker. It’s even been featured in cartoons (See “O Sole Minnie.“) Venice looks exactly the way it is supposed to, which was a huge relief to me: I feared I might be disappointed. I definitely am not.

But since I’m sure that those of you who haven’t been to Venice yet have exactly the same images in your heads as I did/do, I decided that in this post I would share things I didn’t know about Venice until I got here, rather than things I did. So here goes.

Biennalle Arte 2019

Every two years (or so) the entire city celebrates the Biennale Arte de Venezia, featuring art and artists from around the world. In 2019, the 58th edition will open on May 11, and run to November 24. So we missed the opening, but that was okay because the areas of Venice where the shows are held (primarily in Arsenale and Giardini, which are east of the main tourist area) will be crowded once the opening has happened, and we got to walk around those areas while they were almost deserted. We saw workers installing an art display and heard people rehearsing for performances, but mainly the area was so quiet it was almost ghostly. Today, the Biennale includes dance, architecture, performance art, cinema, and educational initiatives as well as the visual art exhibitions that have formed the core since its inauguration in 1893. This year’s theme is “May You Live in Interesting Times.” We do.

Speaking of workers, it hadn’t occurred to me that absolutely everything has to be delivered by boat to every store, restaurant and hotel in the city until I read this article in The National Post. One afternoon after we’d worn our feet out, we sat down for a rest near the gondola stations and a vaporetto stop on the waterfront. There we watched the world float by, and in addition to the various water-based human transportation systems (including massive private yachts), we saw all kinds of other boats dropping off supplies – massive crates and cartons — delivering them to the closest wharf to their destinations, and then carrying them the rest of the way. Those guys work their asses off.

So do the gondola drivers. What I enjoyed most was watching them move so lightly on their feet as they use their long oars to manoeuvre around each other and all the other water traffic (of which there is a truly significant amount!). I didn’t see a single boat bump into any other boat, which is astounding when you consider how many of them are out there – going, it seems, in all directions.

Tourism has actually become a huge problem for Venice: the city is sinking and the waters are rising, and instead of only the wealthy being able to visit this massive historical site, almost every Tom, Dick and Mary is able to afford the trip. The cruise ships are a huge problem – not only because of the pollution, but because of the crowds (we saw several of the huge floating hotels while we were there) and there is a movement afoot to have them banned from the region. The BBC reports that more than 26 million people visited Venice in 2017, and that nearly half of the actual population has left in the past 50 years.

We stayed on the island of Lido, rather than on the main islands in the Venice Lagoon, so we spent a lot of time on the vaporettos and on buses, and we felt as though we were on Toronto Island rather than in the big city. It was lovely to get away from all of those people at the end of the day. On Lido, there are roads as well as a few canals. There are thousands of bicycles parked near the boat docks, and people ride them, and walk and use the bus. I was astounded to find that the buses have USB charging outlets on them!

By the way, after studying the language on Duolingo for several months, I am happy to report that Italians speak spectacular Italian. But most of the people we met in Venice were also almost fluent in English, for which I give them huge credit because I can also report that I am certainly not anywhere close to fluent in their language. I hope to improve at least a bit before we leave. It is a beautiful language.

We’re Going to Italy!

Andiamo Italia!

To those who have previously accompanied me on my adventures in India and Cuba, welcome back, and a very warm “Benvenuto!” to those who are visiting my travel blog for the first time.

From May 5 to 27 of this year (!), Arnie and I are going to Italy, with a few days in Croatia. I am beside myself with excitement because – unlike almost everyone I know, including my own children – I have never been to Europe. A few days ago, I finished booking hotels for the trip, and I am beginning to believe this is really going to happen.

Aside from reserving rooms and a few tickets to museums that we might not have been able to get into if we’d left it to chance, I have been doing the usual things in order to prepare myself for our journey: reading a few books, including The Lonely Planet Guide to Italy, and learning to speak some Italian with the help of Duolingo (Como sta?).

Arnie and I also recently watched a fun movie called The Trip to Italy, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Despite the pair’s tour around the Italy of Byron and Shelley, two poets I’ve loved since university, the film primarily made me hungry. The hotels they stayed in (such as the Villa Cimbrone, “a medieval palazzo perched above the gulf of Salerno” @ $700/night €460) bear no resemblance to the ones I’ve booked.

Our departure date is about six weeks away at this point. I invite you to join me in the anticipation. In the next few weeks I’ll be posting about our preparations, and welcoming your ideas of what not to miss while we are there.