Saturday, November 30, 2013

Italy: the cost of one apple

In a country with wonderful cakes, chocolates, christmas treats and of course pasta, it takes a concious effort to eat healthy.
So during this 4 week trip I try to buy an apple for a night time snack.  YES gelato is far better but the great taste ends up on my hips.

The cost of an apple in Italy depends on who you are.
You can purchase an apple in the supe rmercato as long as you remember to put on the plastic gloves BEFORE you select your apple
You then must identify the fruit with the number on the scale and print out a price ticket.  DO NOT go to the check out without a price sticker.

You can purchase an apple at one of the many fruit ‘trucks’ on the street corners around Rome.  The woman I have passed every day this week works from early in the morning and was still there at 9:30 pm tonight when I went back to the hotel!     Her I selected the ‘type’ of apple I wanted and the cart owner picked the piece she would sell me.  It was weighed and I paid the price asked.
Yesterday at Campo di Fiore there is a fruit and vegetable market in the mornings.   I spotted an older woman with a very photogenic face.  Thinking I would buy my daily apple and ask her for a photo I selected a red apple.   But this woman was no fool.  She must have read the word TOURIST on my forehead because she picked an apple, gave it to me and THEN said 1 euor!   That is about $1.40 for one apple.

I did not argue with this savy woman.  I had already touched the fruit.  She was NOT going to take it back.  But I am sure she is still chucklying about the TOURIST that paid a Euro for an apple   And NO I did not get a photo.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Four Star Hotels can have problems.

Traveling off season often allow me to insert a luxury hotel into my 30+ day trips to Italy.   4 start hotel in the winter can be the same price as the 3 star hotels I use during spring or fall.

I expect the amenities to be different in the  rating of each level but I did not expect to find a corresponding ‘difference’ in treatment.
Perhaps at check in the reservation is coded to indicate which guests have paid a discounted on line price………….that might explain the times I am often invisible when I try to check in.  

Odd hotel observations
The number of towels is controlled by the number of stars:  two towels (only one larger than a face cloth) for a 3 star hotel
Why is the reception desk so tall?    If you cant see the employee eye to eye there is a level of initiation. 
                    short employees will not have to look ‘up’
Uniforms:  a Rome  4 star requires the desk staff to wear pin stripes
                     they had bellman and they wore a uniform
Rooms are larger.   And single rooms can be the size of a closet.   I stayed in the smallest room ever at the Hotel Opera.  I could not even open two suitcases yet they
                    offered a makeup mirror in the bath.  A feature not available in most hotels.
Hotel rooms in converted office buildings:   hotel booking web sites and hotel web sites SHOULD indicate on their sites that the hotel rooms are NOT connected with the reception areas.   Four of the reservations from my 22 days in Italy never indicated that the rooms were NOT part of the hotel.   In Sorrento I had to wear a coat to travel to the reception area for breakfast!    In Rome at two locations the rooms were several stories above and in a secure section of the office building.    As long as you don’t need hotel services there is no inconvenience  but there IS a sense of isolation.
There is also nothing pleasant about being told you are in an annex and then taken or sent to a location that is NOT the hotel you booked.

When  I summarize the total cost for this adventure it should all average the daily per diem goal I set for long term travel.   Splurges can be afforded.

Monday, November 18, 2013

When a trip is a disaster, for a short time

Sometime a wonderful trip home to Italy hits some snags…..and you wish you never left home…

But if you can bear it (the grin may come later) it works out.   The disasters one at a time are not difficult to manage.  But when they hit in groups that I am stretched to the limits.

1.  Today,  finally understanding that the heat is on from 8pm to about 10pm but the hot water is off until the next morning…..  today it did not start until 9 am.   When you have an early train this allows you to skip a shower or run to the train.  And washing your hair is out of the question, no dryer in the room.
Working through this small inconvenience I reach the station with lots of time.  
2.  the ticket office tells me there ‘might’ be a train strike for MY train.  But she is not sure….
Strikes in Italy are frequent and sometimes for short periods of time so I drag two bags to the platform and wait.  
The announcement comes and now hundreds of my ‘new best friends’ race to the ticket office to change their tickets.   Some of the hopeful passengers had no idea this was a possibility and stand on the platform stunned.   Some obvious tourist (like me) from non English speaking countries can not understand the Italian only announcement  and do not know which way to go.  
Meanwhile I am racing to the the ticket counter.

#3.  The ticket office employee has had a bad day.   She knows the strike will bring hundreds of passengers into the office and she is having none of it.  
Her scowl could break china!
But now she creates problem #3.  She enters something into her computer and her next words are ‘mamma mia’.    She runs into the supervisors office.  She talks with her co worker.  Next the supervisor comes out and looks at the computer.  It goes on and on and the line grows with every head shake.

#4.   ticket in hand for a direct train not affected by any strike is for the WRONG seat but I am sent off with the closed sign shoved into the window.  Guess she had had enough.

#5 and no ones fault.  This train goes to a different train station in Florence and I have no idea where it is.   But if the train takes me to the next town with the next hotel room with hot water and a hair dryer, I will take care of the rest. 

Now I have a few hours to continue visiting Verona, certainly not a hardship.  

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Christmas viewed from Italy

Buono Natale from Italy
The sights, The sounds, The smells of Christmas in Italy
Visiting Italy during the winter reveals a side of Italy without the crowds of tourists.
Locals reclaim their towns and celebrate grape and olive harvests, truffle hunts and prepare for the Christmas season. Travelers can see how Italians celebrate the biggest holiday of the year and sometimes become part of the celebration.

Every town and city will be working to create special Christmas events and displays during the weeks prior to December. On trips Home to Italy during December I found traditions similar to ours in the USA and others that I hope to will become part of our traditions.

Christmas Decorations
You will not see plastic snowmen, candy canes or Rudolf. Excessive commercialism found in most American cities is replaced with communal decorations and events. The single outstanding feature in every town and city has been the street lights. Always done in white lights, no matter if it is Lake Como or Rome, street lights are over whelmingly the signature holiday decoration. Each town has different light designs. Often individual neighborhoods will adopt a particular light theme. clip_image002 In Sorrento there was only one design throughout the entire town. In Rome every main street was unique: from cascading waterfall lights to snowflakes. The store window displays become secondary to the stunning street lights. Italians enjoy una passeggiata (evening strolls) and during this season they may spend more time admiring the lights and visiting with friends on the streets.

I have been told the street is their ‘living room’ where Italians will meet and greet friends.

Italian Christmas Markets
Almost every town has a Christmas market in the weeks before Christmas. The larger cities create markets that can be enjoyed for three weeks in December. Often the market is a series of huts or booths constructed specially for vendors selling food, crafts, gifts, nativity scenes, decorations and toys. Music, plays and ‘enactments’ are often part of the towns’ market events.

Possibly one of the largest markets in in Rome in Piazza Narvona. This huge public square is filled with booths, a carousel, entertainers and most of the families in Rome!
I watched a child try cotton candy for the first time, vendors making crepes and oversized donuts with nutella. A mainstay in Rome is the puppet man.


Hundreds of puppets and no two alike! Antichi Burattni fills a booth that delights children and adults. Pick your story book character, public official etc and he probably has it on display.

Who is Le Befana?
Witch dolls can be seen hanging in stores along with traditional nativity set. According to Buzzle, ( “an old witch flying on a broom, known as La Befana, who leaves toys for children during epiphany. According to legend, the three wise men stopped at the home of La Befana, seeking directions. They invited her to go with them and meet Jesus, but she refused. Later that evening, she changed her mind. Gathering up toys from her own child, who had died, she flew off to meet Jesus. However, she lost her way, and has been flying ever since. On Christmas Eve, she stops at every child's house and leaves a Christmas gift, just in case Jesus is there”. La Befana never came to New Jersey at Christmas.

Babbo Natale:
clip_image010. The Italian version of our letter to Santa.

Children and some adults write appeals to Babbo Natale and attach them to an evergreen. This 20 foot tree was in the main train station in Rome 

Cioccolata Calda 
Hot Chocolate so thick it looks like pudding. I was told this seasonal drink was made with “chocolate, “milk without water” (condensed), sugar”. Special machines churn the mixture constantly and heat it to 70 degrees. Panne or cream is added to each cup.

Tombola: Originating in southern Italy, I had never heard of the Italian game that our Bingo must have evolved from.

clip_image012 clip_image013
Photos from Amazon and EBay sites

The entire family will play Tombola at Christmas time. There are 99 numbers in Tombola and each has a separate meaning. An example: #1. L ’Italia means Italy #2 La Bambina means little girl.*

As it was explained to me by Caterina, my video translator, “tombola is similar to bingo; each player has a card with some numbers divided in rows. There is also a board with all the numbers from 1 to 99 and one of the players picks up a number from a bag”. “Once you find a number on your card you mark it, if you mark 5 or 10 numbers in a row you win a prize. But the biggest prize is for who first marks all the numbers on his card”. My friend in Firenze tells me the players use fava beans to mark their cards.
Interesting that it is played only at Christmas time when American play at any opportunity

Many of our Italian American Christmas traditions mirror those in Italy: letters to Santa, street lights, markets. I find our Italian friends do a very special Christmas that we would all enjoy.

* For a detailed description of rules of play consult an article by Francesca Di Meglio

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

When travel by ship is the same price as business class

Just received this from Alitalia.  Call or check on line for current prices

Choose the comfort of Magnifica-Business Class for your holiday escape to Italy. Great holiday fares starting at $2512 round-trip. Don’t miss them!

Hurry and book until November 30th, 2013.

from $ 2512
RT, taxes and fees included

A 14 day advance purchase is required.
from $ 2572
RT, taxes and fees included

A 14 day advance purchase is required.
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RT, taxes and fees included

A 14 day advance purchase is required.
from $ 2817
RT, taxes and fees included

A 14 day advance purchase is required.
da $ 2827
RT, taxes and fees included

A 14 day advance purchase is required.
from $ 2584
RT, taxes and fees included

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from $ 2791
RT, taxes and fees included

A 14 day advance purchase is required.
from $ 3037
RT, taxes and fees included

A 14 day advance purchase is required.

Click on each offer to read the fare conditions.

Seats are limited and may not be available on all flights and dates. Tickets must be purchased by November 30, 2013. A 14 day advance purchase is required. The minimum stay is three days and all travel must be completed by January 7, 2014. A $450 fee will apply to any date changes, in addition to the applicable fare difference. Outbound travel is from December 14, 2013 through January 4, 2014. Return travel must be between December 25, 2013 and January 7, 2014.