Italy Nuggets: Curious, Funny and Scary Experiences

Meal Ordered in Hindi

IMG_20170526_224219673We had reached Rome late in the evening and landed in a restaurant close to our hotel for dinner. The English-speaking staff was not in abundance and after struggling with our first Italian menu, we tried unsuccessfully to convey to the waiter what we wanted. Then he spoke a sentence in (very broken) Hindi. He confessed in the same broken Hindi that neither his Hindi nor his English was very good. But we realized that fragments of simplified Hindi were better understood by him than fragments of simplified English.

And thus, we ended up ordering our first meal in Italy in Hindi! The language barrier was still too high for us to figure out why and how he learned Hindi. He looked South Asian but was clearly a local.

A Bus Ride to Elate Monisha Sarabhai

IMG_20170526_203622460We took a day trip from Rome to Cerveteri which boasts of some well-preserved Etruscan Necropolis. The nearest station is Ladispoli-Cerveteri and you need a take a bus from there. The very helpful newsstand owner outside the station managed to convey to us the bus number we were supposed to take (while pronouncing the ‘u’ in the bus as in ‘truth’, thus making the process of communication a wee bit stretched out). He also sold us the tickets.

The bus came almost immediately and we rushed to grab a seat. For a few minutes after the bus started, I tracked the route on Google Maps, then satisfied that we were on the right track sat back and relaxed hoping to reach Cerveteri in fifteen minutes. Except as the time neared we saw no stop that looked like Cerveteri. So, I opened the Google Maps again. We had deviated from Cerveteri’s direction a long time ago and were now in an area we knew nothing about. We looked around the bus and knew instantly that there were no English speakers there. After worrying and panicking for a while, Abhaya managed to find the bus route online. It turned out that the same bus travels in two different directions from the station, although it enters and exits the station from the same direction. We should have carefully checked the timing before boarding the bus and taken one at the right time. Too late. What was supposed to be a fifteen-minute ride was already into its fortieth minute or so. However, now knew that we will eventually reach Cerveteri after once again crossing the station. We lost time, but we had a nice ride through the countryside. And we didn’t even have to buy another ticket.

Monisha Sarabhai would have been proud.

The second time the bus left the station, I watched Google Maps with hawk eyes. We were on the correct route this time.

Ticketless Travel

This was the scariest one. In Florence, we didn’t have a pass for local transport, because the add-on to the Firenze card that was supposed to give us that access was not available where we bought our Firenze card. Buying a transport pass separately would have been more expensive, and Florence is supposed to be immensely walkable. So, we decided we will make do with individual tickets. But we returned from Pisa late at night. All the tobacco and other retails shops that were supposed to sell the tickets were closed. The tickets are supposed to be available on the bus also at a higher price. But the bus was so crowded we couldn’t even reach the driver to ask for the ticket. We breathed a sigh of relief when we got down from the bus without any incidence. We will stock up the tickets first thing in the morning, we promised ourselves.

Except in the morning, we had to leave early to meet with a walking tour group we had booked! The shops were not open. The bus was empty – so we hopefully asked the driver for the ticket and realized that even if we had managed to reach the driver last night, we wouldn’t have gotten the ticket. Although the drivers are supposed to have tickets, they usually don’t. Perhaps because nobody buys them onboard. It is inconvenient and also more expensive. Another bus came at the same stop and we made the mistake of asking that driver too. He also didn’t have one. We would get late if we didn’t board one of those two buses. We were distraught. The place was a little far, and after days of walking in Rome, Cerveteri, Pompeii, Paestum, and Naples, my legs were revolting.

The lady driver of the first bus noticed our distress and helpfully suggested that we can take the other bus instead of hers. I think she was trying to tell us that we shouldn’t ask the driver and just board. But we had already asked him. Finally, the same helpful driver told us that we can ride with her, there will be no problem, and we should buy the ticket once we get down. Oh yes, yes! We will. We will buy a few extra too. Happily, we boarded the bus. She also gave us the wise words of advice. “Florence is so walkable; you don’t need to use the bus.” That statement, often heard, had started hurting by then. Especially to my legs. But she had been so helpful that I could only smile is extreme gratitude and thank her from the bottom of my heart.

This is NOT recommended. Do not travel ticketless. If you don’t have the pass, hoard up the tickets in advance. When the ticket checkers do come, the fine is enormous and the experience, I am sure, mortifying.

Tours in Italian

IMG_20170527_170613474The first time it happened at Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome. We reached just in time for their last tour of the day. We hadn’t known that taking a tour was necessary to go underground. It was, though. So, we would take the tour. Only caveat. The tour was in Italian. Uh oh! We said we would join. At least we get to go inside. We had our own research on what to expect inside. They agreed and also gave us an English handout that would help us understand at least some of things. When we asked questions, the guide explained to us in English. Somebody else in the group was translating everything to her partner in French. I guess it was quite a multilingual group with many in the same shoes as us.

The second time it happened at the Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri. The lady at the ticket counter had helpfully told us the timings when the film was played at their office inside the necropolis area. She forgot to tell us that the next one was in Italian with no English subtitles. So, we ended up watching a half-an-hour movie about the necropolis in Italian, understanding nothing. We thought that perhaps they will play the English version after the Italian one. But that was not to be. The staff there, realizing our predicament, did take us to a couple of tombs nearby and turned on the video presentation there in English. I don’t think that was a replacement for the movie. But, count the blessings and thank the sensitive, helpful folks when you find them!

A Pen to End Your Meal?

After our lunch at Paestum, I waved to a waiter and signaled to him what I wanted. He nodded in understanding. He came back promptly. With a pen.


Italy Nuggets: Things We did Right

Here are a few things we did right for our first Italy Trip.

Not Buying the City Cards Online

Rome has Roma Card, Naples Arte Card and Florence Firenze Card. They give access to monuments, museums and local transport in those cities with varying degrees of complexity. All of these can be bought online and then can be collected in the city. But it seems you need to specify the place where you would collect it. If you plan changes, if you are not able to reach the particular pickup point you intended to reach, it may spoil things. Buying online doesn’t seem to confer any particular advantage. So, it is better to buy the card after landing in the city. That’s what we did and it worked well. In Rome, we bought the card at the airport, in Naples at the train station. In Florence, we bought it at the first museum we visited because it was not available at the train station, although in this case, the non-availability of the add-on transport card was a bummer. But as mentioned in the previous post, I didn’t think Firenze Card was a good idea in the first place.

Buying Local Phone + Data

Everybody online advises against buying the high-priced so-called “international” cards and the advice served us well. Some people also manage to do without a local phone. But buying it was convenient, especially the data. Apart from other things, Google Maps served us well in exploring the places. We bought a TIM sim card with a special pre-paid vacationer’s plan at the airport.

Booking a Point-to-Point Shuttle from Airport

At first, it seemed like that only real affordable option of getting to the city from the Rome Airport was the Leonardo Express train. But our hotel was not located conveniently and we would have had to change trains/buses multiple times to reach there. With the luggage for a 10-day trip in the tow, it wasn’t a particularly pleasing proposition. But later we came across many shuttle services. These are mini-buses that will drop you right up to your hotel and not be as expensive as booking a taxi or a private transfer. You may have to roam around the city a bit because there will be people destined for different hotels, but we were reaching late in the evening. There was nothing to do on that day except reaching the hotel and getting some dinner. So we didn’t mind that. As it happened, ours was the second drop – so it was pretty convenient and quick.

Limiting number of cities and spending time in each city

The enthusiasts will say that three cities in ten days still means spending too little time in each city, but compared to the schedule of many others we did well 😊 We didn’t try to squeeze in Venice, Milan, Amalfi Coast and Sicily despite the temptation of checking things off the bucket list!

Booking Places that Get Sold Out

Although we missed out on Vatican Underground Excavation tour because we started planning too late, but as soon as we realized that some places need booking in advance, we got started on those. So, we were able to visit Villa Borghese Museum and do Underground Tour at Palazzo Valentini in Rome. For Underground Colosseum, we had to book a private tour (and pay a higher price), because the official tour was sold out. But it was a pretty good tour, so at the end, I don’t mind.

Visiting Naples

A lot of online information targeted at Westerners paints a picture of Naples that would make you shiver at the very idea of stepping into the city. But for an Indian, it just means that you should be careful like you would be in most Indian cities. Although we could only see the Cathedral and the museum in the city, having spent our time in the day trips to Pompeii and Paestum, the city was a good addition to our itinerary. The people are friendlier, food unique and tasty, and cost of living (touring?) cheaper. Their Arte Card is also one of the best value-for-money cards, better than Rome’s Roma Card and infinitely better than Florence’s Firenze Card.

Visiting an Etruscan Tomb and Museum

There were Rome and Italy before Roman Empire, even before the Roman Republic. A lot of history exists for that time. Visiting an Etruscan Tomb in Cerveteri was a good idea and made the trip to historical places more complete and rounded. We did have a weird bus experience there, but it worked out fine at the end. I will write about it later.

Taking Guided Tour of Vatican

Vatican is huge, overwhelming and crowded. Although we didn’t book as many guided tours as I now think we should have, I am glad we booked Vatican. Otherwise, I am not sure we would even have been able to reach Sistine Chapel in time! For a first-time visitor, booking a tour is a great idea. We booked the tour from their official site. But private tours which may cover other places are available too. The tour also helped us avoid the line at St Peter’s Cathedral. Because in a combined tour you take a passage from the museum to the inside of the Cathedral and don’t have to stand in line. There is no other way to avoid the line at the Cathedral, no skip the line ticket.


Italy Nuggets: Things I would Do Differently

IMG_20170527_103103883_BURST001Here are some of the things I would do differently if I had to plan my first trip to Italy all over again.

Book more Guided Tours

I would book more guides even if it stretches the budget a bit. With our experiences in India, I am generally wary of guides who spout limited amount mugged up information of apocryphal variety. Italy is different. The guides have to licensed there. Although many tourist places in India also have licensed guides, they do not have any understanding of history, archeology, architecture or art, which is required to appreciate historical places.  I don’t know what do Indian guides have to do to acquire the license. But in Italy, they have to study and write an exam and the exam seems to be made of stern stuff. The guides seem to know what they are talking about. They understand archeology. And this seems to be an aspirational profession because they are highly qualified too. The guide who took us on Colosseum tour was an archeologist who had worked on that site. Our Vatican guide was an art historian. I don’t know the exact background of others, but they weren’t spouting things they didn’t understand. One should, of course, research and read reviews before deciding on a particular guide or tour, but there need not be a general hesitation about it.

Avoid Free Tours

The reason for taking a free tour was not to save money, but precisely what those offering the free tours say they are about – visiting a place with someone who would be passionate it. But the free tour we took in Rome was one of the most disappointing experiences. The guide was good – she didn’t lack competence, but she was harping on and on about it being a free tour and taking away from the experience of visiting the places.  Whatever she was in it for, it wasn’t the passion of showing it to the outsiders (By the way, almost everyone tips on the free tours- so it isn’t really free. Most people are like us. They don’t go on such tours to save money, but for the company of someone passionate.) I am pretty sure experience with the same guide is better, when she is on her regular paid job.

Account for Delays due to Reliance on Public Transport

Given the costs, we had left the taxis only for emergencies. Public transport is good. But in many places, you have to rely on buses, rather than metros. Rome’s metro is severely limited, because wherever they dig they end up finding some ancient ruins and have to work on preserving it instead of building the metro!

The buses run on the Google Maps routes, but not on its time. So, the time taken for a trip can be difficult to estimate correctly. Perhaps it was such a novel experience for us because we don’t use local buses much in India. We are much happier with metros. Those who do have experience of buses here might not be surprised.

Keep a Rest Day In Between

Rest meaning rest. No walking whatsoever. With so much to see (and reliance on public transport), we walked and walked and walked. And while we have a pretty good stamina for walking, doing it for ten days proved to be cruel to our legs. There were light days in between, but we should have planned for a complete rest day.

Start Planning Much in Advance

For a trip in May, I would start planning in November or December, get the VISA in March and book things early. By booking, I don’t mean only the flight and hotel bookings where early booking can save money, but also bookings for some of the most crowded places to visit. In Italy, you CAN miss a sight because it was sold out (It has happened only once in India for us – at the textile museum in Ahmedabad).

Not buy the Firenze Card

Rome, Naples, and Florence all had these cards that gave you access to certain monuments and public transport. They were all complicated in different dimensions (more on that some other time), but Firenze card (for Florence) was the most expensive. It also didn’t come with access to public transport by default; the add-on card that would have given us that access was not available where we bought it. We perhaps recovered the cost of the card given the number of places we visited with it, but we also missed climbing Brunelleschi’s dome because with Firenze Card you couldn’t book the time in advance. You had to do it on the spot and we didn’t realize that it would be difficult to get a slot in next 24 hours. So, I would rather book some guided tours for the most important places (Cathedral, Dome, Uffizi, and Academia), buy transport passes separately if we intend to use buses much, and buy the tickets to other museums directly. They aren’t that crowded.

Buy lots of local transport tickets in advance

If one doesn’t have a pass for local transport, the tickets should be bought en-masse in advance. The local transport in the cities is mostly well integrated. The Same ticket works for buses, metros, and trams. But they need to be bought from tobacco shops or other retail outlets. They are supposed to be available on the buses at a higher price, but they usually aren’t. We ended up traveling ticketless twice on Florence buses because it was late at night or too early in the morning and the retails stores were not yet open. The driver didn’t have tickets. We didn’t get caught, but it is NOT recommended AT ALL. Because when the checking does happen, the fines are enormous and the mortification would be worse, I guess.


Italy Nuggets: The Surprises

When we met Karishma and Adrian in Italy, Adrian asked a simple, but an evocative question: What surprised us in Italy?

It was difficult to answer. These days we travel after so much research and have already been exposed to so much imagery of famous places that very few things can really surprise us.

Still, a few things did.

Capuchin Crypt in Rome

I knew there were burials there and had planned to visit it. But somehow, I hadn’t found out what the real attraction of the crypt was. And when I saw them, my mouth literally opened wide in surprise. The crypt is really elaborate artwork made with – ahem – human bones.  Morbidly beautiful. I don’t know how it has the religious sanction. Isn’t human body supposed to be sacrosanct in Christianity? I need to read up on this.

The Unchanging Latin Script

A while back Jandré (a South African working and living in Madagascar) had sent me a message expressing surprise that the language Georgian had its own script. It didn’t surprise me at all. Then I realized that in India we are used to the fact that every language has its own script (actually, many don’t, but still enough of them do that you get that impression). Not so in other parts of the world. Latin, for example, is the common script for a variety of languages in a large part of Europe and also in many former colonies.

InsscriptionA related surprise I received on our Italy trip was the realization that the Latin script has not changed in 2000 years, and even more. You may not know the language, of course, but you can read the letters in the ancient inscriptions. I tried asking a guide about it, but she didn’t seem to understand my question and didn’t comprehend my surprise. In India, Sanskrit is written in a dozen different scripts, modern Kannada readers can’t read Halekannada, modern Hindi readers may not be able to read older versions of Nagari script, nobody other than experts can read Brahmi and Prinsep lost his mind and life in deciphering the older Brahmi script.

What kept Latin unchanging and constant, while Indian scripts mushroomed in all kinds of direction in the same period? If you know of a book I could read on this, please do recommend.

The colossal-ness of colossus statues

TreviThey did build big. Whether it was the buildings or the statues. Romans, and then the Renaissance folks inspired by the ancients. Sometimes only a foot or a hand of an emperor’s statue is available, but you can see what their size would mean for the entire statue. I had seen the images of many of the famous ones, but seeing the size for myself was awe-inducing.


Italy Nuggets: The Sense of a Loss

PompeiiRoadThe idea of preserving the archeological remains is as much a 20th-century phenomenon in Italy as it is in India. Despite that, it is such a treasure trove for archeologists and historians. So much of history is still available – in the buildings, in the works of art and in the writings – that thinking of India we suddenly felt a little poorer. We have a lot of history as well, but it just isn’t preserved or accessible at the same level. In Italy, you can walk through the Roman buildings right below the current ones, you can visit Etruscan tombs and most fascinating of all, you can visit a city like Pompeii, practically frozen in time – with entrances of its homes sporting “Beware of Dog” and “Welcome” signs in mosaics. And while the task of understanding the history continues, a lot is already well-understood with a fair degree of certainty. We almost never get that sense of understanding while traveling in India.

It helps to have a stable population, I suppose, that you can still live in and walk on medieval neighborhood and streets respectively. In India, the preservation of past so often seems to be in conflict with the needs of the present. There also seem to be gaps in history. Periods of which nothing survived archeologically, or those where the archeological remains can’t be understood well because written sources are non-existent or beyond understanding.

Italy introduced a sense of a loss about history in us. A strange thing to happen.


Italy Nuggets: Naram Garam Sorbillo

Our research of eating options at Naples sprang up the name Sorbillo. Apparently, THE place to have Neapolitan pizza (the city claims to have invented pizza – the margherita pizza). After having walked several kilometers in Pompeii and then visiting Naples Cathedral, we collapsed on the stairs in front of the Cathedral and considered our eating options. Google maps showed that Sorbillo was close by. It would be crowded, we knew. But it was just the time for it to open. So we decided to try our luck. If it was crowded, we would eat someplace else nearby and then take the metro back to the hotel.


When we went there, we realized that our bet of reaching just at the opening time had paid off. Tables were available and filled up only after some time. The pizza was indeed good. We enjoyed our meal, complete with drinks and dessert.

Before going further with this story, however, I need to tell you another one.

There used to be a famous, but shabby and small, dhaba next to the Gurudwara near Ulsoor lake. It was called Bobby Da Dhaba, but didn’t even have a signboard with its name. There was no space to sit. It was always crowded. You had to wait for a long time to get the famous paranthas from a hole in the wall sort of an arrangement, which you ate standing by the road. (It has shifted since then, and now has space as well as a signboard, but that is a story for another day.)

Next to the unmarked Bobby Da Dhaba opened a bigger place, with enough seating and faster service. It also sported a big signboard. It was called Naram Garam Dhaba.

When after years of hearing about it, we finally went to Bobby Da Dhaba, we quickly realized that braving that queue was beyond our ken. We could have gone to some other place, as we knew that the Naram Garam Dhaba next to it is really an imposter. But we were hungry and not in a mood to figure out and go to another restaurant. So we decided to eat there. The food wasn’t bad, but we were not to know what the fuss over Bobby Da Dhaba was about.

Since then we call every imposter of famous outlets their Naram Garam versions.

If you travel in India you must be familiar with this phenomenon. If there is a shop or restaurant that has become famous, there will be tens of others with the same or similar name on the same street, but with shinier façade and better service (the trick to locate the right one in such cases is either to follow the locals or go for the one that looks the shabbiest.)

By now you have put two and two together and know what the twist in our story is. We stepped out of Sorbillo in Naples, satisfied with the food and happy with our initiative and good luck. Until a few hundred meters ahead, we found another Sorbillo, with barely discernible light over the signboard and a huge crowd in front of it.

The worst part is, on our way to Sorbillo, we were discussing this Naram Garam phenomenon and wondering if it happens only in India. Apparently not.

But then Italy (and Naples specifically) is perhaps the India of Europe.