Saturday, April 05, 2008

An immersion in Italy

Katie in front of Trevi Fountain in Rome ready to toss her coin
Those who follow this blog may have noticed my two-week absence.
I’m so happy living and playing here that it is tough to get me out of Montana.
But, that is what my wife did with a two-week trip to Italy that included short stops in Switzerland and Germany.
This was not a climbing, skiing or hiking trip.
We took in the traditional cultural sites including Easter mass at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square with Pope Benedict XVI, the Forum, Coliseum, Sorrento, Capri, Pompeii, the Medieval walled towns of Orvieto, San Geminano, and Assisi, the Benedictine abbey of Monte Casino, Florence, Venice and Lakes Region including and Lake Como.
We had a home cooked dinner with a family in Sorrento, did wine tasting in Tuscany, watched mozzarella cheese made and even ate Italian fast food at truck stops called Auto Grills.
I’m still having a difficult time digesting everything we saw and did. We saw so many spectacular churches and works of art that I would be hard pressed to give a number.
The art history and western civilization courses sprang alive.
It was a thrill to see the Alps and the Apennine mountain ranges, to size up Mount Vesuvius. Who could not be thrilled with the sheer power of the Alps, their rugged forms and their glaciers. Now I can say that our Rockies, Cascades, and Sierras compare well. When I return --- and I will --- it will be to walk in the Italian mountains, specifically the Alps.
The return flight cruised over Greenland and Hudson’s Bay, both places I hope to visit someday on the ground.
Here are a couple of observations:
· The cost of gas is about $8 a gallon that makes our $3.35 gas look cheap. The little “Smart” cars, about half the size of an American subcompact, are everywhere. How can we keep our gas so cheap? How can we justify large vehicles?
· The American dollar is a joke, traded two for one Euro. Traveling in Europe is costly. You have to pay to go to the toilet in Italy and it ranges from 50 Euro cents to 1 Euro. A “Big Mac” at Italy’s McDonalds runs $4.50 Euros.
· The Italians find a way to charge for everything. You get hit for a cover charge in addition to the bill when you sit down. We learned to stand at bars when ordering a lunch or a coffee.
· The Europeans aren’t wasting their precious, fertile farmland the way we do in the U.S. People live in towns and cities that are vertical with multiple family units the rule. If you’re on a double lot there you’ve likely inherited a villa or castle. Public transportation is good and everywhere.
· The Italians love us. There is a strong memory of the U.S. role in Italian liberation during World War II.
· All the Italians we encountered have a strong sense of their history and culture. Art, music and history are fused and go back millennia.
· Art is everywhere, both secular and religious, and is supported by taxes. Even churches receive public subsidy, recognizing that they contain art treasures.
· Although we were there during an “off” season, the tourists are everywhere. We found “waves” of tourists not just at St. Mark’s Square in Venice, but in Florence’s main shopping district.
· Tourism is spreading shopping and kitsch everywhere. We found shops even within the Medieval walled communities. I was put off by the high end shopping at nearly every stop. There’s plenty to see and do in this historic country other than to shop.

Favorite experience? This had to be the walled Medieval communities, particularly Orvieto and Assisi. It will send me to my history books. I found myself more interested in the scenery of the province of Umbria rather than the much-touted and overrun Tuscany.
This trip was supposed to be a “taste” of Italy. It seems as though I have overeaten.

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