Italy Was Amazing, and So Were We

Have you ever watched the TV reality game show, “The Amazing Race”? It features a fast-paced race to destinations around the world.
Competitors are teams of two people who share the tension and the mishaps they encounter along the way, hoping to be the first team to reach the final destination. The teams must be in some sort of relationship, including friends and relatives, and almost every season includes one team composed of a parent and an adult child. The competition is tough, but the reward is great: the winning team shares one million dollars.
I never considered competing on the show myself, but my daughter Leslie and I lived our own version of “The Amazing Race” during our recent trip to Italy. Time and again, we went zooming from one place to another in an attempt to reach our destination on time. Hair flying, clothes flapping, our wheelies spinning behind us at a furious pace, we always got where we needed to go…but it wasn’t always clear that we would.
It all started when we arrived in Rome early on a Monday morning in October. We’d reserved online (with Trenitalia) two seats on the fast train between Rome and Florence scheduled to depart Termini, Rome’s central train station, at 2:30 p.m. Worried that our flight might be delayed, we allowed a long layover between our arriving flight and the train reservation. An Italian friend also warned us that the fast train would be packed with business travelers going to Florence from Rome on a Monday. Hence the reservation.
As things turned out, our flight arrived on time at Fiumicino, the Rome airport, around 8:30 a.m., leaving us six hours to connect with our train. We weren’t upset about the six hours—yet—because we weren’t sure how long it would take to get from the airport to Termini. A taxi would be expensive. Luckily, one of our guidebooks mentioned a new shuttle bus between Fiumicino and Termini, and hustling past passport control, we ran to find the shuttle. It was still boarding, with only a few minutes to spare, and out of breath and sweaty, we found seats across the aisle from each other.
The shuttle bus moved slowly through rush-hour traffic and stopped outside Termini at about 10 a.m. We retrieved our suitcases and entered through the door closest to the shuttle bus drop-off. We knew we had loads of time to kill, and we didn’t want to waste any of our precious hours in Italy sitting around Termini. So, hoping to learn how to get on an earlier train to Florence, we searched for a helpful employee. The first employee we encountered—in a surprisingly uncrowded part of the station–was rude and dismissive, making clear we had to keep our reservation because we had a special price we got online.
Disheartened, we envisioned a long wait at Termini, and the two of us set off in search of food and a restroom.
We walked down a narrow hallway and discovered a small snack shop, where we took turns using the few euros we’d brought from home to get something to eat. While Leslie ate, I headed for a nearby restroom. Employing the very useful phrase “Dov’è …?”, I followed the route described by a friendly clerk and was startled to discover an enormous and busy part of the station we hadn’t known existed. Hundreds of travelers were milling around, eyes focused on a huge arrivals-departures board on the wall above some ticket windows.
I went back for Leslie, and we quickly saw that several trains would be leaving Rome for Florence well before 2:30. But how to exchange our reserved tickets for tickets on one of those? Hopeful travelers like us were grabbing numbers to talk to a ticket agent, and we grabbed a number, too. But the numbers being served were hundreds away from new numbers like ours.
Even more disheartened, we resigned ourselves to hours in Termini, probably never getting on any train earlier than the 2:30 we’d reserved. Just then, an older Italian man suddenly appeared at my elbow. “Can I help you?” he asked.
Who was this stranger offering help? My first thought was that he was a con man hoping to take advantage of a pair of vulnerable American tourists. He seemed to focus especially on me, a woman of a certain age, rather than my attractive younger daughter. Hmmm…was he hoping to be Rossano Brazzi to my Katharine Hepburn?
I must have looked dubious, but I quickly explained our situation, and his English was good enough to grasp the problem. He instantly offered us real help, escorting us out of the enormous room to a Trenitalia office where a clerk immediately exchanged our tickets (for a fee I was happy to pay) and reserved seats for us on the 11:30 fast train to Florence.
But by this time it was nearly 11:25! We had to RUN. So moving even faster than we did to catch the shuttle from Fiumicino, we began running to the platform where the train was about to leave. The kind stranger grabbed one of my wheelies, and the three of us set off. Our wheelies spinning, our hearts racing, Leslie and I boarded the train just in time.
In return for his help, our kind Italian stranger asked only that I look for him at Termini when I returned from Florence and have a drink with him. I’d have gladly done that had I returned to Termini at a time when that might have worked. But I never did, and I departed Termini hoping he knew how very grateful we were for his help.
Our seats on the train were excellent, and our arrival in Florence went smoothly. A taxi took us to our hotel, where we settled in for four wonderful days and nights in that extraordinary city. On our last day, we were hoping to travel by bus to Siena. The weather forecast the night before predicted heavy rain, so we figured we’d stay in Florence instead and hit some museums we’d so far missed.
We left our hotel at nearly 11 a.m., prepared for rain, and were instead greeted by sunshine and wet pavements. The rain had come and gone. We instantly decided to head for Siena and set out on foot for the bus station. We knew it was very close to the train station, so, consulting our map, we aimed for the train station, assuming we could find the bus station from there.
We made tracks and quickly arrived at the train station. But where exactly was the bus station? Its location was NOT obvious, and we frantically searched the area till we found it. We then rushed to the ticket window and somehow managed to explain what we wanted. Cash was required. Did we have it? Rummaging through our wallets, we came up with enough cash to buy the tickets.
The next bus was scheduled to leave within a few minutes, so we tracked down the right bus and clambered on, finding seats just in time. If we’d missed this bus, we’d have been stuck at the bus station for over an hour, losing all that time in Siena. Once again, we barely made our connection. Once again, I felt like the parent in an Amazing Race parent-child team.
The hours we spent in Siena were joyful. Lunch outside, on the terrace of a restaurant facing Il Campo (where the famed horse race, the Palio, takes place every summer), was delightful, and our trek uphill to see Siena’s cathedral was worth every arduous step. But when we checked the bus schedule, hoping to get back to Florence before dark, we found we had to get to our bus stop within minutes. Quickly making our way downhill, relishing the Siena street-scene as we went, we arrived at the bus stop and discovered we had to buy tickets at an underground location beneath it. Down the stairs we went, and again cash was required. I’d used an ATM so cash was no longer a problem. But the adjoining restroom, which we both needed by this time, required not merely cash but correct change! More rummaging, more frantic glances at our watches, till we came up with the right coins and made our triumphal entrance into the restroom. Finally we emerged into the sunlight and climbed onto the bus just in time for our ride back to Florence.
The next morning we were off to the Amalfi Coast by way of Naples. We’d planned to take a fast train from Florence to Naples, then get to the port in Naples to catch a ferry to our destination, Sorrento. The fast train arrived late, but we weren’t worried about making our connection in Naples. Surely there would be more than one ferry going from the port of Naples to Sorrento. Or would there?
Arriving at the Naples train station, we tracked down a tourist office where we were assured that ferries would leave from the port to Sorrento that afternoon. So off we went in a taxi through the chaotic streets of Naples, arriving at the port and eventually finding a ticket window to purchase tickets for the ferry to Sorrento. This time we were actually early and found ourselves waiting outside on the dock. The weather was beautiful, so we didn’t mind a bit. When the ferry arrived, however, we were disappointed to find that we had to sit inside instead of outside on a deck. So we sat inside, defeating the real purpose of taking the ferry instead of the more convenient, and cheaper, train from Naples to Sorrento. Oh well….
The ferry arrived at the port of Sorrento, and we emerged to discover another setback. We had to drag our suitcases uphill to get to the taxi stand. But we made it, and our taxi deposited us at our hotel, a delightful place where we spent four wonderful nights before taking off for Rome.
We ran two fairly frantic “races” before leaving Sorrento. First, we left our hotel early one morning and walked downhill to the port to catch a ferry to Capri. The ferries didn’t leave very often, and we wanted to get an early start. Down by the water, a crowd had gathered, waiting in a long line to board the ferry. We got in line and patiently began to wait. But we soon noticed that everyone else in line was already clutching a ticket for the ferry. We queried others and learned that the ticket booth was a long distance behind us, near the stairs we’d descended a long time before. I stayed in line while Leslie ran back to buy our tickets. Nervously, I watched for her till just about everyone else had boarded the ferry and departure time was only a few minutes away. At last I saw Leslie running toward me, waving our tickets, and at the last possible moment, we boarded the ferry. It left the dock a minute later. An Amazing-Race minute? You bet!
We arrived at Capri and looked around the port for a short time, then purchased tickets (for cash) for a boat trip around the entire island. If weather conditions permitted, we would be able to visit “the blue grotto,” a remarkable spot where small rowboats take four people at a time into the grotto to see the astonishingly “blue” water, a natural phenomenon. So off we went on our tour around Capri. Luckily, conditions allowed us (lying perfectly flat in the rowboat) to enter the blue grotto, our rower singing “Volare” at the top of his lungs while we surveyed the very blue water surrounding us. One of the other passengers in our rowboat was quite hefty, weighing maybe 300 pounds, and I worried about capsizing, but nothing untoward happened, and we made it safely back to the larger boat for the rest of the trip around the island.
Back on the island, we spent the afternoon strolling around its sites, relishing beautiful vistas from various perches above the water. As evening approached, we decided to head back to Sorrento. That meant descending to the level of the port and taking a ferry that would return in time for dinner. As we made our way to where the ferries departed, we saw we had only a few minutes to make the next ferry. Missing it would leave us in Capri for another hour, and we’d seen all we wanted to see. So another race began, and we ran as fast as we could to catch the next ferry. No wheelies spinning behind us, but the race was frantic just the same. We made the ferry with no time to spare and got to Sorrento just as the sun was setting. We trekked back uphill to our hotel, changed for dinner, and selected a charming restaurant, followed by a stroll up and down the busy shopping streets nearby.
No other frenzied races happened during the rest of our time in Sorrento. Our boat trip to and from Amalfi went well, and we easily got to Pompeii and back on the circumvesuviana train (a local line that goes around Mt. Vesuvius on its way to Naples). We left Sorrento on the same train line, leaving lots of time to get good seats on the train (which originated in Sorrento) so we could stash all of our suitcases before anyone else could grab those seats. Arriving in Naples, we again had plenty of time to await our fast train to Rome. The train got to Termini as it was getting dark. We emerged from the train and immediately hopped into a taxi to get to our hotel.
I’ll skip the nightmarish arrival at our hotel in Rome (it’ll appear soon on TripAdvisor). Once we settled into our room, we wandered around the surrounding streets till we were hijacked into eating at a mediocre place for dinner, but we were too tired to find somewhere else. We soon felt energized enough to go elsewhere for gelato. The rest of our stay in Rome, including gelato at least once every single day, was wonderful.
We had only one “race” in Rome, but it was memorable. On our last morning, we had a reservation for the Galleria Borghese, the fabulous art museum in the Borghese Gardens. Patrons are warned that they must arrive on time and are allowed exactly two hours to see the museum before being compelled to leave. Relying on my memory (from a trip 12 years earlier), I optimistically thought we’d have enough time to walk to the museum…but we didn’t start early enough. We set out after breakfast for the Spanish Steps, a relatively short walk from our hotel, planning to make our way to the Galleria from there. But we didn’t walk as fast as we thought we would, and we kept checking the time on our watches as we approached the Spanish Steps. We climbed the seemingly endless stairs to get to the top, but by the time we arrived there, out of breath, the chances of getting to the museum on time seemed unlikely. Suspecting that we might need a taxi, we darted into the posh hotel at the very top, the Hassler, to ask for advice. A charming doorman who spoke English (of course– it was the Hassler) checked his watch and the time on our reservation, and he confirmed our suspicions. If we continued on foot, we’d never get to the museum on time. He led us, looking mighty shabby for patrons of the Hassler, to a waiting taxi, and off we went to the Borghese Gardens, arriving at the museum with only a few minutes to spare before our entry time.
The museum was worth the anguish it took to get there, and the rest of our day was filled with a multitude of wonderful sights and sounds in Rome, ending with dinner outside at a delightful restaurant in the Campo de’ Fiori. We staggered back to our hotel and headed for bed, knowing we had to be up early for our flight home. You can be sure we allowed plenty of time to get to Fiumicino without needing to race there! And we did.

 

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2 responses to “Italy Was Amazing, and So Were We

  1. What an adventure! It does sound amazing. So glad that you shared this!

  2. I’ve visited most of these places and loved your humorous “game show” take on the uncertainties of travel with a real & original emphasis more on the journey than the destination. Your entry makes me want to enter the competition again.

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