July 4, 2007 After being on tour for fifty straight days, it is nice to be home for a month. I guess you can call it taking a vacation from vacationing. The long slog wasn’t that bad since I was traveling with good people throughout. There were only six of us for the first part of the Greece tour and we had a rather inauspicious beginning. Since we were coming into Athens at different times, we needed to take individual taxis in from the airport. None of the taxi drivers, not a single one, knew where our hotel was located in Athens. All of them had to call various people–mine asked at least three other cab drivers–before finally making it to the Hotel Arion.
Their confusion was understandable since the hotel was relatively new and the outside was less than inviting. It consisted of a narrow, barely visible entry, flanked by stores in varying states of disrepair. But once inside, we found a cheery, modern interior, complete with very much appreciated air conditioning. And within a block, the somewhat decrepit street opened up onto a delightful piazza. We ate our dinners there.
Our visit to the Parthenon was somewhat marred. First, it was the hottest day of the year, and proved to be the hottest day on the tour. However, the main problem was the scaffolding that covered more than half of the structure. Scaffolding is a fact of life when visiting the old structures in Europe, but this seemed a bit excessive. The little museum at the site was also compromised since half the rooms were closed after they moved the contents to the new museum adjacent to the site. This museum is scheduled to open in the near future. I guess I will need to plan another trip to Athens after all.
And, if we return to Athens, then a repeat of the overnight ferry ride to Crete is in order since this proved to be a much better experience than I first envisioned. Hey, we even had showers in our cabins. Crete is one of my favorite destinations and next time I would like to revisit Chania as well as Heraklion. The island of Santorini deserves another visit, along with Rhodes. Not sure that I will repeat the Classic Circle of Epidaurus, Micenae, Olympia and Delphi since I think now just about everyone on the BET list has taken that excursion.
In Turkey, we had a great guide, Mehmet Tetik, and the pace of the tour was infinitely better than in 2001. Taner Sarac, whose services I used for both tours, did not understand the first time around that we didn’t measure the quality of a tour by the number of miles covered in a short period of time: we spent far too much time on the bus. This time I built in four days in Istanbul instead of three as well as nine days outside of Istanbul instead of six. Taner is quite a character–any of you who were on the 2001 tour undoubtedly remember him. Well, now his hair has turned totally grey and to compensate(?!), he has it spiked in the trendy fashion of the twentysomething crowd. His companion of the moment may or may not qualify for that grouping since I’m not sure she has had her twentieth birthday yet. His long-suffering wife gave up years ago and they are now divorced.
After bidding farewell to the Greece/Turkey group in Istanbul, I flew directly to Rome and met fourteen University of Texas at San Antonio students along with their professor, Dr. Molly Zaldivar. Our plan was to meet in Rome, spend the night, take a walking tour of Rome in the morning and then depart at 2:30 to drive to Sarnano for two weeks. What we did not know was that this would be the day that George W. Bush would choose to meet the Pope. Mass demonstrations were scheduled with one march beginning within two blocks of our hotel. (After I met the group in the hotel lobby and announced the news of the demonstrations to the group, two middle-age American couples who overheard me asked, “Where do we meet? How do we join the protest?”) Needless to say, our leisurely morning walking tour was severely compromised. Well-armed security forces allowed us no closer than a half a block of one of our destinations, Santa Maria della Vittoria, so seeing Bernini’s Ecstacy of St. Teresa was not a possibility. We retraced our steps and instead visited Santa Maria Maggiore and then St. Peter in Chains where the students got to see the Michelangelo statue of Moses which bears a striking resemblance to Charlton Heston when he played that role many, many years ago. Meanwhile, I had called the bus company and instructed them to get to Rome ASAP. The group was packed and out of town at 1:10. By 2:00, Rome was completely shut down.
The students, along their teacher, were a bit rattled by all of the firepower in evidence–troop carriers, Carabinieri, various military units, police of every ilk, all armed to the teeth with riot gear, submachine guns and so on. I pointed out that while most of the protesters were legitimate, angry at Bush for the war in Iraq, there were any number of people who have made it their life’s work to travel around the world and show up at any demonstration simply to create havoc. Also, the Italian officials wanted to make sure that “W” got in and out of town safely, tourism be damned.
The students’ reaction to my little town of Sarnano really surprised me. I like Sarnano because it is quiet and peaceful, but I wasn’t sure how university age students would respond to the isolation. They loved it–they even found some night life! And my concerns about their staying in a family run hotel, complete with a six-year old and a toddler, also proved unfounded. We all attended the party celebrating Elena’s sixth birthday, and when I went back to the hotel after the tour, Chiara, the toddler, saw me and her face lit up and she ran off looking for all of her buddies. She was most disappointed when she figured out that I was the only one who had returned.
Naturally, we didn’t stay in Sarnano the entire time. I booked excursions to the nearby castle town of Caldarola, the Roman site of Ubs Salvia, and an important medieval city, Ascoli Piceno. Unfortunately, when we visited Urbino, my string of having wonderful city tour guides came to a sad end, broken, shattered, suffering an agonizing two-hour death. Our guide’s learned presentation on the whys and wherefores of the transformation from the Medieval to the Renaissance probably would have been much appreciated in a comfortable lecture hall with some slides and perhaps a Q&A session afterwards. But we were expecting a city tour and standing around for two hours, often baking in the sun, just didn’t cut it.
We also returned to Rome for one day and Dr, Zaldvar arranged for us to be let in the back door of the Vatican as guests of one of the museum curators. Trust me–this was a much better way to get into the Vatican than standing in the interminable line outside.
Which brings me to the subject of mass tourism. Since the course for the students was entitled, Love and Death in Renaissance Art and Literature, we needed to travel to Florence. I have vowed many a time never to go to Florence except in the dead of winter. There was no choice this time–if you want Renaissance, you have to do Florence. Omygod, the lines, the crowds, the clueless. (“Like, you know what I’m saying? Totally awesome.”) I was unable to get reservations for the Uffizi, but figured that my trick of showing up late in the day would work. Well, it did, sort of, as we only waited 45 minutes instead of the norm of two hours. With this in mind, I secured group reservations for the Accademia which contains the Michelangelo David. For people without reservations, the line stretched all the way around the block, a wait of well over two hours. Meanwhile, one could walk right into the Bargello (Renaissance sculpture), the Museo del Duomo (containing, among other treasures, a Michelangelo Pieta which, to me, is far more moving than the one in St. Peter’s), the Medici Tombs, the Archaeological Museum, and so on. The Uffizi and the Accademia are on every “must see” list. The other museums, world class in every way, are hardly mentioned. Pity.
Rome is a little better since it is bigger, thus the crowds are a bit more diffuse. But there are still major jams to get into either the Vatican Museums or St. Peter’s. The Sistine Chapel is the draw for the former, and I can only guess that the increased lines for St. Peter’s are to see the tomb of the late Pope, John Paul. But I wonder: why, why, why can’t the Vatican devise a system for reservations? Is it really in their best interests having geriatric nuns passing out from heat prostration while waiting to get in? The Borghese Galleries require reservations–no reso, no entrance. It costs a bit more, but you show up at your assigned time, go straight in and enjoy the museum for your allotted two hours. The reservation system also controls the numbers. You can actually walk around the museum. There is no such luxury in the Sistine Chapel.
Which brings me to the Abruzzo and Croatia tour–great food, beautiful scenery, wonderful historical sites, and no clueless crowds. I hope you can join us! Meanwhile, have a great 4th of July celebration. (back)