Giro d'Italia

random trip report

[Click images for large version and again for full resolution]

Some Cortina photos by Enrico Maioni

How is it that I've never been to Italy, never reveled in the roots of Western civilization, never climbed the ghostly Dolomites? I aim to remedy these omissions, and hear some ancient music, all in one tightly-scheduled trip.

22 July

I arrive at SFO with 3 hours to spare. The flight (United, 777) is OK except I'm next to the usual Wide-body Male who dominates the armrest, forcing me to sit with arms crossed. I watch a great HBO comedy special by Mark Moran and part of a bad Chinese sci-fi film. The noise-canceling headphones I bought this morning at Target work OK for the movies, but plugged into my phone they just produce white noise - WTF?

23 July

On arrival in Rome, there's the usual 'passport control' clusterfuck. Glad to see the U.S. doesn't have a monopoly on this.

I get my suitcase pretty quickly and buy a train ticket to Roma Termini. The long walk to the train station goes outside, where it's very hot (~100 deg). I follow the signs, which lead to a single tiny elevator. I'm drenched with sweat. I just miss the train and wait 30 min. The train is wonderfully air conditioned. The ride is scenic: acacia trees and fields of rolled hay.

I've installed my Europe SIM card and it works, at least for data, so Google Maps works. This allows me to find my hotel reasonably quickly. The hotel - Casa per Ferie Domus Helena - is Franciscan-related; it's minimal but nice. It's close to the train station, and a 20-min walk from the nearest tourist attractions like the Coliseum - far enough that there are few tourists around here. Highly recommended. Also, it's at the intersection of Via Ferrucio and Machiavelli - two of my favorite names.

I take a shower and try to make phone calls with the SIM card. No go. After ~1 hour with lame 3rd-world customer support, it turns out that the SIM card only provides local calls. For others you need to 'top up', i.e. pay more. False advertising; I leave a negative review on Amazon.

I walk through a park with Nero-related ruins (and a modern basketball court) to the Coliseum.

Coliseum in background

This is encircled by thousands of tourists and even more discarded water bottles. It's also encircled by barriers and fences; you need to buy a ticket to go in. Same with the nearby Roman Forum. Not really my scene.

Click to see details

I walk to a small church with some big paintings.

Then I walk to the Santa Maria Maggiore church, stopping to get a gelato (crema, good). I go to a restaurant facing the church, and have a beer and bruschetta; I also order spaghetti con cacia e pepe but it hasn't arrived after 40 min (others diners arrive, order, eat, and leave) so I pay and leave, considerably irritated.

Fortunately there's a pizza place around the corner, with many delicious-looking varieties on display. You can get it to go, paying by weight. I get funghi with cherry tomatoes and ricotta - extremely good.

I head back to the neighborhood of my hotel, and to a nearby bar (the Callimaco) which has outside seating, an IPA on tap, and a friendly waitress and bartender.

Butterfly IPA - gluten-free but good

I have the IPA, eat my pizza, and Skype with Maryse. I enter a blissful state. There's something about traveling to new places that I absolutely love.

I look on the web for classical music activity, but there doesn't seem to be any; just the tourist events where they serve dinner, then musicians dress up in period costumes and play Vivaldi. There's a conservatory (Santa Cecilia) but their next scheduled event is an accordion festival in October.

Monday 24 July

I sleep remarkably well, with the help of a Unisom, until 7 AM.

The hotel breakfast is excellent by American standards, average by European. I focus on pastries and espresso drinks (4 of them).

I scan the map and make a list of attractions. By now it's about 10; I have 5 hours to kill before the bike tour. I walk down Via Merulana, trying to relax and not sweat. I pass a church in which a funeral is winding up.

I visit the vast Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, which has elevated security: you go throw a scanner, and there are a couple of soldiers with guns.

This is actually a church

Not sure I'd trust him around kids

Plastic chairs seem out of place

There's an adjoining cloisters, with an audio tour available for E6. I'm in time-killing mode so I go for it. It's actually pretty interesting. There's a rock on which Roman soldiers supposedly tore Christ's cloak into 4 pieces, a former papal throne, and lots of decorative stuff.

Note diversity of pillars

Cloak rock

The big-ass Lateran Obelisk; note heiroglyphs

I continue past the Coliseum to the Basilica del Santi Cosma e Damiano, a small chapel whose half-dome chapel ceiling is painted in a beautiful blue. However, it's dark; there's a machine where you can put E0.50 to turn on the lights for 50 seconds. Has it really come to this for the Catholic church?

Lights are off in this pic

Coin machine at lower left

I sit outside the church, overlooking the Forum ruins, and enjoy my lunch of leftover funghi pizza from yesterday. I refill my water bottle from a handy mini-fountain (see Notes below).

I continue, heading up a hill toward the Campadogli. There's an overhead view of the Forum excavation.

Click to see detail

I go to the Piazzo Capitolino, which Michelangelo designed.

I consider going to the Musei Capitolini but line is long. Instead, I visit the nearby Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara coeli, which has a lot of glass chandeliers.

Heading downhill, I visit an archeological museum at Carcere de Mamertino Prison, where condemned prisoners where held (i.e. incarcerated).

By now it's around 2PM so I head over to the bike rental place (TopBike, on Via Labicana). It's a hole in the wall with a cavernous warehouse in the back with lots of bikes.

There are only 2 other people on the tour: Tracy and Mark, from Tennessee. They look like a couple but are in fact mother and son. We get our Cannondale electric bikes and ride them briefly in the warehouse. It's instantly clear that Mark doesn't know how to ride. There's some hasty talk with the proprietors; Mark is scratched from the trip and there's a partial refund.

The guide, Bita, is a young Italian woman. She, Tracy and I head out on the bike tour. Tracy arrived in Rome this morning, and is sleep-deprived and exhausted. Her riding is a little shaky and she has to use her hands on walls a few times. The day is hot (90s) but much windier than yesterday, and on the bikes it's quite comfortable.

Bita, me, and Tracy at start of tour

The tour is absolutely effing fantastic. We ride mostly on little back streets and pedestrian lanes. There's a verdant 'art street' where Picasso lived, and a high-fashion street. We go to a dozen or so destinations, some of them well-known (Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon) others less so. At each of these, we park the bikes and Bita gives us a short history lecture. She's very knowledgeable and passionate about Roman history.

Trajan's column, an obelisk that pictorially tells the store of some war in a long spiral band.

The Vittoriano, or 'Altar of the Fatherland':

At Trevi fountain, Bita tells us the approved method of throwing coins, which I put into practice.

Bita says they get about E4000 of coins every day, draining the pool to collect them.

Spanish steps: there's heightened security because a couple of drunken tourist damaged them by riding a motorcycle on them.

We go through the Piazza del Populo, with an Egyptian obelisk that was transported here by elephant.

Twin (but not identical) churches at Piaza del Populo

My favorite stop is Villa Borghese Park, which features tree-lined lanes (with extremely noisy cricket-like insects), lots of statuary, and a beautiful lake with Greek mini-temple.

Not the golden ratio

There's a stretch of straight road; I challenge Bita to a race and show off by standing up and blasting 100 yards. They're stunned. Tracy says I seem to have infinite energy, and attributes it to my rock climbing.

There's a little cafe in the park. Tracy and I get a drink (I have grapefruit juice) while Bita guards the bikes. We talk at some length and hit it off. She's an 11/12 grade teacher of econ and history, retiring in a couple of years. She was engaged to Mark's father, but broke it off and raised him herself, though the guy was still involved. Mark is going to law school in Nashville. I really like both of them, and would happily have dinner with them, but their hotel is distant and they're getting a cab.

She and Mark had visited London pre-COVID. On this trip they're continuing to Florence and Venice, then flying back a week from tomorrow. We talk briefly about politics (and racism) but agree that we're in Rome to get away from that crap.

We ride to the Terrazza de Pincio, overlooking the Piazza del Populo

A busker with a guitar is singing Italian songs. Some distance away, three women on a bench are singing along lustily. I try to get a video but mess up somehow :-(

We stop at the Fontana del Fiumi; a sculpture represents the 4 known continents:

We stop at the Pantheon, which has long lines

and the nearby Basilica of Saint Mary of Minerva, a Gothic style church.

We ride through the old Jewish ghetto; they were confined here starting in 50 AD, and killed if they were outside the walls at night.

We ride past Teatro di Marcello, a Coliseum-like structure completed in 12 BC with a newer layer of apartments on top (which sold for ~E20M each). Bita points out that development in Rome is lasagna-like: new structures built on top of older ones. Outside, a guy is tuning a Kawai grand piano.

Piano tuning in progress

Note apartment layer

We ride up Campidoglio hill from the west side

and enjoy the view from Piazzale Caffarelli.

We head back. I chat with Bita. She's a masters student in a history/sociology field at a local university, and is thinking of starting her own bike tour business after graduating.

At the rental shop, I ask them if I can tip Bita by card, but it's not allowed. I chat with Mark. After a couple of hours practice, he is comfortable turning left - but not right. He's athletic - a runner - but just never learned to ride. He would not have survived on the tour, which had lots of tricky riding.

We all say goodbye a bit sadly - little bonds have formed on all edges. I walk back to the hotel, noting a small empty restaurant on the corner; I'll go there later.

I chat with the front desk guy, take a shower, lie down for a while, and head out again. The small restaurant is now wildly popular - there's a line down the block! So I continue down Machiavelli, passing the bar, and stopping at a place that specializes in seafood. So I get the linguine with seafood and the insalata mista. The pasta is good but the seafood requires messy manual labor, like shelling shrimp. They charge me for a 66cL beer but bring me a 33cL one. Whatever.

I return to the bar (Callimaco) and have another IPA; the bartender recognizes me from last night. There's a table of 5 hunky young men, talking somewhat loudly. I Skype with Maryse and move to a quieter table. Then 6 young women take over the table next to me. They talk, but they're not shriekers like we have in the U.S.

Tuesday 25 July

Sleepless night - Mompou playing in my head all night. I take another unisom at 2 AM but it has no effect. Turns out I forgot to take my Trazodone and melatonin.

I hang out in the breakfast room for a couple of hours, working on this report. I check out Teatro Marcello (site of yesterday's outdoor piano), see that there's a concert there tonight, and get a ticket (E19 for 'back rows'; it's E36 up front).

I take the Metro to the Ottavanio station, near the Vatican. Aside: Google Maps needs some work. With multi-leg trips (walk/subway/walk) it fails to go into pedestrian mode, and generally acts weird.

Vatican City.

It's hot, and soon I'm sweating again. I locate the tour meeting point with an hour to spare. I find a restaurant that's air conditioned; the host sees how much I'm sweating and puts me right in front of the AC. I get pasta with bacon, pecorino, and tomato (good and extremely hot - this seems to be the norm here) and a small beer.

I meet the tour group, which is led by a delightful Roman woman named Tatania. The group is 17, including a party of 10 Indians. There are radio earpieces so we can all hear Tatania over the din.

We do a fairly complete tour of the Vatican museums (there are 10 of them) as well as the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's cathedral. We linger a while in the Raphael rooms (which are my favorite) and spend 15 min in the Sistine Chapel (with several hundred other tourists, packed in like cattle in a stockyard). Other than that we pretty much zip by everything, especially the somewhat incongruous modern art section and Matisse room.

The zoo room

Nice quads

Mostly it's not air conditioned. The heat is stultifying. I'm drenched with sweat; I guzzle water constantly and hope I don't collapse or something. Physically, it's way harder than yesterday's bike trip, and (I'm guessing) the upcoming rock climbing and hiking.

The tour ends at St. Peter's cathedral.

I chat a little with Tatania, who's in her late 30s and has a 10 month old child. I encourage her to visit SF.

Piazza in Vatican city

Now I need to get to Teatro de Marcello. It's 5 and the concert is at 6:30. I take the Metro to Barberini, then walk a mile or two, passing by Trevi fountain where the narrow street is crowded to the point of claustrophobia. I stop for a gelato.

I get to the Teatro (which is at the base of Campidoglio) in the nick of time, but it turns out the concert isn't until 7:15. I go to a nearby cafe and get a birra piccola and an egg/tomato sandwich. At 7 I go to the venue. There are c. 100 plastic chairs. I have a 'back rows' ticket, but the usher dudes tell me to sit wherever I want.

The concert is violin/piano, but there's an odd intro: a young guy plays blues on a dobro, while an older guy recites poetry in a loud and dramatic voice.

The main act is a young man on violin, woman on piano, maybe conservatory students. A Brahms sonata and a movement from a Sibelius concert, with two solo violin pieces including one of those silly Paganini studies.

The wind picks up, blowing the violin music (which has been taped together into a long strip) all over the place. There are some hasty repairs with clothes pins.

Flocks of raucous seagulls circle overhead. The music blends with traffic noise, including horns and sirens which often are compatible in pitch and rhythm with the music.

The applause is fairly enthusiastic and the guy repeats the Paganini as an encore. The usher asks if I'm staying for the 2nd concert, which is news to me, but in any case I need to go.

I walk back and head for the Callimaco, where I get my usual Butterfly IPA, and some nachos, and Skype with Maryse. I'll miss this place.

Wed 26 July

This time I remember to take my pills, and I sleep fine. I get up at 6:30 and am at the breakfast room when it opens at 7. It's much cooler today. I make it to the train station with an hour to spare. My train is 10 min late; I stand a lot. The train is pretty nice; it has AC power and WiFi.

I work on this report for a couple of hours. The train goes up a long vineyard-filled canyon, and the hills on the side become increasingly steep and rocky. We pass through Trento, which looks pretty quaint. Finally we get to Bolzano. The train station is just a platform alongside the track. The ticket office is busy, and I decide to just take a cab to the airport. Good decision; E20.

The airport is similarly tiny. Looks like one or two prop planes a day. There's a tiny Hertz office in the corner. I get my car easily enough. It's a Fiat Panda, parked among some RVs at the end of the lot. 6-speed manual - takes a few minutes to refamiliarize. There's a USB plug and Google maps plays through the car.

The drive to Cortina ends up taking c. 3 hours due to traffic jams. The first ~50 km are on a 4-lane highway with trucks, then 2-lane roads. It starts to rain, but the sun is out and there's a fabulous rainbow that lasts for about a half hour.

Actual rainbow was much more vivid

Traffic thins out and it becomes a mountain road. Google Maps stops working completely for a while. I reach Cortina, which is not car-friendly. I see the Hotel de la Poste, but there's nowhere to park. I park far away and walk. Turns out they have a free lot, which is tricky to find. It's too late to meet Enrico, my guide.

The Hotel is antiquated. My room faces the main drag and is noisy. The mattress is way too firm. But the WiFi works and the bathtub has Jacuzzi jets.

I walk around the town. It's an upscale ski resort town. Lots of galleries and boutiques, bars and restaurants. I can't find a grocery store.


Thu 27 July

I retire early and fail to sleep because of noise and hard mattress. I'm at the breakfast buffet when it opens at 7. It's about the same as the Casa in Rome.

I meet Enrico, who's about my age. We drive to Cinque Torri (5 towers). The view is stunning. We start with Via Miriam, a 530' 5-pitch climb with a couple of cruxes and an exposed traverse, but mostly straightforward (though since I haven't climbed outdoors in years, it seems pretty hard to me, especially aerobically). I have a slip-and-fall at the 2nd crux but get through it. I use my helmet a number of times.

The traverse

The route went up the middle, then traversed to the left at the overhang 2/3 of the way up

The descent is 2 rappels and some scrambling. I pinch my left hand in the belay device on the first rappel and lose a little chunk of skin.

Me at start of rappel

The area is empty when we get there but soon there are lots of climbers.

We go down the trail a little and do 3 single-pitch climbs. The first two look hard - there are overhangs - but I'm getting the feel of climbing Dolomite and I get up them pretty easily. The third one is hard even for Enrico, and when I try it I can't do the 3rd move, off a slippery side-pull with bad feet - and give up.

The single-pitch routes

We descend to the Cafe (here in Europe there are cafes high in mountains). Enrico buys me a beer. We sit outside on a bench and talk with Yasmin, a very athletic Croat (she does competitive white-water rafting) who is doing a hut-to-hut hike in the Dolomites.

Enrico and I make plans for tomorrow. On advice from Ann, I go the Molo Pub for dinner, and have a bacon burger and a British IPA in a can. Hamburger in Europe tastes different, not sure why.

Dramatic views walking to Molo Pub

Guiding is a tradition in Cortina

Friday 28 July

With the help of a web-based white noise generator and 1.5 sleeping pills, I sleep reasonably well. We need to leave early today because of weather, so I'm at the buffet when it opens at 7AM, eat a lot fast, put some more into a plastic bag, and meet Enrico outside at 7:15.

We drive about 30 min to the base of Tofana di Rozes, a large massif. We do a hike that circumnavigates this, climbing up to the left shoulder, way down to the valley in back, up a 300' Via Ferrata, then up a long steep rocky slope to a refuge on the right shoulder.

Tofana di Rozes; we hiked around it

View from the back side

The via ferrata

Note cool waterfall

The steep part

We stop at the refuge for a beer. They know Enrico there and everything is free. Actually everyone in Cortina seems to know Enrico.

There's a utility gondola - a big metal basket - that is used to supply the refuge. Enrico says that once, in his youth, he and his friends got so drunk at the refuge that the keeper strapped them into the gondola and sent them down that way to avoid mishap.

Blue gondola cart in background

On the way down, we take a detour so that Enrico can collect Edelweiss to put on his father's grave - a yearly ritual. I feel honored to be there. This takes us on faint use trails through lush meadows with lots of flowers.

Enrico drops me off at the hotel. Organ music is coming out of the nearby church so I check it out.

I take off my sweat-drenched clothes and take a hot bath. I turn on the Jacuzzi jets but they're sort of violent, and water sprays all over the place.

I've decided I kind of like the Hotel de la Poste, in spite of the hard mattress. It's ancient - the oldest in Cortina, according to Enrico - and a little funky; the keys look like they're from the 1800s. But the staff tries really hard. When I return to my room, not only is the bed made but all my stuff has been organized and neatened in a pleasing way.

The phone USB cable is missing. I realized it's in the car and get it.

For dinner I go to the bar across the piazza. I have a weird chicken sandwich and a lackluster IPA, then get a gelato and watch tourists go by for a while.

Saturday 29 July

I sleep OK but not great. I meet Enrico at 8AM. On the way out, the doorman says: 'Good morning, Dr. Anderson! Where are you going today - K2 or Everest?'. I warm even further to the hotel.

We decide to do another multi-pitch climb, at a place called Sass de Stria (Witch's Hat Rock - it's pointy).

There was concern about the weather but it's another perfect day; some clouds form mid-afternoon.

It's Saturday so there are lots of climbers; in particular there are ~4 other parties on our route. It's a free-for-all; people just start climbing at the same time, and there are multiple belays from the same place.

Approach to Sass de Stria

Of course, Enrico and I try to pass the slower parties ahead of us. There's a blond woman from Rome who keeps asking her belayer to pull her up by the rope, and she asks me to push her up by her (ample) behind. I decline and pass her on the left.

It's a pretty cool route - a little of everything, including a couple of chimneys and minor cruxes. I'm concerned about the various scrapes on my hands, but these are not a factor and I have a great time.

The descent is a walk-off through some trenches that were carved from the rock in WWI.

Descent via a WWI trench

The Dolomites where part of a front between Austrio-Hungarian and Italian armies, and pretty much all the peaks have bunkers, tunnels, and sniper holes. Enrico says that Italians tunneled to the top of a mountain held by the Germans, and blew it up with 100,000 pounds of explosives. You can see the scar this left.

Aside: war is such a bizarre thing. Preventing it requires a new form of government.

After the trenches, we descend by a 'secret trail' across grassy slopes; Enrico has learned my tastes quickly.

We pass the entrance to a tunnel that goes through the mountain. I turn on my phone flashlight and explore briefly. Enrico says there's a lot of water in the middle.

That's enough climbing for one day. Enrico suggests that we drop in at the (80th) birthday party of a local climber. This is at small hut halfway up the mountain, which Cortina-ites can rent for E25/day.

We're there early. There's another Enrico there - a retired teacher, also a climber.

The two Enricos

There are huge amounts of food and beer, including a Perroni IPA, which is not bad.

There's a stand of pines down the hill, so after having a beer I walk there, lie down on the pine needles, and close my eyes for an hour.

I took a nap here

View from nap

At 2 PM I head back up to the hut. People are starting to arrive - most of them rock climbers between 60 and 80. Tanned men with enormous forearm muscles, big hands, and crushingly powerful grips.

The wife of the other Enrico arrives; she's a professional geologist, and tells me a bit about the geology of the area. It was all originally seabed, and some of the (mountain) structures were originally coral atolls.

I'm a little bored since I can't understand the conversation, but it's nice being in the mountains, and I have nowhere else to go. The 'birthday boy' eventually arrives at 3.

Birthday boy is in green

We hang out for a while, Enrico has a final beer and we head out.

I go to the guide service office and pay (E370 for the first day, E350 for the next two). Well worth it. I was lucky to find Enrico - everyone says he's the best guide around. I also got lucky with the weather.

Enrico and I hang out briefly at the hotel, watching the Alex Honnold movie-review video on my laptop (Enrico was involved in the filming of Cliffhanger) and looking at a few of my travel pics. I try to convince him to visit California someday. He heads off to meet tomorrow's client, and older Japanese man (Enrico guided in Japan for a while).

I've been told that there a free movie/food event at the local climbing gym (Cortina360) so I walk there.

Mini golf on way to gym

River through Cortina; note milky green color

But I don't see evidence of the event, and I hear thunder in the distance, so I walk back. It starts to rain, and I duck into a restaurant for pizza and beer. It rains cats and dogs for an hour. Finally it lets up a little and I walk the few blocks back to the hotel.

Sunday 30 July

Travel day, a bit stressful. I check out of the hotel and head out in the rental car. I stop at a beautiful hiking/camping area.

Memorial to Paul Grohmann, an early climber

Google Maps has issues. Sometimes you're driving along and all of a sudden it shows you alternative routes: tolls or no tools, 14 minutes slower, etc. You don't have time to process this - you're driving. This happens a couple of times, and each time I make the wrong choice. I drive on a frontage road, next to an Autobahn, for about 15 miles.

Finally I get to Bolzano and head for the airport. But I need to get gas, so I ask Google again. The first place is closed from 12 to 14:30, and it's 12:01. So is the second place. The third place takes credit cards - but not mine! It demands a PIN. WTF?!? Can't they get the basic systems of travel to work?

So I give up and go to the airport, tank 2/3 full. The Hertz office is closed. There are some inadequate instructions for returning a car in this case. Fortunately there are a couple of very helpful young women at the airline counter; they also call a cab for me.

I'm at the train station 90 minutes early. I take a short walk and don't find a cafe, so I go to the one in the station, which is poor.

There's a train sitting on the track. It takes me a while to realize that this is Track #1, and there are 4 other tracks that you got to by going down some stairs and through a tunnel, and my train is in fact on Track #3. The word for track is 'gleis', which sure sounds German to me.

So I make it onto the train, which is fast and modern. It's a couple of hours to Verona. I do a week of NYT crossword puzzles.

By now I'm an expert in finding trains. I get on the train to Milan, which is more of a commuter train, crowded and no space for luggage; I wedge my big bag into a nook.

Another couple of hours to Milan. The train station is huge, like in Rome. I manage to find the nearby Metro station. Google Maps tells me to take the M3 train to Turati. I swear it said something completely different before. Anyway, I do this and it's super easy and my hotel (the Cavour, on Piazza Cavour) is just a couple of blocks away.

The hotel is 4 stars, and it's pretty posh. They send me to a room next to a utility closet that emits a loud hum. I demand a different room, and I got one that's fantastic - super quiet, facing a courtyard rather than the street, the AC works, biggest TV I've ever seen in a hotel, reasonably soft bed (though still a bit too firm for my taste).

I relax a bit and look for nearby restaurants. There aren't a lot - this is more of a business district. But that's OK. There's a place right around the corner, La Panadineria, that makes various 'wraps'; I have one with avocado, chicken, lettuce, tomato and mayo that's very good. And they have beer!

Monday 31 July

An email from Hertz says there were E285 of damages on the rental car, which is BS - nothing touched it. Seems like a scam. I contest it (and am vindicated - see below).

I sleep well and enjoy the breakfast buffet. Pro: it has smoked salmon. Con: they give you one cup of coffee. I guess I could ask for more.

At 11 AM I walk past the unimposing La Scala (which is only a few blocks away),

La Scala

then through an impressive covered mall with all the luxury stores, some with odd names.

I locate the meeting place for Duomo tour, which is a coffee place called 12OZ. I have a coffee and donut there, killing time, doing more NYT puzzles.

A guy with an electric guitar and pre-recorded bass/drums does Eagles and Santana type shredding, kind of spoiling the scene for everyone.

The group forms around 2, the guide (let's call him Alberto) passes out tickets and headsets, and we head for the Duomo.

Alberto's English is good but with an accent where each word ends with '-a': I-a think-a you'll-a like-a the-a Duomo-a. He conveys a lot of info. The Duomo is the last major Gothic cathedral (the first was Notre Dame). It was built with marble from distant mountains. They built canals to transport it, though these were covered when cars came along. When Napoleon conquered Italy he wanted a coronation there; they said OK but asked for money to built a new facade, which he agreed to. The new facade is a pastiche of Gothic, Classical, and Baroque.

We tour the inside. The floors are inlaid marble: gray, red, black.

The ceilings are very convincing tromp l'oeil of carvings.

There's a gruesome statue of the flayed St. Bartholomew carrying his own skin.

High above the altar is a red light indicating the position a (supposed) nail from the cross. Each year they lift the bishop up there, and he gets the nail and parades it around.

Gothic architecture allows big windows

The cathedral is oriented precisely east/west. Toward the front there's a metal line in the floor, with the zodiac signs distributed along it. There's a small window in the ceiling, and when the sunbeam cross the line it shows the date. A neat trick, though I think every major civilization has some version of this.

Alberto (who seems pretty skeptical about religion) points out that in 1943, the bishop arranged for the rescue of thousands of Jews. So there's that.

At the altar, Alberto asks us to make a solemn promise before the Virgin Mary. He asks that we promise to not leave Milan without trying the Osso Bucco with saffron risotto. And not at one of the crappy restaurants around the Duomo; he suggests an area called Navigli, where a section of the canals still exist. I agree and take the vow.

We take an elevator up to the roof, and a close-up view of lots of marble spires, gargoyles, buttresses, etc.

Aside: it's pretty damned amazing that they were able to built this immense structure in ~1400, without computers, without a mathematical understanding of engineering, and without steel or concrete. And that it's remained standing ever since, with all sorts of weather and a few earthquakes. It makes me wonder whether there were cathedrals that collapsed, and we don't hear about them.

Alberto points out that the marble from which the Duomo is built weakens in the rain, and has a lifetime of about 150 years. So the Duomo is constantly under repair. There are always scaffolds here and there.

We ascend some stairs to the very top of the roof. There's one final spire with a 15' gold-leaf Virgin Mary on top. They added some lightning rods after the predictable mishaps.

Alberto points out a small sculpture which shows boxers - huh? This was added in 1933 by Mussolini. It represents Prime Carnero (the heavyweight boxer) who symbolized the superiority of the Italian race. Alberto (who is clearly a leftist, i.e. not insane) draws parallels with the current political situation.

The tour ends and we descend via stairs. I head back to the hotel.

At the end of the covered mall I notice a da Vinci museum, and I cough up E16 for a ticket (65+) and audio tour.

The museum is fabulous. da Vinci left 1700 pages of notebooks. They have art drawings, notes, and sketches of machines. These dispersed but were eventually reassembled and preserved. A 'da Vinci Society' digitally enhanced these, figured out what machines the drawings depicted, then built most of the machines. The museum has lots of these: military stuff (a round battleship, a 1-man submarine, a rapid-fire crossbow, a machine gun, a steam cannon), a whole bunch of human-powered flying machines, a screw helicopter, a bunch of bizarre musical instruments, a perpetual motion machine, a robot soldier, a mechanical car intended for theatrical productions, various bridge designs, plans for an ideal city. And so on.

The da Vinci Society people have also used digital techniques to estimate what his paintings (Mona Lisa, Last Supper) looked like when first painted. The results are amazing and beautiful.

It's all great, but I'm getting severe Museum Exhaustion, so I head back to the hotel.

Status of da Vinci across from La Scala

I get a gelato (cioccolata and strachiatelli) and sit in a small park near a Metro station, listening to a guitar/singer busker who is really good for a change.

I relax briefly, Skype with Karen, then head for the nearby Camillo Benso restaurant, where I order - what else? - the osso bucco with risotto.

It's good but not great. At least I've fulfilled my promise to Our Lord and Savior, and his mom.

Back at the hotel, I watch women's archery on Eurosport. Last night was women's fencing - a great sport, though so fast that you kinda need slo-mo. Eurosport is so great!!

Tuesday 1 Aug

I have some time to kill, so I walk to the Navigli area, which was recommended by Alberto yesterday. Once you get away from the Duomo area, the city becomes more gritty and real. The Navigli is the confluence of several canals, with lots of low-key cafes and restaurants.

I sit on a park bench by the river and do crosswords. A Venitian-type gondola is out on the water; the guy in the front seems to be teaching the guy in the back how to use the large oar.

I walk back, stopping near the Duomo for a slice of pizza and eating it at the metro stop.

At 2:30 I head to the bike tour, a few blocks away. It's pretty minimal - a guy (Andreas) with some regular (non-E) bikes, in a park. No helmets. 4 other clients, including Stephanie, a muscular alpha female who runs a gym in Hong Kong and has various life principles tatooed in Morse Code around her upper thigh.

The bike tour is as great as the one in Rome, maybe even more so. We start off going to 'Porto Nuovo', a shiny modern area with skyscrapers and a forested apartment building. There are nice bike paths and even a bike elevator.

The pointy thing in background is the 'Dubai Tower'

Forested apartment buildings; different trees on the 4 sides

We see dozens of tourist-type attractions (the Palace, plazas, statues, churches).

A canal gate; da Vinci added the small door at bottom, allowing it to be operated by 1 man rather than 20

A writer who helped unify the Italian language; the first female in 200 statues in Milan

Manzoni (early novelist)

And lots of Andreas's 'secret places', like a street where all the houses are amazing and wildly different, and a garden with a pool and flamingos (built by a cheese magnate to persuade his wife to move to the city).

Status of the Large Men, the aboriginals of the area

The Palace - butt ugly

Napoleon pointed the horses toward Paris, but they were later turned around

Are my feet really that big?

This is one tree

In the heart of the financial district - in a plaza surrounded by banks and the stock exchange - there's a sculpture of an upraised middle finger. The other fingers are simply cut off.

Andreas points out that the sculpture has two meanings:

  • The finger says Fuck Capitalism.
  • If you added the missing fingers, it would be an upraised hand - the fascist salute. So it's also saying Fuck Fascism.


Like in Rome, the tour is mostly on bike-friendly sidestreets, which are a treat unto themselves.

We go to the Navigli (where I was earlier today) and stop at a little place where a woman makes fruit smoothies. Unfortunately she makes them very slowly. I elect to get a Tamarind soda from a nearby vendor.

A recent storm uprooted lots of trees in Milan, and the major parks (which the tour normally goes through) are closed. But the gate to one park is open, and we ride through it. We have to detour a fallen tree. We reach the other side of the park, and the gate is locked! I point out that the fence next to the gate is low and easily climbable. Andreas and I carry the bikes over the fence.

When we resume, Stephanie says her front brakes are locked and she can't move. There are various attempt to fix this. I notice that the brake cables are wrapped around the front stem; we untwist the handlebars a full turn and all is OK.

I talk at some length with Andreas during the ride. He does the tours and works for a energy bar company, but is not getting ahead. So in September he's going to Australia, possibly for a few years, doing whatever pays well, possibly working on a farm. We kind of click.

The tour ends and we put the bikes in a locker in a deep underground garage. I give Andreas a long handshake and with him well in Australia. Stephanie and the other young woman invite us to get drinks, but we decline.

I walk back to the hotel, past the Steinway store, and I stop for dinner at a sidewalk cafe: spaghetti with cacio e pepe (finally!), a .4L beer, and (on a whim) a piece of strawberry cheesecake, which is remarkably bad; shoulda got the tiramisu.

Wed 2 Aug

I pack up and check out; I'm flying to Toulouse today. Google tells me to take the M3 from Turati to Centrale FS, then another train to the airport. The signage in the train station is beyond bad. There will be a bunch of icon-sign, including an airplane. You go in the indicated direction. After a while, more signs - but no airplane. This happens a few times. I start to get pissed. Finally I ask an employee who points me to the ticket office (which is not marked with an airplane). I get on the 10:25 train. It's a 1 hr trip to the airport (huh? why so far?). There are 2 terminals - fortunately one of the emails said Terminal 1 in fine print.

The walk from the train to the ticket counter is long, like 1 Km. Another Km - through the usual luxury shopping mall - to the gate. Airports like this have an exaggerated sense of their own importance.

I fly to Munich, going over the Alps (which have some snow-capped peaks and a couple of glaciers). Another multi-Km trek to gate G45.

The plane to Toulouse leaves the gate on time, but then parks on the apron for over an hour - something about 'lack of ground staff'. Since my plane/train connection in Toulouse is already pretty tight, I gradually lose hope of making the train, and envision other scenarios - finding a hotel in Toulouse, or sleeping in or around the train station, or Maryse driving 2+ hours to get me (after her concert) and then 2+ hours back.

But then a miracle happens (which I attribute to the Virgin Mary, and the Osso Bucco): the plane lands around 6:30 (an hour late) but my bag emerges reasonably soon (maybe 6:55), and I race to get a cab, and it's not actually that far from the airport to the downtown train station, and the cab driver seems to know shortcuts. The main delays are some absurd red lights and processing my credit card. Anyway, I'm at the train station at 7:22, and I efficiently locate the train and am on it well before the 7:31 departure!

And then there's a second miracle: I get an email from Hertz saying that they've canceled the bogus and fraudulent E285 charge for 'minor damages'.

The train ride to Lourdes is 2 hours. A very young Russian couple in front of me alternately fights and smooches - irritating. Fortunately they get off.

I arrive in Lourdes at 9:40 and Maryse (coming straight from the concert) picks me up at 10:00. At the ancestral home in Silhen are Rosine, Maryse's delightful friend Cheryl (from Naples FL), Toma, Virginie, and their kids Guillaume and Matilde.

Thu 3 Aug

I join Toma and Virginie for a morning jog down to the river, up to a castle on the other side, and back via the hill. ~4 miles and some elevation. Unfortunately I tweak my back (sciatic pain on left side).

Kenneth (the performer in last night's concert - he played Art of Fugue on harpsichord) arrives. I take an immediate liking to him. Several of us hike to the local hilltop. I talk with Kenneth about Internet rehearsal and Music Match.

Rosine takes Kenneth to the airport. Cheryl, Maryse and I go to the village where the 'children's concert' is taking place. It's in a groovy cafe called Le Kairn; there's a stylized cairn out front, and the proprietor (a tall and imposing woman) is named Karin.

The musicians and narrator trickle in. They've sold tickets for 8 children and 17 adults, but over 60 people end up there, and more are turned away. I carry a whole bunch of wooden chairs down and later up some stairs, aggravating my back.

The event is dramatic reading of a story involving bears, with frequent musical interludes. It goes on way too long, and the musical selections are soporific. The kids - ages 1 to 8 - make a variety of noises - mewling, talking, crying screeching - which ebb and flow, sometimes overwhelming the performers.

I sit next to a window, opening it more or less to maintain a stream of fresh air in the overcrowded room. My attention goes out the window, to a young man sitting at a table below. He arrives with a bottle of porter, which he pours into a pint glass and takes a first sip. He pulls a small sketch pad out of his pack, and works on a pen-and-ink sketch of the nearby mountains. He puts this away and people-watches for a little. Then he gazes into the distance - presumably thinking big thoughts.

The event ends. A tall blonde woman with an adorable and well-behaved toddler leaves, and the two of them embrace the young man, who I had assumed was an introspective loner.

I join a few of the musicians for a drink in the cafe. After, Maryse and I have dinner at 'Number 3' in Argeles; very good, but slow service.

Fri 4 Aug

I work on BOINC Mac download issues. I read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's review of 'Barbie' to Cheryl. We all have lunch in the house; I have leftovers from No. 3.

I practice on the keyboard. Toma (who plays piano and violin, quite well) likes Mompou and identifies the Scriabin influence in the Preludes.

Toma and Cheryl explain to me a newspaper called 'Le Canard enchaine' (the Duck in chains) which presents news in a satirical way that pokes fun at both sides (and has exposed many political scandals in the past).

Cheryl tells me about the anti-French prejudice she has encountered in the U.S. This is fueled in part by the right wing. Fox News once showed a map ostensibly showing that parts of France under Shiari law (it was actually a map of areas of poverty from the 1950s). (Aside: there's evil, there's idiocy, and there's the American right wing).

We go to a concert of the Ancient Music Festival, at a church in a nearby village.

Sunset outside the church

Harpsichord, cello, 2 violins, oboe (old-style) and a viola on the last piece. The oboist (Hana) is fantastic. She's a young woman from Holland. On the drive here, her car broke down 300 Km away and her parents had to drive for hours to rescue her; the fate of the car is uncertain.

The keyboard player (Heidi) calls Maryse before the concert to report that a string (well, 3 strings) have broken. Maryse infers that this happened while Heidi was tuning it, for who knows what reason.

Sat 5 Aug

Hike down to the river. Rehearsal in the Saint Savin church, followed by a backyard cookout at the house of Jacques, one of the patrons of the series.

Sun 6 Aug

Dress rehearsal in Saint-Savin in the morning, cut short by a baptism.

We do a short hike on the road toward Hautacam. Then back to Saint-Savin at 7 for the rest of the rehearsal, followed by the festival's final concert at 8:30. This concert features a singer, from Barcelona, with a powerful operatic voice. And also Clea, a Brazilian recorder player, whose playing is embellished with lots of ornaments.

The plaza in Saint- Savin

After the concert there's a party in the town hall. The Mayor gives a short speech. I talk with Clea, who also plays Choro music and used to come to Berkeley pre-COVID. I also talk with Hana (who's slightly taller than me) and tell her about Free Solo. I talk a little with Diane, who dances and plays violin and harpsichord. She lives in Versailles.

Mon 7 Aug

We drive to San Sebastien and find the Hotel Okako (it helps to have a GPS). It's in the part of the city on the E side of the river. This area has few tourists or pintxos places, but has a lot of bakeries; I like it.

We walk to the old town (tourist area).

Sand art on Playa de la Concha

We hear an organ concert at the main cathedral. Daniel Roth; Saint-Saens, Franck, Widor, original composition, Mendelssohn. Very good; video on big screen in front.

We have pintxos before the concert, and go to another very crowded and noisy place after. I order 'lemon pie', which turns out to be kind of soup with the components of lemon meringue pie. We chat with a table of 4 large blonde people from Texas.

I get gelato at one of the places in 'gelato plaza', where the large Deco gazebo is.

Tue 8 Aug

Google Maps shows an area of forested hills NE of town, with trails, so we head there. An extremely nice trail goes along the top of cliffs overlooking the ocean. We pass a peninsula with ruins; next time go there.

The peninsula; click to see ruins

On the way back we have lunch (fried squid, tempura veggies, and a beer) at a cafe on a plaza. After a rest, we walk to the beach (Zurriola) and go for a dip. We walk to the old town and have dinner at Atari, across from cathedral: small plates (beef cheek, pork belly, shrimp, fish). It's crowded but oddly quiet.

Wed 9 Aug

We walk to Mt. Orgull, visit the interesting San Sebastien historical Museum, and climb up to base of the giant Jesus statue. Due to some acoustic effect, voices from the distant Playa de la Concha are audible.

Note cannons

We have a nice lunch (tomato salad with tuna, and bread), and drive back to Silhen.

Thu 10 Aug

We drive to Ville Longue (long town: it's strung out over 1 Km of road). We hike up a steep trail between fields, then on road, then on trail through dense vegetation, over a stream, and up to the ruins of an old church.

Ruins in background

Viscos is the pointy peak

Argeles in background

We drive to Pau airport on A64 to greet Daniel and Cori, then to Adrian's house. We eat dinner at a deserted Indian restaurant (Bollywood) and return via back roads and central Lourdes.

Fri 11 Aug

We drive through Argeles to an area called Bergons, drive up a gravel road, then take a nice hike up to a peak called Bazes. The last Km or so is steep and rocky, and requires using all fours in places. There's a big swarm of flies at the very top.

Note swarming flies

On the way down, a flock of sheep moves to a new meadow.

... and some cows meander down the road.

Daniel, Cori, and Katrin arrive in Silhen. We cook 3 fat trout for dinner.

Sat 12 Aug

I rent a bike in Argeles at 2 PM and ride up Hautacam, a nearby peak. It's 8.5 miles and gains 3,542': average 8% grade, with long stretches above 10%. A good description of the route is here. It was the conclusion of stage 18 of last year's Tour de France; I was a spectator.

The bike is uncomfortable. The handlebars are low so there's lots of weight on my hands, which go numb and cramp up. The seat is angled so that most of the weight is on my scrotum. There are no pedal clips. And it's a mountain bike with big knobby tires (high friction).

It's hot, and I heat up and sweat a lot. Occasionally a mixture of sunscreen and sweat from my forehead drips into my eyes and makes them burn; I stop to wipe off a few times.

Hautacam; I rode up from the valley

There are lots of cars, and a few bikes. Riders with fancy road bikes pass me, as does a woman gaily pedaling an electric bike, who says something cheery to me in French.

The climb is comparable to Mt. Diablo, which I did last fall, but the above factors wear me down. I take increasingly frequent breaks to let the circulation return to my crotch and hands. With 1.5 miles (and about 1000' vertical) to go, my body emphatically says 'No Mas'. I turn around and descend at high speed in about 15 minutes.

I turned around here

I'm back in Argeles around 5. I have the bike until 6 so I ride down the bike path along the river, looking for the bike-friendly cafe from last summer. I don't make it that far. I turn around, and ride back to the bike store. There's a bakery next door and I enjoy a chocolate eclair and orange juice.

My body is pretty wiped out. I lie down for about an hour. Dan makes an excellent salad (sort of Nicoise) for dinner.

Cori's mother and cousin (Carol and Donna) arrive from NJ late at night.

Sun 13 Aug

Big family outing to a hike from Point de Espagne. Three cars; the logistics are complex.

Observation: in a large-group situation like this, things should ideally be done in parallel. But that isn't what happens.

We stop in Cauteres (ski town, sort of like Cortina) for food; Dan and Cori rent a pack to carry Katrin.


We convene at the parking lot, take the chairlift up, walk to the lake, and have a picnic.

A man sleeps on the grassy stream bank, contorted, butt crack showing; it's not clear what's keeping him rolling into the water.

Maryse and I continue a mile or so up the trail toward Vignemale, stopping at a large flat rock by the stream.

On the way down there's a cool 'sea of clouds' phenomenon.

Mon 14 Aug

Travel day to Paris. Rosine, Maryse and I go to Carrefour to shop for tonight's dinner. There will be 15 people - Adrian and family are coming from Pau.

I chat for a while with Donna about her time in Greece and Spain. She's one of those people who seems to have seen and done it all.

I catch the train from Lourdes to Montparnasse (1st class; WiFi and AC power; sweet). I walk through lengthy tunnels to the M4 metro. I buy a ticket, and it doesn't work in the turnstile. I buy another ticket, identical-looking, and it does.

I get out at Denfert-Rochereau, cross a square to the OrlyBus stop, get another ticket, and get on the articulated city-style bus. It's full, so I stand in the middle for the ~30 min ride. The bus leaves you off at Terminal 1. I look around. There are no signs for hotel shuttles. Eventually I see a sign for 'Airport Hotels', in terminal 4, which is a 1 Km walk. Turns out the sign is for on-site hotels, not shuttles. There's a bus stop with 6 stops for city buses. I locate an info display inside, and after grappling with a bizarre UI discover that hotel shuttles leave from bus stop #6.

WTF?? Can't the people who design these systems do some minimal level of user testing? Oh well.

As a final insult, the shuttle drops me not at my hotel (the Ibis Orly Tech) but at the Mercure, 100m away.

The hotel is minimal but fine, except that EuroSport doesn't work. I eat a sandwich that I got at Montparnasse, then walk to the Mercure for a beer. I sit at a table (they're almost empty) but the waitress says I have to sit at the bar. Whatever. I drink my beer (IPA, B-), give her a cold look, and leave.

Tue 15 Aug

I sleep well, wake up early, and head to the breakfast buffet to eat and take some food for the plane. The buffet is also B-. There's a basket of hard-boiled eggs which turn out, when I crack one, to actually be raw (there's a simmering machine next to them).

The airport is a bit of a madhouse (though nowhere near as bad as Toronto last year). My airline, French Bee, is connected with Air Caraibe, and there's a flight to Port au Prince with hundreds of people carrying astounding amounts of baggage, some of it in heavily taped cardboard boxes.

Fortunately my ticket is 'premium class' (or some other elitist term), and I get steered toward shorter lines to check my bag (which takes 5 seconds, after a 10 min wait). Security is easy, but getting there is an obstacle course of passages and empty rat mazes, which I'm tempted to short-circuit but think better of.

The flight home (10'45") is delayed for an hour, but is pleasant. We fly by Mt. Shasta.

I BART home. The train is filthy and tattered - what is this country coming to? I'm completely exhausted but managed to stay awake until 11 PM.


Rome is tourism-intensive but (like many such places) doesn't accommodate tourists very well:

  1. No public restrooms.
  2. No benches.
  3. Trash cans are sparse and always overflowing.
  4. No drinking fountains. (However, there are occasional low water spigots that run constantly, and are handy for refilling water bottles. Bita shows us that if you cover the spout with your hand, the water comes drinking fountain style from a small hole higher up the pipe. The Romans say that only dogs and tourists drink from the spout.)

As a result of 3) and 4), there are lots of empty plastic water bottles on the ground.

The amount of history embodied in the buildings and ruins of Rome is staggering, but it leaves me a little cold. History is the same thing over and over: assholes kill other assholes, oppress the masses, and build monuments to themselves.

And then there's the Catholic church. You can say a lot of bad things about it; it's built on lies, hypocrisy and theft, and has done countless terrible things. But it's provided continuity to 2000 years of history, its power structure has generally been (I think) less corrupt than most governments, and it was responsible for the creation of some great art and architecture (music, not so much).

To my eye, stereotypes about Italians no longer hold: They don't dress better than the rest of us, they don't talk with their hands while yelling, and the women are not uniformly beautiful.

This trip was a psychological roller-coaster, a pastiche of elation and depression. The expectations were high: at my age there are only a few trips like this left, and they're supposed to be life-affirming Peak Experiences. This can lead to 'Is that all there is?' feelings.

Also, traveling alone is kind of weird. No one travels alone. But I do - what does that say about me?

I had a lot of time to kill on this trip. I did ~100 NY Times crossword puzzles on my phone. Note to self: remember what it's like to not speak the language for long periods.

Cash isn't needed anymore. I paid for everything - even a E2 can of soda - with my Visa.

There are more IPA options than last year. They're mostly at the Lagunitas level - better than nothing, but not great.

Copyright 2024 © David P. Anderson