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The Virgin Voyage - 1998

Shannon

100+ Posts
Trip Description: In the Fall of 1998, two Italy-virgins venture into heaven and come back changed.

Getting There

There is nothing like that first trip to Italy. The virgin’s trip is imprinted in the mind more than all the trips to follow, combined. It’s a beautiful feeling, that discovery, and no matter how many times you go back, even to new towns, you never get that “it’s my first time” feeling again.

Well, at least I don’t, or haven’t. In that frame of mind, here is the report of my very first trip, when my bosses Donna and Elliott took me on an all-expense paid trip to celebrate my 10-year anniversary at the company I for which I work.

I was responsible for all the planning, and I was encouraged to bring a friend. So I started planning, and my friend Lisa signed up for the ride. Lisa was my best friend and a lot of fun, so I knew she was the one to accompany me on the journey.

Planning in 1998 was sure a lot different than it is now. There weren’t so many internet travel sites and message boards. Booking was done by phone and fax. We read BOOKS! For that first journey, like many first time European travelers, I used the Rick Steves Italy Guide, and also the "Open Road" Italy Guide, which is really a fabulous book that I have used many times since. It’s hard to believe now, but at the time I was totally clueless about where to go. We'd be doing the big three (Rome, Florence and Venice) for a few days each, but had one-nighters in Sorrento and Montalcino, and three days in Verona.

Looking back at this now I am shaking my head, but in reality it worked and in reality, it was great. I could never do this now, but ignorance is bliss.

Lisa and I flew over on Lufthansa, and had one night alone in Rome before Donna and Elliott came to join us. We loved that first transatlantic flight – the thrill of free, decent wine just about put us over the edge. I don’t think I slept a wink, and before we knew it we were in Rome.
 

Shannon

100+ Posts
Rome

Already the anal traveler, I managed to get Lisa and I out of the airport, onto the train, into a cab, and at the front door of the Hotel Romano fairly effortlessly. The Hotel Romano, on (our words) Chaos Street, was across from a traffic circle that was like nothing we’d ever seen before, and I’m not sure I’ve seen a traffic circle like it, since. Could be that virgin thing going on – the first traffic circle in Italy is always the most memorable. From our room, we had a view of Chaos Street, the traffic circle, and slightly in the distance, the Vittorio Emmanuel building. I know this building gets a lot of grief for being ugly, but at the time, it was pretty impressive.

I almost immediately went across the street to a little deli and bought a bottle of wine, thrilled and astounded, of course, by the breadth of selection and the low prices in what seemed to be a simple market and deli on Chaos Street. Lisa and I rested and drank it in our room. I can’t tell you how blown away we were already, and it had only been a couple of hours.

At dusk we ventured out for exploration and dinner. Right by our hotel, we stumbled upon one of those excavated areas, the ones that have all the ruins coming up and colored lights shining on them. We looked at the ruins, and looked at each other, our jaws dropping and our eyes about to pop out of our heads. I will never forget seeing what I saw, that first night in Rome.

We wandered. We passed a bizarre looking bar called “Queen Lizard” that was not open for the evening yet. “We have to go back there,” I told Lisa, but I could not find it later that night. We had a lame touristy dinner, nothing special, but one of the street vendors with lighters that look like phallic shotguns came around and we bought some stuff from him. When you are a virgin, you don’t know any better. Then we hit a couple of bars, and all of a sudden it was really late, like two in the morning. We were buzzed and how I ever got us back to the hotel is a complete mystery to me. While walking back, cars kept pulling up with guys in them, trying to pick us up, but hello – I knew about “VA VIA” from the Rick Steves book! These guys weren’t kids trying to pull that cardboard trick thing – they were just horny Roman youth.

Another little tidbit NOT in the Rick Steves book was the leaving of the hotel key with the desk clerk before venturing out into the night. “Damn, this key is BIG,” Lisa said as she put it in her purse earlier that evening. Well, when we arrived at the hotel, it was all locked up and dark, of course. We banged on the door until the desk guy, looking baffled, also sleepy, came and let us in. “Dove Chiava?” He said. “We HAVE it!” We said, like he was an idiot or something.

When Elliott and Donna came the next day and filled us in about the leaving of the key, we were mortified. We learned fast, at least.

The next morning, Lisa and I were a little hung over. We’d been running on adrenalin, and that was pretty much gone. We went down and had our first Italian coffee and some dry toast packaged in a cellophane wrapper on Chaos Street, then wandered off for our first whole day in Italy. Italy is possibly, in itself, the best cure for a hangover you could hope for.

We walked to the Colosseum, and our looking at something random/looking at each other/jaw dropping began afresh. There is no way to describe accurately your first look at that amazing structure. To make things even better, we walked up a little street to get a better view and discovered a bar there. A bar, across the street from the Colosseum! We went in and ordered white wine and pointed at some sandwiches. The barman was immediately in love with Lisa and motioned for us to go and sit outside with a big, happy smile on his face.

Well. We just kept looking at the Colosseum, up at the blue sky, at each other. We were so completely enraptured with the whole experience and we hadn’t even taken our first bite of panini yet. When we did, it was the best bite of sandwich we’d had in our lives, at that point. Thinly sliced eggplant and melted cheese on crusty, grilled flatbread, washed down by cold white wine. All at a little bar across from an ancient behemoth world wonder. While we sat there, two police went down the little street in front of us in their car. “Look, Lisa” I said. “Their outfits are Armani.” At that moment the policeman on the passenger side blew us a kiss. “Holy F*&^&ing F*&^&.” I said. How was it that I’d been on the planet 34 years and not been to this place of magic before?

From there, we walked around, absorbing Rome. Donna and Elliott were due to arrive in the late afternoon, so we walked back to the hotel to get them. They were there, but resting, so we had a short rest too, and then we all headed out to dinner. We crossed the river into Trastevere, and found our way to a restaurant called Taverna Mercanti. This was a lucky find. Now I find it is a touristy kind of place, but at the time, it felt very Roman to me. The restaurant was full of what seemed to be locals, anyway. I ate a plate of antipasto from the antipasto bar, and had my very first Italian pizza, with arugula and tomatoes. What a revelation that was. For dessert we ate profiteroles – another revelation.

After that wonderful dinner, we all walked slowly back to the hotel, but passing the Hotel Forum, decided to go to the rooftop bar for a drink. Lisa made immediate friends with the bartender, Fausto, and we had cocktails and a dish of another new find, giant capers.

The next day we all went to the Vatican. The museums and the Sistine Chapel were amazing, but St. Peter’s was what totally blew me away. I actually prayed there, and was moved to tears. The church is so huge and full of feeling. We climbed the gazillion steps to the top and looked out over Rome. What a city! I was falling in love.

We had our lunch in a tavola calda near the Vatican. Once again I was totally blown away by all the food and it barely cost us anything. I went in and pointed at a bunch of stuff, the bar man brought it out to our table, and we feasted on arancini, a few squares of pizza, fresh mozzarella balls and the darkest green beans I’d ever seen, plus a bottle of white wine for us ladies and a beer for Elliott. It cost something like $25 for all that stuff. You can’t even get an order of nachos and two beers for $25, at TGI Fridays.

That evening, we all walked to the Spanish Steps to soak up the ambiance of a Roman Saturday night. The Steps were covered with young people drinking and hanging out, and it had the air of a festival. While there, I started talking to two really handsome, well-dressed businessmen that were also hanging out, and they recommended we try a restaurant somewhere up above the top of the steps. I forget the name of the place, but it was a good meal served up by a Polish waiter. At the end of the meal I asked the waiter if I could buy him a drink, and he brought a whole bottle of vodka out to the table to pour us all shots. I’m fairly sure I didn’t have a shot, of vodka at least, but my recollection is a little hazy so maybe I did.

Back to the Forum Hotel for another drink on that beautiful roof and a visit with Fausto the bartender, and then back to the hotel to totally crash.

Our last day in Rome, we went to the Colosseum. I am mortified to even say this but I wore SHORTS that day. Suffice to say, I have never since worn shorts in any Italian city, or even outside the perimeter of a pool or beach area I have visited in the countryside. On that day, I did though and it’s all right there on film so I can’t try to deny it.

At the Colosseum, Elliott talked us into going on a guided tour, which I did not want to, and the tour was so large and the guide spoke so softly that I couldn’t hear a thing. I left that group pretty quickly. Once we all saw everything we wanted we went back to the bar we’d gone in the first day. Lisa’s little barman was there again, and he stuck his tongue out at her. We had no idea what that was all about, but he was nice enough (like, he did not appear to be sticking his tongue out because he disliked us). Then Lisa and I took off to walk around, and Elliott and Donna went off to do something else. We found a wine shop, and we both bought a bunch of bottles of wine and trippy liquors that we couldn't find at home. We also discovered we could buy Four Roses bourbon and coke in a can. The wonders of Europe never cease. I loved walking around Rome. I could care less if I ever go back inside the Colosseum, but I’ll need to get a street fix from time to time, for the rest of my life.

After our last Roman dinner, we all went back for one last drink at the Hotel Forum, but the bar was closed! Our disappointment was so obvious that Fausto, who we ran into in the lobby, took us over to one paneled wall and opened it up, revealing a bar behind the wall. He poured limoncello for us all, on the house, and we drank it with him and the night manager (who really looked like a creature of the night,) then we took off.

It was late, but I had to do one thing before leaving Rome. I had to find the Queen Lizard, the bar we’d passed on the first day, to have a drink. So I grabbed Lisa – Elliott and Donna were done – and we went to try to find it. Miraculously, we did. Thus began one of the most bizarre middle-of-the-nights of our trip. Inside the Queen Lizard, there was a bar upstairs and a karaoke bar downstairs. We stayed upstairs, with the bartendress who was a bit S & M and the owner, who looked like John Belushi. There was nobody at the upstairs bar when we got there, except one dude with a ponytail, but by the time we left the small bar was packed. John Belushi told us he named the bar after his hero, Jim Morrison, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him Jim Morrison was the Lizard KING. We drank and talked and pointed and laughed with all these random Romans for hours. I asked ponytail boy what he liked to do, and he said, “I like to make love.” Hmm… At one point I bought a round for the bar, and it was something like 40,000 lire. Lisa started kissing John Belushi. I think I wanted to kiss the bartender, but thank god I didn’t. Who knows what time we got home, but eventually we did and passed out for one minute until we had to get up and get a car and drive, all the way to Sorrento. Elliott and Donna wanted to go to Pompeii, so that’s where we went.
 

Shannon

100+ Posts
Sorrento

Let’s just say I wasn’t exactly feeling too chipper the morning after our last night in Rome, but on our way to Sorrento, we happened upon one of the famous Autogrills. Oh, wonderful Autogrill! That ½ bottle of Chianti and plate of gnocchi and giant wedge of Parmesan cheese totally cured my hangover. Good thing, because pretty soon we’d get stuck in traffic getting in to Naples. The four of us, in our mini-van, were totally stared at by virtually everyone else sitting in that traffic – it was really weird. Back in those days my hair was a normal shade of brown so that couldn’t have been it.

In Naples, we drove the wrong way down a one-way road, and a policeman stopped us and, totally laughing, told us to go the other way. What planet was this? Finally, we made it into beautiful Sorrento. We had no hotel reservation so stopped at the Hotel Tramontano, where no problem, they had rooms for us.

Since I had done all the hotel planning stuff I was very careful not to spend too much money on accommodations, more careful than I really needed to be. So it was pretty fantastic when we walked into our room at the Tramontano, which was quite a bit more expensive than anything I’d booked in advance. There were beautiful marble floors, a glamorous bathroom, and a terrace with an unbelievable view of the sea and the cliffs and the town. Pompeii! Who could leave? We were only going to have one night in that wonderful place.

We had a strange dinner. I was in a weird mood – could have been the excess, or leaving Rome, or the headiness of being on another planet. We had fish and the waiter came out with it on a rolling cart to de-bone it, and on that cart was also a little statue of Neptune made out of lard or butter or something. Back at the hotel, Lisa and I broke out our arsenal of trippy liquors, and the four of us sat on our terrace for hours, drinking and talking. It was so beautiful out there. I drank an insane amount of port.

So, the bottom line is, Elliott and Donna went to Pompeii, but Lisa and I didn’t even wake up until 11:00 A.M. So we packed, left our bags with the desk, and had the most wonderful, leisurely lunch in the garden of the hotel. I don’t think I have ever been so relaxed.

We left Sorrento in the afternoon and drove to Florence, where we checked into the Hotel Enza, another Rick Steves recommendation. It wasn’t exactly the Hotel Tramontano, sadly. It was pretty late when we got there, so we went out and had a meal in a trattoria near the hotel – nothing special, but even nothing special was pretty special to us then.
 

Shannon

100+ Posts
Florence

Our first day in Florence, we went to the Medici Palace, and then the Mercato Centrale. This was my first glimpse of a large Italian market and I was appropriately stunned. Lisa took a gazillion pictures. We bought a bunch of food and wine and walked down to the Arno River to have a little picnic. There goes the day! We hung out in the afternoon sun for the rest of the day, sitting on a cement path by the river. Maybe we looked like tourists, but we didn’t know (or care) at the time, and it was a really fun afternoon, eating our snacks, drinking our wine, talking and watching cute college boys in their long rowing boats going down the river.

At one point, Lisa had to go to the bathroom, so we walked up into the city to find one. We happened upon a little restaurant, and it was here that we met a new friend, Carmelo. Carmelo appeared to be the chef or even owner, and he didn’t speak a word of English, but regardless he seemed to hit it off with Lisa immediately. They made an appointment to meet later that night, to go on a date after dinner. The next few days with Carmelo would come to be known as “the Firenze Frenzy.”

Florence was my least favorite city on our trip. Later, I would come to really love Florence, on my “slow” trips – and I really believe that is the best way to be in Florence – taking it easy, eating some of the fabulous Tuscan food, searching out some of the special shops and museums that make Florence more than just the city of the Renaissance. As it was on that trip, we seemed to be running everywhere – to go to the Uffizi, to see Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia, to meet up with Carmelo. It was a blur. One night, eating at a small, unremarkable restaurant near our hotel, I was coming out of the bathroom around a tight corner and I slipped on a wet patch and fell. No one saw me, but it hurt and I badly bruised one leg. Another day, Lisa and I went into a beautiful fabric shop where they sold reproductions of famous paintings on thick fabric. I bought Botticelli’s “La Primavera” – the most expensive purchase I would make on this trip. As soon as we came out of that shop, I felt we were being watched. I stopped in a doorway to look at a map, and a man approached us and just stared at us. He was staring in a scary way, not a “hey, baby” way. Finally I said, staring straight back at him, “WHAT?” He got right in my face and yelled something that sounded like a “WOOF.” I also was carrying four bottles of wine, and I pretended to throw it at him (which of course I didn’t, I would never throw wine!) and we took off running. I believe he meant to rob us and it was very frightening. I really soured on Florence after that.

There were fun moments though. Lisa saying, "if we pass that church one more @*%&!#ing time," as we passed the Duomo for the thousandth time; having a wonderful mimosa in some random cafe in a tiny piazza; a short encounter with a beautiful barman (I called Carmelo a "stronzo" and the barman was very impressed.) One night we ate at Carmelo’s restaurant, and met a Lebanese man who lived in Florence and two of his friends, who were Italian. The meal was fantastic. We ate the hugest piece of beef I had ever seen. Now I know all about the Tuscan beef, but at the time I didn’t, so it was another “holy %*&@” moment. After the dinner, Lisa went with Carmelo and Donna and Elliott and I went with the Lebanese man and his Italian friends for a drink near the Duomo. I guess I could have had my own little “Firenze Frenzy,” but I chose not to. Still, it was fun, and romantic, to be strolling on a warm Autumn night past the Duomo, on the arm of an attractive older man, even if for a moment.
 

Shannon

100+ Posts
From Chianti to Verona

Finally, it was time to leave Florence. We headed out one morning for Banfi Vintners, driving through the wonderful Tuscan countryside. One of Donna & Elliott’s friends at Banfi had set us up for lunch there. On the way, we stopped briefly in San Gimignano. Talk about fast travel! Elliott and Donna stayed in the van to watch the bags, and Lisa and I walked in to the town, looked around for a few minutes and left. We did also stop on the outside of the town and went into a tiny church with some pre-Renaissance frescos, and had a glimpse around the outside of the city wall. Then it was off again.

On the way to Banfi, I discovered why the little barman in Rome kept sticking his tongue out at Lisa. We kept passing scantily clad women on the side of the road, and when one stuck a big pink tongue out at us, I realized. We saw many of these women, several tongues, and quite a few trucks parked on the side of the road. This, and the countryside, made for a lively drive to Banfi.

Banfi Vintners is a pretty big operation, so visiting there is like, perhaps, a trip to Robert Mondavi winery in Napa. Only, Banfi is in an 11th century castle on the top of a hill with nothing else around. We were greeted with an aperitif, then sat down to eat lunch surrounded by ancient stone walls. The lunch was fantastic – assorted crostini, Tuscan vegetable soup, roast pork… plus FIVE bottles of wine, and grappa! It was quite an afternoon. Afterwards, we wandered around the property for awhile, and then headed into Montalcino to find a place to stay.

We found a little inn in town, and as we checked in it started to POUR rain (after being perfectly sunny all day.) After all the food and wine, and now the rain, we all crashed out for a late nap and didn’t get up until 9:00 P.M. Donna and Elliott and I went out into Montalcino, but Lisa stayed in. There ain’t a heck of a lot going on in Montalcino at night, or if there is, we didn’t find it. The three of us went into a bar where it seemed like every male in the town was sitting there watching football. We had a quick drink, and went back to the hotel. Lisa and I stayed up until 3:00 A.M. drinking wine and watching Euro-MTV. It was a blast, and there are songs I will always associate with that one night, in Montalcino; Robbie William’s "Millenium," Placebo’s “Pure Morning.” My love affair with Euro MTV started that night, for sure.

The next day we headed north. This was going to be the longest day of our trip, and it was the only day that we did not have a good time. We were headed to Verona, but we had to go to Brescia first, an hour or so to the west, to meet with one of my company's suppliers. On the way there, we got stuck on the autostrada for a couple of hours, because of an accident in a tunnel. Nobody could move – everyone just turned off their engines and sat. I watched people eat lunch, talk on their phones, and pee off the side of the road. We didn’t have any food, unfortunately, so by the time the traffic started to move again and we found the first Autogrill, we were all a little faint from hunger, and none of us were in the best of moods. Everyone else that had been stuck in traffic also stopped at the Autogrill, and it was not the same as my first Autogrill, not with all those German tourists fighting over the last wurstel. It was kind of stressful.

Many hours later, we got to the corkscrew factory and spent a couple of boring hours there (I thought Lisa was going to die) and then headed towards Verona. Another rainstorm hit, and it was a harrowing, intense journey to Verona. I still hate that road from Venice to Milan, it is just way too scary. Rain + Big Trucks + First Time on That Road = give me a valium, please. But we eventually made it.

Once we got into Verona though, looking for our hotel, Elliott accidentally drove into the area near the Arena, where cars aren’t suppose to go. We were so tired and disoriented, I can’t even tell you. A policeman came up to the car, and he was PISSED. No kiss-blowing or laughing here. He asked for Elliott’s documents, and said something like “if you want to drive in Italy, you must learn to speak ITALIAN.” Then he walked away. But it was scary. We got out of there and I went out on foot to find our hotel, and came back and lead everyone to it. It was another Rick Steves recommendation, but I can’t remember the name of it, but it was a cheap, clean, loud hotel. Certainly acceptable, but I didn't get a lot of sleep there.

It was Donna and Elliott’s anniversary, and also, their last night with us – they were heading up to Frankfurt for the Frankfurt Book Fair the next day, and Lisa and I would go on alone. So even though we were all exhausted and not in the best of moods, we went out and had a nice dinner, then went and had a drink in a little pub.

The next morning, Donna and Elliott left, and Lisa and I had a relatively quiet three days in Verona. The weather was beautiful, the city quiet and peaceful, and we needed the rest. Three days was absolutely enough though, and had I known how I was going to fall in love with Venice, I probably would have saved it for another day. We walked around, sat in cafes, and rubbed Juliet's breast, like all fast travelers do.

Then we left, on the train, for Venice. Venice has become such a part of my life now, that it is a trip for me to think about that train trip into the unknown, where I really had no idea how a place was about to change me, and change my life.
 

Shannon

100+ Posts
Venice

On the train to Venice, a really good looking guy shared our compartment with us, and helped us stow our luggage. The entire trip, Lisa and I looked at him and then looked at each other, eyebrows raised. He read his book, a true sign that we were not in Central Italy anymore. Then we crossed the causeway over the lagoon. I will never, ever forget the way the buildings of Venice looked to me, even from the causeway! Little did I know that this would be the only day of blue skies for the brief remainder of our trip, but that day the houses glowed.

Emerging from the train station, even I, the master planner, got all turned around and got on the vaporetto going the wrong way. So we went through the Giudecca Canal and ended up in San Marco near the Piazza, when we meant to go down the Grand Canal to San Samuele. On the boat, I was thinking, this isn’t so great! I thought that I was on the Grand Canal! When we got off the boat, it was crowded, almost to the point of mayhem, and Lisa was all upset that we were in the wrong spot, and I was embarrassed that I'd made such a silly mistake. Plus, there was no way I was going to pay for four more tickets for us and for our luggage. So I got us on a new boat, one headed the right way up the Grand Canal, and it wasn’t long before we got to our stop at San Samuele.

Then we were at San Samuele, and where the heck was Campo San Stefano? We asked a policeman and he pointed every which way, speaking to us in a totally undecipherable version of Italian. Still, we found the campo and found our hotel, the Hotel San Stefano, very quickly after that.

Back in the planning stages, Venice was the one city where I could not find a spare room. The entire city seemed to be sold out. This is how we ended up at the Hotel San Stefano, in the most expensive, and the smallest, room of the entire trip. I mean, that room was SMALL. And, there was only one skinny bed, that Lisa and I would have to share. I went down to the strange woman at the desk (she would wear the same exact outfit for the three days we were there) and told her we didn’t have a queen bed, as promised. “Queen beds are smaller in Venice,” she said drolly. We were stuck – there was no where else we could go. Venice was totally sold out. And after traveling together for a couple of weeks, Lisa and I – good friends that we were – were starting to get on each others nerves a little. Sleeping on top of each other was not a good thing at this juncture.

Our tiny room looked over the campo, and that was nice. We went out and walked a bit, then went to one of the restaurants in the Campo for lunch. We were getting a little sick of Italian food, so when we saw there was avocado on the menu, we asked for a whole avocado, squished it up and made guacamole, and ate it with potato chips. The group of British tourists at the table next to us were looking at us like we were totally insane. It began to rain, Lisa went to take a nap, and I went out into the city, to try to get lost.

Already I was kind of tripping out on Venice. I didn’t know what to expect when I got there, but I was immediately smitten. The wet cement, the dead ends, the graffiti and the murky canals totally fascinated me. I walked and walked, but I never did get lost. It seemed like I knew where I was. It felt like I had been there before.

That night, the rain stopped and Lisa and I went to eat in Dorsoduro at the most fantastic restaurant that, to this day, I have not been able to find again. Either I twisted something up in my mind somehow, or the place ceased to exist shortly after we were there. The restaurant was on a canal, and when we walked in there was a bar to the right, covered with plates of antipasti. I ordered the most expensive bottle of wine, an Amarone, because our trip was almost over. There was a German couple next to us, and when I read “what is Zucca?” off the menu, the German girl said “Pump-Kin.” So I ordered the Pump-Kin gnocchi.

The wine was wonderful, and the gnocchi unbelievably fabulous. Each gnocchi was like a little puff of heaven. Sadly, Lisa and I were not getting along too good at this meal. I had to leave half my gnocchi on the plate, got her back to the room, and then the sky opened again and the rain started coming down in buckets. Lisa went to sleep, and I looked out at the rain. I wanted to go out, but it was next to impossible. I would have been washed into a canal.

The next morning, Lisa got up really early, in a chipper mood, but I was still kind of pissed off, and also, I had been up half the night looking out at the rain. So she took off and I stayed in bed. While she was out I heard these loud sirens, which I knew from my Open Road Italy book, meant that there would be flooding in the city that day. Great! Lisa came in, her face white, and she asked about the sirens. “Don’t you know,” I said, with my face all severe, “about the BIG FLOOD?” Her face turned even whiter. “They are moving all the furniture in the lobby to the second floor!” She said. This little crisis was enough to make us forget about our little tiff.

We went downstairs to talk to the front desk woman. She and her helper both had really cool rain boots, and they suggested we go around the corner to a hardware store and get some boots. The hardware store didn’t have cute boots like the women at the hotel, but we each bought a utilitarian pair, and went out walking through the flooded streets towards Piazza San Marco, where we were the only two people in the entire flooded piazza. Everybody else was walking on the platforms. The rain continued, and we walked from Piazza San Marco to Accademia, over and over. That night, we crossed the bridge and had a wonderful dinner served by one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen. She looked like a Renaissance madonna.

The next day was our last, and we did more of the same endless wandering in the rain. While Lisa went into a thrift shop on Calle delle Botteghe, I sat in the window of a bar and watched, for what seemed like hours, the life on this one little street. Across the calle, there was a shop that sold antiques, and just down the calle there was a butcher. While I sat in the window, the good looking young man from the antiques shop came into the bar, ordered a whiskey, drank it, and went back to his shop. A customer went into the butcher shop, and out came both customer and butcher, into the bar, a quick slug of wine, and back to work and shopping. I was totally enchanted. Rome was an insane blast, Sorrento a beautiful oasis, Florence a rush and Verona a suburb. Venice was something different - a city that spoke to me on a different level, somewhere way, way down deep.

Later, in our wandering, we stopped in the restaurant Caravalle on Calle Marzo XXII for a drink in their bar. Lisa has this Veuve Cliquot fetish, and she decided she wanted a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. “Why do you want to spend ninety dollars on Veuve Cliquot,” I asked, “when you can spend twelve dollars on a bottle of Prosecco?” But she insisted, and she was paying, so what the heck. We drank our champagne in the bar, watched over by a barman who clearly didn’t know what to make of two wet, scruffy American girls who ordered the most expensive bottle of Champagne in the house.

After the Veuve, we went to get our tickets for the Alilaguna. Our flight was really early, so we’d have to catch a boat at 4:45 in the morning! Two cute guys sold us the tickets, and while we were conducting this transaction, one of them stuck out his tongue, like the barman who loved Lisa in Rome, and the prostitutes on the side of the road in Tuscany. “Ha!” I told the guy. “I know what that means, you can't fool ME.” They rolled their eyes. Veuve Cliquot plus exposed tongue on cute Venetian guy equals danger.

We had to go back to the hotel to pack before dinner. Lisa’s back was bothering her, and the thought of carrying our bags all the way to the Alilaguna stop near St. Mark’s Square was not very appealing. In fact, we were pretty freaked out about a middle-of-the-night walk with all of our stuff. I was also really bummed to be leaving Venice, and Italy. Our moods were subdued as we got all our stuff together in that tiny room overlooking Campo San Stefano. We went out for one final dinner, walking through an insane amount of rain, and then went back to the room to try to get some rest since we had to wake up at 3:30 A.M. I turned on the TV, and Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” was on, with no commercials, and with no dubbing or subtitles. That was a random moment of bizarreness.

All night long it rained, and heavily. At about 4:15 A.M. the rain suddenly stopped. Lisa said, “We’d better go.” We left the hotel and somehow made it to the Alilaguna stop before it started pouring again. A cruise through complete darkness and non-stop rain, and we were at the airport, then we were home. I went to Italy a virgin, but came home a convert. It was the trip that changed my life.
 

Shannon

100+ Posts
Notes from a Deflowered Virgin

My first trip to Italy was wonderful, but most of the hotels, and many of our meals, were just OK. I didn't like our accommodations in Florence, Verona or Venice at all. You get what you pay for, for sure, but now that I know a little more about traveling in Europe I say:

GET AN APARTMENT! The only downside to getting an apartment is the lack of human contact in the form of a desk manager, which can kind of suck. But the upsides are, way more room, living like a local instead of a tourist, making your own toast instead of eating the cellophane wrapped kind, and whenever you want, not just between 7:00 and 9:00 A.M.. I became a convert on my second trip, and I have never looked back. This is not to say there aren't great hotels out there, but for a budget traveler like me, apartments/vacation rentals are the way to go.

TRY NOT TO PACK TOO MUCH IN. We spent an entire day driving from Rome to Sorrento, and an entire day driving from Tuscany to the Veneto. While I loved both Sorrento AND Tuscany, and though even the Autostrada was a source of endless fascination for me, I wouldn't do the same itinerary again. I didn't have the SlowTalk message board members to talk me out of this stuff.

BRING A RESTAURANT LIST. There are so many great internet resources for restaurant reviews that there is absolutely no excuse to eat badly anymore. Check out the reviews here on slowtrav.com, or go to chowhound.com, or if you are going to a small town where there aren't many reviews, post an inquiry on SlowTalk. On my second trip to Venice, I bought a copy of Sandra Gustafson's Great Eats in Italy, and her book helped me find some great places to eat in Venice. I was the blind leading the blind on my first trip, and we had some hits, and a few misses. If I knew then what I know now...

And finally...

TRAVELING IS A DRUG, AND THERE IS NO CURE. Just a fix. Get used to it.
 

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