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Ciao (pronounced: chow): hello, goodbye


This was our home in San Mossimo

This enormous hand woven tapestry covered the wall at the Campobasso cathedral

The cathedrals are covered with many colorful, intricate tapestries like this

Marco with his little cousin Roberta, at their moment of first meeting

Me, Jeff, Marco and Derek with Roberta (center)

Isn't she the cutest?

Marco's family treated us to dinner at their favorite pizza place

This is your first view of Capri as you come in on the ferry

An old couple makes their way from town to the marina

The colorful and lively piazzeta at the top of Capri town

Huge private estates on the island overlook the sea

Much of the architecture on the island has a north African influence

The mountain peak in the background was once home to the Roman emperor Tiberius' palaces

The glowing waters of the famous blue grotto

Me, Marco, Derek, and Jeff on the water in Capri's harbor

Colorful boats and buildings in the Marina Grande make this a very photographed spot in Capri

The ancient amphitheatre of Sepino

The abandoned town is remarkably well preserved

The grounds at Sepino are still used for cattle grazing

When in Naples, don't miss the impressive palace of Caserta and its many fresco, as seen here

A mini cooper is small enough to drive into narrow courtyards

Much of Pompeii is surprisingly intact, like this ancient bath

Many floors are decorated with intricate mosaics, including this one that warns, "Beware of dog"

Some of the colorful walls are also impressively preserved

Pompeii was also known for its 'adult' pleasures

Baths such as this are open at top to funnel in rain water

Shards of pottery can be seen in many areas of Pompeii

The ominous presense of the destructive Mt. Vesuvious is ever present along the streets of Pompeii

Vesuvious dominates the central piazza of the ancient village

The well preserved ruins of the central piazza

This is a casting of a young boy, about ten years old, who was encased in lava

A huge collection of Pompeii's pottery has been recovered and collected on the site

The roads still show the tracks where chariots once drove

Most ancient Roman towns, including Pompeii, featured an amphitheatre

An ancient Roman aqueduct funnels water to Caserta

Mmm, fresh fruit

The Vatican and St. Peter's Square

One of the Swiss guards that watch over the Vatican, in his colorful customary dress

The huge, gold-filled, impressive nave of St. Peter's basilica

Many statues from the great renaissance sculptors fill St. Peter's

...both stone and bronze

Possibly Michaelangelo's greatest work, the Sistene Chapel ceiling, amazing in its detail

The most famous symbol of Rome, the Colosseum

From inside you can see the underground tunnels

Restoration work is ongoing to repair the floor of the Colosseum

One of Rome's most famous and romantic sites, the Trevi Fountain

The Spanish Steps is an excellent place for a leisurely day of people watching

It's also a popular gathering place for young buskers

The Vittorio Emmanuel II monument

One of the many ubiquitous canals and gondolas of Venice

Lunch at an outdoor cafe is a time to slow down and enjoy "la dolce vita"

The impressive basilica of Piazza San Marco

A closeup of some of the impressive artwork in the archways of the basilica

Our final dinner together in Venice, on the grand canal

Prologue: In May, 2001, I took my first trip overseas in several years. Earlier that year, my friend Jeff and I had talked about going to Italy. I'd been wanting to go to Italy for years. It's one place in Europe I'd always wanted to see, but in two previous trips I hadn't gotten there yet.

Those who know me know I'm not prone to just saying things. If I say I'll do something, it's as good as done. So when Jeff asked if I'd be interested in going, I told him to pick out the date and I'll be right there. In the end, there were four of us on the trip - myself, Jeff, and two of his friends from Colorado, Marco and Derek. I'd never met them before, but we were fast friends from the moment we met.

Our trip took us from the south at Naples and the Isle of Capri to the northeast corner at Venice.

The second half of this travelogue (coming soon) is from my solo trip to Italy in October 2002. The photos to the left illustrate places and experiences written about below.

Italy - May 22-31, 2001

Meeting up and taking off

It's May 22 and the day I've been planning for a long time is finally here. My friend and former roommate Jeff and I have planned a trip to Italy along with two other friends, Marco and Derek. Since they're all coming in from Colorado, the plan is for me to meet up with them in Detroit and we'll all fly on to Rome from there.

I get to Detroit first, find what gate they're coming in at and go wait for them. Shortly after, I see Jeff exit the causeway. He sees me and points as if to say "there you are." I get an early jump on the Italian and greet him with Buon Giorno! Derek and Marco follow closely behind, Derek looking still half asleep and Marco with a wide, eager grin on his face. It's thanks to him and his family that this trip actually came together. His family is native Italian and have a vacation villa in the town of San Mossimo, Italy, just outside of the blue-collar city of Campobosso. We have a couple of hours to kill before we have to be on our plane, so we sit down to eat, catch up, and share stories. Soon enough we’re boarding the plane and heading for Rome.

The flight, arrival, and trip to Campobasso

As much as I've flown, It still amazes me that 400 tons of metal with 400 people on board can somehow get off the ground. This being an international flight, the DC-10 is a little bigger than most of the puddle jumpers I'm used to flying inside the U.S. One neat feature of this plane is a screen at the front that gives the plane's statistics; flight speed, altitude, and outside temperature. Our cruising altitude is 37,000 feet, nearly 7 and a half miles up. Even in the midst of 400 fellow travelers, it feels somehow isolated up here. And at 72 degrees below zero, I'm impressed that nothing on the plane freezes up.

At 6:45 am, we've just finished crossing the Atlantic and entered the coast of France at Brittany. I'm feeling surprisingly alert after a day spent in airports and a sleepless flight. The engineers of Northwest Airlines must have spent years designing a seat in which the average-sized American male cannot get comfortable.

The people on this plane are straight out of central casting. There's the overly aggressive Arab guy who's not happy with his seating, the 90-year-old man with the 3-inch stride smelling of Old Spice who has to go to the bathroom more than once an hour, and what would a nine hour flight be without a demon-possessed child who won't stop screaming.

I guess the airline staff knew I wanted to watch "13 Days", the movie about Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs invasion. About one minute into the showing, the movie inexplicably shut off and we were treated to Jennifer Lopez' snoozer The Wedding Planner.

Everyone who's been to Italy talks about discovering the 'real' Italy; the Italy that it's citizens see everyday. We managed to book this flight so it arrives at rush hour in Rome. This alone should give us our trial by fire introduction to the real Italy. Getting on the Autostrada A1, I feared for my life for about the first hour. The traffic is like nothing I've ever seen, and it seemed like a car crash was more likely than not. All the jokes about Nashville that generally aren't true are 100% true here. The lane markings might as well not exist. The same is true for stop signs. Our driver went straight through one after another as if they weren't there. Drivers cut in and out of lanes frantically and at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour. They don't tailgate as much as they bumper kiss, only inches separate cars in a lane, making them look more like railcars on a train than automobiles on the highway. To say it's aggressive is an understatement. It's aggressive like a starving pitbull on crack.

After I resigned myself to the fact that our driver might actually be safe and know what he's doing, I was able to enjoy the ride a bit more. But Rome outside the "centro storico" is a fairly ugly collection of ramshackle apartments and industrial sites all crowded together. When we got to Napoli, we left the A1 to get on a public road to Campobasso. This is a part of Italy that's not in the tour guides and it's exactly the experience I was looking for. Instead of rose colored images sculpted for tourists and travel ads, this area is the real Italy. The poor, depressed towns where the working class scrape out a living. On the way to Campobasso, we came to a picturesque little village called Venafro.

Meeting the family

After three hours, we arrived in the little village where we're staying, called San Mossimo. It's so small that it's not even on the map, but it lies about 30 kilometers west of Campobasso. The arrival of four Americans here to visit is probably the biggest news the town has seen in a while and the mayor is on hand to greet us when we pull in. The Toscano family, who we're staying with, greeted us with kisses on the cheek. It was so quintessential Italy. We quickly sat down to a great meal of penne pasta and malanzane, pickled eggplant that was surprisingly tasty. Dessert was a delicious chocolate, nut and sweet cream bread called Columba. On day two we tried going to the little abandoned village called Sepino. Unfortunately it was raining heavily so we decided to leave and come back to see it later. We spent some time at the casa in San Mossimo and then had dinner with the Toscanos.

Meeting Marinela and Roberta

This is Marco's first trip to Italy in eight years. He has never met his five year old second cousin, Roberta, the daughter of his cousin Marinela. We go to pick Roberta up from school. At first she's confused by all the attention, greeted by four strangers from America. But she quickly warms up and becomes the life of the party. She has to be the most precocious child ever born, saying witty and humorous quips in Italian that Marco translates for us as he contains his laughter. Later Roberta keeps trying to teach me Italian without much luck. She seems to think when I respond with one of the few Italian words I know, that I must be able to understand now and goes off in a string of sentences. My only response is "si" or "Io non capisco." Marinela took us shopping and sightseeing in downtown Campobosso. It was quite a bustling city for being barely on the map. We spent about an hour in a jewelry shop while Derek shopped for a watch. He was hoping to pay no more than 100,000 lire but ended up paying about 185,000.

The traffic in Italy!!!

The traffic in Compobosso, and later in Napoli, was a sight to behold. To any American driver it would seem to be a contradiction; Italian drivers are aggressive, fast, and chaotic, but at the same time they some of the safest and most skilled drivers one could find. They negotiate anarchic traffic with precision, they courteously move to the far right, sometimes into the shoulder, to let a faster driver pass, and when a driver is confronted with a passing car oncoming in their lane, they are consistently nonplused. They simply move to the side to make space for three cars. It one thing all four of us marvel at. The Toscanos treated us to a great dinner at a pizzeria in town. They are treating us like royalty while we're here and I'm starting to feel obligated to them.


On our third day here, we visited the island of Capri. This is one of the most beautiful and quaint places in the world. Bright flowers cover nearly ever square yard and the winding sidewalks twist their way uphill to the town center and down to out of the way hidden spaces only known to the residents. Around every corner is a delightful view unique to Capri. Stucco houses with palm trees and wide terraces overlooking the sea are everywhere. The center of town is busy, even now in the off season. But with the breathtaking view and the fragrant, colorful flowers everywhere, it's no wonder Capri has become such a popular vacation destination. The ubiquitous cache' of high end retailers rivals Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, making Capri very popular among the rich and famous. Paying 10,000 lire for a 20 minute boat ride, we took some time to visit the eerie Blue Grotto. When we get there, we’re shuttled off of the motor boat into tiny row boats. The opening to the Grotto is so small you have to duck inside the boat to make it in. Despite the fact that we got taken for an extra 3000 lire by our boat driver (admission was 12,000, he conned us into paying 15,000 each), it was well worth it. There is no other experience in the world like it. The light seemed to be shining into the cave from blue neon lights below. The cave was smaller than I expected and the ride was certainly shorter than I expected, a quick in and out after seeing the blue glow for about 30 seconds. Nevertheless, this truly is a unique experience not to be missed in Capri. The beautiful marina with colorful shops and equally colorful boats made for some excellent pictures. Sitting at the side of the water, I could see it was true what they say about the beaches in Italy… they’re not sandy beaches, they’re pebbly. And this one certainly was. Nickel and dime sized pebbles, some bigger. But the water was still gorgeous and I had to go down for a quick feel of the water. It’s so refreshing it’s almost therapeutic. After a few minutes I meet up again with the other guys and we made our way over to a seaside terrace to have some drinks. This was one of the most memorable parts of the day because we were finally able to relax and enjoy the ambiance of this gorgeous island, and the country as a whole.

Pompeii and the inevitable car wreck

On day four we visited Pompeii. On the way there the inevitable happened...we got in a car wreck. I was thinking after the first day that a car wreck here is more likely than not. Today, that theory played out. It wasn't very serious and no one got hurt, but the most entertaining part was how the two drivers handled it. In America, even for the slightest fender bender the two cars would stop and wait for the police. At this incident, both drivers got out, looked at the damage, waived their arms and raised their voices. Then they each got in their cars and drove on. That was the end of it. We explained what would have happened in America and the driver initially thought we were joking with him. He couldn't believe it. After hearing his take on the way Italians handle it, I think I agree with the Italians. It's no big deal, so just move on. Walking through Pompeii is an unforgettable experience. The ruined city sits in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, almost as if the destructive volcano is taunting the remains and it's visitors, reminding them of it's fearsome power. I'm awestruck as I look at the plaster casts made from the actual remains of citizens of Pompeii who were buried where they lay in ash and lava. You can almost look into their eyes still today and relate to the unspeakable fear and desperation of a collective people who saw their inevitable fate and were powerless to do anything but perish. It's truly a chilling, solemn, and profoundly reverent experience. The city itself is an amazing display of Roman ingenuity and innovation. Bearing in mind that the artifacts we see are 2000 years old, I'm dumbfounded at the quality of the mosaics, marble work, and the architecture. The engineering was so advanced for such an ancient city. They had running water, two jacuzzis, and multi-temperature stoves, and beautiful piazzas.

Rome - The Vatican and Sistine Chapel

On day 6 we went into Rome. Our first stop is the St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. It's Sunday so the pope will be coming out to speak blessings on the gathered masses at noon. From one of the windows high above the piazza, a red drape will be rolled out indicating where the holy father will appear. We're about an hour and a half early so we decide to check out St. Peter's Basilica. The entire building is a work of art. On every square inch there is gold and marble, either in mosaics or sculptures. It is incredibly ornate and demonstrates the great love the Catholic people and the artisans who've created this have for their church. The square footage must be nearly 50,000 feet and every bit of the floor is covered in mosaics, the pieces of which are less than a centimeter each. The work involved in creating such an immense artistic showpiece is incomprehensible. We still have plenty of time, so we head for the Sistine Chapel. We find the line but have no idea how long the wait is or where it will take us. The line moves quickly enough and we finally make our way around three city blocks and into the complex that holds the Vatican museum and the Chapel. After walking our way through about a mile of twists and turns inside the building, past every nook and cranny, piece of art and artifact of the catholic church's history, we finally come to the Chapel about an hour twenty later. We're herded through like cattle in room that was obviously not designed to accommodate the swarms of crowds that have flocked to Rome for years now. The Chapel itself is packed shoulder to shoulder as if we're stagefront at a sold out rock concert, only here silence is mandatory, and the Chapel guards pipe up with "Shhh" every thirty seconds or so, reminding people that the Sistene is not only a tourist attraction, but also a sacred chapel. Normally, the Sistine is closed on Sundays, except the last Sunday of the month, which this happens to be. Unfortunately, they also waive the usual 15,000 lire admission causing the terrible crowding. Despite the maddening crowds and the long wait, the chapel, as well as the whole building is breathtaking. We see the intricate frescos on the ceiling, painted by Michaelangelo nearly 500 years ago. There are other impressive works of art like woven tapestries ten feet high by 15 feet wide, sculptures, and mosaics that are complicated and beautiful. One gets a sense that art of this type is a thing of the past because no one today in the impatient world we have would dedicate so much time to complete such demanding pieces.

The Colosseum

After a picnic lunch (prepared so kindly for us by Marco’s aunt Anna) in front of the 6th century Castello Sant’Angelo, in a nearly deserted park, we’re off to see one of the giants of Roman tourism, the Colosseo (colosseum in English). It looks just like it always has in pictures I've seen, only this time I'm standing in front of the real thing, walking among the citizens of Rome who pass by this wonder of the world almost as if they don't see it, immune to the awe that tourists from around the world feel as they stand and gaze at it. This monument of the Roman empire is impressive in it's innovation. It is three stories high and built with stone up to four feet wide and 2 feet high. How the Romans built this without the use of modern construction equipment is amazing. We stand in line to buy the 10,000 lire ticket to get into the Colosseo and the sun is baking my already burnt forehead. There is a street vendor hawking hats. Normally, I’d be contemptuously dismissive of these guys, but he was selling hats, which I needed. I asked him, "Quanta costa?" and he replies "20,000." I shrug at him and tell him I’ll pay 5,000. He gives me a dirty look and moves on. I really wanted that hat! Oh, well, there’s another vendor up front, I’ll see what he’ll sell it for. Again he tells me it’s 20,000, and this time I tell him I’ll pay 8,000. He says he’ll take 10,000 and it’s sold. It’s not a bad hat for the equivalent of about $4.50. After about a 40 minute wait we finally get in. It’s as impressive on the inside as it is on the outside. It is three massive stories with a basement. We can see underground corridors where guards, gladiators, and lions used to roam. The sense of history is almost overwhelming. After spending some time looking around the Colosseo, we wander over for a quick visit to a part of the Foro Romano, the ancient city square. The ruins are just one of many of the ancient empire.

Our driver Alfonso

We plan on seeing the Trevi Fountain while we're here and also Piazza Spagna, or The Spanish Steps. Our driver Alfonso is not very familiar with Rome and so drops us off in the vicinity, apologizes repeatedly and assures us it's not far and we can find it if we ask. I'm not offended. I actually prefer the chance to see the city on foot rather than out of a van window. Alfonso has been incredibly generous to us and so kind. He bought us breakfast this morning at Cafe DiNardo in Vernafro, refusing to let us pay for our own. He's a warm, robust and kindly man of 65 with many stories to tell and the skill of a practiced Italian driver. Even this far into the trip, we're still amazed to see drivers here do things no one would even contemplate in America. Earlier today, we were being passed by a white sedan, while we were passing another smaller car while going into a sharp right curve leading into a blind tunnel. Truly this had to be the epitome of Italian machismo when it comes to driving.

Trevi Fountain and Piazza Spagna

We follow the nearby signs that point to Trevi Fountain, and after a few wrong turns finally find it with the assistance of a local, amused at me asking where it's at and pointing to the fountain's square 300 feet away. The mammoth sculpture and fountain in one is more impressive and massive than pictures have portrayed. It's a beautiful day and the cool water feels excellent, the perfect place to take a quick sit-down and soak in the city of Rome. After throwing three coins in the fountain as per tradition (assuring a return visit to Rome), we decide to head for the Spanish Steps, unsure of exactly where it's at. I'm not worried about our imprecise directions. I know from studying the city that the Steps are northwest of the Trevi Fountain. Using the afternoon sun to orient ourselves, we headed northwest and find it within minutes. The area around Piazza Spagna has a New Orleans Bourban St. feel to it due to the fact that the streets in the area have been closed off for some reason we don't know. The back streets in the area offer tempting fashions at bargain prices. The discounts on Prada, Gucci, Dolce & Gabanna, and Zegna make a trip to Rome almost pay for itself if you're a serious shopper. I'm not much of a suit person, but at the prices I saw for a stylish Zegna suit, even I was tempted. Some were one third to one half regular U.S. retail. The collection of people around the Piazza Spagna makes this probably the best spot in Rome for simply people watching. Young lovers sit by the fountain at the foot of the steps gazing in each others eyes and spritzing themselves with the cool water. Musicians gather halfway up for impromptu concerts, for which they expect a few lire, although there are few contributors. Further up the wide marble stairs is the second and then third terrace dotted with palm trees and bright red flowers. On the right is the pinkish colored Keats-Shelley house, where Keats died in 1821 and at the top is the church Trinitá dei Monti. The view from the top is nothing spectacular, but nevertheless interesting if you have nowhere to be and just want to participate in a slice of life in Rome. We make our way back to the car and find Alfonso there, working crossword puzzles as usual. We return to San Mossimo and cook up a late night barbecue after prying open the storage shed.

San Mossimo

Monday was sort of a day off. We had no road trips in mind and only intended to hang around the villa. We did decide to go see the picturesque historic center of San Mossimo. Modern life has not ensnared this town and the residents cast a wary eye on four young men carrying a lot of photo equipment. Two women inquired why we were there taking so many pictures, without it occurring to them what a photographers paradise their tiny town of 300 is. Marco replied in Italian, "per que la citta e' bella" (because the city is beautiful). They smiled broadly and replied, "ah, si." Further down the road we find the quintessential picture of small town Italy, four old men playing cards in front of the town's only bar. The bar owner is also there sitting on the other side of the doorway. He calls me over and with a little translation from Marco, I find out he's simply proud of his bar and wants me to come in and take a picture of it. He scurries behind the bar and turns on lights, positioning them to flatter the lineup of beer bottles on the back wall. He's very patient while I adjust my settings for the difficult lighting and I show him the final result on my LCD. He's very pleased and wishes me well with the familiar "Ciao!" After leaving the historic center, we head up the mountain that leads only to a ski resort at top, a TV tower, and some fledgling housing construction. The view from the top is far and we can barely make out our villa below. The silvery-white rocks contrast against the green grass, and make for some nice photos where there is the additional blue, yellow, white, and pink flowers.

Driving up the mountain

The road leading to this peak is a dream for any performance car enthusiast and one could picture the winding uphill road with hairpin turns and sheer dropoffs as the backdrop for a Ferrari advertisement. Too bad most of the road is hidden from view anywhere at the top. Second to driving it, only a photograph could depict how this road twisted and turned suddenly and caused elevated adrenaline levels the whole way up.

Boarding a train for Venice

On Tuesday morning we get up and out of the house at 5:30. We have a train to catch. We'll be going from Compobasso to Termoli, then to Bologna, and finally on to Venice where we'll be staying for two nights. Maybe now we can get some rest since we're staying at our destination instead of making the exhausting day trips. We board the train in Termoli for a four hour ride. Along the way we pass the peaceful oceanside on the Adriatic Sea. There are a few brave people venturing into the still-cold waters of late May. We pass tiny towns that are overlooked by the tour guides, mostly for good reason. Although there are miles of beautiful coastline here that one would think would be developed into tourist resorts, this is not America, and the people here live next to the sea and go about their business without thinking about cashing in. Only here and there do we see areas that look as if a resort atmosphere is cropping up. The trains makes it's stops at pretty and unassuming towns like Pescara and San Benedicto, dotted with palm trees and large, colorful houses. Other places are slummy and industrial, but still quaint in a way that all of Italy is.

Scary man on the train

The train ride drags on through the end of the line in Venice. The ride is mostly uneventful and the scenery is very much like some parts of the USA, flat with acres of crops. Nearing Venice we got creeped out by a guy entering our non-smoking carriage deliberately puffing hard on a foul cigarette. He had the look of someone who probably should be in prison for a life term; three-day beard, sweaty and dirty, tattooed, and a homemade haircut. One by one he scanned the carriage almost daring passengers to make eye contact with him. It was looking like a precarious situation. I wasn’t eager to look him in the eye, but with my sunglasses on I felt safe to keep a watch on him. I've read enough travel safety tips to remember that some people will try to stare passengers down so they'll look away while the bandit grabs a bag and flees. With about $15,000 worth of photographic equipment and electronics between the four of us, I would have put up a fight no matter how tough he looked. After the exhausting 12 hour train trip (after three layovers), the magical city of Venice finally comes into view. Venice is the diamond on top of the gold ring that is Italy. Looking in from outside, we only glimpse the beauty of this amazing one-of-a-kind city. Coming off the train, we had no idea where our hotel was of how to begin getting there. That's when providence stepped in and we run right into a guy wearing a badge that says Hotel Mignon. He hands us a map and draws a circle around the block where the hotel is. We decide to forego the water taxi and take off on foot, carrying our luggage.

The hotel

At this point we thought it would be quick and easy. But this was lesson one about Venice. It's all too easy to get lost in Venice, and we certainly did, even with the map and even though we were just a few hundred feet from the entrance. After nearly giving up, we made a fortunate turn and saw a sign pointing toward a three foot wide dark alley. This was the first indicator that this may not be the best hotel in Venice. Then when we check in we're led to tiny rooms just barely bigger than the beds. At least they have a shower and toilet in the room, many in this hotel don't. But we notice that the rooms are not air-conditioned as we were told. We inquired at the desk, "we thought this hotel was air-conditioned." The man at the front desk informed us that the air-conditioning was broke and that it would probably be fixed tomorrow. Not that that helped us much when Venice is in the middle of a record breaking 90 degree heat wave. It also didn't explain why one room had no air-conditioner at all. Oh, well, we were in Venice and we were going to enjoy it no matter what.

Getting lost trying to find San Marco

After settling in, we decided to see the inspiring city, walking around in and out of disjointed streets and alleys. Around every corner lies a surprise, and a charming photo opportunity is to be found in almost every corner of this city. The four of us each take turns leading the way, none of us really having any clue where we are or where we're going. We only know where we want to be; Piazza San Marco. It's the biggest piazza in Venice and the main gathering point on any given evening. If you plan to indulge in a meal or a drink here, plan on bring extra lire. Most places on the piazza only sell vino by the bottle and the ones that do offer it by the glass only have one of two varieties available that start at around 13,000 lire ($6) for the cheap stuff.

San Marco at night offers some of the best photos we've gotten in the whole trip. The gold mosaics glisten by the faint lighting and the frenetic movement of people from one cafe to the next, where five piece string bands are playing Broadway standards, lends a sense of vibrancy and 'la dolce vita' to this enchanting city. Venice has a way of capturing your passion with an infatuation one has for a new paramour. It is so different from any other place in the world it's almost hard to believe this isn't the set of some Hollywood movie or a piece of Disneyland.

At first glance Piazza San Marco seems fairly homogeneous, with uniform buildings and only a slight parallelogram shape to offset it's symmetry. But upon taking a closer look at the various cafes, decor, alleys, and people that populate the piazza one begins to see a world of vibrant diversity. Diversity of cultures, languages, colors, shapes, and textures. One gorgeous example is the green hued walls, velvet red seats, and checkered marble at the Cafe Florian, one of Venice's most well-known and pricey cafes on the piazza.

More downsides to the hotel

We stay out late people watching and photo taking. Around 11pm we all agree it's time to go in a get some sleep. Since we're here for two nights we plan on sleeping late. That plan was interrupted by the 7am ringing of the church bells on the corner opposite our hotel, nearly just outside my window. Yet another surprise we didn't know about our hotel, but not the last. Shortly after the ringing of the bells, a resident of across the narrow alley drew up her blinds and opened the window, looking right into my wide open window; my way of trying to cool down the room with the night air. In my astonishment all I could think to do was to say "Buon giorno." The woman didn't reply but just tuned and left my sight. The third surprise came in the afternoon, when I decided to enjoy the Italian custom of siesta, a hour or so nap. About the time I was deep asleep, a nearby school let out and 50 or so noisy, rambunctious, and energetic elementary school kids came traipsing down the resonant alley. So much for my siesta.

The Grand Canal and other observations

The grand canal in Venice is the main thoroughfare and the best way to get around the canal is the Vaporetto boats. For a mere 6000 lire, you can take the number 1 boat the length of the canal and hit every stop along the way. If you want the express boat, catch the 82. Either way, you'll pass the intricate and colorful facades of houses and buildings that line the canal, as well as the tiny commerce boats with outboard motors delivering goods to the islands shops and restaurants. Our boat’s guide is irked at me for standing in front of the gate. He comes to tell me I need to move, but I don’t understand his Italian. I thought he was looking for my ticket. He never did ask for our tickets, but showed me that he needed to get to the gate. He’s a guy about 30 who reminds me of my old boss, Toby McKeehan. I asked him if I could take his picture. He was flattered and posed with a big smile.

Venice has both elderly tourists and the tragically hip youngsters. It also has a feeling of safety like no other city in Italy. While no doubt there is petty crime here like any tourist town, one does not get a sense of endangerment from walking any of it's streets and alleys late at night if it were any other city. However, all due caution should still be observed and pick-pockets and shady street vendors are a blight on the city.

Since we had to leave so early in the morning on the 31st, we all decided to just stay up for the night after taking our afternoon siesta. It seemed like a good idea and I wasn't all that tired anyway. We walked on past Piazza San Marco to take in some of the sites we hadn't gotten to yet. We looked at the old prison and the Bridge of Sighs (Sospiri). The prison was fortified like no other I had seen in the U.S. Interlaced steel bars two inches thick and imbedded in the concrete held prisoners probably more securely than Alcatraz. I don't know how many hundreds of years old the prison is, but like many things in Italy, the engineering feats are amazing if not inconceivable for their day and age.

Before leaving we decide we want to treat ourselves to one good meal right on the Grand Canal. We scan a few places before deciding on one that has a decent menu. I have the spaghetti and meat sauce, then the scallop and potatoes. It actually cost much less than we’d planned to spend, an unusual surprise in expensive Venice.

On this trip we didn't get to venture out to the island of Burano, where legend has it that the resident fishermen painted their houses bright shades of red, green, yellow, and blue to make them more noticeable from out at sea, thus enabling them to see home from far out. This beautiful little island community is much less traveled by tourists than the main island or Murano, known for it's ornate glass-blowing factories.

Returning home

We all decide it’s not a bad idea to try to take a little nap before we have to leave. So about 1:30 we head back to the hotel and have a little nightcap on the terrace with some tasty white wine we bought earlier. I then went in and packed, showered and laid down to sleep. An hour and a half later we get our wake up call and are soon down in the lobby to check out. We need to catch the ‘N’ Vaporetto to make it back to the bus terminal. Thankfully, since the guard on the Vaporetto the night before didn’t ask for our tickets, we saved ourselves 6,000 lire and used them for this trip. But we probably didn’t need them at all. This guard didn’t ask for them either. We get to the bus station, but can’t figure out which bus to take. We’re tempted to ask the prostitute sitting nearby, but I’m afraid she’d get the wrong idea. I friendly newspaper salesman offered that we need the number 5 bus, and was then offended that we wouldn’t buy his newspaper. The number 5 bus pulls in right on schedule and we all board, nearly falling asleep on the 20 minute ride to the airport. The airport is nearly deserted and only one agent is behind the counter. Forty five minutes later, with hundreds of passengers lined up, there are 5 agents working to get us all processed. We go through security and the female guard says to me, "Buon giorno." I replied the same and added "come sta?" (how are you?). She giggled and smiled at me, saying the common answer in Italian for "everything’s going OK" - "va bene." A short flight later and we’re having to go through another security clearance in the crowded Schipol airport in Amsterdam. It gets even better… we get to the gate and we find a line. Every passenger has to be interviewed by security. We get up there and the very friendly guard asks some pointed questions… How long have you all known each other? What do you do? How long have you been at your job? Business or pleasure? Where did you come from? You packed your own bags? Your computer… it belongs to you? Despite all this, he was very friendly, even jovial, through the whole thing and wished us a good flight. I normally can’t sleep on moving vehicles, but this time it’s different. I have no problem catching a few winks here and there on this flight. I do manage to stay awake through the movie. It’s one I hadn’t seen before, What Women Want. I can sleep through the next one though, Finding Forrester. We get into Detroit a bit early and find our way to our connecting gate, me to Nashville and the others to Denver. We have a couple of hours, so we hang around recapping the last ten days. It’s hard to see such a great trip with good friends come to an end, but it’s also not a bad feeling to be back home sleeping in my own bed. Besides, we’ll definitely be doing this again!

Part 2... the Cinque Terre, coming soon