I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Robert De Niro’s Voice Has Died

Italians love their dogs. Strolling the polished limestone streets, marveling at the gorgeous buildings and people all around, you have to watch your step. Walking with my friend in Siena, I barely missed a dog mess. In a disgusted voice, my Sienese friend said, “Those Florentines are everywhere these days.”

National, regional, and civic pride has brought war and suffering for centuries. Today in Europe it survives, but only brings off-color jokes and fills soccer stadiums.

National pride can be abused. Of course, when a nation has a Hitler or a Mussolini, flag-waving spikes…and then takes a serious dive. (Actually, if flag-waving spikes in any country, wise citizens with an appreciation of history and an ability to see beyond their borders know to be concerned.) Understandably, in post-WWII Europe, Italians and Germans did less patriotic singing and flag-waving than their neighbors.

On a related note, post-WWII Italy had the strongest communist party in Western Europe. Locals tell me they were not really leftists as much as anti-rightists (after the catastrophic fascism of Il Duce). The result: a generation of bad entrepreneurs. Today, in Italy’s business world, I see the “generation next” filled with entrepreneurial creativity and energy. On this trip, I find Italy thriving with creative small businesses driven by new young management as never before. (The banks and government support this with fewer restrictions and easier and longer business loans — 30 years rather than 5 or 10, as in past years.)

You can draw some fun conclusions from movie-translating practices in different nations. Italians are notorious for dubbing just about all foreign movies, while the French are inclined to read subtitles when they watch a “foreign” (i.e., American) movie. Some say the French are more into the subtleties and art of the movie, while the Italians are just lazy and don’t want to read. Others say Italian dubbing itself is an art form. It’s true that the Italians actually have famous dubbers who lip synch so artfully you think Robert De Niro is actually speaking Italian. In fact, Robert De Niro insisted on the same Italian voice for his parts. He actually traveled to Italy to meet with and coach Amendola, the man with his Italian voice. And now, the big news in the Italian movie world is that the king of dubbing voices, Amendola (the voice of Dustin Hoffman, Sylvester Stallone, and Roberto De Niro), has passed away.

Enjoying the wonders of Italy this month, the movie star that comes to mind for me is Roberto Benigni. Like Benigni, I need no Amendola to declare (as I seem to do several times a day), “Life is good”–La vita è bella.

People in the Trash…

In each hotel room, I crack open a rickety old desk drawer, where I stow business cards I pick up throughout the day in my research work. This gives me a “trash can” that the maid won’t take out. I strive to keep loose papers out of my writing world, but very often I need to retrieve something I tossed.

Rummaging through my trash, reviewing the discarded cards of two days’ worth of people met, reminds me of how travel here is like a gelato social.

I met John Mica, a congressman from Florida, while dodging a horse carriage under a Donatello statue. He called himself a “knuckle-dragging conservative on economic issues who believes in funding the arts.” He and his wife sneak over here with no fanfare (so he doesn’t have to mess with security or any protocol). He was enthusiastic about a new “open skies” initiative leading to more transatlantic flights…and some funky little trattorias he wanted me to check out for my guidebook. For some reason he reminded me of salt on fresh pineapple (one of my favorite things). Meeting a likable Republican (like meeting a Catholic priest who challenges my intellect) reminds me that there’s more than one way to skin an idea.

When Congressman Mica opened his wallet to give me his card, I saw he had the card of a man I had just met and whose card I also had: David Stempler, Esq., president of the Air Travelers Association. A crusty man (and an Esq.), the government listens to him on consumer affairs dealing with the air industry. I told Stempler and Mica I thought the clamor for an “air travelers’ bill of rights” was media-stoked over-reacting to a perfect storm of airline bad luck, and that I am mightily impressed with our airline industry even if they do lose a few bags and once in a snowy blue moon a few planes are stuck on the tarmac. We agreed that the worst thing for our airline industry (and for consumers who know what’s good for them) is to saddle airlines with needless regulations and to create a business environment where they’ll cancel flights out of needless timidity.

Other cards were reminders of other encounters. For example, there was “Dr. Patricia Cantilli, Medic veterinary homeopath,” a Romanian woman on an extended computer date with a friend who once ran my favorite hotel in Florence (La Scaletta, which I deleted this year after about 20 years in my guidebooks — bad new management). Free trade, globalization…the expanded EU spills into romance, too.

“Lora Gori, president Scuola del Cuoio” runs the leather school at the Church of Santa Croce. It was actually referred to as “Citta dei Raggusi” (“Boys’ Town” in Italian) when her leatherworking family established it in collaboration with Franciscan monks during the tough years after WWII to give orphaned boys a trade. Sra. Gori still welcomes tourists as her leather workers fill former monks’ dorms with fancy belts and purses (www.leatherschool.com).

Christoph Rehli, a conductor from Switzerland with Young Frankenstein hair, was in Florence preparing for a concert. He was eating alone in one of my favorite restaurants. We had pianos in common. I told him my piano was made in the same Black Forest village as the accordion of the Gypsy man who just left the restaurant (Hohner harmonicas and accordions, and Sauter pianos — all made in Spaichingen). I told him my dad imported fine German pianos. There were three Steinway brothers, so factories ended up in New York, Hamburg, and Braunschweig. (Dad imported the Grotrian-Steinweg from Braunschweig. Back then, CBS owned the New York Steinway, was threatened by the better German Steinway, and successfully sued requiring that the name be simply Grotrian in the USA.) Christoph said he had a Hamburg Steinway that was old but good. I guessed it was a “vintage” from around 1930. He said yes. (Knowing pianos like others know wine assures me that we can all be snobs in some realm. I am forever impressed by wine-lovers who know the good years — a topic which completely baffles me.) Maestro Rehli and I had a wonderful chemistry…the kind of person I know I could be great friends with, but I’ll never see again. (A sad reality a traveler gets callous to: the best travelers say the most goodbyes.)

And another card from someone who called herself “The Tuscan Concierge” was a reminder that countless Americans and Italian entrepreneurs are still capitalizing on the “Under the Tuscan Sun” fascination we have with this part of Italy (and would love to get into my guidebook). Ristorante Medioevo (that Buca I loved in Assisi) has one of those cards so artsy you have a tough time actually deriving the name of the establishment — a growing problem, it seems, in Italy. Thankfully, Web addresses generally list the name without the over-the-top font play. Jim Fox and Barbara Miller, an American expat couple living in Florence, pass out their tandem card to people they meet. Jim said when you travel with a personal card and hand it out liberally, Europeans take you more seriously. Good tip.

Among piles of other cards penciled up with notes for the next edition of my Florence guidebook was a very clever card by Dr. Stephen Kerr, “the tourist doctor” with a clinic 100 yards from the Uffizi, open two hours a day for drop-ins. He also makes €80 “house calls” to hotels and gives student discounts.

A card from the Istituto Oblate dell’Assunzione, a welcoming convent renting rooms and tranquility, actually has an email address on it. Finally convents are getting a little business sense. The spunky sister there — Theresa — remembered me from the early 1980s when I kept my tour groups (minibus loads only back then) at a convent near the Vatican on via Andrea Doria. I didn’t remember her…but I did remember kindly sisters letting me hang my wet laundry on the rooftop with all their linen.

This little nostalgic swing through my trash drawer reminds me that good travel connects people with people. Whether I’m leading a tour group, researching a guidebook, or producing a TV show, I know that connecting my traveling Americans with Europeans is what will carbonate the experience.

 

Medici Fantasies Like You Can’t Imagine…

In Florence, I stay at Loggiato dei Serviti — a stately former convent, crisp with elegance and history. I consider it a splurge — but it’s far less costly than a night at the Sheraton, and it stokes Medici fantasies like you can’t imagine.

My bedroom looks out on a courtyard. The building across the way is the Accademia, housing an art school…and Michelangelo’s David. The courtyard in between is gravelly with broken columns and stones set up for students to carve. Like creative woodpeckers, all day long I hear the happy pecking and chirping of chisels gaining confidence, cutting through the stone. With this actually enjoyable soundtrack, I spent all yesterday here in my room pecking doggedly yet happily on my laptop.

Moving into my room, I got set up: Put the TV out of view. Ask for a desk and an extra lamp for writing. Pick up and stow all the clutter that comes with a hotel room so it’s just pristine, Old World Florence. There’s a creaky freestanding armoire (I open the huge door with its skeleton key). The heavy wood beam ceiling fifteen feet overhead evokes a day when monasteries had Pentagon-like budgets. My circa-1980 phone is ruby-red, and the receiver rattles like a maraca if I get animated while talking. The mini-fridge is just big enough for my liter box of pompelmo (grapefruit juice) to sneak in with all the overpriced drinks that don’t exist in my mind. The parquet floors have extremely slip-slidey little throw rugs. I think they’re called throw rugs for what would happen to me if I carelessly stepped on one.

My hotel is on a grand old square and faces the first Renaissance building — a hospital designed by Brunelleschi. Outside, an arcade shelters the local lowlife. Enjoying a warm slice of pizza bianco while leaning against a column, I ponder the scene. While these well-worn people littering the steps used to get me down, now I realize that for 500 years, vagabonds and street people who couldn’t afford a bedroom like I’m calling home for these six days in Florence could enjoy the architecture (or at least the shade). Since the days of Michelangelo, they have set up camp free under the loggia eave of my fancy front door.

Each midnight, I open the window and untie the big sash that lets the heavy-tasseled curtain tumble straight…like princess hair. At 6 a.m., the birds chirp. I get up, look at the sleepy courtyard with its unfinished statuary, and close the windows hoping to grab another hour’s sleep. But too often I pick up this laptop and start pecking and chirping away.

Assisi: Flames, Forks, and Franciscan Frairs

Charging through dark and quiet Assisi — stony with history — I needed to visit two more restaurants before enjoying my reward for the day’s work: returning to my favorite place reviewed that night for a good meal…hopefully before the kitchen closed.

At 10:00, the pink marble streets of Assisi shine, lonely under the lamps. It seemed the only ones out were Franciscan monks in their rough brown robes and rope belts. All over Europe, I find monks hard to approach. But there’s something about “the jugglers of God,” as peasants have called the Franciscan friars for eight centuries, that this Lutheran finds wonderfully accessible. (Franciscans modeled themselves after French troubadours — or “jongleurs” — who roved the countryside singing and telling stories and jokes.) Franciscan brothers remind me of really smart dorm kids in the University of God…and tonight, it seemed, their studies were done for the evening.

Their warm “buona seras” and “ciaos” reminded me of my experience here filming a few years ago. While I like to say things with a creative edge, this can occasionally haunt me in my work. (Like the Norwegian mountain village I called “painfully in need of charm”…and then, during my next visit, the tourist office staff saw this printed in my guidebook and ran all over the building reading it with disbelief to everyone they could find. And like my little Vatican Museum rant posted on this blog last week. It was originally entitled “Vatican: practice what you preach” and had a harsher, more angry tone, until my Roman friends read it and made it clear that burning a Vatican bridge can haunt a tour organizer for years. The respect/fear they had for the Vatican was actually astonishing.)

But back to filming in Assisi: I had a 7 a.m. appointment to take my PBS TV crew into the grand Basilica of St. Francis, one of the spiritual and artistic highlights of Western Civilization and critical to our episode. At the crack of dawn, we waited — our letter of permission in folded hands — at the basilica-big door. Finally, three unusually officious-looking Franciscans appeared. In my most reverent tone I said, “buon giorno.”

They had reviewed our script, which made clear what we planned to film. This I expected. But before they opened the door, they said, “And…we’ve read your guidebook.” I immediately reviewed in my head the quirky descriptions I had used to tell the Francis story. (Passages such as “Holy relics — like the saints’ bones — were the ruby-red slippers of the Middle Ages. They gave you power, answered your prayers, won your wars…and ultimately got you home to your eternal Kansas.”) I was feeling sunk. Then the shortest of the monks looked at me and said, “We all read your guidebook…and we like it.”

We had the basilica — so adored by centuries of pilgrims and wallpapered by Giotto — all to ourselves. And the camera rolled.

Back in the present, I made it back to my favorite restaurant. It filled a brick-vaulted old cellar, or “buca.” Many restaurants are called “Buca” (even in the USA…as in, “di Beppo”). Since a buca or cellar traditionally paid cheap rent, it served cheap food. But now, with European Union regulations creeping into just about everything, there are no more restaurant licenses for cellars — bad ventilation, no secondary escapes in case of fire, and so on. And I’m seeing bucas with licenses grandfathered in really spiffed up and, while no longer cheap, great places to savor the local cuisine.

A local guide (Giuseppe) and his wife (Anna) joined me and we let the chef shower us with his best work. The wine (Sagrantino de Montefalco, Umbria’s answer to Brunello de Montalcino) was almost like marijuana, evoking flames and dancing girls. And the food both looked and tasted delightful. Anna greeted each plate with unbridled enthusiasm.

Suddenly, Giuseppe looked at me and said, “My wife’s a good fork.” Misunderstanding him, I blushed — amazed at what I thought he said. My face said, “Come again?” And Giuseppe clarified, saying, “una buona forchetta…a good fork…that’s what we call someone who loves to eat.”

Rome: The Cook is in the Chicken

I leave Rome more enamored with the Eternal City than ever. Tourism inundates Florence and Venice. But in Rome, while there’s plenty of tourism, the city is big enough that, culturally, we hit it like a bug hits a windshield on the freeway — bouncing off with almost no impact. The cultural juggernaut of Rome continues undaunted…and on its own terms.

And when it comes to organization, it’s not your father’s Eternal City. Traffic is sane. Smart cars (the “VW Beetles” of our generation) park as if they’re motorcycles, nosing head-first up to the curb. Taxis now have a strict and enforced €40 rate to and from the airport (no extra fees).

A restaurateur told me that, while a generation ago, wine was all different grapes fermented into a punch called Chianti, today it’s much better. “Super Tuscan” wines are among the best in the world. Each region takes pride in excellent wines. I just drank an unforgettable wine called Montiano from Lazio (the district around Rome). “Osteria” once meant a cheap and rustic eatery (back in the days when they advertised half-servings to people who couldn’t afford much). With Italy’s new affluence, “osteria” now means quality…but not necessarily cheap.

But the new affluence isn’t changing everything. For instance, eateries around markets that traditionally and creatively cooked up the bits of meat no one would buy, still do — to the delight of discerning eaters who know their tripe. A fine example is Trattoria da Oio a Casa Mia, in Rome’s colorful Testaccio district, historic home of the city’s slaughterhouses. Its menu — with specialties like its unforgettable Pajata sauce, made with baby lamb intestines — is a minefield of soft meats.

Anywhere in Europe, I find that the most colorful eateries with the freshest ingredients and best prices are often at or near the thriving outdoor produce markets.

In responding to my blog, someone commented that I’m forgetting the value of finding cheap eateries. Not really, but I am reconsidering the wisdom of going into a good restaurant uptight (with a $30 limit) when you can trust the chef for $50 and have a grand evening. This assumes you’re finding a small and honest place with an ethic of serving a good value…rather than ripping off the tourist. That’s the challenge for the savvy traveler (and guidebook researcher). With $90 to spend for three meals, I’d rather have one $50 blowout and two $20 dinners than three $30 dinners. My challenge as I research is to find the personality-driven restaurant where you’ll celebrate that $50 check.

Because of my research schedule (visit lots of restaurants while they are busy with diners, from 7:30-10:00 p.m.), I’ve been eating late — after 10 p.m. While this is tough for American tourists, it is clear to me that restaurants often have a touristy ambience from 7 to 9 and a more elegant, local ambience from 9 to 11. Trying — and generally failing — to turn down the chef’s favorite dessert at 11 p.m., I realize why breakfast is such a small affair for many Europeans. Hardworking restaurateurs are thankful for tourists eating early because that lets them turn the tables once over the course of the evening when, without tourists, they’d just serve one late sitting.

And language skills have little to do with the quality of the restaurant. In fact, last night my waiter declared, “The cook is in the chicken.” Later, when I ordered a tonic water, he asked me, “You want lice?”