A few final observations from three weeks in Italy and France. No particular order or priority informs this collection.
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Almost without exception, in Paris and especially in Venice and Florence, police officers patrolled in pairs, and even threesomes were not at all unusual. Picture a street 10 feet wide or three-plus meters to be more accurate. Sidewalks take up 15 inches or so on each side. A little Fiat rolls along the cobblestones with two larger than average Italians filling the front seats. Often there was another officer in the back seat. Same out on the larger streets and piazzas. Two or three cops, usually one of them a woman, wearing snazzy blue uniforms with white holsters and white helmets on top.
I never saw them having to take any official action other than one time in Florence when they wrote some notes when two very agitated women were telling about something that must have happened and pointing down the narrow street. The officers didn’t give chase, and after a minute or two everyone shook hands and went about their business. There are lots of different police agencies too. Municipal police, regional and state or national police such as Carabinieri in Italy and the Foreign Legion in France. Then there are museum police, waterway police and gelato police and police who police the driveways to the police stations. Pretty much like here when you think about it.
In fact, the only person in all of Europe who gave me a bad attitude was a museum guard in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. She was sitting in her chair doing something with her cell phone, maybe playing a game or texting her kids. I stood respectfully at a short distance waiting for her to acknowledge me. She didn’t, just kept messing with the phone. Ahem, Pardon moi, I said in my very best Parisian accent.
“QUOI?” she fairly shouted at me as she tore her gaze away from her device. “WHAT?”
“Please, can you direct me to the escalator that goes up to the next level of the musee, here?” I said in my now fairly shaky French.
She pointed vaguely and growled what sounded like “Go over there and turn the other way” and went back to her phone. We found the escalator and made it to the next floor after asking somebody else.
Florence has a fabulous farmers market — likewise do Paris and Venice, more than one in fact. It’s permanent and open every day and takes up a huge building near the train station. You can get about every kind of fruit, vegetable, beer, wine, pastry, pasta, candy, meat, fish, fowl, olive oil and a clean bathroom for one Euro.
One butcher shop also had a few tables and chairs for diners buying straight from the shop. The first time we were there, I noticed a menu with a picture of something that looked kind of like pinkish stew. It was “tripas.” Tripe in English. I thought, I’m going to come back tomorrow and have some of that. And I did, and it was pretty good. I passed on the “lampredotto” which I mistakenly interpreted as “lamprey” or eel (my Italian dictionary didn’t have the word). Turns out, “lampredotto” is simply the meat (or guts or viscera) from the fourth stomach of the cow — tripe of a different stripe.
At lunch in Paris one day, after a hard morning of wandering around, we stopped at a cool-looking restaurant with a large outdoor dining area. It was kind of a three-star place by the looks of it, and the prices were kind of steep for lunch, but we were hungry and tired. It was actually a French version of a Basque restaurant and featured a lot of Spanish dishes too.
I ordered a lunch special, sardines with some vegetables and potatoes. I love grilled sardines the way they do them in Europe, fresh off the boat. Georgette ordered the very special and elegant Basque mountain beef. It was 17 Euros, call it $22.50 that day. Out came her plate with four flat, thin slices of meat (2 ounces I’d guess) and a couple of green beans. I snickered inwardly (but of course, nyah, nyah like the Pink Panther or Pepe LePew would snicker) waiting for my freshly grilled, succulent sardines. And then they were there in front of me. Luscious vegetables, perfect potatoes and a can of sardines in oil — just like you’d get on the grocery aisle with the tuna and canned chicken.
I wasn’t snickering quite as heartily, but I figured it makes a good story and it was only 9 Euros. An American tourist passed our table on her way out, glanced down at my plate, looked at me and grimaced, “French cuisine?” she whispered with a wink and hurried along.
Getting off the overnight train from Paris to Venice at 10 in the morning we stumbled out to the quai and tried to figure out the best way to get to the hotel. Silly us, we hadn’t bothered to check its location assuming a taxi or boat would get us there. The waterbus was packed like my can of sardines, and of course we didn’t know its schedule and didn’t know where we were going anyway. The guy at the watertaxi stand flashed an honest smile. I said the name of the hotel in my best Italian. He said, “Bene,” meaning “sure, fine, no problem” and hollered down to the boat driver.
We got aboard. Venetian water taximen take great pride in their boats, mostly wooden, highly varnished and sharp as can be. I repeated the name of the hotel, and off we went. We went down the Grand Canal for a couple of minutes. Then he stopped and got on his phone and jabbered some. He said he didn’t know where the hotel was, so he turned around and went back toward the train station. He stopped again and I handed him the hotel documents (with address) I had handy. He studied them awhile, made another call and turned around again and went back in the original direction. We putted slowly along while he looked for an intersecting canal or river or whatever. He made another call.
As we passed under the Rialto bridge, arguably the most famous bridge in all Italy, I looked to our left and saw the hotel’s sign, a black cluster of grapes on a white background, and pointed excitedly for him to look. The damn sign was about five feet above the taxi landing station, 20 feet from the damn famous Rialto bridge. With a big show of surprise he pulled into the taxi dock, handed up our bags and said “50 Euros.”
I paid him and even gave him a little tip. I was tired after riding all night on the train and didn’t have my wits about me. From the dock it was about 100 feet down a narrow alley to the hotel. Well that was a cavallo on me. When we left a few days later, we knew just how to use the waterbus to get back to the train station, thence the bus to the airport. The waterbus tickets cost about six Euros apiece and would have been good for a couple of more trips. The hotel guy said a watertaxi would cost 100 Euros or more to get to the airport. Ha, fat chance.
I mentioned elevators a few weeks ago. The one in Florence went from the second floor to our hotel on the fourth. It was so narrow I could barely stand without getting my shoulders wedged between the walls. We had to take turns going up or down when carrying our bags and couldn’t both get in wearing backpacks. It worked every time though.
The one at our Paris apartment building went roughly from the second level 10 or 12 steps above the entrance landing to almost the sixth. We were above the sixth about 20 steps from where the elevator stopped. The elevator was great the first day. The second day it stopped working. It stopped working all that day and the next. I e-mailed the apartment owner who lives in Avignon and described the situation. I told him, just in case he didn’t know — it’s 109 old narrow wooden stairs spiraling down and 1,009 even older, narrower, ancient wooden stairs spiraling back up. He wrote back and said the repair company was on it. And by the end of the second broken day, it was fixed.
In Venice, we stayed on the fifth floor of the hotel. Sans elevator, it was 55 narrow, old stairs up and down. Fortunately, the hotel had a couple of young bellboy-cum-waiters cum-whatevers who were spry and strong enough to tote some heavy luggage up and down, although they did have to stop and rest half-way.
Broken elevators, pay-to-pee lavatoires, lampredotto, scurvy watertaximen, train doors that don’t open and have to be ripped apart by Andre and me — I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness,” Mark Twain said.
You got that right Mark.
Note: Many thanks to Cathy Conner at Hangtown Travel for some of the better travel arrangements.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.