Baci, Baci! Irregular Regulars

Baci, baci! Grand abbraccio! Kiss, kiss, big hugs. Within half an hour after landing at Malpensa in Milano, Jack and I were embraced by Milanese warmth and passion. Right off the plane we were welcomed back with gusto. For us, the hugs started at the Taxi queue. Since we were traveling with four – count them 4 – giant bags, we wanted the next mini van in line. Bentornati, welcome back, echoed from the cache of drivers waiting for fares. Three helped our driver put the hernia inducing bags in his van. One stole his keys, which – after a bit of kibitzing about why does he always get the bella gente, nice people – were returned. Bentornati? Who did they think we were? How could they know us? My kind husband smirked and noted that I chat up everyone, how could they not remember us? The standard fare from Malpensa to the city center is €95. After the driver belly lugged our bags to the door of the hotel, I handed him €100. He thanked me profusely and gave me a big hug. Bentornati!

We rang the bell at Il Girasole High Quality Inn’s portone (humongous door blocking the complex from the street) and announced ourselves. Midge, Jack Bentornati! The words rang out before the door was fully open. Nicola Negruzzi, one of the vivacious owners of our favorite little hotel, pulled open the door and wrapped me in a cocoon like embrace. Next, Jack’s turn for a huge hug. Whenever we come to Milano – which is about once a year – we stay at Il Girasole. Co-owner, Matteo Negruzzi came in – saw us – and….. Bentornati! Baci, baci, grande abbraccio. Big hugs and kisses to both of us. Matteo reminded us that Il Girasole is our Milanese home away from home.

Jack and Matteo

We always truck over to Mail Boxes ETC and ship our suitcases to Pontelandolfo. If we are arriving from the states and off on other adventures, it makes sense to off load some of the baggage. Jack schlepped the bags over the threshold of the store and the owner joined the Bentornati chorus. He knew exactly why we were there, whipped out the right forms, asked where we were off too and guaranteed our luggage would make it home before we did.

Up the street and around the corner is Tony’s, an inexpensive restaurant that serves pretty good fish and just about anything else you could find in a higher end local place. We walked in, asked for a table for two, took off our coats and whomp – heard Bentornati! The waiter looked at us and said – New Jersey right? Glad you’re back – but you always come back!

I could give you two more examples – Vineria San Giovanni and the Restaurant Mamma Lina – but you get the drift.

Wow – I must look like someone famous! In high school I could pass for Sally Fields in her flying nun phase and once in an airport Jack was confused for Tom Wilkenson (British actor). Maybe we give off a famous person auro? Baaammm – then it hit me. We are irregular regulars! There is no schedule. No one knows when we will return to Quartiere Villa San Giovanni, this friendly Milanese neighborhood. We are absolutely irregular regulars!

Except to see the sites, listen to music and window shop, we avoid the tourist packed historic center of Milan. A few years ago, thanks to Nonna’s Mulberry Tree subscriber Lynn Y., we got turned on to Il Girasole. Located at Via Doberdò 19, close to Metro stop Villa San Giovanni, the hotel has all the bells and whistles of the big guys – free wi-fi, parking, more than continental breakfast and incredible staff. Every time we fly to Italy through Milan or venture north with our car, we stop and stay in this neighborhood populated by real people and featuring non tourist prices in restaurants and shops. At il Girasole, my favorite room is somehow always available for us. The afternoon registration ritual turns into aperitivo e spuntino and we like the local eateries. Bam – irregular regulars.

Becoming an irregular regular sort of comes naturally to me. I like things that are familiar and good. If the service, price and goods are great – why not go back?! Are you wondering how folks remember us? The former mayor of Princeton, Barbara Sigmund, taught me a great politicians trick – stick out your hand and say your name. Then make sure you get the waiters, store owners, etc. name and use it a few times while you are there. Of course, ten minutes later don’t ask me their names but I’m good while I’m in the place. Also, name badges and writing on uniforms help a lot. Why not joke, laugh and chat with folks where ever you are? It feels good, makes the time pass pleasantly and BONUS – you too can become an irregular regular and hear that pleasant bentornato – welcome back!

Ci Vediamo!

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Train Travel Hints

Class counts!  If you can swing it – go to the head of the class! Our business class seats on Frecciarossa between Milan and Rome had all the bells and whistles. Imagine, electric leather seats that accommodate a butt of substance and can slide into an almost sleep mode. Wifi that works was a plus as were the electric outlets.  All the seats had tables for two or for the working team or card sharks, seats and a table for four.  Each seat arrangement had a cute little clear plastic wall that separated the chosen few from the folks walking down the aisle.  Hey look at me – walking down the aisle to the clean and large bathroom.

First class seats are not leather and may or may not move – depending on the train.  They too have mostly four seats configured around a table with places to plug in.  But they were a wee bit more squished than business class.  I hate sitting near the window – great view but I have to climb over someone to get out.  That means they have to unplug their laptop, move their stuff and get up – ugggg.

The stewards come around in both first and business classes offering the included prosecco, caffè, tea, water and juice.  Both have a choice of snacks and my favorite – little packets of wet style wipes to clean up your yucky travel hands.

H’mm other differences?  I think it is just the size of the seats. Oh yeah, in both classes, the steward also offers newspapers and will take orders for the food available in the snack bar car.  Wow – a rhyme – I’m sure there is a classier name than snack bar car though the bar was stocked.  Adjacent to our business class car was a real dining car with menus, linens and comfy seats. We didn’t try it but plan to on another adventure.

Stop pouting. We’ve taken the slow poke regional trains too.  The too many hours in a hot sweaty car kind of trains that didn’t have enough seats – you know like New Jersey transit’s old diesel war horses during the commuting rush.  The regional train from Rome to Boiano can be standing with your suitcase room only.

Trenitalia offers the super speedy Frecciarossa family of trains.  Intercity and regional trains connect big cities and pokey little towns along the way.

Italia Rail offers background information on the train system. I just discovered at that web-site that Trenitalia and a private French rail company combined forces to create Thello (pronounced tell-OH), which operates overnight long-haul trains between Paris and Italy!  How glamorous to take  Thello through Switzerland and wake up in Paris!  Rats, what would I wear???

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Marta waves bye-bye from the Benevento Train Station

Train Hints

  1. When you are on line or in line figuring out which train to take from point A to point B make sure you look at the duration of the ride.  What?  It takes ten hours from here to there? Rats – is there a connection too?  Changing trains when you don’t speak the language can be a real adventure or a night mare.  Keep looking at the schedules.  Wait, look this train is only 4 hours – how could that be?  One is a local/regional train which may have a connection and one is a super duper fast train.  The fast trains cost more but….
  2. My good buddy Nicola looked at Jack and I and asked why we were taking the fast train to Venice.  He said we were pazzo! A flight from Naples on a budget airline was half the price of the train ticket and got there in an hour.  So check out other transportation options.  Here are some of the budget airlines – Easy JetRyanairMeridiana (Meridiana also has cheap flights, but I’m told uncomfortable unless you are a size 4, from New York to Italy.)
  3. When your get to a station use your train number to identity what track – binario – your train is on. My cousins had first class tickets from Rome to Benevento but didn’t realize it was the fast train to Lecce with a quick stop in Benevento. They inadvertantly got the slow boat to Benevento with the pigs and chickens. No one looked at their tickets and when the train poked along they panicked.  I panicked too when the didn’t disembark at the appointed time. Lesson learned – use the train number on your ticket to identify your train.
  4. If you are going to change trains – we do that from Milan to Benevento – it is super important at the station to look for the train numbers.  For example, the fast train from Milan to Rome that we take really goes further south.  If I didn’t look for the train number I’d get on the wrong train.  In Rome, the train we take to Benevento ends in Lecce.  We always look for the train number.
  5. Especially for the regional trains, make sure you go up to the box near the track and validate your ticket.  Sometimes you have to look for the boxes.  I tried to do this once with an e-ticket that I had printed and folded to fit.  It wouldn’t work, the train was coming, I yelled bad words in a lot of languages and stomped off.  So I stopped trying to validate  an e-ticket and  I haven’t gotten a fine.  Though I could – but hey, I’m a middle aged plus woman with a great smile. If you have a ticket make sure you stick it in the slot at the bottom of the box and get it stamped.  This is also important on buses and subways.
  6. When you find the binario – track – that the train is on you then have to find the right train car.  For the fast trains, your ticket has a carrozza – passenger car – number on it AND the seat number.  Don’t be fooled by the big number painted on all the cars – look for the smaller numbers near the doors. The signs will give the car number and what seats are near that door – cars have doors at both ends.  Even the regional trains are labeled.  We made the mistake of getting in a first class regional car – that looked as dumpy as the rest of the cars – and paid an up-charge.  PS – not all regional trains are dumpy.
  7. The train app – Info Treno- is helpful.  I like to follow my travels and get a handle on what stops are coming up.  You can use the application to help you pick trains too.  Following your train with the train number, however, is easier than trying to figure out what train to take.
  8. Luggage is a pain in the butt.  You have to schlep it.  I’m sure there must be porters but I’ve never seen anyone hustling for our bags.  The platforms are not all level with the trains.  There are steps up into the train.  That means you have to haul a suitcase up.  We only take small carry-on luggage when we take the train.  Even when we fly into Milan and train it to Benevento we send our big luggage on ahead. (Mail Boxes Etc.)  Business and first class trains have slots behind the seats for luggage. I tried to explain that to Jack as he was hernia bound lifting a bag onto the overhead shelf.  The big hint – was the picture of a suitcase in the space between the seats.  At the front of some cars on all trains – note the word some – there are shelves for luggage.  Luggage is a pain in the ass.

These hints are not meant to dissuade you.  We love the take the train.  The views are incredible.  I get to talk to all kinds of people and we sit back and relax.

Choo Choo!!!

Ci vediamo!

Umbria with Hank and Ellen

Erstwhile travelers Hank and Ellen Sinatra have more stories to tell about their Italian adventures. I adore this cousin of mine, Hank’s life would make a great movie and George Clooney should star.  

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Follow the Sinatra’s to Umbria as they “do it there way.”

Hank: We are on the road to Umbria. It is a more mountainous region that has some interesting views and great food and wine. We were both saddened and excited to leave Pienza and hit the highway.  This road trip features areas both old and new – to us that is!  Our first goal was to reach Spello, a picturesque town that is East of Perugia, by nightfall.  Ellen planned a stop along the way –  in Deruta to tour one of its many pottery factories. I’m so glad she did.  It was stunning. When I think of pottery, I think of small plates and such.

Deruta pottery

Although they had some of these standard items, they also specialized in table tops. We loved them, but couldn’t think of a use for them in Texas. Deruta was South of Perugia on the E-45. We were chasing a storm, and finally caught up with it outside of Spello. What a down-pour. We could hardly see through the rain.

We finally got to our hotel, “Nuovo Albergo Il Portonaccio,” which is just outside of the walls of Spello. It was a nice place to stay and had a very large covered patio where we could sit and watch the rain while I had a cigar.

Spello hotel

The rain finally let up a little, and, since the weather was iffy, we didn’t want to get very adventurous about where to eat our evening meal. We opted for the restaurant next door.  The name of this little gem is “Il Vecchio Opificio Osteria-Pizzeria.” Ellen and I had a great meal and some of their award-winning Olive Oil, which was fantastic. Later, we walked up into Spello to see the church “Santa Maria Maggiore.”  And, when I say UP, I mean UP. It was quite a hike, but worth it.

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Chiesa Santa Maria Maggiore

The hotel had a very nice breakfast to help us on our way. Our next stop was a two-night stay in Norcia. It is South of Spello, then East of Spoleto. We headed to Norcia, a place that specializes in Wild Boar products and truffles. The road from Spoleto to Norcia is a narrow two-lane road that twists and turns. It is also a major thoroughfare used by many trucks, some semis with double trailers. I would not recommend this drive to novices or at night. It rained on us most of the way, but the weather turned on a dime, which is typical of the weather in the Umbrian mountains.

The hotel we stayed in was the “Best Western Hotel Salicone.” It was a clean, comfortable hotel just outside of the Walls of Norcia. It was a nice hotel with an excellent breakfast and is worth another stay.  It did not, however, live up to its advertisement of providing robes and slippers on request. We visited the Piazza Santo Benedetto, which had a statue of their famous son. The Piazza was simple and beautiful, as was the man himself. If you go to Norcia, you have to visit the Grand Piano, which is a great plain area. There is a small town on the mountain just North of the Piano called, Castelluccio. It gives you a wonderful panoramic view.  Can’t wait to go back!

Hank and Ellen – you are terrific travel guides and have shared a ton of wonderful information!  Gracie Tante!

Getting to Naples Airport

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Road Rage Doesn’t Become Me.

It is so exciting for us when our friends and family come to visit. It is not so exciting to drive to the Naples airport. We love our family and friends but aren’t kind and gentle enough to drive to the Rome airport to pick them up.  We (OK me – Jack is kind) tell them to fly to Naples.  Now, after schlepping to Naples numerous times to procure our loved ones, cursing and shrieking during the drive and watching Jack clutch the wheel while I turned green –  I started thinking there must be a better way.  Couldn’t the adventuresome guests take the train?  Yeah, yeah, yeah I know, I’m a bitch but have you driven in Naples or Rome?

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Janet Cantore Watson came and found her Cantore cousins in Pontelandolfo!

It is a small world.  I have always considered Janet my daughter and discovering she had family where I had family was an uber woo woo moment.  Being a brazen lady of the world, Janet was the first guest to take a bus from a stop seconds from our house to Naples.  We were told that an early morning direct bus to Naples stopped in the piazza in Compolattaro.  That piazza is literally 5 minutes from our house.  We were there in the wee hours of the morning.  A tiny little bus stopped.  I asked if it went to Naples. “Si” said the lying S.O.B. bus driver.  Janet kissed us goodbye and got on.  As we were leaving a big bus pulled around the corner – h’mmm I wondered?   The first bus only went as far as Benevento – the second bus was the right one.  Merde.  Janet had to figure out which bus from Benevento went to Napoli.  Jack just pointed out that the first driver was not an S.O.B since he stayed with Janet and escorted her to the right bus – which cost her €10.  Double Merde.  After tooling around Naples Janet hopped a €16 cab to the airport. Her experience taught us that we have to over research everything and ask ALL the right questions.

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My brilliant niece, Alexandra Rose, was the first to explore the train to the plane connections from Pontelandolfo to the Naples airport.

When she came to visit this fall, Alex wanted to hang in Naples with her cousin Giusy. ( I didn’t ask what they got up to and they didn’t tell.)  After landing at the Naples Cappodichino  airport she hopped the Naples Alibus Airport Shuttle.  It took her to Naple’s Central Train Station.  After frolicking with Giusy, she took a Metrocampania train from Naples to Benevento.  There we scooped her up in big hugs and drove the scant twenty minutes home.

It is wonderful to have an adventuresome kid in my life.  Living in London she has traveled all over Europe alone.  Alex has scored thousands of points with this Auntie Mame.  Returning to London, Alex was going to do the trip directly to the airport. We hopped in the car and took a short slide down the mountain to Stazione di Benevento.

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There Alex was able to get a ticket on a Metrocampania NordEst train to Napoli Termini.  She tells me the ride was quick, easy and uneventful.

Next, the ever resourceful traveler jotted down specific directions to the AliBus shuttle from Napoli Termini to Naples Cappodichino airport for whoever was going to try it next.  Alex’s directions were simple enough. Tickets were cheap too.  It’s €4 if you buy the ticket on the bus or €3 if you buy it at a shop – but we don’t know which ones.  She was easily at the airport and on the way to England.

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Marta Figueroa – our next adventurer.

Marta, the traveling buddy of my youth, spent a fun filled week with us.  Being another world wide explorer she said it was stupid for us to repeat the drive to the Naples airport.  We had picked her up there and she got the full driving in Naples and on the highways experience.  “How could they be passing on a solid line?”  “Is going that fast legal?”

We got Marta to the Benevento  Train Station in plenty of time.  There isn’t great parking near the station so Jack stayed with the car.  I went in to discover that Alex was right – buying tickets was a breeze.  The station was organized – just lacked parking which reminded me of NJ Transit.  The ticket to Naples was only €5.  She got on the train and all was well until she got to Naples.  Even though we had Alex’s directions and knew that the Alibus stop is located in Piazza Garibaldi midway between the Central Station and Corso Garibaldi.  No one could help her figure out which door out of the train station headed in the right direction.  When she finally dragged her suitcase to the right place a kindly gent suggested that since the bus wouldn’t be there for ten minutes she cross the street and buy a ticket in advance.  Marta bought the ticket and  watched an Alibus come in, unload and leave.  What???  Maybe the driver had to pee.  A second bus came in, unloaded and left!  Now she is panicking about making her flight.  Finally, a full 45 minutes later,  an empty Alibus appeared and let the throng of people on.  Imagine how many people were now cued up, worried about catching trains and dragging luggage.  Marta pushed her way onto the bus and then watched the drama unfold.  The driver wouldn’t leave until a very proper British type lady got a new ticket.  She spoke Italian with great force and pretension.  “I have a bloody ticket and will not buy another.”  Now, you must validate the ticket in the electronic ticket machine on the bus and it is good for 90 minutes from validation.  What Marta couldn’t figure out is if the women had validated it too long ago or it was three years old.  She said the shouts and screams were incredible.  People on the bus were offering to pay her way.  The driver threatened to call the police.  She threatened to – well I don’t remember what.  But there was much shrieking until – —

The bus took off and Marta made it to the airport with only twenty minutes before the boarding of her flight.  Her recommendation – take the taxi!

Some cynic said to me – “Mussolini is dead you can’t expect public transportation to run on time.”

Ostuni – Dazzling – From AFAR!

Driving through Puglia with the atlas on my lap, I saw that Ostuni was just a short hop off the highway.  It was time for pranza so I convinced Jack to leave the highway and head for the town billed as “The White City”.  I had read that contrasted with the blue of the sea Ostuni’s whiteness dazzles the senses.  At this point we are starving and looking forward to a sea view restaurant perched on the hill.

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“PULL OVER” I Shouted.  “It’s Magical!”

From the bottom of the hill Ostuni is indeed glittering white and wonderful to see –  postcard perfect.  “Here it comes,” you’re thinking, “she is going to hit us with something not so nice.”  You my faithful subscribers are brilliant and creative.  Of course one cannot judge a book by it’s cover or a town by a view from afar.  As Jack cursed Ostuni’s narrower than narrow streets and I stuck my head out the window looking for a restaurant, I heard a small child whisper in my ear. “Momma, can’t we paint our house red?”  No kid you can’t.  Cause this is the White City and the tourists would be pissed.  All that white on white on white was BORING.

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Off-white Works Too.

The only splashes of color in the town came from bright laundry fluttering in the breeze.  I wonder if all that white makes people sterile?  Suddenly, Jack – still searching the city for a restaurant – slammed on the brakes.  I looked up and saw that the the teeny tiny street was blocked by a car driven by a young woman.  She was obviously waiting for someone – I’m thinking her nonna or an invalid.

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 I say that dripping with sarcasm because we waited a good 5 minutes – never honking the horn – cause we’re nice.

Suddenly, a door popped open and a sweet young bimbo dashed out – her skirt so short I couldn’t figure out how she could sit without – well never mind.  She waved a thanks to us and hopped in the car.  UGGGGGG  now I’m really not liking this town.

We couldn’t find a place to eat.  We couldn’t find a place to park.  We were becoming color-blind.  The whiteness of it all was – well – just too white.  We left and decided to take our chances with a tourist eatery on the gray highway.