Sicily Tour 2016

Day 0 Friday November 18, 2016
Home - Boston - Rome

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Sue and I had already completed three tours of Italy[1], and we had snuck into Torino (Turin) at the end of a fourth. I had expressed an interest in taking a tour of Sicily in the spring of 2016, but for various reasons that did not work out. In late summer we finally decided to enroll one of the Rick Steves off-season tours in the fall, but by that time all of the tours were full. We put our names on the waiting list and soon forgot about it. Three weeks before the tour was scheduled to begin we were notified via telephone that there was an opening in the Thanksgiving tour. We only had two days to decide, and once we did, we had very little time to make the necessary arrangements.

Rick Steves has never published a book on Sicily. His company recommended that we use the one from Lonely Planet.

In point of fact I had almost no time to prepare. The last regional bridge tournament of the year ran from November 9-13. I attended all five days, and I always needed at least a week to do all of the work that my job as the district's webmaster required at the end of such a tournament.[2] I knew that I wanted to spend a few days in Rome before or after the trip. In retrospect, it might have made more sense to tag a few days onto the end of the trip, but I wanted to get back home as soon as possible because of other commitments. So, we decided to leave for Rome on Friday, November 19. We would not arrive until early Saturday morning, but we would still have almost three full days to explore the Eternal City before heading for Sicily.

I researched the flights from Hartford to Rome on Aer Lingus. The problem was the return trip. The tour ended in Catania. If we took Aer Lingus, we would need to book a flight from Catania to Rome on another airline. When we landed back in Rome we would be required to retrieve our luggage, transport it to another terminal at Rome's huge airport, and go through the international check-in process in Rome.

The Rick Steves people whom Sue contacted put her in touch with their recommended travel agency. The agent there suggested that we take Alitalia all the way in order to circumvent the problem of changing airlines on the return trip. The prices were not that different, and the advantage of eliminating the stopover in Dublin was undeniable. Of course, Alitalia does not fly to Hartford, but Sue was able to arrange for our long-time friend and sometime traveling companion, Tom Corcoran, to drive us to Boston's Logan Airport and pick us up when we returned.

We chose to take the low road to Boston.

My part of the preparation entailed booking a hotel room in Rome and purchasing tickets for the Galleria Borghese and the Papal Residence in Castel Gandolfo. The former was closed on Mondays, and the latter was closed on Sundays. So, it made sense to go to the Borghese on Sunday and Castel Gandolfo on Monday.

We had stayed at the Hotel Selene, which is close to the Termini railroad station, on our last visit to Rome in 2011. I discovered that the latest copy of Rick Steves Rome book still recommended it. I checked it out on the Internet, and I was shocked to see how inexpensive it was to stay there in November. I am quite certain that we paid at least 50% more on our previous visit. I made reservations online with no trouble at all, and I also purchased tickets for the Galleria Borghese for Sunday morning at 11 a.m.

My travel pillow, Tom, Sue, and Tom's Jaguar.

I opted to wait to purchase tickets for Castel Gandolfo until we got to Rome. The website made specify what time you would arrive there, and I wanted to be a little more certain of the train schedule and how long it would take us to walk from the train station to the residence. Of course, there was a chance that they would be sold out, but I didn't think that many people even knew about it.

I was pretty excited about seeing the pope's summer residence. I had composed a rather fuzzy mental picture of a frail Pope Pius XII petting the sheep on his farm, but I had no idea what the actual structure might be like. Moreover, very few people knew much more than I did. Pope Francis, who decided not to use the facility, had announced in October that the residence would be opened to the public as part of the Vatican Museums. I wanted to be among the first of the great unwashed masses to see how the pontiffs had escaped the heat, stench, and disease of Roman summers over the centuries.[3]

Brian found it easier to get around Cambridge on his bike.

The other item on my Roman agenda was a return visit to the Lateran. On my previous visit in 2011 I did not get to see the Corsini Chapel because a very private wedding was being held there. I also missed the famous Scala Sancta and and the Sancta Sanctorum because I could not figure out where they were.

The adventure began at 2 a.m. When Sue came into the bedroom and woke me up because she needed my passport information in order to check us in for the Alitalia flight. I was unable to get back to sleep until about 4. I woke up for good at 6:30.

I went into the office and printed out a few things that I thought that we might need: a train schedule for Castel Gandolfo and a map of Rome's Metro system. I also checked out the weather forecast for Rome for the weekend. It looked like rain on Saturday, but fair for the other days. I took a photo of my credit cards and trimmed down my wallet to include only items that I would need in Italy.

I don't recommend the tacos at Jose's, but there is definitely plenty of parking.

I decided to pack four shirts, three pairs of pants, three sweaters, two pairs of shoes and seven sets of underwear/tee shirst/socks. It occurred to me that we had given insufficient thought to electrical devices. I threw every adapter that might reasonably work in my bag. My suitcase was perhaps three-fourths full.

I saved room in my backpack for Sue's laptop. I stuffed a cheap pancho in the outermost compartment, where I customarily place the case containing my glasses or sunglasses. The rest was used for reading material. I had found no time to do any research on Sicily. Anyone who knows me can vouch that this is not at all like me.

Brian and Sue after lunch.

I then drove to McDonald's and picked up a sausage biscuit with egg for my breakfast.

Meanwhile Sue was busily trying to fit a gigantic square peg into a minuscule round hole. She wanted to carry her own weight on this trip, and so she had limited herself to one small suitcase and a backpack that she had inherited from Tom's wife, Patti. In the end she managed to get almost everything that she wanted into one or the other. I ended up placing only her CPAP machine in my suitcase.

Tom arrived promptly at 10. Sue told him that she was not dressed yet. She then provided the two of us with instructions about moving things around in the “new kitchen.” Believe it or not, she had arranged for the contractors to effect major changes in that room while we were in Italy.

We left about 10:30, which was later than planned, but still very reasonable. After all, the flight was not scheduled to leave until 5:30, and Logan Airport is only 93 miles from our house. We intended to meet Tom's son Brian in Cambridge for lunch. Where and when were still to be determined.

Brian and Malina live in this building.

When we were all aboard Tom's Jag, he showed us how he had rigged up his iPad as a deluxe GPS. He could keep track of both our route and the projected traffic. Because of all of the construction in downtown Springfield, we decided to take 190 to I-84. Tom's software concurred with that decision.

We ran into only a little traffic. When we reached the Mass Pike, which had just completed the elimination of all toll booths, Tom called Brian. I vetoed any restaurant that featured Italian food or pizza. We soon settled on Jose's, a small Mexican place near Brian's apartment. We arrived at 12:15 and met Brian in the more than ample parking lot. Brian had ridden his bicycle to the restaurant, and he had just finished affixing the locks when we pulled in.

The centerpiece of their apartment was this beer stand with the obligatory Red Sox paraphernalia.

I ordered tacos and a Dos Equis. The latter was suitably wet and cold, but the tacos were surprisingly bland. Maybe I was expected to scoop some of the salsa, which was inconsistently spicy, on them. Everyone else enjoyed the food. Brian got an order to go for his wife Malina, who had just returned from a business trip to Hawaii.

After lunch we drove over to Brian's apartment and spent a few minutes there. Sue and I had never seen it before; Brian and Malina had recently moved from Washington, DC, to Boston. The apartment seemed rather small, but nice. It certainly offered a nice view.

We arrived at Logan at about 2:30. We did some last-second repacking of our luggage, and then we marched up to the Alitalia check-in counter. There was no line. I tried to hand my travel documents to the agent, but all she wanted was my last name. Alitalia runs only one flight per day originating in Boston. She knew why we were there; she just needed to know who we were.

For some reason Sue needed to repack her stuff when we got to Logan.

Security was less of a hassle than usual. When we arrived at our gate, we found plenty of empty seats nearby. We soon realized that we had arrived more than an hour too early. Sue, who was totally exhausted, found a place where she could actually lie down. I gave her my U-shaped pillow, but she had trouble getting comfortable enough to doze.

I was surprised to discover that I had left at home the spiral notebook that I planned to use for this this journal. I purchased a new one at the news stand and wondered what else I had forgotten.[4] Knowing that I might not see another one for two weeks, I also bought and savored a Diet Coke.[5]

The seating area was so empty that we thought that we would be the only people on our flight. Wrong.

When it got closer to the boarding time we discovered that there was another set of seats that was just out of our line of sight. We had thought that our flight might be nearly empty, but a large number of people had congregated in this area. In fact, the plane was very nearly full.

I checked Absolute Monarchs out of the Enfield Public Library right before we left. It is very well written, but I think that he drank the monks' Kool-Aid.

I sat in seat 33A by the window. Sue had 33B, which was an aisle seat. Shortly after takeoff – it was already after midnight in Rome – the flight attendants served us supper, which consisted of salmon, potatoes, beef, more potatoes, and something that sort of resembled tiramisu. It was edible. I also had two glasses of wine. I hardly ever drink wine, but I always make an exception for Italy.

Shortly after dinner the gentleman in 32A pushed the his seat all the way back. I was literally pinned into my seat. I have tendinitis in my right leg, and if I don't stretch it, I sometimes get sharp pains in my knee or lower back. Maybe I should have complained about the situation, but I refrained, even when the guy reached back and expropriated my pillow/blanket package to aid his repose.

If I slept at all that night, it was only for a few minutes. I read some, I did a few online Sudokus, and I spent a good deal of time in that strange state of near-sleep. Every few minutes I would squirm in order to move the pain to a different part of my aged body.

Goals of the trip: I usually have rather clear goals, but this time my intentions were fuzzy. In addition to filling in a few blanks in Rome, I definitely hoped to try to understand the history of Sicily a little better. Most of all, I just wanted to relax, stay healthy, and try to enjoy some new experiences.

[1]  All were Rick Steves tours: Best of Italy in 2003, Village Italy in 2005, and South Italy in 2011. Our sojourn into Torino was at the end of the tour of Paris and the South of France in 2011. Links for the journals for all of these can be found on the Home Page.

[2]  Among other things I post photos of the winners, and I write a journal of my personal experiences at the tournament. The one for the November tournament is here.

[3]  I have felt a compulsion to learn about the popes for more than a decade. I have read everything that I could get my hands on, and I have visited the Vatican twice as well as the papal palaces in Avignon and Viterbo. I also wrote a light-hearted history of the papacy, which is available here.

[4]  The main thing was my second pair of shoes. What would I do if I got caught in a cloudburst and my only pair of shoes got all wet? Don't be ridiculous. There is never more than a sprinkle when I am on vacation. If you do not believe me, just read the journals.

[5]  In Europe it is called Coca Cola Light, which has never caught on. Coke is now pushing Coca Cola Zero instead.