A relief map of Italy

Figuring It(aly) Out

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I’m starting to research the Italy trip. My son J and I are in general agreement that we want to prioritize the classic three cities of Rome, Florence and Venice. I’d also like to see Pompeii, which can be done as a side trip from Rome, but surprisingly (to me, anyway) J, the archaeologist, doesn’t care much about it. “It’s the same reason I’m not that interested in dinosaurs anymore,” he explains to me. “Everybody studies them. Yes, they’re enormously important, just as Pompeii is enormously important to archaeology, but because of that, I’ve been hearing about both since I was three.”

A relief map of Italy
Eric Gaba (Sting) and NordNordWest, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
A grassy rectangle surrounded on three sides by ruins, with a volcano in the background.
Panoramic view of the Forum of Pompeii with Vesuvius. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Heinz-Josef Lücking

He’d rather make a stop someplace in Sicily, and I admit the idea is appealing. One of my favorite books for decades has been a Mary Renault story called The Mask of Apollo. It’s set partly in the world of the ancient Greek tragic theater, but also in the Sicilian city of Syracuse, when it was part of the Greek world. Since we are not going to see Greece itself this trip, I would really like to see the Greek ruins at Syracuse, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be possible this time. From everything the agents are telling me, going to Sicily from mainland Italy is kind of like going to Alaska from the mainland United States. It just doesn’t work to do it for a day or two as a side trip — it properly take several days. And I can’t spare several days for it. I’m having a hard enough time juggling our limited number of budgeted days to fit in everything we want to see on the mainland

A ruined Greek temple -- a section of wall, a row of broken columns, and a set of steps extend diagonally to the right.
Temple of Apollo, Syracuse. Laurel Lodged, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In juggling our time, I’m also trying to juggle my energy. How much activity can I pack into any given day? In Africa, I was much more active than I thought I would be able to be, and that was largely because the timing of having two periods of busy wildlife viewing separated by a several-hour rest was really good for me. So I’m planning to use a similar pattern again. Especially since we’ll be traveling in summer, the siesta is a great tool for making a busy schedule work as well as possible.

Fortunately, split-day scheduling fits together pretty well with when the things we want to see will be available. In Africa, my timing followed the natural crepuscular patterns of the animals, and we went out early to see them when they were around. In Italy, we’ll be seeing human-made things, but we’ll want to get there when most of the other humans aren’t.

From what I’m told, Italian tourist sites get very, very busy in the summer, and may get even more busy this summer as everybody wants to travel after two years of staying still. But the places we will want to see open early in the morning, and only get crowded after the first few hours. So we’re probably going to get up early and try to arrive when things first open. That means the same kind of early mornings I had in Africa… but probably some spare time to rest in the hot part of the afternoon before dinner.

I’m very much undecided, at the moment, between traveling privately or taking a fixed group tour. European private travel is a whole lot more expensive than African private travel… for the simple reason that European workers, including tour guides and drivers, have won for themselves decent legal protections. They get paid a living wage, and their taxes pay for health care and a strong social safety net for those who can’t work for whatever reason. When I go there, I pay for all of that in the course of buying my travel package.

All of this is frankly how it should be. The European standard of treatment for its working class is what I generally consider the bare minimum that’s tolerable by a civilized society. And I know very well that if I want to go to a country which does that, I have to pay for the services of these workers at a reasonable price. I am not even a little bit complaining about this; I’m only trying to figure out what I can afford to do, and wangle it into being enough.

The group tours are less expensive, because they’re not personalized and so the tour developers can make use of economies of scale. They usually travel by bus, and they’re going to need a bus and a driver whether there are two people in that bus or twenty, so they cut back their margins per passenger and try to add passengers.

This makes them a better deal, but I’m wary because I don’t know how bad Covid will be in Italy this summer. I don’t want to be stacked up in a bus with a lot of other people. I will look into the group tours more seriously this week, just to find out if their precautions are actually better than I had thought they were; but if they aren’t, I will stick to traveling on our own.

Meantime, I’ve been contacting travel agents who put together private, tailor-made travel packages. I might try to organize it myself if we had more time, but it’s already April and we’re planning to travel in July, which means there probably just isn’t enough time for me to wade personally through all the details. So a travel agent it must be. I have about three of them figuring out quotes for me right now, for the land package. I never work with just one agent unless I’ve used them before and trust them. I get multiple options and then either pick one, or ask for tweaks or variations on one or more.

For my flights, however, I do have an agent I’ve used before and trust implicitly. I’m going back to the agent who handled all my flights on the Africa trip: Dan Burke from 58 Stars Travel. Dan did a fantastic job getting me from Seattle to Johannesburg to Victoria Falls to Maun to Entebbe to Amsterdam to New York and back to Seattle again. So I’m confident that he can get my son and me from Seattle to Amsterdam to Italy to New York and back to Seattle again. Dan was wonderful and I’m happy to keep asking for his help whenever and wherever I fly. He’s the best flight agent I’ve ever known. (As always, I don’t get anything for recommending Dan or anything else… but if you happen to get in touch with him for a trip, please let him know you heard of him from me? Thanks — I’d just like him to know.)

And so, slowly, the process begins to come together. I’m sure there will be obstacles yet to go around — there always are, no matter what kind of trip I’m planning. But so far, it’s been nothing I can’t work with.

Please comment if you’ve got any suggestions for places or attractions in Italy that we should visit — either just because you recommend them or because you want me to write about them! The latter is absolutely a valid reason. I’m happy to take requests.

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