Sunday, August 21, 2011

Italy Trip - 5th Installment

Pictures for this entry at:

Saturday, July 9th
I thought I'd start by sharing one more story from Friday in Venice. Our only hotel reservation for the trip was at a medieval castle near Acquasanta for Sunday evening. Friday afternoon we decided we'd try to stay Saturday night in Acquasanta. When we got back to the hotel to rest before dinner Friday evening we decided to try and make our reservation in Acquasanta for Sat. night. Reasoning that it was a small town and we'd likely not get someone on the phone that spoke English we asked the clerk at the hotel in Venice for help. He spoke English but still didn't understand what we wanted. So while I took a short nap Ali grabbed the Italian phrase book to study before making the call.

I had managed to find a hotel in Acquasanta on the internet so it was just a matter of making the call and communicating. After 30 minutes of studying, Ali dialed the number. "Parla Inglese?" was always our first question. Surprisingly, the lady did speak some English, but not to let her studying go to waste, Ali proceeded in Italian anyways. The "conversation" was short. But she hung up knowing we had a room, how much it cost, and that it had a private bath. Since we're married we share our victories, so we headed out for a little pre-dinner gelato to celebrate. She had celery and ginger flavored gelato. Really, she was literally picking celery strings out of her teeth. Chock it up to another interesting experience that doesn't need to be repeated.

Okay, on to Friday morning. Getting to Acquasanta was not difficult but not quite as straight forward. We needed to catch a regional train to San Benedetto along the eastern coast and then a milk run train to Ascoli Piceno, about 40 minutes further inland, and finally a bus to Acquasanta, a final 20 minute ride. Having not checked the train schedules the night before we ended up in a rush getting to the station in Venice to catch a 10:30 train. Total travel time would be about 6 hours and wanted to get into Ascoli early since we didn't know where to catch the bus and we would most certainly have more difficulty finding someone who spoke English.

We rushed into the train station with 15 minutes to buy our tickets and board the train. No problem. The automated machines were a snap, only I couldn't find the automated machines. They had the station divided in half for some remodeling and I was on the wrong half. Ali finally got in line for the travel agency while I kept looking. When I did find the machines I discovered the 10:30 and 11:20 trains already sold out. I got back to the travel agency just in time to stop Ali from buying the tickets so we could regroup. The 12:30 train was our only option, and that would put is into Ascoli pretty late, much later than I wanted. Let the adventure continue. With time to kill now, we walked back out of the train station to find breakfast.

Our travel day to Acquasanta was supposed to be uneventful, with plenty of time for me to catch up on my writing. The first hour was (1). Our first short leg was on a nice Eurostar train. In Bologna we changed trains and lost our reserved seats. This was our first time on a train with the cabin layout instead of a center aisle. The train was laid out with cabins on one side, each having 3 seats per side facing each other. A single narrow aisle ran on one side of the cabins with seats that folded out from the wall. You could even get one cheek on them when someone wasn't trying to walk through the aisle. Oh, and was stiflingly hot. Fortunately, the a/c caught up after half an hour and it was bearable.

We shared our little section of the aisle with a very nice Irish girl names Louisa (2) who was in Italy for the summer teaching English. She was on a break and going to the beach for the weekend. She had told us about her sweet American roommate who seemed to know about nothing outside of America. Louisa had tried to explain that yes, even though Ireland is really small it can still be a country. When we got on the train we had impressed her with our light packing ability and we were only too happy to fight the ignorant American stereotype as well. Unfortunately, I may enforced the arrogant American stereotype when I declared I wouldn't live anywhere in Europe. Nothing personal, just don't like the socialism. We talked the entire time we shared the train and it was probably one of the most enjoyable conversations we had with anyone we met on our trip. She confirmed that yes, Europeans love Nutella, although amazingly she had never had peanut butter, and explained the Italians' obsession with hygiene as the reason for the ubiquitous squatty potty. It was difficult to understand how they were more hygenic, but it did explain why the Italian guy in St. Mark's square shrinked away from us like we had leprosy when we offered him and his daughter our extra pigeon feed.

No sooner had Louisa departed for her beach trip than we struck up a conversation with 4 ladies in the booth across from us. Somehow we had mentioned we were going to San Benedetto, which was their destination, and then on to Ascoli Piceno. The two older ladies were from Ascoli originally although had lived in Australia most of their adult lives. One of the ladies had her two daughters with her and they were all going to see family still in Italy. They told us all about Ascoli and how wonderful the region was. I think they would have invited us to their house if we had been staying in San Benedetto. We departed the train in San Benedetto with the four Italian/Australian ladies. Before leaving, the ladies escorted us to the right platform for our next departure and posed for a picture for us (3). As with our other friends we had made we wrote down their contact info in our journal.

If I had just woken up at the station in San Benedetto I have have thought I was Mexico (4). Or maybe an old western movie partially set in Mexico. I know, it looks normal in the picture. Certainly the security guard with the beer belly and the slicked back jet black hair could have been auditioning for a low budget Italian remake of "Treasure of the Sierra Madre." The "train" we were taking to Ascoli finally pulled up to the station. It consisted of two cars with a few dozen seats and a couple diesel engines crammed underneath somewhere. When it was time to go, the conductor turned over the engines and we hopped on one of the nearly empty, stifling cars, which fit in well with the deserted ghost town train station theme they had going.

The car cooled down as we started moving towards Ascoli, counting stops in between to make sure we didn't miss ours. It was only about a 45 minute ride and actually quite pleasant (5-7). We hopped off in Ascoli and asked one of the train conductors about the bus to Acquasanta. He directed us to the Tabacchi shop at the station. Tabacchi shops are the Italian equivalent of the corner drug store and are all marked with a big 'T' sign so you can't miss them.

We were definitely off the tourist path. When we asked the lady behind the counter if she spoke English (we asked in Italian to be polite) she scowled at us and motioned towards an older gentleman in the corner. I wouldn't really say he spoke English but we managed to communicate that we needed the bus to Acquasanta and he managed to communicate that we were hosed because there wasn't another one that night. "Taxi?" we asked. That's one of those handy words that's the same in Italian. He very kindly pulled out his cell phone to call one for us and then walked us outside to wait. There was further lack of communication for a few minutes then I walked back inside to get a couple drinks, primarily to break a large bill I had. I gave the scowling lady a 20 for 3.50 worth of drinks and she gave me back a 10 euro bill and a couple coins. My first thought as I picked up my change from the counter is that they had a 5 euro coin I hadn't seen yet. As I turned to walk away I came to the realization I was likely getting ripped off. So then I had to decide whether to stop and argue with the scowling lady and the store full of Italians or just eat the 5 euro tourist fee and move on. One of my favorite movie quotes is Rex from Toy Story stepping back as he exclaims "I don't like confrontation!" I ate the 5 euros.

I got back outside with my tail between my legs in time to see Ali trying to negotiate with the cab driver, the older guy who helped us, and another lady we hadn't seen before. It was one of our few true moments when we were completely on our own with no help. I showed the cab driver the written address in Acquasanta where we were trying to go and he and the lady seemed happy so we went along with it and put our bags in the back. The new lady was going to Acquasanta too and was going to split the fare with us. Almost as soon as we got on the highway we noticed the amazing mountain scenerey we were entering and were glad to be headed to Acquasanta a day early. Since everyone seemed so friendly Ali got bold and tried to strike up a conversation from the phrase book. According to Rick Steves, it's only 4 syllables to ask someone where they're from. So either he was just wrong about which 4 syllables or she butchered it so badly that the phrase came beyond all native recognition. Just to be sure, she repeated it several times but the strange looks from the front of the cab finally made her give up. We sat in silence the rest of the way and just enjoyed the scenery (8-11).

Albergo Ristorante Terme was right on the main highway through town, explaining the abrupt end to taxi negotiations when we had shown the address. The proprietor, Francesca, spoke English well and showed us to the room. It was nicer than the one we stayed at in Milan and cheaper too. We had made it to Acquasanta and had a room to sleep in! Relieved and hungry we went out for dinner.

I'm not sure what "Baba Yaga" translates too but it seemed inviting and it was just a few doors down from the hotel. It's funny when you try your best to speak Italian and the waitress just answers you in English as if to say "you're butchering it, stop trying." Turns out our language skills weren't going to be tested much in Acquasanta after all. We sat down for dinner and right behind us on the wall was a picture of Acquasanta from 1904, about the time Ali's great grandparents left for America (12-13). As we were paying the bill, Ali decided to make her first attempt at fishing for family information. She told the owner, Aida, who also spoke English, about her great grandparents and why we had come to Acquasanta. She was very friendly and offered to check at the local records office for us. So we exchanged contact info and went back to the hotel for rest after a long day of traveling. The trip to Acquasanta had turned out to be quite exciting, with new experiences and new friends to show for it.

Up next: Linda, the seniors of Acquasanta, hike to the castle.

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