Posted by: Peadar Ban | July 9, 2014

Italy: A Vacation Which Became A Pilgrimage (Part Two)

What Started Out As… 

The reader will recall that my wife and I had been thinking seriously about taking a cruise in the western Mediterranean; a week long cruise which left from Civitavecchia and made a large circle through that part of the wide world to Livorno, Cannes, Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona, and Naples before returning to Civitavecchia a week later.  Like most such cruises one spent at least part of a day in each port.  Typically, that meant a mad dash through throngs of peddlers to where the real shopping was; with time enough, if one was lucky, for a few cool ones and a dish of the local gruel while sitting at a less than completely crowded seaside cafe before the whistle blew and we all left Dodge.

These things are really like appetizers, introductions, though I well know there’s a considerable crowd of folks who think  it’s really the things to do.  Having spent seven hours in Spain, they have “done” it, and can add it to the score sheet, the ledger.  What matters most, I suppose, are the buffets, shows and casinos on board, and the stories you can tell around the grill.

I suppose.

We were interested for some of those reasons, of course.  For a while I’d been curious to see what went on beyond the three mile limit. And, to be honest, we did indeed want a peek at some of the places the ship would visit, a life-sized, real life peek.  Our trip up the Rhine a couple of years ago had given us a plate full of “starters” for places I hadn’t really payed much attention to before.  We both wanted to build on that.  Besides, Mariellen herself was eager to spend some time at sea, really at sea.  I would have taken a tug along the same course for that opportunity.

What we would get was a huge thing with 15 or 16 decks, and all the trimmings.  But, more on that later.

With the reservations made we realized that we had Rome on each end of the cruise, waiting.  What could we do there?  We had, after all, just laid out the price of two seats on the 50 yard line at the Stupid Bowl, or darn near it, for a week among several thousand of our closest friends, emphasis on the close.   Over the course of the next few weeks “there” became quite a few places spread across the peninsula from Rome to Milan.  We dreamed aloud, and wished to each other of where and how, and how long.  She set to work, she did, and planned a perfect itinerary for us.  What had started out as a week on the water, and two half days getting there and getting back home became almost a month before and after that trip; a month, almost, by train;  zig-zagging from Milan to Venice, and then to Florence, Siena, Assisi and Rome.

Rome, being Rome, was special.  We decided to spend five days there before the trip and another eight days there after it was over, trading our sea legs for our land legs.  Well, the decision really wasn’t like that.  Mariellen said something like “Dear, do you think it would be good to…”  And I said something like, “That sounds good. ”  Sometimes I said, “Why not?”  Often I simply said, “O.K.”   I don’t think I ever said “Make it so.”  I know I thought of saying it once or twice, but I have been a husband long enough to know not to be so cavalier about my safety.

Two things really impressed me during the several months that she worked on building this excursion: It was her idea, I am pretty sure, to travel by rail once we had gotten over there; except, of course, when we would be on board our cruise ship.  I never said it aloud, but the idea of driving in Italy gave me nightmares.  Actually having seen  what driving in Italy really was like still gives me nightmares.  Finally, it was her idea to arrange for us to fly into Zurich on Icelandic Air, and return home via Aer Lingus with a stop-over in Dublin.  That was because they were the cheapest fares.

There was another reason for Zurich as our port of entry:  She really wanted to fly into Switzerland because that would mean we could connect with Milan via a scenic rail trip through the Alps. We had spent a day in Lucerne at the end of our river cruise, famous for cheese, wine and a big lake beneath some bigger mountains, and had seen the mountains for exactly twenty minutes.  Someone had drawn the drapes of thick clouds that covered them, a mercy that allowed us the merest peak at their snow robed majesties.  It was good advertising, anyway, because we immediately wanted more.

So, when Mariellen discovered this “little engine that could trip” through the mountains that would drop us on Italy’s northern frontier after four hours through troll country in terms that made it sound like a once in a lifetime thing my first thought was, “How many times can you do that?”  Telling me all about it, and showing it to me on the map allowed me to say, “Gee, that sounds great.”

Turns out, I was right.

Well the thing took shape bit by bit over the next month or so.  Every couple of days, it became more real as she’d report on another reservation made in another place, travel to another city via another train, some of them very new, clean and zippy things with more legroom than I’ve ever experienced, enough room for another two legs if I needed them; some of them tired old work horses “gaily” decorated, lamentably, with what seems to have become the major form of artistic expression in Europe, graffiti.  (Put your money in spray paint producers over there.) I’ll confess that as this happened and Mariellen began to get more excited about it, and as I did too, I also began to get a little apprehensive; especially I felt this way after my birthday.  I was now 72, and beginning to feel it

Silly me.  She had that covered, too.  We began training twice a week at a nearby gym.  Mountains?  Bring ’em!


  1. Keep writing…I’m hooked.

    • You may regret making that comment.

    • Get ready, then.


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