Viva Italia

MH3 —  September 1, 2011

I don’t have the exact date, but I am pretty sure the summer of 1976 was the last time that I had two weeks off. Ever since then, I have never gone anywhere close to two weeks without earning a paycheck.

I like working. Paperboy. Busboy. Waiter. Hotel porter. Potato peeler. Car wash cleaner (oxymoron?). School newspaper editor. Account executive at a promotions agency. Marketing manager for University of Guelph athletics. Bartender at a Muskoka resort. Assistant manager at the same Muskoka resort (resort now gone…was called Paignton House). Arboretum “slave”. Grill cook at McDonald’s. Sports publicist at CNE. Food & beverage controller at a Queen’s Quay restaurant (also now gone, Spinnakers). Maintenance man at Ontario Sailing Centre. Maintenance man at a fishing (Wenona) lodge.

But since that day some 35 years ago, I have never gone two weeks without punching in. That is until three Fridays ago, when I climbed aboard a Boeing 763, bound for Rome and the first two-week vacation in the income tax-return-era of my life.

Have to admit, I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope. But as you would expect, I was prepared. Had the BlackBerry flipped over to an international plan. Staked out buying a prepaid iPad chip when I landed. Had an armful of documents for my various car, villa, hotel, train, and apartment bookings. Had my work in a pretty good state, had the pets appropriately supervised and practically shut the water main off in my house.

Off I went. Toyed with doing some work on the plane, but the overnight flight and the beckoning of a classic Owen Wilson  movie — Hall Pass  — quickly distracted me. Three more movies, and a couple of red wines and I was in Rome with thoughts of working well behind me. Grazie!

Now don’t panic that I am going to bore you with a “how I spent my summer vacation” blog. That’s not my style. But I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you some tasty morsels from my trip. You may have been there and done that, so you will know why I am delighting in these memories. If you haven’t been, then you can thank me for this unsolicited Trip Advisor moment.

Morsel # 1 – Il Palio di Siena. Since the 1500’s, this horse race has been held twice a year in Siena, in the stunning Piazza del Campo (city square). It’s a three-lap, bareback, mixed-breed race contested between the seventeen wards of the city. Each has a distinctive colour, flag and nickname. For three days, trial races, feasts, special masses and events are held before the main event. The pageantry extends from clothing, to flag-draped supporters, to flowers and pennants strung from buildings. It’s like a mini-World Cup. Beware the explosive blasts that alert you to the start of the race. They come unexpectedly to foreigners like us. Soon we realized that the manual ear-plugging happening all around us signified another expected charge!

The race itself is only ninety seconds, but is sheer madness. The track is tilted, slanted and dirty. The riders can whip their own horse and also annoy their competitors. In fact, you can hit opposing horses, jockeys or both! Many times, a moral victory is earned by preventing a rival contrada from winning…as opposed to just winning.

Yes, some great sportsmanship lessons for our eight- and ten-year-olds.
Morsel # 2- Monterosso. It’s the most commercial of the five Cinque Terre villages, but you won’t come away feeling like you have been to Disney. Instead it has a seaside charm that is unbelievable. We stayed at three different places (don’t ask why) and I would go back to either B&B Le Giare or the Hotel Margherita in a heartbeat.
Le Giare is beautiful, close to the beach, although up several hundred stairs and run by a family. The rooms are divine, my bathroom spa-like, the breakfast even better, and the lemon garden right out of a movie. The matriarch of the family, who took care of us, also came from central casting. Imagine a sweet, old Italian lady with few English words, but a firm grasp of how to make a perfect morning cappuccino. Hotel Margherita is in the old part of town and is an amazing and affordable twenty-five room hotel run by a grump and staffed by grumps. But that didn’t matter. The location and rooms made up for it and in the end, the proprietor chased our cab down the street with some goodies for the kids the morning we trained away.
Don’t worry — there are very few cars in Cinque Terre. The roads are restricted and reserved for people! Even better are the hiking trails between the five villages. It’s a UNESCO Heritage site, and the five-hour trek between villages is legendary and worth doing. I am terrified of heights and even though the footpath is strenuous and steep and overhanging some big drops…I was very rarely nervous. Get ready to see all shapes and sizes and wardrobes on the hike!

After the hike we took a ferry back to our launch village—you can also take the train—and the scenery was unreal. A three-hour plunge in the most soothing waters of all time and your day is almost perfect – until you head to one of the gazillion amazing restaurants in town. Ristorante Miky. Catina di Miky (“The Son”). Entoeca Ciak. Al Pozzo. Via Venti. La Lampara. Unbelievable. Take your pick. All will astound.

There is nothing about Monterosso that couldn’t keep me enchanted for weeks!

Morsel # 3- The private Vatican Tour. Last time I was in Rome, I didn’t go the Vatican. But after taking a group tour of the Colosseum and learning how much of the real beauty of it had been stolen by Pope after Pope and utilized at the Vatican, I wanted to see the good stuff. My wife had the brilliant insight for us to hire a private guide for the tour and while it was not cheap,
it was fantastic. Through her eyes we learned and understood how Michelangelo approached painting the Sistine Chapel and why the shrine to St. Paul is so important. Like many sights in Rome, the signage is minimal and information scarce, so having a “Sara” (the name of our guide) to me is invaluable.


Food in Rome is good—but not Cinque Terre (or even Tuscany) levels—but if you want to have a night of fun, go to Mimi & Coco on del Governo Vecchio. Make sure you get seated and served by the short bald dude. I assume he is Coco, but his name should really be Cuckoo. Besides a night of great food, he will entertain you like no other. Inspired by the onslaught of bar signage promoting “Happy Hour” drink specials, my ten-year-old posed an appropriate question about our host: What was HE doing during “Happy Hour”?!

Not working, I can tell you that much.