Monday, June 15, 2015

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Ninth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

At the conclusion of a recuperative week in bucolic Pecetto, my belly was fuller than it had been at any point during the trip, and my clothes finally were clean -- even if at times, they seemed to be almost hanging on me.

A month’s steady weight loss had been temporarily arrested during my stay in Savoy by pasta courses, table wine, pastries, couscous and frequent infusions of Dreher beer.

Still, by the time I returned stateside in August, the net poundage drop was 25, all the way down to 200.

(Speaking from the current vantage point of 2015, I haven’t seen 200 pounds since 1987, two years after the story being relayed here. As a senior playing high school basketball in 1978, my weight was 175 lbs. These days, at 54 years of age, I’m managing to hold at around 240 lbs.)

Eating had been a feast or famine proposition during the opening weeks of the journey. Sit-down meals were the pricier option, even in inexpensive Greece and Turkey, so bakery breakfasts and street food offered affordable subsistence. There were fewer supermarkets and more small family groceries, the latter requiring the suppression of my innate shyness so as to successfully navigate prices and portions.

As the weather became hotter, I finally noticed the ubiquitous plastic liter bottles of mineral water. In fact, one day in the Peloponnese, I noticed several hundred of them washed up on a beach, which probably is why they now comprise a Texas-sized island in the Pacific. Soon I was carrying one at all times and refilling them from reliable water taps.

In this era prior to standardization, one couldn’t always expect translations on product labels. Truncated vocabularies in indigenous tongues became an acquired skill. Was the water still or carbonated? For many travelers, water “with gas” was a deal-breaker. I grew to prefer it.

The real difference when it came to shedding bulk was regular exercise. If it was a mile to the hostel and it wasn’t clear how to buy tickets for the streetcar, I walked. My bag didn’t have wheels, so I carried it. Few of the places I stayed had elevators, so there was no alternative to climbing stairs.

The same went for cathedrals and towers in virtually every city, where the best view came after a few hundred vertical steps, which tended to be carved of stone and intended for tiny medieval human feet, not my size 16 sneakers.

And so while Pecetto had been a blast, it was time to head east. I thanked Scott profusely for the nightly use of his floor and spare mattress, and consulted with Don about our projected meeting in Munich two weeks hence. Then it was back to the train station, and the heavily traveled route from Turin to Milan.


I’d passed through Milan previously in route to Greece, with no opportunity to explore, save for the neighborhood around the youth hostel. The second time became a literal charm, and I had most of a whole day to poke around, investigate the city, peek into La Scala, and climb the steps to the roof of the Duomo (main cathedral).

I even managed a bus going in the direction of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, home of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper,” but the refectory was closed amid a lengthy restoration that lasted from 1978 to 1999. Pausing only for a sandwich, I boarded a night train and pressed on to Venice, arriving there at 5:30 a.m. the next morning.

A pattern was beginning to emerge. Fixed periods of relative calm, as in Pecetto, and Rome before it, would leave me restless and eager to be put into motion. Every day was a mysterious, bewildering and rewarding adventure. There’d be time later for sleep.

Exhaustion would come after a few days, when there’d be time to recoup with a lengthier stay somewhere. Perhaps more importantly, these lodgings allowed bathing.

And summer was starting to be felt.


The train to Venice made a mainland stop, then crossed the causeway to its final stop. A steady, cool rain was falling on the darkened plaza outside the station. Beyond it, the lapping of canal water could be heard. I joined an inexplicably huge, strange-tongued throng huddled inside the main hall.

With genial politeness, they ignored the half-hearted entreaties of local policemen to disperse. The cops shrugged and melted away. Eventually an English speaker among them revealed that yet again, the paths of the Hoosier Hick and Pope John Paul II had crossed.

You’ll recall that while in Rome, the Holy Father had appeared at the very same Sunday Mass that this inveterate pagan chose to attend at St. Peters, inciting amok adulation among nuns and priests, who seemed ready to resort to physical violence to secure the best camera-ready access to the Pontiff.

Now he’d just concluded a visit to Venice, and although Pope, his Popemobile and a mobile cadre of professional souvenir hawkers were long gone, thousands of pilgrims – many from the countryside of the mountainous Alto Adige and exotic neighboring Slovenia – had not yet melted away, hence the mass of humanity choking the corridors of the rail station.

The practical implications of the Pope’s tour schedule were about to be revealed to me. Placing my bag in safekeeping at the left luggage office, I rushed out into the strange labyrinth of pavement and water, determined as usual to secure inexpensive lodgings as early as possible in a city where cheap rooms were scant in the leanest of seasons.

I hadn’t reckoned with the many pilgrims who weren’t ready to relinquish their spots. By ten a.m., it was clear that budget beds were not to be.

Then, as now, confusing times call for studied reflection, preferably on a quiet street-side bench, with a slice of pizza and a bottle of beer for company. One option was to check back throughout the day to see if beds were available, a task complicated by my timidity over the token-operated public phone, and the difficulties of finding ones that worked.

Conversely, it was still early in the day. The rain was clearing, and the sun threatening to shine. There’d be ample time to ride the boats, view the art, contemplate the Doge’s maritime empire, recall Ernest Hemingway’s “Across the River and Into the Trees” and feel a chill at the memory of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.”

With a modicum of parsimony, there’d be enough Lira left over to avoid a Venice sleepover entirely, by booking space in a relatively cheap six-berth couchette compartment for the overnight rail journey to Vienna, capital of Austria, which was the next stop on the tour, anyway.

So it went. There was time to find a copy of USA Today and sneak a peek at the baseball standings, and to board a vaporetto for a sightseeing ride through the canals of a strange city erected on wooden pilings driven through sandbars dotting an ocean lagoon.

In its heyday, Venice was one of the most tolerant, multicultural and egalitarian of cities destined to be folded into the Kingdom of Italy. The reason might have been the hardships of its locale, tenuously hugging land – and this was before climate change and rising ocean levels.

The budget travel impresario Arthur Frommer had a budget restaurant recommendation, and so I closed my Venetian chapter with an actual meal. I was seated at a table adjacent to an elderly British lady, who struck up a conversation. Well-informed and witty, she was traveling alone at the age of 75, her husband having died only recently.

She was delightful company, and I can recall wondering how many 75-year-olds I knew back home in Indiana would dare embark on a journey to Italy, on the cheap, with no language skills. Three decades later, I’m closer to her age than to mine on that night in Venice when we dined together.

Exhausted, but at ease, I boarded the train and permitted my thoughts to drift to the Blue Danube.



The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.

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