Bonjourno, that's me zooming by Mussolini's Window at Palazzo Venezia in the photo above. I finished the Maratona di Roma on April 10, a major highlight of our dream trip to Italy. Lisa's father is from the Puglia region and she had not been to Italy since she was a little girl, so this was her trip and my only wish was to run the marathon and then go along for a second honeymoon.
We spent the entire time in Southern Italy and I cannot recommend the marathon and this trip strongly enough. I'll do this recap by posting 10 things I learned about Italy.
1. The spirit of Ancient Rome's gladiator is alive and well. We toured the Colosseum right after arriving, and I totally channeled their greatest warrior survivors. In fact, they became my mantra for the entire Maratona di Roma. At every tough point I said some variation of: Gladiators destroyed anything or anyone that stood in their way of survival. They fought to live another day. They did whatever it took to conquer and move on. The gladiator was the supreme athlete in Imperial Rome, and upon entering the corrals the sign said "ENTRANCE ATHLETES." It led to the very same arena where gladiators fought for their lives, to thrill the bloodthirsty crowd. Nearing the start line, I looked back, giddy at the Colosseum looming in all its glory, minus the stolen marble decore that resulted in its many holes. I am not comparing gladiators' "gory days" and life-or-death performance with finishing a marathon, but I am mindful that I was in for a physical battle, now in my 50s, without having a long run in the books. A test of physical survival? Yes, this was exactly that, by my own standards. As you can see above, at the finish line of the marathon, costumed gladiators waited and posed with you for pics. I was an Official Gladiator.
2. Autostrada is the best way to travel. I am listing it high here, because when people ask me what I liked best about Italy, I tell them it was driving around the country. After four full days in Rome, we rented a Volvo automatic at Fiumicino, Rome's airport, and set out for several points. I actually had requested an Economy with a stick, thinking I would do as the Romans do, but I was so thankful that Thrifty/Hertz gave us the automatic, given the upcoming Amalfi Coast cliffs. Autostrada's left lane is for fast drivers, so that was me. If a faster car comes upon you, you just nudge over slightly to the right (lanes are like U.S., drive on right), then nudge back. Almost no one in Italy uses a turn signal, only tourists; it is embarrassing to use a signal there. Also, there are no patrol cars whatsoever, the exact opposite of U.S. "gotcha" tickets to fill county coiffers...although they do have electronic monitoring according to the signs, so it's not a ticket to go 200. I love that about Italy. And I'm not done: The Autogrill service plazas are like our best restaurants in terms of cuisine, as opposed to Sbarro/Burger King here at plazas here. Also, they go out of their way to market must-see landmarks that are off the beaten path, by posting info with billboards and at the service plazas, and they have awesome solar shades that fill two needs. Drive a car around Southern Italy, and you can make your way up high to Tramonti, which offers the best possible cliffside viewing of Mount Vesuvius (also high above the ruins of smothered Pompei) as well as a great plate of raviolis (pictured below) at a quaint local restaurant (make sure you at least try Italian there, though).
3. Matera is the "Wonder" way to recover. Trust me on this one. If you run the Maratona di Roma, drive Southeast about four hours to this village of caves. In 1950, it was considered the shame of Italy, a place of backward dregs who shared cave dwellings with their donkeys and had a 50-percent infant mortality rate. They were laughed at. Matera has made such a turnaround that it will be the 2019 European Culture Capital! That is mind-blowing and it reflects how times have changed with regard to sustainability. Today those caves make it a carbon-neutral location, the best environmental place on Earth. And some caves are converted to amazing hotels, like the one we stayed at: L'Hotel in Pietra. Our room (see room 1007) had a dazzling jacuzzi in the lower level, so a day after my marathon I was soaking in THAT. It was something to look forward to during the marathon. And because there are steep steps all over the Matera village, you walk a lot and your legs don't get wobbly. Cool fact: A Hollywood movie production crew stayed in rooms at our hotel while we were there, and they buzzed in a helicopter to film a key scene. It will be Diana's "village" in the 2017 blockbuster "Wonder Woman." Look for Matera and the white caves in the movie!
4. Pope Francis and I have something in common. Not only did the pontiff receive the "first" medal for our marathon in a presentation that week, he also appeared at his customary apartment window at almost the same time that I ran by it after the 17K mark. This was the Jubilee year for the Pope, so the Maratona di Roma was billed as the Jubilee Edition. I actually reached Piazza St. Pietro and the Vatican about one hour before his noon short speech followed by the Angelus followed by his blessing. As I ran by, the crowds were filling their own corrals just as we had done earlier. Lisa and I had a tour of the Vatican two days before the race, and my own personal highlight was actually not Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting, but rather a fresco by Raphael called "The Signature" (it is right below Michaelangelo's fresco in the following pictures). It shows his temperamental greatness-rival Michaelangelo, in the middle of the fresco, reluctantly signing a contract for the Pope to spend several years of his life telling the story of Genesis on a ceiling high overhead, while Raphael includes his own face on the far right side. I had no idea that Michaelangelo was not exactly champing at the bit to do that work. Our tour guide explained everything in detail about his work, so we would know what to look for. I was disappointed that once you are in that large room, it is a total cattle drive with bossy guards, herding people to keep moving through. If you were able to stumble over into a herd looking up at the ceiling, you were jostled and rushed. I snuck four iPhone pics of the ceiling because my iPhone is not going to hurt the ceiling nor stop visitors. Italy could learn something by how well the Louvre handles Mona Lisa. You can't even enjoy Michaelangelo there!
...and look here and you can see more of the paving stones!
5. The olive tree is a magnificent thing of beauty. We drove from Matera to Altamura, a village with a cool history, and then in Puglia we stayed at Sannicandro di Bari. That's where Lisa's dad is from. After a while there it became clear that the village was not just a suburb of the major Adriatic seaside port of Bari, but also a place that is truly part of a giant olive grove, supplying the world's olive oil. We bought produce at a farmer's market and I bought a couple of shirts, and then we drove away, finding ourselves on a dirt road that wound through countless acres of olive trees. They are magnificent monoliths that dominate the culture there. Lisa's dad worked on olive farms as a boy. We developed an appreciation for their life. And I will never forget the Sannicandro di Baro gas station attendant who sprinted out to our Volvo -- 1950s-style in the USA -- to fill our tank and clean our windshield with a fervent gusto that was inherited. I love Puglia.
6. Make a plan for the Sampietrini. They are Rome's classic, dark, cube-shaped paving stones that are the pride of the city but the bane of any high-heeled woman or any marathon runner known as @marathoner. They are beautiful, yes. But I list them here among Things I Learned About Italy, because I had no idea how much they undulate. They comprise 7 percent of the marathon course, that being most of the major start and return area in the city-center. My shoes I was given in an Ambassador role before the marathon were barely broken in so they were about as max-cushion as you can find. I would recommend a gel insert if you run this marathon, because of the rolling stones. My feet were on fire in the last 5K, more than in any marathon.
7. Positano is a Cubist mecca. It is on the gorgeous Amalfi Coast, just below Napoli along the Mediterranean. We stayed at the Art Hotel Pasitea, and we learned of the attraction that Positano has had the past century on such people as creative forces as Escher, Steinbeck and Picasso. If something is "Escher," it is askew, challenging to fully grasp. This is how Positano is. You walk down the windy rodes from high above to reach sea level and "the square," and then you ride the Interno Positano bus back up. The bus proceeds to make a variety of turns that completely confuse you on your setting, because it is effectively a double-loop, M-shape geography. That's why people like Picasso loved it, because it reinforced the Cubist vision. Positano is wonderfully confusing. Go here for some background info on the setting's history. Few settings on Earth can be more idyllic.
8. Italy knows its plumbing. When we arrived at Rome Airport, I saw my first example of Roman excellence with plumbing. The men's bathroom was 75,000 times better than any U.S. airport bathroom. That was the starting point and it got better, for the most part. This, of course, is the same land that brought an Aqueduct to run fresh water from the nearby mountains and to create a famed system of public baths. They also are believed to have had public drinking fountains and latrines at the Colosseum during its height. There are public drinking fountains all over Italy, and I freely hydrated with them before the race. There's one of me below in Rome, and one of Lisa in Matera. The plumbing acumen even applied to the marathon porta-pottys! First of all, there was a statue of Augustus (I think!) hulking over the first porta potty I saw, as if to say go in there and do your business and be happy. So I went in, and I was surprised to see that there is a large handle to the right. You pull it down and it moves the existing waste out of sight. HELLO USA PLEASE GET THESE!
9. Six o'clock happy hour at Pantheon. We stayed at a hotel on a classic thin Roman street right off Pantheon, so that magnificent square/dome was our "home base" while in Rome. It was such an amazing place to retreat to after a day of exploring. At 6 o'clock, the piazza in front of it would come alive. One day a tenor took command of the expanse, and we stood awed with a large crowd around him. Speaking of time, we had been forewarned that Italians eat dinner late, but we still did not realize the full extent of that until we experienced it for ourselves. One day in Bari, we walked three hours in pursuit of some kind of sustenance during the afternoon, and we learned that restaurants did not open until 8 p.m. During that time, there is no "snack" food or what we consider convenience stores or bodegas, either. You are not going to find a morsel of food at 5 p.m. We dealt with it. We drove off blindly, stumbling into another small village, and at a nondescript deli found arguably the best food of our trip, with a matronly owner making sure we were taken care of in every way.
10. Naturally, I will save Limoncello as the perfect ending. Anyone who drinks it knows why. It's all about finishing, like getting this medal. If you order off the "menu" -- that's what Italians call their full-course meals -- you get a flute or tube of Limoncello to finish your dinner, as if a gift and a thanks from the restaurant. Leaving the Amalfi Coast, we drove inland through high mountain roads and stumbled onto the town of Ravello. Greta Garbo, Gore Vidal and many others fell in love with this area. When you drive through it, you find your way to a little stop in the road that says "CELLO" -- a small producer of this famous Italian liquer. We had been fascinated with the giant lemons of the Amalfi Coast, and here they and other lemons were brewed into the concoction. We walked in, and two nice gentlemen gave Lisa and I a tour of their facility, showing us their vats and explaining how they make Limoncello. They slice the dried pulp of the lemons and toss them into the vats, and we left with our own batch. As a gift, the owner handed Lisa a giant lemon with a bow, a tremendous act of kindness. Unfortunately, the Rome Airport authorities by all accounts removed said lemon from our suitcase after we went through security, and apparently took the whole bag of souvenirs that went along with said lemon. But despite that loss that left us "sour," I raise my Limoncello high here and say "Salut" to our new friends in the beautiful country of Italy, at hotels and restaurants and shops galore, and graciously thank the Maratona di Roma organizers and all who showed us their glorious world. Veni, Vidi, Vici.