We have five hours between trains, so Tonino has pointed us to a few of Rome's major sites: the Colosseum, the Unknown Soldier's monument, Benito Mussolini's former residence, and the Piazza Navona, an enormous baroque plaza with marvelous statues. We are not staying long enough to see Vatican City and the Sistine Chapel, which is okay, because I'm already thinking that five hours in Rome is too much. For all of it's amazing monuments and ancient ruins, Rome is still noisy, crowded and dirty. Even crossing the street is frightening, navigating through flurries of scooters and lunatic drivers.
Rome is so filthy that we are unwilling to use most of the public restrooms. This is where McDonald's comes in handy. Although many travelers consider McDonald's to be a cultural cancer metastasizing in the previously healthy cities of the world, a global homogenizer destroying cultural and scenic uniqueness with the artistry of a bulldozer, the restaurant equivalent of the Borg, McDonald's can nevertheless be counted on to have more-or-less clean restrooms with toilet seats and toilet paper.
If you're wondering, the entire reason for this discourse on McDonald's and the state of European toilets is just to tell you about an ingenious invention we discovered in the restroom at McDonald's of Rome. It is called McWash. The best inventions are the ones that are so obvious, you wonder why no one thought of them sooner, and McWash is just that. To wash your hands, you put them into an opening in the wall labeled "McWash", which sprays them first with soapy water, then with rinse water, and finally dries them off with hot air. Maybe we're just easily amused, but both Ann and I came out of our respective restrooms saying "Wow! What a cool sink!"
When you wake from a dead sleep into a confusing situation, your mind shuffles the possibilities and spits them out like a blackjack dealer on speed. At the end of the deck, only one possibility is laying face-up: that man was a thief! He was after our stuff! Nevermind that Ann's pack weighs about 30 kilos and he never could have gotten it down without waking us. Nevermind that, even if he had gotten her pack, there was nothing of substantial value in it. But it pisses me off that there are people making a living stealing luggage from sleeping train passengers in Italy. When I was traveling with Michael and Bronwen, Michael mentioned that he had lost his Eurail pass to a pickpocket in the Rome train station. Just be forewarned: always be extremely cautious with your belongings when you travel; there are lots of scumbags eagerly waiting for a chance to take them from you.
What made Brindisi even worse is that we had had a whopping 2 hours of sleep on the train and an 11 hour layover before our ferry left for Greece. The ferry ride was long enough for another 6 hours of sleep, but the sea was rough and we did not sleep well. Corfu -- the one of the largest Ionian islands, on the northwest coast of Greece -- greeted us with buckets of rain. Needless to say, we were less than cheerful by the time we arrived.
The only thing we had been told by previous visitors was "Don't go to the 'Pink Palace'." The Pink Palace is apparently a drinking fest cleverly disguised as a hotel. At the Corfu ferry landing there were representatives of several different hotels, including the Pink Palace, vying for guests. We and several other passengers went with a man named Spiros to the hotel "Vrachos" on Pelekas Beach. As soon as we checked in, we went to our room and slept for the rest of the morning.
Pelekas Beach is on the west side of Corfu, the opposite side from the ferry landing, so we would never have found it on our own. I'm glad we went with Spiros, though, because both Pelekas Beach and Vrachos were an excellent choice. At US$6.50 per night, the rooms are not luxurious, but Pelekas is one of Corfu's finest beaches, and Vrachos has everything you need, including a restaurant and bar, a small shop, cheap scooter and snorkel rentals, etc. You would have to work hard to spend more than US$20 a day. Although we originally intended to stay only two nights, we ended up staying nine; it's easy to get stuck on Corfu. After a couple initial days of rain, we spent a week sunbathing, bodysurfing, snorkeling, riding scooters around the island, watching the sunsets and hanging out with other guests.
Jackpot! If you are looking for an idyllic Greek seaside resort in which to spend a month or two, you couldn't go wrong by choosing Parga. Parga is entirely a tourist destination; there are only 2,000 residents but, during the summer months, the population swells to 45,000. This means that 90% of the housing in Parga is hotels and private rooms for rent. Double rooms rent for 4000 - 7000 drachma (US$18 - US$31), allowing for a very affordable vacation.
More importantly, Parga is one of the most scenic vacation spots we have seen. It is a small Greek village of narrow, winding flagstone streets, built on the slopes of a hill that falls away into a clear, waveless sea. On the hill overlooking the town is a minimally restored thousand-year-old Norman fortress and, a hundred meters out in the water is a small white chapel on a tiny island. Both the island and the fort are well lighted after dark, ensuring that Parga is as beautiful at night as it is in the day. On Sundays, the town is transported to another world by the wailing songs of the Greek Orthodox priest, broadcast all morning over loudspeakers and echoing off the hillside.
We are told that, in the summer months, Parga is standing-room only but, because it was late in the year, there was hardly anyone there; we felt like we were the only visitors in town. And, even though it was nearly November, the weather was perfect. We intended to stay only a single night, but we couldn't bring ourselves to leave in less than three. This place is like a drug. Sunbathing on warm, pebble beaches, swimming in the crystal blue Mediterranean, dining on fresh fish and red Greek wine in quiet waterfront restaurants; I'm jonesing just thinking about it.
Until next time, I'd like to leave you with this parting thought. Although I don't think I've said it explicitly, you've probably noticed something from these travelogues that I've been noticing all along: smaller towns and villages are consistently more pleasant and interesting than large cities. Since, for example, we've all heard of Rome and Venice and Florence, it's convenient, when planning a vacation trip to Italy, to think in terms of spending it in those cities. My advice is this: read your travel guide carefully with an eye toward the smaller places. They are usually cleaner, cheaper and friendlier. Taking the time to search out interesting little villages is almost certain to be more rewarding than heading for the big cities.
Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt